A Fabricated Crisis

The dominant players in the British media have invested so much in the false narrative around ‘Labour antisemitism’ that they cannot afford to lose face now. The publication of the long-awaited Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report in October 2020 might have been an opportunity for Jeremy Corbyn’s detractors to quietly discard their more egregious fabrications. Instead, we have seen a concerted push to give those fabrications canonical status, so that the mere act of questioning them is sufficient to place one outside the moral community.

The Labour leader Keir Starmer cited his predecessor’s response to the EHRC report as a pretext to suspend Corbyn from the party. Although a panel from Labour’s national executive quickly overturned that decision, Starmer refused to restore the whip. Not for the first time, Corbyn’s supporters found themselves having to fight two battles at once: on the one hand showing that the EHRC report was badly flawed, on the other stressing that it offered no basis whatsoever for disciplinary action against him.

By the time the EHRC delivered its findings, there was ample evidence of its own crude partiality – perfectly encapsulated by its refusal to investigate racism in the Conservative Party despite multiple requests to do so. The Commission itself is a classic Blairite quango, set up in the last years of the New Labour government with a mandate to canalize anti-racism within limits determined by the state. Since the Conservatives returned to power in 2010, they have slashed the EHRC’s budget to less than a third of its previous level and stuffed its board with political appointees. In the process, the Commission has come to resemble a Matryoshka doll of bias: the former EHRC chair David Isaac, previously accused by his own chief executive of avoiding topics that might prove challenging for the Tories, has now levelled the same charge against its current leadership.

In the weeks following Corbyn’s suspension, there were multiple blows to the Commission’s credibility. On a single day in November, it published a report on gender discrimination at the BBC that was derided as a ‘whitewash’, then faced a stinging rebuke from a Westminster committee investigating racism against black people, which found the EHRC to have been ‘unable to adequately provide leadership and gain trust in tackling racial inequality.’ Within 24 hours of that double whammy, the Conservative government had appointed David Goodhart, a leading apologist for its ‘hostile environment’ policy, as an EHRC commissioner. To complete the debacle, the lawyer who led the Commission’s investigation of Labour, erstwhile Whig candidate Alasdair Henderson, was revealed to be a fan of race-baiting hard-right ideologues like Roger Scruton and Douglas Murray.

The report itself is underwhelming and comes nowhere close to substantiating the media hype. There is a striking discrepancy between the facts it presents and the way it interprets such evidence – a competent lawyer could drive a coach and horses through some of the conclusions that it reaches. Take, for example, its eye-catching claim to have found evidence of ‘unlawful harassment’ of Jewish people by the Labour Party. In support of this conclusion, the EHRC refers to a controversy that erupted during the 2016 local election campaign around social-media posts by the Labour MP Naz Shah, which predated her stint as an MP. According to the Commission, Shah’s posts ‘went beyond legitimate criticism of the Israeli government’ and were ‘not protected by Article 10’ of the European Convention on Human Rights.

What were these unacceptable comments by Shah? The EHRC refers to ‘a graphic suggesting that Israel should be relocated to the United States’ (a jokey meme, not a serious proposal) and ‘a post in which she appeared to liken Israeli policies to those of Hitler’. The report’s authors do not explain why the latter should be considered unlawful rather than in poor taste – if indeed Shah intended to make such a comparison when she ‘appeared’ to do so. (In Israel itself, the IDF’s deputy chief of staff Yair Golan went much further than Shah in a 2016 speech on Holocaust Memorial Day, telling his audience that he found it ‘scary to see horrifying developments that took place in Europe beginning to unfold here’.)

In her much-maligned and little-read 2016 report, Shami Chakrabarti quite sensibly urged Labour members in Britain to ‘resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons in debates about Israel-Palestine in particular’. However, this was a recommendation by a private citizen, not a legal ruling – Chakrabarti explicitly rejected the idea that ‘bad taste metaphors and comparisons should ever be a matter for the criminal law’ – and in any case could not be said to apply retrospectively.

The controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism lists ‘comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’ among the things that ‘could, taking into account the overall context’ be deemed antisemitic. Labour adopted this definition under intense pressure in September 2018: like Chakrabarti’s recommendation, it has no retrospective force. The man who originally drafted the IHRA definition, the US lawyer and academic Kenneth Stern, has repeatedly spoken out against its use for legal or disciplinary purposes, warning that ‘right-wing Jewish groups’ are deploying it as a weapon to muzzle criticism of Israel. According to Stern, the definition should only ever have been a tool for data collection.

In any case, this bitterly contested text does not form part of the law of the land, even if it has become the law of the Labour Party, and the caveat about ‘overall context’ would vitiate its deployment by any judicial body (as opposed to private, sub-judicial organizations like political parties or universities). The EHRC’s assertions about legal constraints on speech about Israel have no basis whatsoever. The fact that Shah apologized for her posts, as the authors note, has no bearing on their legality: needless to say, many politicians have issued apologies for comments that broke no laws.

This should be enough to discredit the finding of ‘unlawful harassment’, but the problems don’t end there. The report claims that it was Ken Livingstone rather than Shah herself who perpetrated this act of ‘harassment’ when he ‘repeatedly denied that these posts were antisemitic and sought to minimize their offensive nature’. In a final twist, it asserts that Livingstone was acting on behalf of the Labour Party when he did so, although it had been several years at the time since he held any position for Labour in local or national government. These are the slender reeds upon which the EHRC rests its much-vaunted claim that Labour broke anti-discrimination laws under Corbyn’s leadership. The merest application of pressure to any of those reeds will cause them to snap.

