Labour, antisemitism and the general election

Shortly before the 2019 general election, Rabbil Sikdar and Daniel Randall met to discuss their disagreements, and their common ground, on how to respond to antisemitism in the Labour Party in the context of the election. What follows is an edited transcript of their exchange.

Rabbil is a member of the Labour and Cooperative Parties, and an activist involved in anti-racist politics. He is the author of the article “As a left-wing Muslim, I cannot vote for Corbyn’s Labour”.

Daniel is an activist in the rail and transport union RMT, a Labour supporter and a member of the socialist group Workers’ Liberty. He is Jewish, and is the author of numerous articles on left-wing antisemitism.

DR: Could you summarise the arguments you made in your article?

RS: In that article, I articulated why I, as a British Muslim with left-wing political leanings, could not support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, and why I won’t be voting for Labour in this election, despite being a member of the Labour and Cooperative Parties. My feeling is that the party is too institutionally racist to support, and voting for it in these conditions would be to green-light that. I won’t be voting in this election; I’m still a Labour Party member, and it would be wrong for me to vote for another party.

DR: I’d question the description of Labour as “institutionally” racist or antisemitic, but I definitely agree there’s a serious problem with antisemitism within Labour and on the wider left, and maybe with some other forms of bigotry as well. But how would you respond to the argument that a Labour vote has always involved a degree moral compromise? For example, voting for Labour through the mid-2000s was to vote for the party of detention centres and hostile policies towards asylum seekers; voting for Labour at any point throughout its history has always involved having to come to terms with reactionary aspect of its policy or culture. It’s never had a clean slate in terms of political morality, so what is it about this election in particular that has tipped the balance for you?

RS: I’ve always objected to the idea that Labour is, straightforwardly, an “anti-racist party”. Historically, that’s never been true. It’s been a progressive party, yes, but the idea that it’s been “anti-racist” erases a lot of the history of the party, for example in terms of its stances towards refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers. But the difference for me now is that there is an ethnic minority group in this country, and within the party itself, actively saying they feel unsafe. I’d compare it to Brexit. Brexit didn’t create bigotry and racism, but it did inflame those things.

Clearly there were problems during the New Labour years – Margaret Hodge, for example, made some comments that were praised by the BNP. That needed to be called out, and maybe wasn’t called out enough. But the situation now feels qualitatively worse in terms of the British Jewish community feeling that the Labour Party is hostile to them.

DR: I agree with you about the inadequacy of describing Labour as an “anti-racist party”. Some of the responses to the antisemitism issue have taken the form of people essentially retconning Labour’s history, claiming that the Labour Party has somehow always been a beacon of consistently anti-racist politics. It’s usually accompanied by hagiographical defences of Jeremy Corbyn himself, typically using the phrase “lifelong anti-racist”, as if anyone comes out of their mother’s womb with a fully-formed anti-racist consciousness, as if anyone is beyond criticism.

Clearly there have been plenty of times throughout history when the Labour Party, either in government or in opposition, has been complicit in, or even a driver of, state-level racism, and I’d argue there have been times when Labour policies, or the rhetoric and culture coming from figures within the party, has made particular ethnic minority communities feel unsafe, for example Roma and Traveller communities being targeted by Labour councils.

RS: To go back to the comparison with Brexit, my view at the time was that if you voted Leave, you were voting for a Ukip platform. Whether you consciously thought that way or not, whether you actively wanted to or not, you were voting for a campaign that was unavoidably shaped by right-wing nationalist forces, and the rhetoric of which was explicitly about “there are too many migrants in the country.”

I feel the same here. Even though Labour’s policies aren’t antisemitic, if you vote for Labour you’re voting for a party led by, shaped by, people who are either responsible for or who have failed to confront antisemitic rhetoric. Corbyn himself, and too many of his close allies, are steeped in this kind of rhetoric, including conspiracy-theorist rhetoric about Israel.

In 2016, I vote Remain because I saw how threatened and upset my Romanian and other immigrant-background friends were. I couldn’t vote for Leave, for the thing that was causing them to feel threatened. Similarly, I couldn’t look Jewish friends in the face having voted for the thing that’s making them feel threatened now.

