Over the past week or so, a number of Labour MPs have taken to mainstream or social media to attack Labour’s new code of conduct on antisemitism, claiming – incorrectly – that it waters down the ‘IHRA working definition’.
Among them have been centrists Chuka Umunna and Anna Turley, as well as Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer.
Starmer appeared on the BBC to criticise the supposed ‘failure’ of the code of conduct to adopt the ‘full’ IHRA definition – although in fact the criticism surrounds the examples that accompany the definition, about which many worry that they construe criticism of the behaviour or policies of the Israeli government as antisemitic.
Umunna tweeted several times on the topic and retweeted a number of criticisms by others of the same supposed failure.
Turley described Labour as ‘getting this all terribly wrong’, quoting a tweet by the Jewish Leadership Council that condemned the same supposed failure:
Tonight, a leaked email sent by Labour general secretary Jennie Formby to the whole ‘PLP’ (parliamentary Labour party), which the SKWAWKBOX has obtained, appears to make a pointed reference to these comments and to their inconsistency with the history of the three MPs.
The email, which outlines the party’s response to criticisms of the new code of conduct, draws MPs’ attention to 2016 comments in a report by the Commons Home Affairs Committee (CHAC) in a light that is none too flattering to those who have been criticising Labour’s qualification of the IHRA examples (i.e. not the definition itself).
Formby told MPs (emphases added):
The October 2016 report of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which included Chuka Umunna and David Winnick, with Keir Starmer, Keith Vaz and Anna Turley as members of the Committee during the relevant period, noted there was some criticism of the IHRA examples and made the following points:
* It is not antisemitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.
* It is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli Government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.
Umunna, Starmer and Turley were members of the committee that went on to compile a report published just two years ago that raised exactly the concerns about the IHRA examples that Labour’s new code of conduct addresses and clarifies without diluting.
Ms Formby continued:
The seventh and eighth IHRA examples are therefore adapted and expanded upon with extended narrative in paragraphs 11-14 which make it absolutely clear that any departure from the principles outlined in those paragraphs is unacceptable.
As can be seen, the phrase “additional evidence of antisemitic intent” is drawn from the Select Committee’s own work on the subject.
This narrative directly reproduces the wording of parts of the IHRA text that do not appear in the list in paragraph 9. That includes the key wording of the seventh example: “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination”. The IHRA text then gives a sub-example: “e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” The intention of the IHRA cannot be to prevent criticism of the Israeli state or Israeli policy for its differential or discriminatory impact on different ethnic or religious groups, which could be inferred from the phrasing of the sub-example. The real point here is about double-standards and the use of language, both of which the Code expressly covers. Such criticism is of course not in itself racist, but risks becoming so if criticism is levelled in circumstances where another state pursing similar policies would not face the same criticism – especially if it is couched in inflammatory language.
In other words, the trio – along with fellow Labour MPs David Winnick (now retired) and Keith Vaz – were either on or were closely linked to the body that signed to up to a number of the very caveats they have now been criticising and to some of the very wording they have now attacked, while other wording is taken from the IHRA definition itself. (Note: Turley and Starmer left the committee in October 2015, before the report.)
The reaction of the trio and their colleagues to the email is not known. But Ms Formby’s decision to confront their readiness to attack approaches already expressed by a body they are linked to or helped author two years ago sheds light on the validity or otherwise of the criticisms they and others have voiced.
Formby rounds off this section of her email with an attack of her own on what she called the ‘misrepresentation’ of the code of conduct – and with a comment on the intellectual honesty and rigour required for a meaningful discussion of this vital issue:
It has been widely reported that the Code asks for antisemitic intent to be proven. This is a misrepresentation. The Code explains that, where antisemitic language or behaviour has not been used, but there is evidence of antisemitic intent behind that language or behaviour, this will also not be tolerated. Moreover, the Code states that the Party will also not abide name-calling or abuse, or the expression of views which are intended to upset or offend within contentious debates on Israel-Palestine.
I hope that when you read the Code of Conduct you will agree it is a thoughtful and intelligent contribution to the fight against antisemitism. It deserves thoughtful and intelligent engagement from those who wish to contribute to debate about it. As the Code itself makes clear, abuse and name-calling are never acceptable as a substitute for considered debate.
Labour’s new code of conduct is an important, constructive and intelligent step in ensuring that racist behaviour by any member is properly – and fairly – dealt with. It should be welcomed.
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