Every time the Labour right have confronted Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in open combat they’ve been defeated, usually humiliatingly. But they’ve just been allowed to score a major victory by forcing the resignation of Ken Livingstone from the Labour Party.
Livingstone is one of the historic figures of the Labour left, who exercised real power through his dominance in London politics for a generation. His leadership of the Greater London Council in opposition to Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s led her to abolish the institution itself.
Livingstone won the election to the new post of London mayor in 2000 in opposition to Tony Blair. Even though he later made his peace with Labour, he used the mayor’s office to support the anti-racist and anti-war left at the height of the “war on terror”.
But now Livingstone has been laid low by an unscrupulous campaign to brand the Labour left as antisemitic. The remarks that led to Corbyn ordering disciplinary action against him were poorly phrased, probably an ill-judged effort at provocation.
The terrain on which to criticise Israel is not the fact that Zionist and Nazi organisations undoubtedly did cooperate during the 1930s to promote German Jewish emigration to Palestine. It is the continuing dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians.
But Livingstone is no antisemite. He has a much better record of fighting racism and fascism than the pack that dragged him down. The great irony is that he was forced out of the Labour Party under Corbyn, his old ally in many fights waged by the Labour left against Thatcher and Blair.
Corbyn has said that Livingstone’s resignation was “the right thing to do”. Probably many of his supporters agree, not because they believe Livingstone was guilty of antisemitism, but because they think the move was tactically necessary. Corbyn has been under pressure from some Jewish organisations. And his shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti, herself an old ally of Livingstone’s, hinted that she would resign if the ex-mayor was not expelled.
But, as I’ve said before, boxing clever isn’t really that clever. The Labour right and their allies in the Tory media have found in the charge of “left antisemitism” a perfect device for forcing Corbyn onto the back foot.
He’s proved a hard person to attack. The general election a year ago showed that the package of economic reforms he and John McDonnell have devised is popular. And Corbyn’s mild, rather Zen personality and his unassuming lifestyle have made him the perfect anti-politician’s politician.
The right believe they have discovered a chink in his armour in his support for the Palestinians. For the Israeli government and its supporters the rise of someone with Corbyn’s views is a political disaster. So of course they are targeting him. But the charge that he is soft on antisemitism comes from a much wider constituency on the right.
Never mind that this is nonsense, as Corbyn’s record of consistently opposing the real, organised antisemites in Britain, the Nazis, shows. The accusation allows the Labour right and the Tories to cast doubt on his principled anti-racism. Moreover, the campaign has delivered real successes. Labour lost several heavily Jewish wards in the local elections in the north London borough of Barnet a few weeks ago. And now the right have been given Livingstone’s head on a plate.
Anyone who thinks they will stop there is kidding themselves. They will keep up the pressure and demand more heads. And in all probability the Corbyn leadership will offer more up in the vain hope of appeasing the right.
It isn’t just that this strategy will simply feed the right’s appetite and encourage them even to go directly for Corbyn himself. It’s that this retreat comes at a dangerous moment for Labour, as the Tories’ lead in the opinion polls increases.
Corbyn led Labour forward a year ago, not by hiding his principles, but by openly defending them. He should do the same now. He should explain publicly why he supports the Palestinians against Israel’s cruel policies. And he should turn on his accusers and demand that they justify their support for these policies.