This time last year, Jeremy Corbyn was locked in a head-to-head battle with Boris Johnson to decide the future of British politics. The current Labour leader Keir Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner were publicly campaigning to make Corbyn the UK’s prime minister.
Yet twelve months on, Starmer is engaged in a campaign to drive Corbyn and his supporters out of public life altogether, with Rayner’s full backing. In an extraordinary turn of events, the party Corbyn led so recently has even suspended members who dared to question his suspension, or Starmer’s refusal to readmit his predecessor as a Labour MP.
Central to that effort has been a report recently published by Great Britain’s equality law regulator, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), following an investigation into allegations of widespread antisemitism in the Labour Party. That investigation formed part of a sustained, aggressive, and ultimately successful lawfare strategy waged against Corbyn’s party by pro-Israel lobby groups.
If the British left is to learn the right lessons from Corbyn’s defeat, we have to review the political context that brought the EHRC report into being. Keir Starmer had Corbyn suspended for raising questions about the EHRC’s work, and for stating that his opponents had exaggerated the prevalence of antisemitism in the Labour Party. Even some of Corbyn’s former supporters have claimed that his statement was unwise or unhelpful. But the only issue with Corbyn’s statement was that it didn’t go far enough.
A Familiar Strategy
The British experience of the past few years did not unfold in a vacuum. The Israeli state and its allies have been engaged in a concerted and cynical effort to conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism for decades, as part of that state’s diplomatic strategy to fight the anti-imperialist left. Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister at the time of the 1973 war, stated the point explicitly: “One of the chief tasks of any dialogue with the Gentile world is to prove that the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is not a distinction at all.”
In the past two decades, this propaganda campaign has relied upon the concept of the “new antisemitism,” which supposedly revolves around attitudes to Israel. More recently, it has moved beyond simply influencing media discourse to reshaping the law.
Israel and its supporters have already succeeded in criminalizing anti-Zionist speech in France and Germany. The bandwagon has now rolled onto Australia, the United States, and the UK, where the EHRC report is likely to play a central role in such efforts. The recent move by outgoing US secretary of state Mike Pompeo to explicitly brand the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as “antisemitic” was another clear example of this strategy at work.
Many on the British left naively indulged the destabilization campaign against Corbyn and took claims about “Labour antisemitism” at face value. In reality, those claims formed part of a campaign to tarnish his reputation and public image, especially after Labour’s unexpectedly strong performance in the 2017 general election.
There was a palpable fear in establishment circles that Corbyn could become Britain’s prime minister given another chance, bringing to bear his record of antiwar and anti-imperialist activism — including strong support for Palestinians — on British foreign policy. A Corbyn premiership might have resulted in UK recognition of Palestinian sovereignty and a freeze on arms sales to Israel — perhaps even sanctions. The response was a ferocious campaign of vilification which began snowballing from the early months of 2018.
By 2019, the personal venom directed at Corbyn was impossible to ignore. There was a cacophony of absurd allegations against the Labour leader, and media discussion of Labour’s supposed “antisemitism crisis” became ever more detached from reality. A statement from three Jewish community newspapers accused Corbyn’s Labour Party of posing an “existential threat to Jewish life in Britain”; the right-wing commentator Simon Heffer filled in the blanks during the 2019 election campaign by claiming that Corbyn wanted to “reopen Auschwitz.” Pundits routinely compared Labour members to Nazi storm troopers.
The effect of such unhinged rhetoric was to sully Corbyn’s own name and that of his movement. Labour activists around the country reported having to engage in conversations with voters during the last election campaign based entirely on fabricated media smears about Corbyn. The downfall of the Corbyn project was the result of several factors — notably the party’s perceived opposition to Brexit — but it was the use of antisemitism claims as a political weapon by Corbyn’s opponents that surrounded that project with ignominy.
The EHRC report
The EHRC launched its investigation in May 2019 following complaints by two organizations — the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) and the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) — about Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged failure to tackle antisemitism in the party. The track record of both groups merits a closer look.
