As I’ve said before, it’s a grim measure of the state of anti-Jewish racism within the Labour Party that events which would ordinarily win front pages and end careers currently secure footnote or even mere Twitter anecdote status.
Take the last few days alone. Following the suspension of Chris Williamson, the MP who claimed the Party had been “too apologetic” for anti-semitism, a Marxist sect is circulating a motion to Constituency Labour Parties which further seeks to downplay the seriousness of the issue. Among others, Diane Abbott’s CLP recently passed a version of that motion, a decision that the Shadow Home Secretary has not even mentioned publicly, still less criticised. On Saturday night, Abbott and John McDonnell both attend a rally at which Ken Loach attacked complaints about anti-semitism as “smears”, but neither intervened to dispute the claim. On Sunday, the Observer published allegations that senior Labour officials and Corbyn advisers had personally intervened in disciplinary processes to limit action against members accused of antisemitism. On and on the horrorshow rolls, on an apparently never-ending national tour.
Two articles from the left make compelling if depressing reading on this topic. Yesterday, Jade Frances Azim wrote for the FT about the degree to which a “conspiracist left” has become embedded among the Labour grassroots – as evidenced by the fact the audience at Sheffield Momentum applauded the remarks which Williamson has now been suspended for. The implication of Azim’s argument is that this is a deeply-rooted problem which will be difficult to expunge – but John Harris in The Guardian suggests that such an effort is yet to really begin, given that there is still no interest in answering the question “Why do people with antisemitic views think today’s Labour party is the right place for them?”
It doesn’t say much for the state of things that the great hope for a fightback against anti-semitism in a would-be party of government is…tiny drumroll…Tom Watson.
Andrew Gimson wrote in 2015 of Watson’s under-appreciated importance as the then-newly elected deputy leader of the Labour Party. Armed with thick skin, intellectual heft and campaigning energy, Watson was a rare non-Corbynite in a position of influence at that stage. Unfortunately, he has chosen to sit on his hands until now, three and a half years later.
Better late than never, of course, but decency might perhaps have hoped for a better champion. While Watson won many fans on the left for prosecuting – and surviving – his war against Rupert Murdoch, his heritage on the (relative) right of the Labour Party makes him easy for Corbynites to dismiss, on autopilot, as a “Blairite”. (Forget all those bitter Brown v Blair conflicts, if you were involved on either side then you’re a Blairite in Corbynite terms, because you were in government rather than fulminating on the backbenches.)
Watson is also not quite the ultimate campaigner he is sometimes made out to be. Yes, he can be tenacious and persuasive, but he can also fall victim to wild overconfidence. The mess he got himself into with ill-advised interventions in the case of Leon Brittan, to whose widow he ended up having to apologise, ought to be a cautionary memory, but Watson-watchers could be forgiven for wondering whether he has really pondered his errors all that deeply. Similarly, his judgement in developing a close alliance with – and accepting massive donations from – Max Mosley should call into question whether he is really the person in whom to invest all hope of driving anti-semitism out of the Labour Party.
This in itself points to the woeful state of play among the Opposition’s remaining non-Corbynites. Watson is late to the fight and severely flawed, but he might be the only truly big beast willing to take on the leadership and its noxious allies over a serious crisis. That is perhaps the most damning realisation of all.