How Labour Became “Antisemitic”
When pollsters asked the British public what share of Labour members faced complaints of antisemitism, the average guess was 34 percent — over three hundred times the real total. With media insistent that Labour is “riddled with antisemitism,” Jeremy Corbyn’s efforts to fight it have done nothing to placate his critics.
- Interview by
- David Broder
Ever since his shock election to the Labour leadership in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn has been dogged by allegations of “antisemitism.” Both the media and hostile MPs claim he has failed to confront Jew-hate in party ranks — one Tory minister even said Corbyn would be “the first antisemitic Western leader since 1945.” Often bound up with debates on Israel and anti-imperialism, this has become one of the main lines of attack against Corbyn, both within and outside the party.
Yet for all the headlines about “mounting antisemitism” in Labour, we are rarely given any sense of its scale. Data released by the party in February 2019 showed that it had received 1,106 specific complaints of antisemitism since April 2018, of which just 673 regarded actual Labour members. The party membership stands at over half a million: the allegations, even if they were true, concern around 0.1 percent of the total.
Constant media talk of Labour’s “antisemitism crisis” has nonetheless warped all discussion of this issue. This is a key finding of Bad News for Labour, a new book on the party’s handling of antisemitism claims. The study is especially notable for its use of focus groups and polling to gauge public perceptions of the affair: when its authors commissioned Survation to ask 1,009 people how many Labour members faced antisemitism complaints, the average estimate — at 34 percent — was over three hundred times the published figures.
Greg Philo is coauthor of the book. Jacobin’s David Broder asked him about the findings of their study, the Labour leadership’s response to the media controversy around the affair, and the reasons why the party has been unable to draw a line under the issue.
One of the most extraordinary parts of your book is the data on popular perceptions of antisemitism in Labour. Especially astonishing were respondents’ sense of the scale of this issue: the average participant estimated that around a third of Labour members had been reported on the grounds of antisemitism. What explains this?
In the focus groups, we asked people where they had gotten the idea that there were so many complaints of antisemitism. A recurring theme of their answers was the sense that it simply must be on a vast scale, given how much publicity there’s been around it — the sheer amount of fuss and coverage in the media, as they saw it, and the amount of money being put into investigating the issue. There had been extraordinary headlines, for instance, speaking of “Corbyn’s antisemite army” or describing Labour as “riddled with antisemites.” This coverage was what many based their answers on.
The media gave people little sense of the real numbers. Indeed, this is a problem that characterizes news coverage in general: the lack of the information which people need if they are going to critically appreciate what is going on. If a politician says that the government is going to spend “billions” on hospitals, that may sound like a lot, but that’s not so much if we know that the total spending on the National Health Service is £129 billion a year. The BBC’s job is to inform the public — that’s part of its charter. But on this issue, it has clearly not done that.
Some of its coverage has been severely criticized for a lack of balance. Its Panorama program, “Is Labour Anti-Semitic?” had seventeen witnesses attacking the party and just one defending it. Astonishingly, it didn’t include the numbers on reported cases or the percentage of members this represented. 1,593 complaints were made to the BBC about the program — but it wrote to us saying that this was a serious piece of investigative reporting and denying that it was unbalanced.
Both the BBC and even a paper like the Guardian have contributed to public misunderstanding of this issue. They have a moral duty to discuss the new evidence and analysis that we have offered. But both have not covered it. That is a key source of their power — they can impose silence and simply refuse to discuss their own role.
The charges against Corbyn take several different levels. He is accused both of having a “blind spot” toward antisemitism — for instance, his willingness to share platforms with representatives of Hezbollah and Hamas, or his alleged failure to confront antisemites in Labour — but also of hoping to become the “first antisemitic Western leader since 1945.” Is there a radicalization of rhetoric here? And how plausible do people actually find the claims against Corbyn?
Without doubt, there’s a radicalization going on, right across politics, with a level of hatred and violence in speech which is moving into the mainstream. We see this in the Brexit debate.
This is also a radicalization going on in wider society. We have seen a rise in antisemitism in Europe and violent attacks by both jihadists and the far right. Near the end of the book, we cite the case of a Labour activist with experience of countering far-right street protesters: where once they had assured him that they weren’t really fascists, just worried about migrants, now they are marching with their arms in the air, doing Nazi salutes.
So, there is a very real fear of antisemitism, which is not just imaginary. At no point in the book do we suggest there isn’t any antisemitism in Labour — there certainly were some people spreading conspiracy theories, 9/11 truther narratives, and so on. But the questions are, the numbers involved; how Labour is dealing with it; and whether criticism of Israel is itself antisemitic. As a progressive movement, Labour does, indeed, have to remove antisemitism from its ranks. But the media are telling people that it doesn’t want to, or that it is “riddled” with antisemitism, which is not what our analysis found.
You asked people whether they thought the antisemitism allegations had damaged Labour. Your focus group respondents were convinced they had done so, and most thought it would affect how people voted. Yet the risk here is that respondents will say that some controversy will make them less likely to vote for a party, even if they’d be unlikely to support it anyway. What evidence is there that these claims really change people’s thinking?
The polls that exist offer no specific data on how this affects people’s behavior. Instead, what tends to happen with this kind of issue is that people’s attention very quickly moves on. If the election was called tomorrow, the ground would shift again onto Brexit or other issues. It’s very difficult to predict what effect these antisemitism claims would really have on how people vote.
People rarely use logical processes to deconstruct the media narrative. In all the focus groups we had just one person who estimated correctly the scale of complaints against Labour members. When asked about the higher estimates, she said, “But that’s millions of them!” She didn’t know how many members Labour had, but she made an “educated guess” that 0.1 percent had faced antisemitism allegations.
As you mentioned earlier, there are specific forms of antisemitism which can be attached to other ideas — for instance, the way that 9/11 truthers, or people who rant about Bilderberg or the Rothschilds, try to tap into anticapitalist or antiwar sentiment. These especially tally with the kind of conspiracy theories that appeared in the wake of the antiglobalization movement — for instance, the film Zeitgeist. Is the problem, perhaps, that people really do see cases of “left-wing antisemitism,” which the media has used to smear Corbyn?
The Labour leadership has never embraced these kinds of ideas — indeed, it has explicitly distanced itself from them. Corbyn issued a statement saying that the people who advance such theories don’t speak for him. The problem is, while Corbyn has apologized for the “hurt that has been caused to many Jewish people” by this affair, we found that this had gone over the heads of the members of our focus groups, who did not think that he had, in fact, offered a rebuttal.
The Labour leadership could have come out more clearly to give a sense of the scale of the problem and say what’s being done about it. Corbyn and John McDonnell have clearly been surprised, and wrongfooted, by this kind of accusation against them, as lifelong antiracists. Yet it’s also important to remember what else held them back from acting. After he was elected leader, Corbyn had great difficulty in asserting himself over the whole party machine.
A theme of your book is the “public relations disaster” that’s resulted from the handling of these allegations, and Labour’s failure to adopt a more trenchant position in defending itself. But we could also point to Barry Gardiner’s appearance on Sky News in February, where he calmly laid out the number of complaints received, the fact that around 40 percent of them aren’t even directed at Labour members (and thus impossible for the party to do anything about), and the number still in review. Yet it seems nothing can draw a line under the issue, and Labour’s actual steps to expel antisemites aren’t changing the narrative. What can stop all this?
Some of the accusers are unlikely to stop until Corbyn goes. Margaret Hodge, a Labour MP has attacked him and said she’s “not giving up until Corbyn ceases to be leader.” Clearly, there are people in Labour and beyond who don’t want him as leader — basically, they’re fighting for him to leave. If that’s the case, then nothing he does is going to stop it.
I think you’re right that the Labour leadership should have been clearer in stating the real scale of the problem. Barry Gardiner based what he said on figures that had been provided by the party’s general secretary, Jennie Formby. Another problem is, these figures are being attacked by some Labour MPs without producing any firm evidence that they are wrong.
Part of the problem is the difficulty in calling out the reasons for the campaign against Corbyn. For instance, when Harry Potter and Blackadder star Miriam Margolyes, who is also a Labour member, denied that Corbyn was an antisemite, saying that the scale of antisemitism was being exaggerated in order to “stop him becoming prime minister,” she was herself accused of antisemitism: notwithstanding the fact she is Jewish, the Campaign Against Antisemitism replied that “Accusing Jews of making accusations of antisemitism in bad faith in order to aid a hidden agenda is a well-established antisemitic slur.” But do the public themselves see through this?
We haven’t measured people’s perceptions of whether the allegations themselves are exaggerated, but some people in focus groups did indeed think the crisis was overblown. They tended to think that the scale of media coverage of “antisemitism in Labour” was out of step with their own experience — with what they knew about Labour and its history, and, indeed, the people they know personally who are Labour members and voters.
One flash point came in July 2018, when Labour’s National Executive Committee adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. This was itself widely misreported — Labour was described as not accepting the definition “in full” because it wanted to edit four of the eleven “examples” given to illustrate it, notably one saying it is antisemitic to assert that “the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor.” Yet even after Labour bowed to pressure and accepted all the IHRA examples, it doesn’t seem to have disciplined anyone for having called Israel a racist endeavor, even though many activists have chosen to use this exact form of words. Would it have been better to simply accept the IHRA text to begin with, but in practice allow a free discussion of Israel, rather than allow the problem to fester?
One of the points made to us was that it would have been more sensible for Labour to adopt the parliamentary definition issued by the 2016 Select Committee. This cross-party committee itself added caveats to the IHRA examples, making clear that it was not antisemitic to criticize the Israeli government, unless there was also other evidence of antisemitism.
Indeed, the IHRA text is very ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations. There’s a chapter in Bad News for Labour dedicated to the difference between saying “a” state of Israel — any possible state of Israel — is a racist endeavor, and “the state of Israel” — as it is now constituted — is racist. Those are two different things.
Labour could have adopted the Select Committee text to begin with, but instead it sought to come up with its own version. Momentum’s Jon Lansman himself supported this, trying to produce something better than the IHRA’s one. But ultimately Labour accepted the IHRA examples. Indeed, this whole episode is littered with this kind of problem — the leadership makes efforts to draw a line under the matter, that in fact draw more controversy.
One remarkable effect of this controversy is the way that accusations of antisemitism have become more widespread. The headmaster of a £38,000-a-year school said that criticism of private education was akin to antisemitic conspiracy theories in Nazi Germany, and this week the Conservative columnist Toby Young accused the former Tory chancellor Philip Hammond of “disgusting antisemitic conspiracy theories” when he suggested Boris Johnson was colluding with hedge funds over Brexit — even though Hammond made no reference to Jews in any way. It seems curiously antisemitic to suggest that criticism of the powerful is itself an attack on Jews . . .
It devalues the term “antisemitism” to use it in this way. Indeed, after the exchange of tweets Hammond threatened legal action, and Young has apologized.
If you start to say that whenever anyone mentions power and people organizing for their own interests, that somehow has connotations of a global Jewish conspiracy, then you lose the ability to talk about antisemitism as an attack on Jewish people, specifically.
It means it’s not there when you need it to analyze the real and specific racism against Jewish people. So, this instrumental use of antisemitism claims is highly counterproductive. The conclusion of the book is antisemitism and other forms of racism must be stamped out. But at least some of the current arguments are getting in the way of a united front to achieve this.