Chris Mullins’ 1982 political thriller A Very British Coup introduced British readers to a Marxist former steelworker named Harry Perkins who sends his country’s political elite into a frenzy by winning a dramatic election for prime minister.
Desperate to foil his plans to remove American military bases from British soil, nationalize the country’s industries and abolish the aristocratic House of Lords, a convergence of powerful forces led by MI5 security forces initiate a plot to undermine Perkins through surveillance and subterfuge.
When their machinations fail against a resolute and surprisingly wily politician, the security forces resort to fabricating a scandal, hoping to force him to abdicate power to a more pliable member of his own party.
Adapted into an award-winning 1988 television miniseries, Mullins’ script closely resembles the real-life campaign to destroy the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. A left-wing populist with pronounced anti-imperialist leanings, Corbyn is seen by his opponents in much the same light as Perkins was in Mullins’ treatment.
“You’re a bad dream. I could always comfort myself with the thought that socialism would never work,” Percy Brown, an aristocratic MI5 chief sworn to the prime minister’s ruin, told his enemy. “But you, Mr. Perkins, could destroy everything that I’ve ever believed in.”
After years as a backbencher in parliament railing against Tony Blair’s business-friendly agenda and mobilizing opposition to the invasion of Iraq, Corbyn emerged last summer as a frontrunner for Labour leadership. Against vociferous opposition, he stunned his opponents with a landslide victory, winning nearly 60% of the vote with help from a grassroots coalition of Muslim immigrants, blue-collar workers and youthful left-wing activists.
Just as Corbyn’s success stunned the party establishment, his rise infuriated the country’s powerful pro-Israel forces. Corbyn’s parliamentary office has served as a hub for the Palestine solidarity movement and his name has been featured prominently on resolutions condemning Israeli atrocities.
At an election forum convened last year by the Labour Friends of Israel, Corbyn redoubled his support for key components of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that is pressuring Israel to respect the human rights of Palestinians while Blair’s favored candidate, Liz Kendall, said she would fight it with “every fiber in my body.”
Just after Corbyn’s victory, Chris Mullins predicted that Labour’s new leader would face a blizzard of smears not unlike the kind Perkins confronted. “The media will go bananas, of course,” Mullins told the Independent. “There will be attempts to paint [Corbyn] as a Trot[skyite]. I think that may already have started. Every bit of his past life will be raked through and every position he has ever taken will be thrown back under him. Former wives and girlfriends will be sought out. His sanity will be questioned.”
Distracting from inequality
Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron set the tone for the coming smear campaign when he tweeted a day after Corbyn’s election, “The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.”
It was around this time that allegations about Labour’s “antisemitism problem” began to gain steam. As this week’s local elections approached, the chorus of outrage erupted into the mainstream, with outlets from the Daily Mail — the tabloid still owned by the Rothermere family that supported the British Union of Fascists and expressed admiration for Hitler during the 1930s — to the liberal Guardian howling about a plague of Jew hatred spreading through the ranks of Labour since it opened up to the so-called Corbynistas.
Even the Israeli government has gotten in the act, with its ambassador denouncing Corbyn on national TV while Israel’s Labor Party threatens a boycott of its sister party in the UK.
Behind the manufactured scandal is a real struggle over the future course of Labour. The right-leaning elements empowered by Tony Blair are determined to suppress the influence of an increasingly youthful, ethnically diverse party base that views the hawkish, pro-business policies of the past with general revulsion.
With the British middle class in shambles after three decades of constant benefit cuts and a new generation in open revolt, Labour’s Blairite wing has embraced a cynical strategy to shatter the progressive coalition that brought Corbyn to power.
By branding the solidarity with the Palestinian cause flourishing among British Muslims and radical leftists as a form of antisemitism, the elements arrayed against Corbyn have managed to manufacture a scandal that supersedes more substantive issues.
Right-wing bloggers have been dispatched to trawl through the social media postings of newer Labour members to dredge up evidence of offensive commentary about Israel and Jews or invent it when none exists.
In the paranoid atmosphere Corbyn’s foes have cultivated, virtually any fulsome expression of anti-Zionism seems likely to trigger a suspension.
For Prime Minister Cameron, the scandal generated by Corbyn’s intra-party foes provides a chance to distract from the row over his family hiding its wealth in an offshore tax shelter, the chaos over the Brexit debate and the disastrous results of his Islamophobic attacks on the Muslim candidate for London mayor, Sadiq Khan.
