Until the general-election upset in June 2017, when Labour stunned pollsters by increasing its vote share, Corbyn seemed unlikely to stick around for long. But that victory—of sorts—trapped him. After the election, MPs who thought they could wait him out grew restless. Luciana Berger, a Jewish Labour MP, had been perennially targeted for abuse, both anti-Semitic and misogynistic, mainly from the far right. But when she started talking about anti-Semitism in Labour, when she expressed concern about Corbyn and the mural, something changed. Some of the abuse seemed to be coming from Labour supporters, even members. “One person told me: ‘Momentum will be watching you,’” she wrote.
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The dismal carousel kept spinning: revelation, denial, proof, non-apology, repeat. Under pressure, Corbyn got more and more defensive. In August, when video of him talking about some Zionists who “lived in this country … all their lives” but “don’t understand English irony” sparked fresh outrage, his response was downright sulky: “I am now more careful with how I might use the term Zionist, because a once self-identifying political term has been increasingly hijacked by anti-Semites as code for Jews.”
Because of the threats against her, Berger needed a police escort to attend the Labour Party’s annual conference in September. Damningly, just six weeks later it emerged that Labour had known about a specific threat against her by a party member—and had covered it up for six months, telling neither her nor the police until an internal dossier of threatening posts by Labour members got leaked to the press.
Two party members in her constituency—one of whom posted comments online calling Berger a “disruptive Zionist”—filed no-confidence motions against her for “continually criticising our leader.” The votes were withdrawn, but it was the final straw for Berger, who quit along with seven other MPs, saying that she could not remain “in a party that I have come to the sickening conclusion is institutionally anti-Semitic.”
The longer it plays out, the clearer it is that Corbyn’s struggle with anti-Semitism lies not just in his unwillingness to confront it, but in his inability to acknowledge it as a problem—or even feign interest. The week Berger left, video surfaced of Chris Williamson, a minister in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, at a Momentum event. He said that Labour had been “too apologetic” about anti-Semitism. Only after a near-revolt among Labour MPs, including the deputy leader Tom Watson, was he eventually, reluctantly, suspended.
With Corbyn’s leadership assured by tens of thousands of new members who swept into the party and delivered it to him, he should now be free to remake it in his own image. Labour should be the Corbyn party now. In some ways it is, but—paradoxically—the reverse is also true. Momentum might be more aptly named than anyone had suspected. Distracted by the anti-Semitism scandal, instead of leading his party, Corbyn seems more like the driver of a runaway train, barely holding on as it barrels onward.