JVL introduction

In this post, David Pavett corrects misapprehensions about the so-called “MacPherson principle”  which the Labour Party stands accused of violating by refusing to allow Jews to define what antisemitism is. He show there simply is no such “principle”. MacPherson did not propose that perceptions should be the basis of determining whether or not there had actually been any racist behaviour.

What MacPherson was concerned about was the under-reporting of potentially racist incidents. Such incidents required recording and investigating – during which the normal standards of proof apply.

Racism/Antisemitism: what “MacPherson principle”?

David Pavett, 15 July 2018, [with minor correction 16 July]

The criticisms of Labour’s recently issued guidelines on antisemism need close questioning. The Jewish Chronicle went so far as to claim that: “Labour’s new guidelines show it is institutionally antisemitic”. The  Community Security Trust’s blog carried the headline: “The arrogance of Labour’s antisemitism definition”. Given that Labour adopted the IHRA definition and most of the IHRA’s “illustrative examples” (which are not part of the definition) it is clear that only Labour’s uncritical acceptance of the entire IHRA document on antisemitism (definition + illustrative examples) would have satisfied them.

There were also criticisms from within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Coming as they did from MPs with a track record of open hostility to the Labour leadership this was not a surprise either. All the same we need to consider whether the criticisms from inside and outside the party have any weight.

Chuka Umunna’s tweets expressed the critics’ view:

Utterly appalled by this. Since the Macpherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence @UKLabour has accepted the finding that “a racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person” -now it appears Labour does not if you’re Jewish

He also tweeted:

… again and again, we see examples of the Jewish community being treated differently to other groups by the Labour Party.

John Mann tweeted (5th July)

The Macpherson meaning of bigotry has actually been accepted previously by every mainstream political celebration in Parliament. The Labour NEC are the very first to contradict it, which has big repercussions.

Three themes have clearly emerged from the various critics of the NEC guidelines:
(1) The NEC document should have adopted the IRHA definition and all its “illustrative examples” (repeatedly confused with the definition itself).
(2) The document abandons the MacPherson Report definition of a “racist incident”.
(3) Labour has abandoned the “MacPherson principle”  according to which groups experiencing racism have the right to define it.

In what follows only (2) and (3) will be dealt with since (1) has been fully covered elsewhere.

MacPherson and perceptions

The MacPherson Report (1999) dealt with police failure to  properly investigate the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence by a gang of white thugs. One of the many issues highlighted by the report was the failure of the police to keep a proper record of racist incidents. The police system at the time depended on the judgement of the reporting officer as to whether an incident was a racist one. The report showed that this had led to a serious under-recording of racist incidents and that this was a problem crying out for a solution.

Most spectacularly in the case the Stephen Lawrence case there was a “refusal to accept racist motivation by a number of officers”. Something had to be done and MacPherson offered his definition as a means of solving the under-reporting/recording problem. For this purpose, he proposed the following definition of a racist incident:

A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.

The intention was to maximise rather than minimise the reporting of potentially racist incidents so that actual racist incidents would not get lost in the reporting process. MacPherson did not propose that perceptions should be the basis of determining whether or not there had actually been any racist behaviour. It would obviously have been unacceptable to do so since perceptions of racist behaviour can be mistaken just like any other perceptions. The report itself refers to the possibility of “faulty perceptions”.

The definition therefore changed nothing with regard to the necessary due process of ascertaining whether any given racist incident, reported on this basis, was one that had actually involved racist behaviour. That is why MacPherson added that in the case of both criminal and non-criminal behaviour involving racism the normal standards of proof must apply.

Repetition of the MacPherson definition, detached from its original context, has resulted in a belief that a perception of racist behaviour is sufficient to establish that such behaviour has actually occurred. This was not MacPherson’s intention.

Time to clear up the ambiguity

With hindsight we can see that it would have been clearer had MacPherson simply required that to avoid the problem of under-reporting of allegations of racist behaviour that all such allegations should be recorded and that all should require investigation. This would clearly have had no implication as to whether the allegations were well-founded or not but would have established that they should always be taken seriously.

If we say that there has been a “bullying incident” it is natural to assume that some bullying has actually taken place or at least that there are reasonable grounds to believe that. Similarly, if we are told that a “racist incident” has occurred then it is natural to make a similar assumption. This was not what was intended by MacPherson as is made clear by his insistence that establishing guilt must follow the normal rules of proof i.e. cannot be based on perceptions.

If the critics of the NEC guidelines were interested in real debate, as opposed to looking for opportunities to condemn the Labour leadership they would have noticed that the MacPherson definition of racial incidents was put back into its context as much as two years ago by professor David Feldman (Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College, London University) London University) in his sub-report to the All Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism. He wrote:

It is sometimes suggested that when Jews perceive an utterance or action to be anti-Semitic that this is how it should be described. In the UK this claim looks for support to the 1999 Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, written by Lord Macpherson of Cluny. There Macpherson wrote that ‘a racist incident’ is ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.’ If we look at the context in which this quotation appears, it is unambiguously clear that Macpherson intended to propose that such racist incidents require investigation. He did not mean to imply that such incidents are necessarily racist. However, Macpherson’s report has been misinterpreted and misapplied in precisely this way.