Among the most eager to join the pile-on was London Mayor Boris Johnson, who claimed “a virus of antisemitism hangs over Labour” just days after ranting that Barack Obama’s “part-Kenyan” heritage gave him “an ancestral dislike of the British Empire.”
Suddenly, Corbyn and allies who launched their careers in grassroots anti-racism struggles find themselves on the defensive about bigotry — and from a few accusers who have actual records of racist rhetoric.
With nearly 20 party members already suspended for supposedly antisemitic comments, the witch hunt claimed Jackie Walker, a veteran black-Jewish anti-racism activist and leftwing Labour stalwart.
Walker’s sin was harshly condemning the transatlantic slave trade as the “African holocaust.” Filched from her social media postings and publicized by a group called the Israel Advocacy Movement, her comments triggered an immediate suspension. “If they can do this to me,” Walker said, “then they can do it to anyone.”
Those behind the escalating crusade will not be satisfied until they claim Corbyn as well. Indeed, the manufactured scandal around antisemitism appears to be just one step on the way to a bloodless coup.
Fabricating a scandal
Far from the gaze of the mainstream British media, a researcher named Jamie Stern-Weiner has conducted perhaps the most thorough investigation into the claims of an “antisemitism problem” within Labour. Stern-Weiner found that out of 400,000 party members, perhaps a dozen had been suspended for supposedly antisemitic remarks.
Surveying the individual cases, he discovered that many, if not most, of the offending comments related to Israel and Israeli policy, not Jews per se. Stern-Weiner went on to demonstrate that Guido Fawkes, the right-wing gossip blogger responsible for a substantial number of the antisemitism outrages that erupted in the British media, had doctored passages from Labour members’ social media postings to make them appear more offensive than they actually were.
“The chasm between this proffered evidence and the sweeping condemnations which have appeared in the press…is truly vast,” Stern-Weiner concluded. “Even were all the above charges true, what would it prove? The social media postings of a handful of mostly junior party members have no necessary representative significance, and plainly do not demonstrate widespread antisemitism.”
Antisemitism without evidence
Though British press has framed Labour’s “antisemitism problem” as a recently discovered and entirely organic phenomenon, elements in the party have been pushing it since the race for Labour leadership. And many of the offending social media posts were published during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in 2014, when the party was under the command of Ed Miliband, a Jew who issued stern criticism of Israel at the time.
The issue gained steam in February, when Alex Chalmers resigned last February as the vice-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club. According to Chalmers, Palestine solidarity activists had taken over his school’s Labour chapter and made life unbearable for Jewish students.
He rattled off a litany of incidents that constituted antisemitism in his view. Almost all of them related to Israel, from angry remarks about its government and supporters to chants in support of Hamas. Chief among Chalmers’ grievances was “members of the Executive throwing around the term ‘Zio’” — a shorthand for Zionist that he viewed as the very embodiment of antisemitic rhetoric.
Chalmers provided no evidence to support his inflammatory allegations. And none was required for the outrage to make its way across the Atlantic. Within days of Chalmers’ resignation, his claims were repeated in the opinion section of the New York Times by Roger Cohen, a pro-Israel columnist who favors the permanent forced relocation of millions of Palestinians to countries outside their homeland.
Rehashing Chalmers’ unsourced accusations, Cohen proclaimed that the Labour Party had become infected with “an antisemitism of the Left” under the watch of Corbyn.
Unmentioned in Cohen’s column were the ulterior sectarian motives Chalmers had deliberately concealed. As journalist Asa Winstanley revealed, Chalmers had been an intern at BICOM, the main arm of the UK’s pro-Israel lobby, which recently published the following call to arms: “Save your pitch fork for Corbyn.”
Chalmers’ online bio noting his position at BICOM was mysteriously deleted around the time he publicized his allegations about antisemitism at Oxford. When Winstanley contacted Chalmers about the internship, he set his Twitter account to “private” and went off the radar.
As Perkins reflected in A Very British Coup, “By the time you prove anything, the damage is done.”
Red Ken’s coup de grace
In late April, the mounting witch hunt claimed its first high-profile victims. First was MP Naz Shah, a rising star in Labour and outspoken Muslim feminist. Shah was outed by a right-wing gossip blogger for promoting a tongue-in-cheek Facebook meme that imagined the geopolitical benefits of moving Israel to the United States.
