The final televised debate between Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and challenger Owen Smith took place on 14 September, doing little to change perceptions that the Welsh centrist is fighting a losing battle. It is now just a week before polls close.
The opening statements
Corbyn’s opening statement set the tone. He said of his year in charge:
We’ve wrung some quite important concessions from the government by our campaigning. We’ve won by-elections, mayoral and parliamentary… We’ve grown the Labour party membership… and above all I want us to unite, so that no one and no community is ever left behind…
He may not be a powerful orator in the traditional sense, but his conclusion was met with raucous applause from an audience described as “Labour members and voters, supporters of Mr Corbyn, Mr Smith and people who haven’t decided in equal numbers” by Sky News presenter Faisal Islam.
Smith’s words, however, received a more muted response:
I want to speak in particular to the 200,000 or so trade union affiliates. They want a proper Labour party once more, one that is united and one that is focused on… decent quality jobs… proper wages, investment in our public services. A Labour Party that understands it has to defend our economy and our society and defend our country.
The debate covered Brexit, working class voting patterns, austerity, education and, of course, ‘electability’. In keeping with concerted attempts to smear Corbyn’s leadership since it began, the most sensitive chord was struck near the end of the discussion.
Following controversies over Ken Livingstone’s allegedly antisemitic comments, MP Naz Shah’s unfortunate social media comments, and the furore over Jewish Labour donor Michael Foster’s suspension after an appalling Daily Mail rant, an audience member inevitably brought up the topic of antisemitism:
I know he’s condemned it, but he sometimes gives the impression that it’s all about white skinheads with swastika tattoos. Would he please acknowledge that the truth is more complicated and say how the Labour party should respond? … I’d be most grateful if he didn’t use the phrase ‘other forms of racism’.
With the question disbarring the placement of antisemitism in any sort of context, Corbyn’s response was full of conviction:
Antisemitism is obviously totally wrong under any circumstances… and I am determined that it will stop altogether.
But a male audience member then interrupted, saying: “But we don’t feel welcome in your party any more!” Corbyn quickly replied:
You are welcome in our party because I welcome you. I want our party open to all faiths and all groups.
Smith soon took over, fudging the issue badly:
It is very worrying that many in the Jewish community don’t feel welcome in the Labour movement right now… there is a correlation on the hard left between criticism of Israel and then shading into anti-Zionist, antisemitic abuse.
In spite of his facile and incorrect equation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, sympathetic commentators online seemed to back Smith:
Jeremy Corbyn can't bring himself to directly condemn Labour anti-semitism but instead condemns the racism of the Dreyfuss Affair.
— (((Dan Hodges))) (@DPJHodges) September 14, 2016
Sad indeed that under Corbyn's leadership anti-semitism in the Labour Party has flourished https://t.co/4VbC6d4NM4
— John McTernan (@johnmcternan) September 13, 2016
Yet to a large degree this is a matter of definition, as other people pointed out:
in 36 years in the party and a life in the labour movement I never saw AS. Rejection of Zionism is NOT anti-Semitism
— George Galloway (@georgegalloway) September 13, 2016
Anti-Zionism and antisemitism
Beyond being a tool to assist in the persistent battery of Corbyn from all sides, this topic highlights a key issue in British discourse, which our information providers singularly fail to tackle. Namely, the separation between anti-Zionism (the criticism of a particular set of political goals and attitudes) and antisemitism (bigotry towards an entire ethnic group, regardless of political stances).
In April, the Jewish Socialists’ Group called the fearmongering about antisemitism in the Labour Party:
a conscious and concerted effort by right-wing political forces to undermine the growing support among Jews and non-Jews alike for the Labour Party leadership of Jeremy Corbyn… despite Corbyn’s longstanding record of actively opposing fascism and all forms of racism…
The group clarified that:
Antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not the same. Zionism is a political ideology which has always been contested within Jewish life since it emerged in 1897, and it is entirely legitimate for non-Jews as well as Jews to express opinions about it, whether positive or negative. Not all Jews are Zionists. Not all Zionists are Jews.
As The Canary reported in May, prominent Jewish author Norman G. Finkelstein has also called for smears on anti-Zionists to stop. Insisting that the comments made by anti-Zionist Ken Livingstone were not antisemitic, he said they were in fact “more or less accurate”.
Corbyn also appeared clear on the separation, stating confidently that cases of actual antisemitism had been dealt with, and that Labour’s anti-racism report (released in June) had sought to deal even more effectively with the issue.
Those seeking to attack Corbyn and his allies in the media (Owen Smith included), however, continue to conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism.
Smith’s lack of clarity on this issue represents the confusion many see in his campaign as a whole.
The leadership challenger has consistently attacked the ambiguously-termed ‘hard left’, while occupying a strange, ill-defined position himself – championing the policies of Tony Blair while claiming to be left of centre. He has spoken of Labour ‘coming together’ even though he’s been positioned as the figurehead of an anti-Corbyn parliamentary coup. And he has presented an approachable image of traditional Welsh trade unionism, while proudly boasting of his part work as a lobbyist for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. He is, quite simply, all over the place.
Smith’s only consistent position appears to be his desire to depose Corbyn. And on that, too, he appears to be heading for failure.
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