Nick Cohen

Corbyn is history – it’s safe for Jews to vote Labour again

Just as the modernisers efforts to purge homophobia from the Conservatives attracted gay voters, Keir Starmer’s drive to kick out antisemitism means Jews can turn back to his party, writes Nick Cohen


Oppossition Labour party leader Keir Starmer leaves his home in London on June 3, 2020, to attend Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in the Houses of Parliament. - (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

March 04, 2021 15:12

All politics is identity politics if you look closely enough. To his lasting shame, Jeremy Corbyn’s lasting legacy was to impose on British Jewry an anti-Labour identity. The explosion in prejudice he presided over was so great that, at the 2019 general election, polling by the Jewish Leadership Council found just seven per cent of Jews could bring themselves to vote Labour.

A question only May’s local, mayoral and devolved assembly elections can settle is whether that anti-Labour identity will hold, or whether the efforts of Labour’s new leaders to stamp out racism will be enough to convince Jews and their allies to think again.

I believe progressive Jews have no rational reason to carry on with their boycott. But I am afraid that rationality may not change many minds. Identity politics is a rather grand description of the rather depressing fact that people on average possess only a vague knowledge of which parties stand for what policies – and often do not even possess that. My favourite finding from the academic studies of popular ignorance was that half of German voters were unable to say whether Die Linke was a left- or right-wing party even though Die Linke in German means “the left”. Many people, perhaps most people, vote for politicians they think in some vague way are on their side and against those they see as enemies.

I know why British Jews and all who hate the racial malice and the creepy conspiratorial politics antisemitism brings rejected Labour, because I was one of the rejectionists. To maintain the view that Labour is still a racist party, however, is to live in a state of ignorance as deep as any Corbynista’s.

The best reason not to succumb to the temptation to place your identity above your reason is that you are doing what the Stalinist wing of the far left wants you to do. It wants to make it axiomatic that Jews cannot be on the left unless they subscribe to every word of its dogmas. Jewishness, they maintain, makes Jews inherently Tory and imperialist, and thus in the demonology of the post-Marxist left as intrinsically evil as Jews were seen in the Soviet bloc, Nazi Germany and medieval Europe. If you doubt me, look at how those Labour politicians who emerged from the Corbyn years with credit are routinely accused of being “Zionist” by their enemies. They may or may not be Jewish. They may or may not deplore the policies of the Israeli government. They may have no interest in the politics of the Middle East. But if they speak out against the far left they are by definition “Zionists”.

The absence of left-wing celebration about the rise of Lisa Nandy makes my argument for me. The shadow foreign secretary is a leading member of the Labour Friends of Palestine, and an opponent of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and arms sales to Israel. Yet the far left dismisses her as insufficiently “anti-imperialist” because Nandy is not a racist who eggs on their fascistic fantasies about Zionist power and Jewish lobbies.

The second reason for Jewish progressives to think again is better known. Keir Starmer has made fighting antisemitism a priority and proved he meant what he said when he withdrew the party whip from Corbyn. Sadiq Khan in London and Andy Burnham in Manchester, meanwhile, spoke out on antisemitism while Corbyn was leader, and when more cowardly elements in Labour found urgent reasons to bite their tongues.

The trouble with identity politics is that it stops you thinking. So deep can the process of mental debasement reach, you do not even realise you have won. Compare the fight against antisemitism with the fight against homophobia. After Margaret Thatcher’s government passed anti-gay laws in the 1980s, people whose income and political instincts made them natural conservatives felt they had to vote for parties of the left. The Tories were attacking their sexual identity. To carry on supporting them felt a kind of betrayal.

By the time David Cameron was prime minister they had won so comprehensive a victory the Conservatives were endorsing gay marriage. If natural conservatives continued to vote against the party because of what it once was, they would have failed to understand that the point of struggles against homophobic prejudice is to make homophobia irrelevant. The very measure of the campaign’s success was that, say, a lesbian fund manager in the City was free to vote Conservative because the prejudices that threatened her had been beaten.

I do not dispute that you can go on Twitter and still find all kinds of repellent arguments from far-leftists about Jews. But within the Labour Party they are being beaten, not just by leaders but by thousands of activists who are fighting the grinding but necessary struggle to take back control of constituency Labour parties one branch meeting at a time. Jews are now free to follow their interests and consciences without worrying that they are betraying their Jewish identity if they give Labour their vote. For what it is worth and assuming anyone cares, I will be doing just that.

March 04, 2021 15:12

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