Following her suspension, Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, a standard bearer of the British left who helped lead the major anti-racism campaigns of the 1980s, took to the airwaves to defend Shah. (Livingstone was among the figures who inspired the protagonist Perkins in Mullins’ novel.)
During an indisputably counter-productive and possibly alcohol-influenced performance, Livingstone rambled that Hitler had, in fact, provided support to the Zionist movement. Within hours, he too was suspended. As with Shah, the allegations of antisemitism that followed his suspension centered around impolitic commentary related to Israel, not Jews as a whole.
Livingstone might have been guilty of going off script, but he was not necessarily incorrect. The history of Nazi Germany’s robust economic and political collaboration with the Zionist movement throughout the 1930s is widely known and well-documented—even Elie Wiesel has openly reeled at the record of Zionist cooperation with Hitler’s minions.
Ignoring the clear context behind Livingstone’s remarks, the Guardian casually dismissed them as “bizarre,” wondering “what point he was trying to make.” MP John Mann, a backbencher from the right wing of Labour, went a step further, hectoring Livingstone before a gaggle of cameras about his supposed ignorance of Hitler’s evil.
“There’s a book called Mein Kampf!” Mann bellowed. “You’ve obviously never heard of it.”
A high-level ‘civil targeted assassination’
Behind the furor over Israel criticism lay a constellation of political forces exploiting the issue to suppress the grassroots insurgency in Labour.
Under Blair’s watch, powerful pro-Israel elements entrenched themselves in the party, reversing the strong support Labour demonstrated for the Palestinian cause during the Thatcher era. Membership in Labour Friends of Israel (LFI), a pro-Israel lobbying faction, became a must for members of parliament seeking ministerial positions under Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown.
Among LFI’s most generous funders is Baron Sainsbury of Turville, a reclusive billionaire who is heir to the Sainsbury supermarket fortune. Sainsbury is also a key funder of Progress, the faction established by pro-Blair elements to promote his agenda in the mid-1990s.
Members of both LFI and Progress have led the crusade to paint Corbyn and his allies as a band of raving antisemites. Lord Michael Levy, a former special envoy to the Middle East under Blair and top funder of LFI, has amplified the attacks with a series of media appearances in which he accused Corbyn of weakness in the face of anti-Jewish bigotry.
A new and unusual line of attack holds Corbyn responsible for an alleged dearth of donations to Labour from “Jewish donors” like Levy.
The panic that spread through Labour’s right wing on the eve of Corbyn’s election reverberated in Jerusalem, where the Israeli government has vowed a campaign of “targeted civil elimination” (code for character assassination) against Palestine solidarity activists.
By taking the helm of Labour, Corbyn became arguably the most high-profile supporter of BDS in the world. The Israeli government had placed him at the top of its political kill list and was bound to open fire at an opportune moment.
The moment arrived on May 1, as the BBC’s Andrew Marr hosted Israeli Ambassador to the UK Mark Regev for a lengthy interview. Anyone who watched international news coverage of any of Israel’s last three assaults on the Gaza Strip will remember Regev as the face and voice of Israeli propaganda, spinning massacres of besieged civilians as acts of self-defense without batting an eye.
Seated across from an exceptionally receptive host, Regev unleashed a tirade against the pro-Corbyn wing of Labour and the left in general, declaring it had “crossed a line” into antisemitic territory, even accusing it of “embracing Hamas.” Playing on the innuendo that has painted Corbyn as a supporter of Islamist insurgents, Regev demanded that Corbyn send an “unequivocal message” rejecting Hamas and Hezbollah.
Marr piled on, baselessly claiming that Corbyn’s press secretary, Seumas Milne, had declared “it is a crime for the state of Israel to exist.” It took Marr over half an hour to retract his falsehood. By then, as usual, the damage was done.
The spectacle of a foreign diplomat from a country with one of the world’s worst human rights records injecting himself into a local electoral contest to brand the leader of a major political party as a bigoted cheerleader for terrorism perfectly crystallized the nature of the campaign against Corbyn.
Conceived by failed politicians backed by billionaire Lords and publicized with negligible skepticism by Fleet Street, those leading the charge against Corbyn recalled the devious aristocrats Perkins singled out during his final televised appeal to voters: “You the people must decide whether you prefer to ruled by an elected government or by people you’ve never heard of, people you’ve never voted for, people who remain quietly behind the scenes….”
