Chakrabarti emphasises free speech

Submitted by Matthew on 8 July, 2016 - 3:51 Author: Ira Berkovic

The inquiry into antisemitism in the Labour Party, headed by lawyer and civil rights advocate Shami Chakrabarti, has concluded that, while Labour is not “overrun” with any form of racism, “an occasionally toxic atmosphere is in danger of shutting down free speech in the party”.

The report makes a number of recommendations as to how to detoxify that atmosphere. Many are around the use of language. Chakrabarti condemns the use of the epithet “Zio”, an abbreviation of “Zionist” pioneered by the far right but disgracefully embraced by some on the far left. She counsels caution with the term “Zionist” itself, rightly advising that it should be used “advisedly”, rather than “euphemistically” or as a term of political or personal abuse.

The report acknowledges the complexity and multiplicity of the historical meanings attached to the term, within its overarching meaning as a supporter of Jewish statehood. She advises strongly against the use of “Hitler, Nazi, and Holocaust metaphors, distortions, and comparisons in debates about Israel-Palestine”, and says that “excuse for, denial, approval, or minimisation of the Holocaust, and attempts to blur responsibility for it, have no place in the Labour Party.”

These recommendations are a challenge to the far left, inside the party and out, sections of which have been guilty of all the errors Chakrabarti counsels against. Her inquiry does not attempt an analysis of where such errors might stem from. Workers’ Liberty has long argued that they are almost-inevitable consequences of a Stalinist-originated far-left common sense that exceptionalises and essentialises Israel and, by extension, the majority of the world’s Jews who, for reasons of historical experience, feel some level of affinity with it, however loose, and however much they oppose the policies of its government.

The report emphasises the necessity of free speech and debate. “We must never”, Chakrabarti writes, “run away from dialogue and debate.” Party factions both left and right should embrace this spirit, rather than either denouncing those who disagree with them on this issue as Zionist witch-hunters (as in the case of some on the left), or attempting to suspend, ban, or expel members on the left of the party, as the right has done.

Chakrabarti also recommends the creation of a transparent complaints procedure, which she presumably intends would have a wider application than complaints about antisemitism. She condemns the often reflex use of unilateral suspensions, notionally by the NEC but “in practice by the General Secretary and his/her staff”. The shadowy “Compliance Unit” is not mentioned in the report, but Chakrabarti is obviously keen to inject the Labour Party’s disciplinary procedure with some basic principles of “natural justice”.

That is welcome. However, her precise recommendations, such as that disciplinary power be transferred from the NEC to the National Constitutional Committee, and that the party appoint a “General Counsel” (a kind of resident lawyer to advise them on the legality and natural-justice-basis of their disciplinary proceedings), risk leaving the levers of disciplinary power in the hands of those whom it is not always easy for ordinary party members to hold to account. How, for example, would the “General Counsel” be removed or replaced if party members found their advice lacking?

Also welcome are Chakrabarti’s recommendation for a range of sanctions (such as warnings, fixed-term suspensions, requirements for apologies or reparations, etc.), rather than mere expulsion, and her opposition to lifetime bans. A section on training and education within the party invokes the spirit of the working-class self-education movement of the early 20th century, which Workers’ Liberty and others have long argued should be revived.

The debate around the issues underpinning the incidents which led to the inquiry — around Israel/Palestine, Jewish nationalism, and more — will and must continue. Chakrabarti’s inquiry is less of an intervention into that, or any other, political debate than it is a series of recommendations on how such debate should be conducted. As far as they go, many of those recommendations are welcome and should be acted on.

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