The British Labour Party harbours antisemites, leading to what the Chakrabarti Report in June 2016 called an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. Furthermore this is a longstanding and somewhat intractable feature of the party, continuing despite the recommendations of the report 2 years ago, despite Corbyn meeting with the Jewish Leadership Council and Board of Deputies in April, which they described as a missed opportunity, and despite the fact that is has caused problems in recent local elections in areas with a large Jewish population. On the day of the royal wedding, the Labour Party chose as one of its three new peers Martha Osamor, who had signed a letter two years ago defending those accused of anti-Semitism.
This aspect of the LP should not surprise us. It is a party belonging to the capitalist class, and antisemitism is deeply embedded in capitalism (see https://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201605/13931/labour-left-and-j...). And, as we showed two years ago, “It is well known that Corbyn has developed links with Hamas and Hizbollah, and his allies in the Trotskyist movement, after years of supporting Arafat or other factions of the PLO, have raised slogans like ‘we are all Hizbollah’ at demonstrations against Israeli incursions into Lebanon. It is here that anti-Zionism indeed becomes indistinguishable from antisemitism. … Hamas has referred to the Protocols in its programme to prove that there is a world Zionist conspiracy. Hezbollah’s leaders have talked of ‘throwing the Jews into the sea’. Corbyn and the Trotskyists may disapprove of these excesses, but the essence of national liberation ideology is that you make a common front with the enemies of your enemy. In this way, the left becomes a vehicle not only of a more shamefaced antisemitism, but of its most open manifestations.”
The existence of antisemitism is, however, not sufficient to account for the campaign about it. Whether the media make a scandal of something, or whether it is hushed up, often depends on the divisions in the ruling class and the need to put pressure on a politician or a government. So while Kennedy’s affairs were always hushed up, Clinton’s with Monica Lewinsky was publicised and led to impeachment proceedings which we analysed at the time as due to divisions over imperialist policy in the Far East, and whether to play the China or the Japan card. As leader of the opposition Corbyn has faced fairly sustained pressure, including campaigns about the antisemitism in the party two years ago and again today, a vote of no confidence by the Parliamentary Labour Party and a new leadership election after the referendum. To understand why all this is happening, we need to see what role the Labour Party plays for British capital.
What does the Labour Party do for capitalism?
Often called a ‘broad church’, the Labour Party has different wings that play a greater or lesser part in the various functions it fulfils for the state. Often they loathe each other, but somehow the Labour Party is hanging together much better than the Socialist Parties in France or Spain that have lost much of their influence to the more left wing France Insoumise and Podemos. Ever since the Party and the trade unions were definitively integrated into the state during World War One, Labour’s first responsibility has been to provide a safe means for the working class to express discontent within capitalism, and to monitor that discontent through the unions. This is its unique task, and it is carried out at all times, not just during periods of heightened class struggle as in the period between 1968 and 1989, but also in periods with low levels of class struggle as today, and even in periods in which the class has been defeated as in the 1930s and 1940s. Jeremy Corbyn is clearly on this wing of the Party, a politician who has often been seen on picket lines and demonstrations, and like others on the left of the party has often expressed views that are not wanted in government. For instance his views on unilateral nuclear disarmament, which he has conveniently dropped following a vote by the Party.
The other main role played by the Labour Party from the first half of the 20th century is as a credible party of government, either to ensure the main parties alternate in government to give credence to democracy, or in exceptional circumstances in coalition, as in World War Two. When the ruling class is in control of its political apparatus this works very well for it. In the 1980s the UK, like much of western Europe with the notable exception of France, put the right wing parties in power to impose austerity and privatisation, and the left in opposition to control the wave of class struggle going on at the time. The left wing Michael Foot became leader of the Labour Party and however unpopular Margaret Thatcher’s government became, she kept winning elections. When the Labour Party was no longer needed in opposition a different sort of leader, Tony Blair, was elected.
Brexit, populism and the bourgeoisie’s political difficulties
Two surprises have resulted in Corbyn finding himself as Labour leader and prime minister-in-waiting, both of which highlight the bourgeoisie’s political difficulties. First, and most disastrously for British capital, the Tory Party felt the need to offer a referendum on EU membership in its manifesto for the 2015 election, both because of the divisions on this issue within the party and because of pressure from UKIP. The narrow vote in favour of Brexit was unexpected, and has thrown the bourgeoisie (Tories and Labour) into confusion because of the deep divisions on the issue and the fact that there was no agreed policy on what Brexit would mean.
While the UK bourgeoisie has always had Eurosceptics in both major parties, it has been able to cope with this difference until faced with the current wave of populism. This development of populism, the anti-elitist anger that has led to the election of Trump in the USA and the growth of the Front National in France, expresses the decomposition of capitalism and not any struggle against it. It is therefore a hindrance for the development of working class struggle as well as causing problems for the ruling class.
Similarly, the LP had its leadership election after its defeat in 2015. Corbyn was not expected to win, but was put on the ballot paper so that left wing views would also be represented in the campaign. However, he proved attractive to many Labour Party members and many new members who joined in order to vote for him, swelling the ranks of the party. Nevertheless, he was considered unelectable and it was expected that if he lasted until the next election, Labour would lose disastrously and he would be gone. However, he was a good lightning rod for discontent and anger, particularly among the young, and the Labour Party did much better in the 2017 election than expected. The result was that the PLP, which had only recently voted no confidence in him, was partially reconciled to put up with his leadership for the time being. The new media campaign on antisemitism shows this is no longer the case.
On the one hand, as the Economist, 19.5.18, put it, “the prospect of a far-left government led by Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell is not the joke it might have seemed 18 months ago. Labour deprived the Conservatives of their majority in a general election last year. Polls now have the opposition snapping at the heels of the flailing Tories, who are hopelessly bogged down in Brexit negotiations.”
On the other hand, Corbyn has been expressing views that are generally acceptable only in a back bencher, not a leader of the opposition, let alone a prime minister-in-waiting. First of all his expression of doubts about Russia’s responsibility for the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, and secondly his lack of support for the missile attack on Syria following a gas attack on civilians. This has reminded the main factions of the ruling class just why they do not trust him as a potential PM: “he has voted against every military action proposed by the UK government during his 35 years in Parliament. He is also firmly opposed to air strikes in Syria in response to chemical attacks, arguing that it will escalate tensions…” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-43737547).
It is precisely this issue that makes the campaign about antisemitism perfect as a means to pressurise Corbyn. It hits him on his links with Hamas and Hizbollah, and with his Trotskyist supporters, and is intended to weaken this wing of the Labour Party and to induce the leader to distance himself from it. It is also something that a party that claims to oppose all forms of racism cannot openly tolerate.
The Labour Party is from top to bottom and from left to right a party of capitalism. It is always ready to take the reins of government, impose austerity and pursue Britain’s imperialist policy. There is nothing to be gained from supporting one wing against the other. Alex, 19.5.18