There has been no such defiant address by Corbyn. Instead, he has convened an independent inquiry into antisemitism within his party, inviting further attacks even as he acceded to political pressure.
Redefining anti-Semitism for political ends
The upcoming investigation will only be the latest in a series carried out in recent years. In January 2015, the Parliamentary Committee Against Anti-Semitism published a detailed report outlining its findings on anti-Jewish bigotry in the UK. It was authored by David Feldman, a leading expert on the history of British Jewry and the director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Birkbeck College.
As soon as he was chosen to serve as vice-chair of the new inquiry, Feldman fell under attack from the pro-Israel press. His opponents were particularly piqued by the working definition of antisemitism he adopted in his 2015 report, which he sourced to Jewish philosopher Brian Klug: “A form of hostility towards Jews as Jews, in which they are perceived as something other than what they are.”
By rejecting the politicized definition introduced by pro-Israel forces, which considers the adoption of “double standards” toward Israel to be a form of anti-Jewish prejudice, Feldman deprived them of their favorite line of attack against sympathizers with the Palestinian cause.
As Stern-Weiner clinically demonstrated, the vast majority of charges against Labour members related to commentary about the state of Israel, not the Jewish people. In order to paint anti-Zionist members of Labour as dangerous antisemites, Corbyn’s opponents have had to resort to conflating Israel with all Jews. Ironically, they have relied on the same conflation that actual antisemites typically employ to indict world Jewry for Israel’s crimes against Palestinians.
Jonathan Freedland, a veteran columnist for the Guardian, has been among the most aggressive employers of the conflation tactic. An outspoken liberal Zionist, Freedland has insisted on his right to call out antisemitism as he pleases and without any critical scrutiny from Gentiles — just as “black people are usually allowed to define what’s racism.”
By extension, he has sought unlimited license to use “Jews” as a floating signifier for Israel and Zionism, to arbitrarily fuse the Jews of the world with a self-proclaimed Jewish state that only a minority of them inhabit.
Echoing Freedland, Ephraim Mirvish, the chief rabbi of the UK, declared that Zionism “can be no more separate from Judaism than the city of London from Great Britain.” Mirvish insisted that non-Jews were out of bounds by challenging the conflation of Jews with the political project of a Jewish state, ignoring opinion polls showing that a full third of British Jews identity as anti or non-Zionist.
John Mann, the member of parliament who chased Livingstone down a hallway while shouting about Hitler, has said that “it’s clear where the line is” on anti-Jewish bigotry. But during his testimony at an unsuccessful tribunal on “institutional antisemitism” on campus, Mann was harshly criticized for his inability to locate that line.
Even as they avoid putting forward a coherent working definition of antisemitism and exploit identity politics to silence those who do, Labour’s pro-Israel elements are pushing a new rule that could amount to a pro-Israel loyalty oath.
A coming coup?
Back in April, members of the right wing of Labour proposed a rule change that would allow the party to ban members for expressing opinions deemed to be antisemitic. Leading the charge were Jeremy Newmark, chair of the pro-Israel Jewish Labour Movement, and Wes Streeting, a member of parliament and former employee of the Blairite Progress faction.
When the furor over Livingstone’s comments about Zionist collaboration with Nazi Germany erupted, the call for a rule change intensified, inadvertently revealing its actual objective: To establish a lever for purging anti-Zionists from the party ranks.
If implemented, the rule change could function as a de facto oath of pro-Israel loyalty for new Labour members and might even result in a series of tribunals for those who fail to toe the ideological line.
Though Labour performed far better in the May 5 local elections than a generally hostile media predicted, Corbyn’s opponents are determined to paint him as unelectable, just as they did during last year’s campaign for leadership.
Even before votes were counted, they were dead-set on sacking him. “We have got to get rid of him. He cannot be allowed to continue,” a Labour member described as “moderate” by the Daily Expresssaid on the day of local elections.
The positive results may buy Corbyn some time, but his foes have signaled their intentions. They are determined to bury him in the same way the fictional villain Sir Percy Brown attempted to with PM Harry Perkins.
“In South America they’d call this a coup d’etat,” Perkins protested when Brown presented him with scandalous documents forged by his security services.
“But no firing squad,” Brown explained with cool confidence. “No torture, no bloodshed. A very British coup, wouldn’t you say?”