I understand the argument that the impulse to change this has to come from within to some extent, and going forward I hope there are enough people inside the party prepared to confront these problems. But for me personally, as someone who also faces racism and bigotry, I see Labour in the same way I see Brexit. Brexit was the green light for people to come out and say all sorts of awful things about, and to, ethnic minorities and immigrants. Similarly, the Corbyn leadership of Labour has been a green light for people – online, in Momentum groups, in other Labour left spaces – to say bigoted things about, and to, Jewish people. Corbyn didn’t create these problems. He’s a product of this tendency I’m talking about, this strand of antisemitic leftism, he didn’t create it. But in my view he has accelerated it.

DR: It might be interesting to return to the question of Corbyn’s personal role, I think that’s a complicated question. But just to pick up on your Brexit analogy; while I don’t think the political terrain of a general election is the same as the political terrain of a binary plebiscitary referendum, wasn’t Remain a flawed and morally compromised option as well? I very strongly agree with you about the referendum, I’m strongly pro-Remain and think Brexit is a fundamentally reactionary project that will lead to an emboldening of nationalism and racism. I hold no brief for the European Union as a set of institutions, and in fact am an opponent of those institutions, but I believed a Leave victory would create conditions in which it was harder to conduct class struggle, and to struggle for progressive politics, than if Remain won.

Similarly, despite a vote for Labour being flawed option in many ways, I think a Labour victory and a Labour government will create conditions in which it’s easier to address social problems in a progressive way – including, perhaps counterintuitively, problems within the Labour Party itself – than the conditions which will be entrenched if the Tories win.

RS: This is something I’m grappling with, as I obviously know that if Labour don’t win, the Tories will, and that’s something I don’t want either. And I know that a Labour victory would bring some positive things and social advances with it.

But we’ve got polls showing that 87% of British Jews say they’d feel less safe if Jeremy Corbyn became Prime Minister. On Brexit, you had at least some pro-Remain politicians understanding that the EU needed reform; I haven’t seen anything from Corbyn that convinces me he’d really be capable of confronting this problem and regaining the trust of the Jewish community if Labour were to win. I see that from moderates within the party, people like Wes Streeting, Jess Phillips, and Stella Creasy, but not from the Corbyn-supporting left. If Labour win, their response will be “What incentive is there to change anything? People like us; we won.” I don’t want British Jews to feel less safe.

DR: The question of feelings and perceptions of being threatened is complicated, and I think it needs some unpacking. It’s important to discuss these things in a way that isn’t insensitive to or dismissive of people’s concerns and fears, but I think feelings and perceptions aren’t a sufficient basis for drawing political conclusions.

Jews in Britain are not systemically oppressed. I’m not going be denied a tenancy, or a job, or a place at an educational institution because I’m Jewish. I’m not going to face brutality from the police because of my ethnicity. Just in an objective sense, we don’t suffer the same systemic oppression and marginalisation that other ethnic minority communities do.

Clearly antisemitic hate crimes do take place, and Jews do suffer physical and verbal attacks, and there is a view from some on the left that antisemitism is essentially now a historical relic in Britain that doesn’t really require any special attention. That’s obviously deeply wrong and dangerous.

It is important, though, to understand how antisemitism actually functions, and particularly, for the focus of our exchange, how it functions and manifests on the left. Primarily antisemitism in Britain doesn’t manifest either via systemic marginalisation and exclusion, or, on the whole, via physical attacks, but rather functions as an ideological nexus.

That’s not to minimise it; something that functions on the level of ideology can have a hugely toxifying effect on all sorts of areas of political life, and if allowed to fester can in fact descend into the material quite easily. But it is important to acknowledge the specificities of different forms of bigotry and not flatten them out.

For me, the immediate threat of left antisemitism is not that I think Jeremy Corbyn supporters are likely to start beating me or my parents up in the street if Labour win the election, it’s that the conspiracy-theorist ideas which comprise antisemitism – about finance, about Israel and Zionism, and so on – will poison any attempt to build a socialist political project if they’re not confronted and uprooted. As someone who wants to see left-wing politics advance in this country, I believe that will always be held back and distorted if this source of toxicity is allowed to fester.

The conversation I want to have, and have had, with Jews who have these concerns is about saying yes, left antisemitism is real, but the only way it’s going to be fixed is from within. What it requires is for people on the grassroots of the Labour Party to develop an analysis and a critique of what this is, where it comes from, and to uproot it.

