In April 2019 I wrote a 30,000 word Fathom report, ‘Institutionally Antisemitic: Contemporary Left Antisemitism and the Crisis in the British Labour Party’. I wanted to wait until I had read all 851 pages of this new (leaked and shamefully unredacted) report before commenting. As it will be a while before I can do that, here is a preliminary comment about the Executive Summary.
In my reading, the executive summary of this report makes three startling admissions:
- The antisemitism in the party was real and widespread.
- Much of it took the form of anti-Israel hatred and demonisation; that is, antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism, and the party signally failed to understand this form of antisemitism.
- The party’s failure to tackle the problem was so comprehensive that it amounted to institutional antisemitism.
Let’s look more closely at each admission.
1. Yes, we admit the antisemitism was for real and widespread
The report could not be clearer. “This report thoroughly disproves any suggestion that antisemitism is not a problem in the Party, or that it is all a “smear” or a “witch-hunt”. The report’s findings prove the scale of the problem, and could help end the denialism amongst parts of the Party membership which has further hurt Jewish members and the Jewish community.”
The report also admits that the denialism in the party was driven in part by ‘the complacent assumption that to be in the Labour Party was to be automatically free of prejudice.’ Some leading party figures are being indicted there. (Shame that they are not named.)
So what about those four long years of denialism and victim-blaming by a crop of party leaders and by tens of thousands of Corbynistas? What about their mantra that the claims of antisemitism were just ‘mood music’, a ‘smear’ deliberately confected by tricksy Blairite and Zionists liars to ‘get Jeremy’ or ‘stop criticism of Israel’? Apparently all that was just… rubbish.
2. Yes, we admit we were institutionally antisemitic by Macpherson’s criteria
Macpherson’s definition of institutional racism is not that an organisation is saturated in racism from top to bottom. Here is what he wrote:
“The concept of institutional racism, which we apply, consists of: The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people. It persists because of the failure of the organisation openly and adequately to recognise and address its existence and causes by policy, example and leadership. Without recognition and action to eliminate such racism it can prevail as part of the ethos or culture of the organisation. It is a corrosive disease.” (The Macpherson Report, 1999.)
The executive summary of this report admits that the Labour Party is wide open to a charge of institutional antisemitism by these Macpherson-criteria. Much of it takes the form of a confession:
- The party has been guilty of ‘a litany of mistakes, deficiencies, and missed opportunities to reform, develop and adapt a clearly failing disciplinary system’.
- In 2015 ‘the Party’s disciplinary process was ill-equipped to deal with the impending caseload’ and ‘the process was drawn out and overly complex, and staff often decided on informal resolutions, including suspending individuals and then lifting their suspensions a few weeks later.’
- It goes on: ‘When investigations did take place, these were outdated, clunky, time-consuming and required vast staff resources to undertake. These processes were not fit-for-purpose.’
- And how damning is this admission? ‘The need for major reforms to address this was identified by … late 2015. Nevertheless by 2018 very little had changed. ‘ (Emphasis added)
The report tells us that until Spring 2018 the party was truly, spectacularly, useless. It failed to develop any consistent system of logging and recording complaints … disciplinary investigations, or tracking their progress’; there was no ‘guidance or training for staff on decision-making regarding complaints’; or ‘any specific guidance or training for staff on decision-making regarding antisemitism complaints’; the party failed to ‘develop any detailed or coherent guidelines for investigating complaints based on social media conduct’; and failed to ‘implement the Macpherson principle of logging and investigating complaints of racism as racism.’
The report even admits this: ‘[the party] failed to act on the vast majority of complaints received, including the vast majority of complaints regarding antisemitic conduct.’ The authors also say that between 1 November 2016 and 19 February 2018 ‘more than 300 complaints relating to antisemitism appear to have been received … At least half of these warranted action, many of them in relation to very extreme forms of antisemitism, but were ignored.’ Apparently, ‘the inbox to which complaints were forwarded by other staff would apparently go months at a time without any staff member monitoring it.’
However, even though Corbyn was party leader throughout this entire period, the report lays all these failings not at his door but at the door of his ‘factional’ opponents. (It is this claim that led to the press attention and the social media war.) In short, to steal a phrase from an earlier Labour leader, Harold Wilson, the idea seems to be that “a tightly knit group of politically motivated men and women”, stopped Corbyn tackling antisemitism and lost him an election to boot. Hmm. I will read the rest of the report carefully, but I will take some persuading of that proposition.
I am sceptical not least because the headline claim that things began to improve in Spring 2018, under new general secretary Jennie Formby, starts to wobble when you read on.
The report is clear that things didn’t improve quickly enough or far enough. After Formby took over, the authors admit, ‘some problems still continued’ and on such a scale that ‘further extensive work was undertaken in 2019’. (Note that word ‘extensive’.)
My own report catalogued a series of failures during the period after Spring 2018, including the practice of handing batches of complaints to an aide to Corbyn, Andrew Murray, a man on record telling a rally that ‘people on the right-wing of the Labour Party are simply using this issue as the latest stick to beat Jeremy Corbyn with … [it is a] disgraceful smear campaign’. Sorry, but you can’t have had a man like that judging complaints of antisemitism and still claim all was well under your watch.)
In fact, even into 2020, the report admits, there remained ‘scope for further improvements in processes and rules’ noting that very recently ‘a further review of all its processes and practices’ was undertaken and it called for ‘further reforms.’
So, though changes were introduced, and expulsions did pick up pace, any sharp periodisation into Before Formby and After Formby does not really stand scrutiny.
Third. Yes, we admit that much of the antisemitism took the form of antisemitic anti-Zionism
The report admits that many labour members “expressed antisemitic views, sometimes framed in terms of support for the Palestinian people, but incorporating traditional tropes about Jewish power/influence.” (To be precise, few members guilty of antisemitism ever talked about the Palestinians. Almost all were just hating on Israel, Israelis, ‘Zios’, Jews, Rothschilds, and so on.) The report also admits that party members were guilty of “sharing of conspiratorial theories about a shadowy global elite, often tending towards antisemitism.”
And four years too late comes this confession. ‘In relation to antisemitism there is a lack of understanding as to how it can sometimes be expressed on the left of politics, as well as the right. This had a bearing on the failure to recognise early the problems that could be attached to a very large increase in membership, as well as such prejudices among existing members.’
I confess to some anger reading that. After all, a bunch of us, party members mostly, people who had spent their political and professional lives writing about and fighting against left antisemitism, tried again and again and again to get the party to listen to us about its the roots, forms and consequences. In my own 2019 report –and earlier, in a 2015 open letter to candidate Jeremy Corbyn in Left Foot Forward, and then in a blizzard of opeds, speeches, submissions to select committees and to the Chakrabarti Inquiry, as well as chapters in academic books – I tried to persuade the party of just this. Many others did the same.
We were ignored at best and savaged as agents of a foreign power at worst. Blunt truth: too many at the top of the party and its activist networks were too steeped in the ideology, and to close to the networks of left antisemitic anti-Zionism to ever tackle it without a profound self-criticism. And they were never humble enough or brave enough to do that.
I will read the rest of the 851 pages. I expect David Hirsh is correct that, whatever else this report is, it will also turn out to be the founding document of a very dangerous Corbynite ‘stab in the back’ myth. That is certainly how the Corbynite rank and file is reading the report.
For now, I just wanted to make the point that the executive summary is really telling us something else: the Jewish community and their allies were right all along. The Labour party has just admitted that the antisemitism was real, that much of it took the form of antisemitic anti-Zionism, which the party failed to understand, and that the party’s failure to tackle it was so comprehensive that it amounted to institutional antisemitism.