Monthly Archives: September 2021

On Ken Loach; or why the fight against antisemitism deserves better than these authoritarian expulsions


If I was going to write about Ken Loach’s expulsion from the Labour Party here are some of the things I’d say:

These are more notes and parentheses than a finished article, but they’ll give you a sense of what’s been troubling me.

(1) That what put Ken Loach in line for expulsion was that he has spoken on the platforms of what is now a proscribed organisation, Labour Against the Witch-hunt. For the time being, Labour seems to have accepted they could not expel him for this: he spoke prior to those groups’ proscription and was never a member.

It may be that Loach’s public platform gave him a protection which other members of the party have been denied. Others have been threatened with expulsion for behaviour which was permitted and within the rules when they did it.

(2) He was actually expelled for refusing to denounce other members of that group: “I will not disown those already expelled”)

(3) This has also been the pattern in several other high-profile expulsions (eg the Israeli exile Moche Machover), that members are being suspended/expelled not for anything they themselves said but because they have attended meetings with people in the audience who Labour had previously expelled.

The Machover case is especially depressing. The Party invoked against him a clause in its Code of Conduct, which states that “Those who consistently abuse and spread hate should be shunned and not engaged with in a way that ignores this behaviour”

This sentence was treated as if it contained two potential breaches of the Labour Party Code, either a) a positive act of encouraging former members in their antisemitism, or b) an omission of failing to shun them.

Among the many fallacies here is that it makes an expulsion offence for another member of the Labour Party in good standing was to approach an expelled member, talk to them, remind them of their previous behaviour, and seek to challenge it consistently, over time, as might befit a former member whose behaviour had been at different times both comradely and objectionable. The punishment has the consequence of making antisemitism a greater offence from the perspective of the Labour Party than any crime is in the sight of the British state. For we have in our society all sorts of people whose roles are to engage with former offenders, to educate them and reintegrate them into society after their punishment has ended. Criminals are human beings, and capable of redemption. Labour deems the antisemite, by contrast, uniquely incapable of ever changing and entitled to no further contact.

(4) That what Labour’s compliance officers are doing is what lawyers call “satellite litigation”, i.e they are not disciplining people for actual online racism, rather they are looking for something else, an activity before or after that or to its side, which can be presented to a friendly press as evidence that Labour is dealing with anti-Jewish racism. Non-lawyers might call it a displacement activity.

(5) That Labour does have a problem with antisemitism, especially online

I have just written a 100,000 word book, on this issue, it excoriates some of those guilty of behaviour that either was racist or was within touching distance of racism. Those guilty of it included MPs, the Vice-Chair of Momentum, and a former Mayor of London an elected politician with the largest constituency of anyone in Britain. Unlike many people on the Labour left, I do not believe for example that the EHRC report exaggerated the scale of anti-Jewish racism, my sense is that it and other key documents tended to understate the problem.

(6) But this method of expelling people for vague associations with people with whom they have had little contact, is misconceived, to anyone watching it seems high-handed and offensive and discredits the idea of fighting racism

(7) That what the EHRC report required the party do was actually confront racism – ie explain to people which behaviour crossed the line, why it was wrong, and (in less serious cases) giving the people concerned a chance to learn and change their former behaviour and reject it.

One of the ways the EHRC did this was by saying that the party should, “Make sure that all members found to have engaged in antisemitic conduct (apart from those who are expelled) undertake an educational course on identifying and tackling antisemitism, regardless of the level of sanction applied.” That proposal makes no sense if the Party now adopts a position that all those guilty of antisemitism, or guilty of having given an interview to an organisation which went on to be proscribed, or guilty of attending a meeting an which an expelled person was present, etc, should be expelled, rather than (if they are accused of antisemitism) remain in membership and attend training.