You mentioned Wes Streeting, Stella Creasy, and Jess Phillips. I don’t want to imply they have no right to a view or an intervention on this issue because they’re Blairites, and I don’t think there’s much to be gained by attempting to police who within the Labour Party does and doesn’t have the right to comment. But even if one thinks they’ve made a broadly positive intervention, I don’t think they’ve got the answers. Some of what’s limited about what I’ve seen from that wing of the party is precisely that there is a flattening out of the specificities.

The idea that the best thing someone can do if they think there’s a problem with antisemitism in the Labour Party is to join the Labour Party is not necessarily an easy argument to make. But I genuinely believe there’s no shortcut around convincing people of that.

RS: That’s a totally legitimate argument. For Labour to fix this problem, there have to be strong voices within the party challenging the entrenched left-wing narratives that promote antisemitic conspiracy theories.

I just don’t think a Labour Party that’s just won a general election will be sufficiently introspective to allow for that challenge to take place. We’ve seen it in the past; in times of victory, there’s pressure to close ranks. It creates the impression that there are no problems that need fixing. You saw some of that after the 2017 election, and I think that effect would be amplified were Labour to win on 12 December. Where is the pressure or incentive to have those difficult conversations, to undertake that soul-searching, to reform the political culture going to come from if Labour is in government?

A jolt and a shake-up is required to really open up those introspective conversations. Ultimately I don’t think it can happen while Corbyn is leader. He can’t be separated from his baggage. We need a leader that’s pro-Palestine without the baggage of Corbyn’s past associations and his complicity in promoting conspiracy-theory narratives.

For me, there’s also an issue here around the left’s analyses of structural and systemic racism. The simplistic argument on the left is that because British Jews are not systemically or economically oppressed, they don’t need our solidarity. But the structural demonisation of a group doesn’t need to be rooted in the economic. For example, Arab Americans were not a particularly economically downtrodden group, there was a comfortably consolidated Arab-American middle class, many in fact were Republican voters. But they still faced substantial demonisation and racism in the aftermath of 9/11. The left needs to confront this and understand that yes, the structural and the systemic are features of racism – you can face discrimination in housing, you can face police brutality – but even when a community doesn’t experience that, they can still face racism. So even though the Jewish community may not face discrimination in the job market, or the housing market, or from the police, they can still face discrimination from racist tropes and stereotyping. We can see that in incidents like the one on the Tube recently; that man didn’t need to be working-class or poor to experience that racism.

I do of course acknowledge that if the Tories win, racists and right-wingers will be emboldened, who are also likely to be antisemitic. It’s really a lose-lose situation for the Jewish community.

DR: You’ve talked about Corbyn’s personal role, about this problem being unsolvable while he’s leader because of his background. I actually feel the extent to which the debate has become bogged down in questions about Corbyn himself, as an individual, has been very unhelpful.

I think there is a quite unhealthy, almost personality-cultist, attitude towards Corbyn throughout a lot of the party, which is really dangerous on its own terms. What that’s led to is a whole series of uncritical, hagiographical defences of him, people talking about him as if he’s absolutely unimpeachable and beyond any reproach whatsoever, on any issue, and what that produces in its turn is people talking about him as if he’s an evil mastermind and that he’s the problem on a personal, individual level, which I think is equally nonsensical. These positions have become mutually reinforcing.

For what it’s worth, I’m not sure Corbyn is necessarily as politically sophisticated on a lot of these issues than either his supporters or his detractors claim. I think he has assimilated, to a large degree, a simplistic view of world politics where political forces, up to and including at the level of states, can be divided into “good” and “bad”, with Israel on the “bad” side and anyone who opposes Israel therefore on the “good” – hence his association with and apologism for people like Raed Saleh.

That worldview has its origins in something much more deeply rooted; a lot of it comes from Stalinism. While I don’t at all think Corbyn is a Stalinist in the sense that people close to him, like Milne and Murray, are, his political formation has taken place in milieus where those ideas were dominant, or at least very prominent. But he’s not the originator of it. That’s not to let him off the hook for where he’s said or done problematic things, clearly he’s not just an empty vessel that other people have poured ideas into. But say Corbyn goes – so what? That worldview, and ideological offshoots of it, will still be present and influential throughout the left.

Corbyn’s personal role, for me, is fundamentally secondary to whether or not there are enough people at the grassroots prepared to meaningfully confront and grapple with these issues. Whether or not Corbyn himself is ever going to really confront what’s problematic about his past associations and views, I can’t say; probably not. But I think a sufficient groundswell at the grassroots of the party could have a transformative effect on the culture of the party as a whole, whoever the leader was.

