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On antisemitism and Islamophobia, Labour and Tories are judged by different standards

Recent report shows how a much slacker set of standards apply when it comes to the anti-Muslim attitudes pervading the British Conservative Party
Flags flutter outside the Palace of Westminster in central London on 25 March 2021 (AFP)

Two years have passed since the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced, to massive media fanfare, its investigation into complaints of antisemitism against Britain’s Labour Party. The publication of the EHRC’s report last October, which found that Labour had breached the Equality Act in three different ways, also received widespread media attention.

Yet, the EHRC decision not to investigate allegations of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party at the same time seemed odd. There is widespread, authenticated evidence from reputable sources of anti-Muslim prejudice, stretching from party activists and councillors, to MPs and cabinet ministers, to the very top of the party.

Had the Tories been judged by the same standards as Labour, they would also have been at risk of being found guilty of unlawful conduct

The EHRC did not rule out an investigation into the Conservative Party. But it said it was waiting to see the findings of the party’s own report into Islamophobia (and other forms of discrimination) within its ranks, conducted by Professor Sarwan Singh, before making up its mind.

That report, which was released several weeks ago, ignored irrefutable evidence of virulent Islamophobic attitudes throughout the party. Nevertheless, it was taken seriously by mainstream commentators and interested parties.

Defenders of the Singh investigation generally accepted what they described as a thorough investigation into three narrow but crucial areas: complaints handling, training, and political interference. It exposed failings inside the Conservative Party and made recommendations on how systems could be improved. The Conservatives accepted all of the recommendations and said they would publish a plan in six weeks.

If that plan is delivered, (a response is due in early July), Tory supporters will hope that the EHRC declare itself satisfied and decide not to go ahead with any investigation. 

Political interference

In this article, however, I will show that the mainstream analysis is wrong. In particular, I will show how Singh’s report has judged the Tory party’s handling of Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination according to an entirely different - and much slacker - set of standards than the ones by which the EHRC judged Labour.

It was not part of Singh’s remit to decide whether the Conservative Party had breached the Equality Act and was therefore guilty of unlawful conduct - the lethal charge levelled by the EHRC against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. Had the Tories been judged by the same standards as Labour, they would also have been at risk of being found guilty of unlawful conduct.

Remember that the EHRC found Labour responsible for three breaches of the Equality Act, covering three categories: political interference in antisemitism complaints, failure to provide adequate training to those handling antisemitism complaints, and unlawful harassment.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to the media in central London on 14 June 2021 (AFP)
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to the media in central London on 14 June 2021 (AFP)

I will start by examining political interference. The EHRC found Corbyn’s Labour Party guilty of unlawful political interference into antisemitism complaints on the grounds that it was “indirectly discriminatory”. This was condemned by Corbyn’s critics as scandalous behaviour, even though in many cases the interference cited was to hasten, rather than obstruct, the progress of antisemitism cases.

Yet, the political interference into discrimination cases inside the Tory party is a far graver problem, because it is actually hardwired into the system. There is a complaints team, but the problem lies with the chain of command above it. The final decision-maker is the Tory party chair, who is in turn directly appointed by the Tory leader.

The chair takes recommendations, which he or she has the power to overrule. The chair can also refer cases to the leader of the party. 

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The Singh report says that Tory staff insisted that the party chair had not overruled recommendations, and that “most team members are junior members of staff who clearly rely on legal advice and support from senior party members such as the chief whip and party chair in the most difficult cases”.

Crucially, all disciplinary matters relating to MPs are dealt with by the chief whip, who has the final say. The Singh report explicitly recognises this on page 30, when it references a complaint related to an MP that “was therefore handled by the chief whip and not the Complaints Team”.

On page 47, the report adds: “The team works closely with the chief whip’s office as both handle disciplinary matters relating to MPs. Such complaints are taken very seriously and a decision on how they are handled is made on a case by case basis. Ultimately, the chief whip has the final say in such cases as set out in article 89 of the party’s constitution.”

In short, political interference into discrimination is actually formally carried out by individuals reporting directly to the leader of the party. This is especially problematic, given Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s lengthy record of making Islamophobic and racist remarks, while entertaining antisemitic tropes.

Bear in mind that recently, Johnson publicly intervened to criticise the England Cricket Board for disciplining a player who had reportedly made Islamophobic tweets.

Training and harassment

I now turn to the second area where the EHRC accused the Labour Party of acting unlawfully: the failure to provide adequate training. Here, the contrast between the Conservative Party under Johnson and Corbyn’s Labour is even more glaring.

The EHRC acknowledges that the National Executive Committee (NEC) code of conduct on antisemitism was adopted by Labour in July 2018, and the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition - with examples - was adopted later that year, with further internal guidance on antisemitism developed at the end of 2019. Indeed, Labour staff and NEC members attended a Birkbeck education course on antisemitism from September 2019 onwards.

If Labour breached the Equality Act, the Tory failure was far more systematic and serious

Nevertheless, the EHRC accused Labour of “unlawful indirect discrimination” because it lacked a bespoke training programme for antisemitism for relevant officials acceptable to Jewish community stakeholders.

