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Keep the focus on Forde

DAVID ROSENBERG asks what lessons we can draw from the Forde report into allegations of anti-semitism in the Labour Party

AT a demonstration several weeks ago, I bumped into a veteran Labour activist and former MP who I hadn’t seen for ages. She told me of her neighbour’s deep frustration about the endless delays regarding the publication of the Forde report — her neighbour was Martin Forde.

That chat raised my expectations. I still anticipated that his sharpest criticisms would be blunted before publication, but that proved only partly true.

Forde’s framing depicts a party mired in “toxic factionalism” in the Jeremy Corbyn years, deeming zealous activists of the left and right equally responsible.

For every mis-step by the right-wing dominated party HQ, Forde tries to find equivalent mis-steps and defensive attitudes on the left, in Loto’s office. But there is a difference. His criticisms of the right are backed with evidence; those aimed at the left are much more speculative.

In exposing the right’s behaviour, Forde himself frequently contradicts this “even-handed” framework, while confirming the accuracy of key allegations in the leaked report his panel investigated.

His foreword contains this explosive comment: “Within minutes of the NEC confirming my appointment… I started to receive emails from some of those named in the leaked report and lawyers’ letters threatening me and other panel members with legal action if we examined data referred to in it.”

Forde’s criticisms went deeper than I anticipated. No wonder Keir Starmer and the sycophantic media who view him as a safe centrist are determined to bury it. We must not let them.

One media outlet that obsessively sought to undermine Corbyn was the Jewish Chronicle (JC). It presents itself as the voice of British Jews and non-Jewish commentators who piggy-backed the JC’s war against Corbyn cynically treated it as such.

The truth is that among a 300,000-plus community, the JC’s print circulation has dropped from around 80,000 copies to barely 20,000 since the millennium, a third of which are given away free.

In the 1930s swathes of working-class Jews ignored and ridiculed the JC when it told them to stay indoors as Mosley’s fascists threatened to invade their community in London’s East End.

Jews who got involved in disorder would be “actively helping anti-semitism and Jew-baiting,” the JC claimed. The Board of Deputies made the same wrong call.

The JC has long been run by conservative and right-wing zionist elements. During Corbyn’s leadership its editor was Stephen Pollard, a defender of right-wing, Islamophobic commentators, who transferred to the JC from the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee Daily Express.

In 2006 Pollard wrote: “The mainstream left has demonstrated clearly which side of the battle to preserve Western civilisation… it is on. The left, in any recognisable form, is now the enemy.”

The JC hated the Forde report. This indicated to me that it probably said something worthwhile.

Forde identified the hierarchy of anti-racisms operated by the party, implying that anything other than anti-semitism was marginalised, ignored or even tolerated.

He criticised the anti-semitism “training” on provided by Starmer’s favoured Jews, the right-wing Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) as “didactic, top down and one dimensional.”

Its “sub-optimal” format does not “provide a space in which difficult issues, such as attitudes towards Israel, can be safely explored, in a nuanced way.”

Instead, he praised the Pears Institute (recently renamed Institute for the Study of Anti-semitism), for “evidence-based and academically credible” work on the history, culture and politics of anti-semitism and for treating anti-semitism as one aspect of a larger problem — racism.

Corbyn had brought in the Pears Institute to assist the party’s work against anti-semitism. Starmer dumped them in favour of the JLM — a body that claims to represent its Jewish party members but requires them to sign an explicitly zionist constitution.

Forde, like Pears, is scathing about the “zero tolerance” approach, central to JLM/Starmer’s attempts to root-out anti-semitism in Labour through crude disciplinary measures.

Angela Rayner won rousing applause at an event JLM hosted with Labour Friends of Israel in November 2020, when she threatened to “suspend thousands and thousands of members” to “get real” about anti-semitism. The event coincided with the UN’s International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

Forde argues that: “Although disciplinary action and expulsions may be appropriate in extreme cases, in many instances a meaningful educational and awareness building programme will be more effective.” A clear nod towards Shami Chakrabarti’s approach in her 2016 report.

