Week in Review: The moral horror of the Labour anti-semitism issue

You have to stare impossible moral problems in the face. It's tempting to ignore them, to pretend they aren't there. But you mustn't - you've got to take the full weight of them.

When the election campaign started, the long-running issue of anti-semitism in Labour took a backseat. The focus was on Brexit and which party would be able to stitch together a majority. It prompted awkward conversations between those who treat Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn with roughly comparable levels of disdain. Many Remainers are still struggling to formulate a coherent moral position.

There's a good reason for that. It is a painful, difficult issue. It isn't solvable. There is no right answer to it.

The argument against voting Labour under any circumstances was put forcefully by the Jewish Chronicle yesterday, in a front page editorial aimed at non-Jews. "If this man is chosen as our next prime minister, the message will be stark: that our dismay that he could ever be elevated to a prominent role in British politics, and our fears of where that will lead, are irrelevant," it read. "We will have to conclude that those fears and dismay count for nothing."

Voting for Labour, under this argument, devalues concerns about anti-semitism in various ways. It ignores the concerns the Jewish community has raised about Corbyn. It threatens to create a situation in which Jewish people feel unwelcome or even unsafe. And it demotes the fight against anti-semitism from a fundamental moral principle to one of several factors which must be taken into account.

The other side of the argument is two-fold. It is partly about how you treat a corrupted organisation and partly about the consequences of treating the election solely in terms of the anti-semitism issue.

The organisational issue is tough. Labour clearly has a problem. But it has not completely eradicated its better nature. There are many proudly anti-racist figures in the Labour party - at the grassroots, parliamentary and front-bench levels. They are fighting the good fight. The Labour party has existed as a vital force in British politics for 119 years. It cannot just be given up after a few years of Corbyn leadership. As Neil Kinnock told Labour MPs in 2016: "Dammit, this is our party. I've been in it for 60 years, I'm not leaving it to anybody."

It is false and simplistic to suggest that every vote for Labour is a vote for anti-semitism. It can be a vote for the people within the party trying to change it and prevent this poison from spreading further. It is therefore up to voters to look at their local Labour candidate, examine their record, and decide whether they can support them.

The argument on consequences is also powerful. We are talking about the official opposition. To give up on voting for Labour at all carries heavy political and constitutional implications.

On Brexit, it means that we give up on any opposition to Johnson's hardline plan, which will dictate the status and wellbeing of this country for a generation to come. There is no route to stopping it outside of Labour. The Liberal Democrats are not going to win a majority. Unless there is a Labour government - ideally in a minority position relying on the support of the Lib Dems, SNP and others - this thing cannot be altered. It hands Johnson a carte blanche to do whatever he wants. It is a complete surrender.

But in reality the implication is deeper even than that. If the opposition party is so corrupted that it cannot be supported, the constitutional function of British democracy collapses. There is, quite literally, no opposition to the government. None is possible. And that goes much further than Brexit. It touches every issue and the entire basis upon which our political system operates.

And yet these concerns themselves have a consequence. Let's say you only vote for your Labour MP if you feel they will fight the good fight within Labour. That MP - decent or not - is another step towards Corbyn entering No.10. You cannot divorce a more nuanced view of Labour from the implications which follow from it. You are part of that.

There is no right answer to this. My personal judgement is for the second argument - that Labour can be fixed, that those within the party fighting to fix it must be supported, that the consequences of allowing the main opposition party to die are too serious to be imagined. But the other position is not just valid - it is convincing. And more than that: It is devastating. It makes any option open to us right now a ghastly one.

We should not be in this position. But we are. And now each person must make their moral choice. No-one should be judged on the basis of it, whichever side they land.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out in spring 2020.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

Week in Review: Tributes to the departed

It'll all kick off next week. Six weeks of hellish, frenzied, lowest-common denominator campaigning, leading up to December 12th. But before that starts, there's a brief moment to acknowledge the people moving on.

An exodus of MPs is leaving parliament before the election. Some of them had had enough of the abuse, threats and hatred. Some of them are moderates who've been left behind by the drift towards the extremes. Some have just come to the natural end of their careers.

Some did remarkable things, which defined what happened with Brexit. Others failed to live up to the moment. But either way, it's like a list of the more impressive characters in parliament: Guto Bebb, Justine Greening, Nicholas Soames, David Lidington, Amber Rudd, Oliver Letwin, Nick Boles, Owen Smith.

Some in particular stand out even in that crowd. Chief among them was the Speaker, John Bercow. The history books will be generous to him. He understood the two central facets of the British constitution: flexibility and moral centre. It's not formally codified in a single document, which allows it to bend and mould itself to circumstance. But it is rooted down in a central premise, which is that parliament is sovereign. This is what guides the flexibility.

Brexit led to an unparalleled attack on parliament. The executive, under both Theresa May and Boris Johnson, saw an opportunity to sidestep parliament and the courts and ground its legitimacy on the referendum mandate instead. It needed a strong, independent Speaker, who understood that he should respect convention but not be trapped by it, to counter that assault. We should thank our lucky stars that we had one. If we did not, the damage to the British constitutional structure would have been much more severe than it was.

Ken Clarke is standing down after 49 years as an MP, 18 of which were spent as a minister. There was much to disagree with in his politics. But he represented a kind of Toryism which is now becoming extinct. It is not just that he believed in the European project and Britain's role in it. That was a minority Tory view since Maastricht, at least. It's that he insisted on thinking for himself and would go on to hold that position regardless of what it meant for his career.

When someone behaves that way, you can see it in their whole manner, the way they hold themselves, the gravitas of their speech, their presence. He was the last big beast of British politics, a personality so far in excess of the people around him that he seemed to form his own centre of political gravity. In recent years, he seemed like some left-over bit of history still somehow agitating on the backbenches.

It's telling that Rory Stewart is leaving with him. He is the kind of man who you could imagine inhabiting something like Clarke's status if he'd had a career that long. He was sometimes right, sometimes wrong, sometimes on strategy and sometimes on principle. But there was that same sense to him - of thinking for himself, of representing a form of Toryism that was more thoughtful, more moderate, and less tribal. Certainly these qualities will not be welcome in the Tory party anymore. And the fact he has chosen to run for London mayor, where he is least useful, suggests they might not be felt anywhere.

Over at the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable is also leaving. He's made his mistakes, some of them very severe. His decision to raise tuition fees in government after the party campaigned to abolish them in opposition wasn't just a disaster for the party. It was a disaster for public trust in politicians and their views on the desirability of coalitions.

But there was that same sense in Cable as there was for the others on this list - of being able to think pragmatically instead of ideologically, practically instead of tribally. He was pro-business, on the free-market wing of liberalism. He harnessed that understanding to bring a cogent understanding of the economy. He was one of the few MPs who understood what had happened during the financial crash.

And yet each conference season of the coalition, he went out on stage and outlined the need for regulation and the duty of government to restrain the private sector. These ideas are near a consensus now. But he was stating them when they were anything but.

When he became Lib Dem leader, after Tim Farron stepped down, he quietly repaired the party and got it back into the shape it is in now, where most expect it to make serious gains at the general election. He undid the damage which he was himself partly responsible for. There was a diligence to him of which we see very little in politics at the moment.

And then there is Heidi Allen. She started as a Tory, went to Change UK, then joined the Liberal Democrats. She was exactly the sort of person you'd like to see as an MP: Human, humane, thoughtful, funny, public-minded and sensible. The fact she could not bear to stay an MP tells us something profoundly damning and intolerable about our politics. Others of her quality and character will look at that decision and conclude similarly that politics is not for them.

We should have been writing about Allen's departure in the same terms as Clarke, 30 years from now. Instead we are writing about it today, before she had a chance to achieve any of it. And that alone is the most depressing thing about this list.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out in spring 2020.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

Election 2019: Remainers have one last chance

It's on. Britain is going to the polls again. And there's a chance - just a chance - that this Brexit mess will be sorted one way or the other.

