Something remarkable is happening in the Labour Party. The right is trying to seize the mantle of anti-racism.
In the lead is Chuka Umunna. First he complained that Blairite MPs like Joan Ryan “are being targeted for demanding we have a zero tolerance of racism in our party”.
He followed this up by telling Sky News on Sunday that Labour now fitted “the definition of institutional racism as outlined by Sir William Macpherson” in his 1999 report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
What this is about, of course, is the attempt to brand Jeremy Corbyn as antisemitic. Ryan, for example, is chair of the Labour Friends of Israel. But what is interesting is that Umunna is now subsuming this charge in the more general language of anti-racism.
This is really topsy-turvy. With a few honourable exceptions—Roy Jenkins, Peter Hain and David Lammy, for example—the Labour right has never shown much interest in anti-racism. This is hardly surprising, given the extent to which the right has identified with the interests of British capitalism and the imperialist state.
It’s true that the Tories denounce Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for permitting massive immigration from the new European Union member states in Eastern and Central Europe during the 2000s. But New Labour allowed this to happen (though they didn’t expect so many East Europeans to migrate), not out of internationalist principle, but to supply British capitalism with cheap labour.
The anti-racist tradition in Britain was forged in bitter struggles between the 1960s and the 1990s. They were waged by black people and by the radical left, whether in the Labour Party or in independent revolutionary socialist organisations.
When the Macpherson inquiry embraced the concept of institutional racism it was drawing on ideas developed by far left critiques of the racist British state. But now the Labour right is trying to use this tradition against one of its prime representatives—Jeremy Corbyn.
The logic is brought out by the joint front page of three establishment Jewish papers back in July accusing Labour of distinguishing “between racial antisemitism targeting Jews (unacceptable) and political antisemitism targeting Israel (acceptable).”
“Political antisemitism” is a clever formula that suggests you can be antisemitic without actually having prejudices against Jewish people. It implies that being Jewish is so bound up with Israel that criticising Israel is necessarily antisemitic and therefore a form of racism.
Umunna is just making the conclusion explicit, and seeking to force Corbyn and his supporters onto the defensive.
How does one deal with this? Two things are crucial. The first is robustly and clearly to reject the equation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Corbyn understands this—hence his attempt to persuade Labour’s national executive committee explicitly to say that it’s not antisemitic to condemn Israel’s racism. It’s utterly shameful that his so-called supporters on the executive didn’t back him up.
Secondly, we need to fight racism. There is a huge and growing threat of racism throughout Europe that embraces both Islamophobia and antisemitism. The poster produced by the Alternative for Germany (AfD) celebrating “Islam-free schools”, an echo of the Nazi aim of creating a “Jew-free” society, perfectly illustrates this.
This threat comes from the extreme right. But Blairites such as Umunna aren’t interested. All they care about is crushing Corbyn, defending Israel, and stopping Brexit.
But this isn’t true of most people. The racist right’s advance is frightening—witness the gains made by the Sweden Democrats in Sunday’s parliamentary elections.
The main task of the left today is to build a mass movement against the right. In doing so they can reaffirm their claim to be the real anti-racists and expose the sheer effrontery of Umunna and his cronies.
This will require a shift on the part of many on the Labour left, who have been slow to recognise the importance of anti?racist campaigning. Diane Abbott and John McDonnell have shown the way.
Let’s hope the rest will now follow.