Manny Shinwell knew how to deal with anti-Semites. Born in London’s East End, reared in Glasgow, and once jailed for inciting a riot on Red Clydeside, the pipe-smoking pugilist was a tough, proud Jew. During a debate in parliament in 1938, Shinwell (then Labour MP for Seaham) was jabbing at the government when Tory MP Robert Bower heckled: ‘Go back to Poland’. Shinwell got up, crossed the floor and thumped Bower clean in the face, then turned to the Speaker and said: ‘May I make a personal explanation?’.
Eight decades later, his great-niece has delivered another bloody nose to the face of anti-Semitism. Only now, the anti-Semitism was in her party, a defining characteristic of its ethos, and the only real contribution its leader has made to public life. Luciana Berger’s is the most powerful of the seven defections from the Labour party because she tried harder than most to get behind Jeremy Corbyn. She was rewarded with a campaign of racial vilification by his supporters. Three factors made Berger’s departure from Corbyn Labour inevitable: she is a Jew, she is a Jew who will not pretend Labour has no problem with Jews, and she is a Jew who recognises that left-wing anti-Semitism is no less a threat than the other end of the horseshoe.
The enormity of what has happened cannot be overstated. In living memory of the Holocaust, a Jewish MP has been driven out of the Labour party by anti-Semites whose grip on the institution is total and irreversible. That last sentence stirs a sulphurous nausea and, 1,255 days after the Corbyn disaster began, still sounds too horrific to be true — and yet it is. The decent who remain imagine this stain will be scrubbed away one day, under a new leader, but it will not because it cannot. Labour is history’s latest persecutor of the Jews, heir to a long and miserable tradition stretching all the way back to Haman. The Jews remain and their tormentors are gone, a fate that awaits Labour too. This is not a dark chapter in the party’s history; it is the final chapter, even if it proves to be a long one.
As for the Independent Group, Isabel Hardman has summarised the key questions and the most important are: who is your leader and what do you stand for? Without a clear answer to both, they will struggle to attract anyone not already thoroughly scunnered with their own party (think Anna Soubry or Nick Boles). A phalanx of the aggrieved — though all have good grounds for grievance — will not do much or prosper long. If they are to become a fully-fledged political party (and even if they remain a centrist parliamentary bloc) they will need a big hitter with big ideas, neither of which they have. They also need some Brexiteers. Brexit is happening and if the Independents get tagged as a Remainer front they will fizzle into irrelevance after we leave.
These are questions of politics but, as Harold Wilson said, ‘the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing’ and when that crusade has putrified into a campaign of paranoia and prejudice against Jews, the morality of matters must take precedence. The coming of the Independent Group is more important than what comes of it. By stepping outside the beast and looking it in the eye, these seven MPs have shown that being a party to anti-Semitism is a choice and not a bitter victimhood visited upon you and those who think like you. The Independents have not given up on Labour, they have simply stopped lying to themselves on its behalf.
There are plenty of lies but the most stubborn is that you can defeat anti-Semitism while paying it a monthly membership fee. Labour moderates tell themselves they can stay, retweet the Board of Deputies a few times and hope someone tampers with Corbyn’s bicycle brakes. Eventually, their Labour party will come back and they will have the moral standing to lead it. They will be untainted by Labour’s war on the Jews. They were present but not involved.
Moderates still speak of the battle for Labour’s soul. What they don’t understand — what sentiment and sincerity will not allow them to understand — is that the battle was lost on September 12, 2015. Corbyn was a known quantity, his views and associations a matter of record, and Labour members still elected him leader. Corbyn was not imposed on them. They asked for him, twice now. Moderates tell themselves they are guarding the Labour flame in dark days but these are not dark days for Labour. The flame is roaring with life. The members are passionate about putting their man in Number 10. Labour has never been bigger or bolder. A new torch guides the party now.
The seven Independents have been commended on their courage but there were eight brave souls who stood up yesterday. The other was Adam Langleben, a former Labour councillor in Barnet, who penned an open letter to Jeremy Corbyn:
‘My wife and I are having our first child in two weeks’ time. One day my son may ask me what I did to stop you from ever becoming Prime Minister. Well, this is a small act, but it’s what I can do.
I will no longer pay subscriptions to an anti-Semitic movement. I will sign one pledge, and that is to stop a party led by anti-Semites from ever gaining power in this country. I will continue to live by the values on the back of my now torn-up membership card.’
When British Jews are imagining the election of a Labour government as a catastrophe they will one day have to explain to their children, the emotional bonds and self-serving excuses of backbench MPs fade from consideration. The solution does not lie in ‘dialogue’ or ‘retraining’ or visits to the local synagogue to hear the case for the defence. The answer will not be found in flaccid conference resolutions or social media sighing. Anti-Semitism must be given neither coin nor quarter but resisted in the spirit of Manny Shinwell. When he confronted anti-Semitism, he thumped it down. The Labour Party is anti-Semitic and it must be thumped down.