Leftist former U.K. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been suspended from the party “follow[ing] the release of a damning report [on antisemitism] by the U.K.’s human rights watchdog.” The report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) “found unlawful acts of indirect discrimination and harassment for which the Labour Party is responsible,” and argues that under Corbyn the party’s “approach and leadership to tackling antisemitism was insufficient.” Corbyn released the following statement on Facebook:
A Labour spokesperson suggested that Corbyn’s “failure to retract” his Facebook post’s assertion that the antisemitism problem was “dramatically overstated for political reasons” necessitated his suspension, and current leader Keir Starmer, calling the report’s release a “day of shame,” immediately kicked Corbyn out pending an investigation into his conduct.
In order to understand what is going on here, some important context is needed. First, Jeremy Corbyn became the leader of the British Labour Party in 2015, and served until earlier this year. Corbyn, a radical leftist who had long been seen as a “backbencher” nonentity, won an upset victory in the leadership election. Many centrists in the Labour Party were horrified by Corbyn’s ascension to power, with Tony Blair suggesting it would be the death of the party. In fact, when the 2017 elections occurred, Corbyn’s Labour did shockingly well, boosting the party’s vote share by the largest margin since 1945 (when Clement Attlee’s socialist government kicked out Winston Churchill and created the National Health Service).
Corbyn, however, remained extremely controversial. Leaked documents would later show that party insiders who opposed his leftist agenda actually worked to undercut his leadership. As Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery (two former National Campaign Coordinators for the Labour Party) write in Jacobin, there is evidence that “some of the most senior employees of the Labour Party held its elected leadership in contempt, despised their own party members and even acted in a conspiratorial manner that undermined our 2017 general election campaign.” According to the Guardian, Labour officials “were disappointed at the party’s unexpectedly strong performance” because it boosted Corbyn’s chances of remaining in power, and were “apparently working to undermine Corbyn’s leadership.”
Corbyn was also subject to an almost unbelievably hostile series of attacks in the British press. Research from Loughborough University showed that the Labour Party under Corbyn received overwhelmingly negative media coverage compared with the Conservatives. An analysis by the Independent found that 75 percent of media coverage of Corbyn factually misrepresented him, and that both news stories and op-eds consistently heaped scorn and mockery on him:
[A] prevalent way to deride Corbyn is through scorn and ridicule. Three in ten news stories, opinion pieces, or letters to the editor mock Corbyn or scoff at his ideas, his personal life, his looks and/or his lifestyle. Besides these character assassinations, some of the popular mantras repeated over and over again in connection with Corbyn are: that he is unelectable, that his ideas are unrealistic and loony, and that he is unpatriotic. Most problematic in this regard, according to us, is the persistent association of Corbyn with terrorism. In some newspapers, for example in The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Express or The Sun, between 15 and 20 per cent of their Corbyn-related coverage associates him with IRA, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and/or terrorism.
Corbyn was controversial for obvious reasons: his politics posed a radical challenge to ideological orthodoxy. As my colleague Gautam Bhatia writes in a moving essay about what Corbyn meant to him as someone whose country was colonized by Britain, Corbyn broke from the British political establishment in his defiant anti-imperialism and support for the dispossessed against occupying powers. He supported Irish republicanism, the South African anti-Apartheid movement, and Palestinian nationalism. Corbyn was harshly critical of the neoliberal “New Labour” of Tony Blair, which embraced “market-friendly” policies and austerity (as well as supporting the criminal Iraq War). He was an old-school socialist who believed in healthcare and housing as human rights and was harsh in his moral judgments of those who defended inequality and brutality.
Since Corbyn’s criticisms indicted the wealthy, the press, and the political establishment, it’s not really any wonder that they were harsh on him in return, even if the criticisms were sometimes utterly ludicrous (unforgettably, he was accused of riding a “Chairman Mao style bicycle.”) But the charges were effective—in the leadup to the 2019 election, Corbyn was incredibly personally unpopular, though it was often unclear just why he was unpopular, since his actual policies polled well.
Corbyn made some serious tactical mistakes, and did not have the charisma of his opponent, Boris Johnson. But in part, his unpopularity was very clearly simply the result of people hearing constant negative things being said about him. If all you hear, over and over, is that a particular politician is a traitorous terrorist-sympathizing anti-Semite, it can be difficult not to believe that there must be some truth in it. The effect is similar to the “Two Minutes’ Hate” of George Orwell’s 1984.
