The Labour Party, 'institutional antisemitism’ and irresponsible politics
How a wrong diagnosis can be bad for Jews, the party and the fight against racism.
Among the daily repetition of many charges of ugly and systemic antisemitism in the Labour Party, the claim that the organization is ‘institutionally antisemitic’ is surely the most serious and wounding indictment. The accusation has been current since 2016, but it was given unprecedented publicity during and after the 18 February press conference at which seven Labour MPs resigned from the Party to form the Independent Group (TIG), citing institutional antisemitism as one of the main reasons for their departure.
On 7 March the charge dramatically ceased to be a mere allegation. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced that: ‘Having received a number of complaints regarding antisemitism in the Labour Party, we believe the Labour Party may have unlawfully discriminated against people because of their ethnicity and religious beliefs’ and will now be ‘engaging with the Labour Party to give them an opportunity to respond’, with the likelihood that it will begin a statutory investigation. Such an inquiry will, in other words, lead to the determination of whether the Party is institutionally antisemitic. Adam Wagner, a barrister at Doughty Street chambers, who acted for one of the two complainants, the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA), is in no doubt about this. The other complainant is the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), the official Jewish Labour Party-affiliated socialist society.
The charge is particularly damaging – not principally because it has been made repeatedly by commentators and politicians as if it were indisputable holy writ. But rather because of the huge symbolic significance of the term ‘institutional racism’, of which institutional antisemitism is understood to be a component, in the dominant discourse around reasons for the persistence of racial discrimination and hatred in the UK.
In this article, I explain the significance of the concept; assess the validity of the accusation; discuss the consequences that the relentless focus on Labour’s alleged institutional antisemitism has for BAME people who urgently need to bring their current experience of racism and discrimination to public attention; and consider whether the needs and concerns of Jewish people are met by this onslaught on Labour.
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The central concept in the 1999 report of the Macpherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence
The concept of institutional racism was central to the conclusions of the 1999 inquiry, headed by Sir William Macpherson, a retired high court judge, into the way the Metropolitan police investigated the 1993 murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence by a group of white youths. Macpherson’s 350-page report concluded that the police investigation had been ‘marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership’. It made seventy recommendations designed to show zero tolerance for racism among police and in the civil service, NHS, judiciary and other public bodies.
As Barbara Cohen notes in a just-published Runnymede Trust report, The Lawrence Inquiry 20 Years On, ‘The concept of institutional racism was not new; it had been developed over several decades by activists and academics in the US and Britain who had given a name to the phenomenon that was part of black people’s routine encounters with public and private organisations.’
As Cohen writes: ‘the Report [was] expected to change permanently the shape of race relations in Britain.’ And indeed, the broad acceptance of the relevance of the term seemed to reflect an understanding of the depth and persistence of racial discrimination in a society that had become so visibly multicultural and in which, on the surface, major advances had been made in reducing the impact of racially prejudiced attitudes.
For a public institution whose prime responsibility is to protect the entire community, the charge of institutional racism was damning and shaming. Although there was strong political will and determination at the top of the Met leadership to achieve meaningful and lasting change, many officers bitterly resented the judgements being made on their behaviour. Nevertheless, Cohen says ‘commitments and mobilisations across the country to eradicate race discrimination’ were made, on the basis that tackling institutional racism would be achieved with ‘the engagement of everyone in an institution.’
Twenty years on, asked about the progress made by the Met in tackling institutional racism, its current Commissioner, Cressida Dick, said the Met has transformed and is no longer institutionally racist; the headline finding from Macpherson was redundant. ‘I don’t feel it is now a useful way to describe the service and I don’t believe we are. I simply don’t see it as a helpful or accurate description.’
But this is not the view of Runnymede’s expert. Cohen writes: ‘Is it not a sad finale to this anniversary of a Report expected to change permanently the shape of race relations in Britain that patterns of race discrimination have altered very little . . . racism and racist violence have increased’.
