UK Politics

A guide to Labour Party anti-Semitism claims

Jeremy Corbyn Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The anti-Semitism row has been a constant backdrop to Mr Corbyn's leadership

The internal Labour row over anti-Semitism has dragged on for nearly three years. Here's a guide to what's been going on.

What is anti-Semitism?

Jewish people have faced prejudice and hostility for centuries. During World War II, six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis or their accomplices in what is known as the Holocaust.

Modern-day anti-Semitism can take many forms including, but not limited to, conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the global financial system and the media, to attacks on synagogues, verbal abuse or hate speech and abusive memes on social media.

In 2018, anti-Semitic hate incidents in the UK reached a record high, according to the Community Security Trust, which monitors them.

In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) adopted a working definition of anti-Semitism which described it as "a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews".

The UK and the IHRA's other 30 members accepted the definition, as well as a series of accompanying "contemporary" examples of how anti-Semitism manifests itself in public life.

These include Holocaust denial, denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination (through the existence of the State of Israel), and holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of that state.

Labour got itself into trouble over the definition - as we'll explain later.

How does it relate to Israel?

Image copyright Reuters

Debates about anti-Semitism in Labour often involve Israel and the term "Zionism".

In its modern sense, Zionism refers to support for Israel's existence and prosperity. It began as a political movement in Europe in the late 19th Century which sought to develop Jewish nationhood in the land known as Palestine - also known to Jews as the ancient Land of Israel.

The movement evolved and eventually led to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

Some say "Zionist" can be used as a coded attack on Jewish people, while others say the Israeli government and its supporters are deliberately confusing anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism to avoid criticism.

Attitudes to Israel in the UK, and on the left in particular, are influenced by its troubled relationship with its Arab neighbours and its long conflict with the Palestinians.

A 2016 report by the Home Affairs Committee of MPs backed the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism but said it should include an additional statement to maintain freedom of speech "in the context of discourse about Israel and Palestine".

This, it said, should read "it is not anti-Semitic to criticise the Israeli government without additional evidence to suggest anti-Semitic intent" or to hold Israel "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 ant-Semitic intent".

What is the Labour anti-Semitism row about?

Anti-Semitism was generally not regarded as a big problem in the Labour Party before Jeremy Corbyn's election as leader in September 2015.

Since then, things have changed, with Mr Corbyn and other figures on the left setting a new political direction.

There has been an influx of new members, many of whom are vocal critics of Israel and who believe the UK, along with the US, should be tougher towards Israel, especially regarding its policies towards the Palestinians and its building of settlements in the occupied territories.

The strength of the left's support for Palestinian statehood, which Jeremy Corbyn has championed for decades, contrasts with the more nuanced position taken by many of his predecessors.

As the balance of power within Labour changed after Mr Corbyn's appointment, attention quickly focused on what activists and elected representatives were saying - and had said in the past - on social media and elsewhere about Israel and Jewish people.

There were claims that anti-Semitic tropes were being widely propagated and a number of incidents attracted a great deal of attention.

High-profile suspensions over alleged anti-Semitic comments include MP Naz Shah, the ex-London Mayor Ken Livingstone and MP Chris Williamson, an ally and friend of Mr Corbyn.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Chris Williamson is one of a number of prominent figures to have been suspended

Ms Shah apologised for a string of comments on Twitter, including one suggesting Israel should be moved to the United States, although she was subsequently re-instated.

Mr Livingstone quit the party after a long-running row over claims Adolf Hitler had once supported Zionism while Mr Williamson was stripped of his membership for saying the problem of anti-Semitism had been over-stated and Labour had been "too apologetic" over the issue.

Mr Williamson's case is still ongoing - he was allowed back into the party several months later, but was suspended again two days later. pending further consideration of his future.

In February this year Labour released figures showing that the party received 673 accusations of anti-Semitism by Labour members between April 2018 and January 2019. However the scale of the issue remains disputed.

In April 2019, the Sunday Times reported that Labour had received 863 complaints against party members, including councillors.

The newspaper claimed leaked e-mails it had seen showed more than half of the cases remained unresolved while there had been no investigation in 28% of them.

It said fewer than 30 people had been expelled while members investigated for posting online comments such as "Heil Hitler" and "Jews are the problem" had not been suspended.

Labour disputed the reports while Jewish Voice for Labour, a newly constituted group supportive of Mr Corbyn, maintained the number of cases being investigated represented a tiny fraction of Labour's 500,000 plus membership.

What has Labour done in response?

Not nearly enough, say its critics.

In 2016, Mr Corbyn asked the barrister and human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti - who was appointed a Labour peer soon after her report was published - to look into the extent of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism within the party.

The report concluded that while Labour was not "overrun by anti-Semitism or other forms of racism", there was an "occasionally toxic atmosphere".