The CAA was set up in 2014, while Gaza was under heavy bombardment by the Israeli military, and its main priority has always been to defend Israel against criticism rather than to oppose antisemitism. The JLM, formerly known as Poale Zion (“Workers of Zion”), derives from the same tradition of Labour Zionism as the Israeli Labor Party. It had been a marginal group in British Labour politics before Corbyn’s election but played a key role in stoking the “Labour antisemitism” narrative thereafter. JLM officials like its former chair Jeremy Newmark had warm relations with Israel’s UK ambassador Mark Regev. Both groups saw the EHRC investigation as a significant victory.
Before its publication, there was already intense speculation about the contents of the EHRC report. Corbyn’s opponents were hoping for a finding of “institutional antisemitism” and even one of unlawful conduct against the former leader himself. On both counts, they were disappointed. Even so, the publication of the report at the end of October 2020 gave rise to sensational headlines, with Labour as a party held to have committed unlawful acts of “indirect discrimination” and “harassment” against Jewish people under Corbyn’s leadership.
Keir Starmer quickly moved to suppress any criticism of the report’s findings, acting in concert with Angela Rayner and the party’s general secretary, David Evans. Most importantly, Starmer and Evans suspended Jeremy Corbyn within hours of the report’s publication, after he had issued a mild statement, correctly noting that the scale of antisemitism in the Labour Party had been “dramatically overstated” by his opponents and large sections of the British media.
Nineteen days later, amid threats of a legal challenge, a panel convened by Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) readmitted Corbyn to the party. However, Starmer denied Corbyn permission to rejoin his fellow MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). The EHRC report itself explicitly permitted comments such as those made by Corbyn: it states that speech about “the scale of antisemitism within the [Labour] Party” is protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The report also states that the general secretary’s office, as part of Labour’s “political organs,” should not be involved in disciplinary matters.
Corbyn’s initial suspension and his ongoing exclusion from the PLP show that the contents of the EHRC report itself can be ignored, contradicted, and manipulated to suit the political goals of those in power. It would be fruitless to concentrate on the exact details of the report without also considering its wider political impact.
Despite early pressure on his leadership, Corbyn ultimately stayed the course and surprised his critics in the 2017 election, after which calls to oust him gradually simmered down. Those who still opposed Corbyn — including Keir Starmer — learned to play the long game, pledging their support in public while still holding knives ready behind their backs. The opportunity for a renewed drive against Corbyn and Corbynism came after Labour’s 2019 defeat.
Even though Corbyn is now simply a backbench MP, his opponents have not relented in their attacks. Taking out Corbyn as an individual was never the limit of their ambition: a full-scale assault on the Left in British politics is now in progress. Speaking recently at the JLM’s annual conference, Angela Rayner promised to suspend “thousands and thousands of members” if necessary to deter expressions of solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn.
In tandem with this threatened purge, a group called the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which has close ties to right-wing Labour MPs and pro-Israel groups like Labour Friends of Israel, has been pressuring social media firms to suspend the accounts of prominent left-wing journalists and activists in Britain. There have already been reprisals against Labour branches that have passed motions calling for Corbyn’s full reinstatement, handed down from the top of the party, along with diktats prohibiting discussion of the EHRC report. Merely questioning that report has become a disciplinary matter in itself.
This McCarthyite atmosphere has discouraged scrutiny of the EHRC’s findings and their legal validity. As I have argued in detail elsewhere, the EHRC had no basis in law on which to make any findings of unlawful indirect discrimination or harassment against the Labour Party.
Throughout the report, the EHRC accepts a one-sided narrative about “Labour antisemitism” and appears to have sought out arguments that would uphold that narrative. It ignores crucial evidence, draws conclusions on the basis of assumptions and conjecture, and misrepresents the law, in particular when it comes to the European Convention on Human Rights.
For example, the EHRC finds two Labour politicians — Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, and Pam Bromley, a local councillor — to have committed “unlawful harassment” with allegedly antisemitic comments. It claims that neither Livingstone nor Bromley were protected by the Convention’s Article 10, which concerns freedom of expression.
Unlike the US Constitution’s First Amendment, the convention offers a more limited right to free expression, which does not include hate speech or incitement to violence. However, any infringement on this right must still be narrowly interpreted, particularly with regard to politicians, who enjoy “enhanced protection,” according to English case law based on the convention. As well as using case law from the European Court of Human Rights that did not substantiate its argument, the EHRC also did not address the specific point about why Livingstone and Bromley, as politicians, did not benefit from this enhanced protection.
