One of the more interesting and promising features of the Jeremy Corbyn Labour Party leadership years was the way in which a parliamentary opposition with a set of alternative policies was able to moderate and modify government policy without itself being able to enact legislation. It was able to promote greater public exposure of these alternatives, especially on issues such as climate change and public services, and most importantly to have debates about such issues on public broadcasting media. It also gave encouragement to many radical movements, such as those promoting nuclear disarmament, support for Palestinians and climate change. Whatever one’s political preferences, and leaving aside any of Corbyn’s personal leadership failures, the existence and public exposure of a clearly different World view is, I would argue, an important aspect of a properly functioning democratic society.
If we can accept this, then it seems to me that the current group of contenders for leadership of the Labour Party does not inspire a great deal of enthusiasm. Despite a general shift leftwards, at least as judged by the rhetoric, there are two issues that are particularly disquieting. The first is the alacrity with which all the contenders (Clive Lewis being the exception) accepted the ten policy demands published by the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD), which they requested a future leadership should adopt. Among these are
- The full adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism “with all its examples and clauses and without any caveats”
- To engage with the Jewish community via its “main representative groups and not through fringe organisations” such as Jewish Voice for Labour
- To devolve the disciplinary process “to an independent agent and to ensure transparency in the complaints process”.
The first of these ‘demands’ seeks to impose a confused and self-contradictory document that confounds antisemitism with opposition to Israeli Government policies. This is a dangerous position to take running the risk of itself encouraging antisemitic attitudes.
(see https://harveygoldstein.co.uk/2019/02/20/where-is-the-antisemitism/ for a discussion).
The second assumes that the BoD represents the Jewish community, which is simply not the case. Perhaps half of all the 300.000 or so Jews in the UK anyway are secular and among those who practice the religion, there are strong communities who are not part of the BoD group of synagogues, such as the Charedi community who claim to represent some 50,000 Jews. It also seeks unfairly to deride a small but important group, the Jewish Voice for Labour, whose generally well argued views displayed on their web site and frequent blogs, present an important counter narrative to that of the BoD.
The third demand seeks to remove the ability of the Party to manage its own internal procedures, which not only seems to run counter to data privacy legislation, but also would undermine the ability of a democratically structured organisation’s function to ensure that its members obey the rules.
To immediately sign up to this list betrays either a woeful lack of insight into a long running campaign directed at Corbyn and his supporters with no attention to actual evidence, or an act of political cowardice, or indeed both (see https://harveygoldstein.co.uk/2019/06/24/the-abuse-of-evidence-in-public-debates/ ). This does not bode well for the almost inevitable future attacks on the Party and any of its more radical policies that will come from much of the media as well as bodies such as the BoD.
The other issue is the aspiration expressed by all the candidates is to unite the party and heal the often bitter differences, which of course were partly responsible for its December 2019 electoral defeat. While this appears to be laudable, in fact Labour has been clearly split between ‘right’ and ‘left’ for decades, with little sign of any resolution. The best that can perhaps be hoped for is that, whoever is elected, there will be an agreement, especially among MPs, that they will refrain from seeking to undermine the leadership publicly in the way that many did for Corbyn. This does not mean that debate within the Party should end, but that it should be carried out in a transparent fashion with proper regard for differing viewpoints and personal respect. Above all it should pay attention to proper evidence rather than hearsay and rumour. A commitment to seeking out reliable evidence and telling the truth ought to go down well with a somewhat cynical electorate!
There are important lessons to be learnt from the last few years. Unless the next leader takes these seriously and allows them to be debated openly within the Labour Party, the Party’s future seems to look rather bleak.
Harvey Goldstein. 27 January 2020.