But What Happened in Corbyn’s Labour Party?

GreRevisiting the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on anti-Semitism in Britain’s Labour Party

Just one year ago — on October 29, 2020 — Jeremy Corbyn was expelled from the United Kingdom’s Labour Party, which he led from 2015 to 2020. The expulsion followed his reservations about the findings of the EHRC’s report on anti-Semitism in Labour, which was handed to his successor Keir Starmer. The question of anti-Semitism on the left is not specifically British. It is regularly raised in France as well. However, this report has not been much taken up by the French media. K. presents here a synthesis. It gives an account of both the reality of anti-Semitism within Labour and the way in which, after Corbyn’s resignation, Labour was able to face up to it. Strangely enough, while a part of the French left was willing to interfere in the English controversies to support Corbyn, it did not find it appropriate to revisit this report.

 

Kalen Ockerman’s mural « The Enemy of Humanity » (photo credit : Youtube screenshot)

 

“Indeed, by dint of accusing everyone and anyone, by dint of inventing anti-Semites where they are not, the trivialization of the attack verifies the old adage taken from an Aesop fable: “’By crying wolf…’ That is to say, by dint of issuing false alarms, a real alarm will not be taken seriously.”

 

Jean-Luc Mélenchon[1]

 

English socialism has long represented an alternative model for European socialists. Marked by the weakness of Marxism within it, by organic links with the trade unions, by an early integration into parliamentary democracy and by an assumed reformist practice, it experienced a twentieth century that was less turbulent than its European counterparts confronted by communist competition and clashes with fascism. However, this British specificity seemed to fade in the mid-1990s when Tony Blair’s New Labour (Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007) began to embrace economic liberalism, as did Gerhard Schröder’s German SPD (Chancellor from 1998 to 2005) and François Hollande’s Socialist Party (First Secretary from 1997 to 2008). This shift was not without its critics within the various European socialist parties. In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon became the main spokesman, leaving the Socialist Party in 2008 to form what would become La France Insoumise. In the United Kingdom, it was Jeremy Corbyn who embodied the criticism of the liberal embrace, but this criticism became ascendant within the British Socialist Party. With his election as Labour leader in September 2015, this trend became dominant and represented for many European socialists the hope of an exit from the liberal parenthesis of the beginning of the millennium. Once again, the developments in British socialism took on significance for the whole of Europe.

The inquiry into anti-Semitism in Labour by an independent body, the EHRC

The British Jewish vote was heavily weighted towards Labour. But from that point of view, Corbyn’s term in office marks an unprecedented break between Labour and British Jews. Quickly, the party had to face a wave of resignations[2] as well as numerous criticisms from representatives of the Jewish community within[3] and outside of Labour. They intended to denounce a party plagued by anti-Semitism that its leader would allow to flourish. A heated controversy erupted in March 2018, when a Facebook post by Jeremy Corbyn, dated 2012, resurfaced in which he opposed the removal of a mural (see illustration image in the article) in East London, depicting Jewish bankers, and clearly using anti-Semitic tropes. A stance on which he then went back[4], explaining that he had not examined “carefully enough” this “deeply anti-Semitic” mural.

Neither the resignations, nor the controversies, prevented Jeremy Corbyn from remaining at the head of Labour. It was only after Labour’s historic defeat in December 2019, attributable to its vacillation on the Brexit issue, that Corbyn resigned before being replaced by Keir Starmer. In October 2020, a few months after the change in Labour’s leadership, the findings of the “Investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party” were released by the EHRC[5]. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (henceforth EHRC) is a United Nations-accredited, independent, public UK body established in 2007 following the Equality Act 2006 (supplemented by the Equality Act 2010). Its role, as described on its website, is to “combat discrimination, promote equality of opportunity and protect human rights”, and to this end it has various legal prerogatives, which – as it states – range from providing assistance and advice to carrying out investigations and legal action.

The investigation conducted by the EHRC was initiated as early as May 2019 “following serious public concern about allegations of antisemitism and a number of formal complaints made to us.”[6]” (p. 5 of the report), from, among others, Campaign Against Antisemitism (a British NGO founded in 2014.and the Jewish Labour Movement[7]. The inquiry sought to determine whether Labour had breached the Equality Act 2010 in its attitude toward Judaism and Jews through its employees or agents. It also sought to measure how Labour had implemented the recommendations of previous reports – including the 2016 report by civil rights expert Shami Chakrabarti, commissioned by Jeremy Corbyn himself following initial controversies over anti-Semitism within the party – and whether Labour had a legitimate, consistent and effective procedure for dealing with complaints of anti-Semitism within it.

