Last night’s Panorama documentary that aired on the BBC has exploded the politico internet, and reignited the issue of anti-Semitism that had taken a back seat in recent weeks and months.
However the documentary has taken a serious and complicated issue and distilled it to, in large parts, a one-sided hatchet job on the Labour left.
First there are the falsified, edited documents that part of the Panorama investigation was based upon. Corbyn’s senior advisor, Seamus Milne, was reported to have stated that the party ‘were muddling up political disputes with racism‘. However a key paragraph was removed that changed the entire context of what the memo was saying, immediately bring into questioning the credibility of the journalism.
Iain McNicol, the former Labour party General Secretary responsible for discipline with Labour, who held the position for most of Corbyn’s tenure and for most of the antisemitism crisis, was barely mentioned within the program. This is despite the fact that he and the department that he ran were implicated in this Buzzfeed article exposing interfering and slowing down investigations into anti-Semitism within the party for political reasons. Instead, there is a one-sided focus on pinning responsibility onto his successor Jennie Formby (currently off on sick leave battling cancer) and the Leader’s Office. Formby was accused of ‘interfering’, despite her interference actually being reference to her requesting a case be expedited after being stuck in limbo prior to her tenure.
One of the whistle-blowers in the program, Sam Matthews, was one of those who allowed genuine anti-Semitism to go unpunished and dragged out disciplinary cases. He was also one of those requested assistance from the Labour leader’s office on specific cases. Whilst whistle-blowers in general should be commended, not attacked, there are serious questions to be asked when they are ‘whistle-blowing’ on issues they themselves are guilty of.
That all of this has been ignored completely by those who want to frame their response through the program’s findings is a dereliction of duty by those responsible. You can call out anti-Semitism in Labour AND shoddy journalism. You can fight bigotry AND take the properly nuanced view that there are people on BOTH who have questions to answer about their motives and actions. Sadly, partisanship nearly always seems to win out.
There was plenty that the Labour Party should also be ashamed of. The use of NDA’s on staff (though there is also an issue of selective and partisan leaking of documents by some staffers that would not have been tolerated in the past), the failure of providing a duty of care to staff during such a toxic period (regardless of whether the staff themselves were part of one side or another of that toxicity), the clumsy, unprofessional, and frankly unacceptable attempts to spin the contents of the documentary and discredit the whistle-blowers before it had even aired. The complaints processes, despite good people working within them, are bureaucratic, discredited and unfit for purpose. Most of all the failure of the party AS A WHOLE to get a grip on anti-Semitism as an issue within the party and to conduct the discussion in a rational, impartial, and constructive manner, leading it to be seen, rightly or wrongly, as a party hostile to Jews.
To sum up, nobody comes out of the program looking good, from the party to the show’s producers. But what of the wider public context?
Of all the issues around racism and bigotry blighting our politics right now; anti-Semitism on the Labour left, distortion and weaponization of anti-Semitism from the Labour right, Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, antisemitism in the Conservative Party, our media and political classes are making the choice to focus on just the former. This is a conscious decision they have taken, and it’s certainly not based on prevalence. If I had the know how I’d do this myself, but I would love to see a heat map of how these issues have been reported in the press. I’d guess that easily 90% of the focus has been on anti-Semitism within Labour, whilst the other issues are being all but ignored.
You can highlight and call out anti-Semitism within Labour whilst at the same time highlighting and calling out other equally serious bigotry and racism. The Conservative Party is in power, and our next Prime Minster is going to be elected by around 160,000 people, some of them members from other prominent right-wing parties and organisations who have recently joined, of whom 60% believe Islam and Muslims to be a danger to Western civilisation . Boris Johnson would not be the PM in waiting if it wasn’t for these bigots. Yet he will be, and the views of those electing him have been largely ignored or brushed under the carpet. Those who have done so are complicit in what happens next, and will be no matter how loud they scream and yell about how bad a PM he will make.
This same party has embraced both Islamophobic and anti-Semitic regimes and movements around the world, including Hungary’s Victor Orban, America’s Donald Trump, and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Largely ignored. Many members who have been publicly suspended for Islamophobic comments were then quietly reinstated a short while later. Largely ignored. Former Tory Party Chair Baroness Warsi has led a prolonged and dignified campaign to highlight this issue within the party, and has been largely ignored or vilified by the press and former colleagues.
Given this, perhaps someone would like to tell us how it is that this is deemed to be of far less importance to most of the media than the existence of anti-Semitism within Labour?
Some will call this ‘whataboutery’ I say what about you do your damn jobs properly and report what is going on. All of it. Not just the bits expedient to your politics or your newspaper’s editorial line.
All of this matters, for several reasons. It creates a perception around the issues that affects people’s voting decisions, which directly affects people’s lives. It belittles those issues ignored. It fuels distrust in facts, information, and politics. It all plays into a wider issue about our broken media that I may or may not blog on later.
Whilst much of our media may be rotten, this doesn’t diminish or excuse the serious systemic problems within Labour that have helped fuel the anti-Semitism saga. There are two major factions within the party, and both have rotten cores. The pro-Corbyn left has a sizeable minority of members who indulge and defend bigots and anti-Semites, on the basis that they claim to be left wing and/or Corbyn supporters, and therefore cannot possibly be racist, and for whom criticism of or reflection on policy, issues, personnel, or public statements that is anything shy of total obedience to what they perceive as the views of the leadership is seen as betrayal and disloyalty of the highest order.
The anti-Corbyn right has a sizeable minority of members who see it as their mission to take down the left of the party over all else; a hangover from previous factional battles within Labour, and will, and indeed have, weaponised serious party and social issues in order to do so after failing with more traditional party democratic methods. They, or those they support, utilise their long-held contacts within the press and their grounding from the New Labour days in the dark arts of politics to help further their anti-left cause.
Both sets contain those who are abusive, hypocritical and self-indulgent, who revere in an almost cult like fashion wither the current leader or past leaders, and both fuel each other’s paranoia and animosity.
It should be stressed that these people are minorities within both factions. But they are sizeable, noisy, and damaging minorities. Both have representation amongst those, Jewish and non-Jewish, prominent on the anti-Semitism debate.
Can these two groups within a party isolate and jettison the worst within their midst and work together for the common good of a Labour government? Can the left rid themselves of the Williamson’s and the Willsman’s, and those who defend them, whilst retaining their radical, popular, and necessary ideas and policy platform, and their push for social justice? Can the moderates accept that they do not and should not automatically control the party, and get on board with such a program, bringing with them their experience, numbers, campaigning skills, and media savvy, without feeling it necessary to sabotage the left at every turn?
The necessary steps that need to happen to tackle the issue of anti-Semitism will not happen until they do. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Will the wider public even care anymore? I get the impression most are numb to it by now.