Protecting Life, Interrogating Death, Seeking Truth: Phil Scraton, May 27

Merseyside Writing on the Wall Festival

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Protecting Life, Interrogating Death, Seeking Truth

Phil Scraton

Inquests offer the only opportunity for bereaved families to hear and cross-examine evidence concerning the context in which their loved one died. The Chief Coroner’s guidance on Covid-19 deaths advises against inquests investigating the significance of national policies and their implementation, concentrating only on the ‘facts’ of each death. In fact, there is no obligation on care homes or hospitals to report Covid deaths to the Coroner nor to hold inquests. Reflecting on the ground-breaking Hillsborough Inquests, 2014-2016 and the unprecedented jury findings at the inquest into the prison death of Joseph Rainey in Northern Ireland (2020), this talk focuses on bereaved families’ ‘right to know’, and have examined, the full circumstances and wider context in which their loved ones died.

Phil Scraton is Professor Emeritus in the School of Law, Queen’s University, Belfast. Widely published, his books include: In the Arms of the Law – Coroners’ Inquests and Deaths in Custody (with Kathryn Chadwick); The Violence of Incarceration (with Jude McCulloch); Power, Conflict and Criminalisation; Hillsborough The Truth. From 2010 he led the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s research, was principal author of its 2012 Report, Hillsborough and was seconded to the families’ legal teams throughout the 2014-2016 inquests. In 2018, with Rebecca Scott Bray, he co-convened the University of Sydney’s research programme on coroners’ inquests into deaths in custody and is co-investigator for the Irish Council of Civil Liberties’ project Deaths in Contested Circumstances and Coroners’ Inquests. In 2016 he was awarded the Freedom of the City of Liverpool.

Venue: Facebook
Time: 6pm
Tickets Available here:

All ticket donations will go to: Fans Supporting Foodbanks, South Liverpool Domestic Abuse Services and WoW.

A virus-created radical moment: Not to be missed?

The following piece was written a few weeks ago for inclusion in a CONCEPT Covid-19 special. Its opening is overtaken by events. As I write the unlocking of restrictions here on Crete gathers pace. Yet tension prevails. We wish to mingle, but with whom? We were safe on our island. We need tourism to survive, but do we fear the tourists? More than ever we need philanthropy, a love for our fellow human beings, solidarity not charity, but the virus in the hands of the powerful feeds misanthropy and xenophobia. I’ll try to tangle with this dilemma in the next week or so and pursue my call for resistance to either ‘business as usual or a ‘new normal’within and without of work

A virus-created radical moment: Not to be missed?

I am sitting in splendid isolation on a lush hillside above a Cretan village, where even the patriarchal kafeneio is closed. Outside its shuttered face a group of old men sit, less than socially distant, defying spasmodic police surveillance. A few kilometres away people queue obediently outside the supermarket, clutching in their plastic gloved hands the required Out-of-Home pass and their ID. There are health concerns, even though the island of 650,000 souls has precious few Covid-19 cases and only one death, but such melancholia is hardly new. Crete is awash with chemists, testing one’s blood pressure a daily routine. Notwithstanding the benefits of the Mediterranean diet it’s tempting to note that Hippocrates hailed from hereabouts and that hypochondria stems from Ancient Greek.

Crete’s splendid isolation

There is real fear, though not so much of the virus per se but of what lies ahead. As I write the island is closed for business. The tourism-oiled life blood of the local economy congeals. With cafes, tavernas, hotels, even beaches, empty of purpose, unemployment and debt soars. The Orthrus-headed threat of poverty and hunger hangs in the air. The questions on everybody’s lips are ‘when will this end?’ and ‘will we, do we, want to return to normal?’ At this moment, if assuredly we are not all in this together, from capitalist to peasant, humanity faces a fragile future.

For now, it’s ironically common-place for commentators to write that the neoliberal obsession with the free market and the self-centred individual has been utterly exposed. In this profound social crisis society turns to the public, not the private sector. Society turns to the nurse, not the entrepreneur. Capitalism’s endless pursuit of profit and growth is shown to be at odds with the common good and at odds with Nature itself

Against this tumultuous backcloth what are the alternatives as and when the virus loosens its grip? Three perhaps stand out on the grand canvas.

I. Despite the rhetoric that this is impossible, there will be an almost irresistible desire to return to normal. Even though this sordid ‘business as usual’ has created widening inequality – the world’s richest 1% have more than twice as much as 6.9 billion people – and life-threatening climate change.

2. And if, as is likely, this return to the status quo fails amidst what is speculated to be a second Great Depression of recession and austerity, there is the ever-present danger, as we bow to increased surveillance and policing, that an authoritarian, xenophobic politics with strong men at its helm moves to centre stage.

3. The third possibility depends on us. Are we able to build afresh on the recognition that we are essential; that our labour is the bedrock of society? Are we able to hold onto our renewed community experience of mutual aid and solidarity?

To wonder if the latter is possible brings us inexorably to the matter of consciousness. Do the circumstances thrust upon us herald the fulfilment of the revolutionary dream, the emergence of a people, conscious of themselves as the creators of history? Half a century ago as Cornelius Castoriadis revealed presciently neoliberalism’s moneyed ‘meaninglessness’, he posed the question, “to what extent does the contemporary situation give birth in people the desire and capacity to create a free and just society?”

A recently discovered street sign in memory of Castoriadis Cornelius [Greek philosopher]. Thanks to David Curtis and Noelle McAfee.

Speaking of which brings me to the part that youth and community workers might play in the renaissance of collective, reflective solidarity. At its best, the radical tradition contesting the ideological space to be found within our practice has been founded on critical conversations and supportive relationships through which we are as much educated as those we aspire to educate. This is a dialogue riven with moments of intimate democracy, listening to one another, as the foundation of an authentic public democracy.

