David Hirsh

The ‘Livingstone formula’ is dead

The academic who coined the phrase 'Livingstone formula' on what the EHRC report reveals about Labour antisemitism

October 30, 2020 11:48

The Labour Party breached the Equality Act by committing unlawful harassment against Jews by employing antisemitic tropes and by characterising complaints of antisemitism as fake smears. The cases adjudicated, says the EHRC report, were “the tip of the iceberg”. Many more incidents were committed by ordinary members for which the party was only indirectly responsible.

The Leader’s office unlawfully intervened into the party’s complaints procedures to pervert antisemitism investigations against the leader himself and against other allies, including Ken Livingstone.

The leader of the party at that time was Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn himself was imbued in antisemitic politics, and defended antisemites against Jews. Antisemitism, like other racisms, is about what you do, it’s not about who you think you are.

Apologists are now saying that Corbyn didn’t do enough to tackle antisemitism. That gets things the wrong way round. Corbyn was the antisemitism.

But Jeremy Corbyn has not been suspended from the party for any of that. He has had the whip taken away from him for what he did this morning, in response to the report, for employing the ‘Livingstone Formulation’. He protested that the scale of the problem of antisemitism was “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents … as well as by much of the media.” As if the equalities institution set up by Labour in government is an opponent of Labour. As if Jews are enemies of Labour.

It is another stark reversal of the truth to claim that Jews and the EHRC opposed Labour’s antisemitism because they wanted to harm Labour. The truth is that they were only anti-Labour insofar as Labour was antisemitic and they wanted to help Labour by making sure it was no longer antisemitic.

Jews would like to be able to engage in politics again and to argue with each other again; there is no single Jewish interest or opinion. But antisemitism treats Jews as though they’re all one and it forces them to come together communally to defend themselves.

When there is a consensus in the Jewish community that there is an antisemitism problem, it does not mean that Jews are conspiring to defend capitalism; it means that there is an antisemitism problem.

Corbyn’s simpering denials were always accompanied by menacing counter-aggressions, accusing Jews of trying to silence criticism of Israel and to smear the left.

The EHRC specified the following as a type of antisemitic conduct that amounted to unlawful harassment: “Suggesting that complaints of antisemitism are fake or smears. Labour Party agents denied antisemitism in the Party and made comments dismissing complaints as ‘smears’ and ‘fake’. This conduct may target Jewish members as deliberately making up antisemitism complaints to undermine the Labour Party, and ignores legitimate and genuine complaints of antisemitism in the Party.”

The EHRC has crystallised a new legal precedent that the ‘Livingstone Formulation’ is antisemitic. It has added to the IHRA definition of antisemitism a new archetype of antisemitic behaviour.

I first named the Livingstone Formulation in 2006 after Livingstone’s bizarre spat with a Jewish journalist, whom he accused of being like a Nazi. Instead of apologising, Livingstone came back with an aggressive counter-accusation against those who said his late night ranting had been antisemitic. “For far too long the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government, as I have been.”

The Macpherson principle says that if a black person says they have experienced racism you should begin by assuming that they are right. The Livingstone principle says: if Jews complain about antisemitism on the left then you should begin by assuming that they are making it up to silence criticism of Israel or to smear the left.

It is antisemitic conspiracy fantasy because it doesn’t just say that Jews sometimes get it wrong, but that they know full well they’re wrong and they say it anyway, to increase their power.

The Livingstone Formulation is the key mode of antisemitic bullying mobilised against Jews on the left. It treats Jews as alien to the left and as treasonous. Pete Willsman accused the 60 rabbis of being Trump fanatics. Such an accusation is a way, rhetorically, of deporting Jews from their political home and making them homeless.

Livingstone himself was thrown overboard by the Corbynites in an effort to save their own skins and he has now been singled out in the EHRC report as a key example of Labour antisemitism. But Corbyn has now been thrown overboard too and is reunited with his old comrade Livingstone. There is justice in that, since they have always shared the same antisemitic politics.

Huge responsibility for Labour antisemitism must be borne by those who did not share the crank politics but who nevertheless allowed it to take the leadership of the party. There are the layers of activists, politicians and intellectuals who think that antisemitic politics was radical Communist chic; then there are those who think that it was really all about Palestine; and those who thought we should rally round the leadership; and those who thought the Zionists were just as bad; and those who thought we should all get along; those who were afraid to get into the fight; those who wanted to keep their jobs and their influence; and those who wanted a seat in the House of Lords.

And there are those who don’t really think that Corbyn was antisemitic but they now believe that Labour won’t have a chance if it doesn’t keep the Jews happy.

The EHRC report is Keir Starmer’s opportunity to peel away those layers from the committed, ideological, antisemitic core and to cauterise the wound. I think he’s doing well. Personally I would vote for Starmer to be Prime Minister tomorrow if I could, in an election against Boris Johnson. I’d be happier still voting Labour if Luciana Berger were my Labour candidate in Finchley and Golders Green. Failing that, she would be a great MP for Islington North.

The EHRC report also sets new legal precedent in defining what is antisemitic. There is much work to be done in setting this out explicitly and articulating what the new legal position is; but not only legal, also political. It should be our Macpherson Report.

Yet Twitter is alive with furious atomised individuals, venting their pain and their hurt. They are the people who have learnt something else from the report. They have learnt that Corbyn was stabbed in the back by Jews and Blairites from within his own trench and they have learnt that between us and socialism sits the Jews.

They have learnt that next time they should not be so nice to the Jews. They want fervently to be the cadre of a future antisemitic movement.

David Hirsh is a lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London

October 30, 2020 11:48

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