Supporters of the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are getting organised. Momentum managed to land a raft of his supporters onto Labour’s National Executive much to the chagrin of the new leader, Sir Keir Starmer. Corbyn has kept quiet, and the left are being ultra-cautious, but they haven’t gone away. There is a deep sense of injustice in the way the former leader, who Sir Keir was commending to the nation as prime minister only a year ago, has been treated for benign remarks that could not possibly be construed as antisemitic. Corbyn cannot be written out of history that easily.
There is a weird echo of recent events in the Scottish National Party. A beloved radical former leader is shunned and cast adrift for heinous offences of which they are innocent in the eyes of their supporters. Many of Alex Salmond’s admirers in the nationalist movement are convinced there was been a plot to remove him, to prevent him returning to active politics, and that the SNP leadership cynically weaponised sexual allegations to do him down.
Similarly, supporters of Jeremy Corbyn believe he became a target of the Establishment because he was too left wing rather than because of any racist tendencies, which they rightly say he has never exhibited in the past. Well, bar the odd wreath inadvertently laid on the grave of a Palestinian militant. Oh, and that Facebook “like” of an anti-capitalist mural that critics said was anti-semitic.
The Equalities Commission is damning of Labour’s mishandling of complaints about antisemitism, and the alleged vilification of members who blew the whistle on it. Though when it comes to actual instances of anti-semitism, it is less convincing. Indeed, the Commission’s report concedes that most of the cases of antisemitism were on social media, which Labour has always said it is unable to control.
Otherwise the Commission criticises Labour for not adopting the Macpherson Principle on hate speech. This is the recommendation in the 1995 Macpherson report into “institutional racism” in the Metropolitan Police which said that all claims of racism or discrimination made by members of an ethic minority, or on their behalf, should automatically be recorded as hate incidents. Whether they are actually racist or not is irrelevant.
Some forces, including Police Scotland, take this to mean that anyone claiming they have been a target of racism must be “believed”, whatever the facts of the case. This has been called the “Tommy Robinson Clause” because, in theory at least ,the police would have to believe his claims of anti-white racism and record them as hate incidents.
The Macpherson principle has been criticised for inviting spurious claims of racism and being an open invitation to members of minority groups to engage in a kind of war of competitive victimisation. For example, insisting that it is anti-semitic to say that Israel is committing genocide in the Palestinian occupied territories, or that it is behaving like the Nazis. That indeed is one of the cases of antisemitism cited as racism by the Equalities Commission report.
Yet it is surely debatable whether this is expressing hatred of Jewish people or merely criticising Israeli foreign policy. It is commonplace for people to claim that everyone from Donald Trump to Recip Erdogan is behaving “like Nazi’s”. Boris Johnson once compared the European Union’s objectives to those of the Nazis. As Johnathan Greenblatt of the American Anti-Defamation League has pointed out, it is just “the most available historical event illustrating right versus wrong”. Some years ago, the American lawyer, Mike Godwin, invented “Godwin’s Law of the Internet” – which hold that “as any online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”.
Obviously, these are particularly objectionable comparisons when Jewish people are involved, but they are not necessarily anti-semitic. After all, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Richard Falk, accused the Israeli government of “ethnic cleansing and genocide” in the Palestinian territories.
The Equalities report accuses the Labour MP Chris Williamson of “making public comments about anti-semitism smears [and] supporting members expelled for antisemitism”. This is presumably a reference to his defence of Ken Livingstone and himself. But surely to defend yourself and others against allegations of antisemitism is not antisemitism in itself. There is no record of Williamson ever saying anything anti-semitic.
Many Labour activists feel very strongly about this. They regard the Palestinian cause as the great moral issue of the age. Many believe that claims of genocide are reasonable that they are being denied the right to criticise Israel. Jeremy Corbyn is now their martyr in chief.
“Sturmer” has been incredibly bold, or reckless, in taking him on. Of course, his suspension could in theory be lifted if Corbyn is sufficiently remorseful. But penitence isn’t Jezza’s style, and he’s not apologising. If Sir Keir allows him back, Labour will be accused of harbouring anti-semitism. The Tories can’t believe their luck.