Accusations of anti-Semitism were a major part of the campaign against Corbyn. Over and over, he was painted as either being anti-Semitic himself or “harboring” anti-Semites within the Labour Party. As Richard Seymour documents in Jacobin, the accusations were clearly not made in good faith. Critics suggested Corbyn’s Labour was riddled with anti-Semitism that he himself was unwilling to purge. The evidence of this, as Seymour shows, was often thin or nonexistent, and frequently depended on either taking words out of context or blowing Facebook posts by a few crank Labour Party members into a national controversy. Eventually, even though there was little to the accusations, Corbyn couldn’t shake the story, and was forced to perform constant public denunciations of antisemitism, none of which succeeded in appeasing critics. In the press, accusations were frequently treated as credible without the need for any evidence at all. See, for example, this article from The Australian on “the stench of antisemitism” that followed Corbyn:
[T]he firestorm of anti-Semitism has been impossible for Mr Corbyn to extinguish. Despite his repeated promises to crack down on the problem, an anti-Jewish culture has flourished under his watch. Almost weekly there have been revelations of anti-Jewish words and actions from his party members, and there have been repeated accusations, all denied, that he himself harbours anti-Semitic sentiments.
“Repeated accusations”—yes, but are they true? Who cares. An “anti-Jewish culture has flourished.” Any proof? No, of course not. The “firestorm has been impossible to extinguish.” Yes, and why might that be?
It was actually very clever of Corbyn’s critics to create an “antisemitism scandal” around him, because they had an important fact working in their favor: Britain is a very antisemitic country. George Orwell, in “Antisemitism in Britain,” noted that casually anti-Jewish sentiments are common in the country, and the situation has not been fixed. This means that anyone looking to find evidence of “Antisemitism in the Labour Party” could easily dredge up a good amount of material. But unless they also checked the other parties for antisemitism, they’d simply be “cherry-picking” to present something as a Labour problem that is actually a national problem.
Even so, the amount of antisemitism in Corbyn’s Labour Party was so small that denial that the Labour Party’s antisemitism problem was as serious as critics said became one of the most common pieces of evidence that a person was antisemitic, and suggesting that the Party had been “too apologetic” was seen as evidence that a person was saying antisemitism is acceptable. Essentially, the critics’ reasoning was: since they assumed their own charges of widespread antisemitism in Labour were true, then any denial of the charges would constitute the downplaying or erasure of antisemitism. This is why Corbyn has now been suspended. As you can see, his Facebook comment was innocuous, and condemned antisemitism. But he did not sign on to all of the EHRC report’s conclusions. This means he downplayed antisemitism.
But when you look at the EHRC report itself, you can see that any sensible person would have to dispute some of its conclusions. It’s 130 pages long, and long portions of it are spent tediously laying out the relevant legal standard and procedures. If you actually dive in and ask what its conclusions are, and what the evidence for those conclusions is, you can see just how flimsy the charges against Corbyn are.
For example: the report accuses Corbyn’s Labour of “unlawful harassment.” Here is a summary of its conclusion:
Two individuals are identified whose antisemitic conduct the Labour Party is responsible for, resulting in a finding of unlawful harassment. Their conduct included using antisemitic tropes and suggesting that complaints of antisemitism were fake or smears. These comments were made by Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London and a former member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee, and social media posts made by Pam Bromley, a Labour Party local authority councillor in Rossendale. As these people were acting as agents of the Labour Party, the Labour Party was legally responsible for their conduct.
Now, what are the comments that constituted harassment? If you look at the report, you find that they “examined 70 complaints of antisemitism made to the Labour Party between March 2016 and May 2019.” Two out of those 70 cases constituted “harassment.” The first case was one of “use of antisemitic tropes.” A local counselor in the borough of Rossendale, which has 70,000 people (largest towns: Bacup and Haslingden, which I’m sure you’ve heard of), made a Facebook post that read as follows:
“Had Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party pulled up the drawbridge and nipped the bogus AS [antisemitism] accusations in the bud in the first place we would not be where we are now and the fifth column in the LP [Labour Party] would not have managed to get such a foothold … the Lobby has miscalculated … The witch hunt has created brand new fightback networks … The Lobby will then melt back into its own cesspit.”
