Is the Labour Party institutionally racist?

5th October 2018

This is a cross post by Professor Glen O’Hara from Public Policy and the Past

Is the UK Labour party institutionally anti-Semitic? Almost unbelievably, that has become a real live matter of public debate over the last few months – a development that previous generations of Labour activists and members could scarcely have imagined. Once upon a time, Labour seemed like the natural choice for Britain’s Jewish community. Labour was of course a rallying-point for all Britain’s non-Anglicans, as the Conservatives represented Deep England’s Established Church; it was an anti-racist Party that welcomed all-comers; it was friendly towards Israel, or at least sympathetic to that country’s situation. Most (though by no means all) Jews thought of Labour as their home.

Not so today, after more than three years of mounting tension between Labour and the Jewish community. This year’s local elections showed that Jewish communities in (for instance) Barnet have had enough of Labour – and will boot out their councillors where they live in enough numbers to make that choice. What we know from opinion polling is that Labour’s vote has crashed to almost nothing among Jews – and that for instance 85% of them regard the Party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as quite simply an anti-Semite. There are some dissenting voices, to be sure: but that’s the picture taken as a whole.

Why has this happened? Well, let’s just take a look at the whole sorry farrago. To be honest, it’s exhausting just trying to give you a list, but here’s an initial reckoning with these frankly astonishing events. Over the past few years, it’s become clear that a minority of Labour members and office-holders – a group of very hard-to-determine size, though perhaps it amounts to some thousands or tens of thousands – hold very worrying views about Jews. We’ve had councillor after councillorofficer after officermember after member, repeating the same awful hate speech as if they think it’s okay. Apparently ‘Zionists’ run the world’s press. Or the banks. Or the ‘deep state’. Or the whole international economy. Apparently they’ve organised themselves into a sinister cabal biased against the Left, determined to prevent real people taking a real leading role in public life. Apparently they’ve got money and they’re influencing our politics behind the scenes. Apparently some Jews have divided loyalties as between the UK and Israel. And so on. And on. This sort of thing has become such a constant drumbeat of low-level fear and loathing that it’s often forgotten amidst the shrapnel storm of Labour’s unending civil war – though it shouldn’t be.

Instead of listening and learning, the core group at the heard of Corbynite New Model Labour doubled down on their denials. They basically decided to go to ground with their hands over their ears, shouting ‘lah lah lah, can’t hear you’. Their allies on Labour’s National Executive Committee let plenty of people off. Members got slapped on the wrist. Deadlines slipped. People were recommended for ‘training’. A long-standing friend and ally of the leadership team was appointed to oversee this type of complaint. Labour’s new masters also encouraged the creation of a ‘Jewish’ group called Jewish Voice for Labour, which was a Jewish Voice only in the very dark sense that it showed just how little Labour thought of most of them. JVL then set about muddying the waters about who was who and what was what, which was always the whole point of them. Having watched Trump take advantage of the media’s liberal naivete and its false cult of ‘balance’, they made sure they got themselves on broadcast after broadcast – often facing off against Labour’s far, far more representative Jewish members, organised as they always have been in the Jewish Labour Movement. Pretty soon they were all over the airwaves – and busy talking nonsense at Labour Party Conference as well. A tiny groupsicle of activists had got themselves legitimised as one strand of Jewish Labour thought. That was lovely.

Things ramped up a great deal the moment ex-Labour Mayor of London Ken Livingstone took it upon himself to repeat a load of old far-Right nostrums about Hitler’s supposed support for a Jewish homeland. All a load of unpleasant nonsense of course – Ken has form in this respect – as any actual historian will tell you. But it was enough to light the touchpaper on the real crisis to come, as scandal followed blunder followed nightmare for what seemed like years. As soon as the whole thing blew up, some thousands of Labour members got onto Twitter and Facebook and started either agreeing with Ken (though about what, it was never one hundred per cent clear), or saying ‘it’s all a smear’, got up by… well, again, they never quite said.

Len McCluskey, head of the Unite union and in many ways Labour’s paymaster, said that all those Jews and academics getting worried about Labour’s behaviour were just playing some tired old ‘mood music’ to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn. The chair of the Disputes Committee, the Party’s disciplinary clearing-house – herself installed after a rather nasty old battle inside Labour’s National Policy Forum – had to resign when she was found to have defended a Holocaust-denying councillor.  Labour carried on pretending that there were just a few cases of Jew-hating being reported, even while it was being reported that the Party’s compliance unit itself was (and is) close to collapse.

