With Labour’s problems on antisemitism too large to ignore and Boris Johnson our new Prime Minister a new argument for supporting the party has sprung up — that whatever its problems, it is the “lesser of two evils” and anyone with vaguely left-leaning or centrist views should be getting on board.
The proposal, first made by the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, and seconded by another, Chris Dillow, is slightly more complex than the usual canard that one must vote for the least bad option — or the usual “vote for us or else” socialism or barbarism guff from people who’ve spent the last four years telling half the Labour Party to “fuck off and join the Tories”.
Wren-Lewis claims that the dangers posed by a Boris Johnson government are so great that the only rational thing disgruntled remainers and centre-left voters is to swallow their longstanding anger with Corbyn’s Labour Party on Brexit, antisemitism, and general malcontent and vote, campaign for and generally fall into line in support of Labour and its leader.
As he puts it: “The awkward truth for those who for whatever reason dislike Corbyn’s Labour party is that Labour is the only party that can defeat this government, and its leader in the next election will be Corbyn. Voting is always a choice between the lesser of two evils.”
The argument that voting is always between “the lesser of two evils” is usually true. We rarely agree with all or many of a party’s policies but make a calculation about what’s best for ourselves, others, or will do the least harm.
However, in politics as in life, we also draw moral red lines we say we cannot cross — boundaries of decency beyond which we have to withdraw our support, even if that means making life more difficult for ourselves. We do this because these red lines help us police what is and what isn’t acceptable.
It may make life infinitely more difficult for a husband or wife to kick out a cheating partner. They do so because once breached, the trust is gone, and without serious contrition, an acceptance of wrongdoing and the hurt it has caused, it is impossible to guarantee that trust won’t be breached again and again — often in worse ways.
No red lines in modern politics are perhaps more important than prejudice against minority groups, precisely because they can be subjected to the tyranny of a majority. When we let it slip, as we have far too often in the past and present, bad things happen. They happen because minorities lack the electoral power to vote out governments (or party leaderships) who either target them with prejudice or fail to protect them from it, without those prepared to stand in solidarity alongside them.
This is the argument many Twitter users made to Wren-Lewis, albeit in far stronger terms, with reference to Labour and antisemitism. That to them, Labour had crossed many moral red lines, ones that precluded the party getting their vote — even when it is ostensibly the main opposition to a Boris Johnson government with its own profound issues with racism and which is hurtling headlong towards a no-deal Brexit.
In a follow-up to the online backlash, he responded to this by writing a new blog in which he contends, “of course Labour is not a racist party and I very much doubt the leadership is antisemitic”.
To which the only response is that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission seems to disagree. At the very least, its officials and investigators believe Labour has a serious case to answer. It is the first political party since the BNP to be investigated for institutional racism. As for the leadership, a 2018 poll showed 85% of Jews believe that Jeremy Corbyn is personally antisemitic. Others, who have given him the benefit of the doubt in the past, have also had pause and described his actions as so.
Corbyn supporters and the left-leaning economist understandably want to be able to give Labour the benefit of the doubt, so for them, the bar is overt intentional racism — do Corbyn and a large number of members wake up in the morning with the intention of being openly antisemitic? The answer is of course, no. Even Jeremy Corbyn’s staunchest critics do not believe his secret toilet reading is a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
But for many Jewish people and the EHRC the threshold is lower — it is whether Corbyn or (for the EHRC) Labour unintentionally, due to deeply ingrained views, act in a way that is prejudicial, offensive, and or harmful towards them in a way they do not towards other groups.
Wren-Lewis is fairly explicit about his view in a paragraph in which he argues there are degrees of racism, in which he omnisciently judges Labour and Corbyn’s problems on the issue as lesser ones than Johnson’s.
He writes: “Another comment I received is that there are no degrees of racism. I think this is nonsense. Once again it is useful to compare the two main parties. Both leaders are accused of being racist. With Corbyn the evidence amounts to things like not recognising antisemitic tropes in a painting, not mentioning someones antisemitism in an introduction to a book, or being associated with antisemitic people as part of his support for statehood for Palestine. With Johnson we have someone who has compared Muslim women in a certain dress to letterboxes (and those are not his only racist slurs), and who has supported a racist policy: a hostile environment that saw the deportation of members of the Windrush generation. Are these really equivalent?”
To which the answer is no. They are not. Of course, there are degrees of racism. But what he has done here is to downplay one while aggressively attacking the other in line with his political preference. Corbyn’s “associations with antisemitic people” include inviting a man who has said Jews drink the blood of children to tea at the House of Commons “because he deserves it”, not to mention his laying of a wreath for the plotters of the most notorious attack on Jews since the Second World War - and those are but two entries on a lengthy charge sheet. Notably omitted is his indulgence of antisemitic conspiracy theories on Iranian television and questioning of why prisoners convicted of multiple murders of Jews “were jailed in the first place”.
