It is seemingly a time of stark lines in British politics. Talk of division is rampant, fed by the obvious leave-remain binary, as well as the divides between factions touting distinct resolutions to Brexit. There is a great deal of zero-sum thinking, and an absence of loser’s consent.
The general election should be more conflicted. But that has not stopped the Jewish Chronicle, and those of the same mind, discouraging people from voting Labour over the singular issue of antisemitism, for which the party is under investigation by the equalities commission.
I’ve no wish to litigate the allegations either way here, but let’s assume they are true. Does it mean that voting Labour is unethical, purely due to one policy?
Racism is among the strongest taboos in modern Britain. Religion has largely evacuated the public square, sex is both controversial and not, but bigotry and charges of it excite intense comment whenever they appear. It has reached the stage where any whiff of racism risks derailing a politicians’ candidacy for a seat (though I’m obliged to note the prime minister Boris Johnson has survived his old columns being scrutinised).
I suspect many people – progs especially – wouldn’t knowingly vote for somebody who was racist or appeared so. The strong revulsion held by some against any sign of bigotry is what provokes hatred towards Brexit Party chief Nigel Farage, and the odd milkshake dousing.
Mostly bigotry accusations have dogged conservative politicians like our Nige. They are less electorally troubled by such associations, probably because their core supporters have a narrower conception of bigotry and are less bothered by it in general.
It’s therefore among the more notable features of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership that he has been tainted by associations with antisemites, and accused of the attitude himself. This sets up a dilemma. Suppose you broadly support Labour, or socialism, or progressive policies (of which Labour remains the most popular champion). And suppose you accept that Corbyn has enabled antisemitism in Labour, and that his prospective government would pose a threat to Jewish people. How do you vote?
It is appealing to say for anybody else, and avoid moral complicity in an antisemitic Labour government. But the best way to oppose the Conservatives, the most likely victors of this general election, will often be a vote for Labour.
Tories, at least in progressive minds, have many troubling policies. There has been a steady stream of stories relating the death and suffering associated with austerity. There is also the “hostile environment” that led to the Windrush scandal, the party’s general untrustworthiness on the NHS, and the support of home secretary Priti Patel for the death penalty.
Let’s assume, as with Labour’s antisemitism problem, that criticism about the Tories on these topics are mostly fair. In a Labour-Tory marginal seat you would have to weigh the ethical problems of voting Conservative against Labour’s antisemitism.
For a Jewish person this is no choice at all: nobody can be expected to vote for a party that hates them. But for everyone else it’s not obvious that voting for the Tories is more ethical than voting for Labour.
There is always abstention, of course, but this is a weird choice if you think one party is more malign than the other. Parties are not noticeably more reluctant to govern and legislate just because the turnout has fallen or ballots have been spoilt. Not voting against a party is not the same as voting for it, but it is also not voting against that party.
The other option is tactical voting for other parties, but this only makes sense if you judge Labour and the Tories equally unethical, or if one party is irrelevant in a given seat. If you deem one party less ethical than the other you should be voting to stop the worse one gaining office and implementing their policies.
All this relies on a tasteless moral arithmetic, which may not work in situations where not everything can be counted. But much can be counted – most pertinently votes.