‘ “Hitler had a valid argument against some Jews”: Repertoires for the denial of antisemitism in Facebook discussion of a survey of attitudes to Jews and Israel’ (now in print)

My article ‘ “Hitler had a valid argument against some Jews”: repertoires for the denial of antisemitism in Facebook discussion of a survey of attitudes to Jews and Israel’, which was published online in April this year, has now appeared in the August issue of Discourse, Context & Media. It explains the background to the antisemitism crisis that has now engulfed the Labour Party leadership, then analyses some of the ways in which Labour supporters deny the existence of antisemitism before looking at how the largest unofficial Labour Party Facebook group makes the problem worse by readily expelling those who challenge antisemitism but only expelling antisemites for extreme transgressions.


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How many ‘centrists’ are there? (On Twitter and off it)

‘Centrists,’ Jeremy Corbyn’s former official spokesman tells us, ‘love being talked down to by people in power as it provides false reassurance that they must be better than them.’ The centrist, another Corbynite B-lister explains, ‘has the weary, lecturing tone of a frustrated parent absolutely nailed on.’ But why be so mealy mouthed? As the man who came closer than anyone to embodying the spirit of the ongoing neo-Tankie renaissance memorably put it, ‘better a thousand honest fascists than some glistening sleaze who’s “neither left nor right.”‘

Is it wise to alienate voters who don’t identify with the left or the right? Some have taken last year’s general election result to demonstrate that it is. The Hammer of the Moderates himself, Owen Jones, has argued that an appeal to moderation can make no electoral sense ‘at a time when more than 80% of the electorate voted for a left-led Labour party or the Brexiteer Tories.’ But given that Labour lost that election by a wider margin of seats than it did under Gordon Brown, that argument seems a little odd. Surely losing an election to the Conservatives after publicly abandoning the centre doesn’t indicate that publicly abandoning the centre was the right thing for Labour to do?

But I think I’ve got it figured out now. These people live their lives on Twitter, where the best way of getting your voice heard is to start a fight that others will want to join in. Moderation never gets much traction there. It’s not like in the outside world:


Data courtesy of the British Election Study.

Voters in the 2017 general election – and how they voted previously

This is the third and final part of my preliminary analysis of groups of voters defined by the choices they made in the 2015 general election, the 2016 European Union membership referendum, and the 2017 general election (c.f. Stephen Bush’s nine voter groups), using an English subset of responses to the British Election Study’s post-election face-to-face survey. In the first part, I looked at the ten largest groups, from Conservative-Leave-Conservative to Conservative-Remain-Labour, both in terms of their size and in terms of their self-declared likelihood to vote for various parties in future, and found that Labour Remainers were not only more numerous but (on their own assessment) more likely to be poached than Labour Leavers, while the smaller group of Conservative Remainers who had switched to voting Labour were quite likely to switch again. In the second part, I looked at six groups of voters who had in common that they could have voted but did not in the 2015 general election, finding that most of them did not vote either in the 2016 referendum or the 2017 general election, and that only the minority who voted Remain in the 2016 referendum were more likely than not to have voted in the 2017 general election.

To finish up for now, here’s a single chart showing all voter groups which participated in the 2017 general election (weighted by demographic group and by 2017 vote). Each quarter of the chart below shows the members of the sample who voted for one of the four main parties. These voters are further subdivided into columns to show how they voted in the referendum and into coloured blocks to show who they voted for in 2015 (note that black covers both non-voting and voting outside the four main parties, which most often meant voting Green as the data are from England only):

Voters in the 2017 general election - and how they voted previously

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Non-voters from the 2015 general election and what they did next

On Friday, I posted some analysis of groups of English voters defined by the combinations of choices they made in a succession of votes. That was the first installment of a multi-part response to Stephen Bush’s recent article on why we should stop focusing so obsessively on people who voted Labour in 2015 and then voted to leave the European Union in 2016. I’d now like to take a look at those who didn’t vote at all in the 2015 general election.

Excluding those who did not vote because they were ineligible, there were 290 GE2015 non-voters in the dataset that I’m using: an English subset of the post-election 2017 face-to-face survey carried out as part of the long-running and hugely respected British Election Study. The 290 become 311 or more if we weight for demographic group, as I did for Friday’s analysis – which indicates that the non-voters were from demographic groups that were under-represented in the sample as a whole. (It’s only slightly less difficult to get non-voters to answer a survey than it is to get them into a polling booth, as we see from the fact that just 15% of the sample did not vote in an election with 66% turnout.) But because 290 is a small sample and weighting tends to magnify the effect of sampling error, I’ve used unweighted counts throughout this post (not that weighting made an appreciable difference to any of the patterns I will talk about below). The following alluvial diagram (created using the R package, ggalluvial) tracks the voting behaviour of sampled 2015 non-voters post-2015:

The subsequent voting behaviour of 2015 General Election non-voters

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Ten voter groups: combinations of EU referendum and general election votes in the BES 2017 face-to-face survey

Like many, I read with interest Stephen Bush’s recent article on ‘The nine voter groups who are more important than Labour Leavers’. If Bush were a grant awarding institution, there would be money available for researching those groups. Well, he isn’t, so there isn’t, but I like a challenge so I’m going to make a start anyway – using open data from the British Election Study (henceforth, BES). To be more specific, I’ll be using the BES 2017 face-to-face survey, which was conducted after the election and uses what should probably be considered a more genuinely random sample than the online waves.

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‘Hitler had a valid argument against some Jews’: repertoires for the denial of antisemitism in Facebook discussion of a survey of attitudes to Jews and Israel (manuscript draft)

This manuscript has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed academic journal, Discourse, Context & Media. By agreement with the publisher, it can be distributed on this website. For offline reading, a PDF copy is available for download (although if you wish to share it with others, please direct them to this page rather than sending the file directly). EDIT (13 April 2018): The version of record is now available online via ScienceDirect at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcm.2018.03.004 ahead of print publication. EDIT (4 August 2018): The article has appeared in the August issue of Discourse, Context & Media (vol. 24), and is available online at the same address (although now with correct pagination).

Author: Daniel Allington, University of Leicester
Journal: Discourse, Context & Media
Received at editorial office: 11 Dec 2017
Article revised: 16 Mar 2018
Article accepted for publication: 21 Mar 2018
Article available online via ScienceDirect: 12 April 2018
Article available in print: 21 July 2018

Bibliographic reference: Allington, D. (2018) ‘ “Hitler had a valid argument against some Jews”: Repertoires for the denial of antisemitism in Facebook discussion of a survey of attitudes to Jews and Israel’. Discourse, Context, and Media 24: 129-136.


Discourse analytic research suggests that, in contemporary liberal democracies, complaints of racism are routinely rejected and prejudice may be both expressed and disavowed in the same breath. Historical and quantitative research has established that – both in democratic states and in those of the Soviet Bloc (while it existed) – antisemitism has long been related to or expressed in the form of statements about Israel or Zionism, permitting anti-Jewish attitudes to circulate under cover of political critique. This article looks at how the findings of a survey of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli attitudes were rejected by users of three Facebook pages associated with the British Left. Through thematic discourse analysis, three recurrent repertoires are identified: firstly, what David Hirsh calls the ‘Livingstone Formulation’ (i.e. the argument that complaints of antisemitism are made in bad faith to protect Israel and/or attack the Left), secondly, accusations of flawed methodology similar to those with which UK Labour Party supporters routinely dismiss the findings of unfavourable opinion polls, and thirdly, the argument that, because certain classically antisemitic beliefs pertain to a supposed Jewish or ‘Zionist’ elite and not to Jews in general, they are not antisemitic. In one case, the latter repertoire facilitates virtually unopposed apologism for Adolf Hitler. Contextual evidence suggests that the dominance of such repertoires within one very large UK Labour Party-aligned group may be the result of action on the part of certain ‘admins’ or moderators. It is argued that awareness of the repertoires used to express and defend antisemitic attitudes should inform the design of quantitative research into the latter, and be taken account of in the formulation of policy measures aiming to restrict or counter hate speech (in social media and elsewhere).

Keywords: anti-Semitism; anti-Zionism; denial of racism; attitudes; Zionism; Israel; Jews; Labour Party; Facebook; social media

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The leftward-marching Labour Party and the unmoving British electorate

Last year, I did some analysis of how respondents to surveys carried out as part of the British Election Study placed themselves and the main British political parties on a left-right scale. This suggested that, despite what the election results might lead one to expect, there appeared to be no leftward shift amongst voters between the 2015 and 2017 general elections, although there was a strong leftward shift in their perceptions of the Labour Party. One thing I couldn’t explore using the type of analysis and visualisation I carried out there is whether the same people were identifying themselves and the two main parties with the Left, the Right, and the Centre, or whether it was different people but in similar numbers. Because the BES is a longitudinal study, repeatedly surveying the same individuals (so far as is possible), we can reasonably ask this question. But how can we answer it? One way is by using alluvial diagrams, a form of visualisation developed in order to visualise change over time. (If you want to know how to make your own, there’s a guide to creating alluvial diagrams with R in the longer version of this article.)

Self-ratings on the left-right political scale in BES waves 5 and 12
Self-ratings on the left-right political scale in BES waves 5 and 12

This alluvial diagram shows that people tended to give the same answers in 2015 and 2017, and that any movement tended to be balanced by approximately equal movement in the other direction, except in that there was more movement from the Right to the Centre than from the Centre to the Right (despite which, the Right remained larger than the Left overall). This supports the view that there was no leftwards shift on the part of the electorate between 2015 and 2017. But what about the major parties?

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The unnoticed rise of the centrist voter (and what it means for Labour)

Centrist dads, eh? (And presumably also centrist mums, although abusing them on behalf of the Absolