Antisemitism in the Labour Party: A Failure of British Politics and Media
A controversy composed of antisemitic comments and allegations on social media by Labour MPs.
Attacks on Jewish Labour MPs.
Two inquiries into antisemitism only for the Labour Party.
The downplays of antisemitic attitudes.
Theories about the Israeli government, Jewish communities and the Palestinian government.
How did we get to this point? And what part has the media played?
On March 2018, the Jewish Communal bodies organised an unprecedented demonstration outside Parliament to protest antisemitism in the Labour Party.
In February 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) launches an investigation into allegations of antisemitism within the Labour Party.
In July 2019, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) proposes the Labour Party adopt their official working definition of antisemitism. In the first instance, the Labour party rejects the full definition. After further revision, the full IHRA definition is adopted by the Party.
That same month, the BBC releases a Panorama special consisting of staff interviews from the Labour Party dispute team dealing a hammer blow to the party under Corbyn. Before the results of IHRA's investigation, the Labour Party leaks a controversial 860-page report of evidence against the allegations made by BBC’s Panorama.
Fast forward to October 2020, Jeremy Corbyn is suspended from the Labour Party due to downplaying the findings of the EHRC enquiry results, claiming that the scale of antisemitism within the Labour Party had been 'dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the Party'. This issue brought forward a criticism Corbyn made in 2013 towards a group of British Zionists claiming they understood English irony less than the Palestinian ambassador they were misrepresenting, which ‘proved’ Corbyn was ‘antisemitic’.
Amongst the confusion, there is some irony to this situation as well. For much of its history, the Labour Party benefitted from widespread support from the British Jewish community. The Party is known as the most pro-Zionist Party, and to this day describes itself as the natural opponent of racism and antisemitism. However, the Party is still under fire from the media and surrounded by ambiguous information, contradictory opinions, baseless claims, biased reporting of events, and most importantly, controversy.
So, how did this happen?
A general overview of the entire scandal presents two sides of the argument. One side claims that Jeremy Corbyn's' leadership and the Labour Party are antisemitic, whilst the other side claims the scandal was a campaign of ‘misinformation’ by the right-wing, designed to discredit Corbyn and the left-wing.
However, answering this question poses several challenges. Firstly, the presence of antisemitism within political parties is not just a news flash. But in this case, discussions around the topic of antisemitism centred only on the Labour Party. Secondly, trying to find accurate information about real events means relying on the media’s “objectivity” and “impartiality” which remains questionable. We’ll return to this point later.
For now, let's look at some of the events that played a catalyst role in this scandal.
Rewind to 2012 – former London mayor Ken Livingstone (and a former hard-left member of the Labour Party), made a set of public remarks towards a group of Jewish Supporters and said that ‘before Hitler was elected.. [he] was supporting Zionism”. In 2017, Livingstone was found guilty and suspended by the Labour Party for bringing the Party into disrepute by suggesting Hitler supported Zionism, and for defending Labour MP Naz Shah’s antisemitic social media comments.
However, in this article, Ken Livingstone himself explains his side of such claims. He explains he was not contacted by any journalist to discuss his claims. But this side of the story was never aired by popular media outlets.
The Kalen Ockerman mural
Meanwhile, in 2012, Kalen Ockerman painted a mural in East London, depicting a group of individuals sitting around a Monopoly board. The figures were compared by the US Holocaust historian Deborah E. Lipstadt, stating that the painted individuals were almost identical to caricatures of Jewish people that appeared in the Nazi propaganda weekly Der Sturmer. East London’s council ordered the removal of the mural, to which the artist responded by saying that the mural depicted an elite banking cartel, particularly the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers.
While this was happening, Jeremy Corbyn defended the artist on Facebook. However, years later, in 2018, Corbyn publicly apologised for his comments, claiming ‘he did not realise’ the gravity of the depiction.
Corbyn's Anti-Zionist comments
On 23rd of August 2018, Daily Mail brought to light a five-year-old video of Corbyn telling a pro-Palestinian group that “Zionists… have two problems. One is they don’t want to study history, and secondly, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony either.” This comment sparked reactions from Johnathan Sacks, Britain’s former chief rabbi, in which he stated that Corbyn’s remark is “the most offensive statement made by a senior British politician since Enoch Powell’s 1996 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech”. A reaction that would later be a factor in Labour’s antisemitism press crisis dominating the headlines.
As antisemitism scandals began to rise, the Labour Party started making the headlines for not taking the opportunity to reject the ancient anti-Jewish prejudices that had become commonplace within the Party. Meanwhile, British Jews began feeling more exposed, unsafe and hounded out due to the failure of institutions to protect them from the racists among us.
While news outlets were erupting with accusatory headlines against the Labour Party, very few mentioned that the Party asked the former Human Rights group Liberty to lead an inquiry into the allegations. Shami Chakrabarti launched an independent investigation into allegations of antisemitism within the Party. The investigation concluded that the Party is not 'overrun by antisemitism, but there is an occasionally toxic atmosphere".
