You can win the argument, and lose the battle. You can win the battle, and lose the war. An undeserved victory can be the worst thing that can happen to you.
Without being bullish, and without denying that the NEC collapsed in the face of otherwise ineffectual pressure, I think this is the situation of the Labour Right today. For the purposes of making this argument, I will refrain as much as possible from litigating the merits of the overall argument about the extent, character and political valence of antisemitism in Labour. My affinities, however, will be clear enough.
My case begins with this. For three years, the Labour Right has waged intensive war on the Corbyn leadership. There were moments, as during the 2016 'chicken coup', when it looked as though they might know what they were doing. But they didn't. They had no serious agenda to match Corbyn's, no plausible candidate, no serious base. Nothing but their ability to work the news cycle, a useful skill but hardly the most important factor in political power today.
Their stance was and continues to be negative and reactive. They're anti-Corbyn, but that's all they agree on. So, it has been hard to find any single, salient issue that they could use as a wedge. Brexit doesn't cut it. What is more, if your stance is that all this left-wing stuff is unrealistic bollocks, then it's hard to find a moral idiom in which to couch this cynical reasoning.
Their hijacking of antisemitism, though very successful in setting the media's agenda, hasn't cut through to the wider public. That's because allegations that Labour is institutionally antisemitic, or that Corbyn himself is a racist, cut against, rather than with, the grain of what people already suspect to be true. Those who dislike Corbyn overwhelmingly think he's a politically correct peacenik, not a Jew-hater.
So why stick with it? For some people, no doubt, Corbyn's criticisms of Zionism make him an antisemite. That isn't, I suspect, what is driving the Labour Right. I think they like it because it confuses and demoralises the Left. It may not cut through to the public, but it cuts through to the Left's anti-racist conscience. Because we're not cynical about racism, in the way that someone who suggests putting white people at the head of the housing queue is, we're easier to troll on the subject. It also acts on submerged strategic disagreements on the Left. It's easy to be a happy family when things are going well. But hard choices and difficult, nuanced arguments flush out division. It reveals where the ideologically harder and softer parts of the opposition are, and it gets them arguing among themselves.
For the Labour Right, it also supplies the missing sense of moral purpose. Their polemics have tended to look flaccid, stale, or moon-bound over the last few years. Communism has no place in the Labour Party? Hardly electrifying. On this issue, however, they can achieve moments of superficially impressive indignation. Tony Blair once commented on the difference between himself and the activist Left. The latter being the protesters, the ones who say, "let's get that bastard out of power". As he went on to muse, "I'm the bastard". Well, just for a moment, the hard, cynical political operators who spent their whole lives training to be the bastard, can say, "let's get that bastard out of power". Frank Field, Gordon Brown, Margaret Hodge, the Kinnocks. They know where the bodies are buried, but for the moment they can adopt the style of the campus SJW activist. It's quite animating (take it from an ex-Trotskyist), but totally unsustainable for that tendency.
And now, of course, they have kept up enough pressure over a sufficient period of time, through media campaigns, that significant players in the Corbyn coalition, who never could see what the fuss was all about, just want it over. And they're kidding themselves that it can be over. The disciplinary case against Hodge was dropped, union leaders came out for accepting "the full IHRA definition", John McDonnell did the same, and the Labour NEC voted accordingly. Not only that, but they also opened up a new consultation so that the issue can keep rolling on. So: vindication for the strategy, no?
Not from where I'm standing. A tactical victory, certainly; but strategically, no. And a tactical victory, moreover, that was gifted to them. They did little to earn it. They did not display any great strategic insight. They just found something that seemed to pay off and, like a slot machine junkie, kept pulling the same lever. They were awarded this gift despite having lost control of the leadership, the national office, the NEC and disputes panel, the Scottish leadership, and most local branches. They were awarded this gift by a weakness and short-sightedness on the part of their opponents.
The campaign has done nothing to rebuild the withered political capital of the Right, as the results of the NEC elections demonstrate. Frank Field and his confederates may be regarded as moral authorities by whomever is writing The Guardian's leaders. But they are not held in such esteem by the membership. The hardening of opinion in favour of deselections and open selection contests, which Momentum is now campaigning for, illustrates this.