Critics of the EHRC have brought its legitimacy as a regulator into question, and with good cause. There is clear evidence that the commission lacks independence from the British government, and multiple conflicts of interest involving senior figures have been identified. It takes a selective approach to the enforcement of equality law and has even been accused of racist and ableist discrimination against its own staff. A recent parliamentary report found that the EHRC had been “unable to adequately provide leadership and gain trust in tackling racial inequality.”
The Conservative government is also using the EHRC as a weapon in its attempts to reshape British culture. In recent years, the Tories have repeatedly stoked up “culture war” controversies to sustain and expand their base by importing a US-style political discourse, with lurid sensationalism around Islam, Black Lives Matter, and an exclusionary idea of “Britishness” replacing serious debates on policy. As part of this cultural revolution, the Conservatives are placing their allies at the head of national institutions like the BBC to promote a far-right worldview.
The immigrant-bashing, Islamophobic journalist Douglas Murray recently revealed that the Conservatives had asked him to serve on the EHRC. While Murray never actually joined the EHRC, the Tories have just appointed David Goodhart as one of its commissioners. Goodhart is a staunch defender of the anti-immigrant “hostile environment” policy enacted by the Home Office, and works for the right-wing, neoconservative think tank Policy Exchange.
It has become a consistent policy for the Conservatives to stuff public bodies with hard-line ideologues. David Cameron turned the Charity Commission into an Islamophobic attack dog by appointing another right-wing journalist, William Shawcross, as its head. The commission subsequently launched a sweeping investigation of Muslim organizations.
The academic and political activist David Hirsh, a staunch supporter of Israel, claims that the EHRC report has “crystallized a new legal precedent . . . whenever an MP, an academic or a [trade union] official says that allegations of antisemitism are invented or exaggerated to smear the left or to silence criticism of Israel, they risk opening their institution to litigation.”
In fact, the EHRC has no authority to establish such legal precedents. This pseudo-legal advice, which could be interpreted as a threat, is baseless, and constitutes a subversion and distortion of UK equality law. However, such misstatements of the law highlight the use of the EHRC report as part of a wider lawfare strategy against socialists, anti-Zionists, and even those who put forward the mildest criticisms of Israel.
This strategy of using the legal system to conduct political attacks is by no means unique to the UK. In Brazil, for example, former prosecutor Sérgio Moro led a so-called anti-corruption drive that became a partisan crusade against the left-wing Workers’ Party, resulting in the impeachment of the country’s first woman president, Dilma Rousseff, and nineteen months of imprisonment for its former president Lula da Silva.
In Bolivia, lawfare tactics were deployed soon after a military-backed coup ousted President Evo Morales in 2019. Members of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party had to deal with bogus criminal charges, arrest, and imprisonment. One of the first actions of the postcoup regime was to seek assistance from Israel in its struggle against the Bolivian left. Arturo Murillo, a leading figure in the coup who has since fled the country, falsely accused left-wing activists of involvement in terrorism and drug trafficking, and asked the Israeli military for support: “They’re used to dealing with terrorists, they know how to handle them.”
In Europe, the Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, now Spain’s deputy prime minister, has also had to fend off spurious criminal charges filed by Francoist judges and parties. It is perhaps for this reason that both Morales and Iglesias did not hesitate to send Corbyn public messages of solidarity upon hearing news of his suspension. They understand the pernicious nature of these campaigns in ways that the often parochial and credulous British left do not.
One of the EHRC’s most widely embraced suggestions is the creation of an “independent” process for assessing complaints of antisemitism submitted to the party. This is clearly impossible: there are no independent actors in what is evidently a politicized process being used to purge the Left. The current discredited disciplinary system may simply be replaced by one that is much worse, with “independence” used as a smoke screen to pursue sweeping, politically motivated disciplinary actions against thousands of party members.
The Left should prepare for this assault by embracing a counter-lawfare strategy. Some organizations have already taken the first steps. A legal challenge may also be brought against the EHRC report itself, which should be supported. If there’s one lesson we can learn from Corbyn’s downfall and the ongoing war against socialism in Britain, it is this: the British left must come to terms with the strategies being used to eradicate it, and fight back against them without fear.