OPINION – Jennie Formby: Chief Rabbi can criticise, but here’s why he’s wrong
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OPINION – Jennie Formby: Chief Rabbi can criticise, but here’s why he’s wrong

Writing exclusively for Jewish News, Labour's General Secretary responds to Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis' scathing criticism of Jeremy Corbyn in the Times

Jennie Formby
Gen Sec Jennie Formby
Gen Sec Jennie Formby

On 12 December, everyone should cast their vote according to their conscience and without fear. The key Jewish values of social justice, peace and community are exactly the values that Labour stand for. That there are Jewish people in Britain who feel they may have something to fear from a Labour government is deeply concerning to us.

Rabbi Mirvis has every right to highlight the anxiety that Jewish people feel. Antisemitism is on the rise around the world. Within the Labour Party, it has been deeply troubling that a small number of members have perpetuated conspiratorial thinking and recycled ancient antisemitic tropes, sometimes under the guise of criticising Israel.

Sadly, a minority in our party have adopted a bunker mentality in response, denying the existence of antisemitism in our movement and dismissing the very real experiences of Jewish people. That has never been my position, nor that of Jeremy Corbyn.

Where Rabbi Mirvis and I respectfully part ways is over his claim that our efforts to tackle anti-Jewish racism are “a mendacious fiction”. I want to set out the decisive actions we have taken to tackle antisemitism in the Labour Party.

Shami Chakrabarti and Baroness Royall’s 2016 inquiries made clear that nobody in our party should use Zionist as a term of abuse or compare Israel to Nazi Germany.

Our 2017 Conference passed a rule change, drafted with help from the Jewish Labour Movement, which made the Labour Party the first political party in Britain to have a rule explicitly prohibiting antisemitism.

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When I took over in 2018, it was clear that the party’s slow and cumbersome disciplinary processes were not fit for purpose. So we set up an Antisemitism Working Group from our National Executive Committee which met experts and stakeholders and recommended a number of reforms.

In line with the Macpherson Principle, we made sure every single complaint of antisemitism is recorded. We introduced smaller, specialised NEC antisemitism panels to hear cases monthly (rather than quarterly), advised by an independent barrister with expertise in equality law, ensuring cases are reviewed more swiftly and with sound legal advice. We changed our rules to ensure that all antisemitism complaints are investigated nationally, as complaints of racism should not be subject to the whims of local parties.

A major cause of delays was that the power to expel lay solely with the National Constitutional Committee (NCC), a quasi-judicial disciplinary body created in the 1980s, hearing cases via lengthy trials, often involving lawyers. So, in 2018, we doubled the size of the NCC and introduced new guidelines to enable them to hear antisemitism cases on paper, but these reforms still didn’t allow for indisputable cases of antisemitism to be dealt with immediately.

So this year, Conference approved a major rule-change – initiated by Jeremy Corbyn – to give NEC panels the power to expel members. Now, when someone engages in antisemitism, they can be expelled within weeks – rather than months – of us receiving the complaint. Just this month a number of members have been expelled using these new powers.

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We have doubled the number of staff working on antisemitism disciplinary cases and a designated member of staff works on improving our antisemitism processes. All staff have undertaken antisemitism education delivered by the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, alongside NEC and NCC members.

Staff have developed methods to identify the individuals behind the ‘faceless social media trolls’ that Rabbi Mirvis mentioned. We have created automated tools to search social media histories and detect patterns of behaviour and we have strengthened our membership checking system with a dedicated member of staff vetting membership applications.

And we have improved our recording of information, so that we now have data on the length of time cases take to be dealt with. Analysis of this shows a more than four-fold increase in the rate at which we are now dealing with antisemitism cases.

In line with suggestions from Jewish communal organisations to make our processes more transparent, I have twice published a detailed breakdown of data on antisemitism disciplinary cases and we will be publishing these on a regular basis going forward. As previous publications of our figures have made clear, complaints relate to a small minority of party members, about 0.1%.

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis launched a scathing attack on Jeremy Corbyn, accusing him of being “complicit in prejudice,” adding that Labour “can no longer claim to be the party of diversity, equality and anti-racism…”

While any suggestion that there are thousands of unresolved cases is categorically untrue, in recognition that some older complaints, before new procedures were brought in, were not dealt with swiftly or robustly enough, staff have been conducting audits of historical antisemitism complaints.

While these improvements give me confidence that complaints of antisemitism are thoroughly investigated, I agree with the Rabbi Mirvis that this is not just a matter of procedures or discipline, but of culture and education too.

That is why we have launched proactive education which we are continuing to roll out. This aims to give members the tools to identify antisemitic tropes and conspiracies, and challenge them. Our website “No Place for Antisemitism” includes the IHRA definition of antisemitism as well as materials discussing antisemitism, its history and its modern manifestations in discussions on Zionism and Israel.

To tackle the unhealthy culture around some of these discussions, Jeremy has made clear in video messages, emails to members, articles and speeches that there is no place for antisemitism and that anyone who denies its existence is wrong and is contributing to the problem. And I have communicated to local parties that meetings should not discuss disciplinary procedures or give platforms to members who have been suspended for antisemitism. Working with the Chief Whip and Leader, we’ve made clear MPs must abide by the same principle.

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But we know we will always be playing catch-up, as long as social media platforms allow individuals to spread antisemitism within Labour-supporting networks. Online spaces which are used as fertile breeding ground for antisemitic conspiracy theories should never be allowed to legitimise themselves by hijacking our party’s name. Tech giants have turned a blind eye to this problem for a decade. In 2010 Jewish News reported on this very problem and Jeremy Corbyn signed a motion to Parliament congratulating them on this important investigation.

I personally wrote to the administrators of a number of Facebook groups last year to advise them on how to better moderate content within their groups. And our staff have provided information to Facebook to enable them to close down groups which use Labour’s name to disguise their sharing of racist content. We continue to be in contact with them on this issue.

The list of actions I’ve outlined above is by no means exhaustive, but it demonstrates the serious and extensive work the Labour Party has undertaken to deal with this issue. We know we have further to go to root out antisemitism, but I believe we are firmly on the path to achieving that.

The Labour Party seeks to build a better world, free from hatred and intolerance. To do that we must build a movement in which Jewish people feel not only safe and secure, but also celebrated, respected and welcome.

This is an objective to which I am fully committed and which I will never cease to pursue.

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