[The newly-minted leader of the British Labour Party, Keir Starmer, recently fired a member of his shadow cabinet, Rebecca Long-Bailey, and reached a controversial settlement with seven former staffers who participated in a BBC program about anti-Semitism in the party, in order to put an end to accusations that it has become a bastion of anti-Semitic sentiment. These allegations first surfaced after Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, was elected in 2015 and quickly developed into claims that Corbyn and his senior associates presided over, tolerated, and encouraged widespread anti-Semitism within the party. To get a better understanding of the anti-Semitism crisis in the British Labour Party and sort fact from fiction, Quick Thoughts Editor and Jadaliyya Co-Editor Mouin Rabbani interviewed Jamie Stern-Weiner, editor of Antisemitism and the Labour Party (Verso, 2019) and a DPhil candidate at Oxford University. The Quick Thoughts series provides background, context, and detail to issues that are, or should be, currently in the news.]
Mouin Rabbani: From virtually the outset of Jeremy Corbyn's 2015 assumption of leadership of the British Labour Party, the party has been inundated with accusations of institutional and systemic anti-Semitism, including accusations directed at Corbyn personally and his senior associates. We didn't hear much about anti-Semitism in the party before Corbyn. Did it really take off with meteoric speed once he became leader, or were there other agendas at play?
Jamie Stern-Weiner (JST): Whether one looks at anti-Jewish animus, prejudice or manifestations (i.e., speech or conduct), there is no compelling evidence of a "crisis" of antisemitism in or since 2015, either in the Labour Party or the United Kingdom (UK) as a whole. Animus toward Jews in the UK continues to be marginal relative to that in other countries in Europe as well as other forms of animus in the UK, and also comparatively benign in effect, with for example no evidence that British Jews are experiencing socioeconomic discrimination. Reports of anti-Jewish hate crimes have risen in recent years, consistent with trends for other forms of hate crime, but the extent to which this reflects improvements in reporting rates and/or police recording is unclear. As regards the Labour Party, surveys indicate that anti-Jewish stereotypes are if anything less prevalent among leftists, Labour voters and Jeremy Corbyn supporters, and that they have if anything declined among Labour voters since 2015. (Labour members have not been polled on this issue, so far as I am aware.)
It cannot be argued that the dramatic increase in allegations of antisemitism itself testifies to the existence of a crisis, because it was only after Corbyn became leader that there was a concerted effort to uncover and publicise such evidence. Many of the early allegations related to individuals who had joined the Party prior to Corbyn’s leadership campaign. Then, once “Labour antisemitism” had become a media story, activist groups began systematically trawling through members’ social media histories for culpable material. Among a membership numbering more than 500,000 individuals, in a society pervaded by all manner and form of prejudice, and given the salience in Labour Party discourse of issues (e.g., the Israel-Palestine conflict) involving Jews, such material could, of course, be found. But if it wasn’t found before then, that might just be because nobody was searching for it.
The point bears emphasis, as it underlines the confected character of the “crisis”: the vast majority of antisemitism complaints submitted to the Labour Party’s disciplinary apparatus were not sent by victims following interactions with fellow Party members but comprised social media postings, sometimes going back years, most of which had been dredged up by third parties who went out looking for them. Indeed, according to a report commissioned by the Party’s former General Secretary, Jennie Formby, more than half of all antisemitism complaints and more than a third of all antisemitism cases in 2019 were submitted by a single individual. Yet despite this zealous hunt for material, there were only 1,202 antisemitism-related complaints judged to warrant action over the two-year period 2018-19. This corresponds to less than a quarter of one percent of the Party’s membership.
