LONDON — The walls are closing in on Jeremy Corbyn.
The U.K. Labour leader has less than a month to back down in his dispute with the Jewish community over the definition of anti-Semitism or face a potentially catastrophic rupture in the party which could see a number of his MPs resign in protest, some of his closest and most influential allies said.
According to two senior Labour figures, two of the power bases behind the Labour leader — the campaign group Momentum and a major trade union — are prepared to break ranks with Corbyn over the dispute. That would mark the most significant split in support for Corbyn from at least part of his base since his unexpected rise to power in 2015.
The row centers on whether or not the party adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism in full, as demanded by every major Jewish group in the U.K. and most Labour MPs but so far resisted by Corbyn and his closest aides. Labour’s leadership has proposed endorsing the definition, but not all of the examples that accompany it, as part of the party’s code of conduct.
Support for adopting the definition in full from the union movement and Momentum would represent a potentially game-changing development in the standoff between the Labour leader and the Jewish community over his commitment to tackling anti-Semitism in the party.
In my view, this situation is allowing real anti-Semites to act with impunity. We can’t allow that to happen” — Senior Labour official
Before the summer break, Labour MPs, a majority of whom have long opposed Corbyn’s leadership, secured a vote on the IHRA definition, which will take place on September 5. However, the party’s National Executive Committee — the body which governs the party and whose members include senior union and Momentum figures — next meets the day before that vote, on September 4, and could reverse its earlier decision to wave through Corbyn’s own reworked definition.
According to one senior party official, with the support of the main trade unions and Momentum there is now a majority on the NEC to force Corbyn’s hand should he refuse to back down.
“That it has come to this is a total disaster,” the senior official said. “It could cost the Labour party the next election.”
A second senior figure who is close to Corbyn said he was confident the issue would be resolved before the NEC convenes next month.
Protesters hold placards as they demonstrate in Parliament Square against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party
“My view now is we are going to move, significantly, making the concession, with all of the examples. I’m confident that we will. It’s a matter of the choreography.”
The official said those around the Labour leader conceded the issue had now moved beyond the specifics of the IHRA text. “It’s about trust, not about textual examples. I think it [the definition] has got lots of flaws — the definition itself is poorly worded. But for the Jewish community it clearly has become totemic. When there is a lack of trust, you have got to get over that. Politically it’s necessary to do what it takes. In my view, this situation is allowing real anti-Semites to act with impunity. We can’t allow that to happen.”
Corbyn’s office disputed that it was now just a question of choreography.
Labour’s general secretary — its most senior official — Jennie Formby has the power to unilaterally accept the full definition and there is speculation she could do so to break the deadlock, though this would severely damage Corbyn’s leadership.
A climb-down by Corbyn would be welcomed by some Labour MPs who have campaigned for the party to accept the full definition and felt badly let down when Labour’s NEC nodded through Corbyn’s reworked guidelines without a vote before parliament’s summer recess.
Labour MPs and Jewish groups, already angry after it emerged in March that Corbyn had protested against the removal of an anti-Semitic mural that they found deeply offensive, were incensed last month when the Labour leader’s aides revealed they had not accepted a number of examples of anti-Semitic behavior attached to the IHRA’s definition. The most contentious of the examples states it is anti-Semitic to deny Jewish people “their right to self determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
“There are a lot of people who explain it away. People who think if they put their head in the sand they will not be targeted” — Labour MP
However, even if the code is accepted in full, scars from weeks of warring will take time to heal because of genuine upset among Labour MPs, many say. According to MPs and members of the NEC, the scale of division in the party is such that even if Corbyn accepts the full definition, a rupture in the party is still possible, with one senior party figure claiming “seven to eight” MPs could resign and sit as independents.
“I know this has been damaging for us,” the senior figure close to Corbyn said. “This isn’t the first time we make concessions weeks after they would’ve worked, but we will get there before September. Almost everybody in the Labour Party recognizes it’s crazy.”
A second figure close to Corbyn said the Labour leader’s team had always prepared for a split in the party, but to split on a question of ethics would be particularly damaging to the party’s electoral brand.
“There were always three types of split. One, a sort of Blairite split over some issue where the public were on our side. That would be the best. Then there could be one over Brexit. Worse, but not as bad as this.”
One senior MP said colleagues could leave the party before the end of the year. “They picked this fight,” the MP said. “Anything other than the full thing is not going to be good enough.”
The MP said some were coming to the conclusion that they could not endorse a leader unable to stand up against racism but at the moment plenty more are appalled by Corbyn’s behavior but could not countenance leaving the party altogether. “There are a lot of people who explain it away,” the MP said. “People who think if they put their head in the sand they will not be targeted.”
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LONDON — The walls are closing in on Jeremy Corbyn.