Who should define antisemitism?

Some proponents of the IHRA definition insist that only the mainstream Jewish organisations have the right to decide what constitutes antisemitism, and refer to the Macpherson report for justification.

With such a complex and contentious issue as antisemitism, the issue of who defines it becomes a sensitive one. Since there is wide disagreement about where to draw the line, how do we reconcile the competing standpoints? Who has the authority to say what it is? This became a key issue during the controversy over antisemitism in the UK Labour Party. In the summer of 2018, under pressure on the issue, the party developed its own definition of antisemitism, which modified the IHRA definition in several ways, in particular in relation to Israel. Jewish bodies such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Labour-affiliated Jewish Labour Movement rejected this and insisted that the party adopt the original definition with all its examples without modification. In fact Mike Katz, the chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, claimed that only Jews had the right to define antisemitism. This was a right accorded by the Labour Party to all other ethnic minorities, so Jews were being prejudiced against when Labour modified the IHRA definition of antisemitism, a definition widely supported by the official British Jewish bodies.

In justification he cited the “Macpherson principle”, referring to the report of the Stephen Lawrence enquiry led by Sir William Macpherson. In doing so he was following the lead of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism who stated that in the light of the Macpherson Report “it is the Jewish community itself that is best qualified to determine what does and does not constitute antisemitism” (in their 2006 Report Into Antisemitism, page 1). So what did the Macpherson Report actually say? Most of the report relates to the details of the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the subsequent investigation, but Chapter 45 takes a wider view of how racist incidents are treated by the police. The then definition of a “racial incident” was too vague and left too much discretion to the police. The report recommended that the definition of a racist incident should be “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.”

It’s clear from the context that this related only to the way incidents are reported. The report didn’t state that someone’s perception of racism should preempt the results of an investigation, the presumption of innocence or any other legal process. It certainly didn’t claim that only ethnic minorities have the right to define prejudice against them. So where did this notion come from, if not from Macpherson? One possible source that you can point to is from within feminism. According to standpoint theory, oppressed groups such as women have a clearer perspective on the power structure of society than men. They have “epistemic privilege” by virtue of their subordinate position; they can see through the biases and prejudices of the dominant order whereas those who are invested in it are blind to those biases.

However, more recently the concept of intersectionality has complicated the picture: patterns of oppression can overlap and interact, so that for example white women can be oppressed in one context and privileged in another. Therefore any epistemic privilege can only be relative, rather than absolute; you can say that women can have a clearer picture of sexism than men, but they don’t have absolute authority to define it. The wider picture of domination and subordination has to be taken into account, what Patricia Hill Collins called the “matrix of domination”.

As I stated in my first piece on this issue, racism can be unconscious and buried in people’s way of thinking, so that the victims of prejudice are more likely to be alert to it. If members of an ethnic minority warn us that something is prejudiced against them, then we should certainly take that seriously. But to base the definition of racism purely on subjective perception leads to “conceptual and political chaos” as Professor David Feldman put it (in his sub-report to the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism’s 2016 inquiry, page 8). The fight against racism isn’t the responsibility of each ethnic minority alone; it has to be based on a coalition. The understanding of racism needs to be negotiated and shared by the coalition, and no one constituent of that coalition should be able to impose its perspective on the whole. Jews can’t have the exclusive right to define what antisemitism is, and certainly not in the context of Israel and Palestine, where Jews represent the dominant group. As Joanna Phillips points out, it’s not just Jews who are affected by how antisemitism is defined; many Palestinians have strongly objected to the IHRA definition of antisemitism. We should take their objections seriously too.

Defining antisemitism

The IHRA definition of antisemitism demands recognition of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish ethnic state. That shuts down legitimate argument about Israel’s past, present and future.


I started this series by stating my own understanding of what antisemitism is. In fact, the very question of how to define antisemitism has become a highly contested one. The controversy centres around the Working Definition of Antisemitism, a “non-legally binding” definition promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and adopted in different forms by a number of countries, including the UK, and also by the British Labour Party. The IHRA‘s definition of antisemitism itself is rather vague:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.

