Depending on who was spinning the narrative Corbyn was either a secret Jew hater or a man who endlessly indulged antisemitism within his inner circle and in the wider party
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If there is one issue that denotes the terminal decline of Labour as a force for change desperately needed social, economic and environmental change it is not Brexit. It is the constant furore over an "antisemitism crisis" supposedly plaguing the party for the past five years.
The imminent departure of Jeremy Corbyn as leader will not end the damage that has been done to Labour by such claims. Soon Brexit will become a messy fait accompli. But the shadow of Labour's so-called "antisemitism problem" will loom over it darkly for the foreseeable future, making sure that Corbyn's successor dare not incur the same steep price for pursuing a radical political programme. The fear of being smeared as an antisemite will lead, as it was meant to do, to political and economic timidity from whoever takes on the mantle of leader.
In fact, as we shall examine in detail in a moment, the candidates for the Labour leadership are demonstrating just how cowed they already are. But first let's recap on how we got to the current situation.
Personifying the political paranoia that now grips Labour is the party's one-time wunderkind, Owen Jones possibly the only early champion of Corbyn in the corporate media. He used his Guardian column to fight back against the first wave of slurs that Corbyn was unpatriotic, unstatesmanlike, a former Soviet spy, and so on.
But then, as the smears failed to inflict significant damage on Corbyn, a second line of attack was pursued. It claimed that Corbyn's lifelong and very prominent activism as an anti-racist was in fact a cover story. Depending on who was spinning the narrative, Corbyn was either a secret Jew hater or a man who endlessly indulged antisemitism within his inner circle and in the wider party. Jones' colleagues at the Guardian joined the rest of the corporate media mob in baying for Corbyn's blood. Long wedded to a rigid form of identity politics, Jones was soon publicly wavering in his support for Corbyn. Then, as an election neared in 2017, he abandoned him entirely.
Unfortunately for the corporate media, the election result did not follow their shared predictions. Far from presiding over an unprecedented electoral disaster, Corbyn came within a hair's breadth of overturning the Tory parliamentary majority. He also increased the party's share of the vote by the largest margin of any post-war Labour leader. Jones changed his tune once again, promising to be more wary of the group-think of his corporate media colleagues. Of course, his new-found resolution soon crumbled.
Like a mouse chasing the scent of cheese, Jones headed into the trap set for him. He refused to accuse Corbyn himself of antisemitism, unlike many of his colleagues. Instead he gave his blessing each time a Labour activist was targeted as an antisemite oftentimes, over their support for Palestinian rights.Forced onto the back foot
As the media attacks on Labour for supposedly welcoming antisemites into the party's ranks intensified (flying in the face of all the evidence), Jones acquiesced either actively or through his silence in the resulting wave of suspensions and expulsions, even of Jewish members who were hounded out for being too critical of Israel. Jones' hands may have looked personally clean but he acted as lookout for those, like Labour MP Jess Phillips, who were determined to carry out their promise to "knife Corbyn in the front".
Undoubtedly, the polarised debate about Brexit and the increasingly unhinged atmosphere it produced was the main reason Corbyn crashed in December's election. But the confected "antisemitism row" played a very significant supporting role. The disastrous consequences of that row are still very much being felt, as Labour prepares to find a new leader.
The issue of antisemitism was probably not much of a priority for most voters, especially when the examples cited so often seemed to be about a state, Israel, rather than Jews. Nonetheless, the smears against Corbyn gradually undermined him, even among supporters.
As has been noted here and elsewhere, the antisemitism furore served chiefly as a shadow war that obscured much deeper, internal ideological divisions. Polarisation over whether Labour was convulsed by antisemitism concealed the real struggle, which was over where the party should head next and who should lead it there.
The party's Blairite faction supporters of the former centrist leader Tony Blair knew that they could not win a straight fight on ideological issues against Corbyn and the hundreds of thousands of members who supported him. The Blairites' middle-of-the-road, status-quo-embracing triangulation now found little favour with voters. But the Blairites could discredit and weaken Corbyn by highlighting an "antisemitism crisis" he had supposedly provoked in Labour by promoting Palestinian rights and refusing to cheerlead Israel, as the Blairites had always done. Identity politics, the Blairites quickly concluded, was the ground that they could weaponise against him.
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