Commissioned by Keir Starmer to investigate the 2020 leak of an 800+ page draft report on the handling of claims of Antisemitism by the party’s Governance and Legal Unit (GLU), the investigation hoped to draw a line under the controversy and claims that accusations had been weaponised in struggles between Jeremy Corbyn and Starmer supporters.
If the Forde Report’s purpose was to bring the party back together, it seems to have had the opposite effect. With Starmer continuing to purge Labour of its leftists, including, ironically, Jewish members, at best, the only thing its conclusions can do is highlight what a sorry state the party remains in, and why it’s nowhere near being done tearing itself apart.
Last weekend, I called The Battleground’s UK editor, Josh White, to talk about its findings. Our discussion of Antisemitism, and its uses in partisan politics, is particularly noteworthy. While specific to the United Kingdom, it will also resonate in other countries where similar debates about it are taking place, such as Germany and the United States.
John Foster: At times like this, we have to stipulate a couple of things:
1. There are Antisemites in the Labour Party.
2. The Labour Party was by no means as aggressive or thorough as it should have been in addressing this problem. But…
3. The charges of rampant Antisemitism and that prominent figures (i.e Jeremy Corbyn) were Antisemites were employed as a political tactic by one wing of the party against the other.
The real meat of this report is the story of the circumstances under which the Leaked Report (as it is designated) was composed. Forde and his colleagues are at pains to emphasize that the Leaked Report was composed under deficient oversight. There are repeated references to “young and relatively inexperienced authors… with seemingly very little supervision”.
This dovetails nicely with their contention that the Leaked Report is a politicised document, which is to say, an attack on the right wing of the Labour Party. This, in turn, is the basis of the report’s central contention: that both sides did blameworthy things.
This“both-sides-ism” is unfortunate in that it creates a false equivalence between the actions of people on the Labour right, who manipulated the party’s attempts to address claims of Antisemitism as part of a systematic plan to discredit Corbyn, and the “young and relatively inexperienced” operatives on the Labour Left who were arguably just trying to make clear that that was the case.
On the one hand, you have people engaging in a systematic political project, in the course of which the problem of Antisemitism in the Labour Party was used as a tool to launch spurious attacks on Corbyn and others on the left wing of the party.
Whatever else one might say about the Leaked Report (and Forde concedes this point) it provides a wealth of concrete evidence of extremely crass and devious behaviour by officials from the party’s right, behaviour which also had the effect of making it materially more difficult for Labour to actually address the issue of Antisemitism.
On the other hand, you have these young operatives undertaking this project in the wake of the episode of the BBC Panorama documentary entitled, “Is Labour Anti-Semitic?” Another thing made clear by the Forde Report, although the BBC refuses to accept it, is that much of what was presented was based on sloppy and uncritical reporting.
This is clearest with respect to the claims that Corbyn or others in the Leader of the Opposition (LOTO) intervened improperly in disciplinary cases regarding Antisemitism. What emerges from the Forde Report is a pattern of improper requests for input from the GLU staff to the LOTO, and good faith attempts by the latter to respond.
Thus, on page 51 of the Forde Report, we read, “It is proper to criticize the blurring of functions and/or the substance of the LOTO’s advice…; in our view it is entirely misleading, however, to imply that these emails in themselves were evidence of those LOTO staff members inserting themselves unbidden into the disciplinary process for factional reasons.”
So, how do you read the question of “both sides are guilty”? Do you think there’s any substance to this contention?
Josh White: ‘Both sides’ is a cop-out to try and defuse the obvious implications of the report. It’s a convenient way of saying the Corbynites were just as bad as the Labour right. Some Corbynites did try to turn the accusations against the right, but this was not successful.
Some people have claimed that the treatment of Jewish socialists has amounted to Antisemitism as well. It’s been estimated you’re five times more likely to be accused of Antisemitism in Labour if you’re Jewish than if you’re not. But this is because left-wing Jews are more likely to have strong opinions about Israel-Palestine.
This might be one way to substantiate the claim of ‘both sides’. However, the mainstream media only platformed one side: the Labour right. One side was fighting, while the other side was bitterly divided over how to respond and unable to break through the media narrative.
Anyone not reinforcing the narrative would be framed as a denialist, a conspiracy theorist, even an Antisemite themselves. The ‘both sides’ claim is also a way of drawing a line under all of this and saying it was just a factional issue during the Corbyn era.
Yet we’ve seen that the suspensions of Labour members – including many Jewish members – have continued on dubious grounds. This includes Jewish Israeli historian Moshe Machover , one of the founders of Matzpen, incidentally.
Team Starmer made it clear anyone supporting Corbyn’s response to the EHRC Report and anyone calling for his reinstatement would face suspension (on the grounds of harassment and making the party ‘unsafe’ for Jews). Machover, among others, was suspended on those grounds. I doubt we’ll ever see an apology for that.
Even Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking who made headlines for calling Corbyn “a fucking racist”, has said she’s sick of Antisemitism being used against the party in this way. Of course, she was referring to the Campaign Against Antisemitism (which she used to represent) attacking Keir Starmer for using a clip of his visit to the Berlin Holocaust Memorial for campaigns.
It was the CAA that requested the EHRC investigate Labour, yet the campaign is still attacking Labour despite the change in leadership. This suggests it wasn’t just about Corbyn, but the Labour Party in general for the CAA. All of this may read like yesterday’s war. However, the cynical use of Antisemitism is likely to continue.