To return to the question of the election, I think that unless one intends to stand in every election oneself, ensuring that you’ll always have a candidate to vote for whose views accord exactly with your own, any vote for anyone will be on some level ostensibly contradictory and a compromise. In 2005, the first election I voted in, a vote for Labour was a vote for the party of the Iraq war and PFIs. In 2017, a vote for Labour was a vote for a party making a manifesto commitment to end free movement. So I’ve voted for Labour on a number of occasions when they had many policies I disagreed with and believed would make society worse. But I did so because I saw that vote as part of a wider project which was about advancing working-class interests in politics, voting for a party fundamentally based on the labour movement, and acknowledging that you can vote for that party at the same time as disagreeing with some things about the party and fighting to change them. I think the same is true in this election.

RS: I agree that Corbyn going won’t, by itself, fix the problem. The problem predates Corbyn. The need to transform the political culture within the Labour Party, to educate people about the antisemitic tropes around Israel and Zionism, will still be there. That will take years, it will probably need to happen over a generation. I just don’t see that reform happening if Labour win. I think the party is so entirely controlled by Corbyn and his supporters, and therefore influenced by their culture, that there’s no prospect for those reforms to take place if Labour win and that control is entrenched.

We’ve talked a lot about voting for a party even when you disagree with certain policies, but this isn’t fundamentally a matter of formal policy. Take the Tories for example: they don’t have specific policies that are about directly, specifically targeting British Muslims in a racist way. There’s no proposal to ban the burqa from public spaces, for example. Nevertheless, British Muslims still feel very threatened by the prospect of ongoing Boris Johnson government, because of the comments he’s made and the rhetoric he and others have used. Similarly, there are no Labour policies that directly target British Jews, but a Labour government will be one led by someone who has used antisemitic rhetoric and has proved incapable of addressing the problem or approaching it with empathy. Why will he be more likely to do so if he’s just become the prime minister? Once Corbyn goes, I think more space will open up to be more critical and push for changes.

DR: I do find it profoundly unhelpful when people on the left essentially tell Jews concerned about antisemitism in Labour to just get over it and vote Labour anyway, basically saying “take one for the team.” But there’s a bit of an irreconcilable problem there, because if you’re saying “Labour has to lose for this problem to get solved”, you’re implicitly saying “the Tories have to win”, so you’re telling all the people who’ll be victims of their government, including many Jews, to “take one for the team” as well.

We do have to weigh up, in aggregate, which outcome will create conditions more conducive to prosecuting the class struggle, or even to advancing progressive politics on a basic level if one prefers to look at it that way. For me there’s no question that a Labour victory is the better outcome. There is an unseemly element to that assessment, which could be taken as saying that the negatives and risks are less important than the potential positives, but perhaps where we differ is that I don’t agree that the potential space to confront left antisemitism within Labour will be decisively closed down in the event of a Labour victory, and in fact could, in some ways, open up.

You’re right that a thumping defeat for Labour would lead to a shake up, Corbyn would probably resign, and maybe there’d be some soul-searching. But that would also mean the unleashing of an absolute tidal wave of reaction and bigotry, we’d probably see Johnson lurch further towards Trumpian rhetoric, and those are certainly not conditions in which advancing progressive politics will be any easier. Quite the reverse. Given the extent to which Johnson wants to align with Trump and Orban, they’re also not conditions in which I think antisemitism is likely to recede, either.

The “Corbyn phenomenon” in the Labour Party, by which I don’t mean him as an individual but rather the surge around his leadership that’s seen the Labour Party become a mass force and via which political life inside the party has become reanimated, is itself contradictory. It’s got a lot of unhealthy elements – the incipient personality-cultism, the uncritical attitude to the leadership, and obviously there are conspiracy-theory narratives present – but it isn’t limited to, or wholly, or even largely, defined by those elements. It’s also a phenomenon based on enthusiastic, often quite open-minded young people, who’ve become radicalised by their experiences and found an expression for that within the Labour Party. Those people are the potential agency for the transformation of political culture that’s necessary. But if the movement those people feel themselves to be aligned with and part of is essentially ended by being electorally smashed by a rampantly reactionary Tory party, and dissolves into demoralisation, a lot of people who might’ve become active participants in this transformational effort are likely to drift out of politics altogether.

