Labour must now confront the issue of antisemitism in the labour movement. All the attempts by Corbyn leadership to downplay the issue, or to say that it is only the inevitable spillover into a large organisation of attitudes in wider society, must end.
The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report published on 29 October is not the solution or the last word on the matter, but it has the institutional weight to push the left into accepting, legally and politically, that there is a real problem.
The EHRC’s statutory powers are only within the scope of the Equality Act 2010. It is reliant on the scope of the Act to determine what was and was not antisemitic in the incidents and the complaints-management that it has examined. The non-legally-binding International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) text on antisemitism, which the Corbyn leadership long resisted and then tried to neutralise by qualifying provisos, is irrelevant to the EHRC findings.
A large section of Corbyn supporters, particularly people drawn into the Labour Party in 2015 with some previous history (often in the 1980s) with the far-left prior to it, have deflected debate on antisemitism with denunciations of that IHRA text and its alleged bad effect on free criticism of Israel. None of them has condemned the provisions of the Equality Act under which the EHRC has found Labour wanting.
Because the EHRC’s brief was limited to antisemitism, it did not look at the huge and continuing deficiencies in Labour’s Governance and Legal Unit and the rest of the Labour bureaucracy across other political issues. The EHRC report highlights its criticisms by pointing to better Labour texts and codifications on sexual harassment complaints than on antisemitism, but the actual operation of those formally better procedures has often been just as opaque and obscure.
In 2015 and 2016 thousands of socialists, including many supporters of Workers’ Liberty, were expelled, or auto-excluded with no right of appeal, for supporting Workers’ Liberty or for having even an informal association with us, such as attending events organised by us. The same happened to people who had had some association with Left Unity or with Socialist Appeal. A few have been reinstated, but many remain excluded.
Then, and in a new wave of suspensions this year, socialists have found themselves unable for months on end to establish the exact charges against them. Even in the case of Corbyn, we do not know under what provision he has been suspended. The EHRC picked up on interference by Corbyn’s Office in complaints about antisemitism, and now we have Corbyn being suspended by David Evans, the General Secretary, and still no details of the charges against him.
In August David Evans sent a letter to CLPs, in fact (as he noted, accurately) a restatement of “the previous General Secretary’s [Jennie Formby’s] instruction”: “any discussion about ongoing disciplinary cases remains prohibited”. That gag order passed little-noticed at the time, but the outcry about Corbyn’s suspension can and should focus opposition to it.
In the same letter, Evans banned CLPs from debating motions attacking the IHRA text. We believe the National Executive was right to endorse the IHRA text, but we can combat antisemitism effectively only by convincing and educating people, not by barring them from discussing the issue because they might (and indeed, some will) express unsavoury views.
Another aspect to the report is the light it sheds on how political discourse is conducted. Of the 70 complaints the EHRC selected for investigation, 59 related to social media posts. A lot of the activity of the new or returned Labour members is done online.
At one time, so the EHRC report tells us, this fact helped shape a bizarre rule in the GLU that it would not investigate just “likes” or “shares” of antisemitic material: writing your own Jew-hatred could get you into trouble, but recirculating others’, even repeatedly, could not. Presumably part of it was the GLU feeling overwhelmed and wanting to reduce the number of complaints it would have to deal with.
It also reflects the lack of depth of much of the discussion on the left. Sharing a rant on Facebook, or a meme, is no substitute for real political discussion.
The answer is not just “expel more people”, and the EHRC report doesn’t say it should be. The example of Naz Shah is instructive. Naz Shah shared and commented on an antisemitic meme. There was no hair-trigger suspension or expulsion. She apologised, committed to understanding more about the issues, and was commended by the Jewish Labour Movement and others for coming to a clearer understanding. If such a process is appropriate for an MP, then it should be reasonable for ordinary Labour members as well.
A bureaucratic method might expel thousands more people with vague antisemitic sympathies, but do nothing to draw out the poison long-term and to push antisemitic discourse out of the labour movement.
Workers’ Liberty has long argued that the post-1980s left has a blind spot on antisemitism. It has come to fob off complaints about antisemitism in a way it would do with no other bigotry, arguing that they mean taking antisemitism as more important than other forms of prejudice, and anyway are a way of stifling criticism of Israel.
As the report shows, most of the antisemitic social-media posts over recent years in the Labour Party have little or no reference to issues in Israel-Palestine, and many recycle “old-fashioned” right-wing themes about Jews as “Rothschilds” and so on.
But the soil on which that “old-fashioned” antisemitism has flowered was fertilised by “absolute anti-Zionism” and the slippery chain of connections by which “Jews” become identified with “Zionists”, and “Zionists” with “racist”, because of a supposedly unique and inherent “racist” essence to Israel as such, over and above any particular policy of Israel which may be criticised as racist.
The issue of antisemitism cannot be tackled without also having a sustained drive to educate the left on the actual history and politics of the region. The Labour Party policy is (rightly) for a democratic “two states” settlement in Israel-Palestine, and despite all the noise and fury no section of the post-1980s left in the Labour Party ever tried to challenge that. We need to nail the argument down.
Digging down to the roots
Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty have carried coverage for a long time on antisemitism in the left and the labour movement.
• Collection of articles, mostly recent, here
• Short pamphlet on left antisemitism here
• Video from recent Workers’ Liberty meeting on left antisemitism here
• Digging down to the roots: socialist debate on Israel and Palestine from the 1980s and 90s: Arabs, Jews and socialism
• Steve Cohen’s 1984 book That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Antisemitic: new edition available from us for £5 plus £1.50 postage here.