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Year in review 2017: Chaos and confusion

We look back at the big political stories of 2017 in our end-of-year round-up

    Corbyn kept silent again and again
    Corbyn kept silent again and again

    If a week is a long time in politics, then 2017 felt more like a decade.

    It was largely a year of more of the same — the same being constant chaos and confusion — with the occasional sideshow, like the small matter of a general election.

    Labour’s antisemitism troubles trundled on against a backdrop of lobbying scandals focused on Israel and the constant threat of misdemeanours of years gone by finally catching up with people. And that June poll was the aftershock to 2016’s Brexit earthquake.

    We should have been able to read the tone for the year ahead from the response to the Al Jazeera documentary on alleged Israeli lobbying in British politics in January.

    An undercover reporter filmed an Israeli embassy employee discussing his intention to “take down” British MPs, including Sir Alan Duncan, the Foreign Office Minister, as part of The Lobby. The reactions were furious.

    Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, called on Theresa May, the Prime Minister, to urgently investigate what he said was “improper interference in this country’s democratic process,” by Israeli officials. She swiftly rejected his request, but it was the first instance of what would become a recurring theme — overreaction to a relatively underwhelming development.

    Ken Livingstone’s disciplinary hearing in March over his Hitler and Zionism comments was one case that bucked that trend. The decision to suspend the former Mayor of London from the Labour Party for another year — rather than boot him out for good — brought equal measures of anger, despair, shock and disgust from British Jews, MPs and the wider public.

    “The Labour Party has failed the Jewish community,” Ephraim Mirvis concluded. That was quite a statement from the Chief Rabbi, and one that has repeatedly come to mind, so determined has the party seemed to be to fail the community again and again as the year continued.

    We seem no closer to Mr Corbyn addressing the issue through the Jewish media than we were back in 2015 when he became party leader. I have lost count of the number of requests the JC has made to his office for an interview. When I asked him face-to-face in March if he would sit down with us, he offered a response which has stood the test of time.

    “I have lots to say on antisemitism,” Mr Corbyn told me. If that’s the case, why not just say it, I suggested.

    “I have lots to say on antisemitism,” he repeated, before walking off, having said nothing about antisemitism.

    Spring and early summer were dominated by the general election campaign. For the first week or two, everyone thought it was a foregone conclusion — the Tories would romp to victory, Labour moderates would be wiped out, Mr Corbyn would be gone after leading the party to its worst result in living memory.

    By the middle of the campaign, political correspondents and the public alike were tearing their hair out in desperation, so dull was the day-by-day gruel of covering — and consuming — election “news”. The Prime Minister was reduced to “May-bot” appearances without questions in empty warehouses, while Mr Corbyn moved from town to town, speaking to ever-bigger crowds and receiving huge ovations.

    Then things got more interesting. The shambolic launch of the Tory manifesto and the u-turn over social care opened the door to Labour. Within the community, voters were questioning the Conservative wisdom that saw the party leave Israel out of the policy document altogether, allowing Labour and the Lib Dems to claim they were the parties offering to share their Israel position with Jewish voters.

    I asked Mrs May about the manifesto during my six-and-a-half-minute interview with her the week before polling day. Why had she allowed Mr Corbyn to steal ground on antisemitism and point out he was offering a clear approach to tackling Jew-hatred? Was she taking Jewish votes for granted after the bad headlines Labour had suffered for the past 18 months?

    “Absolutely not,” she replied. “I never take any vote for granted.”

    At 10pm on June 8, Mrs May — and the rest of the world — realised how right she had been to take such an approach to polling expectations.

    The loss of her majority in the Commons was a game-changer — obviously for the future of her leadership and government, and for Mr Corbyn, but also for the Jewish community.

    Months of people suggesting there was no point worrying about Mr Corbyn because his leadership would not last beyond a crushing election defeat came to an end, to be swiftly replaced by concern and intrigue about what a Labour government led by him would mean. Six months later, we are none the wiser.

    The angry scenes around the Labour Party conference in Brighton in September came as no surprise after the election campaign and outcome.

    As the Jewish Labour Movement and its supporters worked to see new rules adopted on tackling antisemitism, delegates on the conference floor deployed antisemitic tropes and attacked the party’s executive for working with the Jewish group. On the fringes, activists went for full-blown Holocaust revisionism and allegations of Nazi-Zionist collaboration.

    The community reacted angrily to JLM’s new-found cosiness with Mr Corbyn but sources in the group claimed the value of their efforts would bear fruit with the disciplinary hearings of Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker once winter ensued. It is worth noting in the dying embers of the year that they are still waiting for their party to deal with those cases.

    The longer the wait, and the greater the levels of antisemitism uncovered in the meantime, the more hollow the JLM claims appear. Mr Corbyn being derided as a “liar” and heckled when he mentioned the fight against antisemitism at the JLM Chanukah party a fortnight ago hints at one of the potential flashpoints for 2018 — how British Jews, particularly those still in Labour, continue to deal with the Labour leadership.

    The Priti Patel affair, which saw the International Development Secretary resign over her failure to disclose meetings with Israeli ministers, brought the curtain down on the year with a lobbying scandal that appeared to put some meat on the bones dragged up by Al Jazeera 11 months ago.

    In reality, the involvement of the Israelis and the Conservative Friends of Israel group was peripheral compared to Ms Patel’s own naivety. The consequences are unlikely to be heavily damaging for the pro-Israel camp, although the fiasco could hardly be described as a golden moment.

    Do we end where we began? “Nothing has changed, nothing, has, changed,” the Prime Minister infamously said at the Tory manifesto launch.

    It may feel as though 2017 is a year in which nothing has changed — it concludes with us dealing with the same issues we faced in January. Antisemitism, Brexit and the future of the government will be the hot topics of 2018, too.

    But it would be impossible to argue that the status quo is exactly as it was before. That will be as great a cause of concern for the Jewish community as it is for the rest of society.

     

    Marcus Dysch is the JC’s Political Editor

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