“No room for equivocation”: Labour, antisemitism and the discourse of denial

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By Dr Alex Oaten, Teaching Fellow in Political Sciences
School of Government, University of Birmingham.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) report into antisemitism within the Labour Party has caused significant political ramifications. The party has been found to have “breached the Equality Act 2010 by committing unlawful harassment through the acts of its agents” in two separate incidents. Whilst current Labour leader Keir Starmer apologised to the Jewish community and the British public, his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn insisted that the antisemitism issue had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons”. Corbyn was quickly suspended but his supporters have rallied around him.

Following his suspension Corbyn has become the centre of the story and his supporters, both inside and outside the Labour Party, have sought to portray him as the victim of a conspiracy. Given the historically negative portrayal of Corbyn within the British media a sense of victimisation is completely understandable, however, within this specific context it is deeply problematic because it feeds into an increasingly prevalent discourse of denial which is increasingly framing our politics.

A Discourse of Denial
With rising political polarisation and increasing social antagonism, political actors find it increasingly difficult to acknowledge grievances that are inconvenient to their own political outlook, instead retreating into denial and self-victimhood. Corbyn’s approach to antisemitism within the Labour Party is an example of this.

Denial of antisemitism occurred under Corbyn’s leadership. The EHRC’s report makes this clear when it states that “Labour Party agents denied antisemitism in the Party and made comments dismissing complaints as ‘smears’ and ‘fake’”.

Discrimination is, of course, not just a problem for the Labour party – before becoming Prime Minister, Boris Johnson cruelly jibed that wearing the Burqa made Muslim women look “like letter boxes”. The Conservatives evidently have a problem with Islamophobia and the Muslim Council of Britain Secretary General Harun Khan recently sent a dossier to the EHRC detailing allegations against more than 300 people. To be clear – in order to protect its impartiality and fulfil its brief the EHRC should investigate Islamophobia within the Conservative Party. This should happen immediately.

A Conspiracy Theory Defence
For Labour, the Party that created the EHRC, this report is damaging. However, this damage can be repaired and Starmer is already beginning this process of repair by trying to win back the support and trust of the Jewish community. In doing so he has made it clear that the Labour Party needs to move away from its discourse of denial. Yet some in the party and within the broader Corbyn support network are unwilling to follow Starmer’s lead and instead appear to continue to deny that a problem exists. This is because in some quarters the report is being constructed as part of a conspiracy against Corbyn and ‘the Labour left’ more generally.

The editor of the pro-Corbyn publication The Canary described the suspension of Corbyn as a “witch-hunt”. The use of the term ‘witch-hunt’ is interesting as it is the same term that the EHRC investigation found the Labour councillor Pam Bromley used to dismiss earlier antisemitism claims against Labour. Such conspiracy theories play an important part within discourses of denial for they enable a group to portray themselves as the victims whilst simultaneously rejecting the credibility and authenticity of the opposing side. Trade Union leader Len McCluskey called the suspension a “grave injustice”.

Conspiracy theories seek to portray “events as the deliberate product of a powerful few, regardless of the evidence” and discourses based upon the use of conspiracy theory can simplify and solidify identities and deepen political antagonism. As such, trust and thus communication between different groups becomes almost impossible. Here it should also be noted that the idea of ‘a conspiracy’ can be found in some of the antisemitic tropes that the EHRC report identified as occurring within the Labour Party.

It has previously been argued that conspiracy theories are often endorsed by political extremists but it is concerning that such a discursive strategy is now being utilised by some within the progressive left. A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable that progressive Labour supporters and anti-racist campaigners would have been dismissive of a report into discrimination by a statutory body such as the EHRC.

Because Corbyn has such a commendable and deserved track record of anti-racist campaigning he occupies a heroic status for progressives and anti-racist campaigners. However, this status means that he and his supporters appear unable to acknowledge that he may have a ‘blind spot’ on the issue of antisemitism. His statement yesterday demonstrated just such a blind spot.

No Room for Equivocation
Whilst Starmer was telling us that there was “no room for equivocation” on the issue of antisemitism Corbyn and his defenders sought to equivocate, portraying Corbyn as the victim. Within a discourse of denial such victimhood becomes a zero-sum identity. By constructing Corbyn as the victim of a conspiracy his supporters are marginalising the proven cases of antisemitic discrimination that are detailed in the report. Corbyn is being presented as the victim, the report is thus side-lined, and the focus of attention is shifted away from the report’s findings and back onto Corbyn. This is denial.

On matters of discrimination there can be no room for equivocation. Corbyn and his supporters both within and outside of the Labour Party need to think about how such a discourse of denial risks solidifying further antagonism and division. This report should be taken seriously, Labour can get through this, but first, everyone in the Party and everyone who claims to support the Party must follow Starmer’s lead and accept that antisemitism did exist and focus on implementing the recommendations rather than retreating into the discourse of denial.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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