Editorial: The Establishment HRC does the job

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report, released on October 29 – Investigation into Antisemitism in the Labour Party – is a serious challenge to the rights of the workers’ movement to organise independently of the capitalist class and its agencies.

The report is written in a coy legalese not explicitly attacking Jeremy Corbyn’s four-and-a-half year leadership of the Labour Party, although easily re-messaged by the media to do so with the venal BBC again to the fore.

There is a nod to the right of Labour Party members to “express their opinions on internal party matters, such as the scale of antisemitism within the party” (which Keir Starmer promptly overturned with his suspension of Corbyn).

But the ‘welcome’ given to the report and its recommendations even by those defending Jeremy Corbyn, is mistaken. This is a deeply political document, doing a job for the capitalist establishment.

The only previous inquiry conducted by the EHRC into a political party was that against the far-right British National Party in 2009 for its discriminatory criteria for membership, which was open only to “indigenous Caucasians and defined ethnic groups emanating from that race”.

But in May 2019, as Theresa May’s premiership teetered on the brink and the possibility of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government loomed, the EHRC stepped up to announce an inquiry into antisemitism in the Labour Party. This was despite a 2016 House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) report explicitly finding that “there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of anti-Semitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party” (page 46).

The EHRC inquiry has taken seventeen months to complete but it has produced nothing that contradicts the HASC finding. It cites just two cases in its Unlawful Act Notice of the Labour Party “committing harassment” against its members “in relation to Jewish ethnicity”.

These involved Ken Livingstone, then a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), and a Labour councillor in Rossendale in Lancashire, Pat Bromley. Leaving aside here the details of these cases, it is a fact that both were subject to a party investigation, with Pat Bromley expelled and Livingstone suspended for two years in April 2017 (after which he resigned).

But this is not good enough for the EHRC. Ruling that Livingstone and Bromley were ‘agents’ of the party, what they did “must be treated as if it was done by the association [the Labour Party] itself. It does not matter whether the association knew about, or approved of, what the agent did”.

Retrospective discipline was not sufficient, only pre-crime control would do. “It does not matter if the Labour Party took steps to prevent the agent from acting unlawfully, for example, by prohibiting anti-Semitic conduct under its rules”, the EHRC decrees. “The Labour Party is responsible for that act”.

What is this but impossibly intrusive state interference in a party or trade union’s right to manage its own internal affairs in line with its rules, critical to the democratic right of freedom of association?

‘Political interference’

Another EHRC Unlawful Notice charge is that because of alleged “political interference in ‘politically sensitive’ complaints” by Labour Party staff and the NEC, the party under Corbyn’s leadership was also guilty of “unlawful indirect discrimination against its Jewish members”.

But this charge, and the ‘evidence’ the EHRC report discusses around it, is equally tendentious – not least its dismissive downplaying of the internal report leaked in April showing the anti-Corbyn factional activity of Blairites within the Labour staff dealing with antisemitism complaints.

With a straight face the EHRC gives as an example of political interference the case of the then Derby North MP Chris Williamson, who was suspended in February 2019. This followed comments he made at a Sheffield meeting that Labour was being “demonised as a racist, bigoted party” partly because it had been “too apologetic” in its response – particularly given that, he argued, it had “done more to address the scourge of antisemitism than any other political party”.

Chris Williamson’s suspension was lifted by the NEC on 26 June, with a formal warning given, meaning he would be eligible to be re-selected as a parliamentary candidate for the next general election. But, as the EHRC report notes, this “prompted an outcry from the Campaign Against Antisemitism, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Labour MPs and peers” and, two days later, he was re-suspended.

As the EHRC further records, when “Chris Williamson successfully challenged the decision to reopen the complaint in the High Court” the court found that “it is not… difficult to infer that the true reason for the decision in this case was that members were influenced by the ferocity of the outcry following the June decision”.

Chris Williamson was one of the minority of Labour MPs who supported Jeremy Corbyn. He was speaking out against the use of antisemitism charges by the Blairites to destabilise Corbyn’s leadership – and his suspension and re-suspension, and effective debarring from standing as a Labour candidate in the 2019 general election, were an example of how mistaken Corbyn was to consistently attempt to appease these agents of the capitalist establishment.

And yet here is his case being paraded by the EHRC – without his permission no doubt – to illustrate how Labour’s NEC under Corbyn ‘politically interfered’ in the handling of complaints. Would any satirist dare to make this up?

The EHRC’s directive, legally enforceable, is that complaints of antisemitism must now be dealt with in “an independent process”. This opens the door to hostile opponents of the labour movement having direct powers to decide who can and cannot be a member – and can only be seen as another ominous encroachment on the democratic right to organise.  

Combating antisemitism

The EHRC’s final charge is that Labour under Corbyn was guilty of “indirect discrimination” because of a “lack of adequate training” for staff and lay officers “which is acceptable to Jewish community stakeholders”.

The report uses the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance 39-word definition of antisemitism – in essence “hatred towards Jews” through “rhetorical and physical manifestations” – but cites evidence in its Unlawful Notice case summaries related to comments about the state of Israel. But the relationship – around 20% of Israeli citizens are not Jews but Arabs – is a complex and thorny one.

We stand for the overthrow of both the existing Israeli capitalist state and of the Arab capitalist regimes and the right to their own states on a socialist basis for both nationalities in Israel-Palestine, with full rights for any minorities within them.

However, in the absence of a powerful workers’ movement in the Middle East or internationally advocating workers’ unity and a socialist solution to the unresolved bitter conflict of national rights, it is clear that the conditions are there for prejudices to surface even amongst labour movement activists, enraged at the long and brutal oppression of the Palestinians.

Some on the left, seeking what they believe is a pragmatic way out of the impasse, argue that there should be a single state in the whole of Palestine, effectively subsuming the national rights of Israeli Jews. They are not being anti-Semitic by doing so but, given Jewish-Israeli national consciousness in support of an Israeli state, including of the overwhelming majority of the Jewish working class, they are not advancing a solution that can overcome national, ethnic or religious divisions – while 93% of British Jews say that Israel’s right to exist as a state forms part of their identity as Jewish people, according to a 2015 City University study.

The per capita GDP of Israel stands at $35,700 (in 2017 prices) compared to the West Bank ($3,700) and Gaza ($1,700) – a $149 billion gap between Israel and the occupied territories. Could a common prosperity really be secured if control of society and the economy is left in the hands of the capitalist elites across the region, exploiting the working classes and poor of ‘their own’ national or ethnic group while fermenting divisions to secure their rule?

Doesn’t the history of the region conclusively demonstrate that there is no way out of the Middle East conflict under capitalism? And aren’t these the type of questions that need to be debated in the labour movement to guard against the poison of antisemitism?

That has not been the approach, unfortunately, followed by Jeremy Corbyn, a programmatic weakness that has been exploited by the capitalists and their agents.

But it is a fact that, no matter what the Labour Party had done under his leadership, the EHRC had a job to do on him for the capitalist establishment.