I can recall the moment, frozen in memory. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, it would set in motion the EHRC’s investigation into the Labour Party over its institutional antisemitism.
It was 2016, and I was sat in my studio, my mind drifting from my day job composing music. I was thinking about the Labour Party. It was still my political home at the time, but given the events of the preceding twelve months – Gerald Kaufman, Oxford Students and the suppressed investigations, Jackie Walker, Naz Shah, Ken Livinstone and the whitewash Chakrabarti Report – I had one foot out of the door.
It wasn’t just these incidents, nor the deluge of online abuse that I’d been monitoring for so long. What horrified me was that people seemed to be observing without seeing; listening without hearing. There was a great reluctance to face up to the reality that the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition was an antisemite. Britain – and many in the Jewish community – were in denial.
What, I wondered, could we do to try to elicit action from the Party or, more likely, showcase Labour’s refusal to act against antisemitism? Then, it occurred to me. I recall walking across the studio, picking up my phone and calling my colleague at Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA), Gideon Falter, and saying: “I have an idea. We should report Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour Party for breaching its own rules.”
I had in mind a number of incidents over the past few months – Corbyn agreeing with his brother’s assessment that complaints about antisemitism were about shutting down criticism of Israel and a campaign advert in his second leadership primary that literally showed actors throw antisemitism complaints in the bin – that, as far as I could see, brought the Party into disrepute.“I like it,” Gideon replied.
That was the genesis of CAA’s first complaint against Corbyn, which we sent to Tom Watson, then the Party’s Deputy Leader. He never bothered to respond.
That complaint was followed by two others in 2018 detailing further incidents implicating Labour’s leader. They were acknowledged by the Party but dismissed out of hand by the General-Secretary.
These complaints were reinforced by a thousand more from CAA supporters at our rally that year outside Labour HQ. I hand-delivered this batch of complaints to the Party’s office, where a polite apparatchik smiled and took possession of them. Those thousand complaints were never heard about again. If Corbyn’s earlier campaign ad was to be believed, it’s not hard to imagine where they ended up.
None of these complaints against Corbyn were ever investigated.
Labour’s refusal to act on our Corbyn complaints led us to formally refer the Party to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in mid-2018. We had already been in correspondence with the EHRC for almost a year, but this formal referral took matters to the next level. The EHRC invited us in August of that year to make representations. Over hundreds of hours, CAA investigators and expert legal counsel produced hundreds of pages of detailed submissions to the EHRC.
Our complaint was then followed by further submissions to the EHRC by the Jewish Labour Movement several months later and then Labour Against Antisemitism in early 2019.
In May, the EHRC launched its full statutory investigation, which was unprecedented in British history and was indispensable to the effort to fight Labour antisemitism.
On Thursday, it published its report, which found that the Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership committed unlawful acts of harrassment and discrimination against Jewish people in a culture that was accepting of antisemitism. Back in 2016, we were the first to call Labour institutionally antisemitic. Now, in 2020, the EHRC has agreed.
It’s an incredible vindication of the concerns and fears of the Jewish community. It’s particularly inspiring to think that it’s a result of the work of volunteers, a testament to how CAA empowers ordinary Jews to achieve extraordinary things.
Immediately following the publication of the report, CAA resubmitted our complaints about Corbyn that had never been investigated, and added many further incidents that we and others had since uncovered, as well as Corbyn’s reaction to the EHRC report that day. Some in the community felt that Corbyn shouldn’t become a focus, and that trying to get justice for the past several years was not as important as – or was not related to – reforming Labour in the present. We disagreed. Within an hour of publicising our letter of complaint, Corbyn was suspended.
After four years, the first complaint we submitted against Corbyn – and the many others since – might finally be investigated.
My personal story of resistance to Labour antisemitism is one among many, but to me it represents an important lesson — for had I not picked up the phone, alone in my studio in 2016, and had my brilliant CAA colleagues not swiftly turned that idea into reality, the EHRC’s decision to investigate and its damning report would almost certainly have come too late, if at all, to have had the impact they undoubtedly did.