The Labour right: smearing Corbyn, not fighting racism

The Labour right is trying to smear Jeremy Corbyn as an associate of anti-Semites – when they should be looking at their own lousy record on racism and war, writes Nathan Akehurst.

Photo:  Davide Simonetti, flickr
Photo: Davide Simonetti, flickr

Perhaps the most comprehensive attack piece on Labour-left candidate Jeremy Corbyn so far has come from Left Foot Forward‘s Alan Johnson. He argues, essentially, that Corbyn shills for anti-Semites. Ollie Hill at Left Futures has penned an excellent rebuttal of Johnson’s substantive claims. But I do not believe this is genuinely a debate about Israel/Palestine and competing visions of the pursuit of Middle East peace. It is tawdry politicking that smacks of spin and whataboutery at best, and dog whistle politics at worst.

Jeremy Corbyn is a difficult dog to attack. Throw the charges of unelectability and left-wing extremism at him and he will simply draw strength from them. The only reason he could win is that he is not trying to “win.” That is to say, he does not walk the sterile world of spin and focus groups in the pursuit of a narrowly-defined “electability.” Such an approach demonstrably damaged Ed Miliband, whose personable and even witty character and good people skills were buried beneath the weight of his operation’s absurd dullardry.

When faced with such a character, the machine of Labour’s right resorts to sidestepping an ideological debate (which would mean actually forming a considered opinion on something) and reaches for the smear bucket. Ken Livingstone and Christine Shawcroft stand as examples of victims of such chicanery.

Whatever Alan Johnson’s motives, most of those sharing his “open letter” demonstrate little regard for issues of racial sensitivity. Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham’s supporters commenting on race issues is frankly insulting, given the willingness of Burnham to sound the dog whistle on immigration, while Kendall goes even further in supporting the Tories’ attacks on migrants’ benefits. This is in an era where thousands of migrants die at European borders. There has not been much of a peep out of the other campaigns on racial profiling on part of police forces, on the 65% surge in Islamophobic incidents in London – and yes, on the doubling of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain in 2014. This is before we even get to exorcising the ghosts of history – the neocolonial invasion of Iraq and a counterterrorism strategy that problematises British Muslims as a whole, that is now being copied at length by David Cameron’s administration. There has not even been much, if anything, in the way of condemning or appearing on the counter-march to the planned neo-Nazi march which was intended to go through Jewish areas of North London. In short, the attention this article has been given is little to do with Labour’s right being tribunes of cultural sensitivity. If anything, marginalised subjects are being used yet again for convenient political capital.

Of course there are not those with the noblest of motives who are shocked by the Johnson piece and its claims. The piece is intended to be shocking, and is. However it is underpinned by some odd beliefs about politics, alongside its generous interpretations of the facts.

The leading issue is guilt by association, alongside the assumption that supporting someone over a specific issue means providing them carte blanche in all things. To say that Raed Salah was being treated unfairly by the British court system and to defend him against deeply concerning anti-terror laws is in no way to defend the racist tropes he has apparently supported (and denies) in a different country at a different time. (I do wonder if Johnson has deigned to ask Corbyn what his opinions on those tropes are. I think I can predict the answer.) To welcome representatives of an elected government under occupation is not to endorse all their activities. Politicians and diplomats meet with unsavoury characters all the time, associate with organisations responsible for a far higher civilian body count than Hamas (the Israeli state, for instance) and engage politely with a huge range of people for the sake of diplomacy. It gets taken too far regularly; the lowering of the British flag to half-mast when the murderous Saudi king died serves as an example of this. But if associating positively and productively with the less-than-pure is a crime, all in politics and diplomacy are guilty.

Johnson has a wider agenda in his attack on Corbyn. It is actually not the agenda of a “nefarious Israel lobby.” It is the agenda of a section of the left that feels morally superior to its comrades because it has cosied up to the right to demonise Muslims or claim we are all “soft on extremism.” It spans the gamut from Trotskyists to Blairites, from Nick Cohen to Left Foot Forward’s editor, James Bloodworth.

This is where sections of the supposed right and left converge, each essentially arguing that most of the left represents “political correctness gone mad” and employs double standards to ignore crimes committed by Muslims.

The similarities don’t end there. Both the Johnson section of the “left” and their right-wing allies use phrases like “political Islam” that frame terrorist movements solely in terms of “politically-articulated Islamic faith”, and thereby endorses a criticism of Muslims who engage in politics per se, much like the Theresa May view that anti-war sentiment is a sign of extremism. Parts of the ostensible left join the right in seeing constant threats to their “Western values” from internal Others. Against that backdrop, any candidate for the Labour leadership has to answer the question, “are you with us, or with them?” and Corbyn fails the test.

Hence he is accused of anti-Semitism for his vigorous defence of Palestinian human rights – which is, of course, profoundly offensive to those Jews who do not identify with the state of Israel. It denies the agency of the many British Jews that support causes such as boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, and not in spite of their faith or culture, and those who will not bow to anti-Semitism in the pro-Palestine movement.

The problem with the attack on Corbyn is not guilt-by-association alone. Even more worryingly, the problem is that it sees “us” and “them” as simple signifiers for goodness and evil. To defend people against institutional racism, to recognise the causes of terrorism, to recognise that bad groups and people with poisonous ideologies can get a few things right or fight for a good cause, and to oppose Western intervention in brutal regimes therefore become all but impossible.”

None of this is really about the Middle East; it is about us. Worst of all, it is an argument being deployed against Corbyn at a very convenient time – when the Establishment is gearing up to solve another geopolitical crisis with bombs, amid a national panic over the atrocities of Isis in Northern Iraq and Syria. What better time to concoct a story that someone has terrorist sympathies than when fear of terrorism (that is not completely unjustified) is everywhere?

Yes, there are reactionary, violent movements in the Middle East and yes; those movements should be opposed. Corbyn agreed roundly with this on Question Time when condemning the Tunisia attacks. Interestingly, right-wing columnist Douglas Murray failed to deploy the Johnson argument there; perhaps because he knew he’d be beaten?

If Johnson’s case is genuinely that Corbyn is a racist, he should be able to point to at least one racist action that Corbyn has taken in his decades-long political career. By that I mean an action that he has taken personally, not one taken by someone else who he has shared a stage with. Nigel Farage, for instance, is not a racist because he associates with a Ukip council candidate who did a Nazi salute. He is a racist because his policies, when implemented, would attack those of minority cultures living in Britain.

Therefore the question on race we should be asking is not “who has each Labour leadership candidate associated with?” but “who would be the best Labour leadership candidate to advance the interests, rights and dignity of black people, Jews, Muslims, and those of all cultures and faiths at home and overseas?”

Jeremy Corbyn is the only candidate to resist the push from all parties to malign migrants. He is the candidate with the strongest record of struggling against discrimination and oppression of all sorts alongside grassroots movements. He is the only candidate committed to ensuring Britain plays a role in fostering internationalism and peace through solidarity and compassion rather than diktats and gunfire.


  1. Alan ‘Not the Minister’ Johnson is not some political innocent: he is closely involved with BICOM, a pro-Israel lobbying group, see here.


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