EHRC report on antisemitism in Labour

The inquiry was based on a review of 70 investigation files relating to complaints of antisemitism within the party (out of over 220 identified complaints), 58 of which were selected by the EHRC, and 12 of which were proposed by Labour. The EHRC also examined evidence from within the Labour Party and from various organizations, including the Campaign Against Antisemitism, the Jewish Labour Movement, and The Jewish Voice for Labour[8].

A damning report highlighting a problematic “culture”

In both its development and its conclusions, the report is damning about the handling of anti-Semitism cases during the Corbyn era, particularly the handling of complaints about anti-Semitism. More broadly, it concludes that the party is responsible for “unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination”. (p. 6).

In addition to the highly problematic cases that we will discuss in more detail, there appears to have been a casual approach to combating antisemitism, in contrast to Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to a zero-tolerance policy towards antisemitism. For example, the EHRC report notes at the outset that despite Labour’s commitment to work with them, there have been numerous difficulties in the transmission of documents, so that the EHRC questions Labour’s real commitment to cooperation. More importantly and more broadly, the report notes: “Our analysis points to a culture within the Party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.” (P101)

There are several instances in which the report holds Labour responsible for harassment of Jews. Indeed, under the Equality Act 2010, a political party can be held legally responsible for the unlawful conduct of its officers when such conduct is committed in the course of their duties within the party, as an elected official (member of parliament, mayor, etc.) or as a member of the party’s various bodies[9].

Nearly two dozen of the cases of official party agents studied by the EHRC (“the tip of the iceberg,” as the report puts it, p. 8) are considered “borderline.” Many others are considered to be cases of clear antisemitic attitudes, but originating from “ordinary” party members, for which Labour cannot be held responsible. Two main cases are instead detailed in the report, those of Ken Livingstone and Pam Bromley[10].

Labour Responsible for Harassment[11]: the cases of Ken Livingstone and Pam Bromley

A member of the House of Commons from 1987 to 2001, Mayor of London from 2000 to 2008 and very close to Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone was a member of Labour’s governing body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), at the time of the events. In 2014, future Labour MP Naz Shah had shared a post on Facebook proposing to “transport” the Israeli population to the United States[12]. The post included an image showing the state of Israel embedded in the state of the United States with the comment, “problem solved.” Another of his Facebook posts compared the state of Israel to Nazi Germany, explaining with the hashtag #IsraelApartheid: “We should never forget that everything that Hitler did in Germany was legal.

These posts by Naz Shah, elected as a Labour MP in 2015, resurfaced in April 2016 and created a heated controversy. The MP then publicly apologized and in Parliament for her comments. She was quickly suspended by Labour for the time of an administrative investigation[13]. Following this withdrawal, Ken Livingstone intervened several times in the media to deny the anti-Semitic nature of Naz Shah’s posts, explaining that criticism of her was part of a smear campaign led by the “Israel lobby” to stigmatize any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, and undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate. He added that Hitler had supported Zionism in 1932, “before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”[14]. These comments cause strong reactions, more than a hundred Labour MPs demanding his exclusion from the party. Suspended following these remarks, for the duration of the investigation, he would finally be sanctioned with a two-year suspension from the party[15].

Ken Livingstone and Naz Shah in 2015. Wikimedia Commons

The EHRC report concludes that Ken Livingstone’s statements were anti-Semitic: “These statements had the effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for members, and prospective members, of the Labour Party, particularly those who were Jewish.” It also found that Labour was responsible for Ken Livingstone’s conduct insofar as he held official Labour positions.

Pam Bromley, a Labour councillor in Rossendale, Lancashire, has made a number of Facebook posts for which Labour has received numerous complaints accusing her of anti-Semitism. These posts dating back to at least 2017 deploy some classic anti-Semitic prejudices, such as the idea that Jewish people control the financial world. In them, Pam Bromley also explains that complaints of anti-Semitism within Labour are pure fabrications, and suggests that Jews have been fomenting a conspiracy to take over the Labour Party, referring in particular to a “fifth column[16]” Suspended in April 2018, Pam Bromley was expelled from the party in February 2020. However, the EHRC believes that Labour can be held accountable for her behavior, as she was performing official duties, explicitly mentioned on her Facebook account, and used her official Facebook account as a city councilor for some of these posts.

Erratic and politicized handling of complaints of antisemitism

The report goes on to discuss the shortcomings of the internal complaints management process for antisemitism cases. Complaints filed by party members should indeed investigate a potential breach of the code of conduct. Since 2018, these complaints are registered on the Internet, and examined first by a Labour body, the Governance and Legal Unit (GLU), which decides whether or not to carry out an investigation. If so, the GLU conducts the investigation and forwards the results to the National Executive Committee (NEC), which decides whether or not there is an infringement, its seriousness and the appropriate sanction. If necessary, a hearing may be held by the National Constitutional Committee (NCC).

