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30 October 2020

Why anti-Semitism in Labour could remain a political headache for Keir Starmer

An independent complaints process for anti-Semitism may not be the panacea that the party hopes. 

By Stephen Bush

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has published its report into Labour’s handling of anti-Semitism within the party. 

It has concluded that Labour’s procedures fell short of the standards and procedures it had instituted for other types of complaint, and that of the 70 complaints it examined in detail, two concerned unlawful behaviour and a further 18 arguably did so (the EHRC is only empowered to rule that unlawful behaviour has occurred in very clear-cut cases).

Furthermore, the report found that the leader’s office under Jeremy Corbyn interfered in 23 instances, which the EHRC describes as “discriminatory and unlawful”. Most significantly, the leader’s office interfered when a complaint was made against Corbyn himself after it emerged that in 2012 he had questioned the removal of a racist mural in east London. That makes it impossible to sustain the argument, made by the former leader’s allies, that their involvement in the complaints process was solely to expedite swift action against anti-Semites in Labour.

The EHRC – whose proposals are not advisory, but legally binding – has proposed the following changes to Labour’s rules and processes: quarterly reports on the handling of anti-Semitism cases with a comparison with the speed and practices for complaints about other forms of racism and for sexual harassment, an independent complaints process, and a clear and detailed code of conduct for social media (where the vast majority of the complaints the EHRC examined took place). 

Keir Starmer has welcomed the report, adding that those in Labour who dismiss the problem as a factional plot or a small concern are not welcome in the party. Jeremy Corbyn, who responded to the report by saying that that he did not agree with all of the findings and that the problem was exaggerated, has been suspended from Labour.  

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Labour’s current rulebook vests broad powers of suspension in the party’s HQ, though permanent expulsion is in the gift of the ruling National Executive Committee and the National Constitutional Committee. It also provides the blank cheque of “bringing the party into disrepute” as a reason to expel someone. 

It highlights the political difficulty that the move towards an independent process will have: on the one hand, Starmer needs to demonstrate that change has happened, that his actions match his words and that his promise of “new leadership” is not just a slogan. On the other hand, the single biggest promise of “new leadership” is giving away power and transferring the complaints process to an independent overseer.  

The Campaign Against Antisemitism has already announced that it is submitting complaints against 14 sitting Labour MPs and, once the new process is in place, other organisations will likely do the same. What happens if an independent process concludes that, on the balance of probabilities, some of the 14 MPs should be expelled and some should not? What if the ones to be expelled don’t “seem” to most observers to be the most egregious offenders?

Labour’s current process, and the large amount of discretionary power it grants, has been shown to be unfit for dealing with the moral and institutional challenge of tackling anti-Semitism in the party. But as for the political task of showing that Labour has changed, an independent process may not be the panacea that the party hopes – and the widespread internal conflict that Corbyn’s suspension has not yet triggered may well be the result.

[see also: Jeremy Corbyn has become the face of the EHRC report – but that’s not what many want]