Investigating UK Labour’s antisemitism problem

Corbyn with controversial Peterborough by-election winner Lisa Forbes

 

In mid-June, Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg addressed a London policy forum, and while his speech focussed largely on global economic challenges, one line about UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn caught journalists’ attention.

Asked about Corbyn, predictably, Frydenberg disparaged his economic policies. However, in an undiplomatic aside, the Treasurer added: “Put it this way, I’m not lining up with Hezbollah and Hamas.”

It is a sign of the depth of concern about Corbyn’s views that Australia’s Treasurer – and most senior Jewish politician – was prepared to weigh in.

For years, the Australia/Israel Review has been chronicling the accusations against Corbyn. These accusations range from the ease with which Corbyn expresses support for Hezbollah and Hamas – both proscribed terrorist organisations which seek Israel’s destruction – to the failure of the party under Corbyn to sanction party members who make antisemitic comments. 

While the British media is currently focussed on the leadership battles in the Conservative Party following the departure of Theresa May, this festering sore of untreated antisemitism is seriously impacting the credibility of a party that seems on track to take government at the next general election. 

A key independent racism watchdog has now been forced to act to deal with UK Labour’s shortcomings. In May, the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission launched an investigation into the British Labour Party, headed since 2015 by Corbyn. According to the investigation’s terms of reference, the Commission “suspects that The Labour Party may have itself, and/or through its employees and/or agents, committed unlawful acts”. 

The focus of the investigation is UK Labour’s inadequate response to complaints about antisemitism made by its own party members. While the party maintains it is strengthening its complaints process, victims remain unsatisfied. 

UK Labour has said it will cooperate with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, although Corbyn is yet to inform his party colleagues how he will respond to the investigation. Meanwhile, Labour continues to nominate parliamentary candidates with a record of hateful actions or speech directed towards Jews.

In June, UK Labour’s Lisa Forbes was the surprise victor over the Brexit Party in a by-election for the seat of Peterborough.

During the campaign, as well as giving stump speeches and kissing babies, Forbes found time to “like” a social media post that said Theresa May had a “Zionist slave master’s agenda” and endorsed a popular conspiracy theory that Islamist extremists groups are the construct of Mossad.

In response, some Labour MPs refused to campaign on Forbes’ behalf, with one, Jess Phillips, releasing a statement saying her victory “shows that antisemitism is becoming normal in the party.”

A Jewish MP, Dame Margaret Hodge, also responded to Forbes’ election, stating “I have loudly and repeatedly called out Labour antisemitism because we have a serious problem and leadership has failed to act”.

The Jewish Labour Movement, a collective affiliated with the UK Labour Party since 1920 which now counts former UK Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown among its members, slammed the party after Forbes’ election saying it “has consistently failed to take a zero-tolerance approach to Jewish hate”.

These are exceptionally strong statements that are coming, not from Labour’s political enemies, but from within the party itself.

Corbyn himself ignored the criticism. According to a news report, he used a party meeting to welcome Forbes’ victory, but neglected to reflect on accusations of antisemitism dogging her campaign. 

When asked by journalists why Forbes’ attitudes towards Jewish people were ignored, a spokesman for Corbyn responded: “There’s no attempt to avoid that issue at all. Jeremy is extremely strong on the issue of antisemitism and taking action against it.”

That does not seem to be the perception outside Corbyn’s own inner-circle.

Indicative of this is UK Labour’s recent loss of a number of MPs to the cross-bench, many explicitly because of the unresolved issues of antisemitism.

Liverpool-based MP Luciana Berger made a high-profile departure from the party in February 2019 and now sits in Westminster as an independent.

She attributed her break-up with UK Labour to the violent antisemitic abuse she had received and the party’s failure to deal with it. 

A number of people have been convicted for vilifying Berger based on her Jewish faith. Attacks have come from her own party as well as from the far-right. 

Such was the concern for her safety that she was accompanied by a police escort to a 2018 meeting of her own party in her home city, Liverpool and responded “We are under attack. There are Jews in this country who do not feel safe.”

Issuing warnings to the party before her departure, Berger told her parliamentary colleagues “antisemitism within the Labour Party is more commonplace, it is more conspicuous, it is more corrosive”.

After Berger quit the party, Corbyn said he was “disappointed”, but no specific action was taken.

Another departure from UK Labour is non-Jewish MP Joan Ryan who left the party saying Labour leadership had allowed “Jews to be abused with impunity”. She was also scathing of the party’s attitudes towards relations with Israel.

Ryan, who was chair of the parliamentary Friends of Israel group, said Corbyn had led his party to single out Israel for “demonisation and delegitimisation”. 

Of the antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment in the party, Ryan said “The problem simply did not exist in the party before [Corbyn’s] election as leader.”

Many Corbyn supporters have argued the accusations are overblown or confected. This claim was comprehensively dealt with by one of Britain’s most respected thinkers, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his address to the House of Lords last September.

“Antisemitism, or any hate, becomes dangerous when three things happen. 

“First: when it moves from the fringes of politics to a mainstream party and its leadership. 

“Second: when the party sees that its popularity with the general public is not harmed thereby. 

“And three: when those who stand up and protest are vilified and abused for doing so. All three factors exist in Britain now.”

Perhaps the independent UK Equality and Human Rights Commission report will be the circuit breaker needed, especially if UK Labour has been found to have breached the law in its handling of accusations of antisemitism. It is likely though that the stain of antisemitism will only be removed from UK Labour following Corbyn’s departure as leader. At the moment, that does not appear imminent.