Rebutting Tory attack lines: Antisemitism and Labour
by Ian Sinclair
23 November 2019
“Jeremy Corbyn’s anti‑semite army”, read the Times headline in April. “Labour is riddled with anti-semites”, announced the Sun last year. A Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government would pose an “existential threat to Jewish life in this country”, argued the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News and Jewish Telegraph in a joint editorial.
With the press having waged an intense campaign against Corbyn and the Labour Party since 2015 over antisemitism, it was only natural the Tories and Lib Dems were going to use it as a stick to beat the Labour leader with during the general election campaign. First up was cabinet minister Michael Gove, who earlier this month started trolling leftist figures on Twitter, including Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani and Ash Sarkar, asking them to denounce antisemitic tweets sent by a Labour Party and Momentum member (the person was neither a member of the Labour Party or Momentum).
The coming attacks will be heard by a public already softened up by media coverage “consistent with a disinformation paradigm”, according to a 2018 Media Reform Coalition report into the antisemitism controversy. It seems the media’s reporting has had a big impact on public opinion, with a March 2019 Survation poll commissioned for the new Glasgow Media Group book Bad News For Labour finding “on average people believed that a third of Labour Party members have been reported for anti-semitism”. How can I say media reporting has played a big role? The authors of Bad News For Labour – Professor Greg Philo, Dr Mike Berry, Dr Justin Schlosberg, Antony Lerman and Dr David Miller – commissioned four focus groups, which showed “the media and the extensive coverage that the story has received feature very prominently in the reasons that were given” for higher estimates of levels of antisemitism in the Labour Party.
With attempts to weaponise antisemitism no doubt being cooked up as you read this, it is worth spending some time reminding ourselves of the facts and evidence on the topic.
However, before we do this I think it is worth emphasising that there is a problem with antisemitism in the Labour Party and on the broader Left, that this should not be minimised, and any allegations should be addressed swiftly, effectively and, most of all, fairly. It is clear Labour’s internal process were not fit for purposes, though the party claims to have reformed and streamlined their disciplinary systems. As many people have already said, as Labour identifies as a progressive, socialist and anti-racist party, just one case of antisemitism is one too many.
So how do we counter attacks on the Labour Party over antisemitism? The first task is to correct the general public’s wild estimates: in reality “the actual figure” for Labour members reported for antisemitism “was far less than one per cent”, the authors of Bad News for Labour note. The general public’s estimate is, incredibly, over three hundred times the real total, Philo notes in a recent Q&A with Jacobin.
Moreover, these figures “could have been used for a publicity campaign defending the integrity of the membership [currently just over 500,000] and the Party as a whole, saying that over 99 per cent of the members were not involved in these allegations”, the authors note.
It is also important to interrogate claims of antisemitism – that is, to consider the actual evidence. It is, after all, a very serious accusation to make about someone, with important consequences for how the public perceive Corbyn and the Labour Party. For example, Labour MP Margaret Hodge repeatedly told the media she had submitted a dossier of over 200 examples of antisemitic abuse directed at her to the Labour Party. After reviewing the evidence, Labour General Secretary Jennie Formby confirmed those complaints referred to 111 individuals, of whom only 20 were members. Still a serious issue to be dealt with but ten times less in size than Hodge was implying.
As these examples suggest, much of the relentless hounding of Corbyn and the Labour Party on antisemitism is based on a number of erroneous, evidence-light assumptions: that it is widespread in the party; that it is worse in Labour and on the Left than in other parties and on other parts of the political spectrum; and that the problem has got worse under Corbyn. We’ve already seen the facts do not support the first claim, and there is evidence to suggest the last two allegations are also inaccurate.
Analysing survey data, a September 2017 report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (IJPR) found “the political left, captured by voting intention or actual voting for Labour, appears in these surveys as a more Jewish-friendly, or neutral, segment of the population.” Interestingly, the IJPR went on to note “the absence of clear signs of negativity towards Jews on the political left” was “particularly curious in the current context” as there were “perceptions among some Jews of growing left-wing anti-semitism.”
The October 2016 Home Affairs Committee report on antisemitism also highlighted the mismatch between the media coverage and reality: “Despite significant press and public attention on the Labour Party there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.”
Citing YouGov polling data from 2015 and 2017, in March 2018 Evolve Politics website noted “anti-semitic views amongst Labour party voters have actually reduced substantially” since Corbyn was elected leader. Moreover, the report highlights the Tories and UKIP “have a far bigger problem with their voters agreeing with anti-semitic statements.”
As the authors of Bad News For Labour argue, “the arguments about the level of antisemitisim in society and the Labour Party can only be resolved by evidence.” And the evidence is on the side of those who refute that Labour is “riddled” with antisemitism. The authors recommend the Labour leadership should have followed the principles of good public relations. “The priorities should have been to establish the scale of the problem, give clear and accurate information, stop exaggerated claims and, crucially, to show that the whole organisation was committed to resolving the issue.”
This is good advice for Labour members and supporters during the election campaign too.
Further reading: Bad News For Labour: Antisemitism, The Party & Public Belief by Greg Philo et al, published by Pluto Press.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.