Labour Leader’s come and go. All are criticised by senior members of their party at one time or another – one a pacifist, another a war-monger. This one too right wing, that one too left wing. One former leader was even expelled for refusing to leave the the 1918 coalition.
But never did I expect to hear that a senior Labour MP would tell a Leader of the Labour Party to his face, in public, “you are an anti-Semitic racist.” When the news broke whilst I was at a dinner party (sorry Owen Jones) with friends and comrades last evening it was a jaw-dropping moment. The predictable, vile, backlash against Margaret Hodge took just a few minutes to gather momentum, but no-one seemed to be asking the main questions. How the fuck did we let this happen? How could it come to this?
On the 12 December 2016 Jeremy Corbyn told the Labour Party Equalities Committee that Labour would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-semitism. Of course, this was a matter for the Committee rather than the Leader, but the necessary pre-meetings had been held, and phone calls made, to ensure that the definition would indeed be adopted. As it was – together with the complete list of examples presented by the IHRA to “serve as illustrations” of anti-Semitic behaviour. This was welcomed by the Jewish Labour Movement, co-opted to the Equalities Committee and in attendance for the first time, who believed that this meeting and successive actions might be seen as a turning point in dealing with anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, especially with the Leader’s acceptance of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.
Unfortunately those successive actions have culminated with the Labour Party dismissing some of those worked examples and substituting in their place a new code of conduct which, in the words of the Labour Party, “contextualises and adds to the working examples to produce a practical guidelines that a political party can apply in disciplinary cases.” If only that were true.
When Baroness Jan Royall and I, under the direction of Labour’s NEC, spent some time in 2016 meeting with representatives of Jewish and other communities to hear their views of the the growing allegations of anti-Semitism within Labour some of the questions we always asked were in an effort to discover a universal definition of anti-Semitism. Unsurprisingly there were many suggestions – depending on the community in question – but what was universal was that anti-Semitism must be defined by those who suffer it. This should be non-controversial, as it is with other people who have faced discrimination, persecution or worse because of their gender, or race or other protected characteristic. The production of the IHRA definition and examples in May 2016 brought some consensus to the debate and the IHRA definition has been adopted by many countries and international organisations, including the United States Senate and State Department, and the European Parliament (remember them) as well as the UK Government and many local authorities across the UK. And, until yesterday, the Labour Party.
So why is this important? The Labour Party is a separate organisation. Surely it is right and proper for it to ‘contextualise its working guidelines’.
It’s important for two reasons. Firstly for the signals it sends, and secondly for for the legal implications of any future disciplinary hearings dealing with anti-Semitism, particularly should they be played out in court as has been threatened by some. As far as the signals are concerned you only have to to take a cursory glance at the reaction from the Jewish communities across the country. When the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said Labour’s anti-Semitism definition sent “an unprecedented message of contempt to the Jewish community” you have to take notice. Unless, of course, you still believe that this is all a conspiracy to destabilise the Labour Party. Or that you are one of those who have been a ‘member of the the Labour Party for 40 years and never seen any anti-Semitism’.
The second reason why this change to the definition by the Labour Party is important is because of how this will be interpreted. The specific examples which have been omitted from Labour’s re-working of the IHRA definition are:
- Accusing Jewish people of being more loyal to Israel than their home country
- Claiming that Israel’s existence as a state is a racist endeavour
- Requiring higher standards of behaviour from Israel than other nations
- Comparing contemporary Israeli policies to those of the Nazis
Any quasi-judicial committee of the Labour Party (or judicial hearing for that matter) would be entitled to take a ‘purposive approach’ to determining what is meant by the words of the code of conduct. By excluding these words it is clear that the purpose of the code is to declare these examples as not anti-Semitic. It is no coincidence that these anti-Semitic tropes are some of the more common examples one can see in every day use – including by Labour Party members (unless you are one of those who have been a ‘member of… etc’). I am sure that the the new General Counsel of the Labour Party, almost immediately promoted to Executive Director so he must be good, would have advised the NEC of this.
The Labour Party has now adopted a position which specifically accepts that the four examples listed above are NOT anti-Semitic. That is the only conclusion of this irrational, incompetent misstep by the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. In the eyes of some the Labour Party has made itself by one ill-judged action officially institutionally anti-Semitic. Which is why Margaret Hodge railed at the Leader. And which brings me back to my original question. How the fuck did we let this happen?
The Labour Party says that the four points are covered elsewhere in the new code (they’re not) but if that is the case why change the IHRA paper instead of adding to it? Or why agree the IHRA paper in the first place? And true to form, the NEC have decided to add insult to injury by retrospectively seeking further consultation with the Jewish community (good luck with that).
We have been in and out of the last chance saloon on this issue so many times a revolving door is clearly needed, but even now, even now, the NEC could do the right thing. It could meet with members of the Jewish communities – if they are willing – and then hold its hands up to this mistake and just put it right. It won’t rebuild trust overnight. But is might be the first step on a long road which would be welcome.
As NEC member, Ann Black, said in her latest public report: “I think the party would be in a better place if we kept our commitment to the full IHRA paper, including illustrative examples as agreed by the NEC’s equalities committee in December 2016 at Jeremy Corbyn’s request.”