BARNABY MARDER of Socialists Against Antisemitism recalls the events that led to Labour being investigated by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, and considers what it must do now to restore the confidence of the Jewish community.
Antisemitism in the Labour Party has never been entirely absent. Antisemitic attitudes among leading figures in the party, such as its inaugural leader James Keir Hardie, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison, are well documented. But they came much more sharply into focus after 2015, when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader.
Accounts started to emerge of serious antisemitic abuse taking place not just on social media, but in some party meetings. Well known figures such as Ken Livingstone, Chris Williamson and Pete Willsman had to be disciplined, and some on the anti-Zionist left, such as Jackie Walker and Tony Greenstein, were expelled.
After the 2017 general election these problems continued to escalate rather than to dissipate. This was despite the publication in June 2016 of the report of the Chakrabarti Inquiry into antisemitism and other racism in the party, led by Baroness Chakrabarti together with Baroness Royall and Professor David Feldman of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism. The recommendations of this report were accepted widely by the party, but to date have still not been fully implemented.
As time progressed, Labour’s failure to stem the flood of antisemitic incidents both on- and offline became clearer, and already strained relations with the majority of the Jewish community worsened still. The patience of the party’s longstanding Jewish affiliate, the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), began to snap, and in early 2019 it, along with the ostensibly non-political charity, Campaign Against Antisemitism, reported the Labour Party to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a body set up by the last Labour government.
This was a terrible day for the Labour Party. The only political party previously investigated by the EHRC was the fascist British National Party. But we at Socialists Against Antisemitism, which was founded in late 2018, accepted that it was a sad but necessary step. The problem of antisemitism within the party was not improving and had to be properly investigated.
The EHRC investigated the party over a period of many months, straddling the general election of December 2019. It finally reported its findings in October 2020, by which time Corbyn had resigned as leader and been replaced by Keir Starmer. Starmer has promised to implement the report’s findings in full and provide details of how this will be done by mid-December.
Breach of law
The EHRC’s brief was a relatively narrow one. As an agency with powers to enforce equalities legislation, it was primarily concerned with investigating breaches of the law. Its brief was not to look into whether Labour was or is institutionally antisemitic. Therefore, those who say that the EHRC report cleared the party of institutional antisemitism are incorrect, as are those who claim the opposite.
It found that there was “unwanted conduct related to Jewish ethnicity” which “has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of one or more Labour Party members, or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them”.
The EHRC did not feel that it was able to look at every single case brought to the party’s attention, so it chose 70 of them and investigated the processes used in detail. In two cases, Ken Livingstone and Pam Bromley (a Rossendale councillor) were each found to be acting as agents of the party when harassing Jewish members, hence the party was found to be in breach of the law.
The EHRC makes it clear this “represents the tip of the iceberg” since in a further 18 cases it was unclear whether the individuals doing the harassing were acting as party agents, and there was, in many more files, “evidence of antisemitic conduct by an ‘ordinary’ member of the Labour Party” for which the party was not legally responsible.
Thus, those who suggest that “only two of 70 cases” proves there is only a minimal problem are distorting the facts. There were also two findings of unlawful indirect discrimination against Jewish members: first, through the party’s “practice or policy of political interference … in antisemitism complaints”; and second, through its “practice or policy … of failing to provide adequate training to those handling complaints of antisemitism”.
In other words, the party’s words and actions have had a seriously deleterious effect on its Jewish members, and by extension the Jewish community as a whole. Although there is a minority within the Jewish population, represented within the party by Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), that believes the extent of antisemitism has been exaggerated, there can be no doubt that most of Britain’s 270,000-strong Jewish community have for some time felt that the Labour Party was not a safe place for them.
This feeling continued during 2019, despite an improvement that year (noted by the EHRC) in the performance of the party’s Governance and Legal Unit in processing cases and disciplining members who had behaved antisemitically.
Socialists Against Antisemitism received an increasing number of reports that some branches or CLPs were discussing resolutions about Israel, Palestine and Jews literally every month. Many Jewish Labour members started dreading going to meetings.
