Rather than seek power through ‘big tent’ politics, the left is driven by an ideological purity that is electoral suicide
Lord Levy knows that antisemitism can occur anywhere. Once, as he was taking a guest into the House of Lords, he heard a Tory peer mutter: “Who’s the Jewboy bringing in now?” At the moment, though, it is his own party that most worries Tony Blair’s former fundraiser and Middle East envoy. After a string of antisemitic comments from Labour councillors and activists, culminating in the suspension of Ken Livingstone last week, the Labour peer told me: “I don’t think there’s much question that many in the Jewish community will now find it hard to support Labour.”
It is no coincidence that antisemitism is spreading like a virus through the party — from the Oxford University Labour Club members who described Jewish students as “zio”, to the Twitter trolls who posted pictures of the Jewish MP Luciana Berger with a hooked nose and a yellow star along with the hashtag #filthyjewishbitch. Mr Corbyn may not be antisemitic himself but a strain of the hard left is. Driven by an anti-western, anti-capitalist world view, which lumps Israel in with America as imperialist oppressors, these hardliners confuse hostility to the Jewish state with hatred of Jews. They left the Labour party under Tony Blair because they disagreed with the direction in which he took it, but many are now rejoining it. The leftist fringe is becoming mainstream.
The attacks on the Labour leader are not a “smear”, as Diane Abbott suggests, because this is part of a wider political and cultural problem. Labour defines itself as the party that stands up for the vulnerable, but there is a hierarchy of victimhood on the hard left. Instead of championing equality across the board, the ideologues categorise oppression into deserving and undeserving causes. Jews are the “wrong sort of victim” rather as British Rail used to blame late-running trains on the “wrong type of snow”. Roger Cohen, a columnist on The New York Times, recently described how at one US university, the Holocaust had been dismissed as “white-on-white crime”. There is a similar attitude in some left-wing circles on this side of the Atlantic. The white, wealthy, Jewish community is seen as a minority that does not merit support. As one moderate Labour MP says: “It is antisemitic because in their view of the world they can never see Jewish people fitting into their category of victim.”
This categorisation of oppression also explains the misogyny on the hard left. Women are not as deserving of sympathy as, say, welfare claimants. During the Labour leadership election, Mr Corbyn’s supporters repeatedly described his rival Liz Kendall as “sexy” on social media, tweeting that they would like to “f***” her even if they would not vote for her. Members of the left-wing Labour Representation Committee harassed a young female candidate at the general election, distributing leaflets with her face superimposed on to topless photos. Such sexism is allowed to flourish because, as former deputy leader Harriet Harman says, women’s rights have always been a “distraction” from the class struggle for the far-left. Under Mr Corbyn’s leadership, Labour has held segregated meetings in Muslim areas. Gender equality is a secondary concern but “top of the tree,” says one MP, “is Islamophobia”.
There are other examples. The National Union of Students recently declared that gay men were not sufficiently downtrodden to merit their own place on the representative student body. Instead, it claimed that they were guilty of “misogyny, transphobia, racism and biphobia” within gay and lesbian student societies. Although gay men still suffer discrimination in this country and abroad, they have slipped down the left’s league table of victimhood.
Different factions have competing priorities: the tensions between Mr Corbyn and John McDonnell stem from the fact that the Labour leader is part of the anti-imperialist brigade, whose focus has historically been foreign policy, whereas the shadow chancellor’s focus is anti-capitalist class war. What unites the camps, though, is the sense that equality is not fought for universally — it is bestowed upon noble cases by the high priests of the left. The political caste system this creates is every bit as divisive as Bullingdon Club snobbery on the right. Favouring the “right kind of victims” is as elitist as promoting those who went to the “right kind of school”. There is even a virtue-signalling vocabulary on the left that echoes Nancy Mitford’s separation of “U” and “Non-U”: instead of “loo” versus “toilet” it’s “Zionist” instead of “Israeli” or “cis” rather than “gay man”. The arrogance and moral superiority are astounding.
Politics is about balancing competing interests, not deciding between deserving and undeserving causes. But there is a self-righteousness among the Corbynistas that makes them blind to their own prejudices. “They have an incredibly powerful sense of their own virtue,” says one moderate MP. “That gives them licence to be nasty to people. They tell themselves ‘you are a good person so if you say this it must be all right’. There is an almost religious belief that they alone are virtuous.”
The same myopia leads to troubling alliances. As a senior Labour figure puts it: “If you are opposed to America or Israel you are an honourable victim. That leads them to associate with people who have said some terrible things and to believe that you can call Hamas and Hezbollah friends, but you don’t allow McDonald’s to come to the Labour party conference.”
It’s impossible not to consider the consequences for Labour’s electoral fortunes, ahead of the local elections this week. Leftwinger Neal Lawson suggested last year that the “wrong kind of people were voting Labour” when it won a hattrick of elections under Mr Blair. But parties win by appealing to everyone they can, not by separating the electorate into those they approve of and those they don’t. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s new Liberal prime minister, insists that “the Conservatives are not our enemies, they are our neighbours”. The Corbynistas would disagree because they see anyone who has ever voted Tory as immoral.
Pat McFadden, a former minister, says Labour should be promoting “co-existence, not a hierarchy of victimhood”. Instead, as the antisemitism row shows, the party is pursuing the electorally suicidal politics of division. The hard left wants nothing to do with the “wrong kind of victim” or the “wrong kind of voter” and will be punished at the polls.