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21 April 2021

What does the EHRC report mean for Labour?

In a landmark moment for equalities law, the party is facing a question that goes far beyond the issue of Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Semitism.

By Ailbhe Rea

When the landmark Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report into Labour anti-Semitism was published last October, it immediately became a story about Jeremy Corbyn. The former Labour leader released his own statement within hours of the report’s publication, saying the anti-Semitism problem in Labour had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons”. Only hours after that, he was expelled from the party. 

In the weeks and months afterwards, the focus on Corbyn was a source of regret and sadness across Labour, including among those who strongly supported the decision to expel him. So many had wanted a serious moment of reflection on the experience of Jewish members and MPs within the party, and there was a feeling they had been denied that on the day when Labour and the EHRC report dominated the headlines. 

It means that, many months on, there hasn’t been much of a conversation about the true significance of the EHRC report for Labour. While the work to implement the report’s recommendations began immediately, and much of the reflection that Jewish stakeholders were hoping for has happened behind closed doors in conversations with Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, it is less clear whether Labour MPs, councillors, members and activists have any sense of what the EHRC report means for their party. 

It is worth understanding what the EHRC report really was: a human rights commission coming into the Labour Party and examining how its processes, rules and culture measured up to British equality law, including the Equality Act of 2010, one of the last pieces of legislation passed by the Labour government and one of the party’s proudest legacies. Labour was being examined both as an employer, with a legal obligation not to discriminate against its employees, and as a membership organisation, with those same legal obligations to its members. 

The report found that Labour had breached equality law on three counts: interference in anti-Semitism complaints; failure to provide adequate training to those handling anti-Semitism complaints; and anti-Semitic conduct by Ken Livingstone (then a member of the Labour NEC) and by Pam Bromley (a Labour councillor), which was deemed to be harassment for which the Labour Party was legally responsible, given Livingstone and Bromley were acting as agents of the party. (This was “the tip of the iceberg” of anti-Semitic conduct within Labour, the report concluded, but these were the only cases where the Labour Party could conclusively be held legally responsible for the actions of an individual.)

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The Labour Party was served with an unlawful act notice, and has had to devise and implement a legally enforceable action plan based on the report’s “recommendations”, according to a fast and rigid timetable set by the commission. The political debate may have moved on from Labour anti-Semitism, but inside the Labour Party, the race to meet the legal requirements of the EHRC report is on. 

This means, crucially, an overhaul of the Labour Party’s culture, rules and structures far beyond anti-Semitism alone. The changes will involve cleaning up the party’s processes and culture for all protected characteristics, not just in regard to anti-Semitism, but on sexism, racism of all kinds, discrimination relating to LGBTQ+ identity, religious affiliation, disability and every other metric of discrimination listed by the Equality Act. “Fixing this is about fixing it for everyone, not just Jews,” is how one Jewish Labour figure puts it.

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Jane Ramsay, Labour’s senior adviser on standards and ethics, and the most important party figure you haven’t heard of, is leading this overhaul. It includes devising and implementing a new and independent process for dealing with complaints of anti-Semitism, providing training to every person involved in handling anti-Semitism complaints for Labour, clarifying all the rules and procedures governing this process, and overseeing wider cultural change on anti-Semitism within the party. 

The legal mandate from the EHRC means that these requirements relate specifically to anti-Semitism, but the process will lead to an overhauled set of guidance and practices for all protected characteristics. “It would be very odd, legally, for any organisation to treat just one protected characteristic differently to the others,” explains one senior figure with knowledge of the plans. Ramsay has recently begun consultation with the Labour Women’s Network, the Labour Muslim Network and the other pre-existing consultative groups representing different protected characteristics on the equalities committee of the NEC. (Consultation with Jewish stakeholders, and training on anti-Semitism, is happening first because of the tight timetable and legal mandate imposed by the EHRC.) The result will be a common set of criteria and a common framework to deal with misconduct by any member of the Labour Party – “whether it’s a complaint of sexual harassment or a complaint of antisemitism or anti-black racism,” the senior figure adds. 

What will radically cleaning up Labour’s approach to protected characteristics look like? That is a question Labour Party members, activists and elected politicians don’t appear to have reckoned with, at least not publicly. This isn’t just a question about what happens to Corbyn, or any other MPs, councillors or members with outstanding anti-Semitism complaints against them. It is a question about MP Rosie Duffield, whose social media activity has been condemned as transphobic by LGBT+ Labour. It is a question raised by a recent photograph shared by the shadow equalities minister Charlotte Nichols of a local election campaign leaflet boasting that Labour would “deal with traveller incursions” (for which she apologised unreservedly), which exposed tensions in how Labour at a local level can refer to traveller communities. It also suggests a reckoning with all of the concerns – namely, alleged racism by party officials towards black MPs – that the Forde Inquiry was established to address, even if that report itself is delayed.  

The hope is that a new programme of cultural transformation, to be called Organise To Win, will positively and permanently instill a new culture within Labour on all equalities issues. This means that the training and development on anti-Semitism mandated by the EHRC will, in the long term, sit within this wider programme of diversity and inclusion programmes for all members, across the full sweep of protected characteristics. 

Ramsay has already briefed MPs on the changes to come, and some of the small shifts are starting to appear. Labour has published on its website a new social media policy, which makes it explicit that liking or sharing any anti-Semitic or otherwise discriminatory content will be subject to disciplinary action, as required by the EHRC. Duffield’s former claim in her Twitter biography that “if you’re policing my ‘likes’ you *really* need a new hobby!” has now disappeared. 

The social media policy is one of the few areas where changes are already starting to become apparent. Much of the rest isn’t clear yet, and hasn’t even been finalised. But this is a crunch week for Labour – 29 April, which is fast approaching, is a crucial monitoring point at which the EHRC will compare the Labour Party’s progress against the legally mandated action plan that it had to draw up in the wake of the report. Labour needs to demonstrate progress on a number of points, most notably on drafting the new complaints process. That spells a more immediate challenge for the party. 

Labour is drawing up two separate complaints processes, which officials refer to internally as the “mosaic” approach and the “big bang”. The “mosaic”, which would add independent elements to the existing process, could be passed by delegation to the general secretary and introduced as soon as the summer, while the “big bang” would involve a fully independent process. It would need to be passed by a full vote at conference, meaning a high-profile and potentially contentious vote at Starmer’s first party conference as leader. The consultation on that major decision is ongoing. 

We still don’t know what all of it will look like, exactly how far all of it will go, or whether there is an imminent showdown brewing between Starmer and the Labour membership over the rule changes required to meet the standards set by the EHRC. But what is clear is that this is “a landmark moment for equalities law”, as one party figure puts it: a rare example of a large organisation being overhauled to ensure adherence to equalities legislation. The great irony, of course, is that the Labour Party of 2021 is being overhauled to adhere to a standard set by the Labour Party of 2010.