Sunday, 29 July 2018

Corbyn’s ill-judged reaction to Margaret Hodge’s comments may just become his undoing

Jeremy Corbyn has really not had a good week. It was the week when the dam really finally burst on anti-Semitism, with the PLP wholeheartedly rejecting the party’s “doctored” definition of anti-Semitism, one-third of British voters surveyed thinking him an anti-Semite and an unprecedented and scathing joint editorial on the front page of the UK’s three most prominent Jewish newspapers, condemning Corbyn. But more of that later. On Tuesday, he also finally came out as a full-blooded Brexiteer.

Over the last two years, Jeremy Corbyn has increasingly irritated Labour’s Remainers (who, according to überpollster Prof. John Curtice, are actually in the majority in the party nationally and not just in London, as many previously thought), by his disingenuous attempts to ride two horses at once over Brexit.

And somewhat inexplicably, he has chosen this moment, when everything is going spectacularly badly, to “come out” for Brexit and try to sell its “benefits”.

His “British jobs for British workers” 1970s schtick may resonate with some Labour voters, yes (let us not forget that Gordon Brown once tried much the same). However, apart from the economic illiteracy of the approach, toughness on immigration is not actually the vote-winner it once was, as the latest Social Attitudes Survey now shows.

In fact, in view of the recent Cabinet turmoil over Brexit and dire warnings arriving from all quarters about the possibility of No Corbyn could scarcely have timed his “coming out” as a Leaver worse.

No, one of Corbyn’s many problems as leader is that his judgement is hardly consistently good.

On that note, let us turn to the issue of his spat with Margaret Hodge. The spectacular own goal of allowing his acolytes to attempt the rewriting of a perfectly serviceable definition of anti-Semitism reeked of bad faith and caused a huge backlash two weeks ago.

This may be because, as some have pointed out, both spokesman Seumas Milne and Corbyn himself might easily have fallen foul of the existing definition as a result of past actions (the Internet is, after all, forever).

But instead of reacting to conclusively fix the problem, Labour’s leadership first waffled about “consultation”, and has now decided to go further and double down.

As a result, veteran backbencher Margaret Hodge last week collared Corbyn in the Commons and told him he was “a racist and an anti-Semite”.

He could easily have chosen, as John McDonnell is apparently now suggesting he would like to (let’s see if that happens), to put the conversation behind the Speaker’s Chair down to a “robust exchange of views” and let it lie.

Instead, he chose to up the ante with Margaret Hodge, by his spokesman insisting that she would be “disciplined”, thereby ensuring that (a) Jewish organisations stepped in immediately to defend her, and (b) the story would stick around for much, much longer.

Corbyn then completed the act of judiciously painting himself into a corner by stating his inability to intervene in the process (as if). Thus neatly removing any justifiable reason for the process to be dropped.

Let us now look at the choice of enemy he has just made.

Dame Margaret Hodge, MP, is not an amateur. She is one of very few heavyweights left on the Labour benches: she ran an inner London council for ten years; spent 9 years as a Minister of State; chaired the influential Public Accounts Committee for a further 5 years; and, in and among, saw of the neo-Nazis of the BNP in Barking. And, of course, she is Jewish and lost family in the Holocaust.

This last fact is important only because it makes this all personal and an absolute point of principle. But even were that not the case, the politics is right and the profile is right to take on Corbyn.

The real question now is, if the Leader’s Office is suddenly happy to let sleeping dogs lie, will she? A quick calculation would say a resounding “no”.

First, why take the formidable step of confronting the Leader of the Opposition if you would immediately back down thereafter? If it was not a ditch you were prepared to die in?

Second, she is seventy-four in a matter of weeks. She may decide to stick it out another term but, at this point, it would be unusual. After thirty-odd years of big jobs, she has had a good innings and is visibly winding down. Fair enough: she’s earned it, after all.

But she still clearly packs a punch. And now she has a mission, one which has caught many people’s imagination. It might even be one broader than saving the Labour Party from anti-Semitism: it might be saving the Labour Party from Jeremy Corbyn (although some might reasonably feel these to be the same thing).

Third, it’s clear that most of her younger colleagues have not the wile, the gravitas nor the cojones to pull off what she’s now attempting. The letter her lawyers, Mishcon de Reya*, sent to Jennie Formby was one of consummate professionalism. The message was less one of meek submission, more “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough”.

In short: Corbyn may just have bitten off more than he can chew this time. And, as American Beauty might have taught us: never underestimate an MP with nothing to lose. This is likely to be a very serious battle indeed for Corbyn and quite possibly a mortal one.

* We might also note that it was the self-same firm hired by Deborah Lipstadt, when she successfully destroyed the reputation of anti-Semitic historian David Irving – a fact that has already had the Corbynite, anti-Israel fringe going into fits of conspiratorial apoplexy (apparently they have links to Israel, the bounders!).

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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