Can the Labour right destroy Corbyn and muzzle the left?

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Sabby Sagall and Lee Humber examine the EHRC report and talk to Labour party members, former members and other organisations about antisemitism slurs and the future for socialists

A cross the left, Keir Starmer’s attacks on Jeremy Corbyn following the publication of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report into antisemitism in the Labour party have met with widespread condemnation. In November, Camden Momentum in north London passed a motion calling on the 33 Campaign MPs in the party to resign the whip if Corbyn is not immediately reinstated. They also proposed Momentum National Coordinating Group should encourage unions to disaffiliate if Corbyn is expelled. As we go to press, Unite, the Communication Workers Union and the Fire Brigades Union were considering whether to withhold funding support for Labour in next May’s local elections. Meanwhile, Labour stalwarts like Seamus Milne and others have condemned the EHRC report and called for the creation of a new, left-wing version of a Labour party.
Corbyn’s suspension from the Labour Party, followed by Starmer’s removal of the whip, is an intensification of the leadership’s attacks on the Labour Left which began with the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Shadow Cabinet in June. Corbyn’s offence has been to question the findings of the EHRC report into antisemitism in the party, published in October. Starmer’s actions are a contravention of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights which provides the right to freedom of expression and information, subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society”.
This right includes the freedom to hold opinions, and to receive and impart information and ideas. It is important to stress that the EHRC report did not find the Labour guilty of institutional antisemitism. It “found that the Labour Party breached the Equality Act 2010 by committing unlawful harassment through the acts of two of its agents in two of the complaints we investigated.” The investigation received some 230 complaints from the vehemently pro-Zionist Campaign Against Antisemitism alone, along with an unidentified number from others. It investigated 70 of these complaints. The report only assumes that all those accused of antisemitism were members of the party but provides no evidence in support of this.
Overall, the investigation found only four cases, two cases of harassment related to race, and two cases of indirect discrimination potentially worthy of disciplinary action. The report identified a further 18 “borderline” cases of “unlawful harassment” where there was insufficient evidence to conclude that “the Labour Party was legally responsible for the conduct of the individual.” The report suggested that there was a “culture within the Party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.” But its referred to the National Constitutional Committee, 16 members were issued with a formal National Executive Committee warning, 6 were issued with a “reminder of conduct” and 7 cases were closed. Eighteen decisions were made: 12 members were expelled, 6 received sanctions. The 12 expulsions represent 0.1% of the party membership.
The EHRC report fails to acknowledge the hostile environment created around Corbyn the moment he was elected. The establishment media, led by the liberal Guardian, the Labour Right, and supporters of the Israeli state, worked themselves into a frenzied hysteria against Corbyn, focusing on his longstanding commitment to Palestinian rights. The implication was that he was a closet antisemite or at least that he had close associations with such alleged antisemites as the leaders of the Palestinian Hamas or the Lebanese Hizbollah organisations.
Corbyn responded by saying that in order to reach a peaceful settlement, one had to talk to everyone, including leaders one didn’t wholly agree with. Nowhere does the report specify the nature of the hurt Jewish people have allegedly suffered. There is no evidence anywhere in the report of Labour Party responsibility for any Jewish member suffering pain or detriment on account of being Jewish. There are a mere 12 mentions of Corbyn in the report, of which only two concern action allegedly taken by him. The atmosphere in which the report was launched, its highly publicised presentation led the media to interpret the report as an indictment of Corbyn’s leadership, and even a confirmation of his alleged antisemitism, encouraging a wider public to believe this in the process. The Commission have said nothing to contradict this interpretation. The report identifies “an inadequate process for handling antisemitic complaints across the Labour Party… multiple failures in the systems it uses to resolve them.”
Clearly, this was the system Corbyn inherited on becoming leader in 2015. The report concedes that “there have been some recent improvements in how the Labour Party deals with antisemitism complaints.” This was one of the reasons Corbyn commissioned Shami Chakrabarti to investigate antisemitism in the Labour Party in the months after he took over as leader in 2015. Chakrabati concluded that “there is much clear evidence…of minority hateful or ignorant attitudes and behaviours festering within a sometimes bitter incivility of discourse.”
She also referred to “an occasionally toxic atmosphere” which “is in danger of shutting down free speech”. However, she found few genuine cases of antisemitism. Her report made clear, as she stated in the foreword, that “the Labour Party is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism”. Added to this, a Home Affairs Select Committee report concluded similarly that antisemitism was not more prevalent in the Labour Party than in other parties. In February 2016, the co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club (OULC), Alex Chambers, resigned citing instances of antisemitism. An internal Labour inquiry conducted by Baroness Royall concluded that OULC did not have an institutional issue of antisemitism, though it also claimed that the student body had a “clear cultural problem” around this topic meaning that “some Jews do not feel welcome”.