The counselor, Pam Bromley, was found to have conducted illegal harassment by “referring to Jewish people being a ‘fifth column.’”
This is the number one instance, the worst crime of antisemitic harassment that the EHRC found. Now, note that to make out the charge, the report actually has to add an assumption that it does not prove, namely that Bromley was calling Jewish people a “fifth column.” In fact, Bromley does not say Jewish people, the report says Jewish people. “Fifth column” is a nasty conspiratorial term, but it is not inherently antisemitic: it has been used to apply to secret Nazis, and has even been used by Israelis to apply to Arabs in their midst. In fact, as noted above, Corbyn’s Labour did have a quite obvious Fifth Column: those working within the party to undermine him.
Bromley’s reference to the Lobby is certainly a reference to the Israel lobby. But arguing that those pushing the interests of a particular country’s government are weaponizing allegations of racism does not in itself amount to a statement about Jewish people as a whole, because the Israeli government does not, in fact, represent Jewish people as a whole.
Now, I think it’s perfectly fine to say that this local official from a borough in Lancashire wrote an unpleasant Facebook post. But if, in the course of the investigation of dozens upon dozens of incidents, this is the only incident found in which a party official clearly used “antisemitic tropes,” I have to conclude that I am actually shocked by how minimal the antisemitism in the Labour Party was, considering that, as I say, casual antisemitism is rife in Britain.
The second of the two instances of “illegal harassment” is a comment made by Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London. Now, I happen to think that Livingstone did deserve the severe criticism he got when he made the ridiculous comment that Hitler had been a Zionist. But it’s notable that in the report, the behavior of Livingstone that constitutes illegal harassment by the Labour party is described as:
Suggesting that complaints of antisemitism are fake or smears. Labour Party agents denied antisemitism in the Party and made comments dismissing complaints as ‘smears’ and ‘fake’. This conduct may target Jewish members as deliberately making up antisemitism complaints to undermine the Labour Party, and ignores legitimate and genuine complaints of antisemitism in the Party. These comments went beyond simply describing the agents’ own personal experience of antisemitism in the Party.
Again, this “presumes the conclusion.” What if the complaints were fake or smears? This has to be proven. If the complaints are proven not to be fake or smears, then yes, it’s true that denying their veracity constitutes denying the real existence of antisemitism. But let us, just as a hypothetical, imagine that antisemitism charges were being lodged frivolously as a political weapon. Because the EHRC doesn’t consider this to even be a possibility, then even if the antisemitism charges were false, the person who denied the false charges would be guilty of antisemitic harassment. This is a train of legal reasoning from the Franz Kafka school of jurisprudence.
Livingstone is cited in the EHCR report for his defense of Naz Shah, an MP who serves as the Vice Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group of British Muslims. Shah has faced death threats and abuse by pro-Brexit campaigners and has long been a campaigner for race and gender equality. She had posted online a tasteless, offensive meme meme from Middle East scholar Norman Finkelstein (who, though the child of Holocaust survivors himself, is prone to making inflammatory statements) jokingly suggesting Israel ought to be relocated to the United States because of the warm relationship between the two countries. The EHCR notes that she also made “a post in which she appeared to liken Israeli policies to those of Hitler.” Shah then apologized for her conduct in Haaretz, saying she hadn’t understood why it was offensive at the time.
The EHCR’s report does not criticize Shah directly, but criticizes Livingstone for defending Shah, saying he “sought to minimise [the posts’] offensive nature.” The ECHR says that Livingstone said “scrutiny of Naz Shah’s conduct was part of a smear campaign by ‘the Israel lobby’ to stigmatise critics of Israel as antisemitic, and was intended to undermine and disrupt the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn MP.” But, the EHCR says, Shah “went beyond legitimate criticism of the Israeli government,” and thus was not protected by Article 10 of the European Human Rights Convention, which protects freedom of expression. Again, while it may indeed be fair to suggest that Shah behaved badly here, the report does not ask whether it is true that Shah was singled out for scrutiny in order to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Shah can both be wrong and the focus on two of her Facebook comments can be excessive and politically motivated. But again, the very idea that there may have been a political motive here is assumed to be false, and thus alleging it is taken as evidence that one is trivializing antisemitism.
