The Forde Report on antisemitism in the Labour Party raised serious questions about its internal structures, processes and culture. ERIC SHAW summarises the events before and after the report’s publication last July, and asks what has been learned from the whole sorry story.
In July 2017 the Equalities and Human Rights Commision (EHRC) announced that it was launching, to the leadership’s deep embarrassment, an investigation of antisemitism in the Labour Party. Reporting in 2020, the EHRC “identified serious failings in leadership and an inadequate process for handling antisemitism complaints across the Labour Party”. It concluded “that there were unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination for which the Labour Party is responsible”.
That same year an extremely long and detailed report was written, and subsequently leaked in April 2020, by a group of pro-Corbyn officials who contested the EHRC’s interpretation and findings. It became known as ‘the leaked report’. It was originally intended as evidence to be submitted by the party to the EHRC, although on legal advice this did not happen because it contained non-redacted material, some of a sensitive nature, which apparently had been gathered in ways that may have breached data protection laws.
On Starmer’s prompting, the party’s National Executive Committee appointed an independent panel to investigate the contents of the leaked report and consider the serious concerns it raised about the structure, culture and practices of the party’s organisation, as well as relationships between senior staff, the elected leadership and the membership.
The panel consisted of four members – Martin Forde KC as chair (pictured), Baroness Ruth Lister, Lord Larry Whitty and Baroness Debbie Wilcox, the latter three Labour Party members of high standing and unimpeachable integrity. For a variety of reasons the Forde Report was not published until July 2022.
All three reports addressed the most contentious and emotive aspects of Corbyn’s Labour Party: the allegation that, under Corbyn, antisemitism had become endemic in the party, with the leadership not only failing to tackle it effectively but in some ways actually fostering it.
Corbyn supporters heatedly denied this and claimed that antisemitism had been grossly inflated and ‘weaponised’ by anti-Corbyn elements in a deliberate attempt to sabotage the left-wing leadership and delegitimise, by tarring, the Palestinian cause. The whole issue divided, disrupted and discredited the party, contributing to the 2019 election disaster.
The Forde Report was intended in some way to bring closure. It focused on the claims made in the leaked report, and more broadly, of “legitimate and serious concerns about the party’s structures and culture”. It unearthed a party debilitated by factionalism, in which the antagonists were locked in a no-holds-barred combat for power and control, in which mutual enmity, even loathing, was rife, and in which relations within the party were enveloped in a culture of the deepest mistrust.
It described the leaked report as a “factional document” but accepted that some of its revelations about the virulent hostility of ostensible impartial party officials to the Corbyn leadership were based on fact. It concluded that both sides had ‘weaponised’ the issue of antisemitism, engaging in distortion and misrepresentation to serve their own factional purposes. The outcome was a factionalised, fractured and polarised party in which far too few were willing to subsume their differences in the common interest.
The report was rigorous, fair-minded and even-handed. Not surprisingly both the right and the hard left set about cherry picking various items to buttress their own preconceptions.
Since the NEC had commissioned the report, the panel anticipated that it would have the opportunity to report back on its findings to that body. Remarkably, however, the opportunity never arose and, indeed, the leadership seemed reluctant to engage with the writers of the report nor even to publicise its findings. Equally, the leadership lacked any sense of urgency in implementing Forde’s recommendations.
For this reason Forde decided to go public and readily agreed to Compass’ invitation to speak at a webinar on the report. The speakers were Ruth Lister and Martin Forde from the panel, plus Daniel Levy, Jennifer Nagel and Clive Lewis MP.
Forde made the following major points:
- Attempts to established an independent, speedy, fair and transparent disciplinary process – vital both to reviving party unity and meeting the requirements of natural justice – were progressing too slowly and unevenly.
- There appeared to be a “hierarchy of protected characteristics” in the complaints handling process in which some forms of racist abuse was acted upon with more speed and determination than others. For example, the party had been slow to act upon the complaints of Diane Abbott and other black members of frequent racial abuse.
- Both sides in the dispute over antisemitism bore some responsibility for the “antisemitism crisis” in the party: some had exploited it for narrow factional purposes whilst others had denied its existence as a significant issue. The report made the important point that in the absence of a systematic and comprehensive quantitative survey it was impossible to quantify the scale of antisemitism in the party.
- The application under Starmer of retrospective proscriptions was a worrying development – that is, disciplining members for being involved with organisations before those organisations had been proscribed.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Compass webinar was the accent Martin Forde and other contributors placed on the crucial importance of changing the party’s culture. This, they said, was too confrontational, too intolerant, with too great a disposition among those at either end of Labour’s political spectrum to question the good faith of others and ascribe to them ulterior purposes.
As a result, each side sought to impose their will over the others rather than aiming to reach acceptable compromises through a process of give-and-take and mutual adjustment. In short, the party needs a more pluralist internal culture of the type the soft left has been advocating for years.
The question arises – what had the Starmer leadership expected the investigation to achieve?
Eric Shaw is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Stirling. He is the author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland (with Gerry Hassan, Edinburgh University Press 2012), Losing Labour’s Soul (Routledge 2007) and Discipline and Discord in the Labour Party (Manchester University Press 1988).
This article was first published on the Progressive Readers website on 26 April 2023 and is reproduced here with permission. Progressive Readers will be publishing follow-up articles on the same subject in the near future.