The Forde report is indeed damning of both right and [some of the] left – but not for the reasons the media and Labour right have presented, says former LOTO worker Phil Bevin
The Forde Report has finally been released and it is damning of both the Labour left and right, although not in the way represented by the mainstream media or even the Forde Report itself. As background to this analysis, you may find it useful to read my previous Skwawkbox article regarding the decision by Labour’s NEC to adopt the deeply flawed IHRA definition of antisemitism, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s well-judged resistance to the proposal.
Many on the left are claiming vindication because, although the Forde Report’s conclusions are shamefully slanted to save the blushes of Labour’s right wing, the detail reveals that a sustained factional campaign was waged against the left and allegations of antisemitism were “weaponised” to this end. The “mainstream” left’s reading of the situation asserts that the detail of the earlier Leaked Report has been corroborated and confirmed. There is some accuracy in this interpretation but it is also dangerously wrongheaded in many respects. Far from justifying the left’s response to the allegations, the implications of this truth condemn the actions of the complaints unit under the direction of a “left-wing” NEC.
What both the Forde Report and Leaked Report get wrong
The confirmation that the much-publicised narrative of Labour’s “antisemitism crisis” was a factional crusade against the Labour left reveals the left as both victim and co-perpetrator of this disgraceful campaign. This is because the left adopted the right’s narrative as its own, seeking to prove that it was dealing with the problem and, in the process, endorsing the false claim that incidents of antisemitism were disproportionately prevalent within Labour and a problem specific to the Party. It is this false narrative that frames the Leaked Report and the Forde Report, both of which promote fallacies.
Like the later Forde Report, the Leaked Report is self-contradictory and, at times, illogical. The introduction to the Leaked Report correctly states that the incidents of antisemitism within Labour were low but also argues that,
This report thoroughly disproves any suggestion that antisemitism is not a problem in the Party, or that it is all a “smear” or a “witch-hunt”. The report’s findings prove the scale of the problem and could help end the denialism amongst parts of the Party membership which has further hurt Jewish members and the Jewish community.
It should be noted that this statement also contradicts Jeremy Corbyn’s accurate assertion on the release of the EHRC report that, although the hurt felt by a number of Jewish communities at the perceived scale of antisemitism within Labour was real, the scale of the problem had been exaggerated for political purposes. The narrative that underpins the Leaked Report is therefore built on a false premise, which it fails to reconcile with the evidence it presents, particularly the actual case numbers.
Interestingly, the Forde Report is slightly more nuanced on this on this than the Leaked Report but it essentially reaffirms the same narrative. It supports the Leaked Report’s assertions regarding the “scale of the problem” and accusations of “denialism amongst parts of the Party membership”. It claims to “thoroughly disprove” any suggestion that “antisemitism is not a problem in the Party, or that it is all a “smear” or a “witch-hunt”.
The report certainly does debunk the view that Labour is completely free from antisemitism and that it is all a smear and a witch hunt. But nobody serious is making either of these claims. Rather, those of us with an understanding of the facts point out that an extremely small number of incidences of antisemitism did take place within the Party, reflective of the prejudices within wider society. However, a false perception of the scale of the problem was propagated as a means of waging war on the left, which developed into a witch hunt. Not all allegations of antisemitism were inventions made up to justify the witch hunt, but there certainly was (and is) a witch hunt based on a false perception of the size of the problem and maliciously weaponised false allegations. In criticising so called “denialism”, the Forde Report is attacking a straw man of the Leaked Report’s creation, not a genuinely prevalent narrative within the left. Even the most strident critics of the witch hunt, victims like Chris Williamson and Jackie Walker, recognise that antisemitism was and is present within the Labour Party.
Furthermore, Forde’s findings undermine his other findings. It is clear that antisemitism was used as a “factional weapon”. This essentially confirms (as if such confirmation was needed) that there is a witch hunt because the effect and intention of weaponizing antisemitism allegations for political purposes is to denounce individuals via false accusations of antisemitism. That this did happen is a matter of record – it is fact.
Hierarchy of Racism
The Forde Report has been rightly criticised for narrativising its findings to soften the blow landed upon the Labour right by the weight of evidence it presents. However, for me, one of the most shocking claims within the report, which is both accurate and which I believe genuinely applies equally to left and right, is the perception that “the party was in effect operating a hierarchy of racism or of discrimination with other forms of racism and discrimination being ignored.”
The left did not submit the right to the same level or intensity of weaponised antisemitism allegations that they themselves faced. Quite the opposite: some accepted the false narrative that antisemitism was a uniquely prevalent problem within Labour and behaved accordingly.