Then, things got even worse. Labour’s leader was caught shooting the breeze in a number of Facebook groups where anti-Semitic tropes were freely thrown around like confetti. Not a single word did he say about it all – before that membership was published. Then he was shown to have defended a clearly anti-Semitic mural. He dissembled about that for a few days, then issued a half-apology, then went silent, obviously hoping that the whole thing would go away. He was dragged out a few times to make some general and meaningless ‘anti-racist’ statements before being sent off once more on some speaking tours to make the same anti-austerity stump speech he always makes. It didn’t look good.

Then Labour published its new ‘anti-Semitism code’. In a distasteful little move almost beyond parody, this downgraded four of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance examples of anti-Semitism from being actually racist to merely being bad. So you could now compare (say) Israelis to Nazis if you wanted to, or question British Jews’ loyalty to Britain, if you saw fit: just so long as you didn’t show ‘anti-Semitic intent’. Whatever that means. No consultation appeared to have taken place with Labour’s mainstream Jewish groups (nor did it when, faced with a storm of protest, the Party promised to consult yet one more time). Lots of Corbynites – including Jon Lansman, one of the leader’s more thoughtful backers – supported the new code for a little while, before it became clear that it was utterly indefensible. A huge hoo-ha followed, during which Labour promised to consult again (after which, unsurprisingly, it didn’t), and then basically gave in – though not without Mr Corbyn attempting, one last time, to append a deeply offensive new text to the IHRA’s examples.

Mr McCluskey, for his part, said that ‘Jewish groups’ wouldn’t ‘take yes for an answer’: that they were basically a load of difficult refuseniks who should get with the programme. Lately, he’s been saying that Labour’s only agreed to make changes to take the issue off the agenda. That was helpful. One of Labour’s NEC members, Peter Willsman, got taped ranting about all those Jews who apparently admire President Trump, declaring as part of his masterly oratory that he’d never seen anti-Semitism in the Party – despite sitting on a disciplinary committee that oversees oodles of it. He got voted back in by members just a few weeks later, by the way. Oh, and other NEC members – including the Party’s General Secretary, Jennie Formby – sat and listened to that without much demur. She just rebuked Mr Willsman after the meeting. A fine state of affairs.

In the interim, Labour’s leader-slash-campaigner had been caught on video snidely remarking to some particular Jews as lacking a ‘British sense of irony’, despite having ‘lived here all their lives’ – a nasty little bit of upper-class presumption revealed for all to see. That was bad enough, but what followed was much worse: official Labour spokespeople actually tried to defend what everyone in the whole world could see was an impossible-to-excuse bit of racism. Yeah, it was ‘Zionists’ all right he was having a go at: though, of course, that reference to how long they’d been here gave the game away, despite his attempts to make amends on a Friday evening just before the start of Shabbat, or by cutting and pasting stuff he’d said before. The mask was torn away: yet Labour members went on fixing Twitter hashtags and Facebook likes to their defence of the indefensible.

That was in many ways the most worrying development of all – because the poison has entered the Left bloodstream more widely, via partisanship, a usually-healthy scepticism, and sheer failure to grasp the hard-to-believe scale of what’s really going on. Because all this will have long-term consequences. Mr Corbyn and his immediate coterie will be gone soon. Maybe they’ll be in Downing Street for a while on the way. Maybe not. But the Far Left lived through such a political ice age in the 1990s and early 2000s that there’s not that many of them, and they’re rather old: one day fairly soon, a Soft Left Labour leader, such as Emily Thornberry or Angela Rayner, will sit where Mr Corbyn sits, and will gradually move the party away from its more egregious and eccentric fears and hatreds. But the anchor that Labour’s leadership team is moving is shifting the Party further and further away from Britain’s Jewish community, just as it’s remaking Labour more generally as a closed, autarkic, resentful community of the conspiratorial and the suspicious-minded.

You can see it in those local Constituency Labour Parties in which some activists are moving against Labour MPs who took a stand alongside Jewish community groups back in the spring – including motions that basically say ‘one can understand anti-semitism after the banking crisis’. You can see it on all those forums and Twitter feeds where people say ‘there is no anti-Semitism’ or ‘the Tories are worse’ or ‘what about Israel?’ In all those people who say ‘I’ll turn a blind eye to a bit of racism so long as we abolish tuition fees and nationalise the railways’. The hate has gone deep. It’s hard to see now how the breach can be mended. The gulf is just too wide.