It called for a series of recommendations to tackle what it said was the "clear evidence of ignorant attitudes" within sections of the party.

The report's launch was marred, though, by a verbal confrontation which led to the expulsion of activist Marc Wadsworth from the party after he criticised a Jewish MP.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The time it has taken to implement the Chakrabarti report has been criticised

Labour's General Secretary Jennie Formby says she has strengthened and speeded up the party's disciplinary procedures, with more staff to handle investigations but Baroness Chakrabarti - now Labour's shadow attorney general - has criticised the pace of progress.

The Home Affairs Committee's 2016 report said the leadership's lack of action "risks lending force to allegations that elements of the Labour movement are institutionally anti-Semitic".

More recently, in early 2019, Labour approached its former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer about leading a review into its complaints process, which critics say has become politicised.

This, in turn, led to complaints from prominent Jewish MPs that he was too close to the party for any review to be independent.

But in a politically damaging move, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced it would be conducting its own wide-ranging investigation into whether Labour "unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish".

Labour said it would co-operate fully with the watchdog.

It is only the second time the EHRC has investigated a political party - in 2010, it ordered the BNP to re-write its constitution to comply with race relation laws.

A Labour spokesman rejected "any suggestion that the party does not handle ant-Semitism complaints fairly and robustly, or that the party has acted unlawfully".

Panorama row

The party faced further criticism following a BBC Panorama called Is Labour Anti-Semitic?

The programme spoke to a number of former party officials who alleged that senior Labour figures - namely Ms Formby and Mr Corbyn's communications chief Seumas Milne - had interfered in the process of dealing with anti-Semitism complaints.

The disputes team is supposed to operate independently from the party's political structures, including the leader's office.

The whistleblowers also claimed they had faced a huge increase in anti-Semitism complaints since Mr Corbyn became leader in 2015.

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption Seumas Milne and Jennie Formby have been accused of interfering in Labour's disciplinary process

Labour strenuously disputed the claims, insisting there was no interference and the former staff were "disaffected" individuals with "personal and political axes to grind".

It also said the programme was "heavily slanted and inaccurate" - a suggestion Panorama has rejected.

The party's deputy leader, Tom Watson, said he "deplored" the official response to the documentary, and other senior figures joined him to call on the leadership to listen to the concerns it raised.

MPs and peers are now pushing for a fully independent complaints process.

Row over international definition

In July 2018, Labour adopted a new anti-Semitism code which critics, including Jewish leaders and some Labour MPs, said fell unacceptably short of the IHRA definition.

Labour's version did not include a number of its examples of anti-Semitism, including:

  • accusing Jewish people of being more loyal to Israel than their home country
  • requiring higher standards of behaviour from Israel than other nations

Following a consultation - and widespread criticism - Labour subsequently adopted the full IHRA definition and examples, along with an accompanying statement that "this will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians".

Critics have said the addition of a "caveat" undermines the IHRA definition - but Labour says it is intended to reassure members they can be critical of Israel without being anti-Semitic.

Mr Corbyn proposed a longer additional statement - which would have allowed criticism of the foundation of the state of Israel as a racist endeavour - but this was not accepted by the party's ruling executive.

Jeremy Corbyn's views

Jeremy Corbyn has insisted time and time again there is no place for anti-Semitism in Labour.

Some of his supporters say the problem has been exaggerated and is being used as a stick to beat the Labour leader by people who don't like him or his views on the Middle East.

He comes from a different political tradition than virtually every other post-war Labour leader, having campaigned for 40 years against Western imperialism and aggression.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Mr Corbyn spent forty years as a peace campaigner before becoming Labour leader

Mr Corbyn's opponents accuse him of being too close to Hamas, a militant Islamist group, and Hezbollah, a Lebanese paramilitary group. Both groups are widely viewed in the West as terrorist organisations.

He described representatives of Hamas as his "friends" after inviting them to a controversial meeting in Parliament in 2009.

He later said he regretted his use of language, but insisted his motivation in talking to enemies of Israel was the promotion of peace in the Middle East.

But his critics argue his views have created the space for anti-Semitism to flourish in the party and he has condoned anti-Jewish prejudice through several of his own actions.

The 'English irony' video

Mr Corbyn faced criticism in August 2018 after a video emerged on the Daily Mail website of a 2013 clip in which he said a group of British Zionists had "no sense of English irony".

Former chief rabbi Lord Sacks branded the comments "the most offensive statement" by a politician since Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech and accused the Labour leader of being an anti-Semite.

Mr Corbyn said he had used the term "Zionist" in an "accurate political sense and not as a euphemism for Jewish people".

He added: "I am now more careful with how I might use the term 'Zionist' because a once self-identifying political term has been increasingly hijacked by anti-Semites as code for Jews."

