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1 May 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:25am

Labour’s Zoom call row reveals a party deeply divided over racism

The row over Diane Abbott and Bell Ribeiro-Addy's online meeting with expelled members has underlined Labour's continuing split.

By Ailbhe Rea

Keir Starmer is facing his first test over anti-Semitism since becoming Labour leader, as a fresh row breaks out within the party over his response to two Labour MPs addressing an online meeting which included activists who had been expelled from the party. 

Diane Abbott, the former shadow home secretary, and Bell Ribeiro-Addy, a former shadow immigration minister under Jeremy Corbyn, addressed a Zoom meeting on Wednesday night entitled “Labour leaks: lessons for the left”, organised by Jewish Voice for Labour and the Labour Representation Committee, a socalist pressure group presided over by John McDonnell. Activists who joined the call included Jackie Walker and Tony Greenstein, who were both expelled from the Labour Party for rule breaches following claims of anti-Semitic behaviour.

The new Labour leader’s response has been to give the two MPs a firm ticking-off, telling the BBC that “the MPs concerned have been spoken to in the strongest terms”. He has been criticised, however, for not expelling the pair, having signed a pledge during his leadership campaign promising to suspend MPs or activists “who support, campaign or provide a platform for people who have been suspended or expelled in the wake of antisemitic incidents”.

The row exposes the complexities underlying Starmer’s clearly stated and simple commitment to stamping out anti-Semitism within Labour, on both a practical and more profound level.

There is, firstly, the practical challenge of trying to implement the above pledge in an online context. The fifth of the Board of Deputies’ pledges to stamp out anti-Semitism outlines a clear “no platform for bigotry” policy, with an unequivocal demand for MPs who provide such a platform to expelled members to themselves be expelled. In this brave new world of Zoom calls, the distinction between addressing an online audience and sharing a platform with those audience members is blurred. 

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Supporters of Abbott and Ribeiro-Addy find it absurd that they are facing calls to have the whip withdrawn after addressing an open Zoom call attended by over 400 people, which was free for anyone to join. Critics of the MPs, meanwhile, find it unlikely that they would not be aware of the possibility that far-left activists who had been expelled from the party might attend a meeting organised by these far-left fringe groups. 

But the row also exposes deeper wounds in the party over allegations of different forms of racism. This was a meeting to discuss how the left of the party should respond to the leaked Labour report, which includes alleged details of racism at a senior level, directly targeting black female MPs including Abbott. 

The suggestion that these two black female Labour MPs should be expelled from the party, one of them the first black woman ever to be elected to the British parliament, has deeply upset many activists in the wake of the leaked report, who perceive a discrepancy between the party’s approach to anti-Semitism and its approach to racism against its own black MPs. 

But this only furthers, for others in the party, a sense that the problem of anti-Semitism within Labour hasn’t been properly understood, and isn’t seen as a legitimate form of racism. The most strident voices against anti-Semitism in the party view the meeting as a brazen attempt to “test the waters” of what will be acceptable under Starmer, and have criticised what they call an attempt to create “a hierarchy of racism”.

Jewish community groups harshly criticised Starmer’s decision not to take action beyond a verbal reprimand for the two MPs, but it is worth noting the more oblique response from the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), which falls short of criticising Starmer’s actions. “If the Labour Party is going to be able to demonstrate that it has taken anti-Semitism and racism seriously,” the JLM said in a statement, “then it needs to show consistency. That includes anyone who holds a position of responsibility within the party staying well clear of those who do not share our values.” 

Privately, those who have been pushing for tougher action on anti-Semitism within the party are not unhappy with Starmer’s response, noting that the speed and the fact that both MPs were spoken to “in the strongest terms” is a difference of “night and day” with the previous leadership. 

Despite disappointment from Jewish community groups, Starmer hasn’t yet lost the faith of groups like the Jewish Labour Movement and those from within Labour who have been pushing for tough action on the issue. 

But this incident shows there is a very difficult and delicate conversation to be had within Labour about how forms of racism are tackled alongside each other without diminishing another’s importance. Starmer’s ultimate goal is to unite a very divided party. This is an early illustration of quite how profoundly disunited the party is over racism, and the intricate challenge ahead of uniting people with different hurts and disparate priorities. 

Clarification: This article was amended on 27 May. The original version stated that Tony Greenstein and Jackie Walker were expelled from the Labour Party “over anti-Semitism”. Tony Greenstein was expelled in 2018 for three breaches of Rule 2.1.8 of the Labour Party. Jackie Walker was expelled in 2019 for “prejudicial and grossly detrimental behaviour against the party”. We are happy to make this clarification.

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