There is no going backward, but it is possible to move on. Britain’s Labour Party is attempting to do just that.
Over the weekend, the opposition party in the U.K. quietly ended Jeremy Corbyn’s four-and-a-half-year tenure as leader. Though the selection process lacked the transparency and fanfare that accompanies a leadership election in a time before social distancing, Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer, emerged with a convincing 56 percent of the vote on the first ballot. Starmer’s first tasks as his party’s new leader were to unify his fractured coalition and also to leave no doubts about the mistakes they’d made that left Labour in the unenviable position it occupies today.
“Anti-Semitism has been a stain on our party,” Starmer’s statement read. “On behalf of the Labour Party, I am sorry. And I will tear out this poison by its roots and judge success by the return of Jewish members and those who felt that they could no longer support us.” But if anti-Semitism within the party is to be deracinated, observers who believe that can only be accomplished by extirpating Corbynism entirely from Labour’s ranks were surely disappointed. The former leader was feted by his successor as a man who led “our party through some really difficult times, who energized our movement, and who’s a friend as well as a colleague.”
Corbyn’s tenure has cost Labour the trust and patience of millions, including political observers around the world. By rights, it should have been Corbyn’s hidebound socialism and barely concealed tolerance for anti-Semitism that did him in. But what ultimately cost Corbyn the support of his party was electoral defeat. And not just any defeat, but a disastrous one.
British Labourites and voters more broadly knew who Corbyn was well before the summer of 2017. His first shadow cabinet was a mess. His nostalgic Marxism was laid bare in a manifesto that called for the nationalization of infrastructure and industry alike. His fondness for terrorists—from the IRA to Hezbollah and Hamas—was no secret. But the conservative government under Theresa May plodded into the general election with all the grace of a muskox, confirming voters’ fears that the government could not completely manage Brexit and transforming a 20-point margin in the polls into a 13-seat loss for the Tories. Though it was a defeat for Labour, Corbyn’s party managed a halfway decent showing. It was enough to avoid the impression that Labour had suffered a rebuke.
In the interim, Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Semitism problem rapidly became Labour’s anti-Semitism problem. The party was wrought by schism when it pledged to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism but amended it to allow its members more freedom to criticize Israel, all without consulting relevant Jewish organizations or even the party’s Jewish members. The unearthing of a variety of Corbyn’s anti-Semitic online affiliations compelled his own members to openly criticize their party’s leadership. Under Corbyn, his party’s affinities trended steadily in one odious direction, leading to the high-profile resignations of many longtime Labour MPs. “I am sickened that Labour is now perceived by many as a racist, anti-Semitic party,” said outgoing MP Mike Gapes.
All this weighed heavily on British voters. One survey found that 85 percent of Britain’s Jews believed Corbyn was himself anti-Semitic, despite his pro forma denunciations of Jew-hatred. Britain’s chief rabbi denounced the Labour Party’s leader as “unfit for office,” a sentiment with which the Archbishop of Canterbury agreed. By the eve of the 2019 general election, only the most unwavering of Labour voters told pollsters that their primary concern about the prospect of a Labour-led government was “Jeremy Corbyn being prime minister.” But the inevitability of the disaster headed Labour’s way was not acknowledged until it was upon them, and by then it was too late. On December 12, Labour turned in the party’s worst electoral performance since 1935. It wasn’t the anti-Semitism that did Corbyn in. It was his failure to deliver at the polls.
It may be cold comfort that one of the two largest parties in one of the world’s oldest and most powerful democracies has made the issue of anti-Semitism within its ranks a practical rather than moral consideration, but it is repudiation nonetheless. Starmer might have soothed the wounded egos within his party’s ranks by blaming their historic defeat last year on his predecessor’s irascible nature, his Tory-esque Euroscepticism, or half a dozen other unlovely personality quirks, absolving his institution of fault in the process. But he laid the blame where it belonged.
What remains of Labour is not liberated from the taint of Corbynism. Starmer, an avowed socialist, was a member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, and his opposition government is composed of the same odious lawmakers who once flanked Corbyn. As the Atlantic’s Tom McTague convincingly argued, Corbyn has left an indelible ideological stamp on the party he led for nearly half a decade. But it was unrealistic to expect an institution that was once so invested in the success of its leadership to tear out his legacy root and branch overnight. It will take time before the party or its most loyal members are willing to acknowledge and atone for the scale of their errors. But Starmer chose to mark his ascension with an explicit acknowledgment of the conditions that rendered the party toxic. Even if it’s only the first step, it’s in the right direction.