This definition is so lacking in content that it becomes critically dependent on the included list of examples of what it considers antisemitic attitudes, and this is where the controversy begins. It’s striking that some classic antisemitic tropes, such as that Jews are tight-fisted or dishonest, are missing from the list. What’s even more striking is that seven of the eleven examples refer to Israel in some way; here’s Example 7:

Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.

This statement begs a lot of questions. First of all it assumes that Jews globally make up one people, with its own right of self-determination, rather than an ethnic category within a number of different nations, with its own rights within those nations. This whole question has huge implications, and has been highly controversial in the past. In fact, up until the Second World War many Jewish organisations rejected Zionism on the grounds that it might compromise the rights of Jews within their nation of birth or residence. Moreover, Example 7 claims the general right of “the Jewish people” to self-determination, but the concrete example that it gives implies that self-determination means statehood, when as Peter Beinart has argued that is only one possible form that self-determination can take. Where ethnic groups are intermingled as they were and are in Israel/Palestine then the right to self-determination may have to take different forms.

Example 7 goes on to link that right of self-determination to “a State of Israel”. Does it mean the principle of a Jewish state? If so, why not say a “Jewish state”? Or does it refer to the State of Israel? If so, there’s a further logical leap from stating that the Jews have a right to their own state in principle, to saying that the State of Israel as it is constituted is legitimate and that any accusations of racism against it are antisemitic. In practice the distinction between “a” State of Israel and “the” State of Israel is liable to disappear; for example, during the conflict over antisemitism in the Labour Party, the Guardian cited Example 7 as follows: “claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour” [emphasis mine].

There are several ways in which you could characterise the state of Israel as racist, starting with the assumption by the Zionist founders that the Jews had a claim to Palestine that took precedence over that of its majority Arab inhabitants. You could point to the mass expulsions of Palestinians in 1948 and the continued exclusion of the refugees and their descendents. You could also refer to all the ways in which Israel discriminates against its Palestinian citizens and denies rights to the Palestinians in the occupied territories, all in the name of preserving the Jewish ethnic character of the Israeli state. It may not fit into the typical imperial-colonial context of racism because Israel’s history is unique, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a form of racism.

So in fact there are three contestable assumptions within Example 7: that Jews constitute one nation with its own right of self-determination, that self-determination necessarily implies statehood, and that the State of Israel is the legitimate expression of Jewish statehood. Anyone who doesn’t accept this chain of logic is condemned as an antisemite. Certainly the question of the best long-term exit from the conflict over Israel/Palestine is a difficult one, with arguments for and against two-state or one-state solutions, but such an accusation just closes down thought.

I’ve focused on Example 7 because it’s the part of the IHRA definition that has the widest political significance, but other parts of the definition can be criticised on similar grounds (see for example Stephen Sedley’s critique in the London Review of Books). The point is, the IHRA definition in general and Example 7 in particular is so ambiguously drafted that it could be used to suppress a wide range of criticism of the Israeli state’s history, law and practices, way beyond what could reasonably be considered antisemitism. Indeed one of the original drafters of the definition, Kenneth Stern, has himself expressed concern about the way that it is being exploited to suppress legitimate debate in American universities.

Antisemitism may motivate some criticism of Israel, but what we know about antisemitism is that it can be quite subtle in its manifestations; a simple checklist approach to defining antisemitism is always likely to be a blunt instrument. The IHRA definition is a very blunt instrument. It seeks to constrain criticism of Israel so that any challenge to the way that Israel is constituted is ruled out of bounds. By conflating antisemitism with legitimate arguments about Israel it actually makes it harder to think about antisemitism rather than easier.

Where to draw the line?

The failings of the Corbyn leadership over antisemitism have handed a victory to Israel’s defenders.

Although I supported the Corbyn leadership, I felt frustrated at its handling of the antisemitism controversy: too often it appeared to be chasing events rather than leading them, and opportunities to take the initiative such as the Chakrabarti Inquiry report were squandered. Jeremy Corbyn’s own conduct in the past was open to criticism, and the drip-drip of revelation undermined him. Of course Corbyn’s enemies inside the party and out have exploited the issue to damage him, but that’s because there was a weakness there to be exploited. The publication of the report into antisemitism in the Labour Party by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is the latest turn in this conflict, and one that could have far-reaching consequences. Most of the political attention has been taken by Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension and ongoing denial of the whip, but I want to take a closer look at the report itself.

