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The anti-semitism crisis shows the Labour leadership needs to get better at listening

Team-Corbyn need to get better at listening – starting with the organised Jewish community.

Jeremy Corbyn. Image, Chatham House, some rights reserved.

The Labour leadership's problem, now verging on crisis, over anti-semitism is of course hugely relevant in and of itself. At best the leadership, or at least those in positions of ultimate control and authority, seem to have a tin ear when it comes to the persecution of a minority in their party and society who horrifyingly understand persecution better than most. But it is also the wider issues of political culture that is revealed here that matters – a culture which tends towards a rigidity and therefore a brittleness that will be the Labour leadership’s undoing unless it is transformed.

Every political venture has its strengths and its weakness. The strength of the Labour leadership’s is rooted in its outright opposition to the Blair years, its utter lack of any connection to that regime and the hope they provide of a more left wing future. This hope has revitalized the party and its electoral performance in 2017. There are holes to pick and points to be made against this analysis but they currently carry little weight. Labour is being led in a very different direction and lots of people love it, like it or prefer it to any of the other options that have been on the table.

But all our upside are also our downsides. The same is true of Labour’s leadership. For forty years the current leadership were in the wilderness, marginalized and unduly and unnecessary dismissed by many in the rest of the party – not least because on some big calls, such as Iraq and the economy they were wholly or largely right. But the very characteristics that made them so attractive in 2015, their moral certainty, their conviction, the lack of taint, now threatens them. Because the flip side is a politics that can’t compromise when necessary, that finds it hard to trust and reach out, to build alliances, to admit it might have got something wrong – when the common narrative they want to push is that they were instead always right.  

A tight circle has the benefit and the comfort of strong internal agreement. Indeed, it was a space in which those hard years in the wilderness could be endured. It allows a command and control structure to be established. It can decide and direct. But it is inflexible, it can’t spot problems coming down the track and react to them with speed. Instead its reaction is to circle the wagons tighter. It is a culture that is tripping them up in Opposition over one, albeit important, issue. How will they cope if they get into government and there is a relentless stream of such issues to which you need to react to quickly and deftly, that you have to negotiate on, win opponents and enemies over and compromise on.  

This isn’t a recipe for soggy centrism – that has been tried and failed and since 2008 has been and will remain redundant. Instead it’s a recognition that even the most transformative politics has to be negotiated – that is what politics is – the negotiation of difference. The complexity of modern politics is just too great for a small group or individual to manage. Faced with governing complexity, Gordon Brown famously responded by getting up earlier each morning.  

Leadership that has a hope of dealing with the scale and pace of change in the world today must be able to express its vulnerability, to say sometimes ‘we don’t know’, that ‘we got this wrong’, it must be willing and able to conduct a meaningful dialogue with people who they might disagree with – because that is the way we learn, adapt and conduct a better future through negation – not imposition. A political leadership that carries the seeds of hope must be open, democratic and see itself not as the saviors of the people but the servants.

Of course no leadership should be naïve. There are some in the party who will use and abuse any issue to get their hands back on the wheel. Yes, if the leadership had accepted some of the demands of the Jewish community then some would have demanded more. But that’s more reason to look, act and think big, to be generous, humble and open. Instead, Labour’s leaders have been too defensive and should have had a full and open dialogue with all sections of the Jewish community.

For now the Labour leadership may ride out the anti-Semitism storm. But it is doing Labour a huge amount of unnecessary damage and bodes very badly for a future that will demand a very different political culture. Politics isn’t a battle for control – it’s the search for meaningful collaboration. Only through mutual cooperation can we hope to solve the economic, social and environmental threats we face. It is our very interconnectedness in the modern world that demands this approach.

Mary Parker Follett, a socialist feminist from the early years of the last century made the important distinction between ‘power over’ and ‘power with’. ‘Power over’ is power as domination: the ability through the state to make people do what they would otherwise not do. This can of course be necessary to ensure, for example, we pay our taxes and fasten our seat belts. But in a non-deferential and complex world, ‘power over’ has limitations and always fails to unlock and unleash the full potential of people, as they remain unwilling cogs in a machine of limited creative and productive capacity.

‘Power with’, along with its accompanying ‘power to’, is transformatory precisely because it means that politicians and people work together in the co-creation of a better society. At every point the future is negotiated, rather than imposed. In such a world, knowledge is dispersed and therefore any project is going to be better informed and more adaptable, and the people engaged in it are likely to be more committed precisely because it is ‘their project’. In a world of ‘power with’, no one view dominates, meaning politics can become much more creative and meet all the changes of the complex world we now live in.

The Labour leadership must start to practice the art of ‘power with’ and should do so first with the Jewish community. If it doesn’t it will fail, not necessarily now but at some stage.

About the author

Neal Lawson is Chair of the pressure group Compass and has written many pamphlets for the organisation on the themes of democracy and equality. He was author in 2009 of All Consuming (Penguin) and was co-editor in 2001 of the Progressive Century. He serves on the Boards of UK Feminista and the AV Referendum Campaign.  He is a Contributing Managing Editor of the quarterly journal Renewal and writes for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He appears regularly on radio and TV.  He was previously a trade union researcher, an adviser to Gordon Brown, and a communications consultant. 

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