Labour’s Short-Term Thinking

Jude Wanga

On Friday – when the Conservative government was attempting to shrug off another day of scandal focused on the housing minister, Robert Jenrick – the Labour Party leadership decided it was the perfect time to take a swing at the left. Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked as shadow education secretary for retweeting a link to an interview in the Independent with the actor Maxine Peake, in which Peake claimed, incorrectly, that ‘the tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.’

Keir Starmer’s sacking of Long-Bailey makes a number of things clear. First, it shows that there are people in the Labour Party who have not yet finished using anti-Semitism for factional purposes. (Please note: this is not to say that there is not a genuine anti-Semitism problem in the Labour Party. There is, but that is for another discussion.)

Second, it shows that the new Labour leadership is going to react to media pressure in much the same way as its predecessor. Like Corbyn’s team, Starmer’s advisers are terrified – to the point of panic and overreaction – of bad press. Firing a member of the shadow cabinet for someone else’s misunderstanding is no way to tackle anti-Semitism, and no way to lead a party. But it’s the kind of decision you reach when you’re more worried about the Mail and the Telegraph than anti-racism.

Peake was obviously wrong – as she has since admitted – to say that US police forces learned the knee-on-neck tactic at seminars with Israeli secret services. But that doesn’t mean she was repeating, in Starmer’s words, ‘an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory’. Amnesty International reported in 2016 that many police departments across the US have received training from Israeli police. It said nothing about neck-kneeling – ‘the precise nature of the training offered to US police forces by Israeli officials is not something we’ve documented,’ the organisation told the New Statesman last week – but it did say that the training puts ‘US law enforcement employees in the hands of military, security and police systems that have racked up documented human rights violations for years’.

The Labour Party observes a hierarchy of racism. It will speak out on anti-Semitism and perceived anti-Semitism with alacrity, but it will not aggressively challenge other types of bigotry. Starmer and Angela Rayner took a knee on the day of George Floyd’s funeral, but the leader of the opposition is so unbothered by the untethered hatred in the Telegraph that he is happy to write for that paper. He is happy to keep Toby Perkins in the shadow cabinet despite his demonising of the Traveller community, and he will not sign a pledge in defence of trans people.

It’s a ‘shame’, Starmer said on BBC Breakfast yesterday morning, that ‘a moment … about reflecting on what happened dreadfully in America just a few weeks ago’ is ‘getting tangled up with these organisational issues, with the organisation Black Lives Matter’. He ‘wouldn’t have any truck with what the organisation is saying about defunding the police or anything else, that’s just nonsense,’ he said. No one seriously expects the Labour leader to support defunding the police. But not even an acknowledgment that Black Lives Matter may have ‘legitimate concerns’?

It seems that the party’s plan for the next general election is to fight the battles it lost in 2019, in the hope of recovering ‘red wall’ seats and ‘shy Tory’ voters, even if it means sacrificing ethnic minority votes. Either that, or they are hoping those ethnic minority voters will have nowhere else to go (as Peter Mandelson once said of the voters Labour is now trying to woo back).

Part of the reason that austerity under Tory-led governments since 2010 has done so much damage is that the positive changes effected by New Labour, such as Sure Start, were easily overturned. And the party of Blair, Brown, Campbell, Mandelson and Clarke was directly responsible for the popular myth that the vulnerable are somehow cheating the system and somehow the cause of its faults. Muslims, the disabled, the young and the unemployed were all set up as the fall guys for whatever crisis was to come next, and David Cameron and George Osborne did not let that go to waste.

Labour and Starmer seem to think that the Jewish voters who have turned their backs on the party are simply waiting to be won back. They seem to think they have a right to Jewish votes, just as they presumed for decades that they had a right to the red wall vote. They also seem to be ignoring the fact that most Jewish voters abandoned Labour not under Corbyn but before the 2015 election.

What’s missing is an analysis that accepts that broad communities and identities may change. Maybe a significant number of British Jews are, like much of the rest of Britain, open to voting Conservative. Maybe red wall voters are now committed to a vision of the country that rejects the outlook of its major cities, where Labour’s core vote – for now – remains.

Identities – Black, Asian, Jewish, white, working-class, northern, Scottish, Welsh etc – are not all fixed (or separate) demographics with no fluidity of thought or nuance. The Labour Party views them as datasets to be analysed and manipulated, as opposed to humans with complex and contradictory thoughts. There may be a simple way to put off most Black voters – the Tories have managed it for decades – but there is no easy way to win them over as a single bloc.

Labour faces multiple problems that are the result of long-term decline. Not for the first time, centrists in the party are seeking short term solutions. It’s possible that purging the left will allow British Jews to feel more comfortable voting Labour in 2024, but the party still needs to address why they abandoned it under its first Jewish leader.

It can try to appeal to the red wall with dogwhistle overtures to anti-immigration sentiments, military patriotism and a ‘strong state’ push, but it would do better to address the fact that the NRS social grades are no longer adequate for analysing class. A home-owning electrician in Redcar on £50,000 a year has more in common with a London banker than with a Deliveroo delivery rider. Cultural identities have been forged with more strength than some class identities.

Centrism has nothing to offer university graduates earning minimum wage and paying exorbitant rents, despite being promised a steady salary in return for student debt. It provides no solutions to the contradictions of the red wall, where voters still identify themselves as belonging to a Labour tradition but are increasingly drawn to the social conservatism of the right wing’s culture war. It can’t alleviate the worries of those in multicultural towns and cities, who feel there is a real threat to their intersecting lives as a result of the increasing animosity surrounding such issues as immigration, LGBT rights and structural racism.

But, most damning of all, centrism has absolutely nothing to offer those who live in cramped housing, work two jobs and still don’t earn enough not to be reliant on food banks. This is how Labour lost so many voters to begin with. And it’s how Starmer will lose city seats to the Tories in 2024.


  • 30 June 2020 at 8:30pm
    ralph wortley says:
    The LRB has itself written an article on the very efficient Israeli propaganda unit. "Anti-Semitism" is a useful catch-all phrase with which the Israeli government defends its war against Palestinians and indeed any other criticism of its actions. It is wearing thin.

  • 1 July 2020 at 7:51am
    neddy says:
    Very succinct; excellent read and summary; breadth and depth just what I expect from LRB Blog contributors. And no abuse? No sneering? No name calling? Unbelievable! How did you get away with using the "Jew" word? The LRB has been censoring out any post that includes those three letters for ages!

  • 1 July 2020 at 8:13am
    Joe Morison says:
    To deny that the accusation was antisemitic because it could have been true is to completely miss the point. It can be compared to blacking-up. At first sight, blackface and the false allegation are both perfectly reasonable: one is just fancy dress, the other is just blaming a government that already has much blood on its hands. But looked at in context, their wrongness should be obvious.

    Blacking-up is so offensive because it was an integral part of the oppression of black people for at least a hundred years. The false allegation was so offensive because of an antisemitism that has been going on for millennia in which the central trope has been to explain any bad event as somehow having ‘the Jews’ behind it. There is no single small scale event in the world that has caused more anger and anguish this year than George Floyd’s death; to baselessly assert that Israel is somehow behind it is to repeat that trope. The fact that Jews and Israel are not the same thing is irrelevant: they are inextricably linked in most people’s minds, and that the latter is very often a stand-in for the former in antisemitic hate speech is something that no one commenting on these things should be unaware of. That RLB, who is on the front bench of the Labour Party, an organization with an acknowledged antisemitism problem, seems unaware of all this means Starmer had no option but to sack her.

    As for Jude Wanga’s asserting that Starmer’s centrism does nothing for the socially disadvantaged, I can assure her that it will do a hell of a lot more for them in government than the most ideologically pure party of her dreams would be able to do in opposition. I’ve spent my whole life seeing ideologues grab hold of the Labour Party and make it unelectable, then claim after defeat that if only they had been purer victory would have been theirs. Politics is the art of the possible, and for the first time in ages Labour has a leader who looks like a possible PM. Will he be everything we want? Of course not. Will he be massively better than Johnson? Without doubt.

    • 1 July 2020 at 2:09pm
      Andy Platt says: @ Joe Morison
      The fact that Jews and Israel are two very different things is extremely important.

      Maxine Peake has been a supporter of the Palestinians for years, it's far from surprising that she would take a chance to draw a connection between the racist policies of the US Police with those of the Israeli security services.

