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20 November 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 2:42pm

Labour’s institutional racism must be tackled before it destroys the party

By Clive Soley

In the 1980s I was the Labour frontbencher often dealing with racism in the police force. The appalling murder of Stephen Lawrence and the investigation of police practices led to William Macpherson’s now accepted definition of institutional racism: “The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping.”

It is impossible for any impartial person to avoid the painful conclusion that the Labour Party has become institutionally racist. This is a relatively new development and if it is not to destroy the party it must be dealt with. (As myself and 63 other Labour peers have argued in a Guardian advertisement today). 

At the time of the Macpherson report many people, including police officers, sought to deny this conclusion. Police officers would say to me “I can’t be accused of racism – I have black friends.” They were often right – many did have black friends, but the problem was that racism was practiced by their colleagues and, as Macpherson pointed out, the general practices of the police force resulted in black members of the public receiving racist treatment and outcomes. That is what has now happened in the Labour Party and it shames us all.

I have recently heard members of the party hierarchy denying this. The kindest thing I can say is that they are ignorant of the definition and of how institutional racism works but, more bluntly, I have to say that there is a willful refusal to consider the problem because some senior members of the leadership are committed to anti-Jewish assumptions. There is racism at the top of the party, and it cannot continue if the party is to survive.

Labour members need to remember the history of anti-Semitic beliefs and practices. In the 1930s a number of European Socialist and workers’ parties were infiltrated by anti-Semites. Why? Because at times of economic distress it is easy to blame the capitalists. And if you blamed the capitalists it was all too easy to point to rich Jews running banks or financial institutions, particularly in London or New York and say, “The Jews control the world”. That is why socialist parties were vulnerable to anti-Semitism in the 1930s. 

These are lessons from history which we in the Labour and socialist movements should never forget. It is no accident that once nationalism was linked up with anti-capitalist socialism, anti-Semitism was only a few small steps away. Hitler’s party was the National Socialist Party. That party needed scapegoats for the economic distress faced by the German people. They found those scapegoats in the Jewish population.

The current Marxist leadership of the Labour Party ignore this history and go on to aggravate the problem by suggesting that council leaders be elected by party members and that MPs should face deselection if they don’t sufficiently follow party policy. 

You don’t have to be a historian of communist Russia to know why this goes so badly wrong. If MPs and councillors become delegates, rather than representatives, then control lies with a minority group within the party. Delegates have to obey orders and lose the all-important role of using their judgement on behalf of all their constituents and answering to them in a public election – not simply to a select few who inevitably fall under the control of a dictatorial central group.

One of the problems for people who follow a rigid ideology – political or religious – is that they grow out of touch with the times in which they live. That is where Jeremy Corbyn and Seamus Milne are at present but, currently, they are in charge of a well-established party machine. That is far more worrying than some fringe political group.

I think it is highly unlikely that we will win a general election under the current leadership – they show no ability to reach out across party loyalties to other groups in society. But if they were elected on anything like the present basis they would be a very real danger to democracy, the rule of law and our basic freedoms – which we take for granted far too easily.

Nationalism is on the rise and so is anti-capitalist anger and the incoherent policies of the present Labour leadership make it all too easy for us to fall into that 1930s trap. Although this problem has been caused by the current leadership, I do not claim that they brought all the anti-Semitic people on board. Some, yes, but not all. Other are joining because they see, as in the 1930s, a party that is becoming anti-Semitic.

Apart from the blatantly anti-Jewish stance of some members there is, and always has been in my view, a serious confusion in the minds of Corbyn and Milne between Zionism, Israel and Jews. Not all Jews are Zionists and not all Israelis are Jewish (some 20 per cent are Arab) and, very obviously, not all Jews are Israelis. The differences may be confusing at times but that should never lead to the assumption that Jews are a legitimate target, or that Israel has no right to exist.

Can the Labour Party hope to recover from this crisis? I desperately hope so. If Corbyn had sprung loudly and publicly to the defence of those Jews under attack, and if he had signed up immediately to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism,  instead of procrastinating, we would not be in this mess. We would have been in a far better position to throw out what is, in my judgement, the worst Tory government I have seen for many decades. Instead the party is reportedly losing members fast and has even trailed the Conservatives in some recent opinion polls. How did we manage that faced with such an incompetent government?  Sadly, anti-Semitism is a large part of the answer.

Clive Soley is a Labour peer, a former MP and was chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party from 1997 to 2001

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