Unkillable myths: Corbyn’s Labour Party and antisemitism
by Ian Sinclair
9 February 2023
“I’m afraid Jeremy only has himself to blame for the situation he’s in because of his failure to apologise for what happened in the Labour Party, when he was leader, on antisemitism,” Labour MP Liz Kendall said, speaking alongside Jeremy Corbyn MP, on ITV’s Peston earlier this month.
“What apology – because maybe he’ll do it now – what apology would you want from Jeremy?” presenter Robert Peston asked. “A full and frank apology, which has never happened,” Kendall replied.
The idea Corbyn has never apologised for antisemitism in the Labour Party is widespread in the media and Westminster. Discussing the topic last year, James Ball, who is, incredibly, Global Editor at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, tweeted “Saying sorry for doing something immensely shitty shouldn’t be all that difficult, it’s just that Corbyn literally never apologised for anything.” And in their 2021 book Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn, Times journalists Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire state “Starmer’s first act as leader was to do what Corbyn never could” – apologise for antisemitism.
Back in the real world, if you type “Corbyn apology antisemitism” into Google the second result that comes up is a December 2019 Guardian report titled Corbyn Apologises For Antisemitism In Labour Party. The third result is a March 2018 PoliticsHome report titled Jeremy Corbyn Issues Apology For “Pockets” Of Anti-Semitism In Labour Party. Corbyn also did a video in August 2018 saying “I’m sorry for the hurt that’s been caused to many Jewish people”.
The “Corbyn has never apologised” line is one of many myths that has refused to die about antisemitism and Corbyn’s Labour Party, irrespective of the historical record.
On Peston, Corbyn said he had apologised repeatedly, before arguing “evil as antisemitism is, the scale of it within the party was grossly exaggerated”, which Kendall visibly took exception to.
With this in mind, it’s worth considering some of the claims made at the time. A July 2018 front page editorial jointly published by the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News and Jewish Telegraph newspapers warned a Corbyn-led government would pose an “existential threat to Jewish life” in Britain. A month later Marie van der Zyl, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told an Israeli TV news show that Corbyn had “declared war on the Jews”. Writing in the Express in 2017 Stephen Pollard argued “Labour is now the party of bigots and thugs, where Jew haters are cheered”, while Telegraph columnist Simon Heffer, appearing on LBC radio in 2019, said Corbyn “wanted to re-open Auschwitz”.
The same year Margaret Hodge MP told the media she had obtained “over 200 examples [of antisemitism], some vile, where evidence suggested they came from Labour.” However, according to the Guardian, the Labour Party General Secretary later confirmed “investigations had found those complaints referred to 111 reported individuals, of whom only 20 were members.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a 2019 Survation poll, commissioned by Professor Greg Philo for his co-authored book Bad News For Labour, found of the respondents who had heard about the topic “on average people believed that a third of Labour Party members have been reported for anti-semitism” when “the actual figure was far less than one per cent.”
As with many issues, the Fourth Estate played a crucial role in the so-called ‘antisemitism crisis’. Philo and his co-author Dr Mike Berry noted the results of four focus groups they held showed “the media and the extensive coverage that the story has received feature very prominently in the reasons that were given” for higher estimates of antisemitism in the Labour Party.
Furthermore, a 2018 analysis of British media coverage of antisemitism published by the Media Reform Coalition “identified myriad inaccuracies and distortions in online and television news including marked skews in sourcing, omission of essential context or right of reply, misquotation, and false assertions made either by journalists themselves or sources whose contentious claims were neither challenged nor countered.”
“Overall, our findings were consistent with a disinformation paradigm,” the authors concluded.
Looking at the coverage of the debate on whether Labour should adopt the contentious International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, the authors highlighted how there was a high number of inaccurate reports from the Guardian and BBC.
For example, in July 2018 Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland referred to the “near universally accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism”. In contrast, a quick look at the IHRA’s own website shows that by July 2018 their definition had been adopted and endorsed by just nine countries.
In July 2019 BBC Panorama broadcast Is Labour Antisemitic?, which had a big impact on the debate. The programme related how Ben Westerman, a member of the party’s Disputes Team, was sent to investigate reports of antisemitism in the Wallasey Labour Party in 2016. According to Westerman, at the end an the interview with a party member he was asked “Where are you from?” and “Are you from Israel?”, both of which he refused to answer. However, Al Jazeera Investigations undertook the journalism that the BBC should have done, and broadcast the audio of the interview in their 2022 The Labour Files documentary (which, naturally, has been ignored by the mainstream media). It turns out the interviewee, unfamiliar with the interview process, asked Westerman “What branch are you in?”, which he refused to answer.
It should be noted Corbyn is not alone in thinking the incidence of antisemitism in the Labour Party was overstated for political reasons. Geoffrey Bindman KC, Jewish Voice For Labour, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, public figures such as Mariam Margolyes and Alexi Sayle, and three-quarters of Labour members in a March 2018 Times/YouGov poll are among those who agree with Corbyn’s analysis.
Indeed, the Forde Report, which was commissioned by Keir Starmer, noted “some anti-Corbyn elements of the party seized on antisemitism as a way to attack Jeremy Corbyn… thus weaponising the issue” (Forde says Corbyn supporters did this too).
Moreover, the polling evidence seems to contradict the “antisemitism crisis” narrative.
“Despite significant press and public attention on the Labour Party” an October 2016 Home Affairs Committee report on antisemitism found “there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.”
A 2017 YouGov/Campaign Against Antisemitism poll found “Labour party supporters are less likely to be antisemitic than other voters”, such as Tory and UKIP supporters. Similarly, a 2017 report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (IJPR), which analysed polling data, concluded “the political left, captured by voting intention or actual voting for Labour, appears in these surveys as a more Jewish-friendly, or neutral, segment of the population.”
To be clear, there was a problem with antisemitism in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. At the same time the evidence strongly suggests the level of antisemitism in the party was overstated for political purposes. Both of these things can be true at the same time.
In short, the evidence points to Corbyn being the victim of one of the most successful smear campaigns in British political history.
This personal onslaught significantly weakened him and the broader Labour Party, delegitimised him as a political figure, and sapped energy and support from the wider Corbyn movement.
It wasn’t a conspiracy; rather undermining Corbyn’s leadership was the shared agenda of the centre, right-wing and much of the bureaucracy of the Labour Party itself, the Tories and nearly all of the British press. Also, it’s likely the MP for Islington North’s pro-Palestinian politics didn’t endear him to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council and the apartheid-implementing Israeli government both organisations supported.
Frustratingly, some prominent voices on the left caved in to the pressure. Asked in 2018 why antisemitism was “endemic in the Labour Party” by the BBC’s Andrew Neil, Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani didn’t question whether it really was “endemic” but answered “I think there are a few explanations”.
And after Corbyn stepped down as leader, at the 2020 Jewish Labour Movement’s Labour Party leadership hustings the chair asked “Do you regard it as antisemitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact?” To which, shamefully, the Corbynite candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey MP, immediately replied “Yes”.
Of course, in many ways Corbyn was merely the vulnerable figurehead. It was the hundreds of thousands of Corbyn-supporting Labour members, and the millions of people who voted Labour in 2017 hoping for a more equal and just society, who were the real threat that needed to be stamped out.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.