Focus on actions not personalities

Image: Tim Dennell (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Misplaced responses from old and new leaders hamper Party efforts to tackle antisemitism, says Mike Davis

It looked like Labour was painfully extracting itself from a sustained encounter with antisemitism. New leader Keir Starmer highlighted tackling the issue as a key test for his leadership. Under Corbyn, the party’s disciplinary machinery battled for five years to process complaints. 

Then in early 2019 came the referral of the matter to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission by the Jewish Labour Movement and Campaign Against Antisemitism. Sadly, the issue had become hugely divisive and factionalised.

After an almost 18-month investigation, the EHRC finally reported late October. It looked like a further phase of this damaging issue was reaching a conclusion. When Jeremy Corbyn carelessly responded to the report by saying the scale of the problem had been “overstated”, General Secretary David Evans took the decision to suspend Corbyn from the party. Starmer backed the decision. 

On Tuesday 17th November, the NEC disciplinary panel reinstated Corbyn’s membership. Corbyn has said he regrets the pain caused by his earlier comments. Starmer was faced with heavy lobbying by the JLM, some MPs and external elements not to admit Corbyn back into the Party. With a justification of a continuing need to win back trust, Starmer decided not to readmit Corbyn back into the parliamentary party. Almost inevitably this sustains the focus on the ex-leader, rather than on the recommendations of the report. The decision can only prolong ill-feeling and divisions.

Corbyn was wrong both to comment before Starmer had on the report and to not simply call for implementation of its recommendations. Corbyn’s suspension was also wrong. It diverted the focus from understanding and implementing the findings of the report into a personality issue. Furthermore, it moved discussion away from the report’s essential recommendations: the training of staff in handling complaints; organising political education sessions for staff and members; challenging antisemitism, Islamophobia, unconscious bias, conspiracism, and the myriad forms racism can take. Vitally, creating a culture in which all forms of racism are unacceptable.

Starmer’s leadership campaign put significant emphasis on uniting different sections of the party. Corbyn’s suspension could not aid him in these efforts to overcome factionalism. The disciplinary panel’s reinstatement and Corbyn’s statement of regret should have drawn a line. Refusing PLP membership will appear to many as pandering to political oppositionists and showing bad faith in Labour’s dispute mechanisms.

Numerous groups and individuals responded to the EHRC’s investigation. It found two cases of unlawful action, both by Labour Party representatives: one centred on Ken Livingstone; the other, a councillor. There were 18 further cases of the 70 investigated which were found to be borderline. The report concluded that the Labour Party’s complaints process was inadequate and too slow, and it expressed concern that the current process does not ensure a fair and transparent handling of antisemitism complaints. The Labour Party must now draw up an action plan to deliver on the report’s findings and recommendations by 10th December. There should be no questioning of the need to make the changes.

There will always be some in the party that wish to score political points, both on the left and the right. The Jewish Labour Movement has a long record of opposition to Jeremy Corbyn and his left politics. Momentum and Jewish Voice for Labour articulated a more nuanced response.

The Momentum statement acknowledged the report “will make difficult reading” while adding it “is a reminder that whatever the values and history of the Labour Party, it can and must do better. Labour, which has grown to over half a million members, does not exist in a vacuum and is not immune from wider prejudices in society. We stand in solidarity with those affected by antisemitism or let down by the Labour Party’s handling of complaints.” Few members would disagree.

While the EHRC report notes that from 2016 improvements were made to the complaints process, there remained numerous flaws. Again, many will echo the Momentum view that the acknowledged improvements must be built upon to create effective complaints processes. 

However, as the Momentum statement also says, we need to avoid any misuse of the report for factional ends: “Jewish communities and our Jewish comrades deserve better”. The vast majority of Labour members want to create a society in which all races and peoples can live in harmony, where cultural differences are respected and where discrimination in words or action is eradicated. So the spirit as well as the letter of the report needs to be followed.

The report itself also confuses the differences between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Criticising actions of the Israeli government does not equate to antisemitism or to anti-Zionism.

It is also important to say we will not take any lectures from Tories whose party is led by a man who has made numerous racist and Islamophobic statements, a party whose leaders have shared the same bed with a parliamentary group containing anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers in the European Parliament, a party that has funded ‘Go Home’ lorries and has created a hostile environment for migrants in which racist ideas and actions can find fertile ground. It is under the Tories’ watch that Jewish schools have had to employ private security for students’ protection and antisemitic hate crimes have risen exponentially since 2010. The independent enquiry into racism in the Tory Party, promised by all Tory leader candidates during their election campaign, is nowhere to be seen.

None of this should detract from the need for Labour to get its own house in order. Labour must be a beacon of good practice in rooting out antisemitism and all forms of racism inside the party and in society as whole. The left of the party and Jewish members have a strong record of being prominent anti-fascist activists, from the 1930s Battle of Cable Street to protests against Mosley in the 1950s, and later the National Front and its successor British National Party and splinters. Labour-led councils have pioneered action in schools and communities on Holocaust Memorial Day. Labour initiated compulsory citizenship education in secondary schools with modules on combatting racism. It’s not a spotless record. There have been strands of antisemitism reaching back to the early years and through to Labour leaders in the past, including Clem Attlee and Ernest Bevin. David Feldman in The Guardian offers a nuanced view, saying education about deep-rooted antisemitic tropes drawn from a wider culture is the central problem that no amount of expulsions will deal with.

We must continue the positive work of developing a common understanding, and take action against those that seek to scapegoat the ‘other’ and sow divisions on race and other forms of diversity. What is vital is to move forward in a spirit of cooperation and tolerance of different opinions whilst having zero tolerance of antisemitism, Islamophobia and racism in all its forms.

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