The EHRC has found that the Labour Party breached the 2010 Equality Act in several ways. First of all, elected officials of the party (“agents” in the terminology of the Equality Act) have harassed the Party’s Jewish members with antisemitic conduct. The report gives prominence to the case of Ken Livingstone and the statements he made after the suspension of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West at the end of April 2016 (Livingstone was a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee at the time and so is classed as an agent of the Labour Party). What’s striking about the report is that it fails to mention the worst things that he said, such as that Hitler “was supporting Zionism – before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews” (so before the Holocaust began Hitler’s policy towards the Jews was benign?) or “a real antisemite doesn’t just hate the Jews in Israel, they hate their Jewish neighbours in Golders Green or Stoke Newington” (so hating the Jews in Israel is OK?). The Labour MP John Mann attacked him later that day as a “Nazi apologist”, which is certainly one way of interpreting his comment about Hitler and Zionism.

What the report does focus on (on pages 28-29 and 105-106) is Naz Shah’s conduct (as exposed by the right-wing blogger Paul Staines AKA Guido Fawkes), and Ken Livingstone’s defence of it. In August 2014, during that summer’s Israel-Gaza conflict (and nine months before she was elected), Shah tweeted a graphic suggesting that relocating Israel to the United States would be a solution to the Middle East conflict. In September Shah tweeted a mug shot of Martin Luther King under arrest with the caption “Never forget that everything that Hitler did in Germany was legal” and the hashtag “#APARTHEID ISRAEL”. In interviews Ken Livingstone defended these comments (although acknowledging that they were “over the top and rude”).

The report considers the antisemitic nature of Naz Shah’s comments about relocation and Hitler to be self-evident, referring to her subsequent apologies in lieu of an argument. I’m not so sure: I read the tweet about relocation as rejection of Israel’s legitimacy in the Middle East and a satirical comment on its alliance with the United States, but to call it antisemitic begs a load of questions. Her comment about Hitler was “over the top” as Ken Livingstone put it, but comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis come very quickly to mind when tempers are running high in politics, even though they can trigger painful experiences of trauma for many Jews. For me the worst thing about Shah’s tweet about relocating Israel was the reference to the “transportation costs” of such a move: that immediately brought to my mind the transportation of Europe’s Jews to the extermination camps, and Paul Staines clearly had the same thought. I also think she stepped over the mark when she tweeted that “The Jews are rallying to the poll [about Israeli and Gaza]”, implying that all Jews supported Israel’s actions. However the report doesn’t mention either of those specific statements.

Regarding the general question of antisemitism in the Labour Party, Livingstone said “there’s been a very well-orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby to smear anybody who criticises Israeli policy as antisemitic.” The EHRC offers more of a rationale here. It refers to Labour Party members who described this as a “classic antisemitic trope…Instead of taking their concerns seriously, Ken Livingstone dismissed them as acting on behalf of a foreign power” (p. 106). Now I think that Livingstone’s denial of any antisemitism in the Labour Party and dismissal of all claims of antisemitism as smears were unconvincing. However it isn’t clear to me that his use of the term “Israel lobby” here is antisemitic: there certainly are a number of bodies in the UK that campaign in support of Israel (with grassroots support within the Jewish community and beyond). Some of them have been probing the Corbyn left, including for example the Israel Advocacy Movement that revealed Jackie Walker’s comment about Jewish responsibility for the slave trade. There is a hint of a conspiracy theory in Livingstone’s use of the phrase “very well-orchestrated”; again, the report doesn’t refer to this.

Why the emphasis of the report? I think that this is because the EHRC is trying to ensure that its approach conforms with the definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Although the report states that the EHRC has based itself on the Equality Act, that in itself doesn’t provide a methodology for identifying antisemitism: the IHRA definition does. The definition gives a number of examples of antisemitism, the potentially relevant ones here being:

Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations [Example 6].

Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor [Example 7].

Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis [Example 10].

The report states that the harassment that it has identified “would meet the IHRA definition and its examples of antisemitism” (page 116). Both of the main plaintiffs in the enquiry back the IHRA definition, and one of them, the Jewish Labour Movement, recommended that the IHRA definition be adopted as the basis for disciplinary procedures and training in antisemitism in its submission to the EHRC enquiry (pages 45-46).

