As the SKWAWKBOX published last week, the voting arithmetic on Labour’s National Executive (NEC) means that the full list of IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) examples will be incorporated into the party’s Code of Conduct when the issue is debated by the NEC either in September or October.
The existing version of the Code references all the examples and actually strengthens some – but clarifies the application of a small number considered to be dangerous to free speech, particularly on Palestine, and to the right of Palestinians to define their own terms in discussing their oppression. It has been greeted as a gold standard of political documents on the topic by some – and attacked by pro-Israeli groups for not incorporating all the examples verbatim.
Those who have concerns about the impact of the full inclusion of all eleven examples, either as an appendix or in the body of the code, fear – justifiably – that the incorporation of all the examples without adequate caveats will immediately trigger an avalanche of politically-driven complaints by right-wingers eager to purge opponents from the party.
While the final details of the new Code – termed by Labour insiders ‘Code Plus‘ – will not be known until the NEC votes to agree it, last week the SKWAWKBOX also published details of likely changes that will be put in place to ensure that Labour’s members, Jewish and non-Jewish, are adequately protected while at the same time respecting the rights of Palestinians and their supporters to define their experience as they believe is appropriate.
Now, after further investigations, this blog is able to publish further details – along with clarifications, for the uninitiated, as to why these things matter.
1. Academic document vs legally-binding rule
It’s really important to understand that the IHRA’s ‘working definition’ of antisemitism was not originally devised for organisations to translate directly, word for word, into their rules.
It’s an academic ‘working definition’ – while rules, for any organisation, have to be legally watertight, because they can be challenged legally.
This is why Labour General Secretary Jennie Formby and her legal team came up with the Code of Conduct to begin with – and why a code to go alongside the IHRA definition is absolutely necessary.
Code Plus will be more comprehensive and will protect members, Jewish citizens and Palestinians and their supporters better.
Much has been made of the few hundred (out of a membership of almost 600,000) complaints of antisemitic words or behaviour against Labour members – and both the media and Labour’s critics have tended to treat complaints as equal to actual incidents.
But some allegations of antisemitism against Labour members may have been taken out of context – and some have been dismissed.
Context is key in determining whether someone is being antisemitic or not – this is something that the IHRA working definition explicitly states – though this has often been ignored in practice.
Judging actions without context is the tabloid way – and the way of political cynics. Labour is – and must be – better than that as a party. It must really get to the root of the issue, if it is going to take the serious step of labelling someone antisemitic.
To take due care and observe due process is simply responsible and fair. So Labour’s code will emphasise context and allow for it in the party’s judgments.
3. Criticism of Israel
Because Israel does not exist in a vacuum and its actions impact on its neighbours and further afield, the behaviour of its government must be subject to criticism – like that of any other country.
But in the context of its history over the last 70 years, it is also entirely reasonable for Labour members to criticise the state of Israel – as socialists, as humanitarians and as internationalists.
Labour has a duty to protect that right and to encourage free speech. This does not only mean Netanyahu and the current right-wing Israeli government. It is also about having the freedom, whether academically or politically, to look critically at Israel’s history – for example the removal or flight of over 700,000 Palestinians when the country of Israel was created.
Code Plus will and must put this right at the forefront of Labour’s policy. To be a Labour Party worthy of the name, it cannot simply forsake an oppressed people or gag their advocates.
A key battle will be over retrospective actions. It is a legal principle that people should only be tried for things that happened after a law has come into force, not retrospectively. Labour must respect those legal principles.
When the Conservative government broke with those principles of justice a few years ago, by imposing a retrospectively-applied law to prevent thousands of wronged benefit claimants obtaining recompense for support that was withheld illegally, the Tories introduced retrospective legislation, applying backwards to the time the benefits were withheld, to close the door to claims for money owed.
The Tories were, rightly, castigated for this abuse of justice – and two judges later ruled that the government had breached fundamental rules of justice.
As an anti-racist party, Labour is about protecting the Jewish community from antisemitism – which is about stopping instances of antisemitism happening in our party and communities, from this moment forward.
Fighting endless battles over past behaviour is not only counter-productive but also damaging and open to abuse. As a party of justice, Labour cannot allow any Code Plus to open the door for complainants to dredge up behaviour that would fall foul of the Code now but which happened before the Code was in place.
5. Palestinian human rights
The human rights of Palestinians and their right to talk about their occupation, the racism they face, and their oppression currently and historically cannot be negotiated away and no socialist party should ever contemplate it. The Code must and will ensure that does not happen.
Labour’s Code will protect campaigners for ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ (BDS) – a perfectly legimate and respectable way to campaign against any country which exploits and oppresses another people, just as it was used successfully to campaign against Apartheid South Africa. Labour must and will protect the right of people to organise boycotts.
7. International comparisons
Equally, Labour’s code must protect people who wish to draw fair analogies between what Israel does – for instance its new and widely-condemned ‘Nation State Law’ – and what, for example, Apartheid South Africa did.
Even if not everyone agrees with it, there is no justification for banning that comparison.
8. Penalties for vindictive accusations
One of the most concerning aspects of the antisemitism row has been the making of false claims about members of the party and others. Maliciously-made accusations are damaging, hurtful and cannot be accepted in a democratic party.
Labour must be tough on vexatious claims made about its members and must never accept such behaviour becoming the norm. In the current climate, some accusations of antisemitism have become a means of throwaway abuse and that cannot be allowed to continue.
Allegations must be precise and based on facts – and of course context, as the IHRA working definition rightly points out. To accuse someone of antisemitism is one of the most serious things anyone can do – and no one should be allowed to do it as part of a factional agenda. Labour’s code will put a stop to this abuse.
With these protections in place – and the SKWAWKBOX understands that they are likely to command a majority of support on the NEC – Labour members can be confident that its rules will be by a huge distance the most comprehensive and balanced of any political party.
The wellbeing of our Jewish brothers and sisters and the rights of our Palestinian brothers and sisters will be protected among members in a way that is consistent with Labour’s proud history of standing up to racism and fighting for the oppressed – while members will have clear guidance on acceptable behaviour and protections against vexatious complaints.
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