Column for Jewish News September 24 2015
It is a truth universally acknowledged… that a politician in want of popular support is likely to say anything, anything, if he – and it is usually a “he” – thinks it has the slightest chance of being swallowed by a gullible electorate.
And five minutes after the crucial votes have been secured there is almost always the accompanying sound of coats turning, as the politician in question suddenly feels free to say what he really wanted to say in the first place.
Thus the unsavoury sight of Andy Burnham, on 20 July, kissing up to the Jewish public at JW3 during the Labour leadership hustings, and declaring that once in charge, he would ensure that the story of the Balfour Declaration was taught in all schools. This was Burnham’s attempt to dissociate himself from the front runner in the race, Jeremy Corbyn, and show himself “holier than yow” as the Brummie expression has it.
It didn’t do Burnham any good, race-wise; but no sooner had Corbyn won than Burnham scuttled off to serve in the new leader’s Shadow Cabinet, despite previously saying he would do no such thing.
If Burnham hoped to make political capital out of his declaration regarding the Balfour Declaration – and his earlier assertion that as Labour leader he would make his first foreign visit to Israel – then he was sadly disappointed. Neither the great Jewish public nor the great British public bought Burnham’s claims.
I raise Burnham because of the curious story circulating last week about the Jewish background of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Cohen – sorry, Corbyn. What was known before the election were these facts: that Corbyn’s mother was called Naomi, that Corbyn’s own middle name is Bernard, and that his father’s name was David Benjamin Corbyn. Ooh. The noise of numbers being added up and making five is earth-shattering.
It is a curious story for two reasons: one, that he chose to confide in the Church Times that his mother may have come from a Jewish background, probably from Germany – that is, an Anglican, rather than a Jewish, publication. And two, that Corbyn waited until after the election before delivering this Who Do You Think You Are-type bombshell. Rather than trotting out his well-used “my mother was at Cable Street” line in his rather weedy attempts to try to stamp on the attacks on some of his dodgy anti-Semitic associates, why on earth didn’t Corbyn offer up his own Jewish heritage? Didn’t he remember? Or was it simply that no one asked him?
As if Corbyn didn’t have enough aggro already, there were signs this week that two of the most active anti-Israel activists, George Galloway and Baroness Tonge, would be keen to join the Labour Party – or, in Galloway’s case, rejoin.
Galloway was making noises about rejoining in July, saying that if Corbyn won he would be back in the party “pretty damn quick”. A Labour spokesman swiftly trod on this ambition by announcing sniffily this week that Galloway had not applied to rejoin “and he will not be receiving an invitation”. This doesn’t seem to have deterred the former Respect MP, who is still hanging out for a direct welcome from Corbyn.
Meanwhile Baroness Tonge, who never met an anti-Israel activist she didn’t like, appears to have been buoyed by Corbyn’s win and – having lost the Liberal Democrat whip in the House of Lords – is now talking about joining Labour, where presumably she thinks she will receive a heroine’s welcome. The background quid pro quo of this appears to be a claim by the rump of the LibDems in the Commons – all eight MPs of them – that disaffected Labour MPs who don’t like Corbyn, or what he stands for, will be rushing to embrace Liberal Democracy, doubtless crying their undying love for Jews as they do so.
I don’t buy any of this. I look at Corbyn in the first few days of his leadership and see a man who barely knows what’s hit him. He has already caved in on some of his long-held “principles”, such as agreeing to sing the National Anthem next time he needs to, or agreeing to wear a red poppy rather than a pacifist white one at Remembrance Day events – or kissing the monarch’s hand in order to become a member of the Privy Council and thus receive national security briefings.
Corbyn did not win his crushing victory as Labour leader because of the Jews, or in spite of the Jews. Our community leaders, rightly, are going to have to find a way to work with him and his inner circle. But we should always remember that he is a politician. And politicians, as we have learned, will say anything. Anything.