This was a special meeting (actually, two meetings in one), which was arranged to do two things: to clear the backlog of disciplinary cases to be considered by the Disputes Panel; and to discuss the outcome of the Party Democracy Review carried out by Katy Clark and her team – but in practice, of course, it was dominated by the anti-semitism issue.
The disciplinary matters were considered in the morning. The July Disputes Panel had been presented with three times as many new cases as normal, due to a concerted effort to deal with all outstanding investigations in a timely fashion. There was never any realistic chance of getting through those cases in the hour provided (which is never long enough, anyway), hence an extra meeting had been scheduled. In the meantime, however, a number of the anti-semitism cases had been considered outside the Disputes Panel under new arrangements whereby a panel of 3-5 NEC members look at as many cases as possible; the cases are anonymised but far more detail is provided about the nature of the alleged offence(s), the evidence, the member’s response, etc. I had some reservations about this, as the outcome could vary depending on who sits on the panel. The anonymity and greater detail available are positive steps, however.
With a section of the backlog having already been dealt with, the Disputes Panel was able to get through the remaining cases in the time available; some, but by no means all, of these related to allegations of anti-semitism. There was more detail provided than in the past and it was presented in a consistent and systematic fashion, which wasn’t the case previously. Although there wasn’t unanimity on every case and there were a couple of instances of members referred to the NCC for possible expulsion where I felt that a warning and training would have sufficed, the general tone of the discussion was more reasonable and less polarised than in the past. The penalty suggested by officers was reduced in a couple of cases and in one instance where the information provided was rather sketchy, we agreed to refer the matter back to officers for this to be remedied before we made a decision.
After the relative calm of the morning, the tension was ratcheted up when the ‘full’ NEC meeting took place in the afternoon. As usual, the deliberations of this session were all over the media before the meeting had even concluded and pundits were offering supposedly authoritative explanations of what had transpired. As a result of the persistent leaking of supposedly confidential discussions – culminating in the disgraceful recording and publication of comments made by Pete Willsman at the July meeting – it was decided at the start of the agenda that mobile phones and other electronic devices will not be allowed into NEC meetings from now on and those unable to attend in person will no longer be able dial in. It will be interesting to see what difference this makes to media coverage in future.
There had been weeks of speculation that the NEC was poised to accept in full the illustrative examples that accompany the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-semitism. In common with my fellow members of the Committee, I received more than three thousand emails seeking to influence my vote on this issue – more than I’ve had on all other matters combined in my two years as a member – and the vast majority of these urged me to stand by the existing Code of Conduct adopted by the NEC in July and not accept the full IHRA examples.
This was the position I had intended to take, in any case. In my view, the party’s own Code of Conduct, carefully balanced and informed by a robust understanding of its legal implications, offered clear and precise commitments to eradicate anti-semitism in the party, while qualifying and contextualising the IHRA text in such a way as to protect free speech on Israel/Palestine. Alongside the launch of an education programme for activists and a clearer and more consistent approach to dealing with allegations of anti-semitism against individuals, this seemed to demonstrate a serious and proportionate response to the issue that has increasingly dogged the party in recent months.
Of course, for many commentators, including a number of our own MPs, this was not only insufficient to demonstrate our commitment to fighting anti-semitism but was actually an insult to the Jewish community; only complete and unqualified adoption of the full IHRA text (despite the doubts about its practical usefulness extending to its main author) would do. Suspicions that, for at least some of those making these arguments, no concession short of a change of party leadership would do, were confirmed by Margaret Hodge when she said, “the problem is Jeremy.”
Nevertheless, it is easy to understand why the party leadership felt it necessary to adopt the full IHRA document – albeit alongside a reaffirmation of the right to criticise the Israeli state – if the party was ever to move on from the damaging situation that had engulfed it over the summer. Jeremy and his frontbench colleagues want to able to concentrate their fire on the Tories over austerity and the Brexit process and set out the positive things that a Labour government would do and that is very difficult while this furore continues. Jeremy at least presented a careful and balanced statement offering strong protections for legitimate criticism of Israel. While a couple of us spoke against accepting “full IHRA”, it was clear that we were never going to secure a majority for our position and the leadership were more concerned about the right, who didn’t want to adopt any substantial caveats at all.
This is more or less where we ended up, albeit with a commitment to ongoing consultation on the Code of Conduct and, in the meantime, a very brief statement saying that “full IHRA” shouldn’t mean an end to free speech on Israel/Palestine. The fact that even this mild caveat was swiftly denounced by the likes of Margaret Hodge, Progress and Labour Friends of Israel confirms that, unfortunately, the issue has not yet been put to bed.
One of the frustrating things about this debate at the NEC meeting was that it left very little time to discuss the excellent ideas arising from the Democracy Review, which suggest progressive reform in a number of areas, from leadership nomination rules to the policy process and from the party’s local government structures to the make-up of the NEC itself. Following the presentation of Katy Clark’s initial report at the July meeting, NEC members had fed in responses and alternative proposals over the remainder of the summer and these were reflected in a summary document that was put to the meeting. We had time only to go through this paper and note the areas where there was consensus and those where further debate would be necessary. Unsurprisingly, more areas of the review fell into the latter category than the former.
We now have one further full-length NEC meeting before conference, at which this can be discussed in greater detail and I hope that, following this, as many as possible of the good ideas arising from the review can be presented to delegates in Liverpool.