Jeremy Corbyn’s defiant response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission report into antisemitism in the Labour party has conjured a tempest.
The report was a vindication for those who struggled to combat antisemitism in Labour and to expose the party’s ongoing failure to confront it effectively. At the same time, the decision to suspend Corbyn has brought dismay to his supporters, many of whom see him as Labour’s most anti-racist leader. These divergent reactions provide an echo of something familiar: the gulf between large parts of the anti-racist left and those forces, inside and outside Labour, who have prosecuted the fight against antisemitism.
Yet the noise and emotion of the moment have drawn attention away from the content of the EHRC report itself, and its larger significance. To be sure, the top line is widely acknowledged: namely, that the Labour party has been found responsible for harassment and discrimination under equality law. But its other findings deserve attention – and have wider implications for the future of anti-racist politics in Britain.
The EHRC states that Labour’s breaches of the Equality Act represent the tip of an iceberg. Corbyn supporters have often said that the small number of disciplinary cases handled by Labour demonstrate that antisemitism is a stain on the party, but just a tiny one. Yet by its own account, Labour did not record the number of antisemitism complaints before 2018. More important still, the EHRC report shows that the number of recorded cases alone cannot be regarded as a meaningful gauge of the extent of antisemitism among members.
Labour set a high bar for what was counted: we now know that until September 2019 the party’s guidelines held that “likes” and “retweets” of antisemitic material on social media were not deemed cause for disciplinary action; more recently, Labour’s policy has been to take action only if “content is obviously prejudiced”. In short, the number of cases handled by Labour’s disciplinary apparatus is a pale reflection of the volume of antisemitic ideas, stereotypes and narratives circulating among Labour members.
The EHRC also highlights a contrast between Labour’s decisive handling of allegations of sexual harassment and its erratic and opaque treatment of antisemitism. Its report identifies this as a failure of leadership. But the diagnosis raises another question: why did Labour’s leaders and those running the party machine find antisemitism so hard to grip? The EHRC points to a culture that, at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, accepted it. But what sort of culture is this?
The likes and retweets highlighted by the EHRC provide a window into the spread of antisemitic ideas within society in general and Labour’s membership in particular. Research bears this out. When presented with a series of negative statements about Jews – for example, that Jews get rich at the expense of others or that their interests are very different from those of other people – around 30% of British adults questioned agreed with at least one. These ideas, moreover, are found evenly across supporters of both Labour and Conservative parties. Antisemitism, like so much racism, lies deep in our culture and is nurtured by what many regard as “common sense”.
Labour figures habitually employ the cliche that likens antisemitism to a “poison” that has infiltrated its pure body politic. The evidence suggests something different. We argue that antisemitism should be seen as a reservoir: a repository of narratives, representations and stereotypes, embedded deeply within our culture, which political actors of all parties may draw on. The publication of the EHRC report should lead Labour and its supporters to a serious reckoning with this reservoir.
This means the relationship between Labour and racism needs to be reassessed more widely. The finding that the Labour party has breached equality law is historic, but both critics and supporters of Corbyn have been economical in their claims about Labour’s anti-racist credentials. The labour movement has responded to the presence of immigrants and religious minorities in mixed and uneven ways. For much of the 20th century, trade unions campaigned to exclude immigrants from jobs they saw as belonging to “British workers”, and migrants and minorities had to fight hard to get recognition and representation from union leaders.
State racism in Britain has been crafted by Labour as well as Conservative governments. Harold Wilson’s Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968 was a key step in the racialisation of postcolonial migrants through discriminatory immigration law. After 1997, the multicultural rhetoric of the Tony Blair years was accompanied by an expansion of detention centres and an increasingly racialised state discourse about British Muslims.
While Labour rightfully lays claim to the introduction of the first Race Relations Acts, equality law and the first cohort of Black MPs, the party’s record on race and minority rights leaves a complicated legacy, in which anti-racism has co-existed alongside indifference and worse. The change in culture that the EHRC calls for will not take place so long as Labour complacently thinks of itself as an inherently anti-racist party.
Above all, the responses to the EHRC report have reflected the impoverishment of mainstream British conversations about racism, which tend to see it as a moral failing only, not as a problem that also has structural foundations. Our political culture delights in scrutinising the personal failings of prominent individuals, and the Labour debate has been quick to focus on identifying which politicians are guilty of antisemitism and fit for punishment.
This leads us to think of culture change only in terms of formal sanctions. Of course, party discipline is also an expression of party values but on its own it is not enough: removing antisemitic individuals from Labour’s ranks will only go some way towards addressing the party’s problem. Similarly, the UK’s hard-won body of anti-discrimination law is an essential protection for minorities, but it is insufficient to build an anti-racist political culture. This requires a different approach, one which understands that equality law is not the only index of racism – and that racism can thrive even in the absence of committed racist intent.
Labour’s antisemitism crisis underlines the need for an encompassing and indivisible anti-racism, but also the difficulty of forging one. Amid the current tumult, Labour faces a challenge to act. At the very least, this will mean building on the substance of the EHRC’s findings, developing a more comprehensive education and training programme for staff and party members, and responding to the forthcoming report of the Forde inquiry into discriminatory cultures in the Labour party.
All sides in this bitter dispute should keep in mind that Labour fell foul of UK equality legislation – an outcome of anti-racist struggles. This serves as an important reminder of the ethical and political need to reconnect the battle against antisemitism with the wider movement for racial equality.
• David Feldman is professor of history and director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck, University of London; Ben Gidley is a senior lecturer in the department of psychosocial studies, Birkbeck; Brendan McGeever is a lecturer in the department of psychosocial studies, Birkbeck