Corbyn’s Labour has dragged its feet on real action to combat the party’s antisemitism problem, argues Richard Angell
A year ago I wrote a piece for this publication entitled ‘Concrete action needed’. Its sister piece in the Daily Mirror set out an eight-point plan suggesting what Labour could do about the antisemitism problem that was engulfing the party. Vicky Kirby had been readmitted and taken a role in her local constituency Labour party, the vile Gerry Downing had been on television as a Labour member to talk about ‘the Jewish problem’ and the Labour leadership was dragging its feet on the widespread reports about antisemitism at Oxford University Labour club. Jan Royall’s inquiry into the matter was actively suppressed. This was all before Naz Shah’s Facebook post emerged and Ken Livingstone decided to contradict her – not the remarks in the offending posts, but her apology for them. It is worth pointing out that Shah’s response to her accusations was first class – she acknowledged she made them, apologised fully for any offence and went on a long period of atonement. Livingstone was so offended by Shah’s apologetic behaviour that he took to the radio and television studios on his wife’s birthday and declared that Adolf Hitler ‘was supporting Zionism … before he went mad’. John Mann personified the anger felt by many Labour members – both Jewish and, like him, non-Jewish – and called out the former mayor of London’s despicable words. Not for the first time were Livingstone and Jew hatred discussed in the same sentence. This time it spoke to not just a major problem in the one man’s thinking but a wider issue in the Labour party at large.
Jeremy Corbyn did not quite see the problem for Labour but did call Livingstone personally to ask him to apologise. He kind of did as his leader asked. Only months later, when the Vice News fly-on-the-wall documentary into the leader’s office came out, did the level of indifference become truly apparent. The story gathered understandable pace and the pressure on the leader’s office to act mounted. During Shabbat – the Jewish day of sabbath – Shami Chakrabarti was announced as chair of a review into the situation and the events leading up to it. Within minutes of agreeing to head up the independent review, Chakrabarti had joined the party. A few weeks later she became – and remains – Corbyn’s only appointment to the House of Lords.
Ignoring for one moment the dubious impression Chakrabarti’s proximity to the leader gives, the report is not without merit. It makes clear that ‘Zio’ is a nasty, racist epithet and is not acceptable in any way, shape or form. There is no qualifying clause that adds ‘unless you did not realise “how it was used by far-right groups” and are backed by senior National Executive Committee members of Unite’. It said using Zionist as a smear was unacceptable. And it said ‘Labour members should resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons’. This alone should make Livingstone’s position untenable. Yet he remains a member while the party’s disciplinary procedures grind on at a snail’s pace. Reports that NEC members are trying to intimidate members of the National Constitutional Committee hearing his case are disappointing and the GMB union’s Cath Speight should be applauded for calling this behaviour out. Unfortunately, the launch of Chakrabarti’s report was overshadowed when a close friend of Corbyn’s and leading member of Momentum Black Connexions used an antisemitic trope while attacking a Jewish Labour member of parliament for links with the media. Corbyn watched this exchange and did nothing. Ruth Smeeth, the Labour MP in question, walked out in tears. You could not make this up.
Much of this was examined by the cross-party home affairs select committee of the House of Commons in their inquiry into antisemitism. Its findings were damning. Rather than engage with the report, the leader’s office insulted the committee’s members and its work while suggesting the Chakrabarti report – which it was forced into establishing and still remains largely unimplemented – was somehow ‘best practice’ to be replicated. Its implications, like the reason why it was ever needed in the first place, still escape them.
So a year on, have the component parts of the original piece and the eight-point plan been implemented? The picture is mixed.
Labour’s general secretary Iain McNicol has gone above and beyond. He has delivered additional resources to the governance unit that deals with these matters and has facilitated the Jewish Labour Movement delivering what he calls ‘excellent training sessions for party members across the country’. He successfully encouraged the NEC to adopt the International Holocaust Rememberance Alliance definition of antisemitism. He recently visited Israel and its national Holocaust museum Yad Vashem – because Corbyn will not – following an invite from our sister party in the region. Ellie Reeves, in her last act as a member of the NEC, worked with Socialist Societies representative James Asser to get the JLM represented on the equalities subcommittee of the NEC. In its most recent meeting the NEC disputes committee sent as many as 20 cases of antisemitism to the NCC for disciplinary action.
Tom Watson has done a considerable job of recalibrating the party’s relationship with the country’s Jewish community. His speech to Labour Friends of Israel was heartfelt and inspired.
However, despite Corbyn’s September 2016 pledge to back the JLM rule change at conference, he stayed silent in the meeting that could have expedited the measure. No meaningful reply to either the aforementioned eight-point plan or the HASC report, nor an implementation programme for the remaining elements of the Royall and Chakrabarti reports have yet emerged.
The sense of crisis in the party has passed but the lasting feeling that Labour’s relationship with Britain’s Jewish community has been inextricably damaged remains – although that seems to bother very few in Corbyn’s inner circle and shadow cabinet. Labour’s 2016 local election strapline was about ‘not being a bystander’. Britain’s Jews are waiting for Corbyn to stop standing by. The reality is, no one should hold their breath.
Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets at @RichardAngell
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