Iain McNicol is one of those now suing the Labour Party (image: Mathieu Delmestre/Parti Socialiste (BY-NC-ND))

Don Flynn on legal battles and political expediency: how Labour’s standing as an anti-racist party is being compromised

The furore over antisemitism has widened the gap between Labour and the emerging anti-racist movement. Here’s why.

Sir Keir Starmer’s belief that a line could be drawn under the controversy over alleged antisemitism in the Labour Party by reaching a financial settlement with a group of disaffected former staff members has badly misfired. Large numbers of ordinary members are understandably indignant that money they have raised to advance the progressive politics of the party is being paid out to make allegations about antisemitism go away. Even more so because so many of them dispute the claims made by the litigants in any event, and the party itself had been given strong legal advice that the allegations would not stand up in court.

Unsurprisingly, the person whose reputation has been so badly mauled during this past period, Jeremy Corbyn, has raised an objection to the settlement on the grounds that the statement accompanying it explicitly concedes the claim made by his critics that his period as leader was marked by a rise in antisemitism across the party.

‘Political’ decision

Corbyn’s response on his Facebook page reflects a view, widely held by members, that Starmer’s decision not to enter a defence to the attempt to sue the party was essentially “political”, and did not reflect the merits of the stance it had taken during the dispute over the Panorama programme, ‘Is Labour Anti-Semitic’, broadcast in July 2019. In his own statement he says the decision to settle the matter in this way is “disappointing”, and that it “risks giving credibility to misleading and inaccurate allegations about action taken to tackle antisemitism in the Labour Party in recent years.”

Given the vitriol that has marked the dispute, this remark will be seen by most reasonable people as entirely moderate in tone, and ought to present no barrier to the party and the public moving on to more immediate issues of pressing concern. Instead, it has been picked up by Corbyn’s opponents as the start of a new phase of the battle, with threats of further action to sue the former leader being taken.  

This adds to the legal action reported to already have been initiated by the party’s former general secretary, Lord Iain McNicol, alleging that he had been defamed in the leaked internal party report which had blamed former Labour officials opposed to Corbyn for undermining efforts to tackle abuse and sabotaging the party’s 2017 election campaign. Not so far down the line we also have the prospect of renewed antagonism when the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s long-awaited report into the party’s handling of complaints against incidents of antisemitism is published.

Detached from anti-racist struggle

These latest turns of events show just how detached the dispute over antisemitism and Labour’s response to it has become from the wider struggle against all forms of racism. Until now, there has been no proper assessment of Corbyn’s claim that the party had acted vigorously against manifestations of antisemitism – a part of which was that this took place at the margins and was in no way central to the organisation’s culture, as the critics have claimed. What the EHRC report has to say on this point is the most keenly awaited point of the exercise.

For the many people who saw the reappearance of radical hope during the nearly five years of Corbyn’s leadership, the party had begun to take firm stances on issues of racial justice on which it had equivocated in the past. The gross mistreatment of migrants and refugees under immigration control systems put in place by past Labour governments, and built on by Conservatives, was the clearest example of this reorientation. Inequalities which had shown themselves up in employment, education, health care and the criminal justice system also moved to a more central position in Labour’s concerns.

The charge of antisemitism – on the face of it, a matter fundamentally about the persistence of racism against Jews – has been levered out of the place in politics it once had and increasingly orientated towards another debate about the range of positions taken on the Palestine/Israel question. Without question, the intense feelings many people have on this issue provoked some into making statements and claims that have to be challenged on the grounds of proximity to racist antisemitism. The need for vigilance on the part of the party’s internal and democratic procedures to ensure that these manifestations are dealt with is of crucial importance. But harm is continuing to be done to the task of assessing how this is being carried out by decisions of the current party leadership which seek to settle matters on the basis of political expediency rather than principle.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the anti-racism being mobilised in communities and workplaces is starting to forge a new common life for hundreds of thousands of mainly young people who are learning to confront the hierarchies of state and economic power that decree the place allocated to people in society, and the rights associated with whatever status they end up with. As the authorities ramp up their surveillance of dissident populations, and the police batons swing over the heads of people united in wanting to see an end to racism and discrimination, it is increasingly difficult to see how Labour’s incompetent engagement with the antisemitism row fits in with this bigger battle.

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