Bad News for Labour – an essential handbook

JVL Introduction

A comprehensive and highly appreciative review of Bad News for Labour:Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief by Deborah Maccoby has been posted on Amazon – something that has yet to appear in any of the media the book so comprehensively criticizes!

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This article was originally published by Amazon on Mon 7 Oct 2019. Read the original here.

An essential handbook

When I finished reading this book, one sentence in particular stuck in my mind:
“Does anyone really believe that, if the Battle of Cable Street was refought in the UK, then Corbyn and the movement he leads would be anywhere else than on the barricades with the Jews, rather than on the other side with the fascists?”Does even Jonathan Hoffman (see “top critical review”) really believe this? So how have we come to this? Why have editorials and articles appeared in the Jewish press that claim a Corbyn-led government would be an “existential threat” to the Jewish community and that equate the Labour Party with the Nazi Party? As Antony Lerman writes of Jeremy Corbyn in this book:

“How can we explain the transformation of someone regarded even by his traditional political opponents as fundamentally a good man, if somewhat inflexible and tin-eared perhaps, into a monster?”

Greg Philo and Mike Berry produced in 2004 a book called Bad News From Israel (updated and expanded in 2011 as More Bad News From Israel) that examined mainstream media bias towards Israel and its impact on public perceptions of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Philo and Berry have now performed the same invaluable service in relation to the so-called Labour “antisemitism crisis”, by showing clearly that it is not a crisis and not about antisemitism; and yet that the mainstream media have created a strong public belief that Labour is riddled with “institutional antisemitism”.

No-one denies the existence of antisemitism within Labour; but it involves a tiny fraction of the membership. In February 2019, the Labour General Secretary, Jenny Formby, published figures that showed that the percentage of Labour members who had had complaints made against them in relation to antisemitism in the previous 10 months had been 0.1 per cent. Formby’s figures were challenged by anti-Corbyn MPs, who claimed during a stormy Parliamentary Labour Party meeting that there were “thousands of outstanding cases” that Formby had omitted. But Philo and Berry point out:

“There had in fact been over a thousand complaints in the period to which Formby referred, but many had proved to relate to people who were not members of the Party. The following day, Formby replied, specifically criticising figures supplied by Margaret Hodge, who had given the Party a dossier of 200 examples of antisemitism. Formby noted that just 20 of these had related to people who were Party members.”

Yet Philo and Berry concluded from interviews conducted with the public that the average public estimate of the percentage is: 34 per cent. Only 14 per cent estimated the number as below 10 per cent. The massive discrepancy between reality and public perception forms the starting-point of this book.

Essentially, Philo and Berry make clear, the furore is about the almost miraculous rise to the leadership of the Labour Party of an MP from the Socialist left wing of the party. Jeremy Corbyn’s victory has never been accepted by the “Blairite” Labour right-wing, who are constantly trying to replace him with a “centrist” leader on the lines of Tony Blair. A very effective weapon that they have found to hand in their war against Corbyn is the highly-charged issue of antisemitism – an accusation to which he is vulnerable because of his support for the Palestinian cause. And they have formed an alliance with a) Conservatives, who of course want to undermine Labour, and b) Jewish communal leaders who for decades have been utilising the concept of “the New Antisemitism” – ie the claim that Israel is “the Jew among the nations”, inheriting the role of persecuted scapegoat that was the fate of the Jewish people in past centuries – as a means of deflecting public outrage against Israeli government policies.

Philo and Berry are highly critical of the Labour leadership for the inadequacy of its reaction to this relentless campaign. The reasons for its inability to counter the attacks include: a) internal disunity, so that it became difficult to formulate a coherent response, especially as Labour was lacking in “a strong public relations infrastructure”; b) lack of control by the new leadership over the entrenched Labour party machinery, some of which was working against Corbyn; c) Corbyn’s deep personal sense of hurt and bewilderment at being called a racist that has hindered him from being able to deal with the onslaught. But perhaps the most significant reason is the nature of this issue itself. As Justin Schlosberg points out in Chapter 4:

“In contrast to other contexts, the antisemitism issue by its very nature inhibits the development of a counter-narrative. This is because much of the discursive framing serves to pre-emptively delegitimise any defensive response as ‘part of the problem’”.

