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  1. Politics
5 March 2019

What Labour gets right and wrong about racism in its ranks

The problem is what Labour does in practice, rather than what it advocates for in theory. 

By Stephen Bush

The Labour party has been hit by a series of revelations about the extent to which senior figures in the party leadership were involved in decisions taken about whether and when to suspend Labour party members accused of antisemitism.

The Times has revealed that at the beginning of 2018, officials from the Labour leader’s office had weighed in on whether or not Labour members should be suspended. In emails quoted in full by that newspaper, in the case of one activist who had described an anti-Semitic mural (which Jeremy Corbyn had by that point apologised for defending) as “a great mural. No way should it be painted over, it should be preserved,” officials in party headquarters asked senior staff in Corbyn’s office to advise on “how you would like us to proceed”. Laura Murray, stakeholder manager in Corbyn’s office, responded with a message which I am going to quote in full:

“The social media comment saying that the mural is good and shouldn’t be removed definitely belies ignorance and a lack of understanding / education of antisemitic tropes, representations and imagery.

Has this woman made any other comments which are perceived to be antisemitic. Eg specifically mentioning Jews, Jewishness, antisemitic tropes, conspiracy theories etc. If she hasn’t then we recommend this be dealt with without suspending her as she hasn’t displayed any specific antisemitic attitudes herself, more just general ignorance and lack of education.

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We would recommend writing to her about the comment with a list of questions about what she understands about antisemitism, antisemitic tropes and conspiracies, why [she] didn’t realise the mural is antisemitic, if she is disregarding the views of Jewish people who find the mural to be antisemitic etc etc.

Obviously if her answers show an unwillingness to be educated about these tropes then decide how best to proceed re: a suspension from there onwards.

If there are other comments on the mural which actually mention Jews, Jewishness or anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracies, then they might need to be dealt with different so please let us know.”

There are two issues that are being unhelpfully conflated when people discuss this story. The first is whether the advice given by Murray was correct or at least arguably correct. The second is whether the advice that was being given at all contradicts assurances given to Labour MPs and representatives of the British Jewish community about the Labour party’s complaints process.

On the first, one of the many, many problems with Labour’s poor handling of cases of antisemitism in its ranks is that it has contaminated the overall idea of political education and rehabilitation for making offensive remarks.

While Labour has been sluggish and largely ineffective on tackling the issue of antisemitism, it delivered a model in how to tackle other forms of racism in 2018 when Hugh Gaffney, a newly-elected Labour MP, joked to a shocked audience of Labour party activists at a dinner that he would rather be at home “having a Chinky”, a derogatory way of referring to Chinese people, objects and food (in his case, a takeaway), and referred to being homosexual as “bent”. Gaffney, who is 55, agreed to and participated in classes explaining why his choice of language was bad and gave a fulsome and genuine apology. Had neither been forthcoming, he would, hopefully, have been expelled.

The central problem with Labour’s handling of antisemitism is that the party seldom, if ever, progresses onto the stage of a meaningful apology and a process of education, let alone triggering the ultimate sanction of expulsion if an apology is not issued and a process of education is refused. To take a recent example: Jim Sheridan, who wrote that he was “losing sympathy” with British Jews as a result of their “plotting” with Blairite critics of Jeremy Corbyn, was at the end of January readmitted into the Labour party after saying that people had “overreacted” to his remarks – a “meaningful apology” that barely merits the term “apology” let alone the word “meaningful”.

And that’s the real and repeated problem with Labour’s handling of antisemitism in the ranks: it is not the idea of a yellow card offence for expressions of racism. On paper, Labour’s approach to handling racism is the correct one. The problem is that in practice the party issues a second, third, even fourth yellow card – and that when a red card is issued it happens only when there is organised pressure from the party’s grassroots, MPs, opponents and the press.