Labour’s ruling national executive committee has voted to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism in full, including all its examples. But they have also passed a statement saying that the adoption of the definition will not impact on free speech regarding the state of Israel and the Palestinian cause. So what’s going on?
What’s happened is that the NEC has voted to pass the IHRA definition into its Code of Conduct for party members. This binding set of principles and standards of behaviour for party members, is intended to provide clarity to Labour activists and also to the national constitutional committee, which determines the level of sanctions required for breaches of the party’s rules and code of conduct.
It did so by approving the following statement: “We recommend that we adopt the IHRA in full, with all examples. This does not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians. We re-invite organisations to engage in consultation on the Code of Conduct.”
An NEC recommendation has implications for how a vote is treated on the floor of Labour party conference and makes it significantly more likely that it will pass. But the wording of the recommendation has no bearing on anything else. It’s a lot like passing a motion after a bill becomes a law that the bill you just passed was an absolutely stand-up bit of legislation that no-one will ever want to repeal. You can pass that motion, but it doesn’t make it true.
The Labour leadership has made trouble for itself unnecessarily: it hasn’t done anything to meaningfully reassure or reward its defenders in the press who fear that IHRA can be used to diminish free speech on Israel-Palestine. But it has opened itself up to criticism from its opponents.
But Team Corbyn will take comfort from the fact that their internal critics have ended up overreaching by issuing strongly-worded quotes based on rumours about what was agreed rather than what was actually agreed: Richard Angell, the director of Progress, has described the decision as “a retrograde step” and “an insult”, calling the statement “a ‘right to be racist’ protection”. That looks somewhat hyperbolic compared to the more measured statement from the Jewish Leadership Council, the umbrella group for the majority of the British Jewish community’s charities, organisations and advocacy groups.
Corbyn isn’t going to frame the JLC statement, which includes the sharply critical phrase “if Jeremy Corbyn were a competent leader, the Labour party would have adopted the definition months ago” and adds that the delay has exacerbated rather than eased tensions between Labour and the Jewish community. But it also seeks to move the conversation forward by bringing up the remaining five asks that the JLC and the Board of Deputies of British Jews made of the Labour leadership when they met with Jeremy Corbyn and his senior aides in April. In other words: the action on IHRA is good enough as far as IHRA goes – but there is a lot more to work.
That those five requests still have yet to be addressed speaks to the work that needs to be done if Labour is to normalise, let alone repair, relations with the community. But Labour can comfort themselves that the open wound over IHRA has been cauterised if not yet healed.