Tuesday, 27 September 2022

The Importance of Being in Denial

Late last month an interview was published that you probably never saw. You never saw it not because it was tedious or inconsequential but because of the opposite. It took apart the consensus narrative on which British politics has rested for the past four or more years. The result has been silence. The arguments it contained are not disputed but rather the continued existence of the perilously shaky edifice that is British political common sense depends on maintaining that it never existed.

The interview is with Geoffrey Bindman, renowned human rights lawyer and former deputy leader of Camden council. He is a member of the Labour party, who, according to his own admission, straddles left/right divides. He is, incidentally, also Jewish.

Bindman addresses the notion that antisemitism was rife the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn and that Keir Starmer has shouldered the burden of ridding the party of this stain by expelling the guilty parties. “You can look at all the statistics and studies that have been made,” says Bindman. “If you look at the facts you can’t justify what Keir has said or done unless he’s using it as a pretext. A political strategy. That’s all I can say.”

He is particularly dismissive of the notion that Corbyn himself is antisemitic. “I like Jeremy tremendously,” he says. “…. But he has his faults. And part of his problem is he's too honest and too decent to be an ideal leader. He's not tactical. He just says what he thinks, which gets him into trouble. And he never defends himself.”

Corbyn’s continued suspension from the Parliamentary Labour party is unprecedented in British political history. Disgraced former political leaders have never been treated in anything like this fashion. Neville ‘In the name of God, go’ Chamberlain – replaced by Churchill as PM after the botched Norway campaign of 1940 – remained leader of the Conservative party and a member of the War Cabinet. George Lansbury, forced to resign as Labour party leader in 1935 because of his pacifist stance, continued to sit as a Labour MP until his death five years later. His former deputy, Clement Attlee, paid tribute to him as a “champion of the weak”.

Not so Corbyn, who has lived in the political equivalent of outer Siberia since claiming that – quite correctly – that “[A]nyone claiming there is no antisemitism in the Labour Party is wrong … but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media”. The Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, who you might imagine would have resolutely defended him as one of their own, could muster little more than a mildly riled press release. And even that wasn’t unanimous. Labour MPs in general have treated him like a pariah, refusing to be seen together in photos  and remaining unmoved when someone spat in his face during the height of Covid (which could have been fatal).

The lawyer Martin Forde, author of the eponymous Report into the leaked report of the work of Labour’s Legal and Governance Unit, lauded the compilers of the leaked report for not succumbing to “denialism” about the seriousness of antisemitism in the party. But it strikes me that, for the sake of historical truth and any future democracy may have in this country, a measure of denialism is exactly what is needed. As Bindman says in reference to the EHRC finding that the Labour party broke equality law, “the worst part of it was the party took it all lying down …. They accepted it when they should have challenged it.”

This denialism should take two main forms:

1. Jeremy Corbyn is himself not antisemitic, nor did he protect antisemites from exposure

The ‘mature’ Labour antisemitism ‘crisis’ narrative, in full flow from 2018, did not content itself with claiming that the party itself was riddled to the core with antisemites. It also asserted that Corbyn himself was personally so full of animosity towards Jews that he represented an “existential threat” , that, should he be elected Prime Minister, he’d be the first antisemite in government in the West since the Second World War, and that he even planned to “reopen Auschwitz”.

The companion piece of this effluvium was that Corbyn, in league with his team of like-minded crony advisers, was badgering away behind the scenes endeavouring to shield the antisemites his leadership had attracted into the Labour party from public exposure and sanction.

This was the story that blazed its way across the media in the spring of 2019, with The Observer claiming that the Labour leadership “opposed recommendations to suspend several party activists accused of antisemitism”.  The Sun followed suit with allegations of “meddling” by Corbyn and co. to prevent their “friends” getting kicked out of the party. The iconoclastic Private Eye joined in with a claim of 100,000 emails revealing “the protection of anti-Semites … on a scale the public does not begin to understand”.

The trouble is this cache of damning emails doesn’t appear to exist. Or if it does exist it indicates an entirely different motivation to the one presented. The evidence points in the opposite direction. When Corbyn was finally able to choose the General-Secretary he wanted – Jennie Formby – the prosecution of internal antisemitism cases tripled. The EHRC report into antisemitism in the Labour party did indeed find that the leadership had interfered in cases (which it found was unlawful), but mainly to speed them up. The aforementioned Forde report from July of this year called out the “wholly misleading media reports” suggesting that Corbyn’s staff “had aggressively imposed themselves on the process against HQ’s wishes.” In fact, says Forde, they did so at the request of the Governance and Legal Unit (the part of the Labour party bureaucracy responsible for complaints about member behaviour) and “in good faith”.

In truth Corbyn responded with alacrity to claims of antisemitism within the Labour party; something that cannot be said of his predecessors. He commissioned the Royall Report into allegations of antisemitism at Oxford University Labour Club and the Chakrabarti Inquiry into antisemitism in the wider party both within a year of becoming leader.  The latter, certainly, has been airbrushed out of existence by parts of the Labour party and the media.

Corbyn is still facing the demand that he apologises unequivocally, unambiguously and without reservation for his comments in response to the EHRC inquiry nearly two years ago. Though whether that will gain him readmission to the Parliamentary Labour party is a moot point. However, on this evidence, other people should be apologising to him, not the other way around.

2. Labour under Corbyn was not overrun with antisemitism, nor was it institutionally antisemitic.

Corbyn, as can be seen above, did not respond to the EHRC report by claiming – to use Starmer’s résumé, obediently parroted by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg – that antisemitism in Labour was “all exaggerated”. He explicitly stated that there was antisemitism in the Labour party, “sometimes voiced by people who think of themselves as on the left”, but that its scale had been “dramatically overstated”. That seems, notwithstanding the ructions it produced, quite a realistic assessment of the true situation.

As cited at the time by Corbyn, statistics indicated that only 0.3% of Labour members had been accused of antisemitism with allegations serious enough to warrant an investigation. That figure does not authenticate wild claims that the party was a “cesspool” of antisemitism, that it was an inherently racist party, that it was “the party of Holocaust denial”, or that it was afflicted by “epic” levels of antisemitism. Nor does it justify false assertions from the top of the party that Labour under Corbyn had been found guilty of institutional antisemitism by the EHRC.

It might be argued that the bare figures don’t encapsulate the “seriousness” of antisemitism in the Labour party. Martin Forde takes this line, praising the compilers of the leaked report for not surrendering to the notion that allegations of antisemitism were nothing more than a smear.

And there is evidence of the existence of antisemitism in the orbit of the Labour party that wasn’t simply confected or ‘weaponised’ to attack Corbyn. For example, the book Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party & Public Belief ­­– which cannot be accused of being hostile to the Corbyn project as it is source for the opinion poll finding that the public believed 34% (not the real figure of 0.3%) of Labour members had been accused of antisemitism ­– lists several examples, gleaned from interviews with Labour activists, of seemingly genuine antisemitism.

These include the creation of antisemitic sub-group with a Constituency Labour Party that posted four or five articles a day all about “blood libel, Rothschild, conspiracy etc.”, culminating in “outright holocaust denial”. Another activist who had administered the left-wing Red Labour Twitter account highlighted several instances of online antisemitism “from people who identify as Labour left”, enough “to have reported at least a dozen people a year”.

Likewise the case of a council candidate sharing an article on holocaust denial (before the Corbyn era it should be pointed out) does not appear fabricated.

That said, of the 15 Labour activists interviewed in Bad News for Labour, 11 reported seeing no antisemitism at all in party circles, with one remarking, “I am completely at a loss to understand what this antisemitism row is all about.”

That is why many activists reacted with incredulity when asked by the soft left to sign a letter in March 2019 saying they had personally witnessed antisemitism in the Labour party. It’s why there is no reason to doubt Geoffrey Bindman’s sincerity when he says, “I have had close involvement with the Labour Party for many years, and I can say that I've never really experienced antisemitism among fellow Labour Party members or in Labour meetings.” Curiously (Don’t) Change UK defector and former leadership hopeful Chukka Umunna said the same thing before he got with the programme.

Attempts to substantiate the notion that antisemitism was rampant in Corbyn’s Labour party always seem to fall down on the specifics. For example, the EHRC report lists “evidence of antisemitic conduct by an ‘ordinary’ members of the Labour party”. This list includes “comparing Israelis to Hitler or the Nazis” and deriding a witch-hunt in the Labour party or blaming the “Israeli lobby” for the volume of complaints. The former depends on the details: for example in 2011 the sociologist and historian of the holocaust Zygmunt Bauman compared the West Bank separation wall to the Warsaw Ghetto and he clearly wasn’t antisemitic. The latter just isn’t antisemitic. Nor is there any attempt to identify how common this conduct was in the context of rapidly growing Labour party membership under Corbyn which peaked at just under a sixth of the population of Wales.

There are grounds to be suspicious of the large volume of complaints received about antisemitism. According to the leaked data used in the Aljazeera documentary The Labour Files, 23% of complaints about antisemitism in the Corbyn era came from one person. Corbyn staffer Phil Bevin was seconded onto logging antisemitism complaints (to get rid of the backlog) and reports that the majority he saw came from two individuals. “There was a lot of duplication of the complaints, in terms of they were about the same people for the same things,” he claims. “And very often – probably more often than not – it wasn’t specified whether they were actually Labour members”.

And the whole narrative about unbridled antisemitism in the Labour party under Corbyn is undermined by the fact that the crackdown on it avidly pursued by his successor has disproportionately target Jews. Jewish members of the Labour party are five times more likely to be investigated for antisemitism than non-Jewish members. Overall at least 56 Jewish Labour members have been investigated, suspended or expelled from antisemitism (1.09.00). This is seriously odd. It’s akin to an investigation into anti-Black racism singling out black people or one into Islamophobia going after Muslims. It must also be case that the 56 form part of segment of 0.3% Labour members charged with allegedly ‘genuine’ antisemitism.

The full quote from Corbyn adviser and ex-Guardian journalist Seamus Milne that was selectively truncated in the BBC Panorama documentary ‘Is Labour Antisemitic?’ ironically gives a good summary of the absurd situation that has actually transpired. “If we are more than very occasionally using disciplinary action against Jewish members for antisemitism,” he wrote, “something’s going wrong and we’re muddling up political disputes with racism.”

In truth, the Labour antisemitism ‘crisis’ was and is a textbook example of a moral panic. A group of people perceived as threatening to society’s interests – in this case the Corbynite Left – are accused of something because the way in which they are threatening cannot be faced head on. What they are accused of may contain a grain of truth but it is vastly blown out of proportion. However, it is in the nature of moral panics that what really drives them is never openly admitted. Especially in Britain the demand for new moral panics is an unending feature of politics.

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