Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Last Word: for the many, not the few

Platitudes on racism are not enough, writes Robert Philpot 

There was nothing surprising in the requests Jewish leaders took to Jeremy Corbyn when they met him on Tuesday night.

Weeks in advance, the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council openly laid out the actions they would like to see Labour take to tackle antisemitism in its ranks.

Nor was there anything unreasonable or excessive in their demands.

If a party is serious about ridding itself of antisemitism, it should – at a minimum –demand that members of parliament, councillors and other members not giving a platform to, or sharing one with, those who have been suspended or expelled for that very offence.

Should it not want to commit to a fixed timetable to clear the backlog of cases, some of which relate to offences which are at least two years old?

Should it not have no objection to some form of independent oversight of the disciplinary process by which those accused of antisemitism are dealt with?

Should it not be willing to adopt in full a definition of antisemitism – that drawn up by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – which has been accepted by the Crown Prosecution Service, the police, 132 local authorities and the United Kingdom, Scottish and Welsh governments?

And should it not want to want to demonstrate its seriousness by pledging that high-profile cases, such as that of Ken Livingstone – who has consistently refused to apologise for, and gone on to repeat, the highly offensive suggestion that there was at one point ‘real collaboration’ between Hitler and the Jews – will be dealt with speedily?

The answer to all these questions apparently is no.

Instead, Corbyn simply trotted out more meaningless bromides about being ‘absolutely committed to rooting out antisemitism from our party and our society’, while his spinners set about attempting to convince that the meeting had been ‘positive and constructive, serious and good humoured’.

But no warm words can disguise the fact that – after all that has happened in the past four weeks, including an unprecedented demonstration against it by the Jewish community in Parliament Square – this meeting was a miserable failure by the Labour leadership.

Or, as the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council more politely put it, ‘a disappointing missed opportunity’.

Quite why Corbyn and his allies thought it was a good idea to hold a meeting on the basis of an agenda they had no intention of seriously engaging with is anyone’s guess.

But the reason that they once again fell far short of the required action is that the Labour leader cannot and will not accept responsibility for his own role in landing the party in the sorry place in which it now finds itself.

As Dave Rich, head of policy at the Community Security Trust, eloquently argued yesterday, ‘this is still, for Corbyn, a problem of other people, not about him and his closest allies’.

‘Jeremy Corbyn himself has associated with Holocaust denial promulgators Paul Eisen and Dyab Abou Jahjah; supported 9/11 conspiracy theorist Stephen Sizer and blood libel cleric Raed Salah; [and] expressed support for a mural with crude stereotypes of Jewish bankers,’ wrote Rich. ‘Corbyn blames antisemitism on “individuals on the fringes of the movement of solidarity with the Palestinian people”, but never seems to ask why he personally has been so close to people with these views, or if there is anything intrinsic to his own political culture that attracts antisemites.’

That political culture is one that the Labour leader has rarely ventured out of during more than three decades in public life.

For some, this is an indication of Corbyn’s authenticity and his principles.

What cannot be denied, however, is that it is also the source of the problem which now besets the party he leads.

A Ruddy mess

On Wednesday, Amber Rudd told a parliamentary committee that the Home Office does not set targets for the voluntary removal of illegal immigrants – a claim that was swiftly debunked by a 2015 report by the Home Office’s own watchdog, which showed the department had set such a target.

Yesterday, she was, once again, forced to scurry back to parliament to correct herself.

The most generous interpretation of recent events is that the home secretary is clearly not on top of her brief: hardly a reassuring trait in the individual supposedly responsible for safeguarding the nation’s security.

Rudd’s handling of the Windrush scandal has been shameful. That she remains in office shows just how desperate the prime minister is not to let go of the human shield who is taking much of the flak for her own appalling eight-year tenure at the Home Office.

Old boys’ club 

One of the many charges leveled against Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign is that she failed to engage with the economic anxieties of white working-class voters in the Midwestern states which delivered Donald Trump’s narrow victory.

This myth was debunked last year by a Public Religion Research Institute survey of more than 3,000 people which, among other things, found that ‘being in fair or poor financial shape actually predicted support for Hillary Clinton among white working-class Americans, rather than support for Donald Trump’.

This week, further evidence to rebut the ‘left behind’ theory was offered by a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Instead, it suggests that ‘cultural anxiety’ was key to Trump’s appeal to the voters who cost Clinton the election.

‘It’s much more of a symbolic threat that people feel,’ suggested Dr Diana Mutz, the author of the study. ‘It’s not a threat to their own economic well-being; it’s a threat to their group’s dominance in our country over all.’

Indeed, support for Trump was linked to a belief that high-status groups, such as whites, Christians or men, faced more discrimination than low-status groups, like minorities, Muslims or women.

Unsurprisingly, the first woman presidential candidate nominated by a major party proved a lightning rod for men with such attitudes. Maybe Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s defeated leftwing Democrat primary rival, may have had more appeal to them.

But we should be clear – any such appeal would have rested on his gender, not his economic message.

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Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot

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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress

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