Among some in black communities judgements on institutional racism in the Met twenty years after Macpherson are severe. Dick ‘is in total denial, because she won’t even acknowledge the crisis of knife & gun crime, much less acknowledge racial inequalities & injustices still plaguing the @metpoliceuk that’s showing little signs of improving both internally & externally’, tweeted Leroy Logan MBE, a retired Met superintendent. Needless to say, some serving police officers took great exception to such comments. One tweeted: ‘I suspect you are the one in denial. Nothing but criticism ever comes from you so people switch off from listening to you. There are great men and women in the Met. Racism would not be tolerated. I work with them often.’ There’s no doubt that some officers never accepted Macpherson’s institutional racism judgment and remain unreconciled to the concept even now.
The accusation of institutional racism remains a powerful and sensitive touchstone for assessing the scale of debilitating prejudice and discrimination in British society. When a lawyer for some Grenfell families last September said the public inquiry must ask if the 72 deaths were ‘a product of institutional racism’, firefighters said it was an offensive slur, reports the Guardian. But at least 34 victims were nationals of African, Middle Eastern or Asian countries. Could unwitting actions have delivered a racist outcome? Did institutional racism affect firefighters’ behaviour? asked Imran Kahn, who represented the Lawrence family at Macpherson.
We can see just how serious is the charge of institutional antisemitism against the Labour Party… and therefore how important it is to assess its validity.
Having established the continuing huge significance of labelling an organization institutionally racist, we can see just how serious is the charge of institutional antisemitism against the Labour Party – which prides itself as being the leading political force promoting anti-racism, the Party that initiated every single United Kingdom race equality law and about which the Jewish Chronicle said in 1920: ‘Jews have no better friends in this country than the Labour Party’ – and therefore how important it is to assess its validity. If the charge stands up, the changes required to put things right would be, in scale and scope, way beyond anything that the Party’s leadership and members have attempted up to now. So much so that failure and the collapse of the Party in its current form could be a distinct possibility.
From damaging political accusation to grounds for a statutory inquiry
The first time an organization in the UK was formally accused of institutional antisemitism was in October 2012. At a London employment tribunal, Ronnie Fraser, a Jewish lecturer and director of Academic Friends of Israel, claimed he was a victim of harassment by the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU). He argued that a succession of anti-Israel resolutions passed by the union’s annual congress, and the resulting incidents, had created an inhospitable climate for Jews. Despite prosecution of his case by celebrity lawyer Anthony Julius, it was comprehensively rejected by the three-member panel? Clearly, they were not impressed by the allegation of institutional antisemitism.
The term only began to be used to characterize the behaviour of the Labour Party towards Jews after Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader in 2015. The question of antisemitism and especially the leader’s relationship to it was taken up very rapidly by the media from April 2016 onwards in the aftermath of the suspension of Naz Shah MP from the Party after she shared a satirical map showing the state of Israel transplanted into the United States. Subsequently Ken Livingstone was also suspended after he sought to defend Shah by making controversial comments about Hitler ‘supporting Zionism’.
In response to the ensuing furore, former Liberty head Shami Chakrabarti was appointed by the Labour Party to conduct an inquiry into antisemitism and other forms of racism. In her report, launched on 30 June that year, she made no mention of institutional antisemitism, perhaps implicitly rejecting such an idea by concluding that the ‘Labour Party is not overrun by anti-Semitism or other forms of racism’ but there is an ‘occasionally toxic atmosphere and too much clear evidence . . . of ignorant attitudes’.
The cross-Party Home Affairs Committee examined antisemitism in the UK and reported on its findings in October 2016. The committee acknowledged that there was ‘no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political Party’. But in what the Guardian called ‘a damning indictment of the Party and its leader’, the committee claimed that Corbyn’s lack of action ‘risks lending force to allegations that elements of the Labour movement are institutionally antisemitic.’ The Guardian added: ‘it is withering about the Labour leader’s response to antisemitic attacks on his own MPs, and his understanding of modern forms of racism’.
Chuka Umunna, now a founder of TIG, was a Labour member of the Committee and in a personal statement took issue with the charge: ‘Some have suggested that there is institutional antisemitism across the whole of the Labour Party, this is not a view I share, not least because I have not seen one incident of antisemitism in almost 20 years of activism within my local Labour Party in Lambeth’. Nevertheless, just over two years later, on 24 February 2019, Umunna told Sophy Ridge in a SkyNews interview: ‘I’ve been very clear, the Labour Party is institutionally antisemitic, and you either put your head in the sand and you ignore it or you actually do something about it.’
