Time for the hedging on antisemitism in Labour to end
First published in Progress magazine
Following the 2012 presidential election in the United States, I attended an event on the result. Impressive speakers talked about their experiences of the campaigns and what would come next. Only one comment sticks in my mind. It was in response to a question about a ‘rape apologist’ Republican Senate candidate. The panellist replied saying: ‘What has the country I love come to when someone asks about the “rape apologist” candidate and you have to ask “Which one?”’ It describes much of what I feel like about the party I love and the issue of antisemitism. There is now a suite of people who have been suspended from the party, and at least one expelled, for antisemitism. We have a senior member of the House of Lords investigating the behaviour of Oxford University Labour club. Watching a particularly vile Gerry Downing talk about ‘the Jewish problem’ on the Daily Politics with a byline saying he was a member of my party was shameful.
Worse still, when it does rear its ugly head it does not attract the condemnation that racism towards Jews deserves. Too often there is prevarication and excuses. Hedging and explaining. From some, it seems they cannot condemn instances of antisemitism without condemning instances of Islamophobia at the same time. Both have to be mentioned in the same sentence if antisemitism is to be mentioned at all. The same is not true when it is the other way around. Both are wrong whether they happen together or independently.
Equally worrying, it has become a fad for far-left groups to co-opt the language of fighting antisemitism when often they mean nothing of the sort. For example, marches against ‘racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism’ that take place on a Saturday – the one day Jews are prohibited to attend by religious faith – seems tokenistic at best.
There are, however, some glimmers of hope. First, the non-Jews in the party who genuinely find antisemitism a disgrace know, and increasingly acknowledge, that it is for them to be as appalled as any Jewish victims. Labour Students immediately recognised the problem at Oxford; not wanting to brush it under the carpet but to get it properly investigated is good practice. Labour member of parliament John Mann, pictured on the page opposite with Angela Merkel, led the recent United Kingdom delegation to the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism in Germany; his commitment to this cause never falters. Wes Streeting becoming co‑chair of the all-party parliamentary group on British Jews and Tulip Siddiq as vice‑chair of the all-party parliamentary group against antisemitism send important signals. The eloquence of Owen Jones in the Guardian and Chris Bryant in the Times all add up. However, there must be action from the party leadership that meets the rhetoric of condemnation. Immediately this needs to be seen not as a press issue – and moved out of the purview of one Seumas Milne – and as an organisational change issue and the joint responsibility of Simon Fletcher and Iain McNicol. We need to see our politicians back up the party staff trying to enforce the rules, not the constant backbiting. So from John McDonnell we should hear more about the lifetime bans on people expelled for antisemitism (and a rule change to follow) and less about disbanding the compliance unit. Labour’s leadership must will the means to rid our party of antisemitism not just repeat empty words without follow-through. These are just two necessary but totally insufficient first steps.
For starters I would recommend that all National Executive Committee members are properly trained on modern antisemitism by the Jewish Labour Movement or its nominee, and in unconscious bias training by leading experts in the field. It seems members of the disputes panel need this as a matter of urgency. Similar training should be rolled out in the professional and voluntary wings of the party and trade union movement. In addition the NEC should invite JLM to sit on the NEC equalities subcommittee alongside BAME Labour, LGBT Labour and the like. That committee has a vice-chair covering all the other equality strands. This has been insufficient to date on these issues, so it should add to its number a vice-chair for the Jewish community. Furthermore, a serious review of the capacity of the compliance unit should be undertaken and extra resources should be forthcoming. Immediate and additional staff – beyond those recently advertised – should be recruited. The party continues to attract brilliant staff and this is equally true in the compliance area, but they cannot be expected to work every hour the almighty sends to keep on top of this workload.
By the time of Labour party conference a rule change should be ready making clear that all racism is dealt with equally and that serious sanctions should be in place for those considered to have been part of Jew hate and other forms of hatred.
The fact that most antisemitism is being reported via the press is not proof of the ‘mainstream media’ ganging up on Labour but that our reporting processes are weak, unknown and inspire no confidence. It is time the Labour party commissions a trusted organisation to be a third party reporting mechanism, or go one better and consider an independent ombudsperson – a Queen’s counsel or the like that stands separate from the party – to consider complaints. When I first raised this on Sky News I was surprised by the wide variety of people who supported the plan, in part, because it is felt that the party has not adequately dealt with issues like sexual harassment either. If it was Labour rather than the Liberal Democrats and Tories that had within its midst the respective Rennard or Tatler Tory scandals, does anyone think we would have handled them any better? It is with regret I say that I would bet a lot of money on the fact that neither the NEC nor the leader’s office have stress-tested our processes in light of those two revelations. Both are on our political doorstep and could so easily have happened to us. Maybe it already has, except the issue is antisemitism and the reaction is equally appalling. The recent Newsnight reports about Muslim women being excluded as council candidates would also fit under this analysis and should be acted on immediately too.
I personally hope that Jan Royall’s review gets to the nub of the issue at Oxford and in our movement. I would not be surprised – and I have no knowledge or inside track on this – if the former leader of the Labour group in the House of Lords recommends self-organised caucus and groups for Jewish members in Labour Students and Young Labour in order to help recreate the safe spaces needed.
Moreover, I hope her review is an opportunity for the leadership and the party corporately to understand antisemitism not as a political judgement, but how Jews experience antisemitism. We after all have a duty of care to our Jewish members. They have the same right to be involved in events and campaigns, to stand as our candidates and decide policy as every other member. On most issues my Jewish friends joke about ‘two Jews, three opinions’. This is the same on Middle East policy too and this should not be forgotten. However, there are ways that the debate can be become poisonous and offensive. The way the word ‘Zionist’ is spat by some on the left is a case in point. There are intellectual critiques of Zionism, and many of them should be considered and openly debated, but the fact that ‘Zio’ is a form of abuse the way ‘gay’ was shouted at me in the school playground by homophobes should worry the most ardent supporter of Palestine, of which I include myself by the way. On closing the comments section of an article on antisemitism over at Left Futures, its editor Jon Lansman remarked ‘it is not acceptable to use the term “Zionism” as a term of abuse’. I agree.
Antisemitism is in many ways the world’s oldest hatred. The Jewish community have long been seen as the ‘canary in the mine’. Before it is too late and Jews no longer feel at home in the Labour party it is time for action. If you are not part of the party’s leadership but want to see a better response on antisemitism, do one thing now: join JLM – affiliated to Labour since 1920 – as an associate member at www.jlm.org.uk/join. It needs your solidarity more than ever. The Jews that stay in the Labour party should be able to hold their heads high, look around and see non-Jews standing shoulder to shoulder in the fight for the more equal Britain we all say we want to create.
Richard Angell is director of Progress