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Behind the headlines – what can we learn from the EHRC report into Labour anti-semitism?

Morning Star editor BEN CHACKO says the media and Labour leadership have a selective attitude to the facts

WITH the exception of the Morning Star, newspapers have reacted with transparent glee to Sir Keir Starmer’s suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party.

The crowing from across the “mainstream” political spectrum – from the Mail to the Mirror – reflects the importance the political class places on utterly discrediting the former Labour leader. No doubt it was the very uniqueness of the Morning Star’s defence of Corbyn that resulted in our paper featuring on Sky News, Newsnight, and the Today programme, which as readers know is a rare occurrence.

Having lobbed this grenade at the left, Starmer spent this morning seeking to downplay its significance: there is no purge, it wasn’t really his decision but that of party general secretary David Evans (writer Aaron Bastani says he is informed this is untrue), “I want to unite the party.”

He hopes the left will watch and wait, perhaps even hope that the investigation into Corbyn will exonerate him – though the left’s experience of Labour Party disciplinary procedures over recent years should have disabused even the most naive of the idea that they are fair or transparent (ironically one of the findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report itself).

Nobody should be lulled into trusting to this process. Corbyn has vowed to fight his “political” suspension – and political it is. 

Labour has made much of its unqualified acceptance of the EHRC report – “we accept the commission’s report in full and we will implement all of the recommendations in full,” as Evans writes to constituency parties in an email warning them off any comment on the report on social media. Yet media, Labour and Conservative Party responses to the report are highly selective.

The Tories predictably jumped on the idea that Labour has been tarred as an anti-semitic party. Given the total hypocrisy of the bulk of the political class it is hardly worth making remarks about stones and glass houses. 

But we may note in passing that the EHRC report came out the same week that Tory peer Lord Richard Balfe attacked Boris Johnson for refusing to withdraw the party from the European Conservatives Group and Democratic Alliance within the Council of Europe, where it sits alongside some appalling far-right racist parties: the Alternative for Germany, Brothers of Italy, the Freedom Party of Austria, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (which attends an annual march commemorating the Estonian Legion, a branch of the Waffen-SS) and the Sweden Democrats, whom Balfe has seen “walk around Stockholm with swastikas.”

As MSP Neil Findlay puts it: “Spend your life campaigning against racism and you get suspended by your own party. Spend your career writing racist and offensive articles in right-wing magazines and newspapers and you get made prime minister.”

The report itself notes in its introduction that “politicians on all sides have a responsibility ... to lead the way in challenging racism in all its forms... In recent times, there have been examples of behaviour that falls well below the standards we would expect, from politicians of various parties.”

Indeed, there are aspects of the report which the Labour right are staying very quiet on. 

It is scathing about Labour’s handling of anti-semitism complaints, as we have heard. But its criticisms are directed as much at the party’s poor treatment of people accused of wrongdoing as they are at any failure to investigate cases. 

It found “no evidence of a clear policy for respondents setting out their rights,” found that members had been suspended without being told why, had been suspended over allegations that they had made anti-semitic comments but had not been told what they were alleged to have said or when, “were not told the identity of their complainant even when there was no obvious reason to withhold their identity” and were “not generally given an expected timeline for the investigation.” Proportionally, it found this was a more common problem than a failure to update complainants about the progress of their complaints: “Overall, we identified concerns about fairness to the respondent in 42 of the 70 sample files” while “we found that the Labour Party had failed to update, or to provide an adequate update to, the complainant in 16 of our 70 sample files.”

An honest response to the EHRC report would include an acceptance that numerous party members have been treated appallingly by its disciplinary process on the basis of vague or anonymous accusations. But the bulk of the media are not interested in any finding that doesn’t trash Corbyn’s reputation and that of the Labour left.

This might give the impression that there aren’t problems with the EHRC report, just with the way it has been represented. Actually, as Richard Sanders and Peter Oborne point out in a penetrating assessment published on Middle East Eye, the report’s failure to place incidents in context feeds a highly misleading picture of what was happening in the Labour Party.

For instance, it is critical of episodes it says show the leader’s office intervening in the handling of anti-semitism complaints. Yet many of its own examples show the leader’s office intervening to speed up investigations, not obstruct them. This reflects the situation exposed by the report leaked over Easter concerning factional behaviour by Corbyn’s opponents in the Labour machine, who were in charge of the disciplinary process until Iain McNicol’s replacement by Jennie Formby as general secretary in March 2018 – that is, for two-thirds of the period looked at by the EHRC. 

The leaked report exposed devastating evidence that Corbyn’s internal enemies hampered proper investigation of complaints in a bid to discredit the leadership – and obstructed the implementation of the recommendations in the Shami Chakrabarti report of 2016. 

At the time the Labour right and the monopoly media howled that Chakrabarti’s report was a whitewash. Yet the EHRC report states that many of the problems it found would have been avoided had the Chakrabarti report’s recommendations been implemented. This was only done once Formby became general secretary, after which the handling of complaints sped up demonstrably. 

As Sanders and Oborne point out, the EHRC’s findings strongly correlate with the account given in the leaked report: “It says the party had a policy of not pursuing complaints based on social media shares or likes until ‘mid 2018.’ It says the complaints procedure lacked resources ‘until 2018,’ though it stresses ‘more remains to be done.’ And it says ‘there was no consistent or reliable system for recording anti-semitism complaints … before 2018’.” 

In short, its harshest criticism of Labour’s procedures relates to the period when officials deeply hostile to Corbyn were running the disciplinary process, yet it ignores extensive evidence of factional behaviour to blame “the leadership” for all problems.

This is not to say that the investigation of such complaints was uniformly fair even after Formby became general secretary, nor that quick suspensions or expulsions are necessarily a good thing when accusations are being levelled for factional political purposes, as many of them undoubtedly were. 

But it does illustrate that the picture being painted of Corbyn’s leadership team dragging their feet over investigating complaints or intervening to protect its political allies is a distortion of reality. In fact a truer criticism of the leadership would be that it was so panicked by the anti-semitism allegations that it failed to give those accused of wrongdoing a fair hearing, even when the allegations against them were obviously politically motivated.

Some will dismiss the need for serious analysis of the EHRC report’s findings, arguing that the entire investigation is simply a right-wing attack on Corbyn. There are certainly grounds to see it as disproportionate given the statistical evidence has always shown anti-semitic views are not more prevalent in Labour than in society as a whole, and are rather more common in the Conservative Party – which has been subjected to no such probe. 

But that doesn’t mean we should allow the right to misrepresent the report. The most significant socialist movement in recent British history is having its reputation shredded, yet even the evidence presented by its enemies is flimsy and contradictory. And on a practical note, political pressure should be put on Labour’s leaders, who loudly insist they will implement all the report’s recommendations, to acknowledge the failings of transparency and due process that have allowed the reputations of innocent people to be trashed. 

There are wider questions here: the Establishment’s determination to bury “Corbynism” for good and re-establish a cross-party capitalist consensus; the real rise of anti-semitism across Europe in recent years, and how it can be fought; the mobilisation of various arms of the British state to prevent the election of a socialist government. But all are best addressed on the basis of an accurate understanding of what was happening in the Labour Party over the last five years. You’d be hard pressed to find that in most of the coverage of the EHRC report.

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