In the same vein, another investigation by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee into the Labour Party, for which Jeremy Corbyn himself gave evidence, concluded that the leader:
“does not fully appreciate the distinct nature of post-Second World War antisemitism”.
“Jewish Labour MPs have been subject to appalling levels of abuse, including death threats from individuals purporting to be supporters of Mr Corbyn. The labour leader is not directly responsible for abuse committed in his name, but we believe that his lack of consistent leadership on this issue…created what some have referred to as a ‘safe space’ for those with vile attitudes towards Jewish people”.
After EHRC’s investigation into claims of antisemitism in the Labour Party, the Party has been found responsible for unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination. The whole Party.
The analysis of the report pointed to a culture within the party which does not do enough to prevent antisemitism and could be seen to accept it. Moreover, it found evidence of political interference in the complaints process, which puts the person making a complaint at a disadvantage, potentially facing different treatment as their complaint would not be handled fairly. The report described a collective, not an individual failure of leadership. Interestingly, both the Chakrabarti report and the EHCR report found, a similar theme of a flawed process in the Labour Party.
Most public debates on this issue have been conducted principally on lack of clear evidence. This is partly due to the way media outlets covered the topic.
At the beginning of the scandal, it was mainly reported by right-leaning papers The Times, The Sun, The Evening Standard, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, and one left-leaning, The Guardian.
For example, when the Labour Party rejected the working IHRA definition, the media presented the entire process in a skewed way. In the beginning, various popular media outlets condemned the Party for not adopting the full definition by saying that it is an 'internationally-recognised definition'. However, at that time, only eight countries had formally adopted it - the United Kingdom, Israel, Austria, Romania, Germany, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Moldova. At the same time, there was almost no media curiosity about the fact that UK's ruling Conservative party in 2018 hadn’t adopted IHRA's definition, nor its code of conduct.
"There was almost no media curiosity about the fact that UK's ruling Conservative party in 2018 hadn’t adopted IHRA's definition, nor its code of conduct."
These narratives influenced online conversations and continued to spread on the web, largely through alternative media sites. Unfortunately, the consequence of this is that many Jewish Labour MPS or other people raising concerns about antisemitism have either been shut down or attacked online. Some senior academics condemn the anti-Corbyn bias in media coverage of the antisemitism debate. They argue that not only did the media lack context and perspective but relied upon one-sided ambiguous sources. Claims circulating media should not be downplayed but should be understood in the wider context of media’s failings when reporting on a narrow range of sources.
Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief by Greg Philo tracks the origins and outcomes of the accusations and perceptions of the scandal. In their book, the five authors find records and distortions in the news media and present detailed evidence from both sides. The authors equally discovered that in 2019, about a third of Labour Party members had been reported for antisemitism when in reality, the figure was less than 0.1%. This belief from the poll is due to the five and a half thousand stories which appeared between 2013 and 2018 claiming with little to no evidence that Corbyn and the Labour Party are antisemitic.
More broadly, there has been a large media imbalance with reporting antisemitism in the Labour Party, where sources such as the Guardian and BBC News were the most prevalent in not quoting an accurate cross-section of sources for comment. This included myriad inaccuracies and distortions in online and television news, skewed sources, the omission of essential context, misquotations, and false allegations.
One of the largest media controversies comes from the BBC’s flagship Panorama, ‘Is Labour Anti-Semitic?’. The documentary depicts interviews given by staff in Labour’s disputes team, saying they did their best to tackle a rising tide of antisemitism complaints but were continually dragged down by interference from Jeremy Corbyn’s team.
However, an 860-page report was leaked to the media by the Party, offering perspectives contradictory to the one created by BBC’s Panorama.
The report contains hundreds of pages of WhatsApp messages, emails, texts conversations, allegedly from the Party’s senior management team. Some of those who gave interviews to the BBC's Panorama were guilty of the exact failings that they criticised Corbyn of. For example, Sam Matthews (former head of the dispute teams) had the most powerful testimony, but his messages are found within the report.
All of this begs the question – is antisemitism more of a problem within Labour as opposed to other UK parties?
To answer this question would mean that other parties should be investigated in the same way the Labour Party has been. However, the UK media and political environment has a history of inadequately or unequally handling different forms of racism.
One example of this came earlier this year as the EHRC decided not to investigate the widespread complaints raised about Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. However, current conservative party leader Boris Johnson, during his tenure as editor of The Spectator employed Panagiotis Theodoracopoluos – known as Taki - a Greek socialite and well-established anti-Semite. He has openly propagated controversial and racist articles within the High Life gossip column magazine for many years, which is still active to this day. Allegedly, in 2001, the Boris Johnson edited a Taki piece that outraged the then-owner of the magazine Conrad Black. Whether Boris Johnson has any contact with Panagiotis Theodoracopoluos remains unknown.
Just as the investigation into antisemitism within the Labour Party created a national scandal, the Conservative side should be receiving the exact same investigation and attention, when in fact, they are not receiving any media attention at all.
For more resources on this issue, head to our dedicated Racism, Islamophobia & Antisemitism section.