(8) That Labour has dodged the task of educating its members on why antisemitism is wrong. Instead of which Labour has concentrated on trying to generate figures of large numbers of expulsions in order to give the impression of taking the issue seriously

(9) Rather than fighting a battle against racism, it is simply trying to push the problem elsewhere. I and other Jewish socialists are part of the online left and this is much broader than the Labour Party. When Labour expels people not for antisemitism but for tangentially-related behaviour (membership of a proscribed organisation, attending a meeting at which an expelled person was present, etc) it does not reduce the number of racists in the world by one person. All it does is turn people against the idea that antisemitism is worth fighting. It invites the left to rebuild itself around a shared myth that there was never any antisemitism in the party. It turns some people who said unpleasant things into victims. It makes other people more likely to adopt an antagonistic relationship towards me and other Jews.

(10) There is a fight to be had against anti-Jewish racism. For all the mistakes he made, Jeremy Corbyn was an ally in that battle. By contrast, Keir Starmer and his supporters have never shown the least interest in helping people like me.

Labour’s crisis; why the expulsions divide Jewish opinion and fail to challenge racism


Labour’s antisemitism crisis may feel like yesterday’s news, but the issue is about to return. Next month will see the anniversary of Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from Labour membership (later reduced, to removal of the whip, a process intended to make it impossible for him to stand as a Labour candidate in the next general election). In July, the party advertised 50 “case handler” positions to work through its backlog of unresolved membership complaints. These staff members are to be sourced thorough an agency and on temporary contracts and are expected to recommend a large number of expulsions. While, undoubtedly, there will be many Jewish members of the party who welcome this news – there will also be a number who view it with fear, worrying that they will be among those being investigated.

To understand both reactions we need to recall the events which accompanied Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the 2015 leadership elections. After 2015, there was an increase in openly anti-Jewish language used by supporters, especially online. Labour Candidates for Parliament shared posts speaking of “Zionist Masters”, or spoke of Jewish MPs as having “Zionist sympathies”. One candidate for election as a local councillor reposted material on social media which referred to the Holocaust as a “hoax”. Parties need to have disciplinary processes; left-wing parties are entitled to expel members who discredit their own organisations.

However, bound up with this process has been something else – a dynamic in which a mere taking of sides against the party’s present leadership has become grounds for investigation. To say, for example, that several allegations of antisemitism were misplaced or exaggerated became itself a ground for investigation.

By the end of 2019, 220 members of the Labour Party had been investigated for antisemitism. The pro-Corbyn group Jewish Voice for Labour reported that 25 of those investigated by that stage, or just less than one in eight, were Jews. All of this 25, we may assume, were anti-Zionist Jews. But Jews only made up one in every 250 people living in Britain. Assuming that the Jewish proportion of party membership was the same as the Jewish proportion of British society, it would follow that a Jewish member of the party was 30 times more likely to be investigated by Labour than a non-Jew.

This dynamic is one which lawyers term “indirect discrimination”. In an of itself, it does not mean a process unfair or illegal. But the diffeerence of treatment requires justification, with a heavy burden of the discriminator to justify what they are doing.

The party would say that this disparity is not caused by its officers. They do not search out Jewish members; they focus only on complaints. If it is true that Jews are more prone to express themselves in offensive terms about Israeli or Jewish politicians than other members of the party – it is their own fault if they are investigated.

Its critics respond that the fault is with their party. Labour has increasingly seen its role as being to forestall any criticisms of Israeli policy, and to drive out Jewish voices which reject majoritarian Jewish opinions of Labour’s crisis. But Israeli policy towards Palestine is condemned in many places, not least in Israel and by Jews. The point where Israeli left-wing opinions meets British left-wing opinion – among Jewish members of the Labour Party – is where you would expect criticisms of Israel to be made.

The split nature of Jewish opinion under Corbyn was reflected in the existence of two rival groups, the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), an organisation of between 1,000 and 2,000 people, many of whom were critical of the Corbyn leadership, and Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), a body founded in 2017 to support Corbyn and which had around 400 Jewish members. Often members of the former organisation will point to status as an approved affiliate of the Labour Party (unlike JVL), their much larger support among Jewish circles, and say that they are the largest body of Jewish opinion within Labour. They are the majority, and they alone can stand as representative of Jewish opinion as a whole.

