Appearances are everything in politics, and the peerage given to Shami Chakrabarti, author of the Labour Party’s latest inquiry into its own anti-Semitism, appears to be an act of stunning hypocrisy and cold political cynicism.
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Chakrabarti’s inquiry was commissioned by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in April, after a succession of scandals about anti-Semitic remarks by party members had reached such a crescendo that one of his MPs, Naz Shah, and one of his oldest political allies, Ken Livingstone, were both suspended from the party for anti-Semitism.
Holding an inquiry is a classic way to kick a problem into the long grass, but Corbyn’s way of doing politics is supposed to be different. Generally regarded as a man of principle, Corbyn claims to bring a new, more honest, approach to politics.
He is also a long-standing opponent of Britain’s honors system, which is redolent of hereditary privilege and evocative of Empire in the names of the honors it bestows. There will be no Labour peerages given out under my leadership, he said.
So much for principle.
Before Chakrabarti, there had been an inquiry by Labour Baroness Jan Royall into alleged anti-Semitism among the students in the Oxford University Labour Club. Her report was stifled by the party’s National Executive Committee (its highest governing body), but was leaked to the press this week. It found that anti-Semitism had clearly been present in the Club and that, while anti-Zionism is not always anti-Semitic, “it is often used deliberately as a tool of anti-Semitism.”
No wonder Corbyn and his supporters on the hard left of the party did not like it.
Chakrabarti was meant to incorporate Royall’s report into her own and to publish both together, but there was no sign of Baroness Royall’s work when Chakrabarti’s inquiry report was published at the end of June. Instead, there were some significant differences.
Where Royall had focused solely on anti-Semitism, Chakrabarti’s inquiry was widened to cover all forms of racism. While Royall recommended that anti-Semitic comments in a person’s past should bar them from joining the party, Chakrabarti argued the opposite. And though Royall explicitly acknowledged that anti-Zionism is often anti-Semitic, Chakrabarti merely recommended that “Zio” and “Zionist” should not be used as terms of abuse.
The giveaway line in Chakrabarti’s report came when she addressed the question of suspending members and activists for anti-Semitism: the very issue that has caused the party such problems and had brought about her own inquiry. Suspending people while they are being investigated is disproportionate, she argued, and “if the principle of proportionality had been properly applied in recent times, I query whether so many people would ever have been suspended at all”.
In other words, this was all a big overreaction and an unnecessary fuss about a few people making ill-advised comments on social media.
Neither report truly tackled the underlying question of whether the anti-Semitism in the party is a product of the obsessive mania over Israel that has gripped Corbyn’s part of the left for years. To do so would be to place this problem firmly at Corbyn’s door.
This is where many in the Jewish community feel it belongs, but Chakrabarti’s report gave her leader’s role in this story a wide berth. The whole issue of Labour Party anti-Semitism first arose during last year’s leadership contest in relation to people Corbyn had previously met or spoken alongside, but Chakrabarti firmly dismissed any criticism of him for this.
Instead, since publishing her report Chakrabarti has moved ever closer to Corbyn. It was strange enough for him to share the platform with her at the launch of her report into the problems in his party.
Even more bizarre was the fact that Chakrabarti accompanied Corbyn to a hearing of Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee where he was quizzed on her findings, and even appeared to be helping him to answer their questions.
It was as if Sir John Chilcot, having written his recent inquiry into Britain’s role in the 2003 Iraq War, then took it upon himself to help Tony Blair explain away the criticisms of his government that it contained.
Now Chakrabarti has closed the circle by accepting a position in the party under Corbyn’s leadership. The irony is that, with her track record as a lawyer and human rights campaigner, Chakrabarti could be an excellent Labour peer. But the timing means she will find it difficult to escape the suspicion that she did a deal to climb the greasy pole of politics, and sold out the Jewish community in the process.
Meanwhile there has been silence from the party on whether either report will be adopted or their recommendations implemented. For all Corbyn’s talk of a new way of doing politics, the whiff of old-school backroom fixes is overwhelming.
It’s hard to see how the party’s relationship with the Jewish community can recover under the current leadership. The impression left by this whole sorry episode is one of a party that doesn’t really care about anti-Semitism, and a leadership that puts its own political considerations ahead of anything else.
When Chakrabarti was first appointed back in April, she brought with her a reputation for single-minded integrity. Political journalist Martin Bright – who claimed to have suggested her for the role – wrote in the Jewish Chronicle that despite skepticism about the inquiry, “Shami Chakrabarti is an honest broker, whose reputation has too much to lose from a whitewash.”
As Chakrabarti has just discovered, it’s never too late to lose a reputation. As for Corbyn, it’s hard to see how his reputation with the community could get any lower – but he’ll probably find a way.
Dave Rich is Deputy Director of Communications for the Community Security Trust and author of the forthcoming book, The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism (Biteback, 2016).