The editorial of Scottish Left Review (120, Nov-Dec 2020) ended with the statement: ‘As we go to print, Jeremy Corbyn has been suspended from the Labour Party. The reason given was Corbyn’s statement that the problem of anti-Semitism in Labour has been ‘dramatically overstated for political reasons’, an observation shared by the SLR. It is a grave attempt to restrict the right of reply and open debate.’ As a member of the magazine’s editorial committee, I disagree with the statement because it focused on the individual, ignored the context and detracted from the significance of the publication of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) ‘Investigation into anti-semitism in the Labour Party’, the serving on the Labour Party of an unlawful act notice under section 21 of the Equality Act 2006 and finding that the Labour Party breached the Equality Act 2010 by acts of indirect discrimination. The report deserved to be acknowledged, however briefly, given we are a ‘non-party’ publication and seek ‘to provide a focal point for thought and discussion for the Scottish left’ according to our mission statement.
The EHRC’s inquiry was prompted by evidenced complaints alleging acts of anti-semitism in the Labour Party and was launched in May 2019. It is worth noting that its investigation was led from Scotland and out with the London bubble. The 128-page report includes seven annexes and examines a wide variety of operational matters including staff training, resourcing of the complaints system and complaint investigation files. It is disappointing to note that the EHRC ‘encountered a number of delays in receiving information, which extended the timeframe of our investigation. At times, we were seriously concerned about the Party’s commitment to working with us and to dedicating enough resources to the matter’ (p18).
The report is critical and makes ‘recommendations for change’ which require to be followed through promptly and ‘the first draft of the action plan’ had to be with the EHRC by 5pm on Thursday 10 December 2020’, and the deadline was met. I doubt the date was randomly chosen as it coincided with the UN’s International Human Rights Day. Its theme matched vision with action: ‘We will reach our common global goals only if we are able to create equal opportunities for all, address the failures exposed and exploited by COVID-19, and apply human rights standards to tackle entrenched, systematic, and intergenerational inequalities, exclusion and discrimination.’
The EHRC evidences a number of problems. For example, despite sustained, intense media attention on how Labour was dealing with allegations of anti-semitism, pernicious coverage by hostile commentators and the negative impact on public opinion, the recommendations from the internal inquiry led by Baroness Chakrabarti in 2016, were not implemented, resulting in ‘significant failings in the way the Labour Party has handled anti-semitism complaints over the last four years.’
In fact, we are reminded that there were two other relevant investigations in 2016: Baroness Royall conducted a specific inquiry into allegations of anti-semitism at Oxford University Labour Club; and the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) published its report ‘Anti-Semitism in the UK’. However, the EHRC concluded that ‘the Party has failed to implement the recommendations made in these reports fully, or to take effective measures to stop anti-semitic conduct from taking place. It is regrettable that many of the concerns we raise here were first raised in these reports over four years ago’.
It remains a puzzle why three reports failed to make the necessary impact, allowing the issues to fester. The EHRC is determined Labour now prioritises reform and has stipulated that the remedial action plan must include timescales and success measures which will be monitored. The EHRC may take enforcement action ‘if the Labour Party fails to meet its commitments’ (p15), such as on operating ‘a transparent and independent anti-semitism complaints process, which ensures that all cases of alleged discrimination, harassment or victimisation are investigated promptly, rigorously and without political interference.’
The EHRC’s report also makes recommendations aimed at ‘all politicians and political leaders’ to adhere to ‘equality law, while still protecting freedom of expression and engaging in the robust and wide-ranging debate that is a core part of living in a democratic society’ (p4). Helpfully, the report cites Articles 10, 11 and 17 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which is given domestic effect through the Human Rights Act 1998 – another law passed by the Labour Government. The rights to freedom of expression and to association do not permit the abuse of other people’s rights and the EHRC illustrates the distinction: Article 10 will protect Labour Party members who, for example, make legitimate criticisms of the Israeli government, or express their opinions on internal Party matters, such as the scale of anti-semitism within the Party, based on their own experience and within the law. It does not protect criticism of Israel that is anti-semitic.
Politicians are entitled to give soundbites but they should refrain from statements which feed the media piranhas intent on discrediting a progressive left political vision. Similarly, supportive media should not shy away from acknowledging operational and leadership failings.
Carole Ewart is a public policy and human rights consultant @EwartHumanRight
• An alternative viewpoint is set out by Sandy Hobbs on pp13-14 in this issue.