Chakrabarti and Forde both know that the Labour Party is not infested with evil anti-semites, as the JC purports to believe. Rather, it is populated by people seeking a more equal society and just world.

A small minority may sometimes use inappropriate, hyperbolic language and a few might actually be anti-semites, unresponsive to education. But most would surely reflect and reconsider if challenged about their views.  

It is tragic that Starmer’s supposed “zero tolerance” towards anti-semitism in Labour continues to disproportionately target dedicated left-wing Jews who support Palestinian rights or question zionism, as part of their human rights and anti-racist commitment.

Forde notes that when Iain McNicol directed the party’s Governance and Legal Unit, “Many of the recommendations made by the Chakrabarti report were never implemented.”

I wish he had gone further. McNicol fought a war of attrition against Chakrabarti’s recommendations. An outstanding human rights lawyer/campaigner, Chakrabarti advocated a culture of free, but respectful, speech on contentious issues and loathed guilt-by-association tactics, but was frequently bad-mouthed as a “Corbyn-ally” by right-wing pro-zionist organisations with no connection to Labour.

Under McNicol, the Chakrabarti report disappeared from the party’s website. But an eagle-eyed Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) member noticed and activists made enough noise to get it reinstated.

I mention Jewish Voice for Labour — so did Forde. And the JC and the Board of Deputies hit the roof. Forde dared to write: “…there are other [non-JLM] voices among Jewish communities and Jewish members of the party.”

He criticised the party’s “refusal to engage at all with Jewish Voice for Labour’s proposals for anti-semitism education,” which meant that “CLPs were forbidden to enlist their help.”

In contrast with the JLM’s model, JVL’s sessions on anti-semitism are non-didactic, workshop-based explorations, that encourage open discussion.

For the party leadership though, the most embarrassing aspect of Forde’s report was his utter rejection of a widespread media narrative that, under Corbyn, Loto hindered party HQ staff’s efforts to deal with anti-semitism cases.

This was the central claim of the shoddy Panorama programme in July 2019. It was amplified across the media. Forde contends that: “Loto staff provided input into specific cases after it was sought, sometimes insistently, by HQ staff.”

They responded to requests “reasonably and in good faith.” Forde dismissed media reports that Loto staff aggressively imposed themselves on the process against HQ’s wishes as “wholly misleading.”

A defamation case was brought against Labour over the party’s response to the programme. Under Starmer’s leadership Labour coughed up eye-watering payments to the Panorama “whistle-blowers” to avoid a court case, despite party lawyers’ advice that Labour would win it.

How many members’ subs and union donations were “spaffed up the wall” by Starmer? How many dedicated members resigned in disgust, further depleting party funds? Some 200,000 members have left since Starmer became leader.

Forde is equally damning about HQ’s “validation exercises” which denied thousands the right to vote in the 2015 leadership election and in Owen Smith’s leadership challenge (2016). The leaked report described the trawling of members’ social media accounts looking for terms such as “Blairite” that HQ considered unacceptable.

Forde states: “The intention and effect of both validation exercises was to remove ballots from individuals who would otherwise have voted for Jeremy Corbyn. It does not seem to us credible to suggest that the exercise… was not targeted at applicants and members on the left.”

The leaked report also alleged that, in the run-up to the 2017 election, certain staff at Labour HQ sabotaged the party’s chances by secretly diverting resources away from seats Loto saw as winnable, to shore up right-wing candidates within relatively safe seats.

Forde confirmed that this operation, known as “Ergon House,” did happen and was deliberately hidden from Loto. He describes it as “absolutely wrong,” but suggests that the sums were relatively small (£135,000) and probably didn’t affect the general election result.

The most egregious and clearly documented abusive behaviour by HQ staff was revealed in WhatsApp conversations obtained by the leaked report’s authors: racism and sexism against identified black individuals, especially Diane Abbott. Karie Murphy (white, Scottish), was subjected to vile abuse too.

Forde states his complete agreement with Diane Abbott that these remarks “were not outliers but represented the general tone of conversation among senior Labour Party staff about her “and other black elected members.”