Inflating the MacPherson definition

The misunderstood MacPherson definition has allowed it to be inflated into what is being called the “MacPherson principle”.

Thus Liron Velleman writing for Progress Online (Why Labour’s antisemitism definition is so weak, July 6, 2018) makes clear his understanding of the “principle”:

However, one principle reigned supreme, the MacPherson principle, that it is up to those who experience an oppression to define it. Jews define antisemitism because Jews face antisemitism. Non-Jews take Jews in good faith when they say that they have been a victim of a hate crime. It is as simple as that.

Similarly, Keith Kahn-Harris writing in the Guardian (Without trust, Labour’s new antisemitism code is bound to fail, 10 July 2018 ) wrote

In refusing to adopt what is seen to be the Jewish community’s understanding of antisemitism, the Labour party is accused of going against the “MacPherson principles”, which maintain that minority communities get to define racism for themselves. Conversely, many pro-Palestinian activists see the IHRA as proscribing legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism.

There is no trace of such a “principle” in the MacPherson report. It is pure invention of those who are keen to get to conclusions they have decided in advance. They use anything that they feel helps them to draw the conclusions they want to reach. It seems though, that they are unwilling to do the spadework of checking the sources to which they appeal. The “MacPherson principle” is a case in point. It is a fiction.

Had MacPherson been wrong-headed enough to propose such a principle we would have had to say he was wrong. MacPherson, after all, no more than any other report, should be treated as holy writ. However, he proposed no such principle.

The requirement that the definition of racism must come from those who experience it is wrong-headed and unworkable. It also contains more than a hint of racism since it makes the assumption that those facing racism will all have a common view as to how it should be defined. “They” are presumed to think in the same way.

The suggestion that Labour has accorded this “right” to define racism to all groups except Jews is false. It has not recognised such a right for any groups and neither should it. The nature of racism, along with other forms of unfair discrimination, is a social and political issue in which all members of a political party have the right to engage.  That is how Labour functions. The demand that it should accord this right to representatives of some Jewish organisations is a demand for special treatment.

This is a point which would appear to be lost on the Board of Deputies President Marie van der Zyl and Jewish Leadership Council Chair Jonathan Goldstein who have responded to the NEC guidelines by saying:

It is for Jews to determine for themselves what antisemitism is.

Professor Feldman already explained back in 2015 what is wrong with this view. He wrote in his sub-report (referred to above):

... if we rest our definitions of racism on the perceptions of minority groups then we open the way to conceptual and political chaos. For if the identification of racism becomes a matter of subjective judgement only then we have no authority other than the perception of a minority or victim group with which to counter the contrary subjective opinions of perpetrators who deny that they are racists. Without an anti-racist principle which can be applied generally we are left in a chaotic situation in which one subjective point of view faces another. An equally damaging objection is that Jews in the UK have diverse and, in some respects, contradictory perceptions of antisemitism. This gravely weakens any attempt to take Jews’ perceptions as the basis for a definition of antisemitism. None of this means that Jews’ sense of offence, where it arises, is insignificant. But it does mean that their sense of being offended should not be elevated so that it becomes the touchstone for judging whether or not something is antisemitic.

It is obvious that members of groups that experience racism should be involved in the process of determining how racist behaviour can be most effectively dealt with. That is an entirely different matter to suggesting that only they can understand the nature of such racism and that only they can provide the thinking required to propose effective anti-racist measures. This would be the reductio ad absurdum of the idea that you can only understand something if you have experienced it. Knowledge and understanding are, unfortunately, not direct products of experience.


It is arguable that the Labour Party NEC missed a useful way of heading off some of the nonsense that has been written about its guidelines. It should have agreed that the Party would in future record all allegations of racism including, of course, antisemitism. It should also have agreed that all such reports would be thoroughly investigated to see if there was a case to answer. This, it could have explained, meets the purpose for which the MacPherson definition was created and to which Labour is committed.

Understood as a way of maximising the reporting and recording concerns about antisemitism without a presumption of guilt the aim of the MacPherson definition would have been seen to be realised.

The so-called “MacPherson principle”, on the other hand, is a fiction which only demonstrates the lack of seriousness of those who have been accusing the Labour Party of failing to implement it. Genuine anti-racism requires rather more effort to analyse background material and rather higher standards of reasoning than can be found in claims of this sort.


David Pavett is a retired teacher having taught mathematics, physics, philosophy and computing science in Further Education and to secondary school sixth formers. He is an active member of the Brentford and Isleworth Constituency Labour Party. He has a particular interest in how Labour Party policy is formulated. Last year he organised a widely circulated collection of reviews of the policy statements produced by the National Policy Forum. He is currently doing the same for the current policy review drafts.