The other part of the EHRC’s judgement covers the way complaints of antisemitism were handled by the Labour Party. According to the report the Leader’s office interfered on a number of occasions in the disciplinary process, and at one point took over the handling of all outstanding antisemitism cases, in a clear breach of the Party’s own internal procedures. The Corbyn left’s response has been to claim that the leadership was fighting an anti-Corbyn cabal within the unit responsible for investigating complaints, accusing them of spending their time conspiring against the leadership instead of doing their jobs. Without ploughing through masses of detail, I can’t say if that’s a fair picture, but even if it is, the solution was not for the Leader’s Office to unconstitutionally take over the handling of cases of antisemitism. This seems like bureaucratic warfare rather than a democratic political response.

The EHRC also characterises the Party’s training and documentation with regard to the handling of antisemitism cases as inadequate, and criticises the inconsistent and undocumented application of sanctions (pages 80-82). The report requires (pages 13 and 74) the Labour Party to establish a clear framework for assessing complaints of antisemitism and applying sanctions consistently. It also requires (pages 14 and 75) Labour to publish data on the handling of antisemitism complaints, including the number of cases, the speed with which they are processed, and the outcomes. However, the EHRC wants this data compared with other complaints in general, but not specifically complaints of racism. There is already a perception that there is a “hierarchy of racism” within the Party, a suspicion that antisemitism is taken more seriously than other forms of racism, and it would be very dangerous if that were to grow. The point is to ensure that all complaints of racism are treated with equal seriousness, and the only way to prove that is with full transparency.

My greatest concerns about the report however relate to the independent process for handling complaints of antisemitism that the report mandates. It requires the Labour Party to “engage with Jewish stakeholders to develop…principles and practices to tackle antisemitism” (page 12). Given that the main bodies that represent British Jews are pro-Israel and back the IHRA definition, that is likely to restrict debate about Israel and the Palestinians within the party to the limits that those bodies are comfortable with, and in particular make it impossible to challenge the way that Israel is constituted. In my next posts I want to try to explain what I mean; there’s a lot to unpack here.

Thinking about the Labour Party and antisemitism

You can’t make sense of the conflict over antisemitism in the Labour Party without delving into the deeper issues.

It’s taken me a while to get round to writing about antisemitism and the Labour Party. Initially I bristled with suspicion about the motives of those who attacked the Corbyn leadership for being antisemitic: the antisemitism conflict has divided the party fairly clearly between right and left (unlike Brexit), and the issues of principle seemed to be getting lost in the factional struggle. Moreover, the issue has become (inextricably?) entangled with the question of Israel and the Palestinians, a subject that is highly emotionally charged, deeply polarised and very complex. What if I made a mistake? What if I lost my temper and wrote something that I would regret? Since then I’ve been reading and thinking, and I realise that the subject raises deep and important questions about a host of issues that are well worth the risk of exploring.

Even the definition of antisemitism is contested, so it seems best to begin with what I understand antisemitism to be at this point. I see it from a social-psychological point of view: as in all forms of racism I think that there’s a underlying antisemitic fantasy (sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit). This fantasy sees the Jews as a single powerful global force, a massive conspiracy, that uses its money and hidden channels of influence to manipulate the world to its advantage. In this worldview the Jews are cunning and arrogant and enjoy special privileges. This fantasy is charged with a sense of inferiority and resentment as well as hate; this is what gives antisemitism its emotional power.

Antisemitic beliefs can find expression in the form of cliches or “tropes”. For example, when U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted that support for Israel in Congress was due to spending by pro-Israel lobbyists (“It’s all about the Benjamins baby” – a line from a Puff Daddy song referring to the picture of Benjamin Franklin on the $100 note) I think she was evoking the antisemitic trope that Jews use their money to corrupt politicians (Omar did apologise subsequently, referring to her ongoing education in the “painful history of anti-Semitic tropes”). Another less explicit example comes from Hungary. There the ruling Fidesz party have used posters showing George Soros, a Jewish financier, at the centre of the leaders of the opposition. The image isn’t explicitly antisemitic, but the history of antisemitism in Hungary is long enough for most Hungarians to get the hint: the Jew Soros is pulling the strings behind the scenes. It’s like a “dog whistle” that’s only audible if your hearing is sensitive enough.

