Stories about antisemitism in the Labour Party have circulated ever since Jeremy Corbyn succeeded Ed Miliband as leader. And, as is the way with long-running issues, press coverage rises and falls and rises again – sometimes, it seems, without any obvious reason. Media interest is a fickle thing. Or is it?
Some of those who support Corbyn believe that, as Len McCluskey says, it’s ‘a cynical attempt to manipulate antisemitism for political aims … got up by the right-wing press aided and abetted by Labour MPs’. And that Corbyn’s enemies deliberately choose their moments to do the greatest possible damage to the leader. In essence, the argument is that whenever Labour is doing well, the saboteurs produce more ‘antisemitism smears’ (Chris Williamson‘s words).
‘Interesting that whenever Labour leads in the polls the antisemitism card gets played against Corbyn,’ as one loyalist tweeted. Or here’s a Labour council candidate claiming that the ‘Enough Is Enough’ demonstration outside Parliament in April 2018 was ‘part of a plot to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and wreck his chances in May’s local elections’.
If it’s true that something as toxic as racism is being exploited in order to wreck Labour’s chances in town-hall elections, this would be a level of cynicism shocking even by political standards.
So, is there any truth in these claims? As a small contribution to the argument, we did a simple search of the Newsbank archive of British newspapers, looking for articles that mentioned both ‘the Labour Party’ and ‘antisemitism’. And here are the totals for each of the 35 months Corbyn has been leader:
It’s important to note that, as a research tool, this is a blunt instrument. First, Newsbank covers a lot of newspapers – over a hundred turned up in this search – but it doesn’t have all of them: the Daily Mail and the Morning Star, for example, are not included here. Second, some papers have more than one edition in Newsbank. And third, all it takes is for a different formulation (‘antisemitic’ rather than ‘antisemitism’, say) for it not to register on such a search.
So the numbers on the y-axis are not to be taken too seriously. But the raw numbers don’t matter. What we’re looking at is the shape, whether there’s any discernible pattern.
There are clear spikes of interest. But they don’t really tally with the most opportune times to attack Corbyn. The two months after the referendum in 2016 were when he was at his weakest. This was the time, you’ll remember, of the attempted coup, when most of the shadow cabinet resigned, and Labour MPs voted in overwhelming numbers that they had no confidence in their leader. But this turns out not to have been a peak moment for antisemitism stories.
The period leading up to the general election in 2017 was even quieter on the issue. Yet if one were trying to get rid of Corbyn, this would surely have been a good time to strike. After all, everyone knew the election was already lost for Labour; what one would be looking for is to tarnish him as much as possible, so that he would be forced to step down immediately after losing. Yet antisemitism barely registered.
So if these external events don’t seem to be shaping the coverage, how does it look if we make a note of Labour’s internal affairs? Well, it looks like this:
And what that looks like is surely a series of own-goals by Labour, with Ken Livingstone – inevitably – the repeat offender. His ability to feed red meat to the media is truly extraordinary. Broadly speaking, media interest in Labour and antisemitism increases when the party itself draws attention to the subject.
There are a couple of exceptions, occasions where events have been beyond the control of the Labour Party.
First, the report into antisemitism in Labour that Shami Chakrabarti published in June 2016, and which largely exonerated the party (though admitting there was an ‘occasionally toxic atmosphere’), didn’t receive very much coverage. Had the conclusions been more damning, it would undoubtedly have been more extensively reported. So it’s possible to argue that good news for Labour is under-reported. But then the inquiry by the soon-to-be-ennobled Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington was not seen by many observers to be particularly thorough or rigorous, and perhaps it didn’t deserve much more than it got.
The second exception is the appearance in March 2018 of stories about Corbyn’s use of social media: dubious Facebook groups to which he belonged, his approval of a clearly antisemitic mural, and so on. This provokes the biggest spike of all.
The impact of the social media stories is slightly distorted by the fact that March was also the month when Livingstone made another appearance in the news agenda, with his suspension from the party – already two years long – being extended indefinitely. And it was the month when Christine Shawcroft resigned twice, first as chair of the NEC disputes panel, and then from the NEC itself. But they weren’t the major contributors to this spike: over 70 per cent of the stories that month made mention of neither Livingstone nor Shawcroft.
No, it was certainly the social media stuff that produced this revival of interest in Labour and antisemitism. But for the press, it isn’t exactly a story that keeps giving. Once Corbyn’s Facebook history has been ransacked, there’s an end to it. Nor is it the easiest story to sell to the public. The bit about the mural had the advantage of a visual, but it’s not as though he posted the picture online himself. And the other stuff – he was a member of a group where someone posted some racist material – isn’t particularly damning. Because the idea that Corbyn is an active and knowing racist doesn’t get much traction with the public. The real damage comes with the charge that he has been passive, not active, that he has turned a blind eye and permitted racism to flourish in his party.
In the normal course of things, the social media story would have died out fairly swiftly. But the Labour Party heaped fuel on the fire, and kept it burning merrily away. It wasn’t just the less-than-fortuitous timing of the Livingstone and Shawcroft episodes. They were followed in short order by Marc Wadsworth, who was expelled after the best part of two years on suspension; by Livingstone (again), who resigned from the party; and then by the NEC adopting a definition of antisemitism that was, er, controversial.
There are various possible interpretations of this. It may be political incompetence and poor media management. It might be the double-downing stubbornness of the righteous. Or it could be that there are senior figures in the party deliberately picking a fight with British Jewry. In any event, those in Labour who oppose Jeremy Corbyn don’t need to work too hard to fan the flames of this story; he, and those close to him, are quite capable of doing the job for themselves.