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How to break the impasse on Labour’s anti-semitism mess

Labour should adopt the IHRA code, with the Home Affairs Select Committee’s caveats

Chuka Umunna MP, who was a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee when it published its report into antisemitism.

Labour and anti-Semitism. It’s an almighty mess. As each summertime day goes by another fateful twist: a long-forgotten speaking engagement, a mislaid wreath-laying. Each episode greeted by an avalanche of  criticism and never mind the rights, wrongs and facts of the matter. The summer silly season may have provided a mediated amplification, but this is still a mess of considerable proportions. And whatever our stake in it, it’s a mess showing no signs of going away, which is surely what the vast majority of Labour members simply, if sometimes wrongly, want to happen.

Entrenchment by both ‘sides’ has produced an impasse. This does nobody any good, most importantly of all for the serious and legitimate cause: opposing antisemitism – a cause helped neither by overblown claims that a Jeremy Corbyn Labour government poses an ‘existential threat to Jewish life’ in this country nor by campaigners claiming that this is simply another coup against the Corbyn Labour leadership.

Jeremy’s reputation is staked on a no compromise version of politics, in the words splashed across a best-selling T-shirt ‘Since Day One’.  This is in large measure the root of his appeal, and it is no accident that one he shares this with his fellow seventysomething Left superstars Sanders and Mélenchon. A refreshing break from the politics of spin with no substance via fudge and nudge.  At the same time there is no legitimate reason on earth why a Jewish community that has suffered the calamitous horrors of the Holocaust should budge an inch on the issue of anti-semitism and to ask them to do so denies us all vestiges of humanity. And thus an impasse.

But politics isn’t defined by principle it is given meaning by change made possible by compromise. Knowing how to give, and take, without losing our sense of purpose is the art of politics. Anything else leaves us on the sidelines while the rest of the world moves on, without us. This is what both ‘sides’ in this most intractable of disputes is failing to recognise, and neither is doing themselves any favours as a result either.

As a pro-Corbyn (to declare an interest I’ve edited a book about him The Corbyn Effect) Labour member who I like to think would never, ever countenance anti-semitism while politically like most on the Left, pro-Palestinian, this summer has been profoundly depressing. Beyond the bubble of online debate, such as it is, it feels like I’m having the label ‘anti-semite’ stuck on me, whether I like it or not, and I very much don’t. You end up giving up hope, or worse, much worse excusing the inexcusable so your ‘side’ might win.

And then tucked away on the Guardian letters page, given next to no other publicity, adopted as far as I know by no by any leading figure on either ‘side’ a modest, yet brilliant suggestion. Thankyou Barry Edwards, the only knowledge I have of you is via your Twitter feed biog ‘Fourth-generation Islingtonian, third-generation Arsenal supporter’. For your brilliance I’ll even forgive you the latter as Barry, right now you’re the best friend I’ve got on this.

I’ll come to what Barry proposed in a moment. First, it’s important to understand that there are, like any definitions, especially ones that seeks to be legally-binding, entirely legitimate reservations about the IHRA’s definition. The meaning of anti-semitism is contested, not the sheer awfulness of its existence. These include the former judge in the court of appeal Stephen Sedley and Brian Klug Honorary Fellow of the Parks Institute for the Study of Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations. Theirs are serious-minded voices it would do well for no one to dismiss lightly. And within the Jewish community itself the status of the IHRA definition is bitterly contested by minority voices too.

But to break an impasse it is important first to recognise and understand the terrain. And like it or not the IHRA has assumed a central position in how Labour is currently being defined, one that is virtually immovable without the most fundamental of breaks. Those on Corbyn’s side who favour such a breach and booger the consequences have to explain why this, why now. Especially as Stephen Bush has pointed out in the New Statesman, and not as a Corbyn cheerleader either, the ambiguities in the IHRA definition will be sorted out when cases come before them by the party’s NEC where the Left enjoys a comfortable majority and most pundits expect will continue to do so including after the current NEC elections. Sure Corbyn won’t be leader forever but again most pundits expect him to be succeeded by someone with similar politics. If he isn’t , then the onslaught against the Left will be full on and this IHRA definition row simply a long-forgotten footnote to the story.

So I’m with Barry. Adopt the contentious working examples, the definition has already been accepted, in full but follow the advice of the Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee on how. Eh? Yes this is what Barry, unlike most, has spotted.

In 2016 this committee produced a detailed report on anti-semitism in the UK including consideration of the IHRA definition. Its conclusions were as follows:

“We broadly accept the IHRA definition, but propose two additional clarifications to ensure that freedom of speech is maintained in the context of discourse about Israel and Palestine, without allowing antisemitism to permeate any debate. The definition should be amended to add the following caveats:

“It is not antisemitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.”

‘It is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli Government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.”

And then they added the crucial recommendation: “We recommend that the IHRA definition, with our additional caveats, should be formally adopted by the UK Government, law enforcement agencies and all political parties, to assist them in determining whether or not an incident or discourse can be regarded as antisemitic.”

The committee, which is cross-party, passed the report unanimously, Labour  committee members voting for it, included Chuka Umuna. The credentials of the advice are entirely non-partisan and followed careful scrutiny of the issues. Barry? He’s suggesting that thus, as the committee specifically advises political parties to do so, Labour incorporate these caveats alongside the already accepted definition and now add all the working examples too.  

Yes there will be those, on both ‘sides’ who won’t be satisfied with this. But to most this will be Labour following non-partisan advice of all the right credentials.  The party will have staked its position on the moral high ground. Those who refuse to accept it left sniping from the sidelines rather an as of now either occupying centre stage ripping opponents, or each other on their own side, to shreds, and in some cases, both.  

All that is needed now is the small matter of those involved in this impasse but not entirely entrenched on one side or the other to give Barry’s proposal the support it surely deserves. And if that happens Barry mate you surely deserve the order of the red rose or summat.  

About the author

Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. He has edited numerous books on the politics of the Left, including The Corbyn Effect, and his new book Corbynism from Below will be published by Lawrence and Wishart in September 2019.

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