Corbyn’s Jewish critics genuinely feel he represents a great threat to them given his history includes tolerance of those who have actively incited murder and acceptance of people who are unequivocally antisemitic as allies (not just on Palestine but in politics). They read some of the hatefully antisemitic articles published on the Stop the War website during Corbyn’s tenure as chair or the party and its leader’s repeated failure to acknowledge their concerns until absolutely forced to do so and worry about what that would mean if its leader and his allies were in control of far more than internal processes or a fringe left-wing protest group.
Many stand in solidarity with Muslims making the same complaint against the Conservatives — but howl with rage that those on the left are unwilling to open their eyes to the seriousness of their complaints against Corbyn and Labour.
After all this pledges of “educational materials” or grudging acknowledgements from Corbyn that people unintentionally “dip into” antisemitic tropes, as if they were a lukewarm bath, while more welcome than the outright denialism of the past four years, ring as hollow to those deeply hurt by the party’s behaviour on antisemitism as Conservatives pointing out the heritage of some of the cabinet, excusing “colourful language” and empty pledges to launch an inquiry into Islamophobia do to those who have been subjected to Tory racism.
But it is not my place, as Wren-Lewis does, to argue that one is worse than the other. I mention this only to draw attention to the fact that his characterisation of one being self-evidently worse in degree than the other is easily contested — and that is why we draw moral red lines. Not because all racism is the same, even in nature or degree, but because not to do so leads us towards a dangerous relativism. If we are not prepared to stand up for the concerns of one community, we lose our credibility when we call out the abuse of another by our political opponents — even if we happen to think their behaviour is worse. And for a potential Prime Minister, we want to set the threshold lower than “is openly and intentionally racist”.
Another passagecompares Labour’s “inefficient disciplinary process” with Conservatives letting “those exposed of making racist comments back in after a few months of ‘re-education’” stating that they are not equivalent — the Tories are far worse.
In this case I’d argue they are far more equivalent than he wants to admit. Labour has been accused of doing exactly what he rightly alleges the Conservative Party has done with Islamophobes with antisemites, namely letting back terrible offenders with a slap on the wrists and promises of education. In Liverpool, Labour members have also staged a hero’s welcome for an MP kicked out for an antisemitic “pattern of behaviour” and have faced no sanction. It’s also worth noting that Corbyn described the same Nosferatu impersonating MP as a “a strong anti-racist campaigner” and “not antisemitic in any way” long after repeated complaints about his behaviour were public knowledge — and barely a month before the party kicked him out for it.
Again, this is a reason to put red lines up — so we do not have to argue the toss. Because if you’re arguing about what type of institutional racism is less consequential, while another is beyond the pale and must be opposed, then you’ve already lost the fight. The racists you claim to oppose, or those who are happy to share their political movements with them will simply use your own logic to argue why their particular prejudice is acceptable.
You will struggle to upbraid a liberal Conservative from Cheshire who knows in their heart Johnson is morally defective, but quite likes the idea of spending splurges in Greater Manchester and tax cuts for their business, for supporting him. Our fictional Knutsford Tory will be perfectly within their rights to claim that you are indulging in the same political calculations and moral relativism as they are by supporting a party with its own glaring issues but whose economic policies you will benefit from or see as the greater good.
If Wren-Lewis’ moral argument doesn’t work, then what about the practical one? In his blog he argues that as Corbyn is ensconced at the top of the Labour Party, left, centre-left, and centrist voters’ misgivings about the Labour leader should be parked due to our national crisis. Many of those horrified by Corbyn and his acolytes’ behaviour on antisemitism would agree with his assessment that the very real risk of Johnson leading us into a No Deal Brexit would be the “biggest act of political and economic self-harm ever inflicted on the UK”. Some will even break their moral code and red lines citing a political emergency. It may not be honourable, but perhaps, like in a Godzilla film, sometimes the only way to save the city from one monster is to throw your lot in with another.
It seems, on the face of it, a no brainer — a flawed Corbyn government with an ambiguous position on Brexit, or a Johnson one in hock to Farage. But there is a major unacknowledged flaw in its premise. By definition, those who Wren-Lewis is asking to swallow their major misgivings and vote for Labour, think Corbyn and his team will be bad for Britain, in many cases disastrously so. They do not do so because they “want their party back” and “will do anything that in their view helps that cause”. Many have taken the heartbreaking step of resigning. Others accept (some did so even before Corbyn became leader) that austerity has been deeply damaging and would now happily support a Labour party that was anti-austerity if they had confidence in its leadership not to wreck the country in other ways.
