Simplistic and one-sided
It is essential to openly and honestly discuss the EHRC report, insists suspended Labour member Tom Conwell
Before I was suspended from the Labour Party on December 1, I was the secretary of the Newent branch in the Forest of Dean. My suspension letter did not specify the allegations that had been made against me, other than to say it related to my online activities.
As I do not have any presence on social media, that could only refer to the newsletters I had been emailing to branch members. The offending content could only have been my criticisms of the Equality and Human Rights Commission report about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. The general secretary of the party had written to all members telling them that it was forbidden to criticise the EHRC report. When I read it, it struck me as a shoddy piece of work and I wrote to branch members setting out why I thought that. If David Evans thinks the report is so good, why is he so worried about it being discussed? If he has any answer to what I am about to say, well, no-one is trying to silence him.
Before I begin, I think I should make a few things clear about where I stand. A small percentage of the population of this country is anti-Semitic. Labour is a mass movement. It is inconceivable therefore that there are not some members who hold and express anti-Semitic views. But the party is not a natural home for anti-Semites - far from it. I do think that - either from ignorance or malice - the scale of anti-Semitism within the party has been grossly exaggerated. This article, though, is not about my views: it is about the EHRC report.
Just so we are clear, the EHRC said that the Labour Party had committed three “unlawful acts” against its Jewish members. These were: the harassment carried out by Ken Livingstone and councillor Pam Bromley; political interference by the party leadership in anti-Semitism complaints; and the failure to provide adequate training to staff handling such complaints.
I shall take the last one first, as I think that is key to understanding everything else. The EHRC did not say what adequate training might look like, other than: “Adequate training requires not only an academic understanding of what anti-Semitism is, but also practical training on how to handle anti-Semitism complaints.” I do not think anyone would argue with that, so I put in a freedom of information request to the EHRC, asking what training it had provided to its staff carrying out the investigation. I was surprised when the EHRC replied to say that its staff had been given no training, as it did not think its own staff required any, either in how to identify anti-Semitism, or how to deal with complaints about it.
At first sight I was just struck by the hypocrisy of it. Seemingly in blissful ignorance, armed only with their unchallenged preconceptions, these would-be champions of human rights blithely set forth their points and sit in judgement on others. But I do not think it is as simple as that. There is no clear-cut, universally accepted, definition of anti-Semitism. What one person might see as anti-Semitic another might not. Here are a couple of examples of the elasticity of allegations.
In an open letter to Guardian columnist Owen Jones, professor Tony Booth - a Jewish member of the party - wrote:
I often draw attention to the allegations of anti-Semitism from within the Board of Deputies of British Jews against its president, Marie van der Zyl and vice-president Sheila Gewolb by other deputies. I don’t think for a moment that they are anti-Semitic, but that some within their organisation have sought to extend claims of anti-Semitism for factional purposes.1
The Labour Party report, ‘The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to anti-Semitism, 2014-2019’, was leaked to the press in April 2020. The EHRC says that it has “considered the leaked report and taken it into account where appropriate.” I wonder what the EHRC investigators made of the fact that in 2019 when the ‘crisis of anti-Semitism’ within the party was seldom out of the news, one half of all the allegations of anti-Semitism made against party members came from one individual. This witch-finder general was trawling people’s social media accounts looking for evidence of anti-Semitism and, so we are told in paragraph 6.8.4.i of the leaked report, they regularly submit complaints about people sharing Jewish-related articles, with the comment, “They’re not Jewish”.
It seems incredible that the EHRC would send its staff out into this confused, complex and contentious arena without any education or training on the issues they were about to investigate.
The EHRC received over 220 complaints regarding the Labour Party’s handling of anti-Semitism allegations. These complaints had been compiled by the Jewish Labour Movement and the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism. The EHRC selected 58 of these cases for investigation. Its report does not say that these 58 cases were selected at random. If they had been, I am sure the report would have said so. It is reasonable therefore to conclude that the EHRC selected what it thought were the most egregious examples. In addition to these 58, the Labour Party supplied a further 12 cases “that it thought demonstrated a fair overview of the successes, and past weaknesses, in its disciplinary process”. Of these 70 cases, the EHRC found two cases of unlawful behaviour - one involving Ken Livingstone and the second involving Pam Bromley. There were a further 18 cases which the EHRC described as “borderline”. The other 50 were never mentioned again.