      In truth, the fact that the US probably didn't learn the knee on the neck move from the Israelis is a mere detail (although evidence has emerged of it being a move within the Krav Maga martial art taught to Israeli soldiers). The shocking detail is that the US civilian police force obtains training services from a country where your human rights vary considerably depending on your ethnic origin.

      The Palestinian right to life is rarely given much weight in Israel and black people in the US clearly feel the same applies to them in the US. It is therefore entirely relevent to remark on their joint training initiatives and to draw inferences that, even if a particular move wasn't passed from one to the other, attitudes probably are.

  • 1 July 2020 at 9:31am
    Charles Evans says:
    A spectacularly wrong-headed and deeply disingenuous article from another embittered Corbyn groupie.

    Did the author miss the part of the Labour leadership campaign where Long-Bailey, Starmer and Nandy all said there was "no place for anti-Semitism in the Labour Party"? And that there would be zero tolerance? That message has an overwhelming mandate from Labour members - the author of this piece clearly has no affection for democracy.

    A truth that Labour's lunatic fringe left fail to address: Labour needs to convince people to vote for it if it hopes to affect change. (If you think you can affect change without power, but through protest groups, then go and form or join one - Labour is a political party, not a hobbyist campaign). Labour's very real problem with both conscious and unconscious anti-Semitism was hugely damaging to the Party, and helped lose seats to the Conservatives. Starmer clearly recognises that it needs to be taken seriously. To have allowed Long-Bailey to get away with (at a charitable best) lazily endorsing an article containing a tired anti-Semitic trope would have demonstrated that Labour is not serious about its commitments against anti-Semitism, which would have been to gift another weapon to Labour's enemies.

    The accusations of the author of "centrism" are laughable - she clearly knows nothing of Starmer's politics and cares even less to educate herself about them. Though she gives the game away as early as the second paragraph - Labour does still have people in it who will use anti-Semitism for factional purposes. It's the remnant Corbynite fanatics, such as the author, bitter and resentful that their snivelling form of politics-as-faux-moral-superiority was so roundly rejected by both the Labour membership and the public as a whole.

    Enjoy your tantrum blog posts, Jude - your comrades' time as a political force is well and truly over. Good riddance to it.

    • 1 July 2020 at 11:44am
      CollinR says: @ Charles Evans
      Who's bitter, resentful and snivelling and throwing tantrums, Charles?

    • 1 July 2020 at 12:48pm
      Charles Evans says: @ CollinR
      The author of the blog post, as I said. Do you struggle with your reading comprehension?

    • 1 July 2020 at 2:52pm
      CollinR says: @ Charles Evans
      Are you sure it isn't you, Charles? Because reading comprehension or not, your vituperation fits the illustration of a tantrum blog post, every paragraph puffing and panting with angry and fearful vilification - almost as if Jude' comrades' time as a political force is NOT well and truly over.

  • 1 July 2020 at 2:08pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Glad to see SKS highlighting the apparently ever-broadening platform on which BLMUK now stands: not only police defunding but the abolition of capitalism and endorsement of the Palestinian struggle. I was a staunch supporter of Rock Against Racism and remain a fan of football’s Kick It Out campaign but I find BLMUK’s manifesto unsupportable. I note that former footballer Karl Henry has made similar comments.
    As to SKS’s move to the centre I see it largely as a reaction to previous left-wing obsessions with identity and intersectionality issues, about which no ordinary person gives a flying fig.

  • 1 July 2020 at 2:20pm
    Andy Platt says:
    Starmer can't even manage to be consistent with his condemnation of antisemitism.

    Not long back a statue to Nancy Astor was unveiled by Theresa May and Rachel Reeves, Starmer's Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office was there to show her enthusiasm.

    There seems to be a wilful refusal for many to acknowledge that Astor was an appalling antisemite and admirer of Hitler and Reeves' support for the raising of the statue seems to cause Starmer no discomfort.

    It seems that for Starmer there is zero-tolerance for the left but a policy of looking the other way when it comes to the right of Labour. If ever there was a clue to a lack of conviction to a principle it's inconsistency in how it's applied

  • 1 July 2020 at 5:13pm
    Greg Tuck says:
    While is is true that the constant triangulations and focus on the urban and educated chipped away at the traditional Labour vote the 'true socialist' agenda offered at the last election made matters worse, not better. Until the Corbynite wing of the party accept their offer also failed it will be hard for Labour to develop a programme that builds the width of support it needs to regain power. As for anti-semitism, it is true that it has been successfully weaponised to silence critics of the Israeli government. It is equally the case that the casual retweeting of inaccurate allegations about Israel that feeds on anti-Semitic tropes around jew blaming suggest Long-Bailey doesn't understand the issue with either the clarity or sensitivity expected of a potential shadow cabinet minister, let alone leader of the opposition.