Personally I think it was correct to suspend Ken Livingstone from an official party role for his appalling Hitler comment. But the EHCR report, the one Jeremy Corbyn has been punished for criticizing the conclusions of, alleges that both Bromley and Livingstone engaged in illegal harassment because she said the phrase “Fifth Column” on Facebook and he said Naz Shah was being attacked as part of a smear campaign. From this evidence, it concludes that the Labour Party is responsible for illegal harassment.
Illegal antisemitic discrimination and harassment is not the only charge made against Corbyn’s Labour by the report, though it is the headline finding. The report also alleges that Corbyn’s office “interfered” with the procedure of handling antisemitism complaints by making recommendations about how those cases should be handled, and that it failed to provide the proper training on handling antisemitism complaints. When it says Corbyn’s office “interfered,” in some cases this appears to have involved trying to speed up the process of punishing someone for antisemitism, in order to avoid appearing to be dragging their feet on antisemitism cases. For instance, the report cites an example in which Corbyn’s office told the complaint decisionmaking body that thy “would like immediate suspension of [name] and a robust press line to that effect.” The report concludes that this constituted “political interference” and therefore was a kind of “indirect discrimination” because those making antisemitism complaints might legitimately have feared they would get “differential treatment.” Thus, in the topsy-turvy land of the report, if Corbyn’s office tried to get an antisemite disciplined for their antisemitism, they might have been engaging in discrimination, and thus worsening the antisemitism problem.
Ultimately, these are procedural allegations about bureaucratic failures, however, rather than allegations of actual antisemitism by the Labour Party and its officials. Furthermore, Corbyn might very well accept that his party did not handle the process of responding to antisemitism complaints as well as it could have (especially since it did not expect “proper procedural handling of antisemitism complaints” to form such a core issue of his leadership). In his Facebook post, Corbyn only says that he does not agree with all of the report’s conclusions, and I would guess that the ones he objects most strongly to are the headline findings of “antiemitic discrimination and harassment” by the Labour Party, which as we’ve seen are generously described as shaky. For objecting, however, he was suspended.
I do not think Jeremy Corbyn understood the ruthlessness of his country’s politics when he came into office. He would have done well to watch a few episodes of the British satire The Thick Of It. In the very first episode, a parliamentary minister is told there are rumors he is going to step down. The rumors are baseless, but eventually the rumors become so strong that he is actually forced to step down, to avoid creating a distraction. Corbyn’s antisemitism scandal was similar.
How do you respond to the accusations of antisemitism?
I’m not antisemitic. What evidence is there of that even?
So you deny that antisemitism is a problem?
No, I’m saying I don’t know why I’m being accused of antisemitism.
So you’re saying that there is a Jewish conspiracy to fabricate antisemitism claims against you?
No, I’m saying that this seems very politically motivated.
It seems that you are unable to shake this growing antisemitism scandal, which has threatened to create a serious distraction. Most of your time seems to be spent trying to deal with the fallout from the scandal.
What scandal? What fallout? I’m talking about it because you asked about it!
You seem to be denying the seriousness of the charges. Have you apologized to the Jewish community for what is being called a “growing scandal”?
You called it that! Why would I apologize?!
You are refusing to apologize over the serious allegations of antisemitism?
This is ridiculous. I am refusing to apologize because the antisemitism scandal just consists of saying the words “antisemitism scandal” over and over.
Are you saying that you stand by the words of Whithamstropshire counselor Dotty Owls, who wrote to her twenty-five Facebook friends “Somebody seems to be behind this ridiculous ‘antisemitism’ scandal”? Even though by “somebody” it is clearly meant “Jews”?
I… I’ve never met that person! I am not even her Facebook friend.
She is a member of your party. You seem to have lost control of your party. Would you say it’s accurate that you have been unable to successfully keep track of these antisemitic comments?
Are they… antisemitic comments?
Antisemitism was placed in quotes. You are standing by Dotty in saying that antisemitism is so trivial that it can be placed in quotes?
I am not antisemitic!!!!
Do you fully accept the findings of this 130 page report which says, I quote “Jeremy Corbyn despises Jews”?