Now, concluding that 18 allegations of anti-Semitism were “borderline” is a rather opaque way of saying, ‘We couldn’t make up our mind’. The EHRC say that in these 18 cases
... a person had committed conduct that could [my emphasis] amount to harassment and held a position within the Labour Party, such as a local councillor, candidate for local election or Constituency Labour Party office-holder. However, in these cases there was not enough evidence to determine whether the Labour Party was legally responsible.
Very deliberately, I think, the EHRC does not say that the conduct was harassment, but a quick reading would give the impression that it was and that the only difficulty was in determining the Labour Party’s responsibility. But that does not bear close examination. How come the Labour Party could not be held responsible for the actions of someone who “held a position within the Labour Party, such as a local councillor” and yet it could be for the actions of someone who was a councillor - Pam Bromley?
Hers was a “clear-cut” case of anti-Semitic harassment, so we are told, whereas the 18 “borderline” cases were only ‘could have been’. The EHRC did not, or could not, say whether they were or they were not. I am not sure whether “adequate training” would have helped the EHRC investigators make up their minds. Probably not, given the lack of a clear-cut, unambiguous definition of anti-Semitism. And the difficulties caused by that will become more apparent when we look at the two “clear-cut” cases. However, I would have thought that, after investigating these 70 cases for a year and a half, being unable to make up its mind about 18 of them would have given the EHRC pause for thought before condemning the failures of others to make quick, or indeed any, decisions.
The EHRC’s handling of the question of political interference is, in my opinion, downright dishonest. Its report makes clear that the party’s complaints section, the governance and legal unit, was a shambolic operation that not only failed to make decisions on cases, but did not keep its files in order or communicate properly with either complainants or respondents (as far as this last point goes, the EHRC report makes clear that the respondents were treated significantly worse than the complainants). Given the press frenzy that frequently broke out about the party’s handling of anti-Semitism complaints, what leader would not ‘interfere’ to try and get some action?
The EHRC report acknowledges that the leadership’s “political interference” had “in some cases” resulted in getting the governance and legal unit to progress complaints. When it did intervene, the evidence in the report shows the leader’s office as more likely than not to be pushing for disciplinary action against the respondents. How then, one might ask, had this political interference “amounted to unlawful indirect discrimination against its Jewish members”?
The EHRC has a ready answer: “... the inappropriateness of political interference in anti-Semitism complaints is not necessarily about the particular outcomes that it led to, but rather the contamination (and/or the perception of contamination) of the fairness of the process.”
Having used up pages showing how the incompetently run complaints unit was unfair to everybody, the EHRC then says that the leader’s office’s attempts to get something done was interference with a fair process. And then, casting aside its own evidence that the most unfairly treated were those against whom complaints were being made, the EHRC concludes that the efforts of the leader’s office to get action on these complaints “put Jewish members at a particular disadvantage, compared to non-Jewish members”. The EHRC does not explain how this could possibly be, other than to say that this “contamination” was more likely to take place on complaints that had been initiated by Jewish members. These findings are such a distortion of the evidence that I cannot but think the EHRC was out to get Jeremy Corbyn for something.
Which brings us to the finding that “The Labour Party committed unlawful harassment of its members, contrary to section 101(4)(a) of the Equality Act 2010, related to race (Jewish ethnicity), through the acts of its agents, Ken Livingstone and Pam Bromley”.
The EHRC based that finding on its belief that comments made by Ken Livingstone and Pam Bromley “were unwanted conduct related to Jewish ethnicity” and that this “unwanted conduct” meets the Equality Act definition of harassment. Somewhat bizarrely the EHRC went on to say that it came to this conclusion without reference to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, and at the same time said that it was satisfied that their comments would meet the IHRA definition.
The IHRA definition is:
Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.
It is described as the “working definition”. I take that to mean it is not the finished product, and clearly “a certain perception” could be improved upon, but it is the definition that is currently in use.
Pam Bromley was a Labour councillor in Rossendale. The Labour Party received complaints about her Facebook activity in May 2017. No action was taken until an article referring to these complaints appeared in The Times in April 2018. Councillor Bromley was then suspended from the party the following day. A year later, in 2019, she received a disciplinary sanction. A year after that, following further complaints about her Facebook postings, she was expelled.
