Interviewed by a Guardian reporter in the early 1970s, the novelist Nicholas Mosley said of his infamous fascist father: ‘I saw clearly that while the right hand dealt with grandiose ideas and glory, the left hand let the rat out of the sewer.’ This line has been on my mind a lot lately as Jeremy Corbyn finally lost control of the Labour Party after its catastrophic defeat in December’s general election. With slight modification, it expresses well my very late realisation of the true nature of ‘Corbynism’, revelations that led me to quit the party in 2018. While, on the one hand, Corbyn spoke in sentimental platitudes about peace and economic justice, on the other, he ushered a collection of Leninists, cranks and antisemites into the heart of the Labour Party. For too long, I was enthralled by the former and ignored the latter.
I first joined the Labour Party in May 2014. In the general election campaign of the following year, I had my first taste of canvassing and leafleting but was frustrated with the staid and moderate character of the party and its leadership. So, just as the new leadership contest began in the wake of Labour’s defeat and Ed Miliband’s resignation, I helped to found a local pro-Corbyn campaign group.. It was not long after Corbyn’s unexpected victory that I saw my first ‘rat’, to extend Mosley’s metaphor.
It was in a Facebook group named ‘Tony Benn encouraged me’. This group resembled the many pro-Corbyn groups that later drew attention for their role in propagating conspiracy theories and antisemitism. Under a photograph — supposedly of an Israeli woman striking a Palestinian child with her handbag — one comment referred to the woman as a ‘Zio-whore’. The “Zio-” prefix, I instantly appreciated, stood in for another three-letter word and served to obscure the commenter’s antisemitic intent. I don’t remember anyone in the Labour party calling this person out. Though shocked, I don’t remember calling them out either; this was ‘honeymoon period’. My enthusiasm for Corbyn outweighed my concern at what I dismissed as the views of one lone crank, unrepresentative of the character and values of the larger Labour movement. In much the same way, I had dismissed the rumours rife in the press and sections of the left-wing ‘blogosphere’ at the time, of Corbyn’s dodgy associations and questionable ‘friends’. More than anything, I looked forward to a Labour leader bold enough to end grinding austerity in the country.
That it took me so long to acknowledge the scale and severity of the problem of antisemitism on the left comes down partly to self-delusion but also to ignorance. I am not Jewish and know very few Jewish people. Antisemitism, as far as I understood it, was part of the history of fascism and the Final Solution. I was totally unaccustomed to thinking of antisemitism as a left-wing vice.
A little later on came the furore over comments by Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker. By this time, our local pro-Corbyn campaign group had reorganised itself into a Momentum branch. I expected my “comrades” in Momentum to condemn these two cases of obvious racism. Disappointingly, most did not, engaging in acts of ideological contortionism and playing fast-and-loose with the historical record in their defence. It was clear to me even then that the actions of Livingstone and Walker warranted suspension or even expulsion (Walker was finally expelled in 2019 while Livingstone was allowed to quit in 2018) and I could not understand either the prevarication of the leader or the apologetics of my fellow Corbynites. But when I voiced opinions like these, I was told to avoid criticism of our side in the interests of ‘solidarity’ and ‘unity’, and that ‘left-wing’ antisemitism did not exist.
What I could not understand was why this was the hill on which so many Corbynites were prepared to die. The same intractable intransigence I witnessed when Corbynites denied or downplayed antisemitism was an obstacle when it came to other issues too. When it came to Syria, I was told that President Assad was the only defence against any dreaded US-backed “regime change”. When they fondly eulogised the late Fidel Castro and as Venezuela began to tilt towards crisis, I was told that abstract “bourgeois” freedoms were worth sacrificing for the rumoured excellence of the public services provided by Latin American dictatorships. The same warped “anti-imperialism” that fuelled the unhealthy Corbynite obsession with Israel and prompted them to ignore discrimination against British Jews led them to ignore or explain away the plight of others as well.
I was growing profoundly unsure. As part of a movement whose members claimed to value principles over power, I was repeatedly being asked to defend the indefensible and excuse the inexcusable. However, out of stupidity, a mistaken sense of loyalty, and in the vain hope that people who hadn’t changed their minds about anything since the 1980s would suddenly reconsider, I voted for Corbyn again in the 2016 leadership contest. I also voted, shamefully, in the mistaken belief that tolerating some of the more ‘out-there’ views was worth the price of ending austerity and establishing a democratic socialist Britain.
In late 2016, the atmosphere in our local Momentum group became increasingly toxic. A significant but vocal minority of activists in Momentum, often members of far left sects, were out to settle the unfinished business of the 1980s (some had left the party under Kinnock, not Blair). As one of the few members of our local group who was not also a member of a Leninist sect, I was now in the middle of a faction fight within a faction fight. Burned out and unsure whether I had ever really wanted the same things as these people, I finally left Momentum in early 2017. Shortly afterwards, a group led by members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee) took over. My worst fears about the group’s direction were confirmed when they later hosted Chris Williamson at one of their meetings. Rumour has it that Momentum’s national organisers now regard what had been my branch in Sheffield as somewhat of a ‘problem’ group and, as of a few days ago, it appears they have stepped in and temporarily taken it over ahead of Momentum’s Sheffield’s next AGM. But in early 2018, with the party seemingly unwilling to change and with the cranks very much in the driving seat, I cancelled my Labour Party membership.