    • 1 July 2020 at 7:50pm
      Greencoat says: @ Greg Tuck
      In other words, someone has yet again let Labour's anti-semitic cat out of the bag. Whoops!

    • 2 July 2020 at 9:50am
      Greg Tuck says: @ Greencoat
      Not really, although Long-Bailey was clearly careless and insensitive. I think there is far less anti-Semitism in Labour than in the Tories although it clearly exists. There is however a lot of support and solidarity with the Palestinians that both gets labelled as anti-semitism and sometimes in its exasperation with the policies of the Israeli government and the actions of the IDS, comes across that way. However, I don't think that many of them are against the existence of Israel so much as calling for a different Israel. While trying to silence them with accusations of anti-semitism seems an effective strategy I don't think it will contribute in the long run to bringing peace and justice to all those who currently live in the area.

  • 1 July 2020 at 5:26pm
    Graucho says:
    Twitter claims another victim. Does anyone know the exact passage in the tweet that was allegedly anti-semitic and the justification for the sacking?

  • 1 July 2020 at 7:31pm
    Greencoat says:
    ‘(Nancy) Astor was an appalling antisemite and admirer of Hitler…'

    Why then was she included on the Nazis list for elimination when they invaded England?

  • 1 July 2020 at 10:40pm
    Raphael says:
    I find it incredibly disappointing that the London Review of Books would publish such lazy apology of antisemitism, albeit only on their blog. Labour Party's issue of antisemitism is cursorily dismissed within parentheses: "this is not to say that there is not a genuine anti-Semitism problem in the Labour Party. There is, but that is for another discussion." I cannot understand how some people on the left are so willing to overlook the very perniciousness of those types of tired antisemitic tropes and dog whistles that Maxine Peake's statement represents. I cannot think of any other cultural, ethnic or religious groups whose oppression and discrimination would matter so little to some on the left. RLB should have known better, she should have recognised the statement as antisemitic. No excuses.

    We are always, and quite rightly, told to listen to minorities and their experiences of oppression. We are told that it is for black people to speak on how they experience racism. For some reason, it appears this does not apply for Jews. Shameful, callous, disgusting, hypocritical.

    I should add that I am very firmly on the left and that Corbyn's election in 2015 was among the most exciting political moments I have lived. I desperately wanted it to succeed, so I am not coming from a principled place of opposition to Corbyn. I am only against discrimination in all its forms, unlike many Corbynites (including Corbyn and RLB), as I have sadly discovered.

  • 2 July 2020 at 12:49am
    freshborn says:
    After years of media manipulation, there is now an army of online commentators who like to cheerlead these anti-semitism witch hunts. It makes me wonder, are these people actually indoctrinated or have they simply learned the pleasure of communal outrage and phony righteousness. An unimaginable level of paranoia is required to think Peake was anti-semitic, let alone Long-Bailey. Actually, that isn't true. Only a trivialisation of the concept is required, "anti-semite" is just an epithet now.

    Once the language of accusation becomes lingua franca, it's tempting to point the finger disingenuously, to plant a poppet on your disliked neighbour. There's advantages to be had when your society has become divorced from reality. A feeling of safety in the baying mob.

    It does remind me of the "Who goes Nazi?" essay - in 2020 top of my list is anybody using anti-semitism accusations as a political weapon, now that it is in vogue. Like any of these psychotic fads, anybody who criticises it is damned prima facie. You must write a long introduction or sidebar in which you passionately claim that, "yes, of course anti-semitism (in the original sense of the word) is an actual thing that exists, and is bad", etc. But it will never be long enough, you must either join the mob or get chased out of town. Shame on Starmer for perpetuating the new McCarthyism.

