Four decades ago, the late Bernie Grant, then MP for Tottenham, stood before a group of young equality warriors, wagged his finger and advised us to emulate Britain’s Jews. Grant, a leftwing firebrand, was pro-Palestinian, but he was no anti-Semite. He possessed the clarity of intellect and the generosity of spirit to be comfortably anti-Zionist as well as a friend of the Jewish community he represented.
This is a combination conspicuously missing from the Labour party’s top team today. Grant would have been especially dismayed by the tin-eared performance of the man who unveiled his portrait in the House of Commons two years ago — Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader.
Full disclosure: I am entering my fourth decade as a Labour member. The party supported me in becoming the first black leader of the National Union of Students; and it was Tony Blair who asked me to set up the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2007. So I can scarcely believe that the institution I led feels it necessary to mount a formal investigation into an organisation to which I owe so much.
The Labour party shares this unique dishonour with only one other political organisation — the unambiguously racist British National party. And Labour officials’ response to an investigation this week by the BBC’s Panorama into anti-Semitism mirrors the BNP’s prevarications and evasions a decade ago.
The BNP’s leader, Nick Griffin, claimed that his party wasn’t anti-black, just standing up for the rights of “indigenous” Britons. He claimed he was being gagged by accusations of racism. Today, Labour’s leaders say they aren’t anti-Jewish, merely pro-Palestinian, and protest that their right to criticise Israeli policy is being undermined by false accusations of anti-Semitism.
Mr Griffin attacked our inquiry as a political stitch-up led by a Labour hit-man (me). Labour is accusing Panorama of a hatchet job. And both parties have made it personal. My wife, who happens to be white, found a picture of herself, complete with the usual leering insinuations, on the homepage of the BNP’s website. This week, Labour lost no time attacking the young whistleblowers featured in the programme, dismissing them as “disaffected” and politically motivated.
It is possible that Mr Corbyn and his team genuinely can’t see what all the fuss is about. Most people believe themselves innocent of prejudice. Black folks are wearily familiar with the reassurance that “I just don’t see race”, a strong signal that the speaker sees little else when she meets a person of colour. I suspect that Mr Corbyn’s assertion that a group of “Zionists” did not understand “English irony” would have sounded a similar alarm with Jewish listeners.
The problem won’t go away for Labour because the sickness lies in the political machine itself. Part of its problem is ideological. The flood of new members that Mr Corbyn attracted includes some grizzled veterans of the far-left who trace all the world’s ills to American imperialism, and its lapdog in the Middle East, Israel. Today’s Labour party has yet to find a register that convincingly communicates sympathy for Palestinians without isolating Jews.
But a second, even more disturbing aspect of the crisis is the party’s failure to acknowledge its own systemic racial prejudice. Racism is rarely just a matter of an individual distaste for people of colour or those from other cultures; if it were, it could be dealt with simply by having the bigots removed or instituting a better complaints procedure. Labour today presents like a textbook case of institutional racism.
Embarrassingly, Panorama showed that were the party to apply to itself the test it has set for others it would fail miserably. The Metropolitan Police was paralysed for the best part of a decade because it failed to punish racist behaviour swiftly and fairly. It now looks as though Labour is about to go through the same cycle of denial, incomprehension, contrition and rage before it gets to acceptance. Unfortunately, if it takes 10 years, there may no longer be a Labour party to rescue by the end of this saga.
The EHRC’s formal investigation might accelerate change. But the commission has a difficult job on its hands. To start with it should ignore protests that the Conservative party should also be investigated for Islamophobia. These are transparent attempts to get Mr Corbyn off the hook. Those making them should be ashamed. They are aiding and abetting anti-Semitism.
The EHRC will no doubt recommend changes to take oversight of the disciplinary process out of the hand of officials. However, it may be that nothing can save Labour from itself. The three peers who left this week, among them a former general secretary, appear to have concluded that, for Labour’s progressives, the party is over.
The writer is chairman of Green Park Executive Recruitment and former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission