IRR submission to Chakrabarti Inquiry into Labour and antisemitism

1. Introduction: The intense publicity in the run-up to the formation of this independent inquiry ensures that its findings will also be subject to intense public scrutiny. Despite the seriousness of the accusations levelled at the Labour Party, we believe that this review provides a unique opportunity for new standards of political responsibility to be set in the related fields of countering racism and fostering good race relations and community cohesion.

2. The Institute of Race Relations: The IRR, a long-standing UK-based charity that educates for racial justice in the UK, Europe and across the world, opposes all forms of racism whilst acknowledging that racism is also specific, impacting on different communities in different ways, at different times and in different areas. However, despite the fact that racism may impact differentially, law, policy and educational initiatives must not themselves be differential. All communities must feel that any discrimination they experience will be treated equally in law and practice and that all allegations of racism are treated consistently. In that sense, although the inquiry’s terms of reference mention ‘anti-semitism and other forms of racism’, IRR believes that it is confusing and counter-productive to devise community-specific programmes and urges the inquiry to devise rules of conduct which can apply across the board to all forms of racism – including antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Hence our emphasis on returning to first principles to provide the framework within which the Labour Party could work out its specifics.

3. Distinction between attitude and act: The IRR has, from its researches and interventions over the last fifty years, realised the necessity of distinguishing between ideas/attitudes/prejudices – which are all subjective and ‘not provable’ – and the objective acting out of such prejudice – in discriminatory acts, physical violence, institutional bias, government edicts, etc. – which is open, provable and prosecutable.1 Hence our belief in education not penalisation as the correct response to racist ideas or prejudices, provided they are not manifested in discrimination, abuse or violence.

4. Definition of racism debased: The IRR believes that the problems that confront the Labour Party (as to how to define and provide guidance on racism) have their genesis in the fact that in the country in general there have been moves, since the 1980s, to shift the meaning of ‘racism’ from the objective to the subjective, to personalise it, allowing it to move from something tangible, and subject to prosecution, to anything that gives hurt, offence, discomfort. Racism has become adulterated by equating speech and deed, opinion and fact, attitude and act.

The move to the subjective has been compounded by the Macpherson definition of a racist incident: ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’.2 We feel that, in the present febrile climate as regards racism in the Labour Party, to introduce such subjectivity into debates would not in fact clarify matters of racism but open them to personal interpretations and thereby cloud the issue.

In other words, anti-racism has moved from a concept relating to fairness, equality and justice to an exercise in purging people’s minds of ‘impure thoughts’ and indeed purging such people from the Party. Penalising people for perceived racist feelings or attitudes is itself biased (because based on subjective opinion), contrary to natural justice and unproductive, whereas enforcing the law when discrimination occurs is both educative and just. It is evident that certain parts of the Labour hierarchy are now so confounded by the cacophony of the changing mood music that even the use of words such as ‘Holocaust’, ‘Zionism’, ‘slavery’ can trigger an anxiety-provoked kneejerk reaction in which commonsense and natural justice go by the board.

5. Impact of identity politics: Simultaneously with the subjectivisation of racism has come the influence of identity-based politics, which tends to personalise the political and individualise the social, and move the fight against racism to a fight for culture. Obviously cultural exclusion can in certain circumstances lead to institutional racism (e.g. Sikhs in the 1960s being effectively banned from driving buses because the wearing of turbans was not compatible with the official uniform cap). And in other circumstances, a fight for culture can also be a fight against racism (e.g. the Gypsy and Travellers’ struggle for provision of sites). But it does not follow that all cultural or ethnic demands unmet by an organisation or state agency are tantamount to racism. This emphasis on cultural/religious/ethnic rights became official policy following Lord Scarman’s finding on the 1981 ‘riots’,3 that ‘racial disadvantage’ and not institutional racism was the problem and could therefore be compensated by meeting ‘the problems and needs of the ethnic minorities’. In the event, it encouraged different ethnic groups to vie with each other for preference and reduced multiculturalism from meaning inter-culturalism to culturalism meaning separateness.4

6. Role of social media: What is now apparent, and no more so than in the recent cases the Labour Party has had to deal with, is that social media such as Twitter and Facebook have served to blur the crucial line between attitude and act. Previously, if you spoke perhaps thoughtlessly ‘out of turn’ about a person or a group it was in private, in the context of a conversation and at one moment in time. You could be pulled up for it there and then, made to see the error, offer an apology and so on at the time. But making that same remark on social media multiplies the offence and renders it not only out of proportion, but irredeemable.

7. Personalised racism and party politics: The danger is that in the realm of party politics, such personalisation of racism can easily take on the form of character assassination and, helped on by the mass media, become a decoy for political vendetta.

8. Racism v offence: The second major shift, which the inquiry needs to acknowledge, is the attempt to move the meaning of racism to the giving of offence – something evident in the UK since the debate over the book Satanic Verses published in 1988. The book clearly upset and offended many Muslims and might not therefore have been a wise move in terms of furthering good community relations. But it did not incite hatred, it was not unlawful or prosecutable in any way and therefore the author’s right to freedom of expression had, in a democracy, to be upheld. What is becoming blurred under pressure from various sectional interests is the line between what is illegal and what unpleasant; between what should be punished or outlawed and what can be informally dealt with, through education, for example.