In the cases examined, however, the EHRC found serious shortcomings in the handling of complaints of antisemitism: it found the party’s responses to these complaints to be generally inconsistent and opaque. It states that neither the complainants nor the defendants have been kept properly informed about the processing and outcome of the complaints, it reports excessive delays in investigating them, it notes non-existent record-keeping, and it notes a blatantly casual handling of these complaints, which are sometimes simply forgotten. In particular, the EHRC mentions (p. 70) the case of a Labour councillor who, in 2016, shared an image of a Jewish banker, Jacob Rothschild, on his Facebook page, with a caption saying that the Rothschild family and other institutions, including the City of London and the Vatican, “own our News, our Media, our Oil and even our governments.” . The complaint to which this comment gave rise was never addressed.

There was no general guidance or procedure for determining what does and does not qualify as anti-Semitism, nor was there any guidance on what sanctions should be applied based on the severity of the facts. No reasons were given for the decisions taken, for sanctions as well as for dismissals, and no record was made of the discussions that lead to these decisions. Furthermore, those responsible for dealing with complaints of antisemitism received no specific practical training to carry out their task. The EHRC concludes that “the evidence clearly shows that the system for handling complaints of antisemitism was seriously flawed. As a result, individuals filing complaints of antisemitism were poorly served by their political party and those responding to complaints were often treated unfairly”: It is clear from the evidence that there were serious failings in the system for handling antisemitism complaints. The result is that those making complaints of antisemitism were served poorly by their political party, and that those responding to complaints were often treated unfairly.”

The EHRC also points to a politicized handling of complaints of antisemitism through political interference, which means that the handling of complaints did not follow official procedures. This may have led to decisions being made for political reasons and not on the basis of an examination of the facts, potentially leading to a discriminatory effect. Indeed, in the official procedure, Corbyn’s teams, as Leader of the Opposition (LOTO), were not supposed to be involved in the handling of complaints. However, the EHRC has found evidence of their intervention in various antisemitism complaint cases, at times in a systematic way. One of them directly concerns Jeremy Corbyn. A complaint had been issued in April 2018 against him following the mural case. While the decision on whether or not to proceed with an investigation was to be made by the Governance and Legal Unit, an email from Corbyn’s teams asked that the complaint be dropped, arguing that “the complaint itself appears to fall well below the threshold required for an investigation” (quoted on p. 44).

In the Ken Livingstone case, Jeremy Corbyn appears to have intervened directly, this time to call for his suspension. The two-year suspension was made under media and political pressure, and against Labour’s official procedures, and was subsequently confirmed by the party’s disciplinary bodies, angering those within Labour who wanted him expelled. Indeed, unlike the case of Naz Shah, whose reinstatement was welcomed by the Jewish representatives of Labour because of her repeated apologies, Ken Livingstone has never regretted his remarks[17], and moreover drags behind him several controversies related to dubious remarks about the Jews. In 2005, when he was mayor of London, he compared a Jewish journalist who was interviewing him to a concentration camp guard, comments that led to a heated controversy and his suspension from office for a month.

Whatever the meaning of these interventions, the EHRC believes they are not legitimate, adding inconsistency and opacity to the party’s disciplinary procedures: “We find that LOTO’s involvement in individual antisemitism complaints was not within the Labour Party’s complaints process, and was therefore not a legitimate approach to determining complaints. The process has resulted in a lack of transparency and consistency in the complaints process. It has created a serious risk of actual or perceived discriminatory treatment in particular complaints. It has also fundamentally undermined public confidence in the complaints process.” (p.50)

While the EHRC notes that progress has been made in dealing with complaints of anti-Semitism as of 2019, these multiple deficiencies, and particularly the facts of political interference, according to the EHRC make Labour liable for indirect discrimination[18].

Keir Starmer: EHRC’s tough report on antisemitism is a “day of shame” for the Labour Party. 29 October 2020 speech.
Selective punishment within Labour

If such shortcomings appear particularly culpable in the eyes of the EHRC, it is also because they seem to relate only to anti-Semitism. The EHRC notes that the handling of complaints about antisemitism is different from the handling of complaints about other issues. The report repeatedly uses the example of the handling of sexual harassment complaints, where procedures are consistent, transparent, and effective, and carried out by specifically trained staff. Moreover, a number of the shortcomings related to the handling of complaints had already been pointed out by the 2016 Chakrabarty report, whose recommendations were ultimately not followed.