Alas, over the last 40 years we have been on the retreat. The agenda of social conformity has been strengthened immeasurably by the imposition of prescribed, predictable targets and outcomes, aimed at manufacturing the compliant and resilient individual. Pressured practitioners have sought to make the best of a bad job. However, certainly in England, a generation of workers in their acceptance of the planned interventions demanded from above have cooperated with ‘formalising the informal’. For my part, the recuperation by neoliberalism of even radical elements in our practice is symbolised by the now ritual abuse on all sides of the notion of empowerment, whereby we accept without demur the absurdity that the powerless can be empowered by the powerful.

In closing, I’ll propose that, as we return to work beyond the crisis, there is a fleeting, unmissable chance to revive our commitment to an open-ended, emancipatory dialogue with young people and the community. It will mean challenging, resisting a return to the managerialist implementation of imposed norms and expectations, the catechism of ‘impact’. Such resistance will necessitate the urgent renewal of our collective capacity in the workplace, through workers’ self-organisation and the trade unions.

At the risk of being melodramatic, this unexpected rebuke of Capitalism’s arrogance and excess marks an opening we cannot afford to let slip by. Surely, we cannot wash our hands of, keep our distance from, deny this once in a lifetime moment to turn the tide of history.


To find out more about my love of Cornelius Castoriadis see as a starter.

CONCEPT -Vol. 11, Covid-19 Supplementary Issue, 2020

I’m pleased and humbled to have an article in this special Covid-19 issue of CONCEPT. In the next few days I hope to return to and extend the argument to be found therein, summed up in the final sentence.

Surely, we cannot wash our hands of, keep our distance from, deny this once in a lifetime moment to turn the tide of history

Leave this aside the issue as ever is rich in its diversity of themes and in its range of practitioners. Guided by Mae Shaw’s editorial I hope very much that you will dip into its critical contents.

Editorial – Mae Shaw

This is the first time we have published a supplementary issue of Concept in our almost 30-year history. We were first motivated by a ‘call for solidarity’ from Luke Campbell (in this issue), drawing on his work with a local community action network since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. We hastily set to, seeking contributions from organisations and individuals we thought may be interesting, or interested to respond. It was not intended to be representative of the field of practice; more of a snapshot. We are aware that alongside a general sense of dislocation at this grim and demanding time, there is also alarming evidence of differential circumstances and experiences on the ground. We hoped to capture some of this for our readers, and to offer a modest opportunity to record, reflect, express, share and, maybe even generate some small sense of solidarity, needed now more than ever. The response has been very encouraging, and the number of contributions has grown beyond our original estimate.

The now ubiquitous claim that ‘we are all in this together’ may be accurate in some general existential sense, but the contributions here demonstrate how existing social and material inequalities are reproduced and heightened in this catastrophe. As many of the articles illustrate, some people are stuck at home, while other people are stuck without homes. Susie Dalton highlights how home can be the most dangerous place for some women, while John Player argues that a decent home has become an almost hopeless aspiration for many homeless people in Scotland today. For some young carers, as Mel Aitken shows, home can be both a prison and a place of protection and affection in a time of lockdown, with exhausting personal consequences. In the South African context, where inequalities of class, race and gender are more endemic and visible, Astrid von Kotze demonstrates how the residual geography of apartheid dictates the parameters of what ‘home’ means in practice, with poor black people (women in particular) trying to mitigate the greatest threats from the virus in impossible conditions.

A matter of increasing and widespread concern is the extent to which ‘vulnerability’ is becoming a shorthand for lack of personal agency for some. George Lamb, disability rights activist, is concerned about the ways in which the current ‘vulnerability’ script may undo the gains made by the disability movement in their decades-long struggle for rights, not charity, denying the voices of disabled people at this critical time. Some of the same concerns about reconstituting forms of dependency, which have been so strenuously resisted in recent years, are emerging in relation to the implicit ‘ageism’ reflected in much public health policy. Emphasising the continuing agency of ‘vulnerable’ people needs to be a primary concern for practitioners in this field. In any case, if this crisis has taught us one very useful human lesson, it is that we are all profoundly vulnerable!

Making donations and volunteering to help others in respectful ways are important forms of agency, but so too is the capacity to question, and to accept that there will be contradictions. In struggling to make sense of the current reality, and using online resources to meet with like-minded others, Anne O’Donnell is rediscovering the ‘healing’ power of theory: the therapeutic properties of thinking, understanding, grasping, revisiting longstanding analytical frameworks and assessing the value of new ones. What’s more, as Lisa Rigby makes clear, this kind of critical awareness can creatively ‘bleed’ into other interrelated spheres which are not at present included sufficiently in public discourse: ‘…. public/private finance, international affairs, and ideas about health, including around the use of illicit drugs’.

Fear and growing anger about the cumulative effects of long-term austerity on the ability of public services to respond to crisis are matched by growing apprehension about the future of precious public assets. Callum McGregor is concerned that the now commonplace collective displays of ‘symbolic solidarity’ for ‘frontline’ workers do not inadvertently undermine a model of genuine ‘civic solidarity’ which expresses a selective determination to secure more equitable rights and rewards mediated through a democratic state polity. In the midst of such sincere outpouring of public goodwill, it can seem churlish to remind people that the British National Health Service is a tax-funded public service, not a charity – and certainly not a business. There will undoubtedly be attempts in due course to depoliticise this crisis, to reinforce rather than challenge the current ideological orthodoxy. But there will also undoubtedly be attempts to seize the crisis as an urgent educational opportunity; as a warning of even worse things to come unless that ideological orthodoxy is seriously challenged.

