The British Labour Party has an entire department of officials dedicated to ensuring that its hundreds of thousands of members are not racist or otherwise unfit to belong to the party. Over the past few years, this unit has had an unsettling turnover rate as employees have suffered from stress, depression and — at least in one case — been driven to thoughts of suicide by jumping from the balcony of the general secretary’s office.
The reason for this unhealthy working environment, as one of them put it on the BBC flagship investigative series “Panorama” on Wednesday night, was being “stuck between an angry and obstructive leader’s office and an arcane disciplinary process.”
“Panorama” is the world’s longest-running current affairs program, on air since 1953, and devoted a special episode to the question “Is Labour anti-Semitic?” That the question is even being asked on Britain’s most respected news show says it all. It would have been unthinkable four years ago, before Jeremy Corbyn was elected party leader and his cult of followers took over Labour’s machinery.
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There is probably no political party in the democratic world that devotes as much effort and resources to rooting out racism and making sure — as Labour’s rule book says — that its members engage with each other in a “comradely” fashion. What was breathtaking about the hour-long broadcast wasn’t the details of Corbyn’s by now well-known associations with Holocaust deniers and blood libelers; it was the anguish caused to the party’s officials at the tide of Jew-hatred sweeping over the party following his ascension.
The episode consisted mainly of interviews with Jewish party members confronted with this deluge of anti-Semitism, interspersed with former employees of the party’s complaints and disputes department: Eight whistleblowers who, as one of them said, were “spending day after day reading anti-Semitic comments written by Labour Party members.”
Shocked by party members who posted images from far-right neo-Nazi publications on their social media accounts, it should have been clear, one employee said, that “we had standards, we had clear rules we tried to upheld,” and that their job was “to bring some civility back into the proceedings.” But they were obstructed every step of the way by Corbyn’s aides, interceding on the behalf of Jew-baiters and insisting that their blatant anti-Semitism was just “about Israel” — and therefore forgivable.
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What the episode of “Panorama” showed is that the pre-Corbyn Labour Party was an earnestly anti-racist movement, staffed by fundamentally decent officials. Under the Corbynist cult that claims to be “anti-racist,” it became a different entity.
Veteran Jewish lawmaker Louise Ellman described meetings with her constituents in Liverpool in which new members turned up and, instead of discussing issues such as health care and public transport, “wanted to talk about the Middle East.” When Ben Westerman — the only member of the disputes team who was actually Jewish himself — was sent to investigate what was happening in the Liverpool Riverside branch, one of the members asked him: “Where are you from? Are you from Israel?”
This isn’t the story of anti-Semitism on the left in Britain. That story has been told in thousands of reports over the last four years. The “Panorama episode” — directed by veteran journalist John Ware — is the nuanced, almost understated story of a rapid transformation of a social and ideological movement, one of the largest political parties in the Western world.
At one point, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the Jewish party members and the non-Jewish party officials who are talking about the same “soul-destroying” despair of having their political home being snatched away by a dogmatic cult. As one of the Jewish members says, until Corbyn took over, “people celebrated diversity.” Being Jewish in Labour “was a good thing.”
But after Corbyn’s circle established control, “all the work I had done had been for nothing,” said one official of his years trying to root out racism in the party. Hundreds of members had been investigated, but due to interference from the leader’s office, they said, only 15 members were expelled from the party. The rest were either reinstated or their disciplinary process was bogged down.
Labour’s response was to deny all allegations, to try to force the former officials not to speak with the media by using nondisclosure agreements, and to put forward an inarticulate member of the shadow cabinet, who succeeded in saying nothing. Corbyn and his team refused to be interviewed. The whistleblowers were branded as “disaffected” and having “a political ax to grind.”
Online, while the program was being broadcast, Corbynist social media influencers were being told to blame the BBC for focusing on Labour’s anti-Semitism issue rather than Islamophobia in the rival Conservative Party. Anything but engage with allegations that the new leadership of Labour has betrayed not only its Jewish members and the British Jewish community but also its non-Jewish members and officials, who all believed in what the party used to stand for.