The EHRC cannot help but suspect, at best, a lack of interest in issues related to anti-Semitism, directly implicating the party’s leadership under Corbyn: “The Labour Party has shown an ability to act decisively when it wants to, through the introduction of a bespoke process to deal with sexual harassment complaints. It is hard not to conclude that antisemitism within the Labour Party could have been tackled more effectively if the leadership had chosen to do so.” (p.101)

This report, published in October 2020, was a bombshell within Labour. Keir Starmer, who succeeded Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and made the fight against anti-Semitism one of his priorities, called it a “day of shame” for the Labour Party. He said he accepted the report’s findings without reservation and pledged to implement all of its recommendations through the implementation of an action plan. Shortly after Keir Starmer’s statements, Jeremy Corbyn sought to downplay the report, saying that the number of antisemites in Labour had been exaggerated. Keir Starmer then took the decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn on October 29, 2020. Reinstated a few weeks later, Jeremy Corbyn nevertheless remains, for the moment, banned from sitting in the Labour opposition in the House of Commons.

French echoes of Corbyn’s Labour controversies

Among the major European socialist parties, there is one that has often invited itself into the polemics about anti-Semitism within Labour: La France Insoumise. During a trip to England in September 2018, its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon thus denounced “a series of repetitions without hindsight or proof of Netanyahu’s propaganda (…)” before asserting, “in general when an electoral campaign sees a man of the left being called anti-Semitic it is because he is not far from power.” And to conclude, “In short, the good old stun-ray is in full operation here. Sickening.” Israeli manipulation, or manipulation of the dominant, it was unclear who would instrumentalize a non-existent anti-Semitism to harm Corbyn, but the heart of the argument was laid: there is no anti-Semitism.

Jeremy Corbyn et Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 2018

The day after the defeat of December 2019, Jean-Luc Mélenchon took up his pen to denounce the mistakes of the English socialist leader and to draw lessons from them: “Corbyn had to endure without help the vile accusation of anti-Semitism through the Chief Rabbi of England and the various networks of influence of the Likud. Instead of retaliating, he spent his time apologizing and making pledges. (…) I for one will never give in to this. Retreat to the point, German and neoliberal Europe, green capitalism, genuflection before the arrogant ukases of the CRIF communitarians: it’s no. And no means no.” The last sentence activating the anti-Semitic imagery of the organized Jewish group giving orders to politicians on their knees would be much talked about. But the basic presupposition remained the same: for Mélenchon the accusation of anti-Semitism made against Corbyn was “vile”.

A few weeks later, Mélenchon returned one last time to the accusations against Corbyn in a blog post devoted to “anti-Semitism as a pretext” used in turn against Bernie Sanders: “After the harassing campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the heavy insinuations against me, it is Bernie Sanders’ turn to be accused of being anti-Semitic.” The EHRC report lifted the veil on the reality behind this “harassing campaign.” Yet Jean-Luc Mélenchon has never seen fit to return to it. Labour’s “Day of Shame” has not yet made anyone blush across the Channel. Should we conclude that Labour will not be a model this time?


Milo Lévy-Bruhl & Adrien Zirah

Notes

1 Antisemitism: a good pretext against Sanders too, December 2019
2 see The Guardian, 2019, October, 17
3 see The Guardian, 2019, April, 09
4 see The Guardian, 2018, March, 23
5 The final report released in October 2020 is freely available on the EHRC website.
6 Unless otherwise noted, the pages indicated in the body of the text refer to the report.
7 The Jewish Labour Movement, previously known as Poale Zion (Britain) from 1903 to 2004, is one of the oldest socialist organizations (“socialist societies”) affiliated with the British Labour Party.
8 The Jewish Voice for Labour is an organization established in 2017 within Labour for its members of the Jewish faith, aimed at combating all forms of racism and anti-Semitism.
9 The various cases for which Labour can be held legally responsible for the conduct of its officers are detailed in Appendix 3 of the report, pp. 112-116.
10 These two cases are described in detail in Appendix 2 of the report, pp. 105-111.
11 The EHRC defines in Chapter 2 of its report (pp. 20-23) the legal framework used to consider that illegal acts have been committed within a political party. Under the Equality Act 2010, “harassment means unwanted conduct related to race, which has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.” (p.22)
12 See The Guardian, 2016, April, 17
13 She was reinstated in July 2016 after reiterating her apology, including during a visit to the synagogue in Leeds
14 see The Guardian, 2016, Aprisl, 18
15 Ken Livingstone eventually resigned from Labour in May 2018.
16 The Facebook posts in question can be found on pages 108-109 of the report.
17 see The Guardian, 2016, April, 30
18 In the context of the Equality Act 2010, indirect discrimination means “applying a policy or practice that puts people of a certain race or religion at a particular disadvantage compared to someone who does not share their race or religion” p. 21)

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