Whatever caused Umunna to change his mind, or heart, his volte face is a reflection of how repeating the charge has come to be used as a political sledgehammer.
Whatever caused Umunna to change his mind, or heart, his volte face is a reflection of how repeating the charge has come to be used as a political sledgehammer, ostensibly to bring about the eradication of antisemitism from the Party but more commonly to justify public opposition to the leadership, or the act of resigning from the Party. This is highly damaging to the Party and wittingly or unwittingly promotes outcomes that really have nothing to do with combating antisemitism in the Party or anywhere else. Among other Labour MPs who have either led in making the accusation or endorsed it subsequently are Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes, Louise Ellman, Margaret Hodge, John Mann, Wes Streeting and more. The charge is almost always made without any clear explanation as to how institutional antisemitism manifests itself in such a way as to correspond to the definition of institutional racism as formulated by Macpherson.
There is no doubt whatsoever that some Jewish Labour MPs have received communications – especially online – containing antisemitic abuse, some of which appear to come from Labour Party members or supporters. In addition, claims have been made that some Labour MPs have wittingly or unwittingly used antisemitic tropes; that senior Labour figures have appeared on panels in discussion with people who have a track record of expressing antisemitic views; that criticism of Israeli government policies and of Zionism has at times been couched in terms using antisemitic tropes. The rather unfairly criticized Chakrabarti report quite comprehensively and frankly covers the ground very well. The Party’s leaders, officials and very many members acknowledge that more needs to be done to rid the Party of manifestations of antisemitism; that the Party and its members should operate a zero tolerance policy towards them; report them when they occur and have them dealt with within the investigatory and disciplinary procedures of the Party.
But it is also true that there are many members of the Party – now a massive entity the character of which cannot be essentialised – whose experience of antisemitism in the Party mirrors that of Umunna’s in 2016. They haven’t witnessed it. They feel that the Party is being tarred with the brush of a very small minority expressing antisemitic views. And some strongly feel that the problem of antisemitism is being used as a weapon in internal battles over Corbyn’s leadership and the direction in which the Party is moving ideologically.
It is certainly not ‘denialist’ to want to subject the charge of institutional antisemitism to close scrutiny. On the other hand, no one should pretend that the way the problem of antisemitism is being dealt with is going well. And the most recent developments, with deputy leader Tom Watson wanting to operate an oversight process monitoring the way Party officials are handling complaints of antisemitism and general secretary Jennie Formby writing to him and all Labour parliamentarians categorically stating that this is unacceptable and possibly illegal, are beginning to look as if some fatal split is in the making.
The EHRC therefore enters a highly politicized and complex environment and their conclusions, though intended to bring about improvements in ways of dealing with racism, will come face to face with unavoidably severe political reaction. They could be seen as endorsing exaggeration by some or justifying denialism by others. Either way, they are stepping into a minefield and must be able to demonstrate squeaky-clean impartiality. If their diagnosis is that the Party is riddled with institutional antisemitism and the goal is complete elimination of it, as with the Met, drastic root and branch change, throughout the entire organization, is unavoidable. But what if the diagnosis is wrong and the goal simply unattainable? False analysis makes bad policy. And can make the problem worse.
The EHRC… could be seen as endorsing exaggeration by some or justifying denialism by others. Either way, they are stepping into a minefield.
I am not a lawyer and don’t intend to speculate on the legal consequences of any conclusions the EHRC might draw. But I believe that working for more than 30 years in monitoring and studying contemporary antisemitism and racism gives me a good basis for examining how the concept of institutional antisemitism/racism would or would not apply to the Labour Party.
Before examining the charge more closely, we should remind ourselves of one of the conclusions of a major 2017 study of UK antisemitism undertaken by the respected Jewish community think tank, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), together with the Community Security Trust (CST), the private charity that monitors and combats antisemitism for the organized Jewish community: ‘antisemitism is no more prevalent on the left than in the general population’. A conclusion that echoed the finding of the 2016 Home Affairs Committee report on UK antisemitism quoted above.
Can the Macpherson definition of institutional racism apply to antisemitism in the Labour Party?
So what precisely is institutional racism? The Macpherson report defined it as:
the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people. (paragraph 6.34)
Read carefully, there are three crucial words in the definition, which I italicized: service, discrimination and disadvantage. Presumably, all three must apply in any organization accused.
