Following an interview during Labour Party Annual Conference when Unite trade union General Secretary Len McCluskey appeared to dismiss the problem of antisemitism in the Labour Party, many grassroots activists and I emailed Len to take him to task. This is the correspondence between me and Len. (Click on the letters to enlarge them to readable size or scroll down for plain text version)
Luke Akehurst’s initial letter to Len McCluskey:
Len McCluskey’s response to Luke Akehurst:
Luke Akehurst’s response to Len McCluskey’s letter:
To Len McCluskey, General Secretary, Unite
I have been a member of Unite and its predecessor unions since I started work in 1993. I was very disappointed to see your remarks during the Labour Party Conference last week that you had “never been at a meeting where there was any antisemitic language or any attacks on the Jewish nation; they would have had short shrift at any meeting that I was at,” and that when asked why people would make these allegations, you said: “Because they wanted to bring Corbyn down, it’s as simple as that.”
I am also alarmed that you have committed Unite to affiliate to Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), an organisation whose launch event, attended by you, saw a call for expelling the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel from the Party. Even if you have not personally witnessed antisemitism, it is highly inappropriate for you to suggest that therefore allegations made by Jewish Party members who perceive themselves to be victims of antisemitism are false or, worse, that they are motivated by an attempt to attack Jeremy Corbyn. This is a direct contradiction of the “MacPherson Principle”, that the basis for investigating something as a racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person Baroness Chakrabarti who led Labour’s own report into antisemitism last year has contradicted your remarks and said that they don’t accord with her findings. Campaign groups have catalogued 39 recent cases of alleged antisemitism in the Labour Party, using the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism (https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/sites/default/files/press_release_document_antisemitism.pdf ) agreed by the Government and the Labour Party. All of these cases involved people who hold or have held office in the Party, including 7 MPs, 1 peer, 3 parliamentary candidates and 15 councillors, as well as former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone. Some of the cases involve antisemitic anti-Zionism such as stereotypical allegations of conspiratorial Jewish and Zionist control of politics and the media, or analogies between Israel and the Nazis. Others are cruder attacks on Jews such as Woking parliamentary candidate Vicky Kirby saying “Jews have big noses”.
Your apparent dismissal of concerns about antisemitism as being politically motivated is perverse when there have been this many prima face cases in the public domain, when Jeremy Corbyn himself instigated the Chakrabarti review as a response, and when the Annual Conference has just adopted a rule change designed to make it easier to tackle these cases.
It makes Jews and people who are concerned about Jews and Israel very anxious about whether Unite is a welcoming and safe organisation. This is tragic given that Unite is the country’s largest trade union and Jews and Zionists have as much need of the workplace representation you provide as anyone else. As a union leader and public figure we expect you to uphold the union movement’s traditions of stamping out all forms of racism.
I would urge you to issue a public apology for and clarification of your remarks and to make it clear that you and Unite take the issue of antisemitism seriously and will give it the “short shrift” you talk of whenever it arises, recognise that victims’ complaints need to be investigated not dismissed, will reconsider your proposal to affiliate to JVL, and will adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition.
Len McCluskey’s reply:
23 October 2017
I acknowledge receipt of your email of 3 October concerning antisemitism in the Labour Party. As you would be aware, your email was identical with around 300 others received here and was promoted by the group of which you are an organiser, We Believe in Israel.
I would not normally respond to round-robin email campaigns of this type, however I believe that a communication from a member of the union should always receive a reply. Let me note that I find it curious that a group devoted to lobbying on behalf of Israel should concern itself with internal issues in the Labour Party in this way. As with the recent Al Jazeera revelations about the activities of the Israeli embassy in British political parties, this is an unhelpful conflation of two issues.
On your substantive points:
First, I have never denied the possibility that anti-Semitism may surface within the Labour Party. I said – accurately – that I had never encountered it at any meeting I have attended. I accept of course that others, and Jewish party members in particular, may well have had different experiences. You will know that Unite joined the great majority of Party conference in voting for a rule amendment that should make it easier to address anti-Semitic views and conduct within the Party.
