Chakrabarti, BLMUK, Anti-Semitism and False Narratives
For the past few months we have seen the Labour party turn several political issues into weapons. Whilst never a good thing, these attacks feel contrived and needlessly tarnish the reputation of the party, rather than merely the intended target. They also serve the purpose of ensuring certain media narratives prevail — even if that is at the expense of a group or person who have no reason to be attacked; at times even groups the party needs to do more for.
In order to illustrate the process I refer to I shall be looking at three specific case: Shami Chakrabarti’s report, anti-semitism and the BlackLivesMatter movement.
Everybody at this stage will be more than aware of the Inquiry Ms. Chakrabarti was asked to conduct into the culture of the Labour Party. This investigation was prompted by increased noise — I am not claiming it was unwarranted — about the behaviour of both members and Labour party officials. Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone (Oh, Ken — again?) were both found to have behaved inappropriately and so Ms. Chakrabarti was appointed to investigate the culture within the party.
This is the first point at which a media narrative that was thought to be damaging to the leadership was peddled, rather than the reality of the issue being discussed. Most people reading this are probably aware that the report was intended to investigate anti-semitism in the Labour party. The thing less people seem willing to discuss is the fact that was not the aim, nor the sole remit of the report. At this stage I’d like to draw your attention to the second paragraph of the foreword:
“It is not sufficient, narrowly to scrape across some thin magic line of non-antisemitic or non-racist motivation, speech or behaviour, if some of your fellow members, voters or potential members or voters feel personally vulnerable, threatened or excluded as the result of your conduct or remarks.”
The report, in actuality was focussed on “anti-semitism and other forms of racism” — in fact of the six bullet points outlining her remit, not a single one mentions anti-semitism as a lone point of investigation. They are all either directed at all forms of racism or designed to foster a change in culture and attitudes — along with highlighting any problematic areas.
At this point it would be prudent to take another inquiry that was recently released for comparison; namely the Chilcot report. The issues are entirely separate, but it is the outcomes of these reports that I wish to draw attention to. The nature of these inquiries was never intended for them to be trials for individuals, they rather do what the name implies; and research, assess and analyse the subject matter at hand. In Chilcot’s case the events that lead to the invasion of Iraq, and for Chakrabarti the issues of institutional prejudice within the party. Chilcot’s conclusions quite rightly lead us to what we already knew, we — the party and the public — were lied to over the reasons to invade Iraq. It did not recommend Blair was prosecuted, nor seek to pass judgement — rather compile as full a dossier as possible into conduct. This is the nature of an inquiry.
This however does not appear to be accepted in the case of Chakrabarti’s report. Following the release we were treated to characters such as Chuka Umunna using the inquiry as a public stage to lambast any of the leadership that they felt justified in attacking. The accusation being they were somehow party to or allowed this to occur. However whilst MPs who chose to vote for the invasion of Iraq have damaged their position in the eyes of many party members, we did not see Angela Eagle or Alan Johnson asked to explain why they endorsed the invasion post-report.
I hope that the parallels between the two are obvious enough that I do not need to spend further time dwelling on the nature of these inquiries. Suffice it to say that if further action is to be taken against individuals based on reports of this nature — Tony Blair will need to answer a great many questions, to a great many people.
For this report to be considered a whitewash, either at the time or afterwards would require that the report either denied the claims made about the culture of the party — or deliberately downplayed them and made insufficient recommendations for future conduct. I find it hard to believe anybody who has read the report could believe this to be the case. Of the 37 page report, six are reserved for rulebook changes — and two to the organisations consulted. These organisations range from Trade Unions, Momentum, Progress, Jewish Interest groups, Palestinian Interest groups to Marxist, Community Security, Women of Colour and War on Want. I would think it extremely disingenuous for anyone to claim such a report was not broad enough, nor that it did not criticise the current culture sufficiently given the six pages of rule amendments.