If we were to apply the EHRC’s logic consistently, the Labour and Conservative Parties would have to be shut down immediately as criminal enterprises. Both are stuffed to the gills with senior figures who have denied that comments made by their colleagues should be considered racist – for example, the Labour MPs who rallied to the defence of Phil Woolas after the courts expelled him from the House of Commons for running an election campaign that was incomparably more offensive than anything Naz Shah can be accused of. Some of those MPs now form part of Keir Starmer’s front-bench team.

Of course, neither the EHRC nor anyone else in British public life have the slightest intention of extending the criteria used to indict Corbyn to the political class in general. The report’s authors clearly began with the assumption that Labour had to be found guilty of breaking the law in some fashion and worked backwards from that point, constructing a chain of argument that would appear to support their claim, so long as there was no proper scrutiny applied to it.

The report also muddles its discussion of the Labour disciplinary process in a way that can only have been deliberate. Most of the flaws and failings it identifies with that process were concentrated in the period when Iain McNicol and Sam Matthews had control of it. After Corbyn’s ally Jennie Formby replaced McNicol as Labour general secretary in 2018, the handling of antisemitism complaints by the party improved dramatically. McNicol and Matthews subsequently appeared as star witnesses in the BBC Panorama documentary ‘Is Labour Antisemitic?’, where they presented themselves as heroic dissidents whose unflinching efforts to combat antisemitism had been obstructed by Corbyn’s office. The programme’s maker, John Ware, is an egregiously partisan and historically illiterate figure, who believes it should be compulsory to describe the violent expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1947–48 as a legitimate act of self-defence. The EHRC tacitly dismisses the principal claims of Ware’s documentary – claims that had already been demolished at exhaustive length in a dossier compiled under Jennie Formby’s supervision.

Yet the authors of the report take care not to explicitly draw out the conclusions that are staring them in the face. Neither Iain McNicol nor Sam Matthews is named in the report, and the EHRC glosses over the significance of the factional divide between McNicol and his team on the one hand, Corbyn and his office on the other – something the authors cannot possibly have been unaware of, since it was one of the most prominent stories in British politics over the previous two years.

The authors scold Corbyn’s office for ‘interference’ with a small number of complaints, without acknowledging that the goal of such ‘interference’ was to accelerate the handling of those complaints and stiffen the penalties handed down—something Corbyn was repeatedly urged to do, not least by his deputy leader Tom Watson. As Richard Sanders and Peter Oborne have pointed out in their excellent critique of the report for Middle East Eye:

Corbyn is being held responsible for the failures of party officials who were not just his political opponents, but also among his principal accusers when it came to allegations of antisemitism. He is being simultaneously condemned for failing to show leadership, and for interfering in the complaints procedure – even when that interference was aimed at speeding up investigations.

The conventional wisdom of the British media holds John Ware’s Panorama documentary and the EHRC inquiry to have been the two most important planks in the case against Corbynism. In fact, it’s impossible to simultaneously accept the claims made in both. If the picture of Labour’s disciplinary process drawn up by the EHRC is accurate, then Keir Starmer’s high-profile legal settlement with Ware and his self-styled ‘whistleblowers’ must be considered a travesty.

For all its intellectual chicanery, the EHRC could never have delivered a report that backed up the standard media narrative about ‘Labour antisemitism’, as the empirical chasm was unbridgeable. And it was that narrative Corbyn had in mind when he included the following sentence in his response: ‘One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.’ 

In a rational public culture, these words should have been as controversial as the observation that Glasgow lies north of Manchester. The main points of the media narrative from 2018 onwards were as follows: Corbyn himself was said to be personally antisemitic, with a deep, all-consuming hatred of Jewish people, while antisemitism was reported to be endemic within the Labour Party – aided and abetted by its leadership, which had ‘declared war on the Jews’ – to the point that it now constituted an ‘existential threat to Jewish life in Britain’ without precedent in any European country since 1945.

The people making such claims, from the Labour MP Margaret Hodge to the Board of Deputies president Marie van der Zyl and the Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard, were at the heart of public debate over this meta-controversy for several years, with regular access to newspaper frontpages and TV bulletins. They received access to this megaphone from much more powerful actors – the Conservative Party, Labour’s right-wing faction and their respective media allies – because they could supply invaluable assistance in a broader campaign against the British left. 

One of the most unpleasant aspects of this campaign was the vilification of any Jews who stood against it. The right-wing Daily Mail championed Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s and is no less accommodating of racist politicians today. It published a hit-job denouncing David Rosenberg, a left-wing Jewish historian who organized the commemoration of London’s Cable Street rally, where Mosley met his Waterloo. The spectacle of Lord Rothermere’s xenophobic rag lecturing a Jewish socialist about the true character of antisemitism was a perfect synecdoche for the whole thrust of British media discourse, which combined incessant slander with the trivialization of real horrors. Guardian columnist Rafael Behr recently compared those who campaigned for Labour in 2019 to the accomplices of Nazism, and received clamorous applause from his colleagues for doing so.

For all their moralistic huffing and puffing, nobody in the British commentariat actually took these histrionic falsehoods seriously. The universal tendency for journalists to fall back on a minimalist line whenever they had to defend the narrative was proof enough of that. As a media talking point, ‘Labour antisemitism’ resembled an inverted pufferfish, which swelled up to the size of a basketball under normal circumstances but shrank to the size of a pea when under attack.

It should have been easy for left-wing MPs to poke holes in this outlandishly false narrative, repeating and expanding upon Corbyn’s statement without equivocation or apology. Doing so would have had two clear benefits, getting the facts across to the public while also putting Starmer on the spot. Instead, the Labour left – with a few honourable exceptions – mounted an ineffectual, half-hearted defence of Corbyn that must have encouraged his successor to think he could get away with an unprecedented factional manoeuvre.

Read part two, on the failure of the Labour left to mount an effective challenge to Corbyn’s suspension.