By Noah Lachs
As soon as parliament committed to an election date, my Facebook news feed crowded with filters. Profile pictures that once simply framed dogs, drinks and festival wear were now adorned with red borders, and emblazoned with: “I’m voting Labour.”
This was something of a reckoning for me and for many of my Jewish friends. For us, the parliamentary logjam has had one benefit. Amid the confusion of recent political disputes — the meaningful votes, amendments and election date quibbles — we did not need to see friends publicly raising the banner of a party besmirched by anti-semitism allegations.
It is no secret that some Labour voters believe that anti-semitism allegations are a smear tactic – a hoax to bring down ‘Jeremy’. Their line of reasoning, though misinformed, is logical: Labour does not have an institutional anti-semitism problem therefore there is nothing wrong with my publicly supporting Labour.
But not all Labour voters are in this denialist camp. And they should be feeling some discomfort.
A number of arguments have recently taken shape. First, the comparative sin argument: I am forced between comparably distasteful options, and Labour is the least worse.
Second, the complicit objector argument: The root of the anti-semitism problem is Corbyn and he will not get in. I like my local Labour MP though, so will vote for them.
Third, the whataboutery argument: Look how racist the Tories are. My voting Labour is no worse than anything else.
Fourth, and most concerning, the majoritarian left argument: The bigger picture is what counts. The anti-semitism issue is troubling, but, despite that, the country will still be better off with Corbyn in No.10.
Each of these arguments is flawed and some of them are dangerous.
Take the comparative sin argument. In the current political climate, it has lost weight. Though the 2017 election seemed to signal return to two-party politics, this is unlikely to recur in December. The Liberal Democrats and SNP stand to multiply their seats, while the Brexit Party could amass a notable share of the vote.
A London constituency like Finchley and Golders Green, which has typically been a Labour-Tory contest, now has the Lib Dems as front-runners with the Conservatives narrowly behind. Several marginal seats are split between two parties, where only one is Tory or Labour. In many other marginals there is a three-way split.
Though many constituencies are Labour-Tory marginal seats, now, more than ever, the choice is not binary.
The complicit objector argument was also very common in the 2017 election, which is precisely why it fails now. In 2017, some Labour MPs even campaigned on the basis of their opposition to Corbyn. This was at a time when a Corbyn-calamity was assumed, with Theresa May 20 points ahead in the polls and leading a Tory majority government.
Labour’s prospects are better now. Tory governance has brought three years of fracture and stasis. Corbyn’s distance from Johnson is only around the ten-point mark — a gap likely to narrow as the campaign wheels begin to whir. One cannot vote, in good faith, for a Labour government in spite of Corbyn. A Labour majority remains outlandish but that does not mean Corbyn cannot form a government and ultimately enter No.10.
The whataboutery argument requires only brief rebuttal. Johnson calling Muslim women post-boxes, reprehensible though it may be, does not mitigate Labour’s anti-semitism problems.
There is also a problem of degree. The spike and volume of complaints, the resignations and defections, and the lengthy and incriminating track record of the leader himself, suggest Labour’s crisis is especially acute. It will not be sorted by deflection, and it certainly will not be sorted by rewarding Corbyn and his coterie with passage to government.
Finally, the majoritarian left argument. This is the most troubling. Maybe it’s what Corbyn means when he says: “The many not the few.”
Jews comprise 0.5% of the country’s population. We are electorally negligible. We are the ‘few’ in a very literal way. Labour’s mass movement need not factor in Jews to win. If Corbyn’s radical policy agenda is effective, many more people will materially benefit than will resent him for anti-semitism.
This kind of exclusionary majoritarianism is the truest incarnation of populism.
Corbyn can be punished for facilitating, promulgating and failing to mitigate Labour’s anti-Semitism. But it depends on very many non-Jewish voters. Maybe this is too much to ask of my non-Jewish Facebook friends, but I am reminded of the words of the great Jewish sage, Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”
Noah Lachs is a Schwarzman scholar. He has written for a range of publications on China and Jewish affairs.
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