The immensely unequal distribution of private goods, gained at the expense of the wider public good, may become even more transparent as vast inequalities of wealth and privilege are laid bare. Tony Taylor believes that neoliberal fetishism of the free market and the sovereign individual has been fatally wounded; found completely inadequate to the demands of the current crisis, as ‘society turns to the nurse, not the entrepreneur’. At the same time, and depending on its severity, the crisis may force a fundamental rethink of what is a reasonable way to inhabit the planet, and the economic and social relations which sustain or destroy it.

Many of the contributions here draw attention to the power of community (in all its ambivalence), and to the creativity, empathy, reciprocity and mutuality inherent in human beings which can be either fostered or squandered. The question is how this critical and fearful rupture can generate a genuine and vibrant curriculum for educational work and action with communities of place, identity and interest. As Arundhati Roy rightly observes ‘Nothing could be worse than a return to normality’! We all look forward to looking back on this benighted time sooner rather than later. In the meantime, if you want to contribute to this discussion, please contact



In Praise of May Day: In Praise of the Workers

Towards the end of a strange May Day, bereft of rallies and demonstrations, I’m posting simply the montage, my dear ‘wooly Marxist’ friend Sue Atkins has put together. However I’m hoping to follow it up with some thoughts provoked by a special Covid-19 issue of CONCEPT, the Scottish Community Education journal, especially around how might resist a return to the normal, new or old.

However in Athens the Greek Communist Party [KKE] under the banner of its trade union, PAME, protested outside the Greek Parliament today with social distancing and masks in an act of flagrant, yet disciplined and heart-warming disobedience. Let me be clear over the years the official Communist Parties have hardly been my best mates, but respect when it is due. The party measured out precisely the necessary social distancing, putting the police and government on the back foot. In the end the state and its armed body decided to keep its distance.

Resisting a Return to Normal and a Call for a Citizen Enquiry: Youth Work and Young People Now

Over the past few weeks I’ve made untold efforts to write something useful about the present virus-induced crisis. Amidst the ‘noise’ generated by a waterfall of articles arguing that neoliberalism, its ideology of the free market and self-centred individualism, has been exposed, I seemed to have little to add and have fallen silent. Indeed the only moment when at least some words came to my mind resulted in a piece for a special COVID-19 edition of CONCEPT, the Scottish Community Education journal, which should appear soon.

It ends.

In closing I’ll propose that as we return to work beyond the crisis, there is a fleeting, unmissable chance to revive our commitment to an open-ended, emancipatory dialogue with young people and the community. It will mean challenging, resisting a return to the managerialist implementation of imposed norms and expectations, the catechism of impact.  Such resistance will necessitate the urgent renewal of our collective capacity in the workplace, through workers’ self-organisation and the trade unions.

At the risk of being melodramatic this unexpected rebuke of Capitalism’s arrogance and excess marks an opening we cannot  afford to let slip by.  Surely, we cannot wash our hands of, keep our distance from, deny this once in a lifetime moment to turn the tide of history.

Obviously this sweeping, even pretentious contention needs more explanation and exploration, which I’ll pursue when the CONCEPT special comes out. In the meantime responses to the Citizen Enquiry explained below offer the prospect of gathering evidence from the grassroots about the repercussions of the crisis on young people and youth work. I have copy and pasted from the IDYW web site. I would urge folk to be involved if at all possible.


What is going on for youth work in these current circumstances? How are young people feeling? What challenges are youth workers and organisations facing?

Janet Batsleer and others (including members of our own steering group) have come together to call for a ‘Citizen Enquiry’ to find out – and document for the future – what is happening for young people and for youth work and youth workers in the current situation. They invite youth workers and young people to contribute diaries for one day per month, starting on Tuesday 12th May. The idea is to contribute these youth work diaries to the wider Mass Observation archive. More information will come out nearer the time, but for now, do get in touch with Janet (details below) if you are interested in contributing a diary, encouraging others to contribute, and / or joining a network of citizen enquirers willing to discuss and analyse the contributions. This is a bottom-up, citizen inquiry, not run by any university or institution, hoping to attract wide support from youth workers. We will be sharing more as the project progresses.

Call for a Citizen Enquiry: Youth Work and Young People Now

We propose to host a Citizen Enquiry through the community-based youth work sector concerning what is happening for young people and what is happening to youth work and youth workers now and over the coming months.

To do this we will need a) a network of correspondents in all parts of the United Kingdom  and b) a network of citizen enquirers willing to join in discussing and analysing what is emerging.  The main purpose is to find out What is happening here?  And what is happening for young people? We do not only want to document youth work but get a snapshot into the lives of both youth workers and young people during this time and the coming months.  So this can include the weather, the atmosphere, the food, the music, the emotions…whatever you want to include you can. We will be making a contribution to the wider picture of what is happening via Mass Observation (

We will ask for diary entries each month for at least one day on the first week of the month (starting in May)  from youth workers and if possible also with young people they are working with.  We will also join the Mass Observation diary project on 12th May.  In addition, we invite short reports (memos)  on the following themes:

  • Vulnerabilities and Precarious lives
  • Who is missing?  How is outreach work happening?
  • Crisis points and meeting basic needs
  • What is happening online?  
  • Improvisation?           Emotions?
  • Community networks? 
  • Fears  and hopes for the future of  your organisation/youth project ?

Then a group of citizen researchers from the youth work sector will meet monthly to consider what has been submitted in their area, join a national meeting to see  what is emerging and, after 6 months say , decide on what to enquire into further.

This will be an independent citizen led research project.

Those involved will  be invited to submit their diaries via this enquiry  to the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex who are undertaking a record of everyday experiences of the pandemic.  They will be invited to use the ethical processes associated with Mass Observation and guidance of this will be given when people join the project.  

Janet Batsleer  Manchester  (please contact Janet to join)

Christine Smith Hull

Tania de St Croix   London

Kevin Jones   Manchester 

On the Negligence of the Ruling Class: Roy Ratcliffe waxes lyrical

As I prevaricate as to whether I’ve anything useful to say about the present crisis, my old friend and once fellow youth worker, Roy Ratcliffe is on to his seventh response to COVID-19 and its implications. In this one in particular Roy introduces his analysis with an appealing and revealing reworking of an old nursery rhyme.

For the want of…..?

With each update of news since the Pandemic commenced, I have been reminded of a childhood story told to me about how a king lost a war against an invader. The story went something along the lines of; For want of a nail, a horseshoe was lost; for the want of the shoe a horse was lost, for the want of the horse, the rider was lost, for the want of the rider, the message was lost, and for the want of the message the battle was lost. I also remember reading the story to my young children from a Ladybird book and then explaining its meaning to two four year olds. Later I reminded them of the moral when something occurred which illustrated the point from their immediate experience and not something only relevant to childhood fiction.

Surely this moral is, in one narrative form or another, a universal story based on many chains of cause and effect with costly negative consequences. If it was taught to at least two generations of working class kids in a moderate sized industrial town in Lancashire, surely it cannot have passed by the Eton, Harrow, Oxford, and Cambridge trained elites, many of whom sit atop our governmental, medical and scientific institutions. Are we not informed that they are in receipt of jaw-dropping salaries, perks and pensions precisely because they are the most intelligent and far-sighted individuals we have on this sceptered isle?

Perhaps future children should be taught a more updated narrative based upon events and elite incompetence so far but making the same obvious points of the consequences of a lack of foresight and due diligence. Such as;

For the want of compassion – bush meat was bled.
For the want of diagnosis – a virus was spread.
For the want of restrictions – a pandemic was fed.
For the want of protection – doctors and nurses were dead.

For the want of precautions – the contagion went wide
For the want of hand gel – infection came like a tide
For the want of testing – people were herded inside
For the want of ventilators – weak patients then died.

For the want of hospitals – empty buildings were sought
For the want of health workers – volunteers were taught
For the want of truth and honesty – excuses were thought
For the want of an alternative – a bailout was bought

For the want of humanity – big-business came first
For the want of a home – some were not nursed
For the want of a carer – many victims felt cursed.
For the want of a conscience – not much was reversed.


Farewell Μανόλης Γλέζος : Reading, criticising and resisting to the end

In recent weeks I’ve been trying to write something both critical and useful about the present COVID-19 crisis. My stumbling effort is put to shame upon hearing of the death of the great Greek critic and political activist, Manolis Glezos at the age of 98. Even in his final decade he was still writing, a book on social mobilisation here, a history of acronyms there.

Together with Apostolos Santis, he earned legendary status in Greece on account of their dramatic act – the date, April 30th 1941. The daring duo tore down the swastika from the Acropolis. It had been hung on the ancient monument by the occupying Nazis. In their words they determined to remove the flag as it “offended all human ideals”.

However he was to become frustrated by the attention given to this impulsive heroism, remarking that ‘everyone identifies me with the flag incident…but I had done things before that, I had done things after that, and I’m doing things now.’

Indeed he had. Across the decades Glezos was imprisoned twenty eight times by the Germans, the Italians and then by Greek governments, suffering torture and solitary confinement. At the coup d’état of 21 April 1967, Glezos was arrested as a leader of the Left Opposition. During the Regime of the Colonels, the military dictatorship led by Giorgos Papadopoulos, he was exiled until his release in 1971. Looking back on nearly 16 years of incarceration he commented:

“They say to survive in prison you should love yourself, eat and read. Well I never loved myself, I didn’t care about food but I constantly read.”

His mercurial life witnessed him struggling with the classical contradiction between the price of involvement in parliamentary politics and the necessity of an extra-parliamentary commitment to struggle from below. In fact he was elected to the Greek Parliament on four occasions prior to the 21st century, twice as a representative of the United Democratic Left in the 1960s whilst still in prison, twice in the 1980s on a PASOK ticket, at the time the Greek version of the British Labour Party. It would seem he was chastened by this latter experience, withdrawing from Parliament to devote himself to the nurturing of grass-roots democratic projects and initiatives.

This focus was inspired by his love for the short-lived, but vibrant period of Athenian democracy, which in the words of Castoriadis sowed a seed, both frail yet hardy, for the future. When elected in 1986 as President of the Apeiranthos Community Council on Naxos, his home island, he immediately sought support for abolishing the privileges of the council, promoting the creation of a People’s Assembly founded on principles of direct democracy. Evidently the experiment was successful for many years, before it ran out of democratic steam. It would be fascinating to find out more about its demise, whether, to take but one factor, it foundered on the lack of a democratic commitment within a hierarchical Greek educational system.

He returned to mainstream political activity as the new century beckoned, involved in the rise of a rainbow alliance of the radical Left, Synaspismos. which was to give birth to SYRIZA [The Coaliton of the Radical Left]. The streets, oι δρόμοι, beckoned too. In March 2010, Glezos was participating in an anti-austerity protest in Athens, when he was hit in the face by a police tear gas canister. He was carried away injured. Back in the corridors of power he was elected as a SYRIZA MP in 2012 as the new found party rose to power on a wave of popular, progressive support. Thence in 2014 he entered the EU parliament, gaining 430,000 votes, more than any other candidate in Greece. Once there he addressed the assembled by way of Euripides and Theseus, arguing that the European Union should aspire to the example afforded by Ancient Athens, a free city, free of tyranny and ruled by the many.