In general, the more high-profile the allegation, the less convincing it was. Some low- and mid-level members shared Holocaust denial and Der Stürmer-style cartoons on Facebook. But the antisemitism allegations against Corbyn, former London mayor Ken Livingstone, and Labour Party Executive Director for Strategy and Communications Seumas Milne ranged between tenuous and absurd. To take one prominent example, Corbyn was hounded for having once praised Hamas and Hezbollah, as if this proved he shared their alleged animus toward Jews. But, first, nobody inferred from this praise that Corbyn agreed with those groups’ positions on religion, or women’s rights, or gay rights, or trade unionism. So why make it about antisemitism? Second, British government officials do not just extend welcomes to but actively diplomatically support and arm the government of Saudi Arabia, without this being interpreted as an endorsement of Saudi-funded antisemitic propaganda. Meanwhile, British Jewish groups gave the Conservative Party a virtual free pass on its collaboration with the Orban administration in Hungary, notwithstanding the many allegations of antisemitism directed against it. The reality is, Corbyn has campaigned against racism and the far-right his entire political life, has repeatedly advocated on behalf of his Jewish constituents in parliament, and counts socialist Jews among his closest comrades. The distortion of this record by so-called “opponents of antisemitism” is not just reckless but an abject betrayal.
If there was no compelling evidence of an antisemitism crisis in the UK as a whole, or the Labour Party in particular, how are we to account for the unprecedented national hysteria? In my view, it reflects the convergence of three distinct, if overlapping, political agendas: British Jewish groups who opposed Corbyn because of his criticism of Israel; factional opponents within the Labour Party who rejected Corbyn’s politics, resented his newly mobilised constituency and/or believed his project to be an electoral dead-end; and the Conservative Party, which instrumentalised accusations of antisemitism to depict Corbyn as an extremist and exacerbate divisions within Labour while distracting from its own failings. The aftermath of Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza (“Operation Protective Edge”) also saw an antisemitism panic in the UK, orchestrated by some of the same actors that have fomented alarm over Labour. But that episode was comparatively short-lived and scarcely resonated outside Jewish and pro-Palestine constituencies. If the controversy over Labour was so much more protracted and nationally salient, this was because the full breadth of the UK’s political and media establishment wanted the Corbyn project to fail.
MR: During Corbyn's leadership the Labour Party was also accused of a failure to properly investigate members accused of anti-Semitic conduct and punish those found guilty. What is your assessment of this charge?
JST: Any assessment is at this stage only provisional, both because it is difficult to penetrate the intrigues and machinations clouding the upper echelons of the Labour Party, and because the investigation into this allegation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)—about the standards of whose inquiry there is, regrettably, some cause for doubt—has yet to publish its findings.
Labour’s critics have alleged, first, that the Party’s complaints processes were ineffective because, second, Corbyn’s office intervened in disciplinary proceedings to protect its allies. Corbyn’s team does not dispute the former charge. On the contrary, an internal 2016 Labour inquiry (the Chakrabarti Inquiry), established by Corbyn, made recommendations for reforming the complaints process. Corbyn’s ally Jennie Formby, when she became General Secretary in April 2018, made implementing these reforms a priority. Similarly, the pro-Corbyn Jewish Voice for Labour testified in its submission to the EHRC that “there were defects in the Party’s handling of complaints, but these related to a broad range of issues”. The controversy, therefore, revolves around the question of responsibility: Why were antisemitism complaints—limited, it bears repeating, as they were—handled poorly?
Before proceeding further it is worth taking a reality check. As anyone who has ever tried to fix their faulty broadband knows, complaints departments in large organisations are often slow and poorly motivated. Meanwhile, disciplinary procedures are inevitably politicised in every political party—does anyone imagine that a complaint about Tony Blair or Boris Johnson would be handled no differently to a complaint about an ordinary Labour or Conservative party member? The idea that Corbyn’s office intervened on occasion to protect important allies is not, therefore, prima facie implausible. But the allegation that antisemitism complaints were mishandled in general due to systematic interference or obstruction from the leader’s office always strained credulity. For one thing, what plausible motive could the leadership office have had for intervening on behalf of the miniscule fraction of ordinary party members accused of antisemitism? For another, the disciplinary apparatus was until Spring 2018 staffed and led by Corbyn’s bitter factional opponents. Once the disciplinary unit came under the control of Corbyn’s allies, the resolution of cases, in fact, sped up significantly.
