Lawyer Martin Forde has finally published a report on the Labour Party’s bitter factional wars under Jeremy Corbyn. The findings of the report show that the case against Corbyn made by his opponents was a shameless and cynical frame-up.
Keir Starmer speaking at the 2020 UK Labour Party leadership election hustings in Bristol, England, on the morning of February 1, 2020. (Rwendland / Wikimedia Commons)
When Martin Forde’s report on the Labour Party’s internal culture finally saw the light of day on Tuesday, the reaction from supporters of the movement that developed around Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was mixed. On the one hand, it was a relief to discover that Forde had not delivered an egregious whitewash.
If he had done so, there would have been no pushback from any important section of the British media or its political class, so we could not take anything for granted. Forde’s willingness to state the facts on several key points was a positive intervention in a discursive field shaped above all by contempt for the “reality-based community,” as a George W. Bush administration official once derisively called it.
On the other hand, the gravitational pull of conventional wisdom on the subject of the Labour Party is so great that it would take more than a lawyer’s report to escape its orbit. Keir Starmer’s leadership team, granted the privilege of anonymity by its embedded reporters, simply lied about the contents of the report, while liberal media outlets ignored all its most significant findings.
Forde is not primarily responsible for this. However, he made it easier for those determined to ignore the evidence by encasing his principal findings in a framework that holds both sides of the party’s factional divide responsible for the dysfunctions that he identifies.
In itself, this is a major departure from the standard media narrative, which presents Labour’s civil war as a struggle between good and evil in which the former camp mercifully prevailed over Corbyn and his army of Trotskyite goblins and antisemitic orcs. Yet Forde’s superficially evenhanded framing cannot be reconciled with the material that he presents. In order to sustain it, he has to apply a double standard, criticizing the Labour left on the basis of speculation and false equivalences while hesitating to draw negative conclusions about the Labour right when the facts permit no other interpretation.
Forde’s inconsistency almost certainly reflects the stifling pressure of orthodoxy rather than any conscious desire to hide the truth. But it means we have to read his report carefully and connect the dots at several important points where he declines to do so. Once we have done so, it sheds a dazzling light on the nature of Britain’s power structure. This is far more than a story about the internal life of one political party — it helps us to understand how Britain is ruled, and why it came to be in its current state.
Setting the Record Straight
Starmer commissioned Forde to produce this document in the first place as a response to another report on Labour’s organizational culture that was leaked to the press in April 2020. Originally intended as a submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), that report presented an unflattering picture of Corbyn’s inner-party opponents. Its main targets were a coterie of full-time party officials at Labour’s Southside headquarters who had reluctantly coexisted with Corbyn’s leadership between 2015 and 2018 before transforming themselves into some of his most strident and influential critics in the British media.
Much of the media commentary on Labour’s internal battles fixated on claims of ‘abuse’ or ‘bullying’ rather than substantial political disagreements.
To begin with, Forde affirms that the messages reproduced in the leaked report are a reliable source of information about the attitudes of these senior officials:
It has been put to us by a number of witnesses that the extracts of the messages quoted in the Leaked Report were cherrypicked and selectively edited, such that the quotes that appear in the Leaked Report are both unrepresentative and misleading. Having reviewed the transcripts and considered evidence from many of those involved, we do not agree. We find that the messages on the SMT WhatsApp reveal deplorably factional and insensitive, and at times discriminatory, attitudes expressed by many of the Party’s most senior staff.
We accept that the Leaked Report was itself a factional document with an agenda to advance, and that the quoted messages were selected pursuant to that agenda. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the SMT WhatsApp transcripts (which run to some 1,200 pages) and the instant messages consist of perfectly acceptable discussions about work or personal lives, and we accept that the quoted messages appear more shocking when read without the cushioning of that more anodyne material. Nevertheless, the substance of the quoted messages is concerning — and totally inappropriate from senior staff of a purportedly progressive political party — and the selective editing does not equate to an overall distortion of the quoted messages’ meaning; we do not consider that there was a conspiracy on the part of the Leaked Report’s authors to distort them.
Forde goes on to suggest that “in a few cases, comments were presented in a misleading way.” He gives one example of this — the report’s summary of a discussion about the Labour MP and Corbyn ally Diane Abbott — but insists that the comments about Abbott were nonetheless “unprofessional, unkind, and entirely inappropriate” and that they may have been “misinterpreted in good faith.”
In any case, this was not representative of the whole report: “In the main, our view is that the messages quoted in the Leaked Report fairly represent the tone and contents of the discussions about Jeremy Corbyn, his staff, and the Party’s Left.” Forde’s overall assessment of the “tone and contents” of these messages is damning:
We have taken into account that many of the comments were made in jest and were not intended seriously or literally (contrary, on occasion, to the Leaked Report’s framing of them); that does not in our view negate all criticism of them. It is (or should be) self-evident that saying that you hope someone has been run over by a train, or that someone deserves to die in a fire, is reprehensible even if you are “joking”; for Party staff to consider such “jokes” acceptable in relation to colleagues or Party members suggests to us that they had become detached from both professional and personal norms.
In a gratuitous attempt at balance, Forde says that he “can only speculate if a similar online group chat was used by the opposite faction where they too could comment on the febrile workplace situation and perceived attitudes of staff towards them.” Since Forde offers no empirical basis for such speculation, we can disregard it and stick to the facts.
It is worth lingering over the sheer nastiness of this behavior, because so much of the media commentary on Labour’s internal battles fixated on claims of “abuse” or “bullying” rather than substantial political disagreements. Anyone who relied upon that commentary would have gathered the impression that such unpleasantness was entirely one-sided, with supporters of the Labour left directing a torrent of abuse at the delicate flowers of the Labour right. This version of events was always a bad joke, as the reporters and pundits who passed it on to the British public must certainly have been aware.
When Forde discusses the question of Labour’s factional divide in the round, he largely gives readers the impression that it was six of one, half a dozen of the other, and that the problem might have been resolved or attenuated if there was more generosity and good will on both sides. This glosses over two key points.
First of all, the officials at Labour HQ were appointed rather than elected. Forde himself states that their function in the party should have been similar to that of civil servants in the state bureaucracy:
The revelations in the Leaked Report of attitudes of senior HQ staff towards the Corbyn leadership clearly go further than is appropriate for a permanent “civil service” role. There are certain situations where arguably it is legitimate for the Party’s “civil servants” to thwart the parliamentary leadership’s intentions — for example if their proposed actions are unlawful or breach the Party’s own Rules or threaten the party’s financial viability. But whatever their personal views a Party “civil service” is supposed to support at any given time the general political direction of the leadership as well as to maintain the Party machine.
All tendencies in the Labour Party had agreed on the new system for electing a leader that was used for the first time in 2015. Forde claims that the party membership was “normally overwhelmingly Left” in its inclinations, which is not accurate: in 2010, the most popular candidate with Labour members was David Miliband, Tony Blair’s political legatee.
If the Labour bureaucracy refused to accept Corbyn’s mandate, that simply means they were refusing to do the jobs for which they were paid.
At any rate, Labour MPs and other stakeholders were perfectly happy to adopt a system that gave the membership responsibility for choosing a leader. Corbyn won a resounding victory on the basis of that system and was reelected by party members the following year after a leadership heave. If the Labour bureaucracy refused to accept his mandate, that simply means they were refusing to do the jobs for which they were paid.
Second, the roots of Labour factionalism did not lie in personal mistrust or misunderstanding but rather in the most profound questions of ideology and material interest. As Forde correctly observes, the hostility of Labour officials to Corbyn reflected the wider outlook of the party’s right-wing tendency, which was deeply entrenched in the Parliamentary Labour Party. It was not simply a difference of opinion about the best route to electoral success. The party’s left and right factions had radically divergent views of what Labour should be doing if and when it managed to form a government.
Forde does at least acknowledge the existence of different tendencies within the party, which he refers to as the left and right factions (while stressing that “neither faction is a monolith”). One of the main barriers to sensible discussion of Labour’s internal life over the past few years has been the refusal of the party’s right wing to come clean about its own existence.