Of course not! That’s ludicrous.
Are we to understand that you are calling a human rights report on antisemitism “ludicrous”? Because you do not think the issue warrants a report? Because antisemitism is not serious?
It seems you are obsessed with the issue. Methinks the minister might protest a bit too much.
This is satire of course, but not too far from what certain interviews with Corbyn around the issue looked like. He did his best to disavow racism and antisemitism. Whatever he said or did, though, was seen as proof that he wasn’t taking the issue seriously enough, and if he denied any of the charges, that was treated as further proof of his trivialization of antisemitism.
As Ronan Burtenshaw notes at Jacobin, the suspension of Corbyn is a naked attempt to punish the left. A substantial portion of the Labour party despised him from the day he took office and wanted to get him out of power and make sure he never came back. They succeeded in tearing down his reputation, and when he lost an election they pressured him to resign (I personally thought he should have clung to power.) It’s not a conspiracy theory to say that this happened, because it was done quite openly.
But there is a lot of spin, and it’s important to be able to see exactly how the truth is being obscured. Take, for instance, a new op-ed in the Guardian from Andrew Rawnsley, called “Mr Corbyn’s shameless self-pity betrays the victims of the antisemitism scandal.” Rawnsley says that Corbyn is simply playing the victim, that nothing has been done to him, that Corbyn is simply obstinately refusing to accept the “damning findings” of a “devastating report” and is a “narcissist” who would rather try to save his pride than make a full apology to the victims of antisemitism.
The report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is vindication in full for those who spent more than four years warning that Labour was becoming poisoned by antisemitism. The findings of the independent investigators are also a searing rebuke to the cheerleaders and apologists for Corbynism who tried to deny, ignore, downplay or excuse the malignancy.
He quotes current leader Starmer, who says:
[A]fter all the pain, all the grief, and all the evidence in this report, there are still those who think there’s no problem with antisemitism in the Labour party, that it’s all exaggerated, or a factional attack, then, frankly, you are part of the problem too and you should be nowhere near the Labour party either.
Rawsley says of Corbyn that despite “a statutory investigation finding otherwise, he stuck to his dog-eared denialist script that the antisemitism scandal was an exaggeration fabricated by his enemies.” Of course, they say, this isn’t about a “civil war” between the center and the left. This war is a figment of the left’s imagination.
You can see how this might sound persuasive. Notice one tiny problem, though: both Rawnsley and Starmer assume the conclusion they need to prove. They say that there is a report, and that the report contains “evidence.” But what’s the evidence? To understand how dishonest they’re being, you have to actually open the 130-page report, which they hope nobody will actually do. How did they reach these “damning” conclusions? What is the “evidence”? The attacks on Corbyn rely on the public’s credulousness. Rawnsley believes, probably correctly, that the headline “Corbyn’s Labour found guilty of harassment by independent investigators” will be enough, and that nobody will question whether the charge is actually substantiated by anything. You can see, in his writing, how he takes the fact of the report as conclusive proof that Labour is being “poisoned by antisemitism” without citing a single example of the actual antisemitism that supposedly underlies all of this.
Unfortunately, Corbyn himself is a long way from returning to power. And the story is somewhat depressing, because it is an example of the Left coming close to victory, being sabotaged, and then losing. One thing I think we do need to do in future is make clear that fake accusations of antisemitism are in and of themselves offensive, because they treat antisemitism as a cheap political weapon rather than a very serious matter. Antisemitism is a massive global problem that resulted in the most hideous destruction of human life in the history of the species. To treat it as a word we can sling at our political opponents in order to create a diversion is a despicable tactic. The left, which has long taken bigotry far more seriously than any other political faction, needs to make it clear that it is because we care about antisemitism that we refuse to take the bullshit charges against Corbyn seriously. We must not allow commentators to get away with the logic that “if a report says Jeremy Corbyn is guilty, then Corbyn’s denial of his guilty is proof of it.” We must shift the conversation to be about the actual evidence that the accusations are being based on, and encourage people to question vague charges and demand to see the proof. We must loudly call this exercise of political power what it is, and refuse to apologize to those who are cynically invoking accusations of antisemitism in order to reduce the chances that the left can build a government for the many rather than the few.