At Labour conference a battle was won, but a war still rages

It’s a sad day when a mainstream political party has to go out of its way to state that racist conduct by members brings it into disrepute; a shocking state of affairs when that party’s own rules leave room for people to feel it places supporting another party above any form of racism in terms of severity.

The rule change – first raised by the Jewish Labour Movement a year ago and rubber stamped at the annual conference on Tuesday – is certainly long overdue.

In explicitly creating a disciplinary offence of racism, Labour now has additional tools to tackle not just anti-Semitism, but also prejudice against Muslims and other minorities.

If the rulebook was to blame for cases where the leadership’s vows of zero tolerance didn’t translate into sufficient action, there can be no more excuses.

In response to the proposals, Labour from Jeremy Corbyn down has done the right thing and we should acknowledge that.

But this is no more than a first step.

The battle may have been won, the war looks a whole lot tougher.

You needn’t look beyond the scandals of the last few days to realise the uphill struggle facing the Labour activists who haven’t given up on their party.

For the party to finally gain positive headlines where they have been so absent, all that had to happen this week was for delegates to rubber stamp the rule change without fresh scandals erupting around the debate or conference fringes. Simple, right? Sadly not, it seems.

This week saw applause for calls during a fringe meeting for JLM and LFI activists to be kicked out of the party, comparisons made between Israel supporters and Nazis and one speaker even suggesting that free speech should extend to the ability to questioning the Holocaust.

And all the while there were no shortage of high-profile figures joining in unison to suggest claims of antisemitism were exaggerated, part of a right-wing plot to damage Corbyn.

So bad was the situation that the Labour leader of Brighton council said he would need reassurances that such scenes wouldn’t be repeated before allowing Labour to use its venues again.

It’s no wonder if many will characterise Brighton as having taken Jewish-Labour relations one step forward, two steps back.

In order for this not to be the case further efforts must be made to capitalise on the rule change to usher in a sea change in attitudes to contemporary anti-Semitism in parts of the party and the wider British left.

Addressing anti-Semitism denial – including from Corbyn’s own fire services minister and his union backers – must also be part of the fightback and it must be led by Corbyn himself.

Dealing sufficiently with the language of Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker cases, among others, will also be a major measuring stick. Is it too much to hope this these two will no longer be thorns in the side of Jewish-labour ties come conference 2018?

It’s an understatement to say Labour has a long way to go before it can conceive of winning back large numbers of Jewish voters. Indeed some would suggest this leadership has already passed the point of no return in that regard..

But that doesn’t mean the adoption of the rule change is anything but a triumph for the Jewish Labour Movement, who have had very little to cheer since being reinvigorated 20 months ago.

For Labour Jews, who have faced months of hostile questions about why they even remained members, the rule change is a tangible answer. Whatever your views on the ‘should they stay or should they go’ argument, this welcome move may well not have happened if JLM had packed up and walked away. Whether the change will herald real change, the jury is still out.

About the Author
Justin Cohen is News Editor of the Jewish News.
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