Blog post by David Feldman, Ben Gidley and Brendan McGeever, The Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck, University of London, UK
What is the extent of antisemitism in the Labour Party? For some of Jeremy Corbyn’s fiercest critics, antisemitism became ‘firmly embedded in the party’s DNA‘ under his watch. Yet according to the former leader, the extent of the problem has been ‘exaggerated’. Before a meaningful answer can be given to this question, we need to disaggregate three things that are routinely conflated in Labour’s antisemitism debate: a) public perception of the issue; b) the number of known cases of antisemitism in the party; and c) the spread of antisemitic ideas within Labour and society more generally.
What do we know about public perceptions? In a Survation poll in March 2018, a thousand people were asked: ‘Have you seen or heard anything about accusations of antisemitism (hostility to or prejudice against Jewish people) made against members of the Labour Party?’ 30% answered that they had not heard anything, while a further 9% chose the ‘don’t know’ option. Those who answered ‘yes’ were then presented with a second question: ‘From what you have seen or heard, what % of Labour members do you think have had complaints of antisemitism made against them?’ The mean average answer to this question was ‘34%’. Based on these figures, we can say that for a large section of the public the impression of the issue is indeed out of step with the number of known cases. But this is not the end of the story.
What do we know about cases of antisemitism within Labour? In July 2019, then General Secretary Jennie Formby suggested the number of cases in Labour disciplinary procedures since September 2015 amounted to 0.06% of the party’s membership over that period. This figure is frequently held up as an indication of how insignificant the party’s problem is. But it is a figure that should provoke scepticism.
Labour under Corbyn set a high bar for what ‘counted’ as an antisemitic incident. We now know that ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ of antisemitic material were not included as cases until September 2019. And while social media is a focal point, it is not the only arena in which antisemitism occurs: there are party meetings, email conversations, personal interactions.
Therefore, the number of complaints dealt with by Labour’s disciplinary apparatus is not the same thing as the number of antisemitic incidents in the party. The one thing we know about reported hate crime figures in general is that they represent the tip of an iceberg. It is special pleading to think that Labour’s data are in some way different.
So, what do we know about the spread of antisemitism within Labour and society more generally? Here we can turn to research undertaken by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and the Community Security Trust, which shows that in Britain, the number of committed, ideological antisemites remains small: less than 5% of adults.
In contrast, a large minority of the population, more than 30%, will readily agree with negative and stereotypical ideas about Jews: for example, that Jews get rich at the expense of others or that their interests are very different from those of non-Jews. These ideas are as widespread within Labour as they are the Conservatives. Given what we know about antisemitism in Labour and the under-reporting of hate crimes, it is clear that the 0.06% figure is not credible. The number of cases handled by Labour’s disciplinary apparatus is a pale reflection of the volume of antisemitic ideas, stereotypes and narratives circulating among Labour members.
Put simply: the number of antisemites or antisemitic cases is not the same thing as the spread of antisemitic ideas.
But Labour’s antisemitism crisis is not only a question of numbers and ideas; it has also become entangled in a struggle for influence and dominance in the party. For many on the left, the whole saga has been a confection whose only connection with reality lies in the way it has been used for political advantage by Corbyn’s critics within and beyond Labour. But this is a reductive argument that fails to account for the nature and dimensions of antisemitism among Labour supporters.
In order to grasp its antisemitism problem, Labour and the left need to have a reckoning with what we call the ‘reservoir’ of antisemitism: a deep reservoir of stereotypes and narratives, replenished over time, from which people draw with ease, intentionally or not.