Unsurprisingly Glezos was appalled by SYRIZA’s capitulation to the Troika following the people’s overwhelming rejection of a deal with the creditors, expressed in the July 2015 Greek referendum. In the aftermath he is quoted as reflecting,

“I apologize to the Greek people because I took part in this illusion, let’s react before it is too late”.

For now it does seem late in the day. Political disillusionment remains the norm in my adopted country. For Glezos resistance still ran deep in his veins. In 2017 in a scene of unbearable poignance, on a rain-soaked November day, this remarkable man, 95 years of age at the time, paid lonely homage to the fallen of the 1973 Polytechnic Uprising.

Four decades of neoliberal ideology, its explicit encouragement of self-centredness has undermined our belief in the common good. Ironically Manolis Glezos dies at a moment when the collective spirit threatens to rise from the ashes. For now I’ll leave him to have a last word with regard to not forgetting the past if we are both to grasp the present and the future.

The struggle continues,

Ο αγώνας συνεχίζεται

Why do I go on? Why I am doing this when I am 92 years and two months old? I could, after all, be sitting on a sofa in slippers with my feet up. So why do I do this? You think the man sitting opposite you is Manolis but you are wrong. I am not him. And I am not him because I have not forgotten that every time someone was about to be executed [during WWII], they said: ‘Don’t forget me. When you say good morning, think of me. When you raise a glass, say my name.’ And that is what I am doing talking to you, or doing any of this. The man you see before you is all those people. And all this is about not forgetting them.

Manolis Glezos, 2014

Remembering Ellen Wilkinson on International Women’s Day

On International Women’s Day this tribute to ‘Red Ellen’ is well worth reading.

Image showing 4 ft 9 Ellen Wilkinson bravely addressing a male dominated audience at Trafalgar Square (image from:

Wonder Women

This series of blog posts highlights some of the fascinating stories of some of the incredible women who have shaped the history of Manchester Museum, our collections and the University of Manchester. Today, Naomi from the Visitor Team takes a look at the woman behind a name that so many students from the University of Manchester will already be familiar with…

Ellen Cicely Wilkinson, 1891-1947

If you’ve ever walked around the University of Manchester campus you might have noticed the ‘Ellen Wilkinson’ building or the plaque pictured below, but who exactly was Ellen Wilkinson and why is she commemorated by the university?

The Ellen Wilkinson building (Image from: University of Manchester) and blue plaque commemorating Ellen Wilkinson plaque (photo from:

Ellen was a Labour politician, born on the 8th October 1891 into a working-class family in Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester. In 1910, she won a scholarship to study history at the…

View original post 550 more words

Gus John challenges a hierarchy of oppression

Worrying times. As a right-wing government displays arrogantly its xenophobic character the potential opposition, within or without a shattered Labour Party, tears itself apart. One particular and revealing expression of this is the fearful flight from open and critical reflection on the question of antisemitism. Late last year I posted Gus John’s coruscating critique of Archbishop Welby’s support for the Chief Rabbi’s condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn. The Archbishop has not replied and I suspect the hope is that Gus will fade away – not at all likely! Indeed in pursuing the matter further he widens the argument in a way that raises challenging issues for all political and professional activity purporting to be anti-oppressive.

On 21 January 2020 Gus John wrote:

There has not been a response from the Church of England to my resignation from the Archbishops’ advisory committee on race following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s endorsement of the Chief Rabbi’s intervention in the last general election.  On 12 January, the Board of Deputies of British Jews demanded that Corbyn’s successor adopt 10 extraordinary pledges, one of which would make the Labour Party complicit in denying free speech and legitimate protest against Israel’s activities in Palestine.  Unbelievably, all the then 5 leadership contenders immediately rushed to affirm their adoption of those pledges.

In this piece, I argue that the Labour Party is implicitly accepting the argument that the Jewish community (as defined by the Chief Rabbi and the Board of Deputies) sits on the pinnacle of a hierarchy of oppression and therefore has an absolute right to determine what is antisemitic and what is not and that their experience of racism demands a different and entirely separate response from the Labour Party than that of any other section of the population facing racism on the basis of ethnicity or/and religion/faith.

I am calling on the Archbishop of Canterbury to have regard to the experience of racism that generations in the Anglican community has had and successive governments’ failure to tackle it and condemn the shamefully sectarian approach to combating racism that the Board of Deputies is advancing and that contenders for the Labour Party leadership are so unquestioningly embracing.

Labour’s Dangerous Capitulation to the Board of Deputies of British Jews on Antisemitism

Is that what the Archbishop of Canterbury wanted?

On Sunday 12 January 2020, the Board of Deputies of British Jews launched its 10 pledges which it demanded that each of Labour’s candidates for leader and deputy leader should sign up to in order to “begin healing its relationship with the Jewish community” after what it called the crisis of antisemitism under Jeremy Corbyn.  It claimed that Jew-hate “became a matter of great anxiety for the UK’s Jews” under Corbyn’s watch. Marie van der Zyl, the Board’s president, said she hoped the new leader of the opposition would address antisemitism in Labour “promptly and energetically”.

The 10 pledges the Board is demanding that candidates adopt are:

  1. The promise to resolve outstanding cases of alleged antisemitism
  2. To devolve the disciplinary process to an independent agent
  3. To ensure transparency in the complaints process
  4. Prevent re-admittance of prominent offenders
  5. Provide no platform for those who have been suspended or expelled for antisemitism.
  6. The full adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism “with all its examples and clauses and without any caveats”
  7. To deliver anti-racism education programmes that have been approved by the Jewish Labour Movement, which would lead training
  8. To engage with the Jewish community via its “main representative groups and not through fringe organisations” such as Jewish Voice for Labour
  9. To replace “bland, generic statements” on anti-Jewish racism with “condemnation of specific harmful behaviours”
  10. For the Labour leader to take personal responsibility for ending the “antisemitism crisis”

The Board’s president, Mrs Marie van der Zyl accused some of the leadership candidates of remaining silent on antisemitism since campaigning began and condemned others who “appeared to have tailored their message depending on which section of the party they have been addressing”.