So, to try to answer the question – is Labour institutionally anti-Semitic? Let’s be clear here. Even if it were, that would certainly not mean that most Labour members or elected representatives were closet racists. Most of them are lovely people – retired public sector workers, students, teachers, lecturers, trade unionists, radicals of all stripes originally attracted to a Party just trying to make the world a better place. It’s not as if there isn’t plenty of work to do in that respect. And many of these same members know that their party has a problem. A majority of them agree that it has – to a greater or lesser extent – and that number has been growing. It’s not a nest of vipers.

Still. Consider what the following chain of disaster and excuse sounds like. A group of people who have always experienced prejudice come forward with a long list of complaints against an old and established British institution. At first, that institution rejects their complaints. Then, it starts to take them on board, but does it badly, while denying they have a real problem. It’s all a few bad apples. You’ve got to understand the unique problems. You’ve got to realise that there’s a context here. Oh, and others are just as bad. Those in authority try to set up their own rules, in defiance of the community complaining about them. Then, the institution in question adopts a new code of practice that has been designed by others, but don’t quite take it to heart. Its leaders close their ears to the pain and hurt they and their followers are causing. It takes a policy disaster of unprecedented scale to force them onto the right path. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s the Metropolitan Police and its antediluvian attitude towards young black Londoners between the 1950s and the early 1990s – before the Stephen Lawrence case and the Macpherson Inquiry forced them to at least start mending their ways. And just by the by, it’s exactly the path Labour has been treading recently, albeit in accelerated fashion.

Institutional racism is a very grave judgement. It’s one we’re reluctant to make. No-one thinks that Mr Corbyn or Mr Cluskey, whatever their other faults (and they are legion), go home at night and think ‘I hate those Jews’. That’s absurd. Be that as it may, they have given every indication that they are full of fear and loathing for one of Britain’s minority communities. They are full of innate preconceptions, as we all are in a way, but in a more exaggerated form. When they hear the word ‘Jew’, they also hear the word ‘Israel’, and engage all their hatred of that state’s oppression of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories – a state of affairs that British Jews certainly shouldn’t bear any responsibility for, in Labour or elsewhere. There’s a word for that immediate association: that word is prejudice.

Somewhere in their consciousness, since they are economic determinists, they furthermore think that apparently wealthy and successful communities can’t be discriminated against, and that if all economic inequality were abolished, racism would disappear with it. They’re wrong about that, of course, as they are incorrect about so, so much else: but the idea exerts a powerful hold over them. And if you start saying that ‘the banks’ are an international problem, that the world economy is ‘rigged’ for ‘the elites’, rather than the many? Well, you’re not much more than a Trumpian hop, skip and a jump from the British Left’s traditional anti-Semitism, as obvious in the DNA of Edwardian New Liberalism as it is in the warp and weave of what has become of the 1960s New Left. They don’t suffer from the traditional race hatred of the boot-boy and the skinhead. They have a far more refined set of prejudices. If they truly examined them, talked about them, admitted they’d got it wrong, spoke to everyone, they could have avoided all this. But they won’t, and now they probably can’t.

Even so, ‘institutional racism’ would be a heavy conviction when Labour’s members are showing signs of waking up, when its governing body has just adopted a new code that might finally purge anti-Semitism from its ranks, when there are still plenty of activists, councillors and MPs fighting for a truly cathartic change such as that which the Macpherson Report wrought on the Met. It’s all very suggestive of a Party that is sick, but not quite yet succumbing to the fever. The case is not dismissed – not by a long way. But it is still a deeply problematical one.

Make no mistake, though: if Labour continues to turn a blind eye to the stream of hatred flowing through social media, goes on ignoring the need for a mea culpa right from the top (Mr Corbyn refused to say sorry in a recent BBC interview), keeps pushing back its self-imposed deadline for getting on top of even just the high-profile cases, revisits the IHRA definition with some weasel form of words once the new NEC takes office after Conference: then a verdict of guilty will be unavoidable.

Labour has walked right out to the edge. Just a few more steps, and it will sink irrevocably into that rancid sewer so obvious to those of us who’ve been watching properly. It has stopped, rightly hesitant – for now. Whether it now turns around and begins to recover remains to be seen. The signs are not very hopeful. We shall see.