After three years of banging on about Brexit here at any opportunity, I couldn’t bring myself to repeat it all in the past six weeks, and the General Election itself has been too depressing to contemplate. It seems clear that most people made up their minds long ago, and in far too many cases have done so on the basis that leave means leave, get it done, take back control, three bags full, pigs might fly. The one ray of hope is the surge in new enrolments in November, suggesting that younger voters could lead to upsets in key seats. Perhaps, just possibly, we might yet see the back of this hat-trick of historically awful prime ministers.
But I can’t contemplate the alternative with any delight. Corbyn is, at best, a man whose politics were formed long ago, set in his ways and irritated by suggestions that he may have done anything wrong either personally or as party leader. That doesn’t necessarily make him unfit to be prime minister (I mean, just look at where the bar has been set lately), but I can see how his problematic aspects would put voters off.
And for once I’m not just talking about his prevarication over Brexit and a second referendum. Labour has, at last, settled on a policy that offers about the only realistic resolution of Brexit that won’t leave half the country with an endless deep-seated loathing of the other half (though it would still leave around a third of the country with it—those who genuinely want a no-deal Brexit). Negotiating a softer withdrawal agreement than Johnson’s no-deal-by-stealth, and then putting it back to the people with Remain as the alternative, is our only hope. And it’s unlikely to happen, so there isn’t any.
No, I’m talking of the antisemitism crisis that’s destroying Labour’s chances, and which staunch Corbynites have sought to minimise at every turn. A few days ago, comedy writer Sara Gibbs posted a comprehensive article on the issue and its effects, which should be read by anyone who thinks it’s just a few bad apples and no big deal. Antisemitism is one of the few forces that have had a worse impact on Britain and Europe than Brexit promises to, so any time it arises it’s a big deal.
Disturbingly, the issue isn’t confined to Corbyn. When it still looked possible that Ed Miliband could become Labour’s first Jewish prime minister, the Spectator was analysing how he lost the Jewish vote—and yes, that’s the Spectator, but the New Statesman discussed Miliband’s role in the current crisis similarly in 2018.
But what to do with this knowledge, beyond condemning antisemitism and Labour’s leadership failures? The thought of a vote for Labour being construed as indifference towards antisemitism, let alone support for it, is distressing, but surely the risks to Britain’s Jews will be far greater if voters hand a majority to a Tory party captured by the hard-right. These are the conclusions of David Graeber, a Jewish American immigrant to the UK, who has an immigrant’s ability to see the water that the British-born swim in: as he argues, a Labour party with half a million members will have an antisemitism problem because British society has an antisemitism problem, and the problems that Jews will face if the far right feel vindicated by a Tory victory will be far worse.
Corbyn may have unpleasant blind spots, but Johnson can see all too well what he’s doing. Over the weekend, he declared that EU migrants have been able to “treat the UK as if it’s part of their own country” for too long, indulging the same naked xenophobia that supposedly had nothing to do with his 2016 argument for leaving the EU, except when it had everything to do with it. Elsewhere, he outlined his vision for a reformed immigration system of guest workers who’ll be sent home after the fruit has been picked and the patients have been nursed, and a pathway to longer residency for “first violins, nuclear physicists, prima ballerinas [and] Kings and Queens”. It doesn’t take much to read between the lines of that, and it isn’t the first time.
I can’t imagine a Britain where millions of EU27 citizens are driven from the country they’ve made their home, whether by direct action or indirectly by bureaucracy, as one where any immigrant or any minority can feel safe. We don’t even have to imagine it, because it’s the Britain that the Tories have been creating for nine years. As one recent victim of Home Office cruelty has written, all migrants deserve support, not just the “good” ones, and the Tories aren’t offering any.
Yet with the past six weeks having been dominated by Labour’s difficulties, the Tories appear set to win by default, and will take their victory as a mandate for every regressive measure in their manifesto, like crippling Parliament in retaliation for the humiliations they suffered as a minority government (p. 48). They’ll also, of course, take it as a mandate for Johnson’s withdrawal agreement, which according to Sir Ivan Rogers will lead to the “biggest Brexit crisis yet”. Far from getting it done, we’re about to get done over. Not the least of it will be the impact on the NHS, which many British people are so used to enjoying that they can barely comprehend what’s at stake.
As in 2017, there are plenty of positive policies in the Labour manifesto, but it’s been hard to focus on them in light of Corbyn’s performance in recent years. But even if one considers him a lesser evil rather than a positive good, the alternative is appalling. A Johnson government with a bulletproof majority will destroy whatever’s left of Britain after nine years of austerity and three and a half of pre-Brexit, and nobody will be spared its effects.
Given the pernicious impact of first past the post and a Tory campaign of shameless but effective lies, the only hope is tactical voting to get the Tories out, and a hung parliament. The Labour incumbent in my seat is a critic of Corbyn, an opponent of antisemitism, voted against triggering Article 50 and thinks we should remain in the EU. He got 55% of the vote here in 2017 compared with the Tory candidate’s 20%, so the chances of the Tories running through the middle of a split vote seem slim, but I’m not taking any chances.
Edinburgh South, November 2019