‘An appropriate and professional service’
Bear in mind that Macpherson’s principal target was the Metropolitan police: a public body, the employees of which provide a service to the public, who are in effect ‘clients’ or ‘customers’. And there is a clear distinction between the service providers and the customers. The same applies to the other principal organizations Macpherson was targeting: the civil service, NHS, judiciary and so on.
In the Labour Party there is no such clear distinction between service providers and customers. Indeed, such terms are manifestly inappropriate when describing the Party. As the political scientist Iain McLean, Professor of Politics at Nuffield College, wrote in a 1978 study, it is ‘a complex organism’. It does have employees of course, but they are not providing services in the same way that the Met and the NHS do. There is some centralized control to ensure that the rules and regulations of the Party are adhered to, and a small administrative staff to implement this control and ensure the proper functioning of the Party. But, as McLean says, there are three main interdependent elements: the parliamentary leadership, the paid-up members outside the parliamentary elites and the mass of ordinary Labour voters – which makes this complex organism predominantly a voluntary organization. Without the last of these, the first two could not exist; although it’s arguable that all three are interdependent, and that the absence of any one of them would reduce the Party to a fiction.
Within the interdependent structure, a high degree of autonomy is exercised by some of the Party institutions. Powers are devolved to local constituency Labour Parties (CLPs); complex committee structures exist at local and national levels; and numerous affiliated and semi-affiliated organizations participate in the affairs of the Party. This does not mean that some practices within the Party, at these various levels, are not racist. And it may well be that the evidence the complaining organizations, the CAA and JLM, present relates to how the affairs of local CLPs are run. But presenting proof of systemic, unwitting antisemitism on a wide scale will be immensely difficult, especially when you consider that much of the currency of disputes and heated arguments is the free expression of different political views, and is clearly not taking place on the basis of racist or antisemitic assumptions. And there are no grounds for the CAA and JLM being allowed to define for themselves what is racist and antisemitic. There would have to be a definition acceptable to all parties.
As far as the minimal services provided within the organization are concerned, apart from the procedures for dealing with complaints of bullying, racist abuse etc., I don’t recall seeing any accusations that these services are in any sense systematically antisemitic. So even though the very fact that the Party is not a service organization per se disqualifies it from being institutionally racist or antisemitic, on the basis of what we know about its day-to-day operations, Mike Gapes’s accusation, made in an interview with LBC on 18 February, that the ‘the Party’ – yes, the entire Party – is ‘racist and antisemitic’ is groundless.
The key word in the definition is discrimination. It’s the discrimination that resulted from an organization’s failure to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin that Macpherson was so concerned about. The Lawrence family suffered hideous discrimination as a result of the failures of the Met police. But this was just the tip of the iceberg of decades of unrelenting discrimination against black people. So let’s set aside for the moment the conclusion of the previous section and simply ask whether Jewish people in the Party, at whatever level, experience and suffer discrimination?
In elections to Party posts?
To start at the top: in the election for leader following the resignation of Gordon Brown, the two front runners, brothers Ed and David Miliband, were Jewish. Ed Miliband was elected and held the post without challenge until the 2015 election.
In parliamentary representation?
Eleven of the Party’s 261 MPs elected in 2017 were Jewish. The UK Jewish population makes up approximately 0.5 per cent of the total population, which means Jewish MPs were over-represented in the PLP by a factor of 4.
In seeking to be a member of the Party?
There’s no way of knowing how many Jewish people are members of the Party, but an educated guess, bearing in mind the rightward shift of the Jewish voting population over the last few decades, puts it between 3-3,500, which gives a proportion of a little above 0.5 per cent of the total membership. Certainly, judging by the prominence of Jewish voices in many constituencies and at the parliamentary level, there is no barrier systematically holding Jews back from not only becoming members, but also playing their part in the variety of positions of responsibility within the Party at local and national levels.
In formal recognition of Jewish identity within the Party?
There are opportunities for self-defined minority groups to maintain their own socialist organizations within the Party as affiliates. For example Labour Party Irish Society ‘aims . . . to promote the interests of the Irish community to and within the Labour Party and to promote the Labour Party to Irish citizens in Britain. The Society is open to all people of Irish heritage and anyone who simply has an interest in Irish affairs’.
