Benjamin Netanyahu’s intervention in the row about Jeremy Corbyn and the memorial wreath has been incredibly handy for the Labour leadership. The Israeli Prime Minister said Corbyn’s presence at the wreath laying for members of the group behind the 1972 Munich terror attack ‘deserves unequivocal condemnation from everyone – left, right and everything in between’. A number of Labour MPs have been calling on Corbyn to show contrition in order to resolve the ongoing row, but instead the party leader decided to hit back, accusing Netanyahu of ‘false’ claims and pointing to ‘the killing of over 160 Palestinian protesters in Gaza’.
John McDonnell, meanwhile, who has in recent weeks urged Corbyn to step back from his disciplinary stand-offs with members of his own party such as Margaret Hodge, chose to join in, saying that ‘having a politician like Netanyahu join the media feeding frenzy is a line in the sand’. By way of a pay-off, McDonnell used a phrase normally associated with those accusing the Labour leadership of ignoring the party’s antisemitism problem: ‘Enough is enough’.
Both men have chosen to go on the offensive over Netanyahu’s reaction because it moves them from being in the awkward position of having to issue a trickle of denials, explanations and reactions to the latest allegations about which memorial Corbyn was attending and whether he was ‘involved’ or not (Steerpike has the timeline here). Previously the Labour leadership appeared to be being backed into a corner, but now they have an opportunity to distract.
Distraction is handy because it really would make more sense for Corbyn to apologise for his apparently inadvertent and unfortunate attendance at the memorial to a group of terrorists. But to do so would be to accept that there is something to apologise for, beyond regularly having terrible yet apparently accidental taste in events to attend and friends to praise. It would be to accept the premise that the press had managed to unearth something that the Labour leader should not have done. Not only would this involve accepting that the press doesn’t lie as often as those who use the Donald Trump playbook – as Corbyn does – would have us believe, but it would also involve accepting that the scrutiny of the press might actually tell us something important about those who would wish to lead us.
This afternoon, he gave a pool interview to Channel 4’s Clare Fallon, who asked him about his involvement in the wreath-laying ceremony. He told her that ‘I was there when the wreaths were laid. That’s pretty obvious. There were many others there who are witness to that.’ But pressed on whether he laid a wreath, the Labour leader said:
‘I laid one wreath along with many other people in memory of all those who died in the awful attack in 1985, which I keep repeating and you seem not to understand, was condemned by the whole world.’
There’s that Trump playbook again, attacking the intelligence of the reporter (who happens to be one with an exceptional record of reporting on hard news stories), rather than accepting that there is any possibility that he might have done something wrong.
Of course, the hardest thing for Corbyn in apologising would be admitting that he was wrong, something he does not do. To be clear, very few politicians or normal people make a habit of admitting they are wrong: it’s embarrassing and humbling and few of us enjoy those sensations. But Corbyn is not someone who likes to alter when he finds the facts have changed, and his supporters don’t thrive on discovering that he, like all other humans, is capable of being terribly wrong.
Those supporters thrive on a myth of Jeremy Corbyn that was created long before he swept to power in the 2015 Labour leadership contest. Alex writes about it here. It was a myth that I bought into when I interviewed him in 2012 for a feature on the most rebellious MPs in Parliament at the time: he seemed to be a kindly, slightly eccentric backbencher who was happily pursuing his niche interests without much interest from the rest of the world. That lack of interest made him seem unthreatening, and so the precise content of those niche interests was largely ignored by Westminster over the 32 years in which he pursued them from the backbenches.
During the first Labour leadership contest, that myth grew, as the Labour establishment scarcely knew how to handle Corbyn. They had fallen into the same habit that children at secondary school do, of writing someone off on their entry in the first year, only to be surprised when they turn out to be considerably more talented and interesting than they assumed by the time everyone reaches sixth form. Corbyn could still be dismissed as the niche eccentric who would provide some nice ‘balance’ at hustings, a sort of token left-winger along the lines of the woman invited to join a political panel at the last minute for the sole reason of gender balance. He wasn’t actually supposed to become the star of the show, so no-one thought ahead about how to deal with him in the same way that the Yvette Cooper campaign considered how to diminish the Liz Kendall campaign.
Later attempts to engage with Corbyn by those leadership contenders fell flat because momentum had already built for this niche backbencher the others had felt safe ignoring. But they still chose to engage with the Corbyn myth, rather than the reality. Attacks were largely focused on his lack of experience and his endless backbench rebellions, rather than on his views on foreign policy.
The Conservatives took up the new leader’s historic support for the IRA rather vigorously, and in so doing managed to weaken perfectly valid points about inviting members of that terrorist organisation to Parliament weeks after the Brighton bombing. By the 2017 election, the Tories were bringing up the IRA as a distraction mechanism whenever their policies were under attack. The group that killed innocent men, women and children on British soil, that blew up town centres such as Warrington and that secretly abducted and buried people had just become part of the ‘Tory smear’ campaign, rather than a valid point about someone who wanted to run the country. The Conservatives managed to make it even harder to dismantle the myth of Corbyn.
Now, that myth may appear to be falling apart for even those with extraordinary stamina in offering the benefit of the doubt. But still Corbyn and his supporters continue to stick to it, arguing that wreaths never killed anyone, lobbing whatabouts left right and centre, and attacking the reporters whose job it is to ask questions about what politicians are getting up to. The reason the Corbynites feel they can continue to stick to their guns on this matter is that the myth of Corbyn was allowed by so many to grow strong for so long. Now even photographic evidence is making it hard to tear down.