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In the name of combatting anti-Semitism, Labour ignored Islamophobia and established a ‘hierarchy of racism’

July 20, 2022 at 3:32 pm

Former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in London, UK on 7 December 2021 [David Cliff/Anadolu Agency]

The long-delayed Forde Report examining the handling of anti-Semitism complaints within the Labour Party as well as allegations of bullying, racism and sexism, was finally released yesterday. The 138-page conclusion of the inquiry led by Martin Forde QC not only confirmed claims that anti-Semitism was used as a “factional weapon” and that senior party members on the right were acting in a manner designed to undermine former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s apparent obsession with discrimination faced by Jews established a “hierarchy of racism” where Islamophobia and all other forms of racism and discrimination were seen to be less important.

The report was established in 2020 by Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) in the wake of the leak of an 851-page document containing private WhatsApp messages that exposed deep factionalism in Labour’s efforts to combat anti-Semitism. It revealed shocking details of what some believed was a conspiracy aimed at sabotaging Jeremy Corbyn’s chance of winning the 2019 election.

Corbyn’s supporters have claimed that Forde vindicates them, especially in their claim that the leadership of the Islington North MP was being sabotaged by the Labour right. For instance, in the crucial months leading up to the 2019 general elections, BBC Panorama aired a show which portrayed the party under the leadership of Corbyn as being anti-Semitic. The main characters used to “prove” the claim – which included a who’s who of individuals in the anti-Palestine lobby groups in Britain – were at the centre of the anti-Semitism row that dogged Labour and subsequently became the subject of investigation under the Forde Inquiry.

Forde lays out in detail the debilitating factionalism that hampered Labour’s ability to challenge the Tories in the 2019 general election. “The factions ended up in a cycle of attack and counterattack, with each side assuming that the other was acting in bad faith (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not) and responding in kind” the report said.

READ: Labour ‘witch-hunt’ on pro-Palestine MP, Apsana Begum, takes ugly turn

Commenting on the factionalism, Corbyn responded saying: “Despite overwhelming support from members and affiliates, powerful groups in the party found that change hard to come to terms with. This led to a conflict in Labour that created a toxic environment, which the Forde Report lays bare. In any party there are groups and factions, but the resistance we were faced with went far beyond that.”

The extent to which Corbyn’s critics sought to undermine him was also laid out with Forde revealing that funds to fight the election were being secretly diverted through a clandestine operation called Ergon House. “We find that the decision to set up the Ergon House operation covertly and to divert money and personnel there without authority of the Campaign Committee, whilst not illegal, departed from the approved strategy; it was as such wrong.”

Corbyn slammed the operation saying: “Whether or not that prevented the election of a Labour government, it was dishonest. In a democratic party those decisions should be taken by the elected leadership. Too often the will of the membership was overridden by people who thought they shouldn’t have had a say in the first place.”

Other concerning behaviour exposed include that of senior Labour staff opposed to Corbyn attempting to expel party members. Staff described this process as “hunting out thousands of trots”, “trot busting”, “trot spotting” and “trot hunting.” Referring to the WhatsApp messages in the 851-page leaked report which triggered the Forde inquiry, it found that the quoted WhatsApp messages from a group of senior management overall were not misrepresented or misleading. These messages “reveal deplorably factional and insensitive, and at times discriminatory, attitudes expressed by many of the party’s most senior staff. The substance of the quoted messages is concerning – and totally inappropriate from senior staff of a purportedly progressive political party,” the report said.

Forde cites a number of WhatsApp messages from the leaked 851-page report that highlights a hierarchy of racism. “There have been many occasions where I’ve been distraught in the lack of urgency for other cases such as Islamophobia, Racism and Sexual harassment, due to the organisational priority being antisemitism,” said one Labour staff. Another message cited in the report said:

It is incredibly hard to not draw the conclusion that just as in British society, Islamophobia is not treated with the same seriousness within the Labour Party as other forms of racism.

Forde acknowledged that such a problem was widespread. “To be clear, the evidence received pointed to a perception that some protected characteristics were regarded by the Party more highly than others. Equally this meant that some were less highly regarded.” The report further points out that concerns over anti-Semitism and the importance they appeared to play in the interactional conflict meant that the party was in effect “operating a hierarchy of racism or discrimination with other forms of discrimination being ignored.”  It found that allegations of anti-Semitism were being more “expeditiously investigated” and that sanctions were being applied by the party more so in such cases than were allegations revolved around “race discrimination, Islamophobia, homophobia, and LGBT+ phobia.”

The perception of a hierarchy of racism within Labour has continued under the leadership of Keir Starmer, who made combating anti-Semitism a key priority. A year into his term as leader, Labour became embroiled in another race row following its decision to readmit Trevor Phillips to the party just over a year after he was suspended for alleged Islamophobia. According to the Guardian, Phillips was reinstated by the party “at least three weeks ago”, without the matter going to a National Executive Committee disciplinary panel.

READ: Attacks on Penny Mordaunt are fresh evidence of Tory Islamophobia

South African author and former politician Andrew Feinstein tweeted that, “Trevor Phillips’ reinstatement despite his Islamophobic comments shows again that the Labour party has a hierarchy of racism. Many anti-racist Jews remain suspended for supposed anti-Semitism while Islamophobe readmitted. U r either antiracist or u r part of the racism problem!”

Other high-profile cases exposing the problem of a hierarchy of racism within the party are the ongoing Islamophobic attacks faced by Coventry South MP Zara Sultana and Poplar Limehouse MP Apsana Begum. An example of which is an article published in the pro-Israel Jewish News, titled “Purge of the Corbynites” which took aim at the Muslim MPs over their views including strong solidarity with Palestine and their position on the controversial Prevent programme which critics say disproportionately targets Muslims.

Alarmed by the article’s representation of the two women, MPs from a monitory community, Labour Muslim Network (LMN) blasted the piece over its racist message saying: “The dangerous rhetoric surrounding Muslim public officials is one which has become normalised in British politics.” Despite both MPs talking publicly about the racist attack, neither Starmer or anyone from Labour leadership have expressed public solidarity with Sultana and Begum.

“Antisemitism education should not be divorced from all other forms of racism and that such training should be based on an ethical stance that any form of racism is simply wrong morally,” said Ford in one of the many recommendations. “Antisemitism does not need specific treatment but should also be integrated within a broader programme of anti-racism education. There is a real danger if less emphasis is placed on these that it could be seen as establishing a new hierarchy of racism.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.