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An end to Labour's antisemitism controversy seems as far away as ever
Keith Kahn-Harris

Keir Starmer’s unexpected decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour party was in stark contrast to the cool and measured tone of the long-awaited Equality and Human Rights Commission report into antisemitism in Labour, which carefully avoided the attribution of personal responsibility. One of the defining features of the Labour antisemitism controversy has been the intense passions it generates. Amid this maelstrom, the EHRC intervened with the technical language of law and institutional process. Starmer has responded with a disciplinary action that will, at least in the short run, inflame this bitter dispute.

Nevertheless, that coolness of tone does not take away from the force of the report. The fact that a party that regards anti-racism as central to its self-definition – particularly during the Corbyn years – has been investigated for racism is shocking in and of itself. It is devastating that the Labour party was found to have breached the Equality Act – both through harassment committed by its “agents” and “indirect discrimination”, in the form of political interference in complaints procedures, unclear and chaotic institutional responses and inadequate training.
Even before Starmer’s move to suspend Corbyn, it was already obvious that the EHRC findings were not going to be the last word on this subject. Those who defend the legacy of the Corbyn years will seize upon the lack of direct condemnation of Corbyn himself, and the fact that only two individuals (one of them Ken Livingstone, who left the party under threat of expulsion) are directly accused of unlawful harassment. That means that defenders of Corbyn can argue that Starmer’s decision was an overreaction.

Conversely, among those who opposed Corbyn, the finding that the party has acted unlawfully is likely to be mischaracterised by some as a top-to-bottom condemnation. There will be others who are disappointed that the party was not found to be “institutionally racist” – and that there was no demand for action against Corbyn.

The scope of the EHRC’s investigation was, in fact, tightly constrained, as are the remedies it has the power to enforce. And it is this restraint that will be manipulated and selectively interpreted in the firestorm of responses to the report. Even if the party complies with the EHRC’s requirements in the fullest, speediest and most exemplary manner the report will nevertheless feed into and exacerbate pre-existing conflicts within the party, the British Jewish population and the wider public.

Over the past few months, there has been a dramatic change in the dominant narrative of those who were supporters of Corbyn’s leadership. The ones who deny that antisemitism was anything other than a trivial issue at best, and defend expelled Labour figures such as Chris Williamson, have become increasingly marginalised. Instead, following the leaking of an internal Labour report in April this year, which seemed to show that attempts to act against antisemitism in the first few years of Corbyn’s leadership were stymied by anti-Corbyn forces in the party machinery, there has been less denial from Corbyn backers that antisemitism was ever a problem. Rather, the argument is now: a) antisemitism was a problem, b) the problem was an inevitable side-effect of the rapid influx of a massive number of new members into the party (a small proportion of which, it is argued, will inevitably be antisemitic given that a small proportion of people as a whole are antisemitic), and c) having inherited a disciplinary system that was not fit for purpose, the party under Corbyn was making progress in addressing the problem and could have done so faster if its efforts hadn’t been subverted by enemies of the leadership.

That narrative will survive the EHRC report. Corbyn’s statement today pointed out the inadequacies of the system he had inherited and did not concede that his leadership might have been attractive to some antisemites. Others will go further: the EHRC itself will be criticised for its partiality and its explicit refusal to adjudicate on the validity or otherwise of the leaked Labour internal report, while drawing on some of its findings in a limited way. Still others will use the EHRC report to argue that the problem was simply one of management rather than anything fundamental to the culture of Labour under Corbyn. There will also be attempts to draw attention to antisemitism and racism in other political parties and accusations that the attention paid to antisemitism in Labour has led to other racisms being neglected.

A more significant political development in the past few months has been increasing tensions among those who have been at the forefront of accusations of antisemitism against the party – principally formal community bodies such as the Jewish Labour Movement on the one hand, and independent campaigning bodies such as Labour Against Antisemitism and the Campaign Against Antisemitism (the latter being one of the principle movers behind the EHRC complaint). The JLM has faced significant criticism from antisemitism campaigners on Twitter: Labour’s Jewish affiliate is accused of being compromised for not leaving the party entirely during the Corbyn years, and for not taking an aggressive enough stance against antisemitism then and now.

This fissure already looked likely to deepen over the question of Labour’s response to the report. Some campaigners wanted Corbyn thrown out of the party, alongside a wholesale purge of anyone associated with him. JLM and other mainstream Jewish groups that have developed a productive relationship with Starmer and wish to move forward positively were likely to come under increasing attack from those demanding more a confrontational approach. Now that Starmer has gone beyond what JLM asked for, those other campaigners may well claim credit for pushing him where JLM failed.

So the publication of the EHRC report is not the end of this sorry period in the history of the Labour party. By their very nature, legal and institutionally focused documents of this kind cannot resolve political arguments over divisive phenomena such as antisemitism.

Antisemitism can sometimes be fought, marginalised and even suppressed through legal means. Individuals can be suspended and expelled. But it cannot be understood through legalistic and institutional research alone. Rather, this requires attention to deeper patterns in the culture. Sociologically, abuse of minority groups cannot always be traced back to explicit ideologies: it may be woven into the everyday realities of how people treat each other, or into the unspoken assumptions in an organisation about what counts as “normal” behaviour.

One of the dangers of the EHRC report is that it will divert attention away from these entrenched problems. It is quite clear that the Labour party has issues with other forms of racism and discrimination – as well as a wider problem with bullying and abuse that did not start with Corbyn’s election to the leadership in 2015. An effective disciplinary process isn’t a substitute for ensuring that disciplinary action isn’t needed in the first place.

So even if the Labour party under Starmer develops an exemplary disciplinary process, this is just the start of the work that needs to be done. Culture change is an incredibly difficult project for any organisation, but it is long overdue. Labour needs to become a party where ideological disputes are no longer prosecuted without restraint and where abuse is no longer a normative way of responding to differences of opinion.

My fear is that the task will be ignored and marginalised in the months ahead amid the reverberations of Starmer’s decision to suspend Corbyn. Whether or not it was justified – and, at the very least, Corbyn was the man leading the party when the events condemned by the EHRC took place – it is likely that wider consideration of antisemitism and abuse will be obstructed by endless trench warfare among those who wish to relitigate the past forever.

The best way to prevent that happening is to do what the EHRC report could not do – highlight the voices and experiences of those who have been hurt by antisemitism in Labour. Ultimately, behind the dense legal material there is a human story – a story of people who have been threatened and harassed inside a party outwardly dedicated to ensuring that no one should have such experiences.

• Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and author of Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity