The spectacle of Democrats in the U.S. tying themselves in knots over accusations of anti-Semitism would be familiar in Britain. The Labor Party has been going through a similar drama for a couple of years now.
In one of those odd parallels that sometimes occur between U.S. and British politics, the issue has come to a head in both countries at roughly the same time, forcing the parties to confront unflattering existential questions at a point when urgent political matters await.
In the U.S., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cobbled together a resolution that broadly condemned all manner of intolerance. It did not single out Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose comments launched the debate, and mentioned Islamophobia and other forms of racism, as well. It also didn’t appear to satisfy very many House members. But it passed overwhelmingly last Thursday, giving Democrats a chance to get back to focusing on their opposition to President Donald Trump’s policies and investigations of his behavior.
In Britain, Labor is confronting charges that it carries within it a deep vein of anti-Semitism. As if coming to grips with that isn’t wrenching enough, it also is making it harder to address Britain’s most important political question in several generations: how, when – and whether – to leave the European Union. With little more than two weeks left before Britain crashes out of the EU, a series of votes starting Tuesday will determine what happens. There has been no majority for any approach, and Britain’s political class desperately needs some cohesion. It would help if Labor were able to focus on only Brexit, but the charges of anti-Semitism won’t go away.
At the center of the storm in Britain is Jeremy Corbyn. Like Omar, he has staunch supporters who insist that he is opposed to all kinds of intolerance. Unlike Omar, he is not a newcomer on the national stage. He has been in Parliament for 35 years – nearly as long as Omar has been alive — and since 2015, he has been the head of the Labor Party.
Corbyn comes from Labor’s left wing, which is frequently more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and often critical of Israel. It is completely possible, of course, to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic, and Corbyn denounces anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, the controversies started as soon as Corbyn became party leader, and in 2106 he announced an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the party. But that hasn’t put the issue to rest. This BBC primer on the controversy details reports that emerged last year of actions by Corbyn before he became Labor leader that put him on the defensive.
Last month, the party announced that between April 2018 and January, it had received 673 complaints alleging anti-Semitic acts by Labor members. It said that 96 party members had been suspended and 12 were expelled. Now, party officials are fighting about how to handle such complaints. Also last month, Luciana Berger, a Jewish member of parliament, quit Labor, declaring it to be “institutionally” anti-Semitic.
A government watchdog organization has also launched an inquiry into the party’s handling of complaints of anti-Semitism, saying Labor may have discriminated against people because of their ethnicity or religious beliefs. The leader of the Labor contingent in the House of Lords told Corbyn in a letter that became public on Friday that the party’s handling of the complaints were “an embarrassing mess.”
So Labor is still wallowing in that mess, even as Brexit reaches a climax. Corbyn’s wing of the party is more skeptical of the EU than the Labor mainstream, and he has struggled to provide clear leadership on that issue, too. He tried, and failed, to force a general election, and has come grudgingly around to the idea of a second referendum.
Frustration has boiled over. Along with Berger, eight other members of Labor’s delegation have left the party, mostly because of Brexit (although concerns about anti-Semitism surfaced, there, too). More defections are likely. The defectors have joined with a handful who quit the governing Conservative Party, and seem likely to launch their own political party.
Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has been widely pilloried for mishandling Brexit. In December, she lost her first bid to get her plan through Parliament by a huge 230-vote margin. She’ll try again on Tuesday. It will be closer this time, but most observers believe she will fail again. If that happens, Parliament will then vote on whether to leave on March 29 without a deal. If they reject that, which they probably will do, they’ll vote on a delay. But that’s just a delay – not a solution.
Defeat would be a further humiliation for May, and Labor should be in perfect position to capitalize. Instead, it appears to be coming apart at the seams. In the view of the Economist, which is a fan of neither Corbyn, May nor Brexit, Labor is in even worse shape than the Conservatives. For all her problems, May still tops Corbyn in opinion polls.
There is no obvious end to Labor’s disputes over anti-Semitism. Something will happen – eventually – regarding Brexit. Through it all, British politics has been exposed as deeply flawed, and in need of fundamental change. The future, the Economist suggests, belongs to the party that’s first to ditch its unpopular leader.