The Board of Deputies of British Jews has asked candidates for the Labour leadership and deputy leadership to sign up to ten proposals for tackling antisemitism.
For sure the party needs a new, much more aggressive approach on fighting antisemitism. But the Board of Deputies’ proposals are both inadequate and, in many respects, wrong and harmful.
• Serious political education and discussion about antisemitism and fighting it, as part of but distinct within wider antiracist education, throughout the party. This must include discussing antisemitic reactionary anticapitalism, and the implications of demonising Israel and "Zionists" and offhandedly dismissing complaints as right-wing or Israeli conspiracies. The party must also campaign for, rather than ignore, its position of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. All this should be part of a wider political-educational effort against conspiracy-theorist-type thinking of all kinds.
• A minimally well-functioning disciplinary system in which complaints do not disappear, there is no stonewalling, everything is dealt with on a clear timescale, and so on. The lack of that has been a serious deficiency not just in terms of antisemitism, but a whole series of problems in the party. A functioning disciplinary system must also include proper due process for those accused.
Education, discussion and and debate are key.
All five remaining leadership candidates have signed up to the BoD proposals, along with deputy candidates Rosena Allin-Khan, Ian Murray and Angela Rayner. Former leadership candidate Clive Lewis and deputy candidates Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler have not (for reasons I don’t know).
The initiative has led to a surge of reactionary criticism online, ranging from insensitive to downright antisemitic (and some of it claiming the pledges say things they don’t). It is completely legitimate that an organisation based in a minority ethnic community, particularly one facing rising bigotry, should formulate demands to place on the Labour leadership. However, there are legitimate and necessary criticisms to be made of the BoD proposals too.
Resolving outstanding and future cases with a fixed timescale (1); greater transparency (3); “communicating with resolve” in place of bland generalities (9); and the leadership taking responsibility (10) are all good. Adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism in full without qualifications (6) is fine but really not that far from the Labour Party has done already.
“Making the party’s disciplinary process independent” (2) would be one thing if it meant ensuring it is free from leadership or factional abuse. Given what a mess the party has got into, there should in principle be no objection to consultation with outside, independent advisors on reforming procedures either. Better facilities for ongoing consultation with a variety of outside advisors on particular issues, for training, etc, could be a good idea. But an “independent provider” running the whole disciplinary service is quite another matter, and incompatible with a democratic political party in which even independent bodies are ultimately accountable to the membership.
Saying that “prominent offenders… will never be readmitted to membership” (4) is also wrong. Who is to say what constitutes “prominent”? What if someone genuinely changes their mind? Some individuals should not be readmitted, but lifetime bans with no possibility of reprieve are not a good idea.
“Labour must engage with the Jewish community via its main representative groups, and not through fringe organisations and individuals.” (8) A labour movement sensitive to equality should not simply ignore organisations with wide support in minority communities even if it disagrees with their politics. But a left-wing political party must have the right to determine who it deals with and how politically, and to also listen and give support to smaller radical groups closer to its wavelength. (Whether a particular “radical” group, eg Jewish Voice for Labour, is any good is another matter.)
Giving the Jewish Labour Movement a leading role in political education (7) is reasonable, regardless of our differences with JLM; but given point 8 there is a concern this will be to the exclusion of more radical ideas. And crucially, what is needed is proper political education and debate, not bland ‘diversity and inclusion’ type training, let alone anything that chokes off debate.
To be fair to JLM, they have just sent out copies of Steve Cohen’s That’s funny, you don’t look antisemitic to their members, something which must have been well outside their comfort zone. A large number of meetings, discussions, reading groups, etc, around this book would be no bad thing.
Most objectionable is the BoD’s point 5, advocating “No platform for bigotry”. It is worth quoting in full: “Any MPs, Peers, councillors, nembers or CLPs who support, campaign or provide a platform for people who have been suspended or expelled in the wake of antisemitism incidents should themselves be suspended from membership.”
“Support, campaign or provide a platform for” is incredibly broadly drawn and open to wide interpretation. It cuts against the culture of debate, argument and education we need to tackle reactionary ideas, including antisemitism on the left. Moreover, it seems to apply whatever the nature of the platform. An MP or CLP supporting a strike could be suspended if a strike leader who had been suspended in connection with antisemitism spoke – about the strike, not about antisemitism – at their meeting.
Worse still, the wording means that if someone is unjustly or unreasonably suspended or expelled over antisemitism, it will in theory not possible to campaign for their reinstatement without being suspended too. The AWL publicly objected to Marc Wadsworth’s expulsion, not because we agree with his views, but because we thought what he did came nowhere near meriting expulsion and the whole thing was unjust.
During the 2016 Labour leadership election Owen Smith used his platform on TV to accuse the AWL of antisemitism – clearly getting confused between different left-wing groups and inviting ridicule. Given the trigger happy nature of the Labour Party machine when it comes to our members (not in connection with antisemitism), it is not so hard to imagine this completely unfounded remark by a very prominent individual in the national media could have led to expulsions.
Without comment on the motivations of particular candidates, it is worth noting that at least some of those who have signed the pledge have no record of challenging antisemitism in the party, including among their own associates and supporters. It is hard to avoid the feeling that some if not all have signed up for opportunistic reasons. Whether they actually intend to implement all ten pledges is not clear.
A principled left, one that is serious about fighting antisemitism, should not be bounced into agreeing that because something must be done, this must be done.