    • 2 July 2020 at 7:21am
      Joe Morison says: @ freshborn
      Only an unimaginable level of wilful ignorance could lead someone to assert that racism is only perpetuated by people who feel animosity towards the target group. Absolutely no one is suggesting Peake or RLB in any way dislike Jews or wouldn’t be as happy to let a Jew into their personal lives with the same lack of racial concern that they would anyone else. The contempt we feel towards the ‘some of my best friends’ defence isn’t that we think the speaker is saying that their particular friends are an exception among a generally filthy bunch, it’s that personal feelings of how one accepts an individual of another race is only a small part of racism.

      What Peake and RLB hate, like I am sure everyone posting here, is the way the Israeli state treats Palestinians. And if human history wasn’t steeped in millennia of a virulent and lethal antisemitism which led to what was probably the worst crime in human history just 80 years ago, then few would be bothered at some unfounded accusations being thrown at a government with Israel’s record on human rights. But we live in a world which does have that history and is still full of people who really do hate Jews and love to see them demonised and debased in any way possible. When Peake unthinkingly forwarded that lie (a lie that was almost certainly started by someone who really does hate Jews), they were unwittingly helping those who want us all to feel as they do. And what better way to do that than to suggest that Jews are behind the event that has made the world most angry and disgusted this year?

      Peake and Long-Bailey aren’t in any way Jew haters, but in this instance they have been useful idiots in the service of those who are.

  • 3 July 2020 at 1:57am
    Graucho says:
    Well, if the offending passage was the claim that the Israeli police had trained the U.S. police in kneeling on necks and this was spreading an anti-semitic conspiracy theory, then they might as well write "Though shalt not criticise the state of Israel" into the Labour party rule book and the members will know where they stand. Was it that or something else that offended ?

    • 3 July 2020 at 10:56pm
      semitone says: @ Graucho
      That was indeed the offending passage Groucho, well done for keeping up. But RLB was not fired for criticizing the State of Israel; she was fired for spreading an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.

  • 4 July 2020 at 2:17pm
    Denis Mollison says:
    @Charles Evans, @Greencoat, @Raphael
    You need to read more widely, in particular some of the clear explanations of how accusations of Labour antisemitism stem from the Israeli government and its supporters.
    See for example
    And yes, I know JVL gets stigmatised as "left-wing", but its articles on this are firmly underpinned with evidence, for example the statistical evidence that antisemitism is more prevalent on the right than the left.

    • 5 July 2020 at 5:43am
      Joe Morison says: @ Denis Mollison
      Whether or not some of the accusations (the idea that they all are is patently absurd) were started by ‘the Israeli government and its supporters’ is irrelevant: what matters is whether they are true or not.

  • 5 July 2020 at 2:39pm
    gracelyn7 says:
    Many groups and organisations use identity politics as a cover for other agendas (eg Zionism) and Labour is wise to be wary of given its lack of transparency. It is also wise for Labour to avoid being as closely associated with identity politics as Corbynism, as the sum o the parts do not add to the whole when appealing to national opinion. The 'Labour tradition' as you call it has always tended towards social conservatism' and it's this vote that needs to be recovered from the Tories, withour losing the urban vote.

  • 6 July 2020 at 1:19pm
    Reader says:
    The whole RL-B issue strikes me as an example of how we collectively miss the point. She was wrong to support a suggestion that the Israeli police taught the neck-kneel to the Americans, without evidence. But there is clear evidence that the Israelis use this and even more brutal tactics regularly in Israel and the OTs, without a public outcry from the Israeli public. That is surely a cause for concern. Criticise American democracy as much as you like, when an issue is properly aired there, it is fully reported.
    And please note, anyone who is inclined to object to this comment, that I didn't feel the need to use the J word anywhere.

    • 7 July 2020 at 8:10pm
      stettiner says: @ Reader
      From a left-wing American blog:

      " We think of antisemitism often as a motive: because I hate Jews, I think or say or do this thing. But antisemitism is more often a force or process. We usually ask "did Burke or Long-Bailey say what they say because they hate Jews?" The answer to that may well be no. But that's not the right question. The right question is "did a particular way of thinking about Jews render what Burke or Long-Bailey said plausible or resonant in a way it otherwise would not have been?" And there I think it is quite clear that the answer is yes. It is because we think about Jews in a particular way that this contagion theory of Israeli culpability in American policing injustices -- a narrative which objectively stands on such a thin reed -- is plausible when it otherwise wouldn't be. That is the work of antisemitism".

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