For Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, it is well documented that anti-Semitism has been a running sore for two years and counting. So how should Labour deal with it? Not like a rabbit caught in headlights, that’s for sure. Here’s my six top tips for addressing the issue head-on. Some of these ideas will cause more pain in the short term, but to borrow a medical analogy, sometimes a course of self-inflicted pain to lance the boil is better than suffering unending sickness.
Get out there and listen to Jewish people
Statements about being committed to tackling anti-Semitism mean nothing in reality, and meetings with leading Jewish organisations and Rabbis has proven counter-productive, and will probably continue to inflame the fire. Corbyn and other top Labour figures will need to continue to sit down with the Jewish Board of Deputies and others, but that’s not all they should do. What the Corbyn and the frontbench must also do is take themselves onto the streets and into town hall meetings with Jews up and down the country to hear what they are saying. The party must not only say ‘sorry’ but show that it understands precisely why it is sorry.
There will be harsh things said, often justifiably, all recorded for the evening news bulletins. It won’t be pretty and may inflict further reputational damage upon Labour in the short term, but there is a method to this madness. It takes the news agenda out of the TV studios and away from briefings to journalists by Labour MPs opposed to Corbyn, and instead brings it into the more real court of public opinion on the streets and in community centres. A place away from community gatekeepers where an honest dialogue can happen and the party can better understand the Jewish community and vice versa.
It will take power away from the media and Labour’s opponents who are in no mood to engage, and hand that power to ordinary Jewish people. In such scenarios there is a duty on journalists to report not just public criticism of Labour at events and walkabouts, but also to at least acknowledge what leading Labour figures, particularly the leader, are saying in response. Some outlets might try to avoid doing so, but with video footage aplenty on social media there is only so long they can keep that up.
Understand what Jewish people are feeling and respond with initiatives
As a black man there are few things in politics I find more infuriating than a statement from a party or politician in the wake of a racism row apologising for ‘any offence caused.’ Such words betray a complete lack of understanding of the offence, the history underlining the offensive words, and how it makes people from black communities feel. Offence often cuts deeper than mere words because it jabs at identity, people’s place in this country, invokes fears of encouraging other racists and poisons political debate. I can see parallels with the often wooden Labour pronouncements on anti-Semitism. On a fundamental level such statements just don’t ‘get’ the history of persecution and how fresh that memory is, and that there is not only anger but actually deep disappointment. Sure, Labour’s opponents, including some within the party, have ‘weaponised’ it against Corbyn, but it doesn’t help to say so, not least because that language is itself antagonistic. Labour need to move from a mindset of feeling victimised to addressing why Jews feel victimised.
Labour should pledge a new anti-Semitism law that recognises the unique vulnerability that anti-Semitism brings in light of recent history, to bring about more prosecutions. The aim has to be to make Britain the safest place in the world for Jewish communities. Labour should also adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition. Personally, I believe neither the IHRA nor Labour’s current definition are fit for purpose because the IHRA implies proscribing both real anti-Semitism, such as questioning Israel’s right to exist, and legitimate criticism of Israel’s policy, while Labour’s definition allows that criticism but also implies the right to question Israel’s right to exist, which is unacceptable. Labour need a middle way, and might have won that argument if it had started two years ago, but that opportunity is lost. Now, Labour should move quickly to accept the IHRA definition as party policy while at the same time refining its’ approach in the form of proposed legislation underpinned by tough sanctions for anti-Semitism. Move the debate away from party policy and instead towards developing the law. This approach should work in parallel with accepting the Runnymede Trust definition of Islamophobia and leveling-up protection for all religious and ethnic minority groups, adopting and building on United Nation conventions.
Announce new policies in the midst of the anti-Semitism row
Political convention suggests parties mired in a controversy should concentrate on that before getting down to policy as usual. The thinking is that while the news agenda is dominated by a row everything else will be overshadowed. Times have changed with social media, and Labour need to remind the public that it has ideas to address the conditions facing Britain, from tackling economic stagnation and worker exploitation to the crises in health, housing, water and transport. In the midst of the anti-Semitism controversy Labour should refrain from attacking the Tories – they are doing a fabulous job of attacking themselves – but instead Labour should be relentlessly positive on policy announcements. These announcements will be overshadowed by the latest anti-Semitism stories, but it moves the arena for interviews from the studios to venues in the community that show Labour hasn’t stopped working. The new policy may not get much of an airing, but it might not anyway in normal times. This approach won’t make the anti-Semitism row go away in itself, nor should it, but it will inject much needed new blood into politics to inspire supporters whatever is going on at Westminster and show that the party is not paralysed by events.
