Anti-Corbyn attacks sink to a new low

By Frieda Park

The issues in British politics are bigger than they have been for decades, but too often the standard of debate around them falls far short of what would do them justice. Whether they are all positive trends or not, the rise of Scottish nationalism, Brexit and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party show that when people see they can make a change they are willing to engage in politics.

This has come as a shock to the political class whose received wisdom is that the only way to win elections is to target the “centre” and tell people what to think. Worse than that mass engagement in electoral politics seems to have opened up a Pandora’s Box with ordinary working-class people going off-message and influencing events.

Even a quick glance at social media reveals its strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand it enables people to get access to alternative sources of news and information, but on the other personal invective too often replaces political ideas as the currency of debate. It can be abusive and highly polarising. All of this is easy to spot though not pleasant to have to confront. These are problems to a greater or lesser extent exhibited by protagonists on all sides of any debate.

But aside from the well-known defects of social media, there are some other trends in how debates are being framed and conducted which are fundamentally reactionary and are the preserve of one political trend. The primary objectives are to close debate down, prevent left-wing ideas being expressed and to sow division. Much of this is being done under the guise of appealing to liberal and left-wing values. This approach is often characterised by misrepresentation and stereotyping of other peoples’ views and by falsely associating reasonable arguments (whether correct or not) with outrageously discriminatory or right-wing views. Furthermore, discriminatory attitudes are sometimes inferred where there is no real evidence to support their existence. A sense of outrage and righteousness can act as a barrier to listening to what other people are actually saying and trying to understand them.

The invention of the anti-Semitism issue in the Labour Party is one example of this. The left is opposed to all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, so by appealing to anti-racism the false allegation that anti-Semitism is rife in the Labour Party sets out to damage Corbyn, the Party and the increasingly successful Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign. Opposition to Israeli policy and actions, it is said, creates the conditions for anti-Semitism to flourish. The objective is to make people back off criticising Israel for fear of being labelled anti-Semitic.

An article in the Guardian entitled “Labour and the Left Have an Anti-Semitism Problem by Jonathan Freedland[1] exemplifies these tactics. Individual examples are held up as symptomatic of a deep seated problem without any real evidence to back that up and Freedland completely ignores the prompt action taken by the Labour Party in dealing with instances of anti-Semitism. Guilt by association is used to attack Corbyn. Among all of this obfuscation, however, the crux of his argument is laid bare when he says:

“Many good people on the left want to make things neat and simple by saying that Israel and Zionism have nothing to do with Jews or Judaism. That they can deplore the former even while they protect and show solidarity with the latter. But it’s not quite as easy as that. While many Jews – especially in conversations with each other – condemn Israeli government policy going back many years, they do identify strongly with Israel and its people.

A recent survey found that 93% of British Jews said Israel formed some part of their identity. Through ties of family or history, they are bound up with it. When Jews pray they face east – towards Jerusalem. And they have done that for 2,000 years.

It’s inconvenient, I know, but that needs to be remembered by those who insist that there’s no connection between Israel and Jews, that it’s perfectly possible to loathe everything about Israel – the world’s only Jewish country – without showing any hostility to Jews.”

It is, of course, another false argument to say that campaigners for solidarity with Palestine are engaged in “loathing everything about Israel”. But where does Freedland leave us in pursuit of that campaign? It is OK to be a little bit critical of Israel but not to be too critical and it seems not to campaign vigorously against the systematic, gross and inhuman treatment of Palestinians. To do so runs the risk, by Freedland’s logic, of being anti-Israeli and by extension being labelled anti-Semitic.

Another made-up issue has been the sudden discovery of rampant misogyny in the Labour Party and the wider politics of Britain, but is this a real problem on the left in the way that is being claimed?

In another article in the Guardian, this time entitled “Woman-Hating Has Come Roaring Back – Now We Must Confront It”[2] Joan Smith makes a tenuous link between the killing of Jo Cox, Angela Eagle having her office window broken and death threats against Luciana Berger with the Yorkshire Ripper murders. The latter clearly was motivated by hatred of women, but there is no evidence for such motivation in relation to the other incidents quoted. It seems a more likely interpretation that they were motivated by politics rather than gender. This does not mean that misogynist attacks on female politicians do not happen – they do - but because the recipient is a woman this does not make an attack automatically misogynist. Smith mentions that male politicians have also received threats (which include death threats against Jeremy Corbyn), but she dismisses them as “whining” about it. She ascribes Angela Eagle’s failed leadership bid to misogyny rather than the fact that she was embarrassingly ineffective.