JVL was widely cited in the media, and treated as the representative body of pro-Corbyn Jewish opinion within the party. The split however went deeper than just JLM against JVL.

There were large numbers of pro-Corbyn Jews who steered clear of Jewish Voice for Labour, and several played prominent roles within the party. Probably the most visible Jewish figure within Labour’s crisis was Jon Lansman, founder of the pro-Corbyn campaign group Momentum. Lansman was interviewed in Jewish newspapers, spoke at Jewish cultural events, and supported the exclusion of individuals whose behaviour had crossed the line. As a longstanding Jewish socialist you might have expected Lansman to work with JVL; he did not. Rather, he accused that group of denying Labour’s difficulties and antagonising Jewish members The effect of the crisis in other was not merely to polarise Jewish opinion but also to deepen divisions within and splinter the pro-Corbyn left.

It is often said that all the offensive behaviour came from Labour’s left. But this assumption better reflects press commentary on the crisis than the actual and rancorous debate we have seen in Britain over the past five years. In 2015-9, the children’s author Michael Rosen spoke up often for Jeremy Corbyn. “To say these things has invited Jews and non-Jews on Twitter to call me a ‘kapo’, a ‘used Jew’ … someone who ‘dons the cloak of Jewishness’ … one of the ‘useful Jewish idiots’ [and] ‘a cheerleader for Soros’.” Rosen named the people who had criticised him, who included broadcasters and high-profile print journalists. Seemingly, none of the individuals named by him have ever been investigated by Labour.

Supporters of the leadership might accept that Rosen’s treatment was unjustifiable. They insist however that we need to have a sense of the crisis as a whole, inside which the majority of abusive language has come from Corbyn supporters. In 2016, one Jewish MP Ruth Smeeth was challenged at a press conference launching a Labour report on anti-Semitism. After that incident, Smeeth received 25,000 items of hate mail. And this was just a single instance, early in the crisis. Other Jewish MPs, including Luciana Berger, who was blamed by much of the left for the story’s return to the headlines in 2018, was treated even worse.

For the party’s present leadership, the way to restore Jewish confidence in Labour has been to inform the press that it is carrying out the maximum number of expulsions, in order to prove that the phenomenon of antisemitism has been silenced, and that anti-Jewish racists have been placed outside the Labour Party where they cannot do any harm.

Yet if you read the paperwork generated by Labour Party complaints, a different picture emerges. The people subject to investigation are suspended for months and sometimes years, and are subject to shifting allegations as their social media comments are searched often far into the past. No-one properly explains to the members why their behaviour was offensive.

Investigators decline to give any consideration to change. This is, arguably, the most egregious fault with the process. Those who constructed it have no idea of using investigation as a way of changing how people think. If we compare investigations to the legal processes which are closest to it, in them, judges ask repeatedly is a person accused of wrongdoing apologetic for what they said or did? Do they grasp how their words were offensive? Can they give any sort of undertaking they will not be repeated?

Inside Labour, these questions are never asked. Even to suggest that they should be is seen as a sign of wavering in the face of the more important task of proving to the media Labour’s commitment to dealing with the issue at last.

While the problems within Labour are not reducible to the persistence of prejudice in wider British society, they do to some extent reflect it. According to polls conducted in 2014, one in ten people here would be unhappy if a relative married a Jewish person, and one in six believe that Jews have too much power in the media. Those figures would that tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Labour members held at least some anti-Jewish views.

Everyone agrees that members should be educated; but such education as has been provided has been defensive, seemingly planned and certainly received along existing factional lines with the focus always on providing boundaries rather than explaining them.

Challenging racism on the scale required is going to require a more active process of explaining antisemitism and encouraging people in all parts of the party to speak out against it than the mere recruitment of 50 temporary case handlers. And it isn’t something which the leadership shows any desire or ability to do.

If you enjoyed this piece, it reflects the arguments of my book, Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis What the Left Got Wrong and How to Learn From It, which was published by Routledge in August.