I’ve deliberately chosen examples from both the left and the right to make the point that antisemitic tropes are culturally pervasive: the left can’t assume because of its opposition to racism that it is immune to antisemitism. Because antisemitism (like other forms of racism) can be quite unconscious and buried in people’s way of thinking, people can be convinced that they’re not antisemitic even though their thinking betrays antisemitic tropes; reason alone to proceed with caution. The conflicts around Israel and Palestine add another whole layer of difficulty.

It doesn’t seem profitable to me to spend much time on the ding-dong of accusations and counter-accusations around antisemitism in the Labour Party at a local level, and at headquarters: there is a mass of detail that I can’t hope to form an independent judgement about, and the only thing that’s clear to me is that there has been a bitter internal conflict between the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and his opponents. What I feel I can do is look at the bigger issues, touching on a few prominent cases for which (much of) the evidence is public, and drawing some conclusions. That’s what I intend to do in future posts.

Labour’s defeat: the bigger picture

Labour’s defeat in December forms part of a larger crisis of social democratic parties in the West.

A recent review by Labour Together of the Labour Party’s major defeat in December 2019 acknowledges that, whatever the specific failings of the campaign or the leadership at the time, there were a number of longer-term processes at work, as I indicated in an earlier post. Labour’s vote had been declining over the last twenty years in many of the seats that it lost (Labour Together review pages 34-36). Many working-class voters had felt alienated from politics as the two main parties were increasingly seen as “the same” (pages 45-46). Cultural issues such as immigration and the European Union are overtaking traditional class loyalties (pages 48-51). There has been a decline in party loyalty and a rise in vote-switching among the electorate (pages 41-43; David Runciman made a similar point in a recent episode of the Talking Politics webcast – his comments are at 18:30).

Whatever the British-specific elements, the defeat needs to be seen as part of a bigger picture of the decline of social democratic parties, both in Europe and the United States. The report cites a study by Giacomo Benedetto et al, that looked at the electoral fortunes of European social democratic parties over the last hundred years, and linked their recent decline to the processes of deindustrialisation and deunionisation that have been at work since the 1980s. The trade union (and co-operative) movement used to bind a large section of the working class to the social democratic parties through a sense of collective interest, and as those bonds have weakened working class voters have been drawn away to the populist right or more radical left. Most notoriously, Greece’s centre-left PASOK shrank to a shadow of its former dominant self, as its voters deserted it: “pasokification” is a threat haunting most of Europe’s centre-left parties.

Those parties have reacted to that threat in different ways. The Netherland’s PvdA has stayed the course on the centre-left, and suffered electoral reverses (and successes). Germany’s SPD has recently elected a left-wing leadership after concern grew in the ranks about the damaging effect of the SPD’s participation in Angela Merkel’s centre-right government. France’s Parti Socialiste under Benoît Hamon shifted to the left but couldn’t reverse the slide in the party’s popularity. The Danish Social Democrats have rejected neoliberal economic policies but have also moved sharply to the right on immigration policy; they emerged as the largest party at the last election but formed a coalition with other more socially liberal parties. All of these parties are contending with the break-up of their old power bases; none of them have come up with a magic solution.

Coming back to the British situation, these trends create massive challenges for Labour in recreating a winning electoral alliance. It seems that a majority of British voters remain broadly left-wing on economic issues (Labour Together report page 51), so that Labour’s call for economic justice should have a broad appeal. However, Boris Johnson was successful in blunting the impact of that advantage by making his own promises to abandon austerity. Moreover two key blocks of voters that Labour needs to win, younger voters in the big cities, and the older working class, are facing different ways on cultural issues (the Conservatives’ electoral base is more homogenous). Keir Starmer seemed to be reaching out to socially conservative working class voters with his recent positive comments about patriotism, but he attracted a lot of criticism for his attack on the Black Lives Matter movement, and he has had to row back. Younger, urban, multi-ethnic voters are more socially liberal, and Labour cannot assume that they will remain loyal if it leans too far in the other direction: if there ever was such a thing as “electoral capture” (see my previous post), there certainly isn’t now. Without these voters, victory will remain out of Labour’s grasp. How can Labour square that circle? I hope to explore possible ways forward in future posts.