Politicians who are clearly hostile to the mildest forms of social democracy insist on describing themselves as social democrats or even as socialists. Now that Starmer has come down hard against striking workers, in the clearest possible breach with the Corbyn years (and his own campaign pledges), we can hopefully dispense with this enervating charade.
The 2017 Election
Forde’s desire to uncover evidence of good will on the part of the Labour right where it simply cannot be found shines through in his account of the 2017 general election. In this section, he addresses two specific claims: Did party officials deliberately set out to undermine the Labour election campaign that year? And did they succeed in doing so to an extent that made a material difference to the result?
Both of these questions are difficult to answer with any certainty. The dynamic of the contest between Labour and the Conservatives changed quite rapidly and in a way that had no real precedent. When Theresa May called the election in April, Labour seemed to be facing a defensive struggle to hold onto its existing constituencies. By the final weeks of the campaign, the party had the wind in its sails and ending up winning thirty new seats.
One can always argue, as Forde does, that officials at Southside who wanted to persist with a defensive approach misjudged how quickly things were shifting on the ground. Forde notes that those officials channeled resources to their own favored candidates without informing the party leadership, “in breach of an implied duty of good faith,” which is hard to square with his rejection of claims that they were acting in bad faith a couple of pages earlier. But as he goes on to stress, we cannot prove definitively that this diversion of party funds had a substantial negative impact on Labour’s performance, since there is no way of rerunning the election under laboratory conditions with this variable adjusted.
It would be far more useful to start at the other end of the question and ask what the Labour officials were trying to achieve, before attempting to determine whether they succeeded in their objective. Forde insists that the party’s full-time staff would have always preferred a Labour government to a Tory one, even if it meant Corbyn becoming prime minister: “We do not consider that any of the staff we spoke to, many of whom had dedicated years of their lives to the Party, ever wanted to see the Conservatives in power.” But this flies in the face of the evidence in the leaked report.
Party officials responded to opinion polls showing a rise in support for Labour with unconcealed gloom and cheered those that presented a bleaker picture.
The report contains message after message in which Southside officials expressed their desire for a bad Labour performance that would rid them of Corbyn and his allies for good. They responded to opinion polls showing a rise in support for Labour with unconcealed gloom and cheered those that presented a bleaker picture. When the exit poll came out on election night, showing that Labour had achieved its highest vote share since 2001, with the biggest increase in support for either of the two main parties since 1945, they were quite simply traumatized: in their own words, “stunned and reeling,” “silent and grey faced,” or even “in need of counseling.”
One official said that the result was “opposite to what I had been working towards for the last couple of years,” with a couple of exclamation marks for emphasis. The following day, another suggested that it would have been a good idea to bet on a stronger-than-expected Labour performance: “At least you’d get something good from the disappointment.” A week later, yet another spoke about feelings of “post traumatic stress” that the exit poll had induced.
It beggars belief that Forde could read all these messages and still conclude that the individuals in question wanted a Labour government no matter who the party leader was or that the choices they made about the allocation of resources were guided only by a desire to maximize Labour’s seat share. The best he can manage by way of rationalization is a trite comment that “human beings are complicated and not always consistent.”
The question of political motives is ultimately far more important than the details of what happened during the election campaign. If the party’s administrative staff actively preferred a Tory government to one led by Corbyn, that must have influenced their behavior across the whole period from 2015 onward. For much of that period, they had a decisive role in Labour’s disciplinary process, which proved to be a matter of red-hot political controversy. An understanding of their motives will certainly help explain the actions they took, or didn’t take, in that capacity.
It also speaks volumes about the wider disposition of the Labour right. In another message, Emilie Oldknow expressed her contempt for Labour MPs who felt obliged to eat humble pie in public and admit that they had misjudged Corbyn: “It’s really embarrassing seeing all these people grovel.” Oldknow was Starmer’s first choice to replace Jennie Formby as Labour’s general secretary. Her factional allies, who Starmer was so anxious to placate, clearly had the same priorities as Oldknow. They wanted to put the memory of 2017 behind them by rewarding someone who was hoping for a Tory landslide that year.
This is what “sabotage” really amounted to: a refusal from the first day of Corbyn’s leadership to accept his legitimacy as party leader, which was the predominant attitude among Labour officials and MPs alike, culminating in a leadership heave straight after the Brexit referendum. This unquestionably had a negative impact on Labour’s performance in 2017, far more than anything the Southside officials did in the weeks leading up to the vote. The same hostility to a left-wing leadership team quickly reasserted itself after the period of “groveling” that Oldknow deplored.
Discipline and Governance
In July 2019, some of the figures whose behavior is discussed and documented at considerable length in the leaked report appeared as star witnesses in a BBC Panorama documentary titled “Is Labour Antisemitic?” The Southside officials who ran Labour’s Governance and Legal Unit (GLU) between 2015 and 2018 accused Corbyn and his allies of deliberately obstructing their efforts to remove Labour members with antisemitic views from the party.
Examples of supposedly unacceptable views in the eyes of Labour officials included past support for the Green Party or the campaigning group UK Uncut.
The leaked report made some counterallegations in response. It accused the officials of dragging out the handling of antisemitism complaints, whether through negligence or malice, and suggested that they were more interested in conducting factional purges of Corbyn supporters than in dealing with such complaints in good time. It also rejected their claim to have been subject to unwanted interference from the leader’s office — LOTO (Leader of the Opposition) in party jargon — and insisted that it was the officials themselves who had repeatedly asked the leadership to intervene.
On both counts, Forde comes down on the side of the report’s authors. He confirms that Labour officials were combing through social media accounts looking for reasons to exclude people from the party:
This was by and large a factionally slanted exercise, designed and carried out with a startling lack of transparency, which had the goal of undermining Jeremy Corbyn’s chances in the leadership elections. It cemented mistrust of the motives of HQ staff in LOTO.
Examples of supposedly unacceptable views included past support for the Green Party or the campaigning group UK Uncut, which pressured corporations to pay their full share of taxes. At this point we should remember that the Parliamentary Labour Party’s current membership includes Christian Wakeford, who ran for election as a Conservative MP in 2019 and voted with the Tories in Parliament until his defection to Labour in January of this year. Wakeford was by no means the first ex-Conservative MP to have been welcomed into Labour, which places the Southside vendetta against those who previously voted Green in its proper perspective.
Forde includes a memorable anecdote from someone who had the dubious pleasure of working in Labour HQ:
Of particular concern for me as I commenced work at Southside was the regular ringing of bells and cheering throughout the working day. On commenting that there seemed to be a lot of birthdays among colleagues I was advised that the bell ringing was conducted by the “compliance” unit and represented the successful suspension or expulsion of a member — often surrounded by the description of such members as “trots.”
Forde also draws a striking conclusion about the principal claims of the Panorama documentary and its self-styled “whistleblowers”:
We have not received clear and convincing documentary evidence that there was a systematic attempt by the elected leadership or LOTO to interfere unbidden in the disciplinary process in order to undermine the Party’s response to allegations of antisemitism. . . . During Spring 2018, the period on which much of the reporting has focused, LOTO staff provided input into specific cases after it was sought, sometimes insistently, by HQ staff, who refused to proceed until they had it. HQ staff say that they were forced into making those requests by persistent “offline” interference by LOTO which they wanted to bring into the open; whatever HQ’s motives, however, we find that LOTO staff responded to the requests, for the most part, reasonably and in good faith. We note that their responses were subsequently used to form the basis of wholly misleading media reports which suggested that LOTO staff had aggressively imposed themselves on the process against HQ’s wishes.
He goes on to say that “LOTO’s involvement in disciplinary cases followed an enthusiastic invitation from GLU.” According to Forde, the narrative put forward in media reports about emails from LOTO in one crucial period, March-April 2018, was “partial and misleading.” That narrative was a central plank of the Panorama documentary, which Forde then discusses explicitly:
Numerous examples of LOTO pressure and interference were cited by the respondents to this Inquiry (and in the Panorama programme) which do not (unlike the alleged March to April 2018 interferences) involve paper trails, and which are as such harder to prove or disprove. We cannot make any specific findings in relation to those; any inquiry into their veracity would have been mired in uncertainty and inevitably unproductive.
“Mired in uncertainty” is one way of putting it. Another is to say that if we cannot rely on the account of the GLU officials when there is a documentary record against which we can test their claims, we should certainly not rely on their testimony when no such record exists. In place of the Panorama narrative, we have a well-documented picture of LOTO staff only getting involved when such participation was “requested insistently by GLU and in our view provided in good faith.” GLU, Forde notes, thanked one LOTO staffer “effusively” for their assistance.
According to Forde, the narrative put forward in media reports about emails from Corbyn’s office in one crucial period, March-April 2018, was ‘partial and misleading.’
Would people who worked for the Labour Party really have gone on national television and made a set of “partial and misleading” claims about matters of the utmost gravity that they knew would be extremely damaging for the party? The reaction of Southside’s “monoculture” — as Forde dubs it — to the Labour breakthrough two years earlier certainly makes this proposition easier to swallow. In any case, the motivation of the officials is less important than the hard facts of what they did.
The Panorama documentary was not merely one story among many about antisemitism in the Labour Party. It was the capstone of the entire media narrative that took shape between 2015 and 2019. The reaction to Panorama dominated the news agenda and sucked up Labour’s energy just as Boris Johnson was becoming prime minister. During the 2019 election campaign, when the BBC presenter Andrew Neil demanded that Corbyn apologize for his purported record of dealing with antisemitism, it was above all the claims made in the documentary to which he was referring.
The Panorama documentary was not merely one story among many about antisemitism in the Labour Party. It was the capstone of the entire media narrative.
Those claims were incendiary and would have been utterly damning if they were well grounded in the facts. Now Forde informs us, in his own understated fashion, that “Is Labour Antisemitic?” turned reality on its head, just as the leaked report insisted it did. There is a bald contradiction between this finding and an assertion that Forde makes elsewhere:
There is nothing in the Leaked Report (or elsewhere in the evidence we have seen) to support the conclusion that the problem of antisemitism in the Party was overstated.
If the Panorama documentary and the other media reports to which Forde refers were “wholly misleading,” then one vital aspect of the problem clearly was overstated to a hair-raising degree.
It is one thing for a political party to contain some members with bigoted views; it is quite another for that party to have a leadership team that is determined to keep those members in the party and is thwarting efforts to exclude them. In the first scenario, expelling the bigots may be enough to solve the problem, although it is still important to ask how they came to be members in the first place. In the second, the rot comes from the very top, and nothing short of wholesale transformation, including the removal of the existing leadership, will be remotely adequate.
Corbyn’s critics all understood the distinction perfectly well, which is why they seized so hungrily on the allegations that Forde now deems to have been “partial and misleading” or “mired in uncertainty.” One of Panorama’s “whistleblowers,” Sam Matthews, spelled out the case he was making against Corbyn in considerable detail:
Jeremy Corbyn has done more than anyone in modern political history to bring about the rise of antisemitism. I saw first-hand the way his people operate and the way they allowed it to happen. I witnessed a deliberate attempt by these people to redefine what constituted modern-day antisemitism — mainly so they could let their mates off the charge. After Jeremy became leader, he opened the floodgates and allowed people to join the Labour Party who never would have been allowed anywhere near it in the past. Whether he himself is an antisemite or not is an irrelevance. He is the biggest friend antisemites have had since the Second World War.
Later in the same interview, Matthews dropped his caveat about the Labour leader’s personal views because he was keen to distinguish Corbyn from the architect of Britain’s “hostile environment” immigration policy:
I don’t believe Theresa May is an Islamophobe with an army of Islamophobic advisers around here. I do think the Labour Party is led by an antisemite though. This is a leadership issue.
To describe this diatribe as having been “overstated” would be a kindness to Matthews. He overstated the case against Corbyn in much the same way that J. K. Rowling overstated the number of wizarding schools in the Scottish Highlands. The British media considered rhetoric of this sort to be entirely normal in the run-up to the 2019 general election and gave those who deployed it easy access to the top of the news agenda. We did not have to wait for the leaked report, or Forde’s response to it, to know that the version of events promoted by such figures was a shameful travesty.
Unfortunately, Forde muddles what is at stake here by referring to “denialism” about antisemitism without clarifying what that means. At one point, he defines a “denialist” as someone who believes “the issue was being exaggerated to undermine the leader.” Yet his own conclusions about the Panorama narrative show this to have been an accurate perception of reality. Elsewhere, Forde cites the leaked report — the apogee of “denialism,” according to some — in support of his view:
The Leaked Report expressly rejects any suggestion that the problem of antisemitism in the Party was exaggerated; its introduction states that it “thoroughly disproves any suggestion that antisemitism is not a problem in the Party or that it is all a ‘smear’ or a ‘witch-hunt.’”
This passage needs some careful unpacking. The sentence that Forde quotes takes issue with anyone who believes that “antisemitism is not a problem” in Labour or that all claims about antisemitism in the party are “smears.” It does not say that there was no exaggeration.
Stating that something is a problem tells us very little in itself. We then need to establish the nature and scale of the problem.
Stating that something is a problem tells us very little in itself. We then need to establish the nature and scale of the problem. Is it marginal or pervasive? How many people does it involve? To what extent is the party as a whole implicated? What has the leadership done, and what could it reasonably be expected to do?
The leaked report attempted to specify what it considered the problem to be in a passage that Forde does not quote:
A small number of Labour members hold antisemitic views, including some which are very extreme in nature. Moreover, there is a wider lack of understanding about antisemitism, which means that many members cannot recognize as antisemitic what Jewish members highlight.
There is an unbridgeable chasm between this view of reality and the picture that Corbyn’s critics liked to paint. If the standard media narrative had suggested that Labour was dealing with a problem that involved “a small number of Labour members” and “a wider lack of understanding” on the part of others, there would have been no cause for complaint about exaggeration or overstatement.
Instead, there was a tsunami of misinformation, giving the impression that a large percentage of the Labour membership held antisemitic views and that the party leadership was keen to protect them. Listing all the inaccurate or wildly exaggerated claims that appeared in the national media to support this false narrative would require a full-length book.
We could not have expected Forde to perform that task in detail — dealing with just one aspect of the controversy, albeit a particularly important one, was challenging enough. But without giving people a sense of the wider context, it is impossible to understand what was going on or why Labour members were likely to believe that “the issue was being exaggerated to undermine the leader.”
This is no academic matter. Starmer has kept Corbyn suspended as a Labour MP for almost two years because he correctly observed that his political opponents had “drastically overstated” the extent of Labour’s problem with antisemitism. Meanwhile his critics change their definition of that problem whenever it suits them, flipping the switch from maximum to minimum and back again without the slightest pretense of consistency.
Nor does Forde engage with one of the most fundamental issues at stake: the lack of an agreed definition of what constitutes antisemitism, especially when attitudes to Israel form a central part of the discussion. From the earliest stage of this controversy, right up to the present, we have seen Labour members (including Corbyn) accused of antisemitism because of things they have said or positions they have adopted concerning Israel. This was not a marginal aspect of the controversy — it ran through it like a red thread.
From the earliest stage of this controversy, we have seen Labour members accused of antisemitism because of things they have said or positions they have adopted concerning Israel.
Everyone agrees in theory that some forms of speech about Israel are legitimate while other forms of speech cross the line into antisemitism. However, there is no consensus about where the boundary lies, and the debate that arises from that lack of agreement has become one of the most fraught political questions of our time. Corbyn’s critics simply pretended that this debate did not exist, demanding the exclusive right to determine what forms of speech about Israel were legitimate without any need for discussion.
This reached a crescendo in the summer of 2018, when the Labour MP Margaret Hodge screamed abuse at Corbyn in the House of Commons because Labour’s national executive was reluctant to adopt a particular definition of antisemitism that included very specific guidelines determining what Labour members were allowed to say about Israel. Hodge’s theatrical outburst was the curtain-raiser for several months of unrelenting attacks on Corbyn’s leadership. At no point did any of his critics acknowledge that there might be legitimate grounds for criticism of the definition they wanted Labour to adopt.
In December 2019, there was a coda of sorts to the events of that summer when the Guardian published an op-ed by Kenneth Stern, the US academic who had drafted the definition in the first place. Stern said that he never intended it to be used as a disciplinary tool and opposed a move by the Donald Trump administration to impose it on universities:
I’m a Zionist. But on a college campus, where the purpose is to explore ideas, anti-Zionists have a right to free expression. I suspect that if [Jared] Kushner or I had been born into a Palestinian family displaced in 1948, we might have a different view of Zionism, and that need not be because we vilify Jews or think they conspire to harm humanity. Further, there’s a debate inside the Jewish community whether being Jewish requires one to be a Zionist. I don’t know if this question can be resolved, but it should frighten all Jews that the government is essentially defining the answer for us.
The Guardian waited until the day after the 2019 general election before running Stern’s column; better late than never, we might suggest.
“Weaponizing the Issue”
If it is possible to reveal antisemitic attitudes through the way that you talk about Israel, it is certainly also possible to reveal one’s bigotry against the Palestinians, whose history has been inextricably linked to that of Israel and Zionism since the Balfour Declaration. As Peter Beinart has observed, anti-Palestinian racism is far more common and politically acceptable than antisemitism in US public discourse, and his point holds true in Britain as well. The targeted harassment of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib by groups like the Anti-Defamation League follows the same template as the campaign against Corbyn.
If it is possible to reveal antisemitic attitudes through the way that you talk about Israel, it is certainly also possible to reveal one’s bigotry against the Palestinians.
The idea that groups like the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council can exercise a power of veto over speech about Israel, while Palestinians do not even have the right to be consulted about what they deem legitimate, is profoundly racist in itself. It is an especially sharp example of the Islamophobia and contempt for the peoples of the Global South that is rampant in British political discourse. Forde presents clear evidence of such prejudice inside the Labour Party, to complement what we already know about the public track record of its elected representatives.
Once again, we could not have expected Forde to explore the relationship between Israel, Zionism, and antisemitism at length. But it is only by putting that relationship on the table as a subject for open debate, rather than a settled orthodoxy, that we can penetrate the rhetorical fog of the last few years. It is also essential to do so if we are going to convince people not to draw unwarranted conclusions about the influence of Israel and its supporters over British politics: in reality, organizations like the Board of Deputies play the role of outrider for Britain’s own conservative power bloc, rather than functioning as a deus ex machina.
Take, for example, one of the false equivalences that Forde draws between the rival camps inside the Labour Party:
Some anti-Corbyn elements of the Party seized on antisemitism as a way to attack Jeremy Corbyn, and his supporters saw it simply as an attack on the leader and his faction — with both “sides” thus weaponizing the issue and failing to recognise the seriousness of antisemitism, its effect on Jewish communities and on the moral and political standing of the Party.
Hodge certainly represented Labour’s “anti-Corbyn elements,” and she used allegations of antisemitism “as an attack on the leader and his faction.” Those allegations relied upon the claim that only a bigot would object to the use of Stern’s definition as a disciplinary tool. If that were the case, we would have to describe Stern himself as a bigot, which drives home the sheer absurdity of Hodge’s onslaught.
There is no equivalence between this tawdry behavior and the response of the Labour left, which was much more polite and restrained than it should have been. Using false or grossly exaggerated allegations of antisemitism as a factional weapon is not the same as recognizing that your opponents are doing so and attempting to push back. Forde’s report helps clarify the facts of what happened, but we have to go beyond his interpretation of the evidence to establish the full picture.Original post