The wide range of organisations consulted (available in her report in full) should help clear up the media and party narrative that this enquiry was into anti-semitism, specifically that which occurred under the leadership or Jeremy Corbyn. That was never the intention and thus could never be the outcome. I quote the following extracts to further show the nature of the report:
“In 2010, the proportion of the BAME vote for Labour was more than double that in relation to the white population” — Page 3
“I have heard testimony from Jewish and Muslim members in particular, but also from other BAME members [who] felt the personal conflict of being asked to defend the Labour Party to their families or communities” — Page 8
But for me, perhaps the most telling — especially given how little attention it was given was this paragraph:
“I am sorry to report that “a welcoming environment” has not been the overwhelming experience of many BAME members, including those from Afro-Caribbean, Muslim and Sikh communities in particular. I heard too many stories (from across the country) of members who felt that they were “good enough to deliver votes and leaflets” but not for staff or leadership positions within the Party or to be candidates for public office save (and often not even then) where their own ethnic community provides the majority of the electorate. This kind of testimony was far too common and consistent to be a complete misunderstanding and I do not want to see members of any communities leaving the Party to seek engagement and representation elsewhere” — Page 24
In fact pages 24 and 25 contain three sections that directly address BAME issues within the party. It contains guidance on how things should change in this regard, much as it does for issues of anti-semitism.
It then falls to me to say that if there was a ‘whitewash’ of any sort, it was not surrounding the issue of anti-semitism, nor was it a failing of the report. It was the framing of the inquiry and media attention given to the anti-semitism aspect which helped create two conditions under which it could be viewed as such. Firstly that the report was into recent anti-semitism, and secondly it was an investigation into the specific behaviour of members over the past ten months.
This is just factually false. The first I have already dealt with, the second however is an idea that certain MPs and mainstream media outlets have chosen to push as the narrative. The second is also the one that is offensive, not only to those it chooses to ignore so as to better weaponise the report — but also to Jewish members who have experienced anti-semitism. Some Jewish interest groups have condemned the report — and if the narrative that has been peddled were true, it is an understandable conclusion to come to. The problem as outlined is that it is a fallacy — moreover one that was intended to have the divisive and publicly damaging effect that we are currently enduring.
Minority groups, such as the Jewish community or BAME issues should not be used as tools with which to attack party members internally. They should not be something used to smear colleagues. The report itself explicitly outlines the dangers of losing members due to minorities feeling they are not represented by the party — which ironically is the exact position I found myself in yesterday, while MPs piled in to attack Ms. Chakrabarti’s report after her peerage was announced.
Immediately there were calls from certain Jewish groups that this called the independence of the report into question, assertions one Wes Streeting MP was more than happy to endorse. Whilst Tom Watson’s criticism was, as always, thinly veiled enough to not be perceived as a direct attack on anyone; Streeting failed to achieve the same thing, despite his attempt to very carefully choose his words. His claims that it no longer could be ‘perceived’ as independent, along with his Twitter comments that he felt foolish for originally claiming it was, directly contradict what he originally wished to espouse; namely that it could no longer be ‘perceived’ as independent. Whilst appearances are important, Streeting single handedly promoted the idea this inquiry was biased.
It is at this point I would like to bring in another consequence of the way MPs and the media have handled this report: completely ignoring anything that is not related to anti-semitism. Yesterday BlackLivesMatterUK staged several protests in their ‘Shutdown’ movement. I was inspired and proud that so few people had managed to organise and make this the news story it was. I am by no means downplaying the engagement with the event, but the type of media coverage it received and attitudes towards it were less inspiring. I do in fact think that BLMUK have not been paid attention to and that this was a very clever protest which drew mass attention to an issue. It did not aim to convert, merely force people to recognise the issues and facts which they were campaigning on.
It was then to my dismay that I could not find a single Labour MP who would comment (Wes Streeting did late last night retweet something — credit when it’s due), to either endorse the movement or highlight the reasons they were protesting. I understand it is a divisive issue that on the face of it does not have the widespread support of the electorate, but despite requests neither the official Labour twitter account, nor the Labour Press Team account were willing to comment. In a last throw of the dice I tried my own MP, one Mr. Umunna — response there came none.
What had happened was something out of control of the MPs that had wished to peddle their narrative of anti-semitism. BLMUK have engaged in wider political discourse and — to their detriment when it comes to solidarity from Labour — declared their belief that Israel exists as an apartheid state, guilty of genocide against the Palestinian people. This is not an anti-semitic position, it is anti-zionist and controversial — but it is not anti-semitic. I am under no illusions as to how this statement is perceived by pro-Israel members, but whatever view you subscribe to regarding Palestine/Israel, nobody can deny it is a political position. Whilst theirs is an extreme, it should not be one that is too divisive for Labour — both Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn voted in favour of recognising Palestine as a state. The facts and data surrounding occupation, death tolls and persecution may be open to interpretation, and dispute as to scale — but both Owen and Jeremy’s position by definition recognises their occurrence.
I am now compelled to return to a quote from the report made by Ms. Chakrabarti -
“I do not want to see members of any communities leaving the Party to seek engagement and representation elsewhere”
This one line perfectly encapsulates the issue I wish to highlight, the one real hypocrisy of this entire ordeal — the report is being ignored in favour of narratives that serve individuals aims. Both anti-semitism and institutional discrimination, whether on race or gender have been completely ignored so that those who wish to topple the leadership have more tools at their disposal. As I sat, despairing that a party I am committed to had refused to acknowledge the events of the day I was confronted with another issue which has been used to attack the current leadership: Sexism.
The attacks on Chakrabarti’s report and peerage may have come from various directions and ascribed various motivations to both, but none claimed she was unqualified. None claimed she was not exactly the sort of person we should appoint to the Lords; especially given her belief that it is not fit for purpose and requires massive reform. All claims were draped in a narrative of hypocrisy or vested interests. If there is one thing the establishment is good at, it is attempting to preserve the status quo — and justify it through extraneous circumstances.
The appointment of a woman of colour, who is by any criteria qualified to sit in the Lords has been used as a weapon against a man accused of allowing sexism to thrive. Tom Watson suddenly believes principles should come before what is politically practical — we should appoint nobody. To hear that come from a man who one could definitely call ‘pragmatic’ feels disingenuous. Moreover it is hard to think who Wes Streeting MP feels would have been a more appropriate appointment. Are we to believe that had this peerage come later, but still under Corbyn’s leadership, these same arguments would not have been applied? Even if not, does it not become a moot point when nobody disagrees about her being of the correct character to represent Labour in the Lords and it was not the Tories attacking?
Criticism of the peerage of Chakrabatri that does not call into question her character or reputation does not exist. It should be a source of great shame to any MP involved that they call into question not only the character of a well respected barrister, but the integrity of her work. This is not the same as civil honours that were awarded to cronies, it is a position that requires a certain skill set — moreover one we needed to fill.
It is of even more concern to me that Chakrabarti’s peerage is viewed as hypocrisy whilst Will Straw’s nomination is not worth mentioning. Let me be clear, I am not accusing any party member of being knowingly prejudice — but their timing with regard to their comments could hardly be worse. In a climate that Angela Eagle is so damning of with regard to gender and that Chakrabarti’s report outlines the risk of alienating minority groups, that white, male MPs openly denounce the appointment with cynicism.
I do not feel there is much more to be stated on the issues discussed above, I do not wish to ascribe false positions to individuals, but yesterday my party let me down. It let me down personally by not being willing to recognise the existence of the BLMUK movement — even if to denounce it or certain aspects. It let me down by attacking a talented, qualified, minority woman for being offered a role she is more than suited to — but perhaps most importantly it let itself down. It let itself down by showing no solidarity with any of the groups which it may have disenfranchised and directly ignoring the recommendations of an inquiry which they claim is a ‘whitewash’.
Solidarity is surely what our party stands for, but yesterday it was sorely lacking. At a time when it was needed and actively called for, it was ignored in order that certain narratives which had been shaped months prior were not damaged.
Chakrabarti’s full report can be found here: http://www.labour.org.uk/page/-/party-documents/ChakrabartiInquiry.pdf
Once again, thanks for reading and any retweets are always appreciated.