Of course, resolutions about Israel and Palestine are not of themselves a sign of anti-Jewish racism. However, if they are the sole international issue under discussion to the exclusion of all others – such as the United States, China and the Uyghurs or Hong Kong, Syria, or Myanmar and the Rohingyas – it can lead some Jewish members to feel they are being unfairly picked on. Many of them, after all, have relatives in Israel. This is especially so if the resolutions are framed in particular terms which describe Israel as uniquely evil, rather than just one of a large number of discriminatory régimes worldwide.
The EHRC report recommended a series of remedies to try and address the situation, which we are likely to see rolled out soon.
These include the formation of an independent disciplinary process, a longstanding demand of JLM; a comprehensive, streamlined procedure for antisemitism complaints and decisions; an end to the opaqueness of the complaints process; the introduction of proper antisemitism training for those involved in adjudicating in the complaints process, indeed for all staff, elected members and officials; and a tightening up of the party’s rules so that ‘liking’ an antisemitic post on social media would no longer be acceptable.
We in Socialists Against Antisemitism do not feel that any of these proposals should be resisted, and we would also like to see training on antisemitism rolled out to all members via constituency parties.
Some from what we propose to call the conspiracist part of the left have muttered darkly that the EHRC is a tool of the Conservative government, or that the investigation was a direct interference from the Labour right in cahoots with the Tories. In doing so, they have called into question the report’s independence and reliability.
We feel it is inadvisable for people to cast doubt on the impartiality of the Commission. The EHRC members who led the inquiry into Labour have long experience and knowledge of the issues regarding antisemitism.
Often the same people go on to say that the report exonerates them, when in fact the EHRC’s brief did not extend to blaming or exonerating individuals, or even groups within or around the party.
Sometimes they point to the EHRC’s decision not to instigate an inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. That is a fair point, but in fact the Commission have left it up to the Conservatives to carry out their own investigation, which they will monitor, and very much reserve the right to use their legal powers if they are dissatisfied.
It is sometimes posited that antisemitic incidents are no more than criticism of Israel. This is simply not true. It remains absolutely possible, as it should be, for Israel to be subject to stringent criticism by Labour Party members. Only a small right-wing element of the Jewish community believes that no criticism of Israel should be allowed at all.
Moreover, the EHRC report made it clear that what they had seen went beyond antisemitic criticism of Israel – such as comparing Israelis to Nazis, blaming Jewish people generally for Israel’s actions, or using Zio as an insult. It also included Holocaust minimisation and denial, conspiracy theories about Rothschild or Jewish control over financial or other institutions, accusing British Jews of dual loyalty, saying antisemitism complaints were manufactured in a “witch hunt” by the “Israel lobby”, and even blaming Jews themselves for antisemitism in the Labour Party.
The Jewish community has largely lost confidence in Labour’s ability to get its house in order as regards antisemitism. Many of its members have been greatly upset by what has happened both at meetings and on social media, and some, including Jewish Labour MPs, have received extreme abuse, such as dog faeces through their letterboxes and death threats.
I myself received a threatening phone call at home from a man I had accused online of antisemitism, whose real identity became known to me only a year later. As far as I know he remains a party member.
Even if some of this abuse comes from non-members of the party, the fact that members are responsible for a substantial amount of it should be a matter of enormous shame.
Although the party has little option, since the Commission does have powers of legal enforcement, it is in our opinion entirely right that Keir Starmer accepted its findings on behalf of the party as contritely and willingly as he did.
Perhaps the trickiest part will be ensuring that the proposed independent disciplinary body and process are, indeed, independent. Those appointed must be knowledgeable about antisemitism, but also free of known prejudices towards a particular faction in the party.
This is not straightforward, but if carried out properly will mean Labour has a disciplinary process that the vast majority of its members can accept as fair. I hope the implementation of this report will help Jews feel welcome throughout the party once more.
Barnaby Marder is the founder of Socialists Against Antisemitism and a former chair of Richmond Park Constituency Labour Party.
See also: ‘Antisemitism: A Stain We Must Erase’ by Mary Stratford.