The issue of what constitutes antisemitism and what anti-Zionism will no doubt be addressed by a number of groups giving evidence to the inquiry. What the IRR suggests is that, rather than looking just at the specific and hotly contested matter, you examine it first in terms of a larger principle: what constitutes racism and what offence. And this in the recent climate when subjective claims over aspects of identity have become elevated, and the line blurred between (religious) rites and (civil) rights.

9. Racism and the sacrosanct: It has to be acknowledged that in a broad church like the Labour Party certain communities will hold specific sectional views – be they religious, political or existential – as sacrosanct. But that does not mean that other members do not have the right to comment in those areas; that is clearly a matter of freedom of expression. So long as views remain within the bounds of the law they should be permissible, however unpalatable some individuals might find them. While racism is offensive, not everything which gives offence is per se racist. This distinction is key to the debate around anti-Semitism.

10. Maintaining liberties, curtailing racism: One of the challenges therefore for the Labour Party is maintaining civil liberties while countering racism. The IRR believes that the Party is in danger of losing that balance if it were to adopt the position (for example as advocated by former secretary of state for communities and local government, Eric Pickles) of extending the definition of anti-semitism to include particular types of criticisms of the state of Israel.5

We believe that the point being made by proponents of such a move – that Israel is so intimately tied to Jewish identity that certain criticisms constitute anti-Semitism – is very similar to the arguments about the sacrosanct made by certain devout Muslims in 1989 wanting a ban on Rushdie’s book. This again is moving from the objective to the subjective realm, making an assumption about motive and taking the meaning of racism beyond what can possibly be prosecutable before the law.

Moreover it clearly becomes a curtailment of other people’s freedom of expression about matters in the Middle East. It could also be argued that such a wide-ranging and effectively subjective definition could, in fact, make it harder, not easier, to distinguish bona fide critics of Israel from antisemites using anti-Zionism as a cover.

11. Conclusions: It is not our place to suggest detailed recommendations to the Party but we can suggest areas in which specific changes could be made to prevent it being brought into further disrepute and/or frightening off prospective members from BAME communities. Put simply we believe this means:

distinguishing clearly between interpersonal wrangling and policy matters;

ensuring that no particular group can make a cynical use of the accusation of racism as a political tool;

making education rather than punishment or disbarment the default position whenever possible in dealing with individual members;

whilst understanding that racism affects different communities differentially, retaining one all-embracing definition of racism which would relate to the treatment of all diverse communities of members.

12. Suggestions:

  • A In order for the Labour Party to root out all forms of racism and return to the best in its tradition of promoting fairness and equality,6 it needs to confront the way in which the concept of racism has been debased – from its meaning of an act or system of discrimination, oppression or exploitation – and turned into an umbrella term of abuse. Without addressing this, it cannot strike the correct balance between education against prejudice, protection from racial hatred and freedom of speech. To maintain both good race relations and civil liberties it is necessary to uphold those distinctions and to express them in all policy documents.
  • B The Party could look into the extending of current codes of conduct especially for elected officers and officials, who, because they set the tone for the Party, hold a special responsibility. It is their task to bear in mind the need to promote community cohesion and good community relations, which means, whilst not infringing their right to freedom of expression, demanding from them the use of temperate, sensitive and non-emotive language and an awareness of how public pronouncements resonate in a frenzied media world.
  • C Bearing in mind the incorporation of a code of conduct which would include the language used in posts on social media, it would benefit the Party and prevent the bringing of future malicious personal accusations, if a decision could be taken to disallow consideration of prior posts on social media, i.e. time-bar their use from future debates about racism. Draw a line, as it were, on the past when the new code is introduced.
  • D Though the IRR is asking that in all but the most extreme cases of racist behaviour, where an individual has broken the law, and/or the conduct laid down for members, s/he be provided with a chance to ‘reform’, we urge the Labour Party to be extremely careful and sensitive to the type of training that should be provided to its officers and members. The IRR’s researches into Racism Awareness Training, widely adopted in the 1980s by many institutions and organisations, revealed that because of its emphasis on changing minds outside of any structural context, and it was usually delivered by black people ‘retraining’ whites, it played on guilt, made essentialist assumptions about inherent racisms and rarely led on to changed anti-racist behaviour.7

Any training, therefore, needs to be sensitively devised so as not to play on essentialist assumptions (i.e. that we are all victims or perpetrators by virtue of our race/ethnicity/religion). And such training should not set racism as a thing apart from other aspects of social justice and equality that the Labour Party as a whole stands for. In effect what is needed is a form of basic human rights training, which emphasises the universal values of fairness, non-discrimination, freedom of expression balanced by the rights of others, so that one people’s rights can’t be used to subvert other peoples’ rights.