The best summarisation of the deeply damaging position adopted by the left has been provided by James Schneider in his analysis: “Our Bloc”. Although Schneider is, in my view, dangerously wrong, his argument is revealing of the point of view that underpinned the Labour left’s disastrous approach to antisemitism:
Socialists have both been insufficiently aware of antisemitism or empathetic to its victims, and have failed to call out the dramatic overstatement of the problem in a heavily mediatised moral panic that hurt Jewish people more than anyone. The perception of Labour antisemitism towers over the reality like King Kong over a gorilla. The gorilla must be tackled, but doing so will be harder if we are scanning the skyline for its more terrifying cousin.
If the Forde Report constructed a straw man to tackle in its conclusions, we might term Schneider’s creation a “straw gorilla”. The logical fallacy is the same in both. The statistics prove that the instances of antisemitism in Labour are very small, so it hardly seems fair to criticise Labour members for being “insufficiently aware” of a problem they may never have encountered. And again, the vast majority of people raising concerns about the witch hunt were not being insensitive to real cases of antisemitism but criticising the weaponisation of often false allegations made to serve political purposes. Schneider’s approach is ultimately equivalent to Momentum’s preferred “walking whilst chewing gum” strategy that has been effectively demolished through incisive analysis elsewhere. However, for my purposes, it’s worth pointing out that the Schneider strategy made it far easier to attack Labour members for supposed “denialism”, as it asserted the need for constant vigilance over antisemitism, while also legitimising the idea that Labour members were not sufficiently concerned about what was, in reality, a very small problem within the party.
Nevertheless, it bears repeating that, as is clear from the Forde Report, this disastrous strategy led to antisemitism being given a greater focus than other forms of racism. Moreover, the toxic cocktail of an acceptance of the framing provided by the Labour right and the clumsy implementation of a fundamentally flawed IHRA definition of antisemitism led to the creation of a hierarchy of racism. Within this developed a differentiation between the treatment of antisemitism cases brought against, on the one hand, supporters of Israel and, on the other, critics of the apartheid state.
Behind the scenes of the disciplinary process
My own experience attests to this. For about a month in 2019, I was seconded to Labour HQ from LOTO to help speed up the processing of complaints. This did not amount to political interference in the complaints process but processing the inbox, logging complaints, collating evidence and forwarding the information to more senior colleagues so that they could take the issue forward and make decisions.
When I saw the inbox, it was immediately clear that many of the cases were being raised by one or two individuals. Often, the complainants were referencing comments which simply amounted to criticism of Israel; in many cases the allegations were levelled at people who were not identifiable as Labour members and many complainants reported the same instances of alleged antisemitism. The volume of complaints therefore did not by any measure correspond to the number of instances of actual Labour antisemitism.
This might have been less of an issue if the complaints unit was wholly staffed by individuals with a nuanced understanding of antisemitism, but, in my opinion, this wasn’t the case. I even recall one member of the team – known to be a “left winger” – describing Jewish Voice for Labour, a group of Jewish Labour members who are critical of Israel, as “antisemitic”. Even more disturbingly, the Leaked Report shows that, in its handling of Jackie Walker’s case, the complaints team drew upon the “expert” opinion of Dave Rich, Director of Policy at Community Security Trust – a pro-Israel, anti-“Boycott Divestment Sanctions” organisation – which is funded by the British Home Office, as “crucial” testimony in the case against Walker.
In this context, it is hardly surprising that individuals like Jo Bird, Jackie Walker, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi – all of whom are Jewish critics of Israel – and many others would be so horrifically wronged by the disciplinary process; this is a tragedy, a great injustice and a dark stain on the reputation of the Labour left. It also evidences a bias in favour of pro-Israel points of view, which corroborates my own impressions from the time I was there. I was only at HQ for a short period of time, so my experience may not be wholly representative. However, my impression was that, while there was considerable focus on allegations of left antisemitism, the form often manifested in right wing ideology – such as the trope of the “wrong sort” of Jew – was not subject to the same level of concern.
As the existence of a “hierarchy of protected characteristics” implies, it is arguable that the complaints process as managed under the oversight of a left led NEC was itself racist, if unintentionally, because it instituted a hierarchy of racism that prioritised antisemitism. Moreover, in its handling antisemitism cases, the process implemented policy in a way that had disproportionately negative implications for Jewish critics of Israel.
The temptation, to which parts of the Labour left have already succumbed, is to see the Forde Report as a vindication of the narrative that presents it as a victim of an extreme factional crusade. The truth is that the Labour left is both victim of and accomplice to a despicable project that led to the party to adopt policies that were racist in their effects if not intent. For a movement that claims to be progressive and anti-racist, this is a crushing indictment. Nevertheless, all the signs are that lessons have not been learned. The Labour left and some of its outriders continue to take advice and endorse arguments by people who became willing accomplices to the witch hunt.
The Alliance for Workers Liberty and the Ideology of the complicit
In the process of researching this article, which has been in progress for a couple of years, I noticed the same rhetoric repeating itself from different sources; again and again came the unevidenced assertion that the left has not properly grasped the prevalence of antisemitism in the Labour Party – the logic underpinning the “walking whilst chewing gum” position. Eventually, it occurred to me that the failure to both walk and chew gum by so many advocates of this strategy may be an outgrowth of a more deep-rooted, ideologically driven agenda.