None of the victims of that very explicit racism and sexism have had any acknowledgement let alone an apology from Starmer, on behalf of the party.

Forde’s report, which meticulously exposes a dishonest war against Corbyn’s leadership through deliberately establishing damaging, false narratives, will undoubtedly embarrass the current leadership.

But his report also has significant weaknesses. It blames an aggressive and paranoid party culture personified by both left and right factions more than the existence and abuse of power relations. The evidence against the left is largely evidence-free.

Corbyn amassed more votes than any previous Labour leader, despite the unjust “validations exercises,” and made clear his intention to democratise the party by transferring more power to ordinary members.

It was scandalous that the party’s “civil service” acted against that mandate, but Forde nevertheless characterises most of them as hard-working individuals motivated by concern about the party’s future.  

A more obvious weakness stemmed from Forde’s welcome acknowledgement that the issue of anti-semitism had been used as a factional weapon.

Ordinary members have been labelled “anti-semites” for saying this. But Forde provides evidence of its use to undermine Corbyn’s leadership.

He ruins the moment, though, with the specious claim that the left treated the issue of anti-semitism as a factional weapon too, through “denialism” — denying the existence of anti-semitism in the party — though he absolves the leaked report authors of this charge and the only evidence he offers seem to be assertions from members of the right-wing faction that this was the case.

While Forde calls out the dishonest media narratives about Loto’s response to instances of anti-semitism, he remains far too accepting of other false narratives spread by that same media and right-wing Jewish organisations outside the party who decided that it had a “crisis of anti-semitism.”

Forde praises the work done by Jennie Formby, general secretary from 2018-2019 which enabled the party to record and respond more effectively to allegations and deal with cases. But he, himself, fails to distinguish between “allegations” and “cases.”  

During Formby’s tenure she made a careful analysis of 200 cases that Margaret Hodge suddenly lobbed in, resulting in lurid headlines across the media.

Many of Hodge’s allegations were duplicates. They concerned 111 individuals, not 200. And 91 of those were not Labour Party members (which might tell us something important about anti-semitism outside the Labour Party).

The truth is that 200 allegations splashed across the media were actually just 20 cases. It is unclear how many of these were eventually proven.

Right-wingers within and beyond the party were determined to keep allegations of anti-semitism in the headlines even if that meant unjustifiably stoking up fears among Jewish people, because they judged that this would damage Corbyn.

Wilder elements, such as Campaign Against Anti-semitism, claimed that huge numbers of Jews would leave Britain if Corbyn won an election.

At the very least, these efforts successfully raised suspicion about Corbyn’s beliefs concerning Jews, despite his impeccable record as an MP first elected in 1983 of opposing racism and fascism and strongly supporting minority communities including Jews in his own constituency.

This manufactured “crisis” thwarted Corbyn’s efforts to place other pressing issues at the top of the political agenda. The left of the party displayed no desire to use anti-semitism as any kind of “factional weapon.”

Instead, it wanted to shift the political focus to all the issues on which Tory policies were harming the population: housing and homelessness; Grenfell; food poverty and rising foodbank numbers; the hostile environment against migrants and refugees; institutional racism; the Windrush Scandal; rising transport costs; cuts to education and basic services; creeping privatisation of the NHS; climate change.

Specifically on anti-semitism, it should perhaps have done more to expose the Tory Party’s verifiable collaboration with anti-semitic and Islamophobic parties and movements overseas within its alliances in the European Parliament and in the Council of Europe.

The Labour left did not deny the existence of anti-semitism in the party or indeed in society at large; it did, absolutely correctly, deny the claims that there was a “crisis of anti-semitism” in the party, that made nonsense of objective reality and the lived experience of Labour Party members, including many of its Jewish members who were not signed up to JLM.

Despite its faults, the Forde report should be widely read by Labour members who should demand a mature, reflective and detailed response to it from the current Labour leader and party executive. Nothing less will suffice.

David Rosenberg rejoined the Labour Party in 2015 and left in February this year. He is active in Jewish socialist and anti-racist campaigns.

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