Second, I did say that the issue of anti-Semitism has also been used as a stick to beat Jeremy Corbyn with. Your re-raising of the issue of Vicky Kirby’s anti-Semitic remarks – which were made when Ed Miliband was party leader but were used against Jeremy more recently – is a case in point. The outrageous threats by the Labour Leader of Brighton and Hove council to ban the Party from further conferences in the town because of remarks apparently made at a fringe meeting is another. It is possible both that there are anti-Semitic views held by a few Labour Party members (which must be dealt with) and that others will inflate or exaggerate this issue to undermine a Leader who they may dislike or oppose for other reasons.
Third, I welcome the launch of Jewish Voices for Labour as giving a platform for those Jewish members of the Party who feel that their views are not adequately represented by the Jewish Labour Movement, with its long-standing commitment to Zionism. Unite’s further relationship with JVL will be determined by our (your) Executive Council. I am not sure why We Believe in Israel feels it is appropriate to tell Unite who it should or should not relate to in British politics. I did not hear any remarks at the JVL meeting concerning expelling JLM or Labour Friends of Israel from the Party – I think they may have been made elsewhere – but of course Unite would never support any such move, which no-one is seriously proposing. Indeed, Unite is anxious to build a stronger relationship with JLM, notwithstanding different views on the Israel/Palestine problem, and we have already had discussions to that end.
Fourth, I entirely reject your imputation that Unite is not a ”welcoming and safe organisation for Jews”. This is an outrageous slur unsupported by a scrap of evidence. The union has not received a single complaint regarding anti-Semitic conduct or views by any of our officials or members (other than the matter of Ms Kirby mentioned above) in my entire time in office as General Secretary. We pride ourselves on defending all our members without regard to ethnicity, gender or religion, and anyone violating that principle would be dealt with under rule. The suggestion from We Believe in Israel that I am not upholding “the movement’s traditions of stamping out all forms of racism” is a smear which I am surprised you are prepared to associate yourself with. My personal role in fighting (including physically) racism and anti-Semitism throughout my life is well known.
Fifth, Unite will not be adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, at least unamended. Too much of the guidance attached to this definition seeks to circumscribe criticism of the Israeli government and its continuing occupation of Palestinian land with all the associated human rights abuses. This will not deflect Unite from either its solidarity with the Palestinian people or its opposition to the evil of anti-Semitism.
You and I both oppose anti-Semitism. The difference comes down to this. You Believe in Israel. I believe in justice, which includes my support for an Israeli state based on the 1967 borders.
PS: Feel free to share this letter with all those who you organised to write to me.
Thank you for your reply of 23 October 2017 to my email about antisemitism.
I appreciate you engaging with my original concerns.
There are a number of specific points in your letter that I need to respond to.
First, you say that you “find it curious that a group devoted to lobbying on behalf of Israel should concern itself with internal issues in the Labour Party in this way.” The Labour Party is potentially the next Government of the UK, therefore its policies are a matter of interest not just to party members but to the general public, and it is inevitable that British citizens who share particular policy concerns will seek to persuade the party to align its policies with their views. If you want to characterise that as “lobbying on behalf of Israel” I hope you would use the same language to describe the Palestine Solidarity Campaign as “lobbying on behalf of the Palestinian Authority”.
You then refer to “recent Al Jazeera revelations about the activities of the Israeli embassy in British political parties”. A viewing of the Al Jazeera documentaries reveals despite months of covert filming there were no “activities of the Israeli embassy in British political parties” beyond a junior member of staff boasting inaccurately about his alleged involvement in setting up a youth section of Labour Friends of Israel, which was actually nothing to do with him.
The overall insinuation is that there is something untoward about British people campaigning in support of Israel. I hope you consider it just as appropriate that people who want to show solidarity towards Israel campaign actively as, for instance it is appropriate for people to campaign to express their solidarity with the Palestinians, or Cuba, or Venezuela, to cite three solidarity campaigns Unite has been identified with.
The language that is used around this needs to be chosen very carefully given two longstanding antisemitic tropes are an accusation of Jewish or “Israel lobby” control of politics, and an accusation that Zionist Jews in the diaspora are more loyal to Israel than to their own nations.
I appreciate and welcome your clarification that “others, and Jewish party members in particular, may well have had different experiences” when it comes to antisemitism.
I also appreciate and welcome Unite’s decision to vote for the rule change on tackling antisemitism at Annual Conference. It is important to note that this rule change is underpinned by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The IHRA definition was adopted by Labour’s NEC in 2016 and when the party makes judgements about what constitutes antisemitism in disciplinary cases, this is the definition it uses.
