Editor’s note: Jamie Stern-Weiner’s ebook “Antisemitism and the Labour Party” is available for free download here on the Verso’s website.
It has been prominently and persistently asserted that there is a “crisis” of antisemitism in the Labour Party. The charge-sheet comprises three main allegations: that antisemitism in Labour is widespread, that it has become institutionalized, and that elected party leader Jeremy Corbyn is himself an antisemite.
This last claim—a recent invention even in the context of the “Labour antisemitism” campaign—is the most tenuous, flying as it does in the face of Corbyn’s entire documented political career. From April 1977, when he helped organize the defense of Jewish-populated Wood Green from a National Front rally; to the 1980s, when he headed Anti-Fascist Action and was arrested protesting apartheid in South Africa; to June 2015, when he worked with antifascists to prevent a neo-Nazi march on Golders Green; to his first day as Labour Party leader, when he spoke at a demonstration in support of refugees—throughout his political life, Jeremy Corbyn has been a dedicated and principled anti-racist campaigner.
The Jewish Socialists’ Group recalls that it has “worked alongside Jeremy Corbyn in campaigns against all forms of racism and bigotry, including antisemitism, for many years.” From the other end of the political spectrum, distinguished British Jewish historian Geoffrey Alderman observes that, “[a]s a matter of fact, Jeremy Corbyn has an impressive demonstrable record of supporting Jewish communal initiatives.” John Bercow, the Jewish former Conservative MP and Speaker of the House of Commons, testifies that, having known Corbyn over two decades, he has “never detected a whiff of antisemitism” about him. Joseph Finlay, one-time Deputy Editor of the Jewish Quarterly and founder of several grassroots Jewish organizations, noted in 2018:
“Many people at the heart of the Corbyn team, such as Jon Lansman, James Schneider and Rhea Wolfson are also Jewish. Ed Miliband, the previous party leader, was Jewish (and suffered antisemitism at the hands of the press and the Conservatives). I have been a member for five years and, as a Jew, have had only positive experiences. […] Jeremy Corbyn has been MP for Islington North since 1983—a constituency with a significant Jewish population. Given that he has regularly polled over 60% of the vote (73% in 2017) it seems likely that a sizeable number of Jewish constituents voted for him. As a constituency MP he regularly visited synagogues and has appeared at many Jewish religious and cultural events. […] Whenever there has been a protest against racism, the two people you can always guarantee will be there are Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. […] The idea that Britain’s leading anti-racist politician is the key problem the Jewish community faces is an absurdity, a distraction, and a massive error.”
Prima facie, the allegation that Corbyn is an antisemite is a libel that may be dispensed with.
The remaining two accusations against Labour—concerning prevalence and institutionalization—substantially overlap, since if antisemitism barely existed in Labour it could scarcely have become ‘institutional’. The anti-Labour campaign therefore largely rests upon the empirical claim that antisemitism has become pervasive within the party’s ranks.
Let’s examine whether this allegation withstands scrutiny.
1. Is there an antisemitism crisis in Britain?
Allegations against Labour have gained force from and fed warnings of an antisemitism crisis in Britain more broadly.
But neither polls nor hate crime data reveal such a crisis.
Surveys consistently find that anti-Jewish animus in Britain is low relative both to other countries in Europe and to animus against other minority groups.
Reviewing this data, the respected Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) emphasized in 2017 that:
levels of antisemitism in Great Britain are among the lowest in the world. British Jews constitute a religious and ethnic group that is seen overwhelmingly positively by an absolute majority of the British population: about 70 percent of the population of Great Britain have a favorable opinion of Jews and do not entertain any antisemitic ideas or views at all.
Such antisemitic attitudes as do exist in British society do not appear to translate into socioeconomic discrimination. Most British Jews recognize that being Jewish closes few if any doors in contemporary Britain—on the contrary, relative both to the general population and to other ethnoreligious minority groups, “British Jews are in the aggregate disproportionately wealthy, educated, and professionally successful.” At the elite end of the spectrum, despite comprising just half of one percent of the population, British Jews made up around 10 percent of the 2014 Sunday Times Rich List and are amply represented in our politics, media, and cultural life.
Nor are there rational grounds to fear the introduction of anti-Jewish policies in the foreseeable future. Quite the contrary. As former JPR director Antony Lerman writes, “Jews are the most secure, establishment-protected, privileged, and assimilated of the country’s minority communities,” and benefit from many “strong countervailing forces against antisemitism in the UK.”
“To ignore this,” he argues, “is to fail to recognize that there is probably no place more secure for Jews anywhere else in the world.”
It is true that the number of reports of antisemitic hate crimes has increased in recent years, consistent with the trend for other forms of hate crime: the number of hate crimes of all types recorded by police more than doubled between 2012 to 2013 and 2018 to 2019, and the increase in the number of reports of antisemitic hate crimes appears to be in line with increases in the number of reports of other forms of hate crime.
But as with all forms of hate crime, one cannot assume that an increase in the number of reports means that there has been an increase in the number of real incidents. In fact, Crime Survey data “shows a fall in hate crime over the last decade” and Home Office analysis concluded that the “increases in [recorded] hate crime over the last five years have been mainly driven by improvements in crime recording by the police.” It is reasonable to assume that the same applies to hate crimes against Jews.
2. Has Labour antisemitism increased under Corbyn?
The case against Labour is premised on the claim that its purported ‘antisemitism crisis’ coincided with Jeremy Corbyn’s term as party leader. How else to explain what would otherwise appear a wholly opportunistic furor?
But no persuasive evidence has been presented to demonstrate that antisemitism within the Labour Party has increased since 2015.
It might be argued that the frequency with which alleged instances of antisemitism within the party have been reported in the media and to Labour’s disciplinary apparatus since 2015 testifies to an increase in its prevalence. But, first, the increased frequency of allegations might simply be the result of the ongoing, concerted effort to uncover and publicize such evidence. Labour’s general secretary Jennie Formby related that “dossiers” of complaints had been submitted—most of which implicated individuals who turned out not even to be party members. In addition, many of these allegations were made retrospectively about individuals who joined the party and/or comments made before Corbyn became leader. Already in June 2016, Shami Chakrabarti felt moved to urge “a moratorium on the retrospective trawling of members” social media accounts and past comments; in June 2019, Formby informed Labour MPs that “[m]any . . . complaints refer to social media posts that are up to 8 years old. One specific case […] was a complaint […] about someone who died in 2016.”
It has been insinuated that far-left cranks signed up in droves to support the Corbyn leadership, and that antisemitism in Labour spiked as a result. But this has never been substantiated. The limited data at our disposal suggest that both halves of this claim are untrue: following the Corbyn surge, the average Labour member self-identified as fairly—not radically—left-wing, while a 2017 survey (the largest of its kind ever conducted) found that “[l]evels of antisemitism among those on the left-wing of the political spectrum, including the far-left, are indistinguishable from those found in the general population.”
And according to metrics used by the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA)—a group which has been highly critical of Labour—the prevalence of anti-Jewish prejudices appears to have declined across the political spectrum during Corbyn’s time as leader.
3. Is antisemitism worse in the Labour Party?
No survey measuring anti-Jewish prejudices among Labour and Conservative Party members has been published. Available data indicates that antisemitic attitudes are less prevalent on the Left and among Labour voters—from which constituencies Labour Party members are disproportionately drawn—than on the Right and among Conservative voters.
As the Home Affairs Committee—whose eagerness to malign Labour led it to misrepresent not just the facts but its own assembled testimony—was therefore obliged to concede, “there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.”
4. Is antisemitism widespread among Labour Party members?
No evidence has been presented in support of claims that antisemitism is widespread within the Labour Party, while the only inquiries conducted into these allegations to date reached the opposite conclusion:
- “I have received no evidence that the [Oxford University Labour] Club is itself institutionally antisemitic”—Royall Report, May 2016;
- “The Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism”—Chakrabarti Inquiry, June 2016.
