28 May 2019. The day that brought shame to mainstream British politics when the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) launched a statutory investigation into the Labour Party over multiple complaints of antisemitism. The only other political party ever to be subject to this process was the British National Party. So how did we get to this point and what will happen next?
What is the EHRC and what powers does it have?
The Equality and Human Rights Commission is a statutory non-departmental public body established by the previous Labour government in the Equality Act 2006. It combined the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission. They use their powers to support organisations in challenging discrimination and protecting human rights and have statutory power to take action against those who do not comply. For public bodies, the EHRC can issue compliance notices to ensure their procedures are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
In the instance of the Labour Party, Section 20 of the Equality Act allows the EHRC to carry out investigations in organisations suspected of committing unlawful discrimination. It should be noted that the EHRC only launch investigations when they suspect an organisation has committed an unlawful act. Thus the investigation itself shows that the situation reached a significantly high level to warrant the EHRC’s full involvement. The only previous occasion in which the EHRC conducted an investigation into a political party was in relation to the BNP’s constitution, which limited membership to ‘indigenous Caucasian and defined ethnic groups emanating from that Race’.
Why did the EHRC launch the investigation?
The EHRC made their decision to launch a full investigation having considered the evidence from a number of complaints, most notably from the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and other complainants including the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) who both sent dossiers of evidence.
Two months before launching their investigation, the EHRC began engaging with the Labour Party directly following the complaints. This engagement is standard practise for the EHRC with organisations. Only after that engagement did the EHRC decide that the issues raised met their high threshold for a statutory investigation. It is important to stress that the investigation is not into whether the Labour Party is institutionally antisemitic but instead whether the Labour Party committed unlawful acts towards their members.
The terms of reference for the report make clear that the EHRC, using their powers under the Equality Act, will look at:
“Whether unlawful acts have been committed by the Party or its employees or agents, whether the Rule Book and the Party’s investigatory and disciplinary processes have enabled or could enable it to deal efficiently and effectively with complaints of race or religion or belief discrimination and racial harassment or victimisation and whether the Party has responded to complaints of unlawful acts in a lawful, efficient and effective manner.”
Nonetheless, this report is likely to be the most expansive look at antisemitism in the Labour Party, being the first truly independent investigation into the issue and moreover an investigation that could demand a whole host of evidence not uncovered before such as emails and private messaging communications.
What were the nature of the complaints?
The past few years have given plenty of individual examples of antisemitic behaviour, as well as the denial, obfuscation and minimisation of the problem. You can read about some from just 2019 in our State of Hate Report on the issue.
However, the nature of the complaints are more specific than a litany of incidents. They cover the institutional failings that have allowed the problem to continue. Most of the submissions to the EHRC have not been published but a leak of JLM’s closing submission and some published letters from CAA give a sense of the key arguments made by the complainants. We also know that at least 70 current and former Labour Party staff members gave sworn testimonies and statements to the EHRC, whistleblowing on the extent of the problem within the Labour Party. JLM’s submission covers some stark examples of antisemitic behaviour by Labour employees, agents and members divided into multiple categories including:
“Verbal and online abuse of Jewish members, exclusion of Jewish members from participating in Party activity, signalling by the Leader that antisemitic views are acceptable, failure to implement processes to protect Jewish members from antisemitism, hostile response to those calling out antisemitism, appointment of antisemites to positions of power.”
These examples highlight some high-profile cases such as abuse directed at Jewish MPs but also chronicle the negative experiences of a widespread group of rank and file members who “no longer feel able to attend BLP [Branch Labour Party] or CLP [Constituency Labour Party] meetings due to the intensity of animosity towards them.” This included one individual who detailed 22 examples of antisemitic abuse he received at CLP meetings including being called ‘Zio scum’ and being told ‘that Hitler was right’ by fellow Labour members. Each example given of verbal and online abuse were those by Labour Party members who were abusing their fellow members just for being Jewish or for calling out antisemitism. At each point in the process, when discussions on the report will likely focus on procedures and policies, we must never forget the impact on individual members, Jewish and not, of the pain that antisemitism caused.
Alongside clear examples of antisemitic abuse, the submission also covers how leading figures in the Labour Party, including Jeremy Corbyn himself, responded in a defensive or even hostile way to claims of antisemitism. This spread from defending those engaging in Jew-baiting such as Chris Williamson to denying the existence or extent of the problem of antisemitism to the active victimisation of those calling out antisemitism. The JLM submission also lays bare the extent of the issue with reference to each part of the terms of reference set out by the EHRC. This includes sections on the flaws in Labour’s procedures for dealing with antisemitism, the flaws in how the procedures are implemented and the lack of implementation of various recommendations on dealing with antisemitism.
Whilst all of the above was important context and a framing for the EHRC to run an investigation, the key contention of the submission is that the Labour Party is culpable for multiple unlawful acts under the Equality Act. The reason why the EHRC decided that the crisis warranted the full investigation was primarily the clear indication that unlawful acts had been committed. The unlawful acts under the Equality Act 2010 in the eyes of JLM were:
- The liability for the acts of direct discrimination against Jewish people from Labour’s employees and agents, including MPs, councillors, employees or those administering online forums.
- The liability for the failure to act to protect Jews from antisemitism, including the failure to stop it or call it out at meetings and online and the failure to prevent perpetrators of antisemitism.
- The liability for causing or aiding antisemitic acts, including allowing the election of, and deciding to appoint, known defenders of antisemitism to positions of power such as to NEC and NCC committees which are then able to obstruct disciplinary processes.
- Victimisation of those calling out antisemitism, including disciplinary action taken against those calling out antisemitism, and the gaslighting, discrediting and abusing of Jewish members.
What will the report say when it’s released?
Once a statutory investigation has been completed by the EHRC, a final report is written stating whether the organisation in question has committed any unlawful acts. This report usually makes recommendations and can also provide an ‘action plan’ for the organisation to follow. If the organisation fails to act on the recommendations set out in the report, the EHRC can issue an unlawful act notice where an action plan must be laid out and adhered to as a final step before legal proceedings.
The Labour Party has already received the final draft report of the investigation. From the day of receipt, the Labour Party, and those mentioned in the report, had 28 days to provide written comments on the report before it is published. That process ended during the summer and the report is expected to be released before the end of the year.
Once the report is published, HOPE not hate will provide our expert analysis and guidance to the document. We will have to wait and see for the publication of the EHRC report but we are certain about two things.
Firstly, the report and its recommendations will be a useful blueprint to move forward in ensuring the Labour Party returns to being a safe place for its Jewish members. We are confident the report will lay out in stark terms both the many incidents on antisemitism that have occurred and the structural issues that have allowed that to happen. The recommendations should look to tackle both cultural and procedural issues in order to ensure that widespread antisemitism in Labour can be stamped out. However, the Labour Party will have agency to go above and beyond the Commission’s recommendations to address wider issues which would not be deemed as committing unlawful acts.
Secondly, we understand, and stand in solidarity with, Jewish people who will find the release of the report a difficult and troubling time. Many words will be said and written in the days after the publication of the report, important ones about the need for independent disciplinary processes and training on antisemitism amongst them, but first and foremost our response should amplify and support Jewish voices on the topic and remember that this is more than a discussion of procedures and policies but a response to five years of pain and hurt.