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A flawed article in the Observer

Updated: Mar 10, 2023


Sonia Sodha
Sonia Sodha, columnist and author. Senior adviser to Ed Milliband when he was Leader of the Opposition

In this paper, I discuss Sonia Sodha’s article on Keir Starmer’s treatment of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left in the Observer: “Keir Starmer was right to exile Corbyn. Labour has a duty to voters, not rebellious members”, 19 February. I conclude that its errors make it a flawed piece of journalism.


A series of errors and misleading statements


1. The Labour Party was “characterised” by “institutional antisemitism” under Jeremy Corbyn.


The term “institutional antisemitism” is vague and requires clarification. If it means that there was more antisemitism in the Labour Party than other major political parties, or that there was more antisemitism in the Labour Party than in British society generally, no reliable data has been presented anywhere to support either of these claims. Indeed, available statistical data suggests the opposite. If it means that the Party treated antisemitism less seriously than other forms of bigotry, I would counter that Labour adopted a specific definition and set of examples of antisemitism in September 2018 (the IHRA working definition of antisemitism) before adopting similar definitions for other forms of bigotry. The APPG definition of Islamophobia, for example, was adopted in March 2019. The claim that Labour was “characterised” by “institutional antisemitism”, without any clarification of what that means, is misleading at best, if not a falsehood.


2. Jeremy Corbyn “accused the EHRC of ‘dramatically overstating’ the extent of antisemitism in the party ‘for political reasons’.”


This distorts Corbyn’s original statement. In fact he said that “One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media. That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated.” Nowhere did Corbyn accuse the EHRC of overstating the extent of antisemitism. The EHRC did not even investigate the extent of Labour antisemitism; it focused on the party’s handling of complaints. Corbyn’s claim was that, in general, the scale of Labour antisemitism was overstated by Labour’s political opponents. Credulous journalists might believe that Corbyn wanted to “reopen Auschwitz”, or that Labour was “an existential threat to Jewish life”, or that “the whiff of blood lust” emanated from its conference – all claims made in the media – but reasonable people know better.


3. Under Starmer, Labour has made “progress in … proscribing antisemitic organisations”.


This claim is at best misleading. Starmer has proscribed a number of organisations, some of them for supposed antisemitism, and others for explicitly political and factional reasons. Labour List reported at the time that the proscription of Socialist Appeal was “described as a ‘tidying up exercise’: the group is considered … to be a successor organisation to Militant, and this move is designed to refresh the legal position on that.” In other words, Socialist Appeal was not proscribed for antisemitism. It was proscribed for political reasons, namely, for being a communist faction. Similarly, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty was proscribed because of its Trotskyism, which the Labour leadership considered incompatible with the party’s aims and values, not because of antisemitism. The reduction of Starmer’s policy to “proscribing antisemitic organisations” is misleading; it omits the political character of the proscriptions. Sodha fails to substantiate her claim that the other organisations proscribed by the Labour Party were antisemitic.


4. Corbyn failed to “accept responsibility and show any contrition for the antisemitism he presided over”.


In a 2019 television interview, Corbyn said about antisemitism: “Obviously I’m very sorry for everything that’s happened”.


In 2018, Corbyn said: “I am sorry for the hurt that has been caused to many Jewish people. We have been too slow in processing disciplinary cases of mostly online antisemitic abuse by party members. We are acting to speed this process up.”


In 2018, regarding the mural controversy, Corbyn said: “I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on, the contents of which are deeply disturbing and antisemitic”. He added in a statement that he was “sincerely sorry for the pain which has been caused” by antisemitism “in pockets within the Labour Party, causing pain and hurt to our Jewish community in the Labour Party and the rest of the country.”


In 2018, Corbyn said: “In the past, in pursuit of justice for the Palestinian people and peace in Israel/Palestine, I have on occasion appeared on platforms with people whose views I completely reject. I apologise for the concerns and anxiety this has caused.”


Whatever one thinks of these apologies (many Labour members would say the Labour Party was over-apologetic under Corbyn), it is indisputable that they were made. The claim that Corbyn has not accepted responsibility, or shown any contrition, is false.


***


Once again, the mainstream media shows itself to be a purveyor of misinformation when it comes to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left. The systematic deception of the public on such important issues is a plague across the spectrum of the media, from the Guardian to the Daily Mail. Unfortunately, dispelling fictions requires a great deal more effort than producing them.

Talal Hangari is a writer and activist studying at the University of Cambridge

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