I do resent your suggestion that “It is possible both that there are anti-Semitic views held by a few Labour Party members (which must be dealt with) and that others will inflate or exaggerate this issue to undermine a Leader who they may dislike or oppose for other reasons.” You wouldn’t suggest that people who drew attention to any other form of racism were doing so to undermine a politician, nor would it be remotely acceptable to accuse any other group perceiving themselves to be victims of racism of inflating or exaggerating. The concerns about antisemitism in the party have been raised by Jews themselves both internally (Jewish Labour Movement) and externally (Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jewish Leadership Council, Community Security Trust – i.e. the official representative bodies, and the counter-antisemitism charity, of the Jewish Community). It’s a breach of the MacPherson principle that “A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person” to accuse a community who perceive themselves to have suffered racism of inflating or exaggerating.
I am disappointed by your defence of your engagement with JVL. JLM is Zionist i.e. supports the existence of Israel, because the vast majority of British Jews, including Jews who are members of the Labour Party, support this position. If there was a groundswell of Labour Jews who opposed Israel, they would be able to take over JLM. There isn’t.
All the main Jewish communal representative bodies support Israel. All the main synagogue movements support Israel. Congregations at Orthodox and Reform synagogues (the two largest movements) pray for the State of Israel every Shabbat. Recent polling by IPSOS Mori showed that “British Jews are strongly attached to Israel. The vast majority of our respondents support its right to exist as a Jewish state (90%), express pride in its cultural and scientific achievements (84%), see it as a vibrant and open democracy (78%) and say that it forms some part of their identity as Jews (93%).”
JLM and its predecessor Poale Zion have been formally affiliated to the Labour Party since 1920. I don’t think it is remotely appropriate for the General Secretary of an affiliated trade union to give succour to a rival, non-affiliated grouping to an official Labour affiliate that has been part of our movement for nearly a century. You would rightly be horrified if someone backed a breakaway union against a union affiliated to Labour or the TUC.
I don’t understand why you would express support for JVL when you end your letter by expressing your “support for an Israeli state based on the 1967 borders”. That’s a Zionist position. In fact it’s the position held by many members of JLM and of the organisation I lead, We Believe in Israel. I haven’t ever met a Labour-supporting Zionist who doesn’t support a two state solution, either on the 1967 borders exactly or on a small variation to them through the kind of land swaps set out in the Clinton Parameters and the Arab Peace Initiative. It is not JVL’s position.
Nor do I understand why you would express support for JVL when it opposed the rule change on antisemitism which Unite voted for.
JVL is currently campaigning against the expulsion from Labour of Moshe Machover, who published an article during Annual Conference which included a quote from Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich made in 1935 which suggested the early Nazi government agreed with Zionist ideals.
It does Unite no favours at all with potential Jewish members to associate yourselves with a tiny fringe group whose views are anathema to the vast majority of British Jews.
I am pleased, however, that you state that “Unite is anxious to build a stronger relationship with JLM”.
I don’t understand your objections to the IHRA definition. It doesn’t seek “to circumscribe criticism of the Israeli government”. It specifically says “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”. What it does seek to stop is the use of antisemitic tropes and stereotypes in the debate about Israel and the Palestinians.
I don’t believe you can think that any of the examples cited in the IHRA definition are acceptable discourse given their offensiveness to Jewish people, or that any of them are necessary to ensuring a full and robust debate about Israel and the Palestinians, or that use of any of them in any way helps the Palestinian cause.
I hope you will come to understand that the use of antisemitic imagery and stereotypes as part of anti-Zionist discourse is a longstanding problem dating back to the Stalin era, that it is deeply distressing and indeed a source of fear for Jews, and it needs to be treated with the same intolerance that any other type of antisemitism and racism would be countered with.
I actually think our positions on the question of Israel are probably closer than you imagine, given your final statement that you “believe in justice, which includes my support for an Israeli state based on the 1967 borders.” Like you, I want justice and peace and national self-determination for both Israel and the Palestinians. That’s a Zionist position and one I am proud to articulate both in my work capacity as Director of We Believe in Israel, and in my wider political life as a member of the Labour Party and Unite.