In mid-October, a BBC journalist informed his viewers that a report on antisemitism and the British Labour Party by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was “expected to be damning.” In fact, the process leading up to the report had already been comprehensively damning — of the EHRC itself, and of the British media, which maintained a rigorous code of silence in the face of the mass of evidence undermining the standing of the Commission’s inquiry.
The prolonged saga dates back to June 2019, when the EHRC announced that it was investigating Labour for possible breaches of equality legislation, after receiving complaints from two groups, the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) and the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM).
As far as the great bulk of British journalists were concerned, this announcement was a damning indictment of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. If the EHRC had taken such a momentous decision, it could only mean that Labour under Corbyn had become infested with antisemitism, and that the party leadership was culpable for this shameful degeneration.
“He Who Pays the Piper Calls the Tune”
Of course, this assumption must stand or fall on the credibility of the EHRC itself. The Commission was established in 2007 during the final years of the Blair–Brown Labour administration, bringing together the responsibilities of three previous bodies for enforcing anti-discrimination laws. Although it is formally independent of the British government, it is a public body and receives its funding from the state.
The EHRC has faced drastic cuts to its budget since David Cameron took power in 2010: from £63 million that year to £17.4 million today. This may well have discouraged the EHRC from pressing too hard against Cameron or his successors. In July 2020, two former EHRC commissioners — Simon Woolley, previously the only black person on the Commission, and Meral Hussein-Ece, the only Muslim — told Newsweek that they had not been reappointed to their posts in 2012 because they were “too loud and vocal” on questions of racism.
The lawyer Geoffrey Bindman — former legal adviser to the Commission for Racial Equality, whose functions the EHRC took over when it was formed — has stated that the EHRC “wasn’t given adequate resources and it has tended to pick and choose issues to tackle which are not necessarily the most important ones.” When the EHRC published a report on racism in British universities in October 2019, it faced strong criticism for including supposed incidents of bigotry against white people — and against English people at Scottish and Welsh institutions — under its ambit.
In 2016, the Labour politician Harriet Harman, chair of the joint committee on human rights at Westminster, criticized the appointment of David Isaac as the new EHRC chair. As Harman noted, Isaac’s legal firm Pinsent Masons did “significant work” for the British government: “The lion’s share of his income will be coming from an organization that has a vested interest. As they say, ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune.’”
In November 2019, BBC’s Newsnight reported the contents of a leaked letter from the EHRC’s chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath, in which she accused Isaac of being too close to the Conservative government: Isaac, Hilsenrath wrote, “regularly declines to take public positions” on issues that might prove troublesome for the ruling party.
The Path of Least Resistance
The picture that emerges — of a body kept on a tight leash by the British government, with the threat of further cuts to its budget if it crosses the line — is fully consistent with the EHRC’s public track record of following the path of least resistance. In May 2019, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) asked the EHRC to “investigate whether the Conservative Party has breached its obligations under the Equality Act,” by creating a hostile, discriminatory environment for Muslims as members or potential members of the party.
The MCB submitted a lengthy dossier in support of its complaint, showing that the Conservatives had targeted Muslims in their election campaigns and allowed senior figures in their party — including its leader, Boris Johnson — to make bigoted, anti-Muslim remarks with complete impunity. It went on to list dozens of abusive comments by Conservative councillors, election candidates, and other public representatives.
Having received no response from the EHRC, the MCB repeated its call for an inquiry in November 2019, in the midst of a general election campaign. The EHRC would only say that it was mulling over the complaints it had received “to determine whether any action is needed.” In March 2020, the MCB submitted a fresh dossier with more than three hundred allegations of Islamophobia. The EHRC told journalists that it was still “actively considering what, if any, action” it might take.
Finally, in May 2020, the Commission issued a statement formally declining the MCB’s request, which “would not be proportionate” since the Conservatives had promised to set up their own inquiry. The MCB dismissed that inquiry as “a facade to hide the hundreds of incidences of Islamophobic bigotry we have identified” in the ranks of the Tory Party. Shortly after this announcement, Newsweek’s Basit Mahmood discovered that one EHRC commissioner, Pavita Cooper, had not declared her activity as a donor and fundraiser for the Conservative Party when she joined the Commission.
Be that as it may, we need not posit active support for the Tories as a motivation for the EHRC’s decision to let them off the hook. The Conservative Party will be in power until the next general election at least, and quite possibly well beyond that. It has the unstinting support of a ferociously partisan newspaper industry, whose leading titles would be sure to denounce any official body causing trouble for the government (and rake through the bins of its commissioners, both literally and metaphorically).
