The Labour party could have tackled antisemitism more effectively “if the leadership had chosen to do so”, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) concluded as part of its 130-page investigation released on Thursday.
The watchdog also found that Labour breached the Equality Act in two cases – relating to the former London mayor Ken Livingstone and a borough councillor, Pam Bromley – “by committing unlawful harassment” against Jewish people.
Here is a breakdown of some of the key findings.
“We found specific examples of harassment, discrimination and political interference in our evidence,” the EHRC said in its foreword, adding: “But equally of concern was a lack of leadership within the Labour party on these issues, which is hard to reconcile with its stated commitment to a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism.”
No individuals are named as being responsible by the watchdog. Instead, the report criticises the party hierarchy broadly for failing to take decisive action, despite what it says are “recent improvements” in handling complaints.
“Although some improvements have been made to the process for dealing with antisemitism complaints, it is hard not to conclude that antisemitism within the Labour party could have been tackled more effectively if the leadership had chosen to do so,” the report states.
Interference in the complaints process
The EHRC concludes that “there was political interference in the handling of antisemitism complaints”, which it said was part of a “wider practice” of the leader of the opposition’s office getting involved “in disciplinary cases that were deemed ‘politically sensitive’”.
It reviewed 70 complaint files between March 2016 and May 2019 and concluded that there were 23 instances of political interference by staff from the leader’s office and others.
“These included clear examples of interference at various stages throughout the complaint-handling process, including in decisions on whether to investigate and whether to suspend,” the EHRC said.
As a result, the equality watchdog concluded this “was indirectly discriminatory and unlawful” and it held that the Labour party was legally responsible for it.
The Corbyn mural complaint
There was “political interference” in decisions about whether to investigate complaints, the EHRC said, citing the example of a complaint made in April 2018 about Jeremy Corbyn, who had previously posted a statement in support of an artist who had produced an antisemitic mural in the East End of London.
Staff from Corbyn’s office called for the case to be dismissed, emailing the party’s governance and legal unit, which was responsible for complaints. The email said: “The complaint itself seems to fall well below the threshold required for investigation and if so surely the decision to dismiss it can be taken now.”
Staff from Corbyn’s office also “amended and approved” the written response to the complainant “to include details on Jeremy Corbyn’s actions in relation to the mural” even though Labour’s stated process excluded staff from the leader’s office becoming involved in complaints.
Ken Livingstone case
Labour breached the Equality Act in two cases, the EHRC said, when its agents were engaged in “committing unlawful harassment”, including using “antisemitic tropes and suggesting that complaints of antisemitism were fake or smears”.
One was the case of Livingstone, who in April 2016 sought to defend a Labour MP, Naz Shah, who had reposted a Facebook image suggesting that Israel be relocated to the United States. At the time, Livingstone was a member of Labour’s national executive committee and so, according to the EHRC, an agent of the party.
“Ken Livingstone repeatedly denied that these posts were antisemitic,” the EHRC said. “In his denial, Ken Livingstone alleged that scrutiny of Naz Shah’s conduct was part of a smear campaign by ‘the Israel lobby’ to stigmatise critics of Israel as antisemitic, and was intended to undermine and disrupt the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn MP.”
In conclusion, the EHRC said Shah’s comments “went beyond legitimate criticism of the Israeli government” and were not protected by rights to free expression. “Neither is Ken Livingstone’s support for those comments,” the EHRC added.
Emails show many examples of interference in Livingstone’s case, the EHRC said. In April 2018, two years after his original comments, members of the party’s governance and legal unit (GLU) “sought the green light” from staff at the leader’s office to conduct a disciplinary interview with the former mayor.
Leader’s office staff agreed that “there was no option but to authorise the interview”. One staff member, Laura Murray, commented: “We have let the Ken case drag on for far too long already and, if GLU leak to the press that we have held up this investigation of him, it will look beyond awful.”
Pam Bromley case
The watchdog also examined the case of Pam Bromley, a Labour councillor in Rossendale, Lancashire. She made “numerous statements” on Facebook between April 2018 and December 2019 that the EHRC said amounted to “unwanted conduct related to Jewish ethnicity” and “had the effect of harassing Labour party members”.
On 15 December 2019, she posted on Facebook about Jeremy Corbyn: “My major criticism of him – his failure to repel the fake accusations of antisemitism in the LP [Labour party] – may not be repeated as the accusations may probably now magically disappear, now capitalism has got what it wanted.”
Bromley, who had been suspended from the party in April 2018, was expelled by Labour in February 2020.
Inconsistent social media policy
The EHRC said that of the 70 complaints of antisemitism it investigated, the vast majority – 59 – concerned social media.
Labour also had a policy, although it was applied inconsistently, of not investigating complaints about likes or shares of antisemitic content on social media until “mid-2018”, the report said.
That meant “repeated sharing of antisemitic material could have escaped investigation, even where it could have amounted to a breach of the party’s conduct rule or unlawful harassment or discrimination”. Labour “has now acknowledged that its policy was wrong”, the EHRC added.
A further “18 more borderline harassment cases” were identified in the sample of 70 studied by the EHRC. But typically “there was not enough evidence to determine whether the Labour party was legally responsible” because, for example, the person was not an elected representative or candidate.
These were cases involving social media posts that “diminished the scale or significance of the Holocaust” or “compared Israelis to Hitler or the Nazis”, or “referenced conspiracies about the Rothschilds and Jewish power and control” or “accused British Jews of greater loyalty to Israel than Britain”, among others.
Cooperation with Labour
The watchdog indicated that its relations with Labour were not always smooth as it worked through its investigation from its formal beginning in May 2019. It said that while Labour had said it was “keen to engage”, the EHRC “encountered a number of delays in receiving information”.
“At times, we were seriously concerned about the party’s commitment to working with us and to dedicating enough resources to the matter,” the EHRC said, although this seems to have resolved itself after a meeting with the former general secretary, Jennie Formby, in November 2019.