RS: I accept that my analysis is based on a form of accelerationism, which is something I’m usually opposed to. It’s also a largely personal position, and I understand that there are people who’ll vote Labour for what I think are entirely legitimate reasons. Some of my position is shaped by the fact that I live in a safe Labour seat; would I feel the same way if I lived in a marginal? I can’t say for sure.

Ultimately I feel more comfortable on the level of my own personal morality in preparing to face down the reactionary consequences of a Boris Johnson victory, and fight against them, than telling British Jews they need to take a hit for me. I would be deeply uncomfortable about saying that, in the same way I was uncomfortable with the idea of voting for Leave in 2016.

I am dreading a Tory victory and the right-wing nationalism that will unleash. I am dreading what will happen to my family; my mother wears the hijab, I know she’s likely to face increased racism. It’s not a position I’ve arrived at lightly, of course I’m sick of the Tories being in government. But the type of Labour government we need, one that doesn’t just have a good policy platform for the life of one parliament but which can fundamentally change the ways in which we talk about and relate to ethnic minorities in this country, isn’t going to be provided by the Labour Party under its current leadership. I would have no confidence in the ability of a Labour government under this leadership to identify and confront institutional racism when they’ve failed to identify and confront it within their own ranks. I would have no confidence that they’d be able to adequately support victims of bigotry when I’ve seen how they’ve gaslit so many of their own Jewish members.

I understand and empathise with many of the reasons many people will vote for Labour. But on a personal level, given all of this, I don’t feel comfortable giving them the confidence of my vote.

DR: I did want to ask your view on something which is related to all this, but which is somewhat separate, which I’ve been thinking about following the Chief Rabbi’s statement today. There’s a whole long tradition on the left, including on the Jewish left specifically, of critiquing the role of official communal leaderships, and not viewing ethnocultural or religious communities as homogenous but understanding them as spaces riven by conflicts of class interest and other power relations, for example gender and sexuality, which the left should see as potential bases for organisation.

I acknowledge that, when a community faces bigotry or oppression, it’s possible and often easy for such a critique to be misheard as an attack on the community as a whole, but I think it’s important this critique is rediscovered and reasserted, and for the left to develop an approach to ethnic minority communities that doesn’t entrench the existing power relations within them, which doesn’t confer a special status on their official leaderships, and which in fact is about developing radical critiques of the power relations and dominant ideologies within the community.

This is a big topic to touch on at the end of our conversation, but I wondered what your thoughts on this were.

RS: I come from a liberal strand within the Muslim community, and have been frustrated over the years with self-appointed community spokespeople trying to speak on behalf of very diversity communities, and I always felt there were attempts to portray the British Muslim community as a homogenous bloc. There is a problem with accepting the views of official leaders as representative of the entire community. Within the Muslim community today, imams often reflect the viewpoints of their own generation rather than today’s Muslim youth; there’s a massive disconnect there which the left doesn’t necessarily understand.

But there are instances in which it’s possible and necessary to engage with these groups. That doesn’t mean having to agree with them on everything, but it does mean engaging with them when they’re expressing something that is widely felt within their community. Take the Muslim Council of Britain. I’d be wary of any political party that set too much store by what they say, or took it to be representative of all British Muslims. But where the MCB are intervening around an issue like Islamophobia and the demonisation of Muslims in the media, they’re articulating something that’s not just felt by people from the same generation and same class as the people who lead MCB, but is widely felt across the British Muslim community, irrespective of sect, class, cultural group, gender, and so on. Similarly when the Chief Rabbi comes out and tells people not to vote for the Labour Party, and 87% of British Jews say they’d feel less safe under a Labour government, you have to say “we do have a real problem here.”

Generally speaking, I agree that we should be wary of community spokespeople and critical of power relations within ethnic minority groups. Today amongst British Muslims, particularly in online spaces, there’s a burgeoning Muslim feminist movement, which is producing discourses around issues like hijab; slut-shaming; modesty; and family violence and honour. Muslim women are leading these discussions, often in the face of very defensive responses from Muslim men, and a grassroots conversation is taking place. The left should be supporting that internal dissent within communities, but at the same time, when official leaderships are articulating views that are widely held within the community, we have to listen to it – not because it’s the MCB or the Chief Rabbi saying it, but because it’s something many people across these communities feel, which the left has to engage with and respond to.

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