We need to talk about Jeremy Corbyn

By Bernadette Meaden
April 6, 2019

The video of British soldiers using a picture of Jeremy Corbyn as a target was disturbing, but hardly surprising, given the extreme and distorted way he is portrayed by political opponents and much of the media.

The fact that one Labour MP has been murdered, a far-right activist has been jailed for plotting to kill another Labour MP, that Corbyn himself has been the intended target of a killer, and there has been a recent physical assault on him – none of this seems to give his opponents pause for thought.

Yet the numerous accusations levelled against Corbyn vary from outlandish, to questionable, to plain wrong.

Take the ‘accusation’ that he is a Marxist. Economist Ann Pettifor, winner of the 2018 Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thinking says, “As someone who has known Jeremy Corbyn for many, many years…I find this assertion both wrong and bizarre.” (It should be said, however, that to have been influenced by Marx’s thinking is not unusual, and does not make someone a revolutionary Communist.)

The reality is, Corbyn is a democratic socialist of the type that is common in Europe, where the policies he advocates would be unremarkable. But the UK’s political culture is now so ridiculously narrow that the BBC’s privately-educated Laura Kuenssberg can be hailed as ‘an outsider’ because she went to Edinburgh University.  

Then, of course, there are the accusations that Corbyn is in some way a security risk, who would betray Britain to its enemies. These reached ridiculous heights when Conservative MP Ben Bradley accused him of selling secrets to Communist spies, and was obliged to make an unreserved and unconditional apology and pay ‘an undisclosed substantial sum of money’ to a charity of Corbyn’s choice.  It is also worth noting that Corbyn has been approved as a Privy Councillor and so can receive confidential briefings from the security services. 

The charge that Corbyn is somehow ‘not patriotic’ seems to stem from a belief that love of one’s country necessitates an entirely uncritical attitude to its actions, now and in the past. That attitude, I would suggest, is the more dangerous attitude. In the age of Trump, we desperately need politicians who can view their own country with a degree of objectivity.

The idea that Corbyn is dangerous because he has chosen to meet with people of whom none of us would approve also seems illogical and unimaginative. Throughout his career he has taken an interest in conflict resolution, and as Desmond Tutu said, “If you want peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” Almost every senior politician will have met with some reprehensible characters,  to broker peace, to encourage dialogue – or in the case of Government ministers, often  to sell them weapons.

The most troubling accusation is that Jeremy Corbyn is either antisemitic himself, or condones or tolerates antisemitism. These accusations first seemed to arise after he was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, so it seems fair to examine his behaviour prior to becoming leader and before he attracted so much media attention.

Over the years, Corbyn has signed numerous Early Day Motions condemning anti-semitism and supporting Jewish causes, but perhaps more importantly, he seems to have had a very good relationship with Jewish people in his own community.

On United Synagogue, a European Jewish website, Glynis Kuzuk wrote about the unveiling of a commemorative plaque at the site of North London Synagogue in Islington: “Rabbi Mendy Korer, who helped to organise the event followed with telling the audience of his involvement, from inviting the local MP Jeremy Corbyn to Shabbat dinner when the MP suggested applying for the plaque, to the procedure for residents in the locality voting for its installation.”  Pictures of the event, stemming from a suggestion by Corbyn himself, show a smiling Corbyn with the rabbi and other members of the community. This does not seem to be the behaviour of a person with antisemitic views.

But more substantial evidence of how ill-founded this accusation may be has been set out by Peter Oborne in a searing review  of Tom Bower’s recent book on Corbyn, Dangerous Hero. Oborne, a staunch Conservative, is widely considered a man of great integrity, committed to honest journalism. On Bower’s unevidenced assertion that Corbyn regards Jews as ‘the enemy of the working class’, he writes: “This is a travesty, all the more so since Bower ignores the fact that Corbyn has a long record of opposing anti-semitism.

“To take just one example, in 2002 Corbyn tabled a motion expressing sympathy with members of a synagogue in Finsbury Park after it was daubed with racist graffiti. Of course this does not in itself refute Bower's claim that Corbyn is an anti-semite. Nevertheless, in any discussion of Corbyn’s anti-semitism, it cries out to be taken into consideration. I have checked as thoroughly as I can and can find no mention in Bower’s book of Corbyn's sustained parliamentary activity against anti-semitism and in support of Jewish rights.”

I would urge anyone with an interest in accurate reporting to read this eye-opening review. It is a fascinating read, and as Oborne says: “There is a problem here which goes much deeper than Tom Bower himself and raises questions about the British media and political culture. Bear in mind that Bower’s book is not just intellectually dishonest, it is a farrago of falsehood and insinuation. Yet it appears to have had no difficulty finding a mainstream publisher, while receiving a generous reception in the mainstream press.”

Oborne’s review also deals with other matters which have been taken as evidence of antisemitism in the Labour Party, but which he finds have been misrepresented. So it is interesting to look at some substantive research in this area, from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

In 2017 it published Antisemitism in contemporary  Great Britain: A study of attitudes towards Jews and Israel which was said to be "the largest and most detailed survey of attitudes towards Jews and Israel ever conducted in this country."

It found: “When it comes to antisemitism, the very right-wing lead: 52 per cent (46-58 per cent) in this group hold at least one antisemitic attitude, in contrast to 30 per cent in the general population; and 13 per cent (10-17 per cent) of the very right-wing hold five to eight antisemitic attitudes, in contrast to 3.6 per cent in the general population.

“The very left-wing is indistinguishable from the general population and from the political centre in this regard. In general, it should be said that, with the exception of the very right-wing, there is little differentiation across the political spectrum in relation to the prevalence of antisemitic attitudes.

“However, in relation to anti-Israel attitudes, the very left-wing lead: 78 per cent (75-82 per cent) in this group endorse at least one anti-Israel attitude, in contrast to 56 per cent in the general population, and 23 per cent (19-26 per cent) hold six to nine attitudes, in contrast to nine per cent in the general population. Elevated levels of anti-Israel attitudes are also observed in other groups on the political left: the fairly left-wing and those slightly left-of-centre. The lowest level of anti-Israel attitudes is observed in the political centre and among those who are slightly right-of-centre or fairly right-wing.”

To put it simply, this study found that people on the right tend to be more anti-semitic but pro-Israel than those on the left. People on the left tend to be less anti-semitic, but more anti-Israel, than those on the right. This makes the distinction between criticism of Israel and antisemitism crucial, as by focusing on left-wing anti-Israel views, and conflating them with antisemitism, we may neglect a deeper problem of antisemitism on the right.

There is, of course, no question that disgusting antisemitism exists in the Labour party, as it does throughout society, and it must be tackled wherever it arises. But as Oborne’s review shows, misrepresentation and distortion in the reporting of it is a real problem. At a time when the threat from violent right wing extremists is greater than it has been for many years, it is important that we have a balanced view and an accurate sense of the scale and location of the threats to minority communities.

The Leader of the Opposition has been the subject of an extraordinary amount of distorted and untrue media coverage and political rhetoric. This coarsens our political discourse and polarises society. It is time to tone down the rhetoric and respect the truth, for the sake of a healthy democracy and a cohesive society.

I am not a member of any political party and have never met or had contact with Jeremy Corbyn or anyone connected to him.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden 

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.