BAME Labour grew out of ‘black sections’ to articulate the distinctive needs of people of colour within the Party. It is open to all Labour members who identify as BAME.
As for self-identifying Jews, the organization designated as fulfilling a similar function is the Party-affiliated Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), until 2004 known as Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion), which claims a membership of 3,000. It’s recognized as a socialist society and you do not need to be Jewish to be a member. Naturally, you do need to share JLM’s aims, which are to ‘maintain and promote Labour or Socialist Zionism as the movement for self-determination of the Jewish people within the state of Israel’, and its belief in ‘the centrality of Israel in Jewish life’. But this leaves Jews in an anomalous position. On the one hand it demonstrates that Jews face no discrimination if they wish to assert publicly, within the Party, the importance of the link between their Jewish identity and their socialist principles. On the other hand, membership is not an option for anyone, Jews included, with a different view of Zionism or Israel. So, while JLM claims to speak for all Jews in the Labour Party, and to be treated as such by Labour, given that a significant proportion of Jewish members are not Zionists or are anti-Zionists, JLM’s claim is simply incorrect.
While JLM claims to speak for all Jews in the Labour Party, and to be treated as such by Labour, given that a significant proportion of Jewish members are not Zionists or are anti-Zionists, JLM’s claim is simply incorrect.
This does constitute a kind-of de facto discrimination: discrimination in favour of Zionist Jews; discrimination against non-Zionist or anti-Zionist Jews – a situation all the more strange, however, given that a sizeable proportion of Party members, I suspect, would hold similar views. And it’s Jews of a Zionist persuasion who are accusing the Party of institutional antisemitism.
The privileging of Zionism has deep historical roots in the Party. JLM’s predecessor, Poalei Zion, affiliated to the Party back in 1903, a time when a very positive view of Zionism, then only of minority interest among Jews, prevailed in the labour movement. So today, the Party acquiesces to the fact that, as far as I can ascertain, no other affiliated society makes membership dependent on the individual expressing support for the official, nationalist ideology of another state.
In recognition of alternative Jewish identities?
An alternative framework for self-identifying Jews, but not as yet affiliated to the Party, is Jewish Voice for Labour, established in July 2017, whose ‘mission is to contribute to making the Labour Party an open, democratic and inclusive Party, encouraging all ethnic groups and cultures to join and participate freely.’ It has a formal membership structure and non-Jews can join as Solidarity members.
In Jewish participation across the range of Party activities?
More broadly, there is no attempt to prevent Jews in the Party—whether as MPs, constituency Party chairs, members—playing a prominent part in making contributions to the discussion of Party policy in any area, with the antisemitism question, the Israel-Palestine conflict and the link between the two the focus of sharpest debate, controversy and sometimes bitter disagreement. Indeed, it seems at times as if this is primarily an intra-Jewish battle, reflecting differences in the Jewish world and in Israel, the intensity of which is at its ideological and political height within the Party. It’s no secret that there is no love lost between JLM and JVL, whose ideological differences are reflected in the views of many non-Jewish members of the Party and remain unresolved.
In the procedure for dealing with complaints about alleged manifestations of antisemitism?
In reality, the charge of institutional antisemitism will focus principally on this question. It has become a matter of considerable controversy. But even if we assume for the moment, judging by reports in the media, whose reliability is not impressive in this area, that some cases have not been handled as they should have been, it would be highly unlikely that this practice was systemic and absurd if it alone led to a judgment of institutional antisemitism, given that the overwhelming evidence points to no systemic discrimination against Jews at all.
Nevertheless, while this is the case, the fact that some Jews have left and some are contemplating leaving – though quantifying this is not possible – because, at the very least, they feel an atmosphere of ‘tolerance towards antisemitism’ that makes it impossible for them to stay, or more disturbingly they experience direct abuse, or they find the discourse around the Israel-Palestine conflict to be unbearably toxic, has to be accounted for. The Luciana Berger case is emblematic of this as she claimed that racist bullying by Labour members and supporters was responsible for her decision to leave. So can Jews leaving for such reasons be seen to suffer from a systemic institutional culture that permits this? I address this in relation to ‘disadvantage’ below.
