If you want the measure of a political movement, take a look at how its politicians respond in times of strife. Our respect should be reserved for those who stand by their principles, even when threatened with political oblivion. A politician that is not prepared to lose their seat is, at times, a politician willing to sacrifice their principles in the name of their political tribe.
And so it is with Labour antisemitism. The true heroes of Labour’s antisemitism crisis are the MPs who faced electoral ruin and detached themselves from the Corbyn project to fight the bigotry among their comrades. Separating themselves from the herd took great strength, not least because these MPs’ livelihoods and reputations were at risk. In the fight against racism in the Labour Party, Luciana Berger and the other MPs who formed Change UK did ultimately lose their seats, but they took on this great personal cost to highlight the injustice that had flourished in their ideological home. While electorally Change UK was unsuccessful, these MPs fulfilled their original aim: to bring Labour antisemitism to national debate. It is difficult to picture the current left-wing political landscape without considering their self-sacrifice.
The case of Jeremy Corbyn is similarly revealing. The curious effect of the EHRC’s investigation into Labour antisemitism is that those politicians and pundits who spent the best part of five years minimising the seriousness of Labour’s racism problem now pay lip service to reforming the Labour Party’s complaints process. During Friday night’s “Stand With Corbyn” online rally, almost every speaker began by stating that they accepted the results of the EHRC report in full and were committed to implementing its recommendations. This might seem like progress – but it is hard to detach context from these comments: each speaker was making their statement at a rally in support of the person who presided over institutional antisemitism in Labour, and who had been suspended by the party’s general secretary after he claimed that Labour antisemitism had been exaggerated by the media. The speakers did not appear to appreciate that they were invoking their supposed anti-racist credentials while speaking at a rally ostensibly in support of someone suspended for Labour antisemitism.
But in this bitter divide on the left – between the moderates who don’t caveat their denouncement of racism, and the hard leftists who do – we find a truth about Corbynism as a movement. Despite the grandstanding on Friday night, the moral cowardice of those politicians to the left of the Parliamentary Labour Party shines through. It was best summarised by John McDonnell, when he spoke at the same rally: “I’m going to read much of what I’ve said [sic] because we have to be careful in our language at the moment. We don’t want to give any hostages to fortune, to those who might wish to use our words – to distort them.” To translate, McDonnell wasn’t going to speak his mind – because if he did, he might find himself suspended from the Labour Party, just like Corbyn.
Much of Corbyn’s campaign branding revolved around a return to socialist values. “New Labour” became a dirty phrase during his leadership, and the language of comrades and red flags found resurgence. John McDonnell brandished Mao’s little red book during the annual budget in 2015.
Corbynism’s romanticism towards most violent forms of left-wing politics might give a liberal social democrat reason to pause. But the last week has revealed that this socialist utopian rhetoric was exactly this: branding. If we look beyond the rhetoric, we find only smoke and mirrors. The commitment to socialist revolution and worker solidarity was only ever skin-deep. How do we know this? Because, as McDonnell stated so succinctly, he and others of the socialist campaign group of MPs did not plan to go on strike, or to resign the whip en masse in protest at Corbyn’s suspension – because if they did, they could lose the Labour Party whip and, ultimately, their lucrative jobs. Collective action is out of the question: individual self-interest wins the day.
Since Friday, John McDonnell has signed a letter claiming Labour antisemitism was “weaponised” against Jeremy Corbyn: he’s happy to nudge the Labour Party management into sanctioning him, but he won’t resign on principle. Other left-wing Labour MPs have made similarly provocative comments, but also won’t budge. Despite their socialist credentials, it seems that their solidarity with their fallen comrade is nothing worth losing an income over.
If I were a socialist who agreed with the rally speakers on Friday, I’d be tearing up my Momentum badge – because I’d have realised I’d been conned. For it turns out the socialist campaign group isn’t akin to the trade unions they so admire, but rather the individualists who continued going down the pits in Thatcher’s time to feed their families. They won’t go on strike. The socialist campaign group is 2020’s version of the blackleg miner.
If you want the measure of a political movement, see what its members do during times of strife. Because, as it turns out, the socialist campaign group doesn’t go on strike when it feels wronged, as Change UK did – it cowers in a corner. It turns out solidarity for them is just a word, and not an action. The socialist campaign group, it transpires, is the exact opposite of what it always purported to be: in the worst sense of the word, they are just politicians after all.