That thing you do

Yesterday, Momentum founder Jon Lansman made headlines for his claim that antisemitism "is a widespread problem" in Labour, and that Labour underestimates "the scale of it". Expanding on his point on Twitter, Lansman estimated that there were probably "a few hundred" "hardcore antisemites" in Labour. He argued that more incidents would undoubtedly be recorded if the party adopted a proactive approach to rooting it out, rather than waiting for complaints.

I just want to parse Lansman's intervention. Because his language is wildly misleading, and doesn't match up to his specific claims. And we can't pretend that it doesn't matter how politicians choose their words. We know it matters. The resulting headlines were all of the type: 'Momentum founder admits widespread antisemitism in Labour'. 

To read him generously, Lansman is right that there is probably more antisemitism than the figures detect. Not every instance is complained about, and a lot of racism presents itself in a more ambiguous way than can be dealt with by reporting individual misconduct. He is also plausible in his claim that the conspiracist periphery of the alt-left is a breeding ground for racist tropes. There is a softcore as well as a hardcore. These tendencies just are part of our political reality.

Nonetheless, let's look at the figures that have been recorded. Since last April, when the new general secretary took office, Labour has kept data on antisemitism complaints. The NEC received 1106 complaints, of which 443 were not about party members. That left 673 complaints. Of those 220 didn't have sufficient evidence to proceed with an investigation. 146 were deemed to have used a racist trope out of ignorance rather than malice, and given a warning. Of those where investigations began, 96 were suspended and 12 expelled. Other investigations are ongoing, and there may be several dozen more expulsions. 

Even if these figures aren't exhaustive, they point to a scale relative to the total membership. We're talking about the individual misconduct of a very small minority of Labour Party members, a fraction of a percent in terms of the worst cases. This is similar in scale to unofficial estimates from previous years. When Thomas Jones of the LRB looked at the data on suspensions a couple of years ago, when there had recently been a flurry of NEC activity, he found that 0.4 per cent of the parliamentary party, 0.07 per cent of the councillors and 0.012 per cent of the membership had been suspended for anti-Semitism. Lansman's estimate of the total number of hardcore antisemites seems to fall within this range. Even taking into account a larger periphery of 'softcore' racism, we're still likely talking about a very small number of people relative to the total membership. 

Getting this right matters because there have been numerous column inches, headlines, broadcast news items, dedicated since 2016 to the idea that Labour, under Corbyn's leadership, has been pervasively, systemically, or institutionally antisemitic. The recent Labour splinter, justifying its existence, foregrounded claims of pervasive antisemitism in Labour. The evidence simply doesn't support anything like this picture, and the Chakrabarti Inquiry report, welcomed by the Jewish Labour Movement, emphatically repudiated such a claim.

Lansman says the problem is "widespread". The synonyms of "widespread" are "general", "omnipresent", "ubiquitous", "prevalent", "blanket" and so on. In the context of the wider coverage, that's exactly how the term would be taken. Lansman doesn't mean anything like that. He means "widespread" in a far more limited, relative sense: more widespread than we might have thought. Less generously, he commits an egregious misuse of the term in ordinary language. Antisemitism exists in Labour. There are probably numerically more antisemites in Labour than there were previously, because it's a larger membership. And if that is the case, it is likely to have become more visible, more conspicuous, for Jewish members. But by all available evidence it is not "widespread".

The danger here is that such interventions, particularly when unqualified by any acknowledgment of the delirious campaign of smears against Labour on this very issue, feed into an inappropriate polarisation of the debate. They generate flows of headlines and attention around misleading claims, while putting a lot of Labour members' backs up. After all, Labour members have in recent years put up with senior Labour figures regularly using hostile media to piss on them from a great height. These include claims that members are either middle class saps, the loony left, Militant entryists, thugs and bullies, or, ubiquitously, antisemites. If you want to engage the members in a struggle against antisemitism, it's probably not a good idea to partake of their collective vilification. I fear that, the more this sort of thing happens, the more credibility is given to the 'loose cannons' of the Left, and the bombastic blowhards of the Right. Some degree of polarisation over this issue is unavoidable, but that symbiosis is not.

These testerics need to be soberly deflated, defences unwound, the issues disentangled from the headlines. The situation calls for maximum precision and honesty. It calls for some acknowledgment of the well-founded concerns of members, that they are being collectively smeared in the press, and that a great deal of that smearing is about stifling the freedom to organise politically over the issue of Palestine. Responses which ignore these salient realities and decline to contest the smears, will have the effect of snarling up an already complex argument in knots, jamming the signals, and forcing a thorough sorting through of the argument every single time it comes up.

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