With two weeks to go to the General Election, the press has resumed its focus on the character of the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, and his suitability to be Prime Minister. Key to this is an allegation that the party is institutionally anti-semitic in that a) a significant proportion of its members are anti-semites, and b) the present Labour Party leadership, on receiving complaints repeatedly frustrates them, with the purpose of keeping people in membership who should be excluded.
People have tried to engage with these allegations, particularly the first one, “sociologically”, i.e. by asking how many complaints there have been, whether there have or should have been a similar volume of complaints in the Conservative Party, etc. These approaches don’t however persuade anyone other than the already persuaded. They feel like a form of “defender’s” reasoning, i.e. that if it was possible to prove that only 1% of the members of the Labour Party were anti-Semites (or 0.1% or 0.0001%) then this would “prove” that the party was above criticism. They are usually backed up by a statement along the lines of “but any anti-semitism would be too much”. If that sentence is to have any meaning – and the intention is to cut out all racism including anti-Jewish racism from all politics – then the sociological explanation can’t wash. Because it concedes into the indefinite future the continuing presence of anti-Jewish racism, and sounds suspiciously like an argument for leaving it in place.
What I want to do here is first of all remind people of the history of membership complaints in the Labour Party, and then write about the complaints individually using case-studies, before coming back in at the end to making some brief comments about the prevalence within the Labour Party of each of the types of behavior to which those particular complaints relate. Be wanted this is long (c1800 words): but the issue requires a certain detail.
When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, he was seen to be taking the party into political positions (eg pacifism, social redistribution) which the party had not held for many years. Labour also had a leadership election system in which it was very easy to join, and hundreds of thousands of people did. Therefore the press ran a large number of stories to the effect that Labour was being taken over by a new kind of ultra-leftwing person. MPs, leaders of Constituency Labour Parties, etc – responded by trying to exclude some off the new members on factional lines. At this stage, ie 2015-6, none of the story was about anti-semitism, but what did happen was that the party set in train tens of thousands of investigations. The most common basis of investigation was that people had expressed on social media a support for a Green or non-Labour left candidate in a previous election. When the complaints of anti-semitism began in any serious number, which was later, this experience was disastrous: it left a legacy in which complaints were over-politicised, and frequently spurious, and a delayed outcome to an investigation was seen as a desirable outcome – since it favoured the then status quo (i.e. excluding potential Corbyn voters).
When complaints of anti-semitism began, they were made in large number. The best-known example is one single MP on the right of the party Margaret Hodge who made two hundred complaints, all of which therefore had to be investigated. Only 20 of her complaints were about members of the Labour Party, and that party on learning that someone was not a member generally stopped investigating at that point. But, on the other hand, it could not stop investigating until someone’s membership status had been confirmed. Delays at this stage contributed to a sense that Labour had something to hide. But we need to be clear: the people who were responsible for the delays were Corbyn’s critics and not the present leadership: the people responsible for investigating complaints were the same as in 2015-6, and they brought to the complaints the old lethargy. Further the people making the complaints prioritised volume, with 673 complaints made between April 2018 and February 2019,a number which was then duly leaked to the press. The result was that investigators had to wade through hundreds of complaints in order to find a relatively small number that might possibly lead to sanction.
The best way to understand the approach of the Labour Party and its present leadership to the complaints is by looking at three typical subjects of complaints.
There exists a class of people who have been members of the Labour Party and who have shared clearly racist messages, either with a historic focus (i.e. claims that the Holocaust did not happen or that the numbers were exaggerated) or a present-day one (i.e. claims that British or European politics is secretly dominated by a cabal of Jews). So in August 2019, the recently retired former chair of South Dorset Labour Party Mollie Collins was found to have shared on social media, in 2016, a link to a website saying, “Rothschilds bankers did 9/11 not Muslims”. At the time of writing, Ms Collins has on her facebook page, a message insisting on her innocence, claiming that she had been targeted by “fifth columnists” defending her “favourite politician” Ken Livingstone, and claiming to have been the victim of a “truly Inquisition style process with not the slightest chance of justice for those falsely accused.” Ms Collins was expelled, and rightly so.
