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Labour responsible for harassment and discrimination, EHRC antisemitism inquiry finds

Peter Walker and Jessica Elgot
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Rex/Shutterstock

The Labour party broke equalities law including harassment and discrimination over antisemitism in the party, an investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has found.

In a long-awaited report, the EHRC said there were “serious failings in the Labour party leadership in addressing antisemitism and an inadequate process for handling antisemitism complaints”.

It said Labour under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn was responsible for three breaches of the Equality Act, connected to harassment, political interference in antisemitism complaints and inadequate training for those handling the complaints.

The EHRC’s lead investigator, Alasdair Henderson, said the failure of leadership must ultimately stop with Corbyn. “As the leader of the party at the time, and given the extent of the failings we found in the political interference within the leader of the opposition’s office, Jeremy Corbyn is ultimately accountable and responsible for what happened at that time,” Henderson said.

The inquiry found that antisemitic comments by Ken Livingstone, the former London mayor, and Pam Bromley, a councillor in Rossendale, Lancashire, amounted to harassment of Jewish members under law, and this was “only the tip of the iceberg” of such behaviour.

The EHRC uncovered what it said was inappropriate interference in the complaints process over antisemitism by staff from Corbyn’s office, with 23 instances found, including staff exerting influence on decisions on areas such as member suspensions or whether to investigate claims. Some of these decisions were made “because of likely press interest rather than any formal criteria”, it said.

While there was a wider culture of political interference in certain complaints, the report said this occurred more often in antisemitism cases, and was thus found to be discriminatory and unlawful.

Henderson said the EHRC had faced significant obstruction under the previous leadership. “There were times in late summer, early autumn last year where we were seriously concerned about their commitments to work with us and had to push quite hard on them,” he told a briefing.

He said the situation improved after a meeting with the then general secretary, Jennie Formby, but placed the blame for the report’s delay at Labour’s door. He said the obstruction was “very disappointing given the party’s stated zero tolerance of antisemitism and the initial commitment to working with us”.

In response to the report, three of the UK’s main Jewish organisations – the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Community Security Trust – said in a joint statement the EHRC’s findings were “a damning verdict on what Labour did to Jews under Jeremy Corbyn and his allies”.

Citing examples of poor practice in dealing with complaints about antisemitism, the EHRC said an email inbox for these “was largely left unmonitored for a number of years and no action taken on the majority of complaints forwarded to it”. Of 70 files reviewed for the inquiry, 62 had records missing.

The inquiry found that this element of indirect discrimination against Jewish members – the lack of a proper complaints and disciplinary procedure – lasted until August 2020, four months into Keir Starmer’s tenure, but was now being addressed.

The report details comments by Livingstone and Bromley that it says amounted to unlawful harassment because they were found to have antisemitic themes or suggested complaints about antisemitism were faked or smears.

It notes that Bromley made repeated Facebook posts with antisemitic themes, for example defending references to the Rothschild banking group, and complaining about a “fog of fake accusations of antisemitism” and calling herself the victim of a “witch-hunt”.

Complaints were made about her in May 2017, but Bromley was only suspended from the party in April 2018, a day after an article in the Times about her comments.

On Livingstone and Bromley, the report says: “As these people were acting as agents of the Labour party, the Labour party was legally responsible for their conduct. In each case, the EHRC considered the perception of those affected by the conduct, and Labour party members told the EHRC that the comments contributed to a hostile environment for Jewish and non-Jewish members.”

The EHRC said these two cases were “only the tip of the iceberg”, with 18 other instances where there was not enough evidence for a legal conclusion that the party was responsible for the conduct, covering councillors, candidates and constituency party officials.

It said there were “many more files” showing evidence of antisemitic conduct by a member who did not have a party role, meaning Labour could not be deemed responsible for them.

The report makes 11 recommendations, including an independent complaints process and clearer rules, an acknowledgment of the prior political interference and proper training for those involved in handling complaints.

The joint statement from the three Jewish groups said the report “proves why British Jews were so distressed and it disgraces those who attacked us for speaking out against anti-Jewish racism”.

The Jewish Labour Movement, which was among the groups that referred the party to the EHRC, said blame for what happened “lies firmly with those who held positions of leadership – those who possessed both power and influence to prevent the growth of anti-Jewish racism”.

It said: “Antisemitism within the Labour party had serious consequences for many people, causing real emotional pain and despair to those who have given their lives to the Labour party. As the EHRC points out, it undermines confidence in our politics and the fabric of our democracy.

“It will now be for the Labour party to set out how they intend to eradicate anti-Jewish racism from our party. This will in part be achieved by implementing the legally binding actions set out of the EHRC’s report in full and without delay.”

Gideon Falter, the chief executive of the Campaign Against Antisemitism, said: “The EHRC’s report utterly vindicates Britain’s Jews, who were accused of lying and exaggerating, acting as agents of another country and using their religion to ‘smear’ the Labour party.”

Caroline Waters, the interim chair of the EHRC, said: “The Labour party made a commitment to zero tolerance for antisemitism. Our investigation has highlighted multiple areas where its approach and leadership to tackling antisemitism was insufficient. This is inexcusable and appeared to be a result of a lack of willingness to tackle antisemitism rather than an inability to do so.”

The review was launched in 2019 after party whistleblowers alleged Labour was institutionally antisemitic in its handling of complaints, and within local party structures.