By contrast, the Singh report says that while Tory staff receive diversity training as standard procedure, there is nothing specific with regards to Islamophobia. If Labour breached the Equality Act, the Tory failure was far more systematic and serious.

I now turn to harassment, the third area where Labour was found guilty of unlawful conduct, on the grounds that Ken Livingstone, the former London mayor, and Pam Bromley, a councillor, were party agents and committed harassment against Jewish members. 

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a demonstration in support of the Palestinian cause in London on 15 May 2021 (AFP)
Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a demonstration in support of the Palestinian cause in London on 15 May 2021 (AFP)

The EHRC concluded that Labour “committed unlawful harassment through the actions of its agents”. Yet, exactly the same criticism can be made of a large number of Tory MPs and councillors, if they are deemed agents of the party as Livingstone and Bromley were.

For instance, the EHRC stated that Livingstone’s defence of politician Naz Shah in the face of antisemitism allegations amounted, in itself, to antisemitism and harassment. Shah is a Labour MP who in 2016 apologised after sharing a post on Facebook suggesting Israel should be relocated to the US. 

By the same logic, the Conservative Party is institutionally guilty of harassment. Johnson’s comments comparing Muslim women wearing the full face veil to letterboxes and bank robbers constitute harassment, since he was clearly acting as an agent of the party.

Double standards

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party repeatedly denies that there is an issue of Islamophobia in the party. That, too, constitutes harassment, according to the standards applied by the EHRC to the Labour Party.

Indeed, one of the three members on the panel who carried out the report is on record attacking the concept of Islamophobia. In an article for Spiked magazine, Wasiq Wasiq wrote that “either we exercise and defend our right to freedom of speech, or we buckle under the pressure of allegations of Islamophobia”.

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Wasiq said the use of the term was “wrong because it can only chill discussion of religion, extremism and social issues”. He also rejected a report last year by the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims, which states that “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”. 

Wasiq said: “Islamophobia is an attempt to create a modern-day blasphemy law, ring-fencing Islam from criticism under the guise of protecting Muslims.” 

There are other comparable issues of double standards. The Singh report says that discrimination incidents average “0.0007 incidents, per member per year (122 episodes)”.

When Labour insisted that all antisemitism cases in total applied to a tiny fraction of its membership, this was ridiculed and mocked as a line of argument. Indeed, when Corbyn said antisemitism was a small problem within his party, he was accused of antisemitism and suspended.

Yet, the Singh report uses the same argument in defence of the Tories, without citing such accusations: “The view was expressed that the perception of the problem is greater than the actual prevalence of discriminatory and anti-Muslim attitudes at senior levels of the party.”

Complaints teams

Let’s now compare how seriously Labour and the Tories have taken charges of discrimination. According to the Singh report, the Tory complaints team was established in February 2019 with just one staff member. A second staff member was assigned the following April, with two more added in March 2020.  

By contrast, Labour had around half a dozen staff by the end of 2016, 10 by the start of 2018, and 20 by late 2019.

These are far from the only problems with the Singh report. It repeatedly accepts the evidence it receives at face value, without interrogating it. This contrasts with the rigorous, questioning approach taken by the EHRC towards Labour.

Singh simply ignores the evidence ... showing that more than half of the membership of Britain's governing party harbour crudely Islamophobic beliefs

For example, the report states that “stakeholders interviewed who were not party members said they had not personally experienced discrimination from the Conservative Party”. It cites Fiyaz Mughal, the head of an Islamophobia monitoring group. But four years ago, he was denied entry to the Conservative conference, after which he told MEE that he was “made to feel like a criminal” and demanded an apology. He was supposed to host an event to educate the party on Islamophobia. 

Mughal said that one of his colleagues, who is gay, was subjected to homophobic abuse by a security guard, while another female colleague was physically intimidated.

Mughal added: “We wanted to come in and inform the Conservatives about anti-Muslim hate. We are now feeling as if we are part of the problem. Doesn’t that say that actually what we were trying to challenge may well be in the Conservative Party itself?

“We attend Lib Dem conferences. We have always had a positive reception in the Labour Party and from Labour MPs. We have never been treated with such indignity.” 

Staggering failure

Most troubling by far, Singh simply ignores the evidence presented to his report by the anti-racism group Hope Not Hate, showing that more than half of the membership of Britain’s governing party harbour crudely Islamophobic beliefs.

This evidence includes surveys showing how widespread Islamophobic attitudes have become within the Conservatives, including a poll that found almost half of Conservative Party members believed that Islam was “a threat to the British way of life”. It also found that 58 percent believed the conspiracy theory that “there are no-go areas in Britain where Sharia law dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter”. These Islamophobic attitudes are reflected in the conduct and procedures of the Tory high command. 

On its part, the EHRC said in a statement: "We will assess the report alongside the investigation’s terms of reference and await the Conservative party’s response on the actions they will take. This process will take some time and we do not anticipate making any further comments until that work is completed."

The failure of the Singh report to address these Islamophobic attitudes as a systemic problem is staggering, helping to explain the double standards that exist in the handling of political interference, harassment and complaints.

- Additional research by Mahdi Mustafa

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book, The Assault on Truth, was published in February 2021. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.