I was particularly struck by an article published by World Socialist Website, which names a member of the complaints unit – a “left winger” – who the article identifies as having been a member of the Alliance for Workers Liberty. I cannot verify this claim myself, but its implications are worth exploring.
The AWL is considered by parts of the left to have “imperialist” tendencies. It is a relatively strong supporter of apartheid Israel (and denies that Israel is an apartheid state) and firm opponent of the kind of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions policy that brought down apartheid South Africa. Such policies, it argues, can “only lead to a Jew hunt”. It is also opposed to a true right of return – a fundamental human right – to Palestinians displaced from their land during the Nakba. The AWL position as set out in 2019 is also fairly relaxed about the ongoing displacement of Palestinians from their land by Israeli settlement building:
Should policies like Netanyahu’s continue unchecked they may make a two-state settlement unworkable by hemming in, fragmenting, and reducing the Palestinian population in the West Bank so much that it can longer hope to win self-determination. That would be a historic tragedy. But it is one that, if it comes to pass, will take place through drastic changes over decades, not through continuation of present trends for a few years more.
This position denies the reality that the expansion of Illegal Israeli settlements into the West Bank and the construction of roads to connect them has already fragmented the area. This has effectively transformed the West Bank from a contiguous territory into a series of isolated Bantustans with freedom of movement between areas impossible for many Palestinians. For this reason, I consider the AWL’s position on Palestine to be one of apologetic for apartheid and incompatible with social justice and human rights, which must always underpin true socialism.
The AWL is also a proponent of the “left antisemitism” narrative. It praised Keir Starmer for settling legal cases with the “whistleblowers” who appeared on the BBC’s Panorama Programme covering the subject. It has also published an article, which asserts that “the problem [of left antisemitism] goes beyond the aberrational”, a view that echoes the false narratives promoted by the Leaked Report, Forde Report and Schneider’s analysis. Considering that Party statistics, the Forde Report and Leaked Report all confirm incidences of antisemitism to have been low, this statement is demonstrably inaccurate: the problem of left antisemitism in the Labour Party may be real but it is the definition of aberrational.
Given its troubling position on human rights and dubious grasp of the extent of antisemitism within Labour, we might expect the progressive Labour left to give the AWL a wide berth. However, when searching the website, a number of prominent names are featured. For instance, John McDonnell, who has urged Jeremy Corbyn to “keep on apologising” over allegations of antisemitism was interviewed by the group for an article in 2020.
Journalist Grace Blakely also wrote an article for the site in 2018 and the organisation has praised Nadia Whittome MP for her stances on the EU and Ukraine. Curiously, earlier this year, the site published an article that praised Paul Mason for his criticism of China.
Of course, being interviewed for, publishing articles in, or being praised by an organisation does not automatically make you a supporter or fellow traveller. Nevertheless, the AWL is stridently critical of its rivals on the British left, sometimes to the point of dogmatism, and so it seems unlikely that it would platform individuals whose perspectives are not broadly compatible with its general line.
The willingness of parts of the Labour left to legitimise an organisation that denies the right of displaced Palestinians to return to their land and resists the identification of Israel as an apartheid state raises the uncomfortable possibility that an imperialist tendency exists – perhaps even predominates – within the Labour left. Furthermore, it may be that the facilitation of the witch hunt by parts of the Labour left is an outgrowth of an ideology that instinctively judges trenchant critics of Israel – particularly those who advocate Boycott Divestment, Sanctions, support the Palestinians’ right of return, and believe Israel to be an apartheid state – very harshly. In particular, the treatment of comments by a representative of an explicitly pro-Israel organisation as objective expert opinion on antisemitism in the case of Jackie Walker is not only wholly indefensible but evidence that, unconsciously or otherwise, an imperialist political ideology influenced the Labour Party complaints process.
This hypothesis requires further research, but it may explain the disproportionate targeting of some of the most strident critics of Israel — who also happen to be Jews – by the Labour bureaucracy, even when it was led by the left. Recent events, such as the removal of JVL activist Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, who was herself falsely accused of antisemitism, from the left NEC slate – allegedly by Momentum – despite her receiving the backing of Jeremy Corbyn, makes further investigation all the more imperative.
It now seems clear to me that the Labour antisemitism controversy and its disastrous handling by the party’s left points to an underlying contradiction at the heart of Labour politics: that it is impossible to be both a socialist and a defender of any aspect of the global Anglo-Saxon-led military industrial complex, including apartheid Israel and its British state-sponsored advocates. It follows that members of the Labour left, who support the apartheid state and facilitate the purging of its critics, cannot be regarded as true socialists. In effect, the interests of the ruling class are served by both Labour’s right and left, and the class struggle cannot be won through the structures and processes of the Labour Party.
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