She added: “We will be frank. The relationship between Labour and the Jewish community, once rock solid, has been all but destroyed. Rebuilding will take more than mild expressions of regret. It will take a firm public commitment to agree to a specific course of action.

“Our Ten Pledges identify the key points we believe Labour needs to sign up to in order to begin healing its relationship with our community. All of these points, in one form or another, have previously been put to Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership team. Regrettably, action on any of these issues was limited at best, non-existent at worst.”

We expect that those seeking to move the party forward will openly and unequivocally endorse these Ten Pledges in full, making it clear that if elected as leader, or deputy leader, they will commit themselves to ensuring the adoption of all these points.”

Of the six declared leadership candidates, five had endorsed the Board’s demands as of Sunday afternoon: Sir Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Emily Thornberry, declaring on Twitter as follows:

Keir Starmer


The Labour Party’s handling of antisemitism has been completely unacceptable. It has caused deep distress for the Jewish community, which we must all accept responsibility for and apologise.

I support the recommendations put forward by the Board of Deputies. …

Lisa Nandy


We should never again be in a position where we’re telling Jewish grateful to the @BoardofDeputies for their initiative. Labour must accept all of these pledges in full.

Jess Phillips MP


I absolutely endorse all these pledges in full. We need to work hard to make the Labour Party a safe space once again for the Jewish community. …

Emily Thornberry


Without hesitation or qualification, I sign up to every one of these pledges. …

In an interview with Sky‘s Sophy Ridge, Ms Long-Bailey said she would adopt the Board’s ten pledges “straight away”. The Board of Deputies condemned the “conspicuous absence” of Clive Lewis, Dawn Butler and Richard Burgon. – @labourlewis @RichardBurgon and @DawnButlerBrent absent from the list of those who have signed the #TenPledges to tackle antisemitism in Labour


It is extraordinary that would be leaders of the Labour Party could even think about adopting those ten pledges. I am one of many who believe that such total and mindless capitulation to the Board of Deputies of British Jews would make Labour even more unelectable.  The IHRA’s definition and examples of antisemitism effectively allows those supportive of the state of Israel and its subjugation of the people of Palestine to charge antisemitism whenever anyone criticises Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. It allows for the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

Kenneth Stern, the respected Jewish author of the definition has himself condemned the use of it by the pro-Israel lobby for using it ‘as a guide to what is or isn’t antisemitic’ and to silence free speech on Israel.  In an article ‘Why the man who drafted the IHRA definition condemns its use’, George Wilmers wrote: 

Despite a general belief to the contrary and its “adoption” by the UK government, the IHRA definition has no legal status in the UK, and for very good reason: as has been highlighted by leading legal authorities such as Hugh Tomlinson and Stephen Sedley, not only is it not a proper definition for legal purposes, but its legal adoption by any public authority would conflict with existing protected rights of free expression guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Nevertheless such is the power of the propaganda campaign for the IHRA cult that, abandoning rational considerations, the leadership of the Labour party have felt obliged to make obeisance to the IHRA’s holy status, even while discretely seeking to modify the text in order to mitigate some of its draconian effects.  Jewish Voice for Labour –  2 August 2118

But, the enthusiastic endorsement and adoption of the 10 pledges by those aspiring to lead the Labour Party is extraordinary for other reasons also.

First, those leadership contenders are accepting that the Labour Party is ‘institutionally antisemitic’ simply because the Board of Deputies and the pro-Israel lobby say so.  They appear not to be interested in the evidence and whether on the basis of that evidence the charge of antisemitism in Labour is justified. As early as March 2019, Jewish Voice for Labour published statistics on complaints of antisemitism and how they were being dealt with (See piece from Labour Briefing March 2019 at the end of this paper).

Jewish Voice for Labour noted that 453 allegations of antisemitism were being followed up by Labour:

‘453 is 0.08% of the party’s 540,000 members – that’s about 1/12th of 1%; 96 of these resulted in suspensions – that’s 0.01%, or 1/100th of 1% of members; there were twelve expulsions – that’s 0.002%, or 1/500th of 1% of members! ….these are vanishingly small statistics, especially when you consider that 2-5% of the general population are considered to be antisemitic…..Margaret Hodge MP was informed by Jennie Formby (general secretary of Jewish Voice for Labour) that of the 200 dossiers of cases of antisemitism she had submitted, only 20 were found to be by Labour Party members. In other words, her allegations of antisemitism in the party had been exaggerated tenfold. And single handedly she accounted for approaching one fifth of all referrals. Headlines proclaiming there was “no safe place for Jews in Corbyn’s Labour”, or that Labour needed, in the words of Marie van de Zyl, when vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to “drain the cesspit of antisemitism”, have been shown to be contradicted by the evidence……. If the facts are at such odds with the accounts of leading politicians and mainstream media, there can be only one explanation – these accounts are driven by ulterior political agendas. Other forms of racism, for which manifestations in the UK are 70 times more prevalent than those for antisemitism, barely get a mention. (my emphasis)’

Yet, the President of the Board of Deputies, could write in the last week:

“It beggars belief that after four and a half years of failure on antisemitism, Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler still think that they know better than the Jewish community how to fight this vile prejudice.  No other minority would be treated in this way and this sort of thing is the very reason why Labour is being investigated for institutional antisemitism by the EHRC. In the Deputy Leadership election, members now have a clear choice about whether they want to become a credible party of opposition or waste yet more years fighting the Jewish community about who gets to define our oppression.  …..”