While instances of antisemitic abuse directed at Jewish Party members can be categorized as ‘racial stereotyping’, a term used in the definition of institutional racism, there is no justification for jumping to the conclusion that there is substantive systemic disadvantage for Jewish members, as understood by Macpherson.
A fog of controversy has settled over the statistics revealing the progress made by the Party’s compliance team in processing complaints of antisemitic abuse. Allegations of irregularities and inappropriate political interference surfaced over the weekend of 2-3 March and were published in the Observer, with responses reported by the BBC and other media outlets on 5 March. But even from what chief critic of the process Margaret Hodge has said, the number of what she claims are ‘suspicious’ cases is very small. So it is highly unlikely that the overall picture which emerged from General Secretary Jennie Formby’s report, which she made public on 11 February, would change. The level of abuse as reported to the compliance team is very low indeed. Barry Gardiner gave a full and robust account of these figures to Sophy Ridge on SkyNews on 25 February, while not for one moment denying that there is a problem of antisemitism still needing treatment. And Glyn Secker and Dr Alan Maddison summarised them in ‘The truth behind the stats’ in the March 2019 Labour Briefing.
What do not figure in reports are claims that barriers are being put in the way of people who want to complain about alleged antisemitic incidents. My impression is that such incidents are tweeted about, recorded – on audio and video – and in the public domain in short order. There are reports of apparent irregularities in the handling of these complaints, but is this to be ascribed to discriminatory bad faith rather than administrative disarray?
According to Formby’s report, the totality of the complaints received represents 0.1 per cent of the membership. Members who have been expelled or who have left voluntarily because they thought they were going to be expelled – 61 people – amounts to 0.01 per cent of the membership.
For someone to claim, or to have claims made on their behalf, that they were bullied out of the Party by racist abuse is a very serious matter. But while this is what Luciana Berger and her supporters say happened to her, other MPs, such as Margaret Hodge and Louise Ellman, fierce critics of Corbyn’s leadership and uncompromisingly vociferous in accusing the Party of being riddled with antisemitism, who are also subject to online abuse, have remained, vowing to fight back against it, refusing to tolerate. Staying or leaving is still a matter of choice.
Moreover, away from the high profile individuals, it’s clear that many Jewish members are determined to remain in the Party and give a variety of reasons for doing so: some simply do not experience an antisemitic atmosphere, some feel the scale of the problem is exaggerated, some have faced it but refuse to be intimidated, some are channelling their loyalty to the Party and its leadership by growing a pro-Corbyn left voice in JVL. And even JLM, despite threatening to split from the Party, presents a combative stance on its website and through its tweets, and recently decided to remain, for now.
The very existence of this variety of responses, both at the parliamentary and membership levels of the Party, surely confirms that there is really no justification for leavers blaming their experience on processes that leave them ‘disadvantaged’, in the sense meant by Macpherson. For sure, all this does not leave the Party in a good place. But people leave and join parties all the time, especially parties where there is continuous struggle over clashing political ideologies. And we know that this is a key feature of the current malaise. In so far as we are talking about losing a political argument, this is not to be disadvantaged, and certainly not in the sense in which Macpherson used the term.
Preoccupation with institutional antisemitism overshadows racism against BAME people
Whatever is the precise nature of the problem of antisemitism in the Labour Party it does not constitute institutional antisemitism; it does not correspond with Macpherson’s definition of the concept; and crucially, in my view, it does not parallel the experiences of those the Macpherson inquiry was set up to address. And it is this fact that makes me deeply uncomfortable were I to leave the matter there.
My concern is how easily the emphasis on institutional antisemitism and on the issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party more broadly both overshadows – at the very least – those who are BAME and have been and still are victims of institutional racism and those who are BAME who experience racism and abuse within the Labour Party. In my discussion of institutional racism 20 years after Macpherson (above), I made it plain that there are strong feelings in black communities that the Met police still have a long way to go in rooting out ‘unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping’. As far as the Labour Party is concerned, a source told me that while Labour has increased BAME parliamentary representation, the number of Labour councillors of African and Caribbean descent is in sharp decline, despite the fact that black membership has increased. Meanwhile, my source added, the Unions just blocked a series of key democratic reforms of black self-organized structures in the Party; and that blacks feel that Momentum seeks to cherry pick black individuals rather than deal with black movements or organizations, ‘an old tried and trusted tactic’, I was told. There is also a ‘policy disconnect’ on the issues of tackling institutional racism, with published reports on black workers in three councils, Bristol, Lambeth and Hackney – all Labour – describing ‘the most horrendous culture of institutionalized racism and discrimination’.