Those who are vehemently Corbynsceptic regard him as inept, and Labour’s policies as a mish-mash of good, bad, and misplaced priorities, where the benefits of increased spending in some areas will be offset or undone by organisational incompetence, fetishisation of ideological dead ends, similarly inspired upheavals with little result, Canute like battles with economic tides, and of course, total incoherence on its ultimate stance on Brexit.
Worse, though, they look at Labour’s behaviour on antisemitism, especially in the wake of the BBC’s Panorama investigation, revelations of alleged harassment by a key aide, and years of aggressive targeting of internal critics via semi-autonomous outriders, and see a deeply unpleasant hard left authoritarian streak, one that would cause untold harm if let off the leash in national institutions rather than just the Labour Party. They look at Corbyn and his closest advisers’ (those who would be at the centre of government) indulgence of conspiracism and bullying, attacks on people and institutions perceived as enemies, things like a Shadow Minister threatening a journalist with a baseball bat, or a party chairman who allowed sick miners to pay for his mortgage, as well as their support for shocking regimes like Maduro’s Venezuela, Castro’s Cuba, and even in one case, North Korea, and worry what it would mean if the party were in power.
Other fears are policy-related. At a time when Donald Trump has removed one Jenga brick from the Western Alliance, Corbyn’s critics worry he would bring the whole tower down. They look at his response to the attacks on the Skripals, conspiracism on Syria, his stated opposition to NATO and liking for Russia Today and find the idea of a Corbyn ministry as frightening a prospect in its own way as a Johnson one — in some cases for the exact same reason — they believe both are quite prepared to defenestrate important international institutions (and the countries they protect)to indulge themselves in a gory feast of their own preferred ideological red meat.
These are not idle worries. Even if one takes a fairly benign view of a Corbyn government’s initial intentions, namely that it will largely stick to the 2017 manifesto and pursue mooted nationalisations and reorganisations less aggressively than some in the inner circle would like, it will face scandals, policy failures, and be scolded for broken promises. It will face intense and trying crises where the views of its principle actors are crucial. The behaviour of Corbyn’s inner circle in Labour’s antisemitism crisis and its shameful failure to act on harassment, in particular, does not bode well. Why should it not lash out at whistleblowers and critics who expose flaws in its NHS policies, or in the management of nationalised industries by trusted apparatchiks? God forbid if such critics happen to be Jewish.
Importantly, if elected, Corbyn and his team would have far fewer constraints and greater power. An election victory would be taken as an endorsement of its leader’s politics — even if many voters are doing as Wren-Lewis suggests and voting for Labour reluctantly.
So, if you believe a Corbyn government will be an awful one, then far from putting the demons of the past few years back in the box, it will summon them further. If the Conservative Party has lost its moral compass, then it seems vanishingly unlikely to find it any time soon, and if that is the case, a bad Labour government that has lost its own one does not inoculate you against a worse future Conservative one. In fact, it may make things a whole lot worse.
If these are your misgivings, it is difficult to see how a Corbyn government fronted by the most consistently unpopular opposition leader in living memory, with no clearly stated view on its end destination on Brexit, led by officials who have voiced open contempt for liberal democratic norms, ends up making things better. For one thing, even if it were to call another Brexit referendum it would do so grudgingly, and under an unpopular Prime Minister who proved himself either unwilling or unable to make the case back in 2016. Furthermore, a Labour government that indulged its own populist blame game is likely to find that its right-wing opponents can play the same tune more convincingly in opposition.
This is not to say such a view of Corbyn and Corbynism is correct. As you might guess, it’s one I hold — but we must all be aware of our fallibility. It would make my own, and millions of others’ lives easier if I and others were wrong and Corbyn’s supporters were right, and that we have a benevolent government in waiting, if only we could see it. But we don’t think that, and it is not the argument Wren-Lewis and others are, at least openly, trying to make. Instead, it’s that whatever concerns and moral red lines we have, they must be parked, and we must not let the bad be the friend of the irredeemable.
He may be right in the abstract. We do often vote for the lesser of two evils. But the problem with Corbyn’s Labour Party is that many who’d normally be onside or prepared to park misgivings about certain policies or politicians, just aren’t convinced Labour in its current form represents a discernible lesser one worth fighting for — even when compared with Boris Johnson. Those words might make Corbyn supporters scream with rage, but it is how many feel about Labour at the moment. A party that they can’t trust on anything and that is as antithetical to their own liberal-left values as the Conservatives.
Those fearful of a Johnson government should not be angrily demanding grudging support, but trying to convince otherwise. Like a broken marriage, the trust is gone and is not coming back easily.
But to end on an optimistic note — marriages are repaired — but it requires real change on both sides, acknowledgment of past wrongs and working together on establishing new, shared boundaries and aspirations all can accept. If the Labour Party is capable of that, then maybe no one has to vote for the lesser of two evils — let’s hope they realise that before it’s too late.