Do it all again
Just as it looks like the anti-Semitism row might be fading from the news, Labour should once again risk inflicting more pain on itself by returning to the streets and town hall meetings to speak with everyday Jewish people, taking the flack, listening and responding. Hearing ideas and coming back with yet more policies that are likely to be well received in Jewish communities, whether that be support for Jewish schools or policing of Jewish neighbourhoods. The natural tendency would be to breathe a sigh of relief as soon as the controversy slips down the media running order, not to restart it, but a boil is not lanced simply because it goes down and no longer throbs. Repeating the cycle of contrition and learning will ensure that problems do not re-inflame at the general election.
Suspend Labour conference
Not the whole thing, but there should be a temporary pause to proceedings while the anti-Semitism rally takes place hosted by Corbyn’s most vociferous critics in the party. On the face of it this suggestion does not make much sense. Logically it draws attention to the rally. But that is going to dominate the headlines that day regardless. Better to stop conference entirely and for Corbyn and the top command to get themselves to that rally in person, no matter how bad a reception they get. The potential for a ‘PR disaster’ is great, but equally so is the opportunity to exchange in a real and ‘human’ dialogue with critics. When you are on the floor, as Labour currently is, there is little left to lose. It is better to face the music with dignity and principles intact than to pretend that the rally isn’t really happening.
Talk up Labour’s history and values on equality and fighting racism and anti-Semitism, and fix internal mechanisms
One of the fundamental barriers to Labour dealing with the controversy is the belief, rightly, that it is genuinely committed to fighting prejudice and hate against Jews, people of colour and all people who are discriminated and oppressed. Yet there is little point in sitting on your laurels if the house around you is burning. Labour has a proud history of fighting fascism and racism. It would be a mistake to assume that Jewish communities are ignorant of this; indeed it makes the current controversy all the more disappointing for many. Yet the wrong time to talk up Labour’s values and record is in the middle of the crisis, for that is scattering seeds on stony ground. Rather the reaffirming of Labour’s values in terms of tackling anti-Semitism should only be foregrounded once progress has been made in addressing the issues proactively and bravely, navigating not around the pain but through it. The public should feel Labour’s passion in fighting anti-Semitism, racism and Islamophobia rather than it being a protestation of innocence amid accusations. And that will take time. It is a long project that is the result of handling the current controversy better and addressing the fears and concerns of the Jewish community.
Of course Labour should continue to criticise Israel where it flouts international law and standards of decency in its treatment of Palestinians and Gaza. Labour will be most effective in doing so only after it has lanced the boil on anti-Semitism, and until then should put public statements over Israel on the backburner. At the same time Labour must show that its complaints procedures are working better, and fairer. We need to see more members expelled for anti-Semitism and less members suspended unfairly over the same issue. Up to now we have seen Ken Livingstone escape punishment for repeated offensive interviews and Marc Wadsworth removed when he wasn’t anti-Semitic. It is clear that this combination of ineffective processes and perverse outcomes must be fixed. All the signs are that the new secretary-general Jennie Formby is determined to get the internal processes right. She needs support from an NEC united in supporting her and steering the party towards victory in the general election.
Many of my tips will seem bizarre to some readers. Why risk further bad headlines? And once you’ve done that, why go back and risk reheating the row all over again? On the face of it my suggestions may not make much sense. The answer is that Labour need to own the problem, which is different from owning up to it. This prescription involves more pain, not less. More potentially more embarrassment and harm. My faith in this course of action stems from my faith in the common decency and fairness of people. When a community is angry, threatened or concerned it is vital to talk to them person-to-person. Moving away from the daily news agenda and towards opening up opportunities for dialogue with the Jewish community at large won’t be easy but it is the right thing to do, for everyone concerned.