Labour celebrates election wins, but the shadow of antisemitism still confounds the party

Even before voters headed out to the polling stations for last night’s Wellingborough and Kingswood by-elections, Labour and the Conservatives were prepping us up for this morning’s headlines. For their part the Tories fell back on the safe and familiar ‘governments never do well in local elections, but a General Election will be different’ line, whilst Labour – evidently uncertain how things were going to go – declared that ‘whatever the result, there’s still a lot to do if we’re going to win power’.

In the end Labour needn’t have worried, and the Tories really should have prepared something more concrete, given the absolute hammering they received last night. In Wellingborough, Northamptonshire there was a 28.6 swing to Labour, the second biggest shift of support to the party recorded since the second world war and in Kingswood, near Bristol, Keir Starmer’s party demolished an 11,200 Tory majority.

Whilst the air this morning hung heavy with the usual excuses and analyses, the figure that always tends to be the hardest to find these days is the turnout percentage. Everyone loves to talk about winners and losers, but far fewer people are keen to engage with the turnout, which invariably makes even the biggest swing or majority look a bit frayed at the edges.

In the case of the ‘biggest swing since the second world war in Wellingborough’, the Conservatives’ share of the vote slumped from 62% at the 2019 general election to just 25%, whilst the Labour share jumped from 26% to 46%, with the winning candidate finishing with a majority of 6,436 over their opponent. However the turnout was just 38% of the constituency’s 79,376 voting eligible population. So 30,162 voters turned out, and just 13,844 – or 17% – of the electorate voted for the ‘winning’ Labour candidate.

It was a similar story in Kingswood, where the Conservatives’ share of the vote fell from 56% at the 2019 general election to 35%, while Labour jumped from 33% to 45%. Here the turnout was just 37.1% of the constituency’s 65,543 voting eligible population. So 24,316 voters turned out, and just 10,942 – or 17% – of the electorate voted for the ‘winning’ Labour candidate.

So in both cases victories that are being hailed as landmark delivered MPs supported by less than one fifth of their constituencies. Of course it’s easy to say that the result could or would have been very different if every constituent had voted, and there were more than a few commentators this morning pointing out that in a democracy everyone is free to vote and if you don’t vote then your voice isn’t going to be counted.

Whilst that’s true, it ought to be said that even though it’s not included in the figures, a decision to stay at home is every bit as much a vote as trundling round to the polling station. In fact today it may even be more so, as yesterday’s by-elections came on the same day that the UK dipped into a formal state of recession, and the Labour party is mired deeply in a highly damaging and longstanding narrative of systemic antisemitism.

Non-representative election results aside, I couldn’t help but shift uncomfortably in my seat listening to Sir Keir Starmer on BBC Breakfast this morning saying that “people are ready to put their faith in a changed Labour Party”.

“It’s a different party to the party in 2019,” said Sir Keir.

Unfortunately that doesn’t square well with Times/YouGov poll published yesterday that indicated a quarter of Labour voters think Labour has failed on antisemitism.  A similar Times/YouGov poll back in 2019 charged that the then Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn was antisemitic, and personally to blame for Labour’s ‘antisemitism crisis’. In the wake of this Labour launched formal investigations into complaints of antisemitism against individuals, resulting in some 350 party members resigning, being expelled or receiving warnings.

A concerted and sustained programme of ‘education and reformation’ within the Labour party followed but – as we have seen only this week – the allegations and charges of anti-semitism within the party persist. Just this morning it appears that a third Labour politician is going to be ‘spoken to’ after it has emerged that he also attended the controversial gathering where parliamentary candidates are alleged to have made anti-Israel or antisemitic remarks.

If one examines the remarks that it is said were spoken at this meeting, the ‘or’ becomes somewhat significant, and illustrates the increasing problem in this particular area of differentiating critical comments from prejudice.

This isn’t the place to repeat all the remarks made by disgraced Rochdale by-election candidate Azhir Ali, but what we know was clearly sufficiently alarming for Sir Keir to act immediately and decisively, and for numerous other commentators to jump on the story and charge that these problems were obviously still endemic within his party.

As a suitable candidate for politics, his community and the Labour party, Mr Ali is clearly now a persona non grata, but his comments remain of interest because they drift back and forth across that difficult boundary of criticism vs hate speech. Mr Ali charged that Israel was planning to “get rid of [Palestinians] from Gaza” and “grab” some of the land. He is also said to have used the highly charged and controversial phrase “from river to The sea”, which many regard as a part of a pledge to eradicate Israel.

In fact this phrase and its variants has been used since the 1960s by a variety of people and with a variety of purposes, from genocidal to democratic. Admittedly the phrase is particularly worrisome to Israelis as the 2017 consitution of Hamas declared “Hamas rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea.”

Whilst this kind of language may be controversial, offensive, barmy or deluded depending on your inclination, it’s another level of argument entirely to presume that criticism of a nation and it’s political actions can be conflated objectively to an irrational hatred or fear of any particular race.

In Mr Ali’s case this line is actually clear to see, as he also made a very negative reference to the tired old calumny that the UK media is controlled by some Jewish cabal seeking to control and manipulate wider society. Given that this is factually incorrect, Mr Ali’s position understandably shifts from institution-critical to antisemitic, and Sir Kier Starmer was thus entirely justified in removing him.

Closer to home, I’ve always been a great admirer of the Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc, but his life and writing are fraught with difficult and questionable references to the English Jewish community that, under the prevailing public mood, have pretty much consigned him to oblivion.

I read recently a letter from a Catholic priest who knew Belloc well, in which he recounts Hilaire telling him that he’d been unable to receive Holy Communion the day after a night in the company of a group of Jews who had kept him “feasting till after half-past-twelve”, thereby breaking his eucharistic fast.

“The subtle Semite, like the serpent, did bemuse me,” noted Belloc wryly.

This brief anecdote is fraught with enough complexities to furnish a PhD on the boundaries and nature of antisemitism, and is an excellent illustration of how difficult the phenomenon has been to define.

Not that there has been any shortage of efforts to do so. In 2016 the International Holocaust Remembrance Association published the first ”working definition” of antisemitism which was pretty clear that antisemitism was essentially “hatred towards Jews”. It stated:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

In response to this very generalised principle, an academic task force published the Nexus definition in 2021 and a letter signed by hundreds of international scholars of antisemitism followed up in the same year with the Jerusalem Declaration.

Oddly, or perhaps not, all three declarations get distinctly cloudy when it comes to separating anti-Israel rhetoric from antisemitism. This is undoubtedly because it is genuinely hard to see when a remark about Israel is fuelled exclusively by criticism of the state and its institutions, or by deeper animosities to the Jewish people in general.

This is particularly apposite in the present global situation. In a poll conducted just last month by the Israel Democracy Institute, despite the horrors of the Hamas attack of 7th October last year, there is overwhelming discontent at the Israeli government and only 15% of Israelis want Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stay in office after the war on Hamas in Gaza ends – though there is still wide support his strategy of crushing the militants in the Palestinian enclave.

In short, the actions of the Israeli government is not the actions of the Israeli people, though I can understand fully why much of the invective aimed at it must feel to many Jewish people that it’s also aimed at them. Those of us Irish Catholics who lived in England throughout the decades of the Troubles will understand this profoundly, as the actions of the IRA were invariably synonymous in the mind of the British public with the Irish people. And it wasn’t just Irish Catholics who were targeted – the actor Kenneth Brannagh (whose family was Protestant) says he was beaten regularly in the school playground whenever an ‘Irish’ incident occurred on the British mainland.

Throughout my explorations of the writings of Hilaire Belloc it has been similarly difficult to differentiate what constitutes banter, criticism or antisemitism, but my Irish experience has tended me to think that if it feels like prejudice to the recipient, then it probably is.

The singling out of any group of people merely by nature of their race, culture or their country of origin must be identified and fought, but so too must the increasing tendency to stifle legitimate protest by conflating it with irrational prejudice, which has its foundations in the much darker recesses of the human personality.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian