Politics & Policy

The Corbyn Precedent

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses a rally in London in May. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
If a socialist demagogue with a soft spot for anti-Semites can rise to the cusp of power in Britain, the same thing could happen here.

The socialist wing of the Democratic party is all the rage these days. Senator Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are rock stars for the party’s grassroots and major attractions on the campaign trail. Thanks in part to the anti-establishment energy created by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss and in part to anger at President Donald Trump, the party’s base appears to have taken a sharp left turn.

There’s little doubt that the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination will be won with the votes of those cheering Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. If more moderate Democrats don’t appear too alarmed about the influence of such people, it may be that they regard the uprising on the left as integral to fomenting the kind of enthusiasm among the base that is necessary to win elections. Moreover, they likely think that even triumphant socialists can be housetrained once in office and that control of the party and the government, after what they hope will be blue-wave victories in 2018 and 2020, will remain in the hands of less radical Democrats.

But given what’s happened in Britain since the Labour party’s leadership was captured by Jeremy Corbyn, there are good reasons to temper such optimism.

Though the political systems of the United Kingdom and the United States are quite different, Corbyn is about as close to the British equivalent of Bernie Sanders as one can get. Like Sanders, Corbyn is a long-serving, perennial leftist gadfly who has enjoyed an unexpected late-career rise to prominence. His run for the leadership of Labour after its defeat in the 2015 elections was, like Sanders’s 2016 run, initially written off as the empty gesture of a fringe figure. But, like Sanders, he found that his brand of hard-left politics resonated more with his party’s base than anyone thought it would: He won control of Labour with a clear majority of party voters.

Far from moderating once installed atop the party, Corbyn stuck to his radical stances on both domestic and foreign issues. Yet when Labour voters were given a chance to replace him after the parliamentary party repudiated him, he won reelection as leader in 2016 by an even greater margin. At that point, pundits still dismissed his chances of winning election to No. 10. Prime Minister Theresa May was so unthreatened by the prospect that she called an early general election in June 2017. Of course, rather than increase her majority as the polls predicted, May lost seats and barely retained power. Though Corbyn fell short of winning the election, Labour’s share of the vote increased to 40 percent and it gained 30 seats in parliament. His chances of replacing May could no longer be dismissed. In fact, given the deep divisions Brexit has opened up among Tories, the prospect of a Prime Minister Corbyn is less remote than ever before.

Difficult as it may seem to contemplate, American liberals should think long and hard about the consequences of the Corbyn precedent for a Democratic party that seems increasingly ready to abandon the center.

Despite this seemingly golden opportunity, however, Corbyn hasn’t budged an inch toward the center. His hostility to Israel and his refusal to unambiguously condemn anti-Semitism are particularly instructive examples.

Throughout his career, Corbyn’s hostility to the state of Israel and willingness to express support for the likes of Hamas and other radical Islamists who seek to destroy the Jewish state is a matter of record. But it’s his complete indifference to the openly anti-Semitic attitudes and statements of many of his supporters that has made this issue a key test of his leadership.

Hostility to Israel among Corbyn’s supporters is intense. As is the case in most of Europe, British liberal elites regard Zionism as a form of racism rather than the legitimate expression of Jewish rights to self-determination in their ancient homeland. Moreover, their sympathy for Muslim immigrants to Britain and opposition to what they see as xenophobia behind the vote for Brexit has even led them to a certain degree of sympathy for radical Islamists.

Like many of those who cloak their antipathy for the Jewish state behind sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians or criticisms of Israel’s government, Corbyn has attempted to deny his hostility to Jews. The key moment this year was an attempt by Labour to redefine anti-Semitism so as to exclude statements in which Israel is compared to the Nazis or defined as a racist or apartheid state. The ploy, which aimed to silence the growing debate about hatred of Jews in Labour, backfired.

Historically, the small British Jewish community has been a stronghold of support for Labour. But faced with a party leader and his followers who cannot distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel’s government and opposition to its existence, British Jews are wondering about their future if Corbyn is ever elected prime minister. In an unprecedented move last month, all three national Jewish newspapers published a joint front-page editorial that denounced the “Corbynite contempt for Jews and Israel” and declared the possibility of a Corbyn-led government to be an “existential threat to Jewish life” in Britain.

Could such a thing happen to Democrats in the United States?

Even the sternest critic of the Democratic party would have to admit that the comparison is imperfect. The circumstances that led to Corbyn’s rise are peculiar to Britain and Labour. Corbyn’s hostility to Israel and Jewish concerns is popular among Labour voters; it does not enjoy nearly the same support among American Democrats. While Republicans are near-unanimous in their support for Israel, Democrats are deeply divided about backing for the Jewish state. But levels of support for Israel among Democrats are still high when compared with their Labour counterparts in the U.K.

All that said, the drift toward tolerance of anti-Israel rhetoric among Democrats is troublesome. In the last two months, 13 Democratic senators and 70 Democratic House members have signed letters blasting Israel and supporting the end of the blockade of Gaza, which would be tantamount to re-arming Hamas. Moreover, American liberals have shown themselves vulnerable to the appeal of intersectional ideology that sees the Palestinian war on Israel’s existence as linked to the struggle for civil rights in the United States. A party in which figures like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are rock stars despite their ambivalence toward Israel is one vulnerable to the rise of “Corbynite contempt for Jews and Israel,” especially if Corbyn is elected prime minister and comes to be seen as a model that other liberal and left-wing leaders should follow.

If the rise of Corbyn is seen by many on the left as a blueprint for success that involves purging moderates and embracing socialist ideology, it is also a cautionary tale that illustrates what happens when a major party comes under the thumb of a demagogue with a soft spot for anti-Semites. Difficult as it may seem to contemplate, American liberals should think long and hard about the consequences of the Corbyn precedent for a Democratic party that seems increasingly ready to abandon the center.

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