THE DIFFICULT CASES
There have also been harder cases eg where the person accused of anti-semitism is Jewish, or where they have a very long history of building the Labour Party, and promoting left-wing values, so that for example the case for a sanction is clear, but the nature of the sanction requires some thought. Take for example, Jackie Walker, who had been a member of the Labour Party for decades, and who was accused amongst other things of having written on social media that Jews were “chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade”. The comments were untrue, they played into racist stereotypes, and they were likely to cause offence. But in any rational investigation system, you do not simply ask what happened (i.e. what the behavior was) you also ask what kind of punishment it should merit.
For Jackie Walker’s defenders, it was significant that she is Jewish. This is in fact a striking feature of the Labour Party complaints in general – many of the accusers are Jewish (quite a number are non-Jewish people presenting themselves as defenders of Jews) – but also many of the accused are Jewish, typically anti-zionist Jews who have long campaigned against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinans. Jews in the latter position are both repeatedly accused of anti-semtism and repeatedly its victims.
It is entirely plausible that such people could be trapped into anti-semitic modes of thinking. Non-Jews rarely understand this, but in fact anti-semitism has all the inward-facing element of every other prejudice. Think of women who pass on sexist values to their daughters. Think of LGBT people who internalise homophobia and repeat it privately in LGBT circles – these things happen – and it is exactly the same with anti-semitism. Being told that the world is secretly run by a nearly-cabal of invisible, hostile people, you can start internalising that logic, and using it when you are criticised.
But conversely, anti-Zionist Jews are also repeatedly the victims of anti-semitic abuse from other Jews. They are told that they are “kapos” i.e. like the Jewish people who were employed in the camps in in-between roles, between the guards and the prisoners. This is the equivalent in Jewish circles of when black people are accused of being “coconuts” (i.e. white on the inside) – it is every bit as unpleasant, because it says to the victims that they are not really Jewish, and if anything it has more specific and nastier historical connotations.
This certainly was the case with Jackie Walker who received a large quantity of abuse, some of it directed against her as Jew and some as a black woman.
The point of any disciplinary process, of any type, is not to punish people but to prevent behavior. In a less-charged atmosphere, any objective investigator would have asked whether her expulsion was appropriate. If her crime was to say that Jews were the perpetrators of the slave trade, then was she willing to acknowledge that this was a myth? To withdraw the statement and to apologise for it? To read, and understand the origins of that statement in a particular kind of right-wing and racist argument (albeit – another complexity – an argument of black nationalist origin)?
In the actual atmosphere of the last two years, with numerous people lobbying for Jackie Walker’s expulsion, she was indeed expelled (albeit for breach of party rules rather than anti-semitism). The Labour Party leadership did what its critics asked it to do.
Another typical case is that of Wirral councilor (and another Jewish woman) Jo Bird who argued at a public meeting for a rigorous system of investigating complaints of anti-semitism. In a flat-footed attempted at humour, she called this “Jew process”. She was suspended for 9 days and reinstated. Anti-Corbyn newspapers used her story as further proof the institutional racism of the Labour Party but bluntly it was nothing of that sort. Ms Bird wasn’t Mel Brooks, she neither enjoyed his genius for comic timing nor (this is the Labour Party) his capacity for bad taste. Above all, she lacked his audience: a generation of people willing to mock their own fears.
In conclusion: do the above case histories prove that Labour is institutionally racist, that its leaders have been sabotaging complaints, making life easy for their friends, etc?
Of the 673 complaints made to the Labour Party up to February 2019, 12 led to expulsions. IE twelve were of the “Mollie Collins” or the “Jackie Walker” sort. The others were of the “Jo Bird” sort – either in that they were not so serious that they justified punishment, or that the person making a serious comment was not a member of the Labour Party and there was nothing Labour could do.
Not one of the 661 complaints which led to no sanction or to a lesser punishment has resulted, as far as I can tell, in a further complaint that the person should actually have been expelled.
I will leave leaders to conclude for themselves whether this is such a pattern of behavior that support for the present leadership of the Labour Party is, as has been argued this week, “incompatible with the British values of which we are so proud – of dignity and respect for all people”.