These doubts were corroborated in April 2020, when the report of an internal Labour investigation into the handling of antisemitism complaints was leaked. This report is not impartial: it was commissioned by then-General Secretary Formby with the intention of submitting it to the EHRC as part of Labour’s defence. It is nevertheless the most thorough and persuasive examination of the issue so far published, running to more than 800 pages based almost entirely on written documentation from which it extensively quotes. It explains the failure to properly handle antisemitism (and other) complaints as the result of a cumbersome and amateurish disciplinary process that was overwhelmed as the party’s membership more than doubled under Corbyn. It argues that these institutional limitations were then exacerbated by extreme negligence verging on wilful sabotage on the part of disciplinary unit staff, who, the report alleges, took virtually no action on any complaints unrelated to factional objectives. The report makes the case that, far from intervening to protect prominent allies, Corbyn’s office tended to push for swifter and harsher sanctions for offenders, as well as for reforms to the Party’s complaints processes, but found itself at every turn frustrated, obstructed, and misled by factional opponents who staffed the disciplinary unit.
I find the report’s case to be, on these points, convincing (subject to the caveat entered above). But even as it effectively rebuts allegations that the leadership office routinely intervened to protect antisemites, it also shows, ironically, how Corbyn and his advisors erred in the opposite direction. In an effort to demonstrate “zero tolerance” for antisemitism, they supported the suspension or expulsion of members on the flimsiest of grounds. More fundamentally, they oversaw the abandonment of the principle of freedom of expression. In 2017, the provision in Labour’s Code of Conduct which provided that the Party’s disciplinary body “shall not have regard to the mere holding or expression of beliefs and opinions” was nullified. In 2018, the Party’s ruling body adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, which stigmatises legitimate criticism of Israel. (Corbyn opposed aspects of this decision but was overruled.) And whereas the Chakrabarti Inquiry of June 2016 urged a moratorium on trawling members’ social media archives for obnoxious posts, December 2019 found General Secretary Formby boasting about the Party’s own use of algorithms to sift the online histories of not just members but potential members to “detect patterns of behaviour”. This was not merely an affront to elementary left-liberal principles but also helped explain why the Party’s complaints processes became overwhelmed. How is a voluntary association supposed to efficiently surveil and police the daily utterances of more than 500,000 people? And shouldn’t the scarce resources of a left-wing political party be directed toward transforming society, not patrolling its members’ Facebook accounts?
MR: Since Corbyn's April 2020 resignation his successor, Keir Starmer, has been making considerable efforts to close this chapter, including offering apologies to the Jewish community, sacking members of the shadow cabinet, and most recently reaching a settlement with staff identified as whistleblowers who spoke to a BBC Panorama program that investigated anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. What is your assessment of Starmer's approach?
JST: The period since Starmer took office has underlined how little the “antisemitism controversy” had to do with concern over antisemitism. The substance of the leaked Labour report was all-but-suppressed in mainstream news sources, notwithstanding that it disclosed masses of new evidence bearing directly upon a key allegation against Labour that had been the subject of extensive press coverage. Indignant complaints about political intervention in the disciplinary process are no longer heard, even as Starmer openly advertises such interference. Meanwhile, the Labour Party under Startmer has praised the “committed service” and “valuable contribution” of, while Jewish groups lauded as a “hero”, a former disciplinary unit staffer who, according to one of the Party’s most senior Jewish officials during the Corbyn era, failed to sanction a Holocaust denier despite direct prompting from the leader’s office. No prizes for guessing how many newspapers, whose concern over “Labour antisemitism” has been so passionate and whose coverage of the issue so extensive, chose to report this specific, named and serious allegation to their readers.
Senior Corbyn allies appeared to mistake the “antisemitism” controversy for a grievance rather than a pretext, and so made many concessions in an effort to appease critics who were probably unappeasable. Starmer has made the same gamble. Politically, it could work, not because of anything to do with antisemitism, but because his broader project is less threatening to established interests. Legally, however, Starmer’s decision to reach a settlement with former disciplinary staff might backfire. The legal action pertained to seven former officials in Labour’s Disputes Team whose testimonies had featured in a controversial July 2019 episode of the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Panorama. They alleged, inter alia, that Corbyn’s office had improperly intervened in disciplinary cases involving antisemitism. The Labour Party issued a press release casting doubt on the credibility of “disaffected former officials” who, it alleged, had “personal and political axes to grind”. They, along with Panorama‘s reporter, John Ware, then sued the Labour Party for libel; these were the cases Starmer elected to settle. The Panorama “whistleblowers” included those who, according to the internal Labour report commissioned by General Secretary Formby and leaked in April 2020, were primarily responsible for the mishandling of antisemitism complaints. The Party’s formal apology to these individuals was for many members galling enough, given the evidence assembled in that leaked report. But the large financial pay-out, notwithstanding that the Party had reportedly received legal advice to the effect that it could win the case, also risks incentivising further lawsuits. Labour might soon face a series of financially crippling actions even as its largest donor, the trade union Unite, has condemned the financial settlement as an “abuse of members’ money” and threatened to review its contributions to the Party.
Starmer ran on a Corbyn continuity platform, but it was always likely that the Left would be marginalised once he was in office. “Antisemitism” is a useful device for disciplining and demoralising those within the Party who are still motivated by Corbyn’s radical programme, while at the same time signalling “credibility” to the broader elite. Recent months appear to have seen an uptick in investigations and suspensions—including of Jewish members, at least two of whom have been suspended over allegations of antisemitism—while, in June, Starmer sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Shadow Cabinet for circulating what he called an “antisemitic conspiracy theory”. She had tweeted a link to an Independent interview with a prominent actor, in which it was said, among a thousand other things, that US police forces had learned the knee-on-neck technique that killed George Floyd in Minnesota from training programmes with Israeli secret services. This wasn’t accurate, but nor was it pulled from thin air: a prominent Israeli peace activist had recently drawn the same causal connection on the basis of her experiences in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, while Amnesty International and American Jewish peace organisations have highlighted and criticised US-Israeli police collaboration. In comparison to the kinds of conspiracy theories about Russia or China that routinely feature in mainstream political discussion, this allegation was positively sober. But it allowed Starmer to get rid of an irritant while winning plaudits from the political establishment.
It would be wrong, though, to ascribe all this to Starmer alone. It was not Starmer, but Corbyn, who accepted as the litmus test for opposition to antisemitism the readiness to suspend or expel members alleged to have expressed anti-Jewish stereotypes. It was not Starmer, but Corbyn, who instituted a “fast track” for expulsions notwithstanding the risks this posed to due process. And not only Starmer, but every candidate to replace Corbyn as Party leader, signed on to the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ Ten Pledges, which included demands to marginalise Jewish socialists (“fringe organisations and individuals”) and sanction members or entire local branches merely for associating with individuals who had been suspended or expelled over antisemitism allegations. Long-Bailey herself agreed, during a leadership hustings, that it was “antisemitic” to “describe Israel, its policies, or the circumstances around its foundation as racist”. The British Left tends not to defend the right to express views it considers bigoted. It may now learn the hard way how perilous it is for dissidents to embrace censorship.
For now, the controversy has shifted to the legal domain. A Labour-commissioned inquiry into the leaked April 2020 report is on-going, publication of the EHRC’s findings is imminent, and multiple libel and data protection suits are either in process or expected. When reports emerged recently of a potential libel action against Corbyn, an unofficial crowdfunder was set up seeking to raise £20,000 to finance his defence. More than £320,000 has been pledged so far—an indication of the widespread desire among Labour Party members, not just to defend an individual who embodied their hopes for a less miserably unfair world, but to finally see a reckoning with the truth.