(Bloomberg Opinion) — A lot of things about Britain today are what psychologists might describe as complex. Brexit? Don’t get me started. The social care crisis? A mess. Addressing the climate emergency and homelessness? Neither is straightforward.
Labour’s anti-Semitism problem doesn’t belong in this category. No venerable commission of experts is required to deliberate at length and produce an authoritative report on what to do. You don’t have to balance weighty arguments on both sides. This should be easy: Zero tolerance; one strike and you’re out.
And yet for reasons on which we can only speculate, it hasn’t been simple for Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader’s failure to get a grip on anti-Semitism prompted an extraordinary intervention this week from Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who normally stays removed from politics. Corbyn has tried to dismiss the complaints and change the subject to the National Health Service, but his record is impossible to ignore. It now threatens to contribute to a “Never Corbyn” vote that takes the Dec. 12 election away from the battleground of inequality where Labour would prefer to be fighting — something that might ease Boris Johnson’s path to Downing Street.
It is striking that Her Majesty’s Opposition is being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission over anti-Semitism. Nine Labour MPs have quit in protest over Corbyn’s leadership on Brexit and anti-Semitism. The Jewish Labour Movement says there are more than 100 outstanding cases of anti-Semitism the party hasn’t investigated, a figure Corbyn disputes.
Corbyn himself has shown a disregard for the message his own actions convey. His scorn for Western imperialism, his criticism of the Israeli state and the the sea of Palestinian flags at Labour Party conferences all create an impression of bias he does little to dispel. Nearly half of Jews say they would “seriously consider” emigrating if Corbyn were elected, according to a poll by Survation commissioned by the Jewish Leadership Council, while 87% believe he’s an anti-Semite.
A BBC investigation in July featured former party officials who claimed that senior Labour figures interfered with a supposedly independent disputes office on the issue. Each time the problem bubbles over, Corbyn has the same response: All racism is evil and wrong and his party won’t tolerate it. But it has.
Whether or not Jeremy Corbyn himself holds anti-Semitic views is now beside the point. All of this has happened on his watch. Either Corbyn is unable to deal with the problem, which suggests he lacks the leadership skills to do so, or he doesn’t regard it as the grave problem that nearly everyone else does. Either way his position is untenable.
In a remarkably tin-eared televised interview with Andrew Neil this week, Corbyn refused to apologize for anti-Semitism within the party and claimed he’s doing everything possible to tackle it. Such claims, wrote the Chief Rabbi, are a “mendacious fiction.”
Mervis couldn’t have been blunter when he said the “very soul of our nation is at stake.” He wasn’t out on a limb here either. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Hindu Council of Britain all released statements of support. It may now be incumbent on members of a minority group, or any voter who cares about minority rights, to shun Labour at the polls — although it must be said that Johnson’s Conservatives have had their own troubles with charges of Islamophobia. The Tory leader, who has compared burqa-wearing women to bank robbers and letterboxes, apologized on behalf of this party on Wednesday.
It’s impossible to say how the anti-Semitism row will affect an election that’s primarily about Brexit and public services. Jews make up about half a percent of the U.K. population and, of course, don’t vote as a block. A closely watched YouGov poll released Wednesday night, using methodology (known as MRP) that was remarkably accurate in 2017, predicted a Tory majority of 359 to 211 seats for Labour, a substantial gain for Johnson.
The YouGov projections have the Conservatives comfortably holding heavily Jewish Finchley and Golders Green in London, but puts the Labour vote more than eight points higher than another recent poll in that constituency and so may be overestimating the Jewish support for Corbyn’s party. In another area with a significant Jewish community, Chipping Barnet, the YouGov poll has Labour and the Tories even, but data scientist Abigail Lebrecht suspects the Labour vote may be overstated there too.
QuicktakeCan an “MRP Poll” predict the election?
There’s also some evidence from focus groups by Tory tycoon and pollster Michael Ashcroft in leave-voting areas that the anti-Semitism charges may be hurting. People might not cast their votes on Dec. 12 on the issue alone, but it has an impact on how voters view Corbyn and the Labour brand.
Corbyn has been a pivotal figure in modern British history without ever being in government. Had another leader been at the helm of the Labour Party over the past four years, Leave might not have won the Brexit referendum in 2016 (remember Corbyn was largely AWOL during the Remain campaign he supposedly supported). If not for his unpopular leadership and radicalism, Labour would probably be mounting a serious challenge to form a majority government after nine years of Tory rule.
Britain certainly wouldn’t be embroiled in a discussion of anti-Semitism. Corbyn has put the word on the radar. “A year ago people didn’t know what anti-Semitism was,” says James Johnson, who conducted hundreds of focus groups for former prime minister Theresa May. “If you brought it up people were unsure. They thought it had something to do with Jewish people and racism but weren’t clear what it means. Now people know what it means. They know Corbyn is associated with it.”
Corbyn’s indulgence of anti-Semitism has at least heightened public awareness. What impact it has on the vote two weeks from now is hard to separate from Brexit and other issues. But it’s certainly damaged the Labour brand and raises serious questions about how long Corbyn’s leadership can last.
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Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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