It might be argued that the perception among most British Jews that antisemitism is pervasive within Labour constitutes sufficient evidence. But since only a minority of British Jews have personal experience inside the Labour Party, and since most British Jews opposed the party even when its leader was Jewish, this perception more plausibly reflects the impact of consistently inaccurate and sensationalist reporting on a constituency already disinclined to give Labour the benefit of any doubt.
Jewish members of the Labour Party are arguably in a better position to judge whether the allegations against it are justified. No survey of this group has been published, but it is clear that among them there is, at the very least, disagreement on the question. In written submissions collected over the course of a week in 2018, nearly 150 Jewish Labour members testified that the claims against Labour bore no relation to their own experiences in the party. Prominent Labour antisemitism-mongers themselves avowed, as recently as 2016, that they had “[n]ever experienced any incidence of anti-Semitism from within the party.” These testimonies are difficult to reconcile with allegations that the party is over-run with antisemitism.
The volume of antisemitism-related complaints against Labour members has been cited as evidence that antisemitic discourse in the party is commonplace. A March 2019 survey asked the public to estimate the percentage of Labour members against whom antisemitism complaints had been made. The average response was 34 percent. In reality, as of July 2019, the proportion of Labour Party members subjected to disciplinary procedures—i.e., summoned for a hearing in response to a complaint, but not necessarily found guilty—amounted to less than one-tenth of one percent. As noted above, this figure did not reflect cases that arose through spontaneous reporting by victims but was the product of coordinated efforts to trawl through members’ social media histories for incriminating material.
5. Has the focus on antisemitism been proportionate?
The intense political and media focus on antisemitism—one study counted nearly 5,500 articles across eight national newspapers between June 2015 and March 2019—has conveyed the impression that antisemitism in Britain and/or on the Left is particularly severe. But putting the data on antisemitism in context shows that this is untrue. Other forms of prejudice are more prevalent across the political spectrum while increases in hate crime reports have been recorded across the full range of protected characteristics. (Figs. 1 and 3 above, 8 below)
The limited data we have on party members’ prejudices also indicates that racism and bigotry are likely to be more widespread in the Conservative Party than in Labour.
Yet within and in relation to the Labour Party, discussion and reform of complaints procedures appears to have been driven predominantly by antisemitism-related concerns. This same one-eyed fixation is evident in broader public debate: thus, even as the campaign to impose a Working Definition of Antisemitism upon the Labour Party generated a protracted national controversy, analogous efforts to promote a Working Definition of Islamophobia attracted near-zero media interest. This despite prima facie credible allegations of institutional barriers to Muslim mobilization within the Labour Party, compelling evidence of anti-Muslim prejudice in the Conservative Party, and authoritative findings of anti-Muslim discrimination in the UK more broadly.
Disproportionate attention to antisemitism, even as other forms of racism are significantly more widespread, and on Labour, even as bigotry is worse in the Conservative Party, misrepresents the real distribution of prejudice and discrimination in Britain and fosters perceptions of an antisemitism ‘crisis’ which are wholly unwarranted.
It has never been in dispute that anti-Jewish attitudes exist within the Labour Party. Such attitudes—along with ten thousand other varieties of bigotry and prejudice—exist in every political party, as they do in the society from which mass memberships are drawn. The recent heated debate has centered around the altogether more serious allegation that antisemitism in Labour has become widespread and institutionalized. Faced with claims that Labour antisemitism poses an existential threat to Jews, on the one side, and arguments that antisemitism is neither widespread nor institutionalized in the party, on the other, it might be tempting to split the difference and assume that the truth lies somewhere in between. But those who care about the fight against antisemitism and other forms of bigotry should avoid this lazy assumption and look instead at the data.
There were no witches in Salem; Jewish elders did not gather in a graveyard at night; a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy did not target Nazi Germany. The allegation that Labour is rife with antisemitism is of a piece with these fantastic antecedents. To judge by the available evidence, the truth of this controversy lies not in the middle but at one pole: there is no “Labour antisemitism crisis.” Should new evidence be unearthed which demonstrates that antisemitism is widespread within the Labour Party, the issue will doubtless warrant renewed attention. In the meantime, the rational response to a baseless allegation is to dismiss it.
This article was originally published by Jewish Voice for Labour on November 26, 2019.