Labour's Israel question

November 24, 2016 23:28

Leaving a Minister's office in March, I was taken down in the lift by one of the messengers. We had met many times over the past five years and with the election coming up, I said to him: "Well, this might be the last time you take me downstairs like this. In a month, you may have a new government and a different minister."

He looked at me, shook his head slowly and said: "Naah".

This turned out to be a more perceptive comment than most of the political analysis of the weeks that followed. No party has ever been elected when it lags the other on leadership and the economy. You can even plot election results against leadership ratings and get a better prediction than the opinion polls. "Naah" captured Labour's problems precisely. Now the party is picking another leader and has to be careful not to find another whose entire prospects of becoming prime minister can't be summed up with the same word. What the candidate looks like on television, their power when speaking and their basic position on the economy are all vital, of course. But can I suggest another very swift way of making a judgment?

Ask them about Israel.

Obviously, it matters to us all what a Labour leader's position on Israel might be. There is a serious problem with left support. But my reason for suggesting it as a test isn't really about that. I think the candidate's views on Israel give you an insight into their broader politics.

To achieve peace you need to be willing to be unpopular

The first thing it tells you is something about the relationship between the candidate and the party base. Israel has lost its hold on the emotional support of the left. This does not mean there are not many brave and good supporters on the left. It is simply that the default left view is now that of the Guardian. And the issue has risen up the list of left concerns.

Tony Blair's support for Israel during the Lebanon crisis in 2006 is one of the main reasons he was evicted from office sooner than he intended. The position a candidate takes on Israel gives some sort of guide to the extent to which they are willing to resist activist pressure.

When Ed Miliband imposed a three-line whip on a motion in favour of unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood, some front bench spokesman rebelled. He ended up agreeing to allow MPs simply not to show up. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper both did, Liz Kendall did not. On the other hand, Ed Balls did not attend and neither did prominent Burnham supporters Rachel Reeves and Luciana Berger.

The other thing that might be learnt from probing the candidate's position on Israel is their attitude to public spending. This probably seems like an odd thing to say, so let me explain. When pressed on the deficit now, the candidates know they have to say broadly the right thing - that the party shouldn't have spent so much and needs to spend less. Even if they don't agree with this, they know they will have to find some way of avoiding repeating the election formula as it proved a loser.

Israel allows one to push them a little. The reason? Israel demonstrates that sometimes it is necessary to do hard, difficult, painful things to achieve desirable outcomes. That in achieving peace and community and security you need to be robust and willing to be unpopular. A candidate's position on Israel, perhaps less rehearsed than their view on the deficit, will show you whether they understand this sort of hard decision making.

Israel in other words, isn't just a policy question, it's a metaphor.

November 24, 2016 23:28

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