Equalities watchdog called in as Labour anti-Semitism code sparks anger
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Equalities watchdog called in as Labour anti-Semitism code sparks anger

Party leadership 'simply do not care' according to Labour MP, after NEC ignores community warnings and backs amended anti-Semitism definition

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn laughs next to Jennie Formby at last year's conference in Brighton.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn laughs next to Jennie Formby at last year's conference in Brighton.

Labour’s adoption of a much-criticised code of conduct on anti-Semitism has been branded “contemptible” – as the Jewish Labour Movement prepared to call in the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to investigate.

The national executive committee ignored pleas by dozens of rabbis from across the religious spectrum and its own MPs to reject the code, which adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism without some of its accompanying examples.

The Chief Rabbi had warned those who advocated for anything other than the full IHRA definition – already accepted by the government, CPS and dozens of local authorities – would be on the wrong side of the fight against racism, while the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council argued it was for British Jews to define the racism facing it. But, despite pleas from members including deputy leader Tom Watson, Margaret Beckett and Eddie Izzard, the NEC chose to stand by an earlier decision of a sub-group while agreeing to consult with the community on developing the code. Keith Vaz, the BAME rep on the NEC, referred to what he described as the “bad” treatment of Ken Livingstone in backing the code.

Following the decision, the Board, JLC and CST accused the party of “failing British Jews and failing as an anti-racism party” and urged the NEC to rethink the “self-serving” code “whose main purpose seems to be to protect those who are part of the problem”. A joint statement said: “The decision taken by the NEC today to adopt a watered-down definition of antisemitism will be regarded with a mixture of incredulity and outrage by the overwhelming majority of the UK’s Jews. The suggestion that they will now consult with the Jewish community is an insult, given the complete lack of meaningful consultation up until now.

“This is a sad day for the cause of anti-racism in this country. The strength of feeling across the breadth of the Jewish community could not have been clearer and many will see this as a deliberate provocation, built on misrepresentations of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism and double standards for the treatment of British Jews.” A senior communal source said they would be “disappointed” if the Board and JLC entertained the idea of taking part in any consultation, adding: “Surely you only consult with a process you trust.”

The Jewish Labour Movement’s chair Ivor Caplin told Jewish News his organisation was left with “no option given the rise in anti-Semitic incidents but to refer the matter to the EHRC to conduct an inquiry into the NEC and its code of conduct”. The head of the equalities watchdog had said last year that Labour needs “to do more to establish it is not a racist party”.

A JLM statement said the party acted in a ”reckless” manner in not previously consulting over the issue, adding: “This is not the same Party that wrote the Equalities Act and has proudly championed minorities. The impact on Jewish Labour activists has been unprecedented and severe. Rather than working with the Jewish community to solve this issue, the Labour Party have deliberately chosen to ignore those who know best, with no likelihood of this changing.” The party failed to follow the McPherson principles by communicating with victims of hate, it charged.

It said specifics within the definition are not a question of theory, with attacks due to Israel-related anti-Semitism taking place on the streets of the UK. “It has been suggested that the ever-present media coverage of antisemitism and British Jews, due to the Labour Party’s inability to deal with antisemitism within its ranks, has been an all too important contributor to the sustained period of increased anti-Semitic incidents.” It took Twitter to urge members “stay” and pledged never to give up fighting for the rights of Anglo-Jewry.

MPs also joined the chorus of criticism. Former leader Ed Miliband tweeted that his party should adopt IHRA in full, insisting the argument it is incompatible with criticising Israel is “wrong”. Ian Austin said the NEC adopted “a position on anti-Semitism that allows members to be anti-Semitic”.

Wes Streeting, the MP for Ilford North, branded the move “utterly contemptible” and insisted it could not go unchallenged. He wrote: “The damage it will inflict on our credibility as an anti-racist party is the leadership’s responsibility – and their alone.”

Reflecting on the clear warnings from across the community ahead of the meeting, he added: “It appears they simply do not care. It is impossible to imagine Labour’s leadership would treat any other community in this way.”

Labour had claimed IHRA didn’t go far enough and that its code was the “most detailed and comprehensive” adopted by any political party in Britain. General Secretary Jennie Formby argued most of the examples are adopted “word for word”, with additions “from the UN Charter on Human Rights, the Home Affairs Select Committee report 2016, the Chakrabarti Report and other contemporary sources”.

She said only one example, covering descriptions of Israel as a racist endeavour, is not referenced. Formby told MPs the code “provides the necessary explanation to ensure legitimate criticism of Israeli policies is not silenced while not tolerating comments which deny Jewish people the right to self-determination or hold Israel to unfair standards not expected of other states”.

A Labour Party spokesman said: “The NEC upheld the adoption of the Code of Conduct on anti-Semitism, but in recognition of the serious concerns expressed, agreed to re-open the development of the Code, in consultation with Jewish community organisations and groups, in order to better reflect their views.”

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