The Royall report highlights what it describes as the racist epithet “Zio”, an abbreviation of Zionist, recommending that it should have no place in Labour Party discourse. According to the results of a four year investigation published in November carried out by Electronic Intifada (EI), an award-winning online independent news site focussed on Palestine, Chamber’s claims and the investigation of them which followed led by Michael Rubin chair of the right-wing group Labour Students, was the start of the offensive against Corbyn. Robin’s “inquiry” was his own initiative and had not been mandated by either Labour’s leader or its ruling National Executive Committee. According to the EI, Rubin was collaborating with Shai Masot, an Israeli “diplomat” who would be kicked out of Britain the following year.
Soon after writing the report, Rubin was hired by Labour Friends of Israel, a group which, according to EI, secretly coordinates with the Israeli embassy in London. Their report (which can be read at: electronicintifada.net/content/bogus-antisemitism-report-sank-jeremy-corbyn/31026) suggests strong links between the Labour right and the Israeli state and a coordinated campaign to undermine the democratically elected leader of the Opposition. At the heart of the fatal weaknesses of the EHRC is that it fails to establish the proportion of complaints relating to references to Jews as Jews as opposed to comments on Israel and Zionism.
Put simply, saying “Jewish bankers run the world” or “the Holocaust has been greatly exaggerated” are antisemitic statements, whereas saying “Israel is a racist state” is not. This is why Labour’s acceptance of all the examples in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, including the one according to which describing Israel as a “racist endeavour” is antisemitic became such a problem for the Left. Once the definition was fully accepted, it made it easier to accuse Labour members of antisemitism as soon as anyone made a statement critical of the Zionist militia’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948 or, generally, of Israel’s institutionally racist treatment of Palestinians. Corbyn’s record of defending Jewish people against attack is long and exemplary. In July 2019, the Skwawkbox website listed 50 occasions when Corbyn carried out acts of solidarity with Jewish people.
They range from Corbyn organising the defence of Jewish-populated Wood Green from a Neo-Nazi march in April 1977 to Corbyn signing an Early Day Motion condemning David Irving for being a Holocaust denier in April 2000. Corbyn also condemned the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in East London in June 2005 and visited Terezin Concentration Camp to commemorate Holocaust victims. Between 2017 and 2019, he introduced 20 new measures to combat antisemitism in the Labour Party. The idea that Corbyn is racist is straight out of Alice in Wonderland.
Indeed, the current grassroots campaign to reinstate Corbyn has reached fever pitch, with local Labour Parties passing motions opposing Starmer right across Britain. This is often in defiance of threats of suspensions and expulsions from the party bureaucracy who have come to resemble Alice’s Queen of Hearts — “off with their heads!”.
According to The Times on 23 November, Labour has lost members at a rate of nearly 250 a day since Starmer’s election, with Corbyn’s supporters leading the exodus. Membership fell by just under 57,000 or 10 percent between April and November. It’s the first time that Labour’s membership has fallen below half a million since 2016 when Corbyn’s leadership heralded a surge of new members. The departure of Corbyn supporters accelerated in late November with dozens declaring on social media that they were leaving over Corbyn’s suspension. Jonathan Cook, a Nazareth-based awarding winning journalist, argues in his blog that most non-Jewish obervers would recoil from criticising a Jew who is highlighting antisemitism.
That insulation from criticism encouraged Margaret Hodge to launch a public and vicious verbal assault on Corbyn, vilifying him, against all evidence, as an “antisemite and racist”. That same protective shield led to Labour officials dropping an investigation into Hodge’s action, despite a senior Labour official saying that Hodge’s comments were “unacceptable” and that Labour rules forbid MPs from behaviour that is disrespectful or could bring the party into disrepute. As Cook points out, Labour’s treatment of black activist Marc Wadsworth was quite different. He was expelled on precisely those grounds after accusing Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth of colluding with right-wing papers to undermine Corbyn. Speaking to the right-wing Sky News, Hodge expressed her belief that Corbyn’s “antisemitism” derived from his support for Palestine.
“It’s a very fine line between being pro-Palestinian and the Palestinian cause and being antisemitic,” said Hodge, “and I think he’s gone the wrong side of that line.” Cook’s conclusion is that Labour’s crisis is over Israel, not antisemitism. An additional shortcoming of the EHRC report is its unitary view of something called the “Jewish Community”. The report endorses the side-lining of Jewish Voice for Labour and other Jews inside and outside the LP who are highly critical of Israel and the way it has always treated the Palestinian people. For pro-Israel groups like the Jewish Labour Movement, the ‘Jewish’ sensitivities of Margaret Hodge, Ruth Smeeth or Louise Ellman are more important than those of proPalestinian Jewish members who have been disciplined such as Moshe Machover, Jackie Walker, Cyril Chilson, Glyn Secker or Tony Greenstein.
Moreover, referring to the “Jewish community” as an undifferentiated bloc creates an image of a mindless body of people all of whose members think alike, a view which is itself arguably antisemitic. As this is published, alarm bells are ringing over new Labour Party general secretary David Evans’ directive to local Constituency Labour Parties that they are not allowed to discuss Corbyn’s suspension. He had already forbidden discussion of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. This well illustrates the growing Stalinisation of Labour since Starmer took over and installed Evans.