The EHRC does not say what Pam Bromley’s original Facebook post was. Rather coyly, it gives - as an example of inactivity by the complaints unit - an unattributed 2016 Facebook entry in which “a councillor”
shared an image of Jewish banker, Jacob Rothschild, on their Facebook page, along with a caption claiming that the Rothschild family and other institutions, including the City of London and the Vatican, “own our news, our media, our oil and even our governments”.
From the entries that are attributed to Pam Bromley, I think we can be sure that she was that unnamed councillor, and that it was this 2016 Facebook post which was the subject of the initial complaint.
There are two points to make about this. The complaints about Pam Bromley’s initial post were sat on by the complaints unit for over a year, until an article appeared in a newspaper. I think we can reasonably conclude that the first the leader’s office knew about this complaint was when that article appeared and that it was “political interference” from the leader’s office which led to Pam Bromley’s suspension the following day.
The second point concerns the contents of the post. In my opinion it shows a very poor understanding of the workings of capitalism. But the question is whether her use of the Rothschilds is anti-Semitic. The image of the rich Jew controlling things is an anti-Semitic trope that is often used. And many people would consider her post to be blatant anti-Semitism.
Did Pam Bromley select the Rothschilds because they were Jewish, or because they were rich? Either option is possible. If we leave intention aside, is trying to generate antipathy towards the activities of a rich family, that was well known to be Jewish, evidence of anti-Semitism? I am not sure whether it is or not. The EHRC did not seem sure either. It did not include it with her other Facebook posts for which it found her, and the Labour Party, guilty. It only appears in the section dealing with delay and inaction in progressing complaints.
I know that there are allegations that staff in the complaints unit deliberately sat on anti-Semitism complaints in order to embarrass Jeremy Corbyn. These allegations may or may not be true. But maybe staff in the complaints unit too could not make up their minds about this post. I am labouring this point because I think it shows the difficulty of correctly identifying anti-Semitism in the absence of a clear definition and doubly so in the absence of any education or training. These difficulties are even more apparent in the Facebook posts that the EHRC says did show her “unwanted conduct related to Jewish ethnicity”.
In its coverage of Pam Bromley the EHRC only quotes the Facebook entries she made after the appearance of the article in The Times. The first entry was:
Some time back I got hammered for posting an anti-Rothschild meme. However, here they are again. We must remember that the Rothschilds are a powerful financial family (like the Medicis) and represent capitalism and big business - even if the Nazis did use the activities of the Rothschilds in their anti-Semitic propaganda. We must not obscure the truth with the need to be tactful.
In support of its finding of “unwanted conduct” the EHRC said:
One of the social media posts used an obviously anti-Semitic trope: namely that Jewish people control the world’s financial system. In her response to this investigation, Pam Bromley said that she was making general criticisms about capitalism and a legitimate political argument. In our view, this post goes beyond legitimate comment, referring to anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda.
We need to put aside whatever feelings Pam Bromley’s political opinions might evoke in us, and look at this matter dispassionately. Did she say that Jewish people control the world’s financial system? No, she did not. The EHRC put those words in her mouth. Was she endorsing anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda, just because she referred to it? I do not think she was. How can it be “unwanted conduct” to simply refer to anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda? If it were, it would knock out an essential component of any understanding of the holocaust.
The second finding against her was that:
Some of Pam Bromley’s social media posts suggested that Jewish people were engaged in a conspiracy for control of the Labour Party, which we consider to be an anti-Semitic trope (for example, the reference to a “fifth column”).
The EHRC does not reproduce the whole “fifth column” post, but provides the gist:
Had Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party pulled up the drawbridge and nipped the bogus AS accusations in the bud in the first place, we would not be where we are now and the fifth column in the LP would not have managed to get such a foothold ... the Lobby has miscalculated ... The witch-hunt has created brand new fightback networks ... The Lobby will then melt back into its own cesspit.
I think we can conclude from this that Pam Bromley thought that there were some traitors in the Labour Party who were using accusations of anti-Semitism as a means of overthrowing Jeremy Corbyn. The “Lobby” is probably shorthand for the ‘pro-Israel lobby’. In effect, what Pam Bromley was alleging was that traitors within the party were working with the pro-Israel lobby to bring about regime change.
