As someone who was actually there during the Labour NEC discussion on anti-Semitism earlier this week, I can say that much of the reporting on it bears no resemblance to the reality of what actually happened.
The thrust of the discussion was about improving how Labour tackles anti-Semitism within the party and wins back the trust of the Jewish community.
Yes, there was previously some incredulity that the Labour Party, with its long and proud history of fighting discrimination, racism and bigotry, actually has this problem, but the evidence is clear: it does. It may be only a very small proportion of the membership, but things that some Labour party members have said and done are horrific.
The NEC decided a number of things. First was to open to review the code of conduct on anti-Semitism that had been adopted recently by the NEC’s Organisation Committee, and to consult Jewish organisations on it.
This code of conduct has been criticised for not repeating every part of the IRHA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism that is widely accepted and used by organisations and authorities across the country, included Labour held Councils and the Scottish and Welsh governments. The IHRA definition consists of a headline definition and practical examples. The Labour code of conduct, as adopted by the Organisation Committee, had included the headline definition and then taken the examples and embellished and adjusted them, in a way intended to be applicable to the context of a mass membership political party.
This had a certain logic and coherence. But it left Labour open to the criticism that it had not adopted as such the full IHRA definition with all the working examples, as other organisations have done. There are also sentences of the IHRA definition that do not appear in the code of conduct, as they are covered by new text, but the new wording can be seen as wanting to avoid parts of the IHRA text, notably relating to how to legitimately criticise the government of Israel.
Labour’s opponents, and anyone simply sceptical of the text’s intentions, or indeed party members worried about how it would be perceived, were bound to highlight and criticise this. Hence the NEC decision to review the Code and work with Jewish community and organisations to improve it. In my own view, that will (and should) lead to the inclusion of the whole IHRA definition as it stands into the code of conduct.
The NEC also agreed to improve the way anti-Semitism cases in the Labour Party are dealt with, and to require all staff, NEC members and NCC members involved in hearing disciplinary cases to have undertaken anti-Semitism training. Cases will also be handled more speedily and a special NEC meeting at the beginning of September will address the backlog of outstanding cases. The NEC was also assured that Labour will continue to use the Macpherson principle – that it is the victim’s perception of what behaviour counts as anti-Semitic that should be the starting point of any investigation.
So, all in all, not quite what was portrayed in some media and social media. But we must recognise that well intentioned decisions that might appear logical and appropriate internally have to be able to pass the test of public perception, in a context where any shortcoming will be seized on and amplified by political opponents and by people who are simply wary and skeptical.
As a party which stands for equality and against racism it is vital that Labour is both seen and believed to be challenging anti-Semitism seriously and directly. We must work harder to build up trust on this issue.
We have to get this right.