The desire for a quiet life on the part of the EHRC’s top brass would furnish a perfectly adequate explanation for their reluctance to take on a Tory Party evidently saturated with racism from top to bottom.
The EHRC’s decision to investigate Labour posed no such dilemma. Indeed, it was greeted with general acclaim by the British press, including its small non-Tory component — the liberal broadsheets had invested heavily in the conventional media narrative of “Labour antisemitism” under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and they were not about to start questioning that narrative now.
As a result, there was no meaningful scrutiny applied to the groups that had solicited the inquiry in the first place. The Campaign Against Antisemitism is a grassroots campaign against antisemitism in much the same way that the Taxpayers’ Alliance is a grassroots campaign concerned with the efficient use of public money — which is to say, not at all.
Established in the summer of 2014, while Gaza was under heavy Israeli bombardment, the CAA has prioritized attacking critics of Israel with trumped-up allegations of antisemitism — for example, by attacking Israel Apartheid Week in British universities. In this respect, it follows the approach of US groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The Institute for Jewish Policy Research criticized an early report by the CAA on antisemitism in Britain, describing it as “littered with flaws” and “rather irresponsible.”
The group came to the fore in the campaign against Jeremy Corbyn, and even doctored its own survey of antisemitic attitudes in Britain, arbitrarily changing the way it measured antisemitism so that it could generate negative headlines about the Labour Party.
For its part, the Jewish Labour Movement has always indignantly denied that it should be considered a pro-Israel lobbying group; indeed, its leaders claim to be strong critics of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. However, the group’s then-chair, Jeremy Newmark, spoke alongside Netanyahu’s ambassador, Mark Regev, in a fringe meeting at the 2016 Labour Party conference, where they discussed the most effective strategies for undermining solidarity with the Palestinian cause in the British labor movement.
A Dodgy Dossier
Fortunately, we have the opportunity to scrutinize the JLM’s submission to the EHRC, which was leaked on the eve of the 2019 general election (the CAA submission has yet to reach public view). Close examination of the JLM’s dossier reveals it to be stuffed with falsehoods, trivialities, misrepresentations, and non sequiturs.
The section on Jeremy Corbyn, for example, claims that “a video emerged showing Mr Corbyn in Tunisia in 2014 laying a wreath next to the graves of Black September terrorists, who murdered Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972.” In fact, the men who carried out the Munich attack that year are buried in another country, Libya. Corbyn was accused of laying a wreath for the PLO commander Abu Iyad — which would certainly be much less objectionable than the presence of British politicians like Tony Blair and David Cameron at the funeral of Ariel Sharon — but had not in fact done so.
The section on Corbyn’s purported record also accuses him of saying that “Zionists . . . don’t understand English irony” and insists that “Zionists” must have been a code word for “Jews.” In reality, Corbyn said nothing about “Zionists” as a general category of people: he was specifically addressing a small coterie of yobs, who were indeed militant, right-wing Zionists, and who were heckling the Palestinian ambassador at a meeting in London.
Corbyn’s put-down, which relied entirely on the premise that the hecklers were English, unlike the ambassador, was characteristically much gentler than their boorish conduct merited. One is left wondering why, if Corbyn’s own record is as damning as his critics maintain, they invariably find it necessary to massage the facts into an altogether unrecognizable shape.
The JLM submission claims that the Labour MP Ian Austin was subjected to antisemitic “victimization” when he faced a disciplinary hearing for screaming abuse at the party chairman, Ian Lavery. The JLM describes this as a “heated discussion about antisemitism,” although eyewitnesses did not report hearing Austin say anything about antisemitism while he was referring to Lavery as a “bastard” and a “wanker.”
Austin, who once boasted that senior Labour figures had compared his views on immigration to those of the BNP, subsequently resigned the Labour whip, campaigned for Boris Johnson in the 2019 election, and has since received a peerage for his services.
In a classic example of the circular logic underpinning the false narrative of “Labour antisemitism,” the JLM even cited a failure to accept that narrative as evidence of an “antisemitism crisis” in the party:
A YouGov survey of Party members found that while 68 per cent of respondents think antisemitism is a problem, 77 per cent believe that claims of antisemitism are being “exaggerated” or “hyped up” to damage Mr Corbyn and the Party.
The JLM apparently considers it damning that the vast majority of Labour members could see what was staring them in the face.