Looking back on all this, with Corbyn and his cronies gone and Starmer as leader, I feel relief mixed with a sense of guilt and shame. My ‘good’ intentions aside, I empowered a man who enabled the proliferation of antisemitic hatred, providing it with a host body in the form of the Labour Party. And this applies by extension to all Corbyn supporters, no matter how thoughtful or conscientious. In terms of repairing the damage done by Labour’s descent into antisemitism, and rebuilding and expanding the party’s voter base, there is a long way to go. Though Starmer and his Shadow Cabinet have begun this task in earnest, this was always much bigger than the issue of who led the Labour Party. All of the worst aspects of Corbynism were encouraged and enabled by his unfailing supporters. There were people, and I was one of them for too long a time, who would not admit that things had become badly rotten. There are people, desperate to exonerate a poisonous movement, who will still not admit it.
As the Labour left retreats to reflect and lick its wounds, many think-pieces have discussed the need to salvage what was ‘best’ from Corbynism. Once again, too many intelligent people are happy to avoid the consideration that they might have been very badly wrong all along. The unpleasant fact that took me so long to realise, but of which others were aware from the start, is that antisemitism and the other reactionary aspects of the movement around Corbyn were symptoms, rather than aberrant features. You can see this reflected in the kind of people Corbyn chose to associate with years before he became leader. Usually, when I bring this up, I am accused of peddling a ‘line’ or repeating media ‘smears’. This misses the fact that, in their search for headlines to stoke outrage, the Conservative press never thoroughly scrutinised the true awfulness of some of Corbyn’s deeply held convictions. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: getting caught cosying up to terrorists/dictators/religious reactionaries/antisemites/etc. once may be regarded as a misfortune; to do so more times than you can count looks like complicity.
In the wake of December’s historic election defeat and given the ongoing investigation by the Equalities & Human Rights Commission into the Labour Party, it seems highly unlikely Corbynites will find themselves on ‘the right side of history’. Through their support for Corbyn and continued support for Corbynite ‘continuity’ candidates, they’ve demonstrated that they’re more or less comfortable in their loyalty to a political culture that smacks of Stalinism and enthusiastically engaged in the ‘mainstreaming’ of anti-Jewish racism.
If four and a half years of Corbyn’s leadership proved anything it’s that ‘Socialism’ and ‘Barbarism’ are far from mutually exclusive. With liberal democracy under attack across the globe, his supporters have largely busied themselves with the political equivalent of LARP-ing, reliving the glory days of 1917 or the 1980s. They seem unconcerned about the fate of liberal democracy beyond the deluded hope that its collapse might provide the opportunity for the foundation of a new socialist utopia. It is partly because of this hostile indifference to the survival of liberal democracy that the proliferation of antisemitism in their ranks is such a worrying symptom. Throughout history, the Jewish community have so often been the targets of anti-democrats, and the canaries in the liberal-democratic coal mine. Repeating Niemoeller’s ‘First they came for…’ has become cliché but the poem’s message is still valid.
The actions and cultish ethos of Corbynites, both within the party bureaucracy and in the rank-and-file, have demonstrated that they are no more keen on liberal-democratic values than Orbán, Trump, Xi Jinping, Putin or Corbyn’s heroes Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro. Their actions when they had control of the Labour Party — the atrocious (mis)handling of complaints of antisemitism within the party, the conspiracy theorising, the spiteful campaigns against critics — merely confirms this. Increasingly in Britain, and this applies to Europe and America as well, we risk facing a situation where the choice will be between two political factions, one that thinks George Soros secretly controls the world and the others who think it’s actually the Rothschilds.
There will be some who read this and dismiss what it says as the work of a “paid Israeli troll” or a “Trump fanatic” (both of which I’ve been called). They will question my motives as I used to question the motives of ‘Corbynsceptics’ back when I was one of the faithful. The uncomfortable truth is that the author is of the left – an ex-Corbynite turned social democrat – and not some sinister ‘neo-liberal’, ‘neo-con’ or Tory. I was initially attracted to the Corbyn movement precisely because I believed that something needed to be done to end austerity, something more radical than previous Labour governments had either done or ever really contemplated doing. I broke with Corbynism because, while I’d like to nationalise the buses, I don’t want to do so only to throw British Jews under them. The country urgently needs a Labour government, but what it doesn’t need is a Corbynite Labour Party. With a new leadership, intent on listening to voters and reflecting on December’s defeat, it’s hopefully a little closer to getting the former next time round.
That said, my opposition to Corbynism is as much about its values as its inability to win votes. No doubt the internecine strife and overall whiff of weirdness emanating from the party put voters off by the time polling day came around. But more than this, even if such behaviour had gone down well with voters, did such a movement deserve to come to power? The moral dimensions of the centre-left case against ‘Corbynism’ were either underplayed or non-existent. Understandably, the pressing concern about what the British electorate would vote for took precedence over the equally necessary but not quite so urgent question of values. Part of the rebuilding of Labour must involve some serious thinking about values. With Corbyn gone, the question of what his opponents believe, rather than merely who or what they opposed, becomes increasingly important. There is a need now for something distinct from the existing tendencies of ‘Blairite’ (whatever this means well over a decade after he left office), Corbynite, and the ineffectual ‘soft’ left (who often played Quisling for the Corbynites in any case). Such a search for values forms a crucial part of creating a party that is not only electable but also deserves to be campaigned and voted for. That is, a party opposed to all forms of racism, that rejects corrupted “anti-imperialism” for genuine internationalism, and that is as unashamed in its quest for social and economic justice as it is in its defence of liberal democracy.
Like many on the left who, appalled by ‘Corbynism’, left the party, I have recently rejoined Labour. Having done so I would like to encourage those on the left who have changed their minds about Corbyn, to know that they are not alone and that they can have a part to play in rebuilding Labour. And to the Corbynite die-hards who’ve made it to the end of this piece, I want to say please listen to those people – particularly those from the Jewish community – who’ve suffered several years of ‘Corbynism’ and think again.