The majority of Pam Bromley’s entries quoted by the EHRC say that the complaints about anti-Semitism are “fake” and “false”. The main finding of unwanted conduct against Pam Bromley, as far as I can see, was that she had been “repeatedly saying that allegations of anti-Semitism were fabricated”. Now, I can see that her posts would be very offensive to the people making the allegations, that they would have been “unwanted”, but I do not see how they can be described as harassment. Putting aside whether she was right or not, she is clearly saying ‘Some Jews are up to no good’. Whatever else it might be, by any reading of the IHRA definition, I cannot see how it is anti-Semitic to say that.
The EHRC got into an awful muddle over Pam Bromley. It wanted to find her guilty and so put words into her mouth to fabricate an open and shut case. But it forgot - or hoped everyone would overlook - that the same Facebook posts it used to demonstrate her clear-cut guilt also appear in the list of Facebook posts from the 18 “borderline” cases, where the EHRC could not make up its mind: eg, described a “witch-hunt” in the Labour Party, or said that complaints had been manufactured by the “Israel lobby” and “referenced conspiracies about the Rothschilds and Jewish power and control over financial or other institutions”.
In addition to education and training, the EHRC could also have benefited from better proofreading.
The EHRC said that it had based its findings against Ken Livingstone on his
statements about anti-Semitic social media posts by Naz Shah MP ... Naz Shah’s social media posts included an image suggesting that Israel should be relocated to the United States, with the comment ‘problem solved’, and a post in which she appeared to liken Israeli policies to those of Hitler ... In media interviews between April 28 and 30 2016, Ken Livingstone denied that these posts were anti-Semitic.
The EHRC report found Ken Livingstone guilty of anti-Semitic harassment because
Labour Party members told us that the comments by Ken Livingstone in relation to Naz Shah (referred to above) caused shock and anger among Jewish Labour Party members. They felt his comments were appalling, highly offensive and very distressing ... They said the effect of these comments was humiliating, denied the victims’ experience, diminished the issue, and had the effect of stirring up and fuelling hatred for Jews.
Some people question whether all of these expressions of distress were genuine. But I think that the EHRC was correct to take them all at face value and accept that these feelings were genuinely held. My concern is, why were they the only voices that are recorded? There are plenty of Jewish members of the party who do not feel that way. Many Jewish Labour Party members provided testimony to the EHRC directly contradicting these allegations. Why were their experiences and testimonies omitted from its report?
Let us go back to Naz Shah’s post of the map of Israel superimposed on the USA. Where did she get it from? In 2014, during one of the periodic outbreaks of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, Naz Shah reposted the map which she had copied from the website of an American academic, Norman Finkelstein. In 2016, Finkelstein was interviewed about the map and Ken Livingstone’s comments by Open Democracy.2 Anyone can find this interview online. I find it inconceivable that the EHRC investigators were unaware of what Finkelstein was saying. I think they just chose to leave him and all the other similar Jewish voices out of their report, because it suited their purpose.
The EHRC was perfectly aware that there were differences of opinion within the Jewish community about whether Ken Livingstone’s remarks were anti-Semitic. Lots of Jewish members wrote to the EHRC to refute the allegations. Does the Labour Party not owe it to its Jewish members who were silenced to ask the EHRC why it did not allow their voices to be heard?
Nobody knows what Ken Livingstone said in his own defence. He too was silenced. All the report says is “Ken Livingstone was given an opportunity to comment, but did not provide any relevant points.”
What possible good does it do for the EHRC to be so one-sided? It just makes it look biased. If the people running the EHRC were too spineless to allow any voice to be heard other than the powerful voices bringing the allegations, maybe they should ask themselves what they are doing in an organisation dedicated to protecting human rights.
Of course, ignoring what one side has to say makes it easier to write a simplistic narrative. It is a lot easier to dishonestly present an allegation of anti-Semitism as an undisputed fact (especially if you have not bothered to have any education or training) than it is to examine and question the allegation. And, having done that, all the sordid rest follows. If Ken Livingstone’s defence of Naz Shah is, without any questions asked, deemed to be anti-Semitic and there are some people saying that his defence of her made them feel humiliated and threatened, then, well, it’s an open and shut case - he is guilty of the “harassment” of Jews! This type of ‘fitting-up’ to gain a conviction has a long and dishonourable history. Welcome to the Orwellian ‘Equality and Human Rights Commission’.
Meanwhile we in the Labour Party end up with a general secretary who appears scared out of his wits that this shoddy report will be held up to the daylight and everyone will see the holes. I wonder why.