The Chair of Hampstead and Kilburn Constituency Labour Party used his position to block discussion of a properly submitted motion on the scandal disclosed by the Al Jazeera series ‘The Lobby’, at their monthly meeting on 15 March. He used the IHRA (mis)definition) of antisemitism to back his partisan ruling. He claimed that discussing Israeli subversion in Britain before discussing Russian subversion in the United States was antisemitic. He acknowledged that the movers of the motion were themselves Jewish but patronised them saying their actions were ‘inadvertent and meant in good faith’. He sided with those Jews who were distressed by discussion of unacceptable behaviour by Israel over those who were outraged by the Israeli actions.
The rules of debate meant that there could be no speeches to contest the questionable assertions of the Chair. Despite a clear majority of the meeting opposing his ruling, there was not the two-thirds majority required to force a debate.
We have been criticised as scaremongering for claiming the IHRA definition will stifle Free Speech. This is another example of the censorship regime encroaching on our legal right to freedoom of expression to put alongside the clampdown on University campuses.
Not all Labour parties have been so pusillanimous. After a long battle to get it onto the agenda, Hackney South and Shoreditch Labour Party passed a motion calling for a campaign against the IHRA definition.
The Hampstead and Kilburn motion
- The scandal over the senior political officer of the Israeli Embassy in London plotting to “take down” a senior Tory minister for being critical of Israel, has also exposed more extensive interference by the Embassy in the Labour Party and the National Union of Students as recorded on video by Al-Jazeera.
- Kilburn Branch / Hampstead and Kilburn CLP support the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry MP and the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn MP when they said that “such improper interference in this county’s democratic process is unacceptable” and “a national security issue”, and called for the government “to launch an immediate enquiry into the extent of improper interference”.
- In addition Kilburn Branch / Hampstead and Kilburn CLP demands that the NEC set up a special committee to investigate and report to all members the full extent of financial and other forms of interference by this foreign power in the internal affairs of the Labour Party.
The Chair’s Statement
I have to give you a ruling from the Chair. First of all, I will remind you that the CLP’s Standing Order 14 provides that “The chair’s ruling on any point arising from the rules or standing orders is final unless challenged; no member shall speak when the chair is standing and speaking. For such a challenge to be valid, it must be supported by not less than four members (including the member making the challenge); such a challenge shall be put to the meeting without discussion and shall only be carried with the support of two-thirds of the members present.
In other words, if enough disagree with me, you will be able to vote with me or against me – but you cannot shout at me, give your own speech or disrupt the meeting.
“Now, I will need a few minutes to explain my ruling on this motion. This motion puts me in a very difficult position. I expect that, whatever I do and say now, I will be strongly criticised. All I can do is ask for your understanding. While we had a vigorous and healthy discussion about it in the Executive Committee, the EC did not reach a consensus and now the ball is in my court. We are a democratic socialist party and I respect democratic principles including the entitlement of all branches to pass motions and present them for the GC’s agenda. I said to you last month that I will do all I can to be fair to everyone in the party, regardless of political positions, and to ensure that all voices are heard where possible. But you will recall that I made one exception to that. Free speech is a human right but it is not an absolute right; part of the Chair’s duty is to consider whether the line is crossed and when and where limitations to free speech are sadly necessary.
It is my responsibility as Chair to do all I can to focus minds on the issues that we need to focus on, in order to have a united Labour Party that can win elections, return more councillors to our town halls, help Tulip retain this parliamentary seat and work towards a Labour government. We are a political party, not a debating society, and that is what we are here to work towards and achieve. We are not going to achieve any of that by pursuing divisive causes and we are not going to achieve any of that by provoking and attacking each other. By attacking each other, all we do is bring ourselves and each other into disrepute – we damage ourselves. I urge you all not to go down that course.
Standing order 15 provides inter alia that “Party meetings and events shall be conducted in a friendly and orderly manner and organised in such a way as to maximise participation from members. … Harassment and intimidation of any member is unacceptable as is any form of discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, disability or race.”
I accept that it could be legitimate to debate and to inquire into foreign intervention, including any by Israel, into UK politics and into the Labour Party. I accept that it could be possible to have a calm, sober and sensible debate about that. But in my judgement we must look at three things: we must look at the content of the motion, the context of the motion, and how it is perceived.
