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Why antisemitism smears could stop Corbyn becoming prime minister

An important new book shows Labour is not 'institutionally racist' but the victim of an orchestrated campaign of unfounded accusations of antisemitism
Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn prepares the closing speech for the Labour Party Conference at the Brighton Centre on 24 September (Reuters)

If most predictions are correct, Britain is on the brink of a general election. A current government lacking a majority and bitter divisions over how to implement Brexit have forced this move.

That should be the moment when the opposition Labour Party takes over the reins of power, and Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister.

In normal times such an outcome would have been a foregone conclusion. After all, how difficult can it be to topple a Conservative Party with a legacy of incompetence and responsibility for the most damaging referendum of a lifetime with consequences it cannot deal with? 

A failed leadership?

But even in such favourable circumstances, a Labour victory is far from assured. Despite the government's disarray over Brexit, its failure to end the austerity that has blighted the country and led in large part to the Brexit vote, and its poor performance in most other areas, an Observer opinion poll on 6 October still gave the Conservatives a staggering 15-point lead over Labour.

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Even worse, in September a YouGov poll found an abysmally poor rating of minus 58 percent for the Labour leader, down on the 2017 figure of minus 42 percent.

Is this all due to a failed Labour leadership, and to Jeremy Corbyn in particular? Many people think so. It is why a Labour proposal that Corbyn should temporarily lead an interim caretaker government following an expected vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson has been so vigorously opposed.

That the leader of the opposition would fulfil this role should have been unarguable, but not apparently when that person is Corbyn. The Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinton, went so far as to declare him "unfit to rule the country", and other names have been put forward in his stead. 

The animus against Corbyn that started in 2015 has now become accepted as a normal part of political life. Yet, it is a phenomenon that still needs explanation. Ever since he was elected Labour leader, Corbyn has been the object of a sustained campaign of vilification.

Many of his own parliamentary MPs, especially his deputy leader, Tom Watson, have been openly hostile. In a 2016 vote of no confidence in his leadership, they voted 172 to 40 against him. 

A relentless campaign

The majority of Britain's press has likewise run a relentless campaign to de-legitimise Corbyn as a political leader since his election. The ridicule and scorn heaped on him have been unprecedented.

Opposition to his left-wing views by the liberal elite, rejection of his socialist economics by big business, and fear of his anti-nuclear weapons stance all certainly play their part in this picture.

Labour is not "institutionally racist" but the victim of an orchestrated campaign of smears and unfounded accusations of anti-semitism  

But it is doubtful we would have got here without the addition of a conspicuous campaign of allegations of antisemitism against him. This has proved a hammer blow to his reputation in an already hostile environment.

It is received wisdom today that the Labour Party and its leader are "riddled  with antisemitism". The party is accused of not having dealt adequately with its "problem". Wild allegations of racism fly around without inhibition, most strikingly when the Jewish Labour MP Margaret Hodge called Corbyn "a fucking antisemite" to his face.

To compound this, a BBC Panorama documentary in July made what many considered a propagandist case supporting these allegations. Political figures on right and left seem to have bought into this adverse assessment, and that view has spread to persuade many ordinary people as well.

And yet, as an important new book shows, this is a distortion of the facts. Labour is not "institutionally racist" but the victim of an orchestrated campaign of smears and unfounded accusations of antisemitism.  

Debunking the myth

Bad News for Labour is a must-read for those who have questioned the veracity of the case against the Labour Party. In a well-researched analysis of the evidence for Labour antisemitism, it debunks the mythology that has grown up about this topic. The work of Greg Philo, director of the Glasgow University Media Unit, is well known from his previous Bad News from Israel, a scholarly and convincing analysis of media bias in favour of Israel. 

A demonstrator takes part in protests
A demonstrator takes part in protests outside a meeting of the National Executive of Britain's Labour Party which discussed the party's definition of antisemitism on 4 September 2018 (Reuters)

This time he and his academic colleagues take up the bias against Labour and Jeremy Corbyn. Their research findings reveal a disturbing picture of falsification, exaggeration and suppression of the facts relating to Labour antisemitism.

They note that media coverage of antisemitism charges against the party and its leader consistently give a platform to the accusers, while denying it to those with dissenting views. Nowhere has this bias been clearer than in reporting on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's (IHRA) "Working Definition" of antisemitism. 

IHRA definition

The IHRA definition, which it should be stressed is merely advisory, has been rejected by several authorities as unfit for purpose. Since its acceptance by 31  European states in 2016, so far only eight, including the UK, have actually adopted it.

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But that has not stopped the media describing this low-level adoption as acceptance "by every country in the world", nor from saying the definition is "universally supported" by the international community, and even, "globally recognised".

As the book shows, media reporting on the IHRA, the prevalence of antisemitism in the Labour Party, and the allegations of racism against its leader have consistently lacked balance.

What is more disturbing, this distortion seems to have been deliberate. And it is on the basis of this flawed evidence that Corbyn stands condemned. The authors do not speculate about the causes of this anti-Corbyn bias. But we cannot overlook the role of his pro-Palestinian position in it.

So far the bogus antisemitism smear campaign described in Bad News for Labour has served Israel and its supporters well. If it goes unchallenged, it may end up ensuring that Corbyn never becomes prime minister of Britain.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Ghada Karmi
Ghada Karmi is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. She was born in Jerusalem and was forced to leave her home with her family as a result of Israel’s creation in 1948. The family moved to England in 1949, where she grew up and was educated. Karmi practised as a doctor for many years working as a specialist in the health of migrants and refugees. From 1999 to 2001 Karmi was an Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, where she led a major project on Israel-Palestinian reconciliation. In 2009, she became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.