After years of hand-wringing over alleged antisemitism in Britain’s Labour Party, activists are demanding a judge-led inquiry into Islamophobia. The call exposes right-wingers’ double standards — but will do little to combat the demonization of Muslims.

Labour leader Keir Starmer delivers a speech at Silverstone Technology Park on December 12, 2023 in Milton Keynes, England. (Leon Neal / Getty Images)

Calls are mounting for an independent review into Islamophobia in Britain’s Labour Party — a demand backed by Labour National Executive Committee (NEC) member Mish Rahman, the Labour Muslim Network, and daily socialist newspaper the Morning Star.

Making this same appeal, Labour MP Zarah Sultana has explained how the party’s policing of pro-Palestinian opinion, its contemptuous briefings about Muslim voters during the present Gaza crisis, its indifference to racist abuse directed at her and other Muslim MPs, and paltry support for religious observance in the House of Commons amount to a culture of Islamophobia. As she points out, all this substantiates Martin Forde QC’s remark that the party operates a “hierarchy of racism” — with the needs of Muslims near the bottom.

The demand for such an inquiry is smart insofar as it highlights Labour’s double standards. The party’s mechanical reply — “Labour is committed to tackling Islamophobia across society [and] will continue to robustly stand up for the rights of Muslims in our party” — contrasts with the near-continual handwringing by Labour MPs and the media during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, which yielded the Chakrabarti Inquiry into antisemitism (2016), the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation into Labour’s processes in policing it (2020), and the Forde Report (2022), interrogating factionalism in these same processes.

Despite what academics Sarah Cooper and Owen Thomas call a “growing tendency” in British public life for such inquiries since the 1990s, an Islamophobia review of Labour is not going to happen. But there’s also the question of whether it would be such a good idea anyway. Would such a review, if commissioned, really help tackle the problem of Islamophobia?

Nobody on any side of the antisemitism affair that haunted Corbyn’s leadership said they supported antisemitism, and everybody involved repeatedly and vociferously urged their desire to see it “eradicated” and “torn up by the roots” (whether in the form of “left antisemitism” or of the “real” antisemitism the campaign against Corbyn was frequently accused of distracting from).

What is more, barely anyone from across the political spectrum objected to the principle that a political party ought to monitor the online interactions and personal beliefs of its members, that problematic views are incompatible with party membership, and that independent barristers, detailed codes of conduct, and nominally apolitical compliance officers are the proper arbiters of what constitutes wrongful interactions and undesirable beliefs. The EHRC report counseled an escalation of these processes, while the Forde Report urges they be expanded to other kinds of social attitudes and protected characteristics.

Yet following years of “war on” and “zero tolerance for” the “poison” and “virus” of antisemitism, the most recent UK Antisemitism Barometer (published 2022) concluded that “there is a noticeable reversal in optimism . . . . Fewer British Jews believe that their community has a long-term future in the UK.” Within the Labour Party itself, the “zero tolerance” model adopted by Keir Starmer has resulted in Jewish members becoming five times more likely to face charges of antisemitism than non-Jewish ones. What does this tell us about the tools adopted to fight antisemitism — which, it is now suggested, we ought to embrace in order to fight Islamophobia?

That the compliance model of antiracism “from above” did not deliver a reduction in perceptions of antisemitism begs the question of what such processes do achieve. Writing of the United States, Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed Jr warn that it is a mistake to make the “old left” class-reductionist argument that race and ethnicity-focused identity politics is a distraction from class politics proper. “Identity politics is not an alternative to class politics” they caution, “but a form of it,” practiced most successfully by the upper class.

An obviously relevant application would be to point out that between 2015 and 2020, the most visible and sustained antiracist project in recent British history was aimed at destroying the most pro-working-class political party platform in British history ever. But we can be less provocative in demonstrating this kind of antiracism’s class character. If followed to the letter, the EHRC report and Forde Report would entail a bonanza of hirings for the managerial and consultant class, all paid for with Labour members’ money.

This logic of bureaucracy-expansion pervades the compliance approach to combating racism. Forde calls for “compassion training” and “training for members to develop deep listening and reflection skills.” Publishing evidence that Labour apparatchiks performed ad hoc keyword searches on social media to seek out Corbyn supporters who they could expel (a cynical game they referred to as “Trot hunting”), Forde’s dry reply is that “if algorithms are to be adopted to carry out . . . social media searches, they need to be professionally advised upon.”

The EHRC meanwhile, acts like a guild for such elite professionals, chastising the party for seeking staff training on antisemitism from the old-fashioned intellectuals at Birkbeck, University of London, instead of their own preferred brand of specialized compliance staff. In the anthropologist Tereza Østbø Kuldova’s terms, this is how the “Compliance-Industrial Complex” operates: moral panics such as those around “hate” of various kinds provide the pretext for new hirings of training professionals, compliance bureaucrats, and programmers of digital “governance products,” plus new forms of surveillance for the rest of us, regardless of these processes’ efficacy in actually solving the problems that prompt their introduction.

It is, in reality, hard to imagine Islamophobia being galvanizing enough for this class faction for it to be adopted as such a pretext. If antisemitism has been the British establishment’s bigotry of choice in past eras, Muslim-baiting has something of that role today. But even if this weren’t the case, extending Labour’s anti-Islamophobia processes would, in practice, only be to provide a tool for taking more power out of the hands of ordinary members and democratically accountable officials and into the hands of the leadership and the cadre of managers and consultants below it.

And this is not the only reason that a “Forde Report for Islamophobia” is a bad idea. Sultana denies that the call is driven by factional animus: “To frame this as just a right/left factional thing is really offensive . . . this is about how we can actually be a broad church.” This use of Labour’s habitual metaphor for its uneasily “broad” ideological collocation of right- and left-wing MPs is reminiscent of Forde’s proposed addendum, that “a broad church also requires the party to embrace . . . those with protected characteristics.” While no one would disagree with this on the face of it, taken in the context of a report that constantly counsels therapeutically achieved unity over genuine political differences, it is ominous.

A party that in power pursued the “war on terror,” Prevent, the Terrorism Act, extraordinary rendition, and anti-immigrant populism is now once again led by the faction that did all this. With Starmer’s performative refusal to criticize Israel, it is today outflanked to the left on Palestine by the Conservative foreign secretary. Most so-called Labour Islamophobia is not a symptom of insufficient training or bad workplace processes, such as a new Forde Report would diagnose. It is, rather, a perfectly accurate expression of the Atlanticist, pro-war, pro-domestic surveillance ideology of the Labour right itself.

Speaking in 2016, when the antisemitism crisis was barely off the ground, the left-wing Jewish academic Norman Finkelstein remarked of Corbyn, “He has to say: no more reports, no more investigations, we’re not going there any more. The game is up.” The Left failed to embrace this advice when alleged antisemitism on its own side was in focus. It should not make the mistake of embracing the depoliticizing fig leaf of “compliance” framings over the anti-Muslim positions of its rivals.

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