One wonders where Marie van de Zyl has been these last few decades and how she and the Board of Deputies of British Jews could possibly claim to be qualified To deliver anti-racism education programmes that have been approved by the Jewish Labour Movement, which would lead training’, especially if she could so unashamedly assert that  ‘No other minority would be treated in this way…’. 

Dawn Butler is a black woman and an MP in Brent of all places.  

For its part, the EHRC has failed to call to account the many schools across the land that have no regard for the public sector equality duty of the Equality Act 2010 and have no policy in place for implementing the duty.  It has failed to investigate schools, academies in particular, for the disproportionate number of young people they are excluding, black boys in particular. It has failed to investigate the phenomenon of black people meeting their death while in the custody of the state, with no one ever being found guilty of malicious neglect, manslaughter, or murder since police in West Yorkshire were convicted of grievous bodily harm after killing the street sleeper, David Oluwale and kicking his body into a river in 1969, despite the 700 black people who have met their deaths while in custody, or being detained in immigration lockups in the last three decades.

Maybe Ms van de Zyl might like to study the Institute of Race Relations harrowing report on this in preparation for delivering their ‘anti-racism education programme’.

Against the backcloth of discrimination routinely suffered by black people in public bodies as defined by the Equality Act 2010, in sport and in cultural industries and given the statistical data available to the Labour Party and to the EHRC, it is disturbing that that watchdog could justify its investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party, given its abject failure to hold organisations to account for racism. And Islamophobia.

The sectarian antiracism of those who shout the loudest

The Board of Deputies wants the Labour Party to engage with the Jewish community via its “main representative groups and not through fringe organisations” such as Jewish Voice for Labour.  The Jewish community is not a homogenous collective and ‘main representative groups’ certainly do not have a mandate to speak for all Jews in the so-called Jewish community.  In any event, why should the Labour Party allow the Board of Deputies to dictate to it who in the ‘Jewish community’ it should engage with and how?

I suspect the truth is that the Board of Deputies and the pro-Israeli lobby have set themselves up as foghorns for the state of Israel and any Jews or/and Jewish organisations that do not subscribe to that agenda are off-message and are to be sidelined not just by them, but by the Labour Party also.  That is why they insist on using and demanding that the Labour Party use the defunct IHRA definition of antisemitism.

The Labour Party is being asked to pledge ‘to prevent re-admittance of prominent offenders’.  I struggle to see how this becomes the business of the Board of Deputies rather than that of policymakers and members in the Labour Party. The same goes for the demand that no platform should be provided for those suspended or expelled for antisemitism.  The Board of Deputies of British Jews stopped just short of an 11th pledge, i.e., mandate them to run the Labour Party by proxy.  For, surely, this would be a logical step in the light of the other 10 pledges and of their unquestioning and enthusiastic acceptance by contenders for the Labour leadership.

But then, this is not the first time that ‘the Jewish community’ has been encouraged to see itself as sitting at the apex of a pyramid of oppression.  Following the Labour election victory in 1997, thereby coming out of the Thatcher wilderness after 19 years, I was asked by Tony Blair to help establish a Race Relations Forum to advise Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, on matters of race and social exclusion.  There came a point when the Forum was asked to consider a proposal for a Holocaust Remembrance Day. Some of us argued passionately that:

  • while the Jewish holocaust was part of relatively recent history, the fact that over 400 years millions of Africans suffered genocide and sheer barbarism as their existential reality in Africa itself and in the trade in enslaved Africans
  • Britain refashioned the plantation system and eventually withdrew to form the club of Europe, leaving the descendants of enslaved Africans in its now forgotten colonies impoverished and constituting a reserve pool of labour
  • given that those drawn from that pool to help rebuild Britain after two devastating world wars were experiencing a society that steadfastly refused to confront the legacy of empire and the racism concomitant with it, Britain should not contemplate establishing and funding a Holocaust Memorial Day solely to mark the Jewish holocaust.

There was clearly no appetite in government for acknowledging the African holocaust and its complicity in genocide and the protracted brutalisation of Africans at home and in the diaspora.  What is more, civil servants were advising that a Slavery Memorial Day would no doubt encourage strident shouts for an apology for the enslavement of Africans, for British imperialism and for reparations.  In quick time, the first Holocaust Remembrance Day was planned and observed, later being marked annually with pageantry in cities outside London.

To this day, not only has there been no Slavery Remembrance Day, the British government has announced that it cannot afford to fund a monument in London.  Although the charity Memorial 2007 had planning permission to erect a sculpture in Hyde Park to remember the victims of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, the government reckoned it did not have the £4m needed to fund it.  Instead, the charity had to settle for these encouraging words from government:

“We are supportive of the aims of the monument and the organisation. The suffering caused by slavery and the slave trade are among the most dishonourable and abhorrent chapters in human history.”

Meanwhile, the government has pledged its support for a Holocaust Memorial, estimated to cost £100m.  In 2015 the government committed £50 million to the project ‘to kick-start a society-wide fundraising effort’.  On 7 May 2019, the then Prime Minister Theresa May was joined by the 4 living former Prime Ministers – Sir John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron – to back the proposal for the Holocaust Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens beside parliament ‘to ensure we never forget one of the darkest chapters in human history’.

Prime Minister Theresa May said:

‘By putting our National Holocaust Memorial and Education Centre next to our Parliament, we make a solemn and eternal promise that Britain will never forget what happened in the Holocaust…. And this education centre will ensure that every generation understands the responsibility that we all share – to fight against hatred and prejudice in all its forms, wherever it is found’.

