Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Last Word: betraying our soul

The Labour NEC’s decision on the IHRA definition is a betrayal of our anti-racist achievements, writes Robert Philpot 

This week’s decision by Labour’s National Executive Committee to adopt a new code of conduct, containing its own, controversial new definition of antisemitism, represents a new low in the party’s seeming inability to free itself of the scourge of Jew hatred within its ranks.

This is not, as some would suggest, a left-right issue. It is a right-wrong issue.

A simple question is at stake: whether or not Labour can credibly claim to uphold the anti-racist principles which have been at the heart of its values for much of its history.

Labour’s record is not unblemished but it is a proud one: it fought colonialism and played a key role in the anti-apartheid movement.

The Wilson and Callaghan governments in the 1960s and 1970s passed sweeping anti-discrimination legislation.

And, during the Blair-Brown years, great efforts were made to tackle more hidden, but equally pernicious, forms of racism – not least that within the police force.

Ironically, it is 21 years ago this month that the home secretary in the newly elected Labour government, Jack Straw, announced the establishment of a public inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, a young black man murdered by racist thugs five years previously.

The resulting by report Sir William Macpherson report concluded that the Metropolitan police had committed fundamental errors in their investigation of Stephen’s murder and branded the force ‘institutionally racist’.

It is the principle which lay at the centre of Macpherson’s report, and which has been the bedrock of anti-racist policy in Britain for the past two decades, which the Labour party this week trampled upon.

It clearly states that a racist incident is one perceived to be racist by the victim.

Labour has deliberately and consciously cast this principle aside by rejecting the calls of the Chief Rabbi, 68 rabbis from every strand of Jewish life, Jewish communal bodies – including the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, and the Community Security Trust – as well as its own Jewish affiliate, the Jewish Labour Movement, to adopt in full the working definition of antisemitism drawn up by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

As Adam Langleben, until May a Labour councillor in the London borough of Barnet, suggested in response to these tragic developments, ‘Labour has become institutionally racist’.

The JLM is now considering referring the party to the Equality and Human Rights Commission – a body established during the last Labour government and a concrete example of its commitment to the struggle against racism.

During the NEC debate on Tuesday, some members of the NEC reportedly made disgraceful comments, with one suggesting: ‘Some of the people in the Jewish community are Trump fanatics – I’ll take no lectures from them’ and then going on to claim that ‘in 50 years I have never seen any antisemitism in the Labour party. I met an Auschwitz survivor who said the same.’

In April, Jeremy Corbyn indicated that this was not his view, writing publicly that ‘antisemitism has surfaced within the Labour party, and has too often been dismissed as simply a matter of a few bad apples’ – a retreat from his previous assertion that there were only ‘pockets’ of antisemitism in party.

And yet the Labour leader apparently sat silently by as some of his allies on Labour’s governing body apparently denied the very existence of antisemitism within the party.

In the face of the NEC’s appalling behaviour, and his own complicity in it, it is not surprising that Dame Margaret Hodge decided to confront Corbyn personally. Hodge, whose grandmother, uncle and many other relatives were murdered in Hitler’s gas chambers, spoke eloquently in April’s debate on antisemitism about how she had joined the Labour party in the 1960s precisely because of its commitment to anti-racism.

As the member of parliament for Barking, she has probably done more than any other politician to confront and defeat the far right, trouncing the leader of the British National party, Nick Griffin, when he stood against her in 2010.

However, as she explained in April, she now feels an ‘outsider’ in her own party.

‘I never ever thought I would experience significant antisemitism as a member of the Labour party,’ she said.

‘I have, and it has left me feeling an outsider in the party of which I’ve been a member for over 50 years … I have never felt as nervous and frightened as I feel today about being a Jew.’

In response to her decision to challenge the Labour leader, she has now been told she faces disciplinary action.

This week Labour moved from simply ignoring the victims of racism to threatening to punish them. It is difficult to think of a darker moment in its history.

More than a statistic

Two women are murdered in England every week by a partner or ex-partner.

Anne Searle was one of them. Her case hit the headlines because her husband, Stephen Searle, was once a United Kingdom Independence party councillor.

After Searle was found guilty this week of strangling his wife, the former Ukip leader on Sussex county council commented ‘these things happen’, suggesting: ‘I’m well aware domestic disputes can get out of hand but I feel equally sorry for both Steve and his now deceased wife.’

An estimated 1.9 million people – 1.2 million women and 713,000 men – are believed to suffer domestic abuse each year. Such attitudes help to explain these grim statistics.

Onwards and upwards? 

This week the new Conservative think tank, Onward, published research warning the party that it risks losing over 30 seats by 2031 unless it addresses is failure to win over black and ethnic minority voters. After making some progress between 2010-15, when its share of the non-white vote rose from 16 per cent to 23 per cent, the party fell back again at last year’s general election to just 19 per cent.

The Tories probably do not need to spend too long pondering the causes of this problem. Yesterday, the Guardian revealed that the Home Office and Foreign Office had received and ignored repeated warnings over the past five years about the developing Windrush scandal. Eight months after the paper first broke the story, it reported, ‘many Windrush victims remain near destitute, waiting for compensation, their anger towards the government unabated. Many who were deported or refused re-entry into the UK remain stranded in the Caribbean, still waiting to hear from officials about whether they will be given a chance to come back’.


Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot


Photo: Kate Dearden

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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress

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