This article of mine appears in the new edition of the Jerusalem Report, dated 9 December 2019Britain goes to the polls on December 12. Never before has a major political party entered into a UK general election campaign with two unresolved investigations hanging over its head. That is the position in which the British Labour party finds itself. Because the findings of the two inquiries, and their final reports, might influence the result of the election, it seems unlikely that they will be published before polling day.
Both investigations centre on the widely-held perception that the Labour party has been insufficiently diligent in its reaction to antisemitism within its ranks.
To the surprise of everyone, and to the distaste of at least half the Labour MPs, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of Britain’s Labour party in September 2015. Corbyn was a rebel. He was known to hold hard left-wing views, at variance with the social democratic policies of his own party. Throughout a long parliamentary career he frequently voted against his party. He despised capitalism, colonialism, America, NATO, the UK’s nuclear deterrent and Israel, among a variety of other issues. Contrariwise he supported Marxist regimes like Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea, and groups using violence and terror to further their cause such as the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah. He saw them as freedom fighters, and believed in engaging with them as a means of bringing opposing sides together.
From the moment that Corbyn became leader, hard-left views on a variety of matters became mainstream within the Labour party. Among them was “intersectionality”, the accepted left-wing term for perceiving a direct link between all victims of oppression, whether sexual, racial, political, or economic. Palestinians were deemed oppressed, and therefore to be supported. Israel was deemed the oppressor, and therefore to be opposed. The conclusion, in approved left-wing doctrine, was unequivocal and unchallengeable support for the Palestinian cause.
Some zealous supporters of Corbyn found it difficult to separate opposition to Israel from opposition to Jews generally – Israel was, after all, the Jewish state. In the case of some Corbyn supporters, anti-Zionism morphed easily enough into frank antisemitism.
When some high profile Labour figures strayed so obviously beyond acceptable limits into openly antisemitic comments and were suspended from the party, public unease about the situation within Labour began to grow. In May 2016 Corbyn felt obligated to set up an inquiry into antisemitism within the party. He appointed Shami Chakrabati, then director of an organization promoting civil liberties, to chair it. In June 2016 she presented her report. It concluded that the party was not "overrun by antisemitism or other forms of racism", although there was an "occasionally toxic atmosphere" and "clear evidence of ignorant attitudes". In August 2016 she was made a life peer, and is now Baroness Chakrabati, shadow Attorney-General for England and Wales.
Her report did nothing to stem the tide of antisemitism within Labour, nor to inhibit a succession of revelations linking Corbyn himself pretty closely with terrorists who drew no distinction between anti-Zionism and straightforward antisemitism. Meanwhile public criticism mounted about Labour’s ineffectiveness in tackling antisemitism within its ranks.
In February 2019 nine Labour MPs resigned from the party largely on these grounds, and in May the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced that it was setting up an inquiry into whether Labour had "unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish". The EHRC had only once before ventured into the political arena, by investigating a fringe right-wing racist party.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission was founded in 2007, bringing together three former bodies concerned with promoting equality in specific social areas. Its remit is to ensure that equality laws are enforced, and that discrimination and harassment ae eliminated. It was given legal powers to compel employers and organizations to cease discriminatory practices and to make such changes as are necessary to prevent future discrimination or non-compliance.
The EHRC investigation into the Labour party is one of the two whose report and recommendations are awaited.
On July 9, 2019 three Labour peers – Lords Turnberg, Trieseman and Darzi – resigned from the party, accusing Corbyn of antisemitism. The following evening the BBC broadcast a TV documentary on its main domestic channel titled: “Is Labour Antisemitic?” During the program a number of former party officials alleged that senior Labour figures had interfered in the process of dealing with antisemitism complaints. The whistleblowers also claimed that they had faced a huge increase in antisemitism complaints since Corbyn became leader in 2015, and described the great personal strain they had faced in trying to handle them.
Before the documentary was broadcast, Corbyn’s campaigning group Momentum tweeted a 40-second video which attacked the programme’s veteran director, John Ware, claiming that he had a “record of public political hostility to Jeremy Corbyn, his politics and leadership of the Labour party”.
After the broadcast Jon Lansman, the co-founder of the Momentum campaign group, called it a “politically motivated documentary into a subject that demands serious and fair discussion”.
The Labour party then activated the BBC Complaints process. It issued a formal objection to the programme by way of a 28-page letter. In it the party alleged that the documentary failed to meet the BBC’s standards because of “the tendentious and politically slanted script; the bias in the selection of interviewees; and the failure to identify the political affiliations or records of interviewees .” It claimed the programme, “a highly controversial, sensitive and contested subject” was “a one-sided authored polemic”.
The BBC takes its complaints procedure very seriously. It publishes a 45-page document entitled: “BBC Complaints Framework and Procedures” which sets out in comprehensive detail how the public should go about registering complaints, and the step-by-step process followed by the BBC in dealing with them. The BBC is obligated to take all complaints seriously and to report back to the complainant, usually within two weeks. It has been considering the Labour party’s objections for four months.
Shortly after the forthcoming general election was announced, The Guardian newspaper reported, on well-founded information, that the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit – the top level of its internal complaints process – had completed its investigation into Labour’s complaints about the documentary, and that none have been upheld. The Unit’s conclusions would back the programme makers.
There is no indication, however, that the BBC will announce its findings before Britain goes to the polls on December 12.
There may be other fallout, however.
“Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so, ad infinitum.”
Since April 2017 the BBC itself has had an external regulator – the Office for Communications, known as Ofcom. It is authorized to act as a final appeal in the BBC’s complaints procedure. If the Labour party is dissatisfied with the BBC’s response to its complaint, it could apply to Ofcom. The whole matter may yet have a long way to travel.
There are a number of other loose ends.
“Is Labour Antisemitic?” featured interviews with a succession of Labour whistleblowers who explained that soon after Corbyn’s election as party leader, they found themselves contending with his most senior aides who continually attempted to subvert the system by meddling in disciplinary cases relating to antisemitism. Labour’s press team claimed during the broadcast that the staffers featured had political axes to grind and lacked credibility.
As a result five ex-Labour party staffers are now reported to be suing Labour for libel over alleged smears they have been subjected to since the programme was transmitted.
Separately John Ware, the TV director responsible for the programme, recently began libel proceedings against the Labour party over its public criticism of his reputation in public statements issued in advance of the broadcast.
Either or both these cases could emerge into the public domain before December 12 reminding the British public, if reminder were needed, of the toxic issue of antisemitism that still clings to the Labour party.
Published in the Jerusalem Post, 27 November 2019