‘Zero tolerance’ for Labour antisemitism? Little has changed

Last night, the Parliamentary Labour Party unanimously pressed for answers to the same questions that the Jewish Labour Movement have been asking the party about antisemitism for years. Eleven months ago, the Jewish community took the unprecedented step of protesting the Labour Party on Parliament Green, calling “Dayenu” – ‘Enough is Enough’ on antisemitism within the party. A culture of ‘zero tolerance’ toward antisemitism was offered, but after almost a year, little has changed.

In response to the events of March 2018, the party launched an ‘antisemitism working group’, which despite its advertised function, did little to resolve the issue. Instead, the only Jewish affiliate to the Labour Party was excluded from the process, and quite literally left in the waiting room of Party HQ whilst others discussed and decided how to tackle the prejudice we face.

Its sole task turned out to be to publish a code of conduct on antisemitism, without consulting the Jewish community, that resulted in a summer of hell, where an NEC member accused 68 of the Jewish community’s leading Rabbis, who had the temerity to ask for action, of being “Trump-supporting fanatics” and suggesting that the countless cases of antisemitism making their way through the party’s disciplinary system weren’t evidence of antisemitism. You couldn’t make it up if you tried.

Since that summer, nothing has progressed. No promised consultation on the code of conduct has taken place. No clarity on extending JLM’s antisemitism awareness training to the national executive committee (NEC), national constitutional committee (NCC), party staff and the wider movement has been achieved. High profile cases of antisemitism, promised to be cleared by the end of the summer, remain unresolved, whilst other cases are dealt with by simply reminding those involved of the rules. Hardly ‘zero tolerance’.

Instead, we were told by the general secretary in her response to the PLP that there are private and confidential discussions taking place with key individuals and organisations, and strong actions are being taken. But the toxic mix of obfuscation, contortion and secrecy have bred a culture of antisemitism, where the action taken has been so insufficient that little hope and trust exists that it can truly be turned around.

On training, JLM have for three years toured the UK, at the expense of its members’ fees, offering CLPs free training to help them understand and take action against antisemitism, as well as engaging Jewish communities. This offer has in some areas been met with open hostility, for example in Birkenhead, where the CLP resolved to refuse our training on the grounds that JLM was somehow affiliated to ISIS. We are not affiliated to ISIS.

When we warned a year ago that using antisemitism awareness training as a sanction in the disciplinary process was wrong, we were ignored. Only now have the party dropped the suggestion, airbrushing it from memory. In its place, we are told that offenders will be reminded of their conduct, and if their apology isn’t sincere, be sent for further action. Need we point to both Pete Willsman and Chris Williamson’s mealy-mouthed words of attrition, despite going on to bait the Jewish community further, as textbook examples of this approach being corrupted?

We reject entirely the suggestion, made originally during the redefinition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, and again made yesterday, that the Labour Party knows better than the Jewish community what counts as “world class” ways of combating antisemitism.

Far too often it seems that the party’s response to antisemitism is conditioned not by doing what is right by its Jewish members, but by what is acceptable to the braying social media crowd: the fake news outlets, briefed by senior party sources, and the shock jock bloggers, masquerading as the party’s moral conscious.

The disgraceful behaviour exhibited by some NEC members is condoned, encouraged and amplified by a chorus of voices that cannot begin to entertain the suggestion that there might be a problem. All too often does someone say that it isn’t within their power to solve this serious issue, or that it is someone else’s responsibility. Selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honestly and leadership are the textbook requirements of good, strong, moral governance. Can we truly say, with total confidence, that these are modelled by those elected to govern our party?

Without the radical transparency that Catherine McKinnell MP called for in putting forward yesterday’s motion at the PLP, the party cannot begin to convince the Jewish community and other concerned members, that they are serious about tackling antisemitism, or the public that the Labour Party have the moral and political courage to take on its internal demons.

When something as important as a major political party starts to demonstrate that it has institutionalised a culture of antisemitism, obfuscation and denial, you’d be forgiven for thinking that something a bit more radical than expanding a committee here, or fiddling with the rules there, is required.

The Macpherson Report defined institutional racism in organisations that allowed “processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people”. Whether the Labour Party now meets this test is for others to decide. But after three years of defending Jewish party members in a fight we never asked for, we are beginning to run out of plausible alternative answers.

This article first appeared in LabourList and can be viewed here