It was clear which way the wind was blowing once the government had come to terms with the SNP and Lib Dem bill from earlier in the week. It didn't really have any other options. It lost its Fixed-Terms Parliament Act attempt yesterday. That required a two-thirds majority, but allowed it to set the date - something which made opposition parties nervous. So Johnson dropped it and produced a short bill this morning with a December 12th date on it. It would have a slim majority with SNP and Lib Dem support. And once that happened, Labour had to come on board.

For a couple of moments, it still looked like it could run into trouble. The government put forward a programme motion - a plan for passing the bill quickly through the Commons - which allowed it to place amendments but not opposition parties. Standard-issue dirty tricks from an administration defined by them. Labour sounded like it might refuse to support that.

But then Labour MP Stella Creasy put down an amendment unlocking further amendments from opposition parties. It got through and the rest of the party then fell in behind it.

Even then there were potential problems. An amendment was put down to give votes to those aged 16-17 and another for EU citizens. If they had passed, the government would have pulled the bill. But the deputy Speaker did not select them, as they were considered outside the scope of the legislation - insufficiently connected to its purpose.

The final battle came down to a single amendment, which would have moved the date to December 9th. This got close. Just hours before it was voted on, ten Tory MPs who had lost the whip over the no-deal votes last month had it returned to them. It was a crucial move. In the end, the amendment was defeated with the votes of exactly ten MPs.

That was it. It was done. The election would be held on December 12th.

The next few weeks will be a brutal, no-holds-barred battle for the future of this country. It'll be ugly and it'll be harsh. But it is also necessary.

The reality is that Johnson's Brexit deal was on the verge of passing the House of Commons. It almost passed ten days ago, when MPs instead broke cover for Oliver Letwin's amendment. It nearly passed two days later, when it was narrowly saved by the rejection of the programme motion.

People seem to have forgotten how close these votes were. There were no safety nets left. If they'd gone through, Brexit would be happening right now. Remainers were at the point of absolute defeat. They were wobbling on the cliff edge. And then the government made a high-risk strategic decision. It gave up on the deal and decided to go for an election.

It is a quite mad thing to have done. They could have got that deal through if they'd had a bit of patience and then they could have held an election afterwards. But they made a different choice. And Remainers should breathe a sigh of relief that they did. They have nothing to lose from it and much to gain.

No matter what people say, the Commons was not on the verge of supporting a second referendum. It wasn't going to do it on Johnson's deal. If it did it at all, which was questionable, it would have done so if the deal was defeated. But the deal did not look like it would be defeated. It looked like it was going to pass.

And even if a vote had eventually gone through supporting another referendum, it wouldn't have been enough. It would have required a government to pass legislation to hold it. This government wouldn't have done it. So there would have had to be a vote of no confidence, then the opposition parties would have had to select a prime minister - something they had so far utterly failed to do. Then they'd have had to get the full legislation enacting the referendum through via an unelected majority government. And then somehow win it. 

It simply wasn't going to happen. It's silly to pretend it would.

But then Johnson decided to go for an election.

He can be made to suffer extensively for that decision. Yes, he has a lead in the polls. Yes, Jeremy Corbyn is unpopular. Yes, Remain is more divided that Leave. But for all that, it is a fairly even contest.

There is a geographical split in the Remain vote which is to its advantage. Opposition parties have multiple coalition opportunities open to them while Johnson has none. It can be won. A minority Labour government relying on Lib Dem and SNP support is a perfectly likely outcome. And that outcome leads to a second referendum.

There are no guarantees. This will be the most uphill, fraught, emotional, gruelling political battle many Remainers will have ever faced. But now they have a chance. And they have been saved from the relentless, and increasingly inevitable, crunching momentum towards the deal passing.

It's a good day. Full of risk, but also full of potential. And more importantly: there were no other avenues open. This was the only one.

The fight is now on. For many of the people involved, it'll be the most important one of their lives.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out in spring 2020.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

 

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