The findings of the investigation into anti-Semitism in the UK Labour party published Thursday by Britain’s anti-racism watchdog are no less devastating for being so widely anticipated. Nor does the careful legalese in which some points are couched detract from the shattering criticism which the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has levelled at the party.
The EHRC launched its inquiry last year amid a wave of anti-Semitism allegations which rocked the Labour party under its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Its work was a forensic legal investigation – to examine whether Labour had breached Britain’s equalities legislation – and its conclusions are extraordinarily brutal.
“Our investigation has identified serious failings in leadership and an inadequate process for handling antisemitism complaints across the Labour Party, and we have identified multiple failures in the systems it uses to resolve them,” the 130-page report stated. “We have concluded that there were unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination for which the Labour Party is responsible.”
The fallout from the report has been far swifter and dramatic than many anticipated. Just hours after its publication, Labour suspended Corbyn from the party and removed the whip from him, effectively placing his membership on hold. The man who led Labour to a disastrous defeat in last year’s general election was, as so often in the past, undone by his own words.
In a statement after the report was released, Corbyn acknowledged that “one antisemite is one too many,” but went on to claim that “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.” The suspension will give Labour the opportunity to investigate his remarks. Corbyn has vowed to “strongly contest” the party’s decision, labelling it a “political” move, but, for now, the former leader of the Labour Party will be forced to sit as an independent MP in the House of Commons.
But the news of Corbyn’s suspension should not detract attention from the EHRC’s findings. Its analysis, the report said, “points to a culture within the Party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.” The party had shown an ability to “act decisively when it wants to” – for instance when dealing with sexual harassment complaints – and the contrast with how it handled cases of anti-Jewish racism made it “hard not to conclude that antisemitism within the Labour Party could have been tackled more effectively if the leadership had chosen to do so.”
The Campaign Against Antisemitism – which made the initial complaint to the EHRC – captured the importance of the EHRC’s findings. “The debate is over. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party became institutionally antisemitic,” the CAA said in a press statement.
The Jewish Labour Movement, the other key complainant, was similarly forthright in its response: “The blame for this sordid, disgraceful chapter in the Labour Party’s history lies firmly with those who held positions of leadership.” And while the report did not directly blame Corbyn, at a press briefing the EHRC lead investigator, Alasdair Henderson, bluntly stated that the buck ultimately rested with him: “As the leader of the party at the time, and given the extent of the failings and findings of political interference within the leader of the Opposition’s office, Jeremy Corbyn is ultimately accountable and responsible for what happened at that time.”
The tip of the iceberg
The three breaches of the Equality Act identified by the report related to harassment of Jewish members; failure to provide adequate training to those handling anti-Semitism complaints; and, most damagingly of all, political interference in anti-Semitism complaints by Corbyn’s office. One of the harassment findings stemmed from anti-Semitic comments made by the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. But, the report added, the harassment cases it examined were “only the tip of the iceberg.”
The EHRC is not a toothless tiger. It doesn’t simply have the right to investigate organisations it suspects of committing illegal acts of discrimination. It can also take legal action to force those organisations to comply with its findings. It has now ordered Labour to draw up an action plan by December 10 to address its recommendations, which, crucially, includes the establishment of a “transparent and independent antisemitism complaints process, which ensures that all cases of alleged discrimination, harassment or victimisation are investigated promptly, rigorously and without political interference.”
And, as the EHRC’s interim chair, Caroline Waters, also argued in her foreword to the report, rooting out anti-Semitism is not simply a matter of improving the party’s complaints and disciplinary procedures: “It is also about making sure that the Labour Party has a culture that clearly reflects its zero tolerance of antisemitism and indeed of all forms of discrimination.”
Corbyn’s successor as Labour leader, Keir Starmer, responded swiftly to the report. Labelling it a “day of shame” for the party, he said he accepted the EHRC’s findings and would implement them in full. Anti-Semites, he added, “should be nowhere near this party and we will make sure you are not.” And Starmer also made clear that those who think accusations of anti-Semitism are an “exaggerated or a factional attack” are “part of the problem” and should also be “nowhere near the Labour Party.”
But the Labour leader, who was speaking after Corbyn issued his statement, appeared far less comfortable when repeatedly questioned by journalists on what action should be taken about his predecessor’s claims that the allegations had been “overstated.” Starmer side-stepped the questions while on air, but then moved decisively to put the issue to rest.