Strategically, if you're a Labour Rightist, either you've got to give up on a party that you assumed was yours, and split, or prepare for a long period of perdition. In the latter case, your job is to build alliances, build bridges, outsource attacks where possible, and develop a plausible agenda for power. You can't just assume that the agenda and the coalitions will fall into place once you've got rid of that bastard. You need time to build, and for that you need some sort of toleration, some sort of mutual respect.
There are those in the Labour Left who desperately want to compromise, who don't want to fight factional war. But they keep being rebuffed. So what remains is a fizzingly angry grassroots, sick of being smeared, sick of being patronised, sick of being lied about, sick of being told off, sick of having to deal with yet another vicious factional manoeuvre, utterly sick of it after three years. What do you think is going to happen? What the Labour Right are doing here is not preparing for power; they are destroying their already tattered 'brand', and preparing for years of isolation. And insofar as they retain any senior position, they're placing their heads on the chopping block.
Nor has it softened opinion on Israel-Palestine. Quite the opposite. I suspect many activists who had never considered what they thought of the foundation of Israel have, in recent weeks, been getting a crash course.
Palestinian rights have been a growing concern in the British Left since 1982, and Sabra and Shatila. But historical awareness of the issue of Zionism and its complexities was something that was kept to the fringes. The broader pro-Palestine movement focused on concrete and immediate wrongs, human rights injustices, campaigning for peace. Now an otherwise recondite and difficult history is being driven up the agenda. And an historically informed, internationalist, anti-racist opposition to Zionism is being legitimised not despite but by means of the media furore against it. You could call it consciousness-raising-from-above.
And by whom? Who chose that terrain? And what an odd moment to force that conversation, when Israel has just, by the verdict of many of its supporters, defined itself as a racist state. How do you think it would look if a Palestinian speaker was to point that out at Labour conference this year?
Finally, what was actually achieved by the implementation of the "full IHRA definition"? Because while I think it's a problem, for the Right it's been largely a symbolic battle.
Don't get me wrong here. I am very well aware that, for some pro-Israel activists and organisers, it's more than symbolic. There are currently attempts to use this definition to shut down criticism of Israel, such as 'Israel Apartheid Week'. I'm aware that Palestinian groups have a legitimate claim that this erases their history. I'm aware that, as Antony Lerman points out, this may be partly intended, as the wording has its origins in "new antisemitism" ideology coming out of pro-Israel ideologues since the Eighties.
But this isn't what drives the likes of Hodge, Brown, Field, or the Kinnocks. They're broadly pro-Israel, but mostly in the same sense that they're broadly pro-American. They may well loathe Palestine campaigners, but it'll be in the same sense that they loathe the activist Left generally. But they have other priorities than rescuing the pristine reputation of Israel, just as its political class spirals off to the far right.
Further, it's important to remember what the case against the "full IHRA definition" has been. As Stephen Sedley pointed out, it's precisely the lack of clarity, the indeterminacy of the wording, that leaves it wide open to abuses. Abuses which, as Kenneth Stern rightly pointed out, have happened. That's why it was right for Corbyn to try to persuade the NEC to adopt a caveat supporting the right to criticise Israel's foundation as racist. But it still depends on who interprets the rules. Someone may well use the rules to harass and report Palestine activists. But, while the disputes panel is under scrutiny and pressure, it is not currently under the control of the Right. So, even if they hold onto this definition, after yet another consultation process, it's really not clear what they've got out of all this.
As I say, they won a tactical victory. They were handed it. But look. Labour remains strong in the polls. The Left remains strong in Labour. The Tories continue to face a huge looming crisis over Brexit. Israel is losing the argument with world public opinion. It's hard to see how the Labour Right haven't just blown their last miserly wads of political capital on a kamikaze campaign, filled with pneumatic sanctimony, but yielding little concrete. They pinned their colours to an unpopular mast for a short-term whiff of importance and moral afflatus. I call that, and the whole malicious, entitled, ill-conceived campaign against Corbyn from the beginning, a huge strategic own goal.