For example, The Guardian Labs’ commissioning editor, Siam Goorwich, has been implying that Novara Media would publish articles calling for violence against Jews. She sarcastically called Jewish journalist Rivkah Brown a “token ‘good Jew’” and a “useful idiot”. So it’s a very ugly row that is far from over.
John Foster: Starmer getting pinged by his erstwhile allies in the CAA and Margaret Hodge’s subsequent statement, was quite bizarre. It illustrates exactly how twisted things have become.
In The Starmer Project, Oliver Eagleton quotes a number of people to the effect that Starmer is very poor as a strategic thinker. This is a really cringe-inducing example of that. Just because someone is the enemy of your enemy doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t kick you to the curb if it suits their interests to do so.
As far as Margaret Hodge goes, her complaints about the weaponisation of charges of Antisemitism are about what it would sound like if Donald Trump started going on about the lack of respect for women in public life. I can hardly imagine that the irony is lost on anyone in the UK right now. But this is where we are.
The politicisation of the history of the 20th century, to say nothing of the previous millennium, is such that certain kinds of accusations are now simply viewed as part of the toolkit of modern political discourse.
In the United States, the political right has taken this up with a vengeance. There has been a whole spate of books in the last five years that label people on the centre or left of the American political spectrum as fascists. Most of them haven’t the faintest idea of what the word means.
That’s not surprising, since it’s been used for about the last fifty years by progressives as a term of abuse simply meaning “someone I don’t like”. What people on the right have come to recognise is that the very term carries symbolic weight, whatever it might actually mean.
A parallel process has gone on with Antisemitism. The definition has spread from “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group” and now extends to criticism of the state of Israel or of Zionism as a political project tout court.
Once again, the term carries so much symbolic weight because of its connection to the horrific crimes of the Nazis (and others) that it is tempting to use it for cynical purposes.
In the case of the recent history of the Labour Party, the unfortunate consequences of this definitional bloating are plain. The weaponisation of charges of Antisemitism had the effect of making it more difficult to root out the middle of the fairway cases from the party.
It’s also had the effect of absolving the Tories of any concerns in this regard. They are happy to fawn over Viktor Orbán, who is busily engaged in whitewashing the Hungarian role in the deportation of half a million Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, and raising the banner of white, Christian Europe to confront the threat of “race mixing”.
A Tory peer shared the stage at CPAC with a Hungarian media figure who had described English Jews as “stinking excrement”. Yet there doesn’t seem to be much in terms of talk of a “racism problem” for the Conservatives.
Things have really gotten out of plumb here, partly because of the cynicism of certain parties, but also because the situation is complicated.
Eliminating Antisemitism from public life is important. The presence and power of Antisemitism is real. It has to be dealt with. Using charges of Antisemitism as a hammer to beat one’s political opponents makes addressing the problem much more difficult.
What now for Labour? Is there any prospect that this might somehow lead to a reduction in factionalism and, perhaps, to the adoption of a platform that might actually challenge the Tories at the next election?
Josh White: It would be great if the Forde Report was a turning point for the party. A more pessimistic reading is that the report will be buried because it is yesterday’s war and the Labour right won. But the right has no raison d’être beyond stopping the left.
There may already have been a ‘reduction’ in factionalism since so many progressives have abandoned the Labour Party. According to the NEC, the total number of members stands at 415,000 and the number of fully paid-up members is down to 382,000 people.
Back when Corbyn was leader, the Labour membership peaked at over 580,000, making it the biggest social democratic party in Europe. The decline of the party as a mass membership organisation (however flawed) is a short-term victory for Starmer and the Labour right.
However, this might turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. Starmer’s original pitch to Labour members was to make Corbynism ‘electable’, but now he’s clearly broken with all of his 10 pledges it’s hard to see who will campaign for the party. He hopes the working class will just turn out for him, while he chases middle-class Tory voters. It’s a disastrous strategy.
We’ve just seen Starmer give a speech basically abandoning nationalisation, yet a shadow minister contradicted him in tweets saying Labour policy is still to renationalise the railways — just not the energy companies. So we can see rifts in Starmer’s team over this.
Of course, only serious strategists can see the problem. Labour faces a tension between the people they need to mobilise and keep on side and the people they want to win over. There’s no way for Starmer to square this circle without facing the Labour right. We can expect worse policy announcements followed by muddled tweets.
John Foster: That’s disturbing, but not surprising. The Labour Party seems to be on the point of joining the SPD in Germany as a party of the imaginary centre. That is to say, they appear to want to tack toward a central position between their rightward shifting competitors (be they the Tories or the CDU/CSU) and their ever more distantly related base on the left.
This sort of “extreme centrism” has a track record of bad outcomes for social democratic parties. Trying to make them acceptable to business and pursuing chimerical centrist voters generally ends up with the party on the hook for things that tend to alienate its base.
The SPD experience with the Hartz labour market reforms is a good example of this. They were the nail in the coffin for Gerhard Schröder’s majority in the Bundestag. The SPD lost more than 100 seats in the elections of 2005 and 2009, and one of the main (although not the only) reasons for this was they were in the position of dropping the hammer on their own voter base.
Labour’s problem now seems to be that it doesn’t really know what it is. As you point out, they’ve had some problems with consistency of messaging, another irony given the way that Starmer undermined Corbyn on Brexit.
But there also seems to be a widespread belief among party officials of a more rightward persuasion that it will be possible to either carry a significant proportion of traditional Labour voters into a more unapologetically neoliberal party, or to replace them with voters from the centre.
It’s doubtful that there is any state of the world in which that actually happens. It will be interesting to see what’s left once this particular ship hits the rocks.
Photograph courtesy of Jeremy Corbyn. Published under a Creative Commons license.