Announcing that the government was committing a further £25 million to the new National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, Communities Secretary the Rt Hon James Brokenshire MP said:

I believe there can be no more powerful symbol of our commitment to remembering the men, women and children who were murdered in the Holocaust and subsequent genocides than by placing the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, in the shadow of our Parliament at the heart of our democracy…The United Kingdom Holocaust Memorial is dedicated to the 6 million Jewish men, women and children murdered in the Holocaust and all other victims of the Nazis and their collaborators’.

So, £75m is provided without sweat or fuss for a Holocaust Memorial, a holocaust in which Britain was not involved, save for welcoming survivors, attending to their welfare and helping them rebuild their lives. The baddies were those Nazis to whom of course Britain is considerably more morally superior.  However, Britain owning its own genocide and atrocities against Africans over centuries and assisting current and future generations, especially white British, to understand the society and themselves against that historical canvass is an entirely different matter.

Commenting on the results of the Race Disparity Audit she commissioned in October 2017, Theresa May had this to say:

People who have lived with discrimination don’t need a government audit to make them aware of the scale of the challenge. But this audit means that for society as a whole – for government, for our public services – there is nowhere to hide. These issues are now out in the open. And the message is very simple: if these disparities cannot be explained then they must be changed. Britain has come a long way in my lifetime in spreading equality and opportunity. But the data we are publishing will provide the definitive evidence of how far we must still go in order to truly build a country that works for everyone.”

David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission commented: 

The findings of the race audit do not come as a shock to us. The Prime Minister should be applauded for laying out this information for all to see and we now need to use to the data to set the foundations for real change….”The Government must tackle the significant disparities confirmed by the audit in order to address the entrenched inequality that is so prevalent in our society.”

Despite all of that, however, shamefully and totally without compunction, the British government has declared that it has no intention of engaging with the UN Declaration on the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) and putting in place a programme of policies and actions consonant with the theme of Recognition, Justice and Development.  In proclaiming the Decade, the UN cited:

the need to strengthen national, regional and international cooperation in relation to the full enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights by people of African descent, and their full and equal participation in all aspects of society’.

The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1857) famously said:

Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them!

The Board of Deputies and the pro-Israel lobby clearly know the benefits of shouting the loudest and not quietly submitting to anything.  There are inherent dangers, however, in laying claim to a victim status that engenders a sectarian view of oppression and measures to combat it and a belief in your entitlement to see the world from your pinnacle in the hierarchy of oppression you construct in the process.

I firmly believe that the Board of Deputies’ 10 pledges and the adoption of them by the leadership of the Labour Party will cause deep resentment in the Party and country and is likely to lead to worse forms of antisemitism.  

Given his endorsement of the Chief Rabbi’s intervention in the run up to the general election, for all the reasons given above, I call upon the Archbishop of Canterbury to condemn the sectarianism and foul bullying by the Board of Deputies and the pro-Israel lobby among British Jews and their not so veiled attack on freedom of speech and the right of people, Labour Party members or not, to protest Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people and the complicity of its allies in that.  If the Church is about justice and sowing peace and if it believes in the sanctity of life and the right of everyone to live with respect and dignity and to have their human rights safeguarded, then surely in the same way that Justin Welby saw fit to endorse the Chief Rabbi’s intervention before the December election, he has a duty to comment on how sinister, undemocratic and deeply divisive the current political arm twisting and attempts at silencing opposition to their agenda actually is.

For example, is the Board of Deputies demanding that ALL political parties adopt their 10 pledges?  If not, why not? Do they know how many people with antisemitic sentiments are members of those other parties?  When the President of the Board denounces Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler for not signing on to the 10 pledges as their fellow contenders rushed to do and says ‘no other minority would be treated in this way’, is she not denying or reconstructing the experience of all those who routinely face discrimination and marginalisation in the society and all sorts of hate crime, including racially aggravated harassment, assault, criminal damage and even murder?  Is it being suggested that antisemitism trumps all those horrendous experiences that African and Asian people, Roma and Gypsies, have been suffering in the society and its institutions since the second world war, at least? Where is there any acknowledgment of these stark and well known facts by the Board of Deputies?  How is it even possible for the President of the Board to make such a crass statement?  

It is all good and well for the Board of Deputies, the government and the Church of the establishment to condemn the antisemitic conduct of individuals and groups, whether Labour Party members or not.  They have long maintained a shrill silence, however, on the structural racism now embedded in the system as experienced by African and Asian heritage people for over half a century in the form of racist immigration laws, a climate created by government in which the country is encouraged to regard every African or Asian, Roma or Gypsy as potentially an illegal immigrant (‘Go Home or Face Arrest’), ‘sus’ laws, Prevent, school exclusions, harsher sentences for black offenders, black youth unemployment and much more besides.  It is that silence and a preoccupation with the vile antisemitic acts of individuals, or groups of individuals, that allows the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews to make the utterly ridiculous claim that ‘…after four and a half years of failure on antisemitism, Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler still think that they know better than the Jewish community how to fight this vile prejudice.  No other minority would be treated in this way and this sort of thing is the very reason why Labour is being investigated for institutional antisemitism by the EHRC’.

The Muslim Council of Britain has come up with its own 10 pledges or manifesto commitments for the new Labour leadership. Perhaps every historically oppressed group on every rung of that pyramid of oppression atop of which the Jewish community sits should follow suit and get the Labour Party to commit to adopting their respective 10 pledges.

These are matters for serious debate and it requires us to challenge the Board of Deputies and the pro-Israel lobby for what is essentially an attack on our freedom and a denial of the experience of racism of huge swathes of the population and not just the 450,000 Jewish people in the UK.

Professor Gus John

International Consultant and Executive Coach

20 January 2020