A letter sent by Paula Sherriff and 43 other female Labour MPs to Jeremy Corbyn makes claims about an atmosphere of threats intimidation in the Party which has disproportionately affected women, especially Black and Minority Ethnic women, and calls for action. No evidence is provided of this disproportionate effect on women nor are there specific examples of instances where Corbyn and the Labour Party failed to act. Surely if they wanted action then cases needed to be highlighted so they can be dealt with. But we don’t get that we only get broad accusations designed only to undermine Corbyn. Outrageously they condemn him for opposing a secret vote at the NEC on whether he had a right to be on the ballot for the leadership election. Most Labour Party members would probably regard it as up-holding democracy to know how their representatives voted. There is a further implication here that only opponents of Corbyn are being abused which is not the case. The second signature on the letter is that of, Jess Phillips, who has made her name by a willingness to tour TV studios making nasty attacks on Corbyn. She was also quite happy to take a pot-shot at black, female Labour MP, Diane Abbott who she told to “fuck off”. The incident happened at a Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting not long after Corbyn was elected and Phillips enthusiastically elaborated on what she said for the Huffington Post.[3] It reported:

“Ms Phillips, who despite being elected in May has already earned a reputation for being one of the most outspoken MPs, said: ‘I roundly told her to fuck off.’ When asked what Ms Abbott did after that suggestion, Ms Phillips replied: ‘She fucked off.’ She added: ‘People said to me they had always wanted to say that to her, and I don’t know why they don’t as the opportunity presents itself every other minute. I said: Who the fuck do you think you are?’"

Notoriously she said of Corbyn: "The day that it becomes you are hurting us more than helping us, I won't knife you in the back, I will knife you in the front.", whilst also saying that she had “berated” him and his office.

Phillips has received vile threats on Twitter, but she is not only a victim she is also a perpetrator. That an atmosphere of abuse against Corbyn was stoked up within the PLP from the start is conveniently ignored by those who wish to pretend any problem originated with Corbyn and his supporters. If they want to honestly deal with this issue they need to face up to their own responsibilities and to stop framing it as a gender issue.

Discriminatory attitudes are an ever present part of our society and infect politics as well other aspects of our everyday lives. Our first approach should be debate and education to change peoples’ minds and how they behave. This is rarely achieved by hectoring them about how wrong they are and threatening sanctions. Where people are the subject of discrimination, threats or violence then the Labour Party has rules which are used to deal with this and the criminal law can be applied. To turn these serious issues into a battering ram to attack Corbyn is not only not credible, given his record as a campaigner over the years, it also does a serious disservice to the fight for equality and against discrimination.

A third example of how a “liberal” narrative was created and opponents demonised was during the European Union (EU) referendum debate. Perniciously this overtly characterised the white working-class, particularly in the North of England, as motivated by racism and xenophobia where they supported leaving the EU. Those on the left who had a reasoned position against the EU were subject to guilt by association and vilification. They were said to be on the same side as Johnson, Farage and the Daily Mail and to be giving succour to racist attacks. The EU, supported by Cameron, Theresa May and other sections of the capitalist press was held up as the bastion of liberal values. This seems to have been espoused as an article of faith by some with a lack of willingness to listen to other points of view. It was said that many who voted Leave did not know what they were voting for, but the question was never asked the other way around. Did those who voted to Remain know what they were voting for? Leavers were ignorant and Remainers informed was the mainstream media narrative. There is no doubt that the referendum gave a platform for xenophobia, but saying that this was the only motivation for Leave voters, i.e. a majority of the country, fails to acknowledge their many concerns.

Then surprise, surprise! The Brexit vote became the pretext for another attack on Corbyn and the launch pad for the protracted coup attempt against him. He travelled the length of the country speaking for the EU and his own constituency returned a big majority for Remain. This was in contrast to many of his critics such as Margaret Hodge, who launched the coup attempt. And this from an MP whose London constituency – Barking and Dagenham – voted 62% in favour of Brexit.

For people who are supposed to be concerned with the electability of the Labour Party the coup plotters of the PLP seem remarkably unconcerned about the effects of their contempt for democratic processes. This applies not only within the Labour Party, but also in the country at large. By insisting that Corbyn had not done enough to convince Labour voters they imply that voters cannot think for themselves. This is hardly likely to appeal to the swathes of the working class who voted Leave. Even more anti-democratic is the idea mooted by Owen Smith, Corbyn’s challenger for the Labour leadership, that the referendum should be re-run. How is that going to make Labour more electable in Sunderland?

These attacks on the left and Jeremy Corbyn are based on hypocrisy and a wholesale misrepresentation of peoples’ actual views. They seek to sow division within the Labour Party, confuse the public and to create a rightward trend. We need to deal with ever-present problems such as anti-Semitism, misogyny and xenophobia. On the left that is what we have always done. By continuing this fight and by campaigning for progressive policies which will transform working class lives and unify the country we will begin to overcome the poverty and hopelessness which the right channels into prejudice. That is what the left and Corbyn have to offer and it stands in stark contrast to the negativity and machinations of their opponents.


[1] Labour and the left have an Anti-Semitism Problem, Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian 18/3/16

[2] Woman-Hating Has Come Roaring Back – Now We Must Confront It”, Joan Smith, The Guardian 28/7/16

[3] Labour MP Jess Phillips: I told Diane Abbott to F*ck Off during Feminism Row. Owen Bennett, The Huffington Post UK 17/9//15

"That an atmosphere of abuse against Corbyn was stoked up within the PLP from the start is conveniently ignored by those who wish to pretend any problem originated with Corbyn and his supporters. If they want to honestly deal with this issue they need to face up to their own responsibilities and stop framing it as a gender issue."