Doreen Lawrence, Stephen Lawrence’s mother, said this month progress in reforming institutions was stagnant. ‘As time moved on, it’s as though they changed the word from “racism” to diversity, and then “diversity doesn’t exist anymore”,’ Lady Lawrence told MPs..
In a series of tweets on 26 February, Dr Alan Maddison contrasted the fact that ‘Racism in society accounts for 76% of hate crime, with 1% attributed to antisemitism. Surveys show BAME MPs get more abuse than Jewish MPs, despite media noise for the latter and not the former.’ He continued: ‘Nineteen per cent of Labour voters are BAME, you are letting them down, and feeding Tory lies’ by excessive concentration on antisemitism.
In another tweet he writes: ‘There is no evidence that antis. is more prevalent in Labour, or even far left, than elsewhere. Antisemitism prevalence is 4x higher on the far right, 62% vote Tory. One study into Party members suggests greater prejudices amongst Tory members. Nobody seems bothered.’
None of this is cause to dismiss one form of racism for the sake of prioritizing another. Nor is it to endorse any notion of a hierarchy of racisms. All must be fought consistently and concertedly. But those affected do not all experience racism in the same way. So to a significant degree, those different experiences require differentiated solutions. But it is of no help to Jews for Jewish leaders and their prominent non-Jewish supporters to seek a differentiated method of tackling antisemitism on the grounds of a false accusation of institutional antisemitism in the Labour Party that endorses Jewish exceptionalism. Especially when made by high profile figures, these accusations damage the fight against antisemitism. There is already cause to regret allowing this narrative of institutional antisemitism to run and run without determined challenge.
There is already cause to regret allowing this narrative of institutional antisemitism to run and run without determined challenge.
Take note of what spreading the charge leads some politicians and community leaders to say. Can it really help the cause of fighting antisemitism when Louise Ellman seeks to justify her accusations of antisemitism against her own Party by telling BBC Radio 4’s The World At One on 28 February: ‘I suspect the ideology of the far left which Jeremy has made prominent in the Labour Party where the world is seen in terms of global conspiracy theories and classic antisemitism, seeing Jews as all-powerful international operators fits very well into that. So I suspect that Jeremy has a lot of those thoughts without registering that that is antisemitism, but so much has been said about that by now he really ought to understand what he’s doing.’ Does it really help Jewish communities when Ellman, acting as Corbyn’s self-appointed, media-friendly pop-psychologist, in this confused, insulting, unsubstantiated monologue, transforms him into an unwitting-turned-witting antisemite?
Can Margaret Hodge seriously believe that the alleged problem of ‘institutional antisemitism’ would be solved by abandoning Labour principles to allow the Party to summarily ‘expel dozens of people from the Labour Party . . . some immediate, dramatic action of that sort is absolutely essential’ – a proposal she made in a BBC Newsnight interview on 28 February? So much for due process. Equally bizarre is what she said in an interview with Krishnan Gura-Murthy on C4 on 5 March, which he conveyed in a tweet: ‘in her opinion it is not acceptable for Labour members to be anti-Zionist and that to want to deny Jewish people of the right to self-determination is antisemitic.’ Setting aside the conflation of two separate things, outlawing anti-Zionism would exclude from Party membership, for example, Palestinians, strictly orthodox Jews, many left-wing Jews, who knows how many ordinary members and also some MPs. She urgently needs to get up to speed and read Peter Beinart’s clear explanation of the difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism published in the Guardian on 7 March. But I fear she is only listening to herself.
And what should we make of the extraordinary speech delivered by Labour MP John Mann at the annual fundraising dinner of the CST on 27 February. Passionate and personal, Mann spoke of ‘the need to take the fight to the antisemites’. And he brought ‘greetings from the front line in the battle against antisemitism.’ And where is that? ‘The Labour Party.’ So the task of tackling institutional antisemitism is to declare war on his own political home – wild hyperbole proposing a solution worse than the alleged problem itself. But it’s plain that Mann does not understand what antisemitism is today. He tells his audience:
"What the coal miners in my area did to warn against impending doom was to take a small bird in a cage down the pit with them. A yellow canary. Well, the Jewish community – you are the canary in the cage for humanity."