It isn't the only row he has been embroiled in, though.

The Tunis wreath row

In August 2018, the Labour leader also came under fire over his presence at a ceremony in Tunisia in 2014 which is said to have honoured the perpetrators of the 1972 Munich massacre, during which 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage by Palestinian militants and killed.

The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Mr Corbyn deserved "unequivocal condemnation" for laying a wreath on the grave of one of those behind the atrocity.

The Labour leader tweeted that Mr Netanyahu's claims about his "actions and words are false", adding: "What deserves unequivocal condemnation is the killing of over 160 Palestinian protesters in Gaza by Israeli forces since March, including dozens of children."

Mr Corbyn said he had attended the event in Tunis as part of a wider event about the search for peace.

The Holocaust memorial event

Earlier in August 2018, Jeremy Corbyn apologised over an event he hosted as a backbench MP in 2010 where a Holocaust survivor compared Israel to Nazism.

After the Times published details of the event, the Labour leader said he had "on occasion appeared on platforms with people whose views I completely reject" and was sorry for the "concerns and anxiety that this has caused".

The mural row

Image caption Mr Corbyn apologised for not condemning an anti-Semitic mural in London

In March 2018, Mr Corbyn was criticised for sending an apparently supportive message to the creator of an allegedly anti-Semitic mural in 2012.

In a message sent via Facebook, he had appeared to question a decision to remove the artist's controversial work from a wall in east London.

He later said he had not looked at it properly, calling it "deeply disturbing and anti-Semitic".

The artist, called Mear One, denied this, saying the mural was about "class and privilege".

Following the row, Mr Corbyn said he was "sincerely sorry for the pain" caused and conceded there were "pockets" of anti-Semitism within the party.

The breakaway MPs

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Luciana Berger said he had become ashamed of the party she joined as a teenager

Unease within Labour ranks in Parliament intensified in 2017 and 2018 amid concerns the leadership was not doing enough to defend Jewish MPs, such as Luciana Berger, who were themselves the targets of anti-Semitic abuse and death threats.

In March 2018, scores of Labour MPs joined Jewish groups, including the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and other anti-racism campaigners to demand action in an unprecedented "Enough is Enough" rally outside Parliament.

In a further sign of the breakdown in trust between Labour and the Jewish community, the Jewish Labour Movement considered severing its century-old affiliation to the party.

While deciding to retain its ties, the organisation of 2,000 members did pass a motion of no confidence in Mr Corbyn and voted to describe the party as "institutionally anti-Semitic".

In February 2019, nine MPs quit Labour, many of them citing the leadership's handling of anti-Semitism as their reason for leaving.

Ms Berger, who had a police escort at the 2018 Labour Party conference, said she had come to the "sickening conclusion" that the party had become institutionally anti-Semitic and that she was "embarrassed and ashamed" to stay.

Ms Berger's supporters, including deputy leader Tom Watson, claimed she has been "bullied out of her own party by racist thugs".

Among the other defectors, Joan Ryan claimed the party had "become infected with the scourge of anti-Jewish racism" while Ian Austin blamed Mr Corbyn for "creating a culture of extremism and intolerance".

What else has happened?

In March 2018, the head of the Labour Party's disputes panel quit after it emerged she had opposed the suspension of a council candidate accused of Holocaust denial.

Christine Shawcroft said she had not not been aware of the "abhorrent" Facebook post that had led to his suspension

In July 2018, the UK's three main Jewish newspapers published the same front page, warning that a government led by Mr Corbyn would pose an "existential threat to Jewish life".

Earlier that month the party brought disciplinary action against the Labour MP Margaret Hodge, after she reportedly called Mr Corbyn an "anti-Semite" and a "racist".

Ms Hodge refused to apologise and the action was later dropped.

Frank Field, the MP for Birkenhead since 1979, quit the party's group in Parliament in August 2018, saying the leadership had become "a force for anti-Semitism in British politics".

In May 2019, a member of Labour's ruling National Executive Committee - Peter Willsman - was suspended after LBC radio reported he had been recorded as saying that the Israeli embassy was "almost certainly" behind the anti-Semitism row.

And Labour's successful candidate in the Peterborough by-election, Lisa Forbes, was engulfed in a row after it emerged she had liked a social media post suggesting Theresa May had a "Zionist slave masters agenda".

She apologised and calls for her to be suspended were rejected but the controversy led to fresh ructions and claims racism had become "institutionalised" within the party.

Update 25th June 2019: Although intended as a general guide, an earlier version of this article omitted some relevant information and it has since been updated.

Correction 23rd July 2019: An earlier version of this article inaccurately said that Labour has never confirmed the number of anti-Semitism cases it is investigating and this has been amended to confirm that the party did release figures for a 10 month period in 2018/19.