There’s one crucial difference between Labour’s situation and other European social democratic parties: the U.K.’s first-past-the-post, two-party system. In a proportional representation system, centre parties are vulnerable to being outflanked from the political edges. In a two-party system smaller parties are squeezed; conflicts between the political centre and the edges tend to be fought out within the two main parties, as the recent history of both the U.K. and the U.S.A. has shown. That means that Labour is less likely to suffer the political near-death of pasokification, but in this economically and politically unstable era, one can predict more internal conflicts for the party ahead.

Labour’s defeat: a long time coming

Labour’s defeat was the result of processes that have been at work for twenty years or more.

The Labour Party has always been based on an electoral alliance of the working class and the progressive middle class. In December this alliance (partially) broke down. The referendum result had already exposed the deep divisions in British society: between those with higher education and those without, between north and south, between the big multi-ethnic cities and the smaller ex-industrial towns and villages, and between young and old. The Tories spotted their chance: by stealing some of Labour’s clothes, especially with Boris Johnson’s promises of state support for troubled employers and investment in the neglected regions, they cracked open Labour’s electoral alliance and forged a new one of their own.

I would argue that, although there were conjunctural factors (above all Brexit), this was also the culmination of a long-term process. What has come back from many canvassers is a sense that a lot of working class voters felt betrayed by the Labour Party, that it no longer represented them (see for example Tariq Ali’s article in the London Review of Books of 23rd January [paywall]). I think that this has been building for some time. Some of it is down to the neoliberal political consensus that reigned from the mid-nineties really through to 2015: that the free market had to be left to operate without state interference, and that there was no alternative to this (TINA, “There Is No Alternative”, was Norman St John Stevas’ nickname for Margaret Thatcher). The massive deindustrialisation of the eighties and nineties (crucially for the labour movement the elimination of the coal industry) left many workers feeling powerless. As Jos Gallacher put it, When Tony Blair told us that ‘globalisation’ was as inevitable as the turn of the seasons, he was defining the costs of economic change as outside the scope of political action. A whole layer of Labour voters was lost after 1997, who felt excluded from the political system and didn’t find a way of expressing their protest until the opportunity of the EU referendum in 2016.

This was compounded by the New Labour concept of “electoral capture”, advocated by Phillip Gould in particular; according to this, the working class had nowhere else to go electorally, and so Labour could focus on producing micro-policies that could attract middle-class floating voters. Organisationally that meant that the historically Labour seats in the Midlands and North were treated as a resource to be exploited; time and again, incumbent MPs sitting on large majorities would be offered a peerage just before an election, and the emergency candidate selection procedure used to parachute in one of New Labour’s favourites. It may be a myth that, when visiting a chippie in his Hartlepool constituency, Peter Mandelson mistook the mushy peas on offer for guacamole, but it indicates a certain perception of the way that the Labour Party was evolving.

From the beginning of the millenium, living standards began to stagnate for the great majority of the population. Labour’s vote was already slumping badly in the 2005 election, but the key moment in the 2010 campaign was when Gordon Brown was confronted by 65-year-old Gillian Duffy in Rochdale. She wasn’t very articulate, but she was trying to complain about unfairness in the benefit system and about EU immigration; disastrously, Brown’s mic was still on in the car as he was being driven away and recorded him complaining about that…bigotted woman (for the transcript see here). It encapsulated the image of Labour as representing the liberal elite; years afterwards a colleague of mine from a working-class background still felt resentment about that incident.

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party in 2015 promised a change of direction, and an opportunity for Labour to break with neoliberalism and offer a real alternative. However, as David Runciman and Helen Thompson pointed out in the Talking Politics podcast (Episode 204, at 0:29:40) his leadership team was still concentrated in London, and a large part of his base in the party was made up of the kind of urban, university-educated, downwardly-mobile millenials who have also been losing out since the beginning of the millenium. Sociologically the gap between the party membership and most of its voters was as wide as ever. Crucially the membership was significantly more pro-EU, and never really engaged with the concerns of pro-Leave voters.