After several years of wall-to-wall media coverage of “Labour antisemitism,” academic researchers asked members of the public to guess what percentage of the Labour membership had been disciplined for antisemitism. The average estimate was one-third: approximately three hundred times greater than the actual figure — barely 0.1 percent.
This vast gulf between perception and reality was a function of misleading reportage on a gargantuan scale, with few, if any, precedents in modern British history. The willingness of Labour members to maintain their empirical foothold in the face of this hurricane was entirely commendable, however frustrating some might have found it to be.
The fact that the JLM submission plays so loosely with the facts concerning matters of public record has obvious implications when it touches upon subjects where no such record exists. It beggars belief that the EHRC could have found sufficient basis for an investigation in this dossier, while brushing aside the MCB’s exhaustive inventory of Tory racism as an inadequate starting point. The double standards applied to the Labour and Conservative Parties by the Commission would be visible from space.
Much like the BBC Panorama broadcast “Is Labour Antisemitic?”, which aired shortly after the EHRC announced its inquiry, the JLM submission leans heavily on the testimony of former Labour officials who accused Corbyn and his allies of protecting antisemites among the party membership.
A leaked report, prepared under the supervision of Labour’s former general secretary Jennie Formby, has since provided considerable evidence that these self-styled “whistleblowers” were themselves at best grossly incompetent in their handling of antisemitism complaints, allowing cases to pile up for months instead of dealing with them promptly. The handling of such cases indisputably speeded up when Formby replaced Iain McNicol in 2018.
However, too close a focus on the handling of complaints would neglect the big picture. The “Labour antisemitism” media narrative — which has as much to do with actual incidents of antisemitism as the “welfare fraud” narrative has to do with actual incidents of fraud — relies on the assumption that there was a dramatic upsurge in the prevalence of antisemitism among Labour members after 2015, to the point that the party became infested with antisemitic attitudes from top to bottom. This is where the deceit truly lies.
In truth, there is no evidence of any substantial increase in antisemitism under Corbyn’s leadership; nor is there any evidence that antisemitic views were more common in Labour than in the other major parties; nor is there any evidence that Labour members were more likely to be antisemitic than a random cross-section of the British public (in fact, they appeared to be considerably less so). What changed after 2015 was the massively increased level of scrutiny from the national media and various campaigning groups seeking proof of “Labour antisemitism.” It was fundamentally a question of demand rather than supply.
If the same scrutiny had been applied to the other British parties — or to Labour before Corbyn — it would certainly have been possible to find a tiny percentage of their members expressing antisemitic views on social media; and if the British media had decided that this was sufficient grounds for declaring an “antisemitism crisis,” a crisis would have ensued. The concept of a Tory “racism crisis” or “Islamophobia crisis” has never gained purchase in the British news cycle, no matter how egregious the party’s record is shown to be, so the declaration of a crisis is clearly not based on objective criteria.
Wrestling With Shadows
Labour’s disciplinary process could not possibly address an “antisemitism crisis” that existed primarily at the level of media discourse, any more than a man can wrestle his own shadow to the ground. There are sure to have been structural flaws in that process, compounded by individual failings, as one would expect in any large bureaucratic organization.
The challenge of addressing those flaws and failings on the hoof were compounded by bad-faith actors spamming the complaints system with spurious allegations of antisemitism, and by hostile party officials throwing multiple spanners into the works — the leaked report contains ample evidence of both.
Yet even the most perfect disciplinary process could not have defused the “Labour antisemitism” meta-controversy. The British media collectively decided that it was a matter of urgent national importance — sufficient to dominate the news cycle for weeks at a time — if a small handful of Labour members with no public profile, holding no positions of authority in the party, had expressed antisemitic views (or views that could be tendentiously presented as such).
The same media outlets enabled a concerted effort to redefine “antisemitism” so that it no longer had much to do with prejudice against Jewish people and chiefly concerned attitudes toward Israel. In a final twist, they denounced anyone who questioned this rickety construct as an “antisemitism denier.”
With these empirical and conceptual protocols in place, the “Labour antisemitism” narrative was a perpetual-motion device, capable of generating its own fuel for as long as Corbyn’s opponents deemed it necessary. The principal shortcoming of the Corbyn leadership in this respect was its failure to defend itself robustly, instead of offering unwarranted concessions that bought days or weeks of peace at the expense of months or years of pain. But we will search in vain for any acknowledgment of that in the EHRC report.