Starmer did so after the CAA threw down a new challenge, announcing it was filing complaints with the Labour party against Corbyn, former Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, and 15 other Labour MPs and giving it six months to “conduct transparent investigations and finally deliver justice for the Jewish community.”
EHRC: No toothless tiger
It is difficult to overstate the significance of the EHRC’s conclusions. The watchdog is an independent body which was established under the government of former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. And its inquiry was instigated under powers given to the EHRC by the 2006 Equality Act – landmark legislation passed by Labour when it was last in office.
The embarrassment Labour faces is acute. The only other political party to have been subjected to a probe by the EHRC is the far-right British National party.
The only other political party to have been subjected to a probe by the EHRC is the far-right British National party
The EHRC’s findings are buttressed not just by its independence, but the thoroughness of its investigation. It used its powers to force Labour to lift the lid on how it has investigated allegations of anti-Semitism, requiring internal documents, text and WhatsApp messages and emails to be handed over.
With the watchdog’s work complete, the ball is now firmly in Starmer’s court. Since taking the helm in April, the Labour leader has attempted to show that tackling what he has termed the “poison” of anti-Semitism is a priority.
Starmer’s first act on winning the leadership was to issue an apology to Britain’s Jews and a pledge to rebuild the community’s shattered trust. Starmer then swiftly met with Jewish communal organisations, prompting the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Community Security Trust and the Jewish Labour Movement to declare in a joint statement that he had “already achieved in four days more than his predecessor in four years in addressing anti-Semitism within the Labour Party.”
Starmer hasn’t just issued warm words, either. In June, he dramatically fired Rebecca Long-Bailey – a hard-left supporter of Corbyn who stood for the party leadership – from the Shadow Cabinet after she shared an article on social media which contained an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. (Long-Bailey later wrote an article explaining her position, saying that she “would never have intended to retweet or endorse anything that could cause hurt to anyone.”)
Starmer’s path ahead is not without hurdles. Despite securing the appointment of a moderate who worked for Blair as Labour’s new general secretary, he still does not yet have complete command of the party’s structures. Labour’s governing body, the National Executive Committee, is currently finely balanced between Starmer’s supporters and the hard left. The results of recent elections to the body are due soon and are expected to strengthen the Labour leader’s hand.
At the same time, the hard left retains significant political and organisational resources. Prior to the release of the report, the Unite union, which is Labour’s biggest financial backer and was close to Corbyn, signaled its unease at Starmer’s direction. Earlier this month, it announced a cut in the amount of cash it gives to the party.
The EHRC’s findings are, above all, a vindication of the stand taken by the Jewish community
But the EHRC’s findings are, above all, a vindication of the stand taken by the Jewish community, which finally ran out of patience with Corbyn and – in an unprecedented display of anger and dismay – held its “Enough Is Enough” demonstration against anti-Semitism in London’s Parliament Square in March 2018.
From that moment on, the community made clear it would be neither fobbed off nor intimidated, but would instead demand that Labour live up to the anti-racist credentials it proclaims so loudly.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the EHRC confirms the experiences of grassroots Jewish party members, councillors, and MPs who were subjected to appalling anti-Semitism on Corbyn’s watch – and then frequently belittled, ignored or abused again when they dared to call it out. Stephen Pollard, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, will have spoken for many when he tweeted shortly after the report’s release: “I imagine there will be some tears shed in the homes of Jews and their allies in the fight against antisemitism … This feels like recognition of what we have endured.”
Louise Ellman, a former MP who quit the party last year, spelt out graphically the nature of that abuse in a piece in Thursday morning’s Times newspaper. “I felt I was on trial. I was told I represented a fascist foreign government, that Israel funded Isis, Gaza was comparable to the Warsaw ghetto and that Israel caused antisemitism,” she wrote of meetings with her local Labour party. “I was attacked on social media. I was called ‘the Jewish Labour Movement’s bitch,’ accused of ‘not having human blood’ and being ‘a racist supporter of Israeli child abuse.’”
As Jemma Levene, the deputy director of the anti-racism group Hope Not Hate, wrote earlier this week: “We are here because a prejudice has played out, and there are victims of that prejudice. Make no mistake, the victims of the antisemitism that was perpetrated by those in or close to, or in the name of, the Labour Party, and which has been investigated by the EHRC, are Jewish individuals.
“That may seem an obvious point, but in the turmoil and passion around disagreements between different factions and moments of political success and failure, too often over the last four years, too many people have failed to focus on the victims themselves,” wrote Levene.
Today, some of those victims may feel they have – at last – achieved a measure of justice.