The book itself cuts through the double-bind tactics that label attempts to respond as themselves antisemitic. For instance, Philo and Berry quote the journalist Alastair Sloan, who writes that Tom Watson (the Deputy Leader, who has led the antisemitism furore from within the Party) “had received £4,500 in kind from Labour Friends of Israel and other funding”. Sloan points out:

“This may seem like something lifted from a conspiracy theory; it isn’t. This is merely how politics works: a confluence of personal beliefs, geopolitical concerns and money, with foreign countries involved on occasion”.

And Sloan also makes it clear that “the support which many Jewish people in Britain give to Israel comes from their history and family experiences of the Holocaust, not because they are taking orders from the Israeli Embassy in London.” In their Conclusion, Philo and Berry point out that to single out Jewish communal leaders as uniquely exempt from the charge of pursuing a political agenda is itself a kind of antisemitism:

“Even to suggest that estimates of antisemitism might be used in a political argument is supposed to be antisemitic. But actually all sorts of groups in our society have agendas, engage in public relations, use figures to their best advantage, or even produce propaganda or misinformation. To say that all Jewish people should be exempt from even the suggestion of such activity is an oddly inverted racial stereotype.”

At the centre of the book, framed by Philo and Berry’s three introductory chapters and Conclusion, are three chapters about Labour’s capitulation over the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism: one by Justin Schlosberg on media coverage of the row over the definition; a second by Antony Lerman investigating the issue in detail; and an illustrative case study chapter by David Miller, who was the victim of a charge of antisemitism under the definition. The book does not describe in detail the many other incidents, such as the mural row or the “English irony” affair; but it does include an Appendix called “Timeline of Events”. This provides a very useful chronicle of the past four years that brings out the escalating insanity of the mass hysteria.

Justin Schlosberg points out that the false idea that the IHRA definition has been adopted all over the world is out in the public domain, with very little being done to counter it. Schlosberg draws attention to a “correction and clarification” that was issued (though never publicised) by the BBC to a claim made on the BBC’s Today programme that the definition “had been accepted by almost every country in the world”. The BBC was forced to acknowledge that the fact of the case was that the 31 member countries of the IHRA had supported the IHRA’s adoption of “a non-legally binding Working Definition of Antisemitism to guide the organisation in its work on 26 May 2016.” The BBC added in its correction that the only countries and bodies that themselves had adopted and endorsed the definition so far were the UK, Israel, Austria, Scotland, Romania, City of London, Germany, Bulgaria, Lithuania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (in all eight states). This is just one of the buried stories and facts that the book brings to light. This chapter points out that the main media culprits in disseminating misinformation about the IHRA definition have been the BBC and Guardian, with even the tabloid Sun being more balanced than the Guardian.

Antony Lerman clarifies all kinds of confusing areas, providing a detailed and highly illuminating investigation into the murky history of the definition, into its relation to the “New Antisemitism” campaign and to the recommendations of the Macpherson report, and into the controversy over Labour’s emendations to the examples – emendations that it was forced to reject in favour of the original definition with all its examples intact. Lerman concludes that “not only is there overwhelming evidence that it’s not fit for purpose, but it also has the effect of making Jews more vulnerable to antisemitism, not less”.

Philo and Berry end with a chapter of recommendations for Labour on how to counter the propaganda. My only problem with the book (apart from a confusing misprint on page 91: Peter Mason is the National Secretary of the anti-Corbyn Jewish Labour Movement , not – as is written here – of the pro-Corbyn “JVL” (Jewish Voice for Labour)) is with the first sentence of this concluding chapter: “The first priority is to stamp out racism in the Labour Party, whether it is against Jewish people, Roma or any other group.” But, as Lerman points out in his chapter, it is impossible to eradicate racism completely. Surely Labour needs to return to its previous climate of freedom of speech. The book does not mention that up till 2017, Labour’s code of conduct stated in its entirety:

“No member of the party shall engage in conduct which in the opinion of the NEC [National Executive Committee] is prejudicial, or in any act which in the opinion of the NEC is grossly detrimental to the party. Any dispute as to whether a member is in breach of the provisions of this subclause shall be determined by the NCC [National Constitutional Committee] in accordance with Chapter 1 Clause IX above and the disciplinary rules and guidelines in Chapter 6 below. Where appropriate the NCC shall have regard to involvement in financial support for the organisation and/or the activities of any organisation declared ineligible for affiliation to the Party under Chapter 1.II.5 or 3.C above; or to the candidature of the members in opposition to an officially endorsed Labour Party candidate or the support for such candidature. The NCC shall not have regard to the mere holding or expression of beliefs and opinions.”

