Britain’s opposition Labour party has a proud history of fighting discrimination and upholding the rights of ethnic minorities. Political opponents might fairly have accused Labour of being too spendthrift, too eager to raise taxes or too suspicious of the market economy. They would not have made much headway by attacking its staunch attachment to pluralist values.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has put that record under serious threat. When Theresa May used one of her last prime ministerial appearances in the House of Commons to highlight the anti-Semitism that has gripped Mr Corbyn’s party, she was not just scoring political points. She was echoing the views of no fewer than 67 Labour peers who had just published an open letter accusing Mr Corbyn of failing properly to act against this vile strain of racism.
The letter, signed by nine former cabinet ministers, was just the latest in a series of protests. Several Labour MPs and peers have resigned from the party in disgust. The spread of anti-Semitism has been visible for some years. Yet Mr Corbyn has met each new instance of anti-Semitic behaviour with pro forma statements and desultory disciplinary proceedings. So alarming has been the trend that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has launched an inquiry into whether Labour is now institutionally racist.
Mr Corbyn should have been shamed by this. Yet in spite of his protestations that he wants to stamp out anti-Semitism, former party officials have testified that the leader’s own office has been instrumental in slowing and diluting the effort. Instead of taking these whistleblowers seriously, Mr Corbyn’s allies have sought to impugn their motives.
Tom Watson, the party’s deputy leader, has been outspoken in demanding much tougher action. So too has Margaret Hodge, one of several Jewish backbench MPs who have been subject to vile anti-Semitic abuse — most of it from the wing of the party most closely associated with Mr Corbyn’s far-left politics. The standard response of the leader’s office is that such critics are plotting against him.
There have always been those on the far left of British politics who have promoted the anti-Semitic tropes that cast Jewish financiers as the leaders of an internationalist capitalist conspiracy against the working classes. Among such groups, support for the legitimate demands of Palestinians for statehood merges into unthinking hatred of Jews. The difference now is that past Labour leaders have adopted a policy of zero tolerance, banishing such bigots to small extremist parties.
The anti-Semitism that Mr Corbyn treats as a minor blemish does not simply disfigure Labour. In an era of rising populism which has seen politicians on the far-right seek to scapegoat minorities of all colours, it feeds a dangerous upsurge in xenophobia. Mr Corbyn may have a point when he says that the Conservatives should tackle Islamophobia. But that is no excuse for the permissive approach that allows anti-Semitism to infect Labour.
It will take time to remove the stain on Labour’s reputation. It may well be too late for Mr Corbyn to recover his own credibility. But at the very least the Labour leader could seek to show that he does not share the dark prejudices of the anti-Semites. A first step would be to bar his aides and close supporters from any discussions of disciplinary cases. A second would be to listen carefully to the whistleblowers. And finally, Labour should scrap the present, internal disciplinary machinery in favour of a wholly independent process with the authority and resources to stamp out racism in the party’s ranks.