The Labour peer examines the impact of his party’s internal battle with anti-semitism on its primary job – opposition.
The clue is in the name – opposition.
The job of the opposition is to oppose. Alas, we haven’t seen much of that lately (except opposing those seeking to root out anti-Semitism from within the Labour party itself). Least of all on Brexit.
While some of us have been focusing on the big crisis facing the country – Brexit and a diminishing economy – the Labour leadership, incredibly, has been engaged in a guerrilla war with Labour ‘moderates’ on anti-Semitism.
This is not an academic dispute. Unleashed by Ken Livingstone, with astonishing diatribes about Hitler being a ‘Zionist’, anti-Semitism has become a major strand of the far left.
I won’t bore you with the details. But two things are significant. First, to my surprise, left anti-Semitism turns out not to be a matter of a few misguided or malevolent individuals, but a significant part of the far left, which conflates being anti-Jew and anti-Israel with opposition to the current Israeli and US governments.
I don’t believe that Jeremy Corbyn shares these views, but some of his associates do, and this has led to the second problem. Every time a move is made to rid the party of this virus – by expelling individuals concerned and putting in place better rules and procedures – it gets into a vortex of delay and dilution. The far left, and its media apologists, claim that what is ‘really’ at stake is opposition to Corbyn, not to anti-Semitism. Which ‘really’ isn’t true, there being plenty of open opposition to Corbyn in the party without it needing to hide behind something else.
So month after month is being consumed by ever more bitter battles over anti-Semitism, while the job of the opposition goes almost by default.
Ah, but the acolytes of Saint Jeremy say, he did so well in last year’s election! He nearly won! Indeed, some of them think he did win, and it is only an extended coup which has kept him out of Downing Street for the past 14 months.
This magical thinking is doing Corbyn no end of harm, because it cultivates the view, gripping some of my friends in Momentum, that victory is around the corner and everything, particularly Brexit, should be exploited on the assumption that the government is about to fall. Or, at least, it will after an ‘inevitable’ early election – a concession accepted by those who have finally realised that Labour is more than 50 seats behind the Conservatives in the House of Commons and did not actually win the last election.
In particular, it has led to the following mistakes of strategy and principle. First, because Corbyn himself does not think that Brexit is the biggest crisis facing the country, it therefore isn’t and those who think so are just anti-Corbyn. This is wrong on all counts.
Second, that the only thing Labour needs to do is be a bit to the anti-Brexit side of wherever Theresa May is at any given moment, and the government will fall. This tactic, perfected by Keir Starmer, with his legal penchant for splitting hairs to the nth degree, has left the Labour leadership with a position so incoherent that it defeats the case for an early election on Brexit – and Brexit is the only reason one might have a third election in three years – because it would offer no viable choice to the country whatever.
Third, it explains the Labour leadership’s opposition to a People’s Vote on Brexit, which is the biggest and most potent act of opposition to this government currently on offer. Meanwhile, most Labour members support the idea, and it is gaining traction with an increasing number of ‘one nation’ Tories, including Justine Greening this week. The curiosity of all this is that rarely in modern times has there been a larger ideological gulf between government and opposition in terms of formal political philosophies. And this ideological divide is at the heart of Brexit, since Brexit – as I argue in my book Saving Britain with Will Hutton – is essentially a hard right policy of ‘Thatcherism in one country’.
You would never be able to tell this from watching the media or the House of Commons, because the Labour leadership refuses to engage in a battle over Brexit. Instead, it dances on the head of a pin, making fine distinctions about ‘membership of’ and ‘access to’ various permutations of customs unions and European economic institutions.
The public is bemused. And so am I.