But in 2017, after pressure from the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), the code of conduct was changed (an improved version from that originally proposed by the JLM was adopted, but was still the result of the JLM’s instigation). At the 2017 Labour Party Conference, “prejudicial conduct” was defined in the following long and unnecessary insertion:

“The NEC….shall regard any incident which in their view might reasonably be seen to demonstrate hostility or prejudice based on age; disability; gender reassignment or identity; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; or sexual orientation as conduct prejudicial to the Party; these shall include but not be limited to incidents involving racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia or otherwise racist language, sentiments, stereotypes or actions, sexual harassment, bullying or any form of intimidation towards another person on the basis of a protected characteristic as determined by the NEC, wherever it occurs, as conduct prejudicial to the Party”.

And the new Code of Conduct, instead of its last simple and clear sentence, concludes:

“The NCC shall not have regard to the mere holding or expression of beliefs and opinions, except in any instance inconsistent with the Party’s aims and values, agreed codes of conduct or involving prejudice towards any protected characteristic”.

As Norman Finkelstein has argued in an article entitled: “Why the Labour Party Should not Adopt the IHRA Definition or any other Definition of Antisemitism”, many of these terms are slippery – how do we define racism, antisemitism or Islamophobia? He trenchantly describes the additions as “a mass of verbal sludge that polluted the venerable principle of free speech”. He concludes:

“The long and short of it is, to detoxify its code of conduct, Labour should junk the revised text, reject as a whole and in all its parts the IHRA text, and return to its radical roots.”

Philo and Berry don’t call for the IHRA definition to be ditched, but this is surely the message conveyed by the three central and comprehensive chapters that deal with the issue.

But Philo and Berry’s other recommendations are excellent.

  • They urge the Labour leadership to stop apologising “for a version of the Party that does not exist”. The continual apologies have only made the public believe that the accusations are true.
  • They recommend a pro-active approach that involves putting clear evidence in the public domain – at the most basic level, the 0.1 per cent figure for the number of complaints of antisemitism brought against Labour members.

The measures they call for include:

  • making every effort to unify the Party behind a strong and coherent message;
  • setting up a “well-resourced Labour Rebuttals Unit” to provide immediate responses to false accusations; and above all
  • the mobilisation of Labour’s huge grassroots membership of half a million people to write letters to the mainstream press, take part in radio and TV phone-ins and engage in door-knocking conversations to give the public the truth — which is the truth about the Labour Party members themselves: that they are not anti-Semites.

And the facts, sanity and clarity provided by Philo, Berry, Schlosberg, Lerman and Miller have given Labour campaigners a new and essential handbook.

Comments (4)

  • Pauline Fraser says:

    I’m in the middle of reading ‘Bad News for Labour’, which I bought at a fringe meeting during Labour Party Conference. The expected booklaunch at Waterstones in Brighton had been cancelled at the last minute, as the management had been ‘got at’ by the Zionist lobby. Despite being based on extensive academic research, it’s written in accessible language. It’s a gripping and useful read for all of us engaged in the struggle against spurious accusations of anti-semitism in the Labour Party.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    It’s a book I intend to read – it looks very impressive from this review and I have read Greg Philo before and thought his work was very valuable. Just one sad query – five male contributors??? Don’t women have views – and expertise – on these issues?

  • Dee Howard says:

    Brilliant book. Put a lot of things in context for me. I thought the timeline in the last chapter was very useful at it showed just how powerful and misguided the media is! I think every Labour Party member needs to read this book in order to understand the truth of our ‘so called’ problem.

  • Richard Hayward says:

    The silence of the media on both the book and the Brighton threats is yet more evidence of that media’s venality and culpability in this scam. The resultant distortions put another nail in the coffin of the UK’s status as an advanced democracy with a ‘free’ press.

    Such is the level of the level of the ‘courage’ of investigative journalism amongst what is largely an Oxbridge clique that editors, including those of the ‘liberal’ Guardian and the Oh-So-Bravely-Satirical ‘Eye” will run a mile rather than risk crossing the ‘non-existent’ Israel Lobby. Mum’s the word despite the evidence that even an amateur would trip over.

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