How he has the brazen cheek to relate this generations-old homily, as if he coined it, to an audience the presence and make-up of which demonstrates how Jews are the most secure, establishment-protected, privileged and, assimilated of the country’s minority communities, beggars belief. Among the 1,000 guests were government ministers, shadow ministers, numerous other politicians from the main parties, Commissioner Cressida Dick and other police officers, civil servants, religious leaders, donors and partner organizations. There may have been a time when Jews were always first to suffer prejudice, discrimination, persecution, pogroms and worse, but anyone who understands anything about racism today knows this is no longer the case.
Racism in Brexit Britain is here and now; it did not wait for John Mann’s ‘canary as Jew’ to expire before getting seriously worse. Disproportionate and unacceptable numbers of black people have died in police custody. BAME people continue to suffer appalling levels of day-to-day discrimination in education, jobs, housing, health, the justice system. Immigrants, asylum-seekers, ‘foreigners’, Roma, Muslims, Jews, people of colour, all face various levels of abuse. The Windrush scandal and Grenfell Tower disaster showed just how ingrained in our administrative culture is the treatment of people in a hostile fashion and as second class citizens based on race and class. When so-called friends of the Jews exceptionalize Jewish suffering today in this way, we don’t need enemies.
When so-called friends of the Jews exceptionalize Jewish suffering today in this way, we don’t need enemies.
The wrong diagnosis – and a trap for the EHRC?
Institutional antisemitism is the wrong diagnosis of Labour’s antisemitism problem and it leads to counterproductive remedies. The Party has openly acknowledged that its methods of handling complaints were imperfect, and even since these were changed, there have been difficulties. Were the EHRC, without pre-judging the state of antisemitism in the Party, able to offer help and advice on better practice, then perhaps its involvement at this time might be useful. But the auguries do not look good.
The complainants have highly politicized motives for the actions they have taken. Their track-records for objectivity and balance on the issue of antisemitism and Labour are poor. Even the EHRC itself does not start from an uncommitted position. Of course, by definition it opposes racism in all its forms, but in 2017, its chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath responded with these words to accusations against the Labour Party: ‘Antisemitism is racism and the Labour Party needs to do more to establish that it is not a racist Party. A zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism should mean just that.’ Prior to investigation, is it not worrying that the CEO already claims to know what the Labour Party needs to do?
But more potential pitfalls lie ahead. For example, what will the EHRC use as its definition of antisemitism? As I mentioned briefly above, it will obviously need one otherwise determining whether the Labour Party has an ‘unlawful discrimination’ case to answer will be impossible. We know the Party has a definition. After bitter rows last summer and under huge pressure, partly based on the argument that numerous public bodies across the country had adopted it, Labour finally followed suit and embraced the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition, plus all the examples. And the EHRC? Among all the information on their website I could find no sign of the organization having adopted it. Given all the fuss last year, this is surely somewhat embarrassing, unless they have taken a principled stand against it. Highly unlikely however. I presume both CAA and JLM will demand use of IHRA as the yardstick and in the circumstances the EHRC will agree. In which case, the stage is set for a car crash as virtually every expression of anti-Zionist opinion, every argument that a system of apartheid is being operated in the West Bank, every reference to Palestinian dispossession as a form of ethnic cleansing and so on could be used as a basis for a claim of ‘unlawful discrimination’. Objections from Party members and some MPs will be inevitable. Then the Party will face the prospect of an inquiry into the way antisemitism complaints have been handled turning into an illiberal validation of an assault on freedom of speech.
On the only prior occasion that a complaint of institutional racism/antisemitism of this kind was dealt with in a statutory fashion, in comprehensively rejecting it, the members of the panel hearing the case issued the following warning:
" Lessons should be learnt from this sorry saga. We greatly regret that the case was ever brought. At heart it represents an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means. It would be very unfortunate if an exercise of this sort were ever repeated. . . We are also troubled by the implications of the claim. Underlying it we sense a worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression." [paras 178 and 179]
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