Bridging these divides would be no easy task for any leader, and it will be interesting to see if Boris Johnson can hold together his new electoral alliance. However we should remember that this situation isn’t unique to Britain. In a future post I want to look at the Labour Party’s problems in the context of the wider crisis of social democracy.

Making sense of the election results

Let’s be clear: this was the Brexit Election.

On the morning after the UK 2019 election there were plenty of voices in the Labour Party that were clear about why we lost: “It was Corbyn’s fault” or “It was Corbyn’s fault” or “it was Corbyn plus Momentum”. Jeremy Corbyn had called for a period of reflection after the result, but Andrew Adonis reckoned that period of reflection should last about ten minutes. Maybe it’s worth a bit more.

It does seem necessary to state the obvious: that this was The Brexit Election. Of the 54 seats that the Conservatives gained from Labour, 52 of them were in areas that voted leave in 2016; the Tories only gained two seats that voted remain from Labour, both by small margins, and in both of those seats the Green party vote was larger than the Conservative majority. According to Professor John Curtice (on the More Or Less podcast, at 0:14:50 onwards), about one in ten Labour voters switched to the Conservatives, mainly in Leave-voting seats in the North and Midlands, and this was the deciding factor. We will have to wait until the British Election Study for more in-depth data as to what voters were thinking when they cast their vote, but we do have Lord Ashcroft’s polling data from election day itself. His polling shows that the number one issue for Conservative voters was Brexit, number two was the economy and the choice of prime minister was only number three.

Given the importance of Brexit to the voters, there was no way that Labour was going to be able to somehow pull the election away from Brexit onto territory that it felt more comfortable with. The party’s divisions on Brexit were plain for all to see, and the attempt to face both ways on the issue failed. From the data so far, it seems clear that we were perceived as a Remain party. The “Labour Brexit deal” never seemed a credible option: who was going to actually negotiate such a deal was never clear, and Corbyn himself was intending to take a neutral position during the subsequent second referendum campaign. We actually saw off the threat from the Lib Dems, and they never realised the breakthrough that the European elections had promised in May (my hunch is that it was our support for a second referendum that pushed Jo Swinson into calling for outright revocation of Article 50, as a way of distinguishing the Lib Dems from Labour). Of course, this perception cost us dear in the Leave-voting seats.

Let’s think about the hypotheticals. What if we had committed clearly to fighting for Remain? Well, it’s possible that with a much less radical leader and a much less radical manifesto we might have picked up some Remain-voting Conservative seats, but nothing like enough to make up for the rout in the North and Midlands. And we would have burned our bridges with those Leave voters.

What if we had stuck with the policy of respecting the result of the referendum? It would have opened up more space for the Lib Dems in Remain seats, but would have neutralised the Brexit issue in the Leave seats, as it did in 2017, and allowed us to focus the campaign on anti-austerity. However, to really deny the right-wing populists their “People versus Parliament” election, we would have to have avoided the repeated delays to Brexit. Exploiting the constitutionally dodgy Fixed-term Parliaments Act may have entertained people like us but to others it showed a political class disconnected from the concerns of the voters. If the Labour leadership had helped to push through Theresa May’s deal then that would have been the least bad outcome: a second referendum was never likely to happen, either before the election or after. With May’s deal the UK would have been committed as a whole to the Level Playing-Field, with its protection of employment rights and the environment, until or unless a trade deal was signed at some point in the future. As it stands Johnson is now free to make whatever deal he wants or to leave with no deal in December.

It’s certainly the case that Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity played a rôle in the defeat, but for all the baggage he was carrying from his past, or the antisemitism issue, or his response to the Salisbury attack, the biggest single cause of Corbyn’s unpopularity was his perceived weakness on Brexit. He had previously seen the strategy of respecting the result of the referendum as crucial, crucial enough to sack Owen Smith when Smith called for a second referendum, so I think he should have resigned when he lost the argument over the issue. By hanging on he produced a terrible outcome for the future of the party, especially for the Campaign Group/Momentum left, which now has the albatross of a defeat round its neck caused by a policy that wasn’t even its own.

In this post I’ve concentrated on the short-term, tactical issues. To be fair there are some deeper dilemmas at play here that actually made the decisions very hard, and I’ll look at these longer-term issues in another post.