I do not suggest that the movers of this motion, or those that voted for it at their branch, did so in bad faith or with bad intentions. But even granted that they meant well, harassment is a legal concept and as a matter of law harassment includes conduct that unintentionally has the effect of creating a hostile environment on the grounds of a protected characteristic. I am obliged to do all I can to make our party a welcoming and non-hostile environment for all our members from all of our communities, and I say that while acknowledging that, as I understand it, this motion is moved by people who are Jewish. I do not for one moment expect all members of a particular community to have a bloc view. My point is that a hostile environment for any member is unacceptable.
So I look at the content of the motion. What do I measure it against? The government, and the leader of the Labour Party, have adopted the definition of anti-Semitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In the IHRA’s document explaining the definition, the IHRA state that Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel… Antisemitism … is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong”. … Contemporary examples of antisemitism … include, but are not limited to: Making … stereotypical allegations about … the power of Jews as a collective – such as … the myth … of Jews controlling … the economy … or other societal institutions.” I also bear in mind the words of Jeremy Corbyn, when he said, “Modern anti-Semitism may not always be about overt violence and persecution… We must also be vigilant against subtler and invidious manifestations of this nasty ancient hatred and avoid slipping into its traps by accident or intent.”
In the motion’s content, to my mind there are two examples of the motion – no doubt unintentionally – crossing the line of what is acceptable. In the third paragraph, the specific flagging up of “financial” interference and the limitation of the motion to foreign interference by only “this foreign power”, i.e., Israel, particularly at a time when, for example, questions about alleged Russian interference in US and other politics is so much at the fore and could have been the subject of discussion here. Regardless of the merits or demerits of this particular case or the Al-Jazeera documentary, these are examples of allegations that feed into unacceptable stereotypes, in relation to financial power and in relation to generalised meddling; and further the motion clearly targets Israel specifically, as opposed to foreign interference generally. So, while it could be in order to discuss foreign interference into UK politics including by Israel, it is not in order to do so in a way that crosses the line into what is unacceptable and I regard this motion as doing so, albeit in way that I would readily accept as being inadvertent and meant in good faith.
I come to the context of the motion. In the big picture over the last year, issues around Israel and anti-Semitism have had more of the GC’s time and attention than any other issue, except maybe the leadership of the Labour Party. While we haven’t specifically discussed Israeli government policy for a little while, we have had the sort and frequency of discussions that have left many Jewish members feeling targeted and picked on. It has been disproportionate and we must be wary of coming across as obsessional. We even felt we needed to call a special GC meeting on the sole issue of anti-Semitism, in an attempt to heal whatever needed to be healed. In context, in my judgement, it is right at this moment to be ultra-sensitive about what kind of conduct we consider acceptable. It is not the right time now to hold what might, in six months or two years’ time, be a calm and rational debate. And it is certainly not right to start doing so on the basis of this motion in this context.
Thirdly, it is a basic point that the perception of the people who feel that they may be victim of harassment or discrimination must be taken into account. I have heard and read the concern of a number of Jewish CLP members, whose confidentiality I will respect, saying to me things like “there will come a point where, as a Jew, I’ll have to stop putting myself in what is becoming a hostile environment.” Hearing such concerns from fair-minded people who are not necessarily prominent and widely known members, I cannot allow us to create a hostile environment for any Jewish member, just as I would not allow a hostile environment to be created for any Muslim or female or black or gay member.
So while it makes me very sad indeed to have to limit debate in my first full meeting as chair, having looked forward to facilitating sensible and constructive debate, and while this is a difficult judgement call, I do rule this motion out of order.”
The Hackney motion
- recognises that antisemitism is a virulent form of racism against which we should always be vigilant
- notes that antisemitism has long been a well understood and recognised concept; a 21-word definition by Oxford philosopher Brian Klug – “Antisemitism is a form of hostility to Jews as Jews, where Jews are perceived as something other than what they are” – was accepted by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism (APPIA) in 2015.
- that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s re-definition of antisemitism runs to 543 words;
- that most of its text consists of 11 ‘illustrative examples’ of types of statement that it argues constitute prima facie evidence of antisemitic intent, and that 7 of these examples are statements about Israel, not about Jews; and
- that accusations of antisemitism are routinely made against critics of Israel by its supporters
- believes that the UK government’s announcement giving formal status to the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism is both disproportionate to the current threat and will weaken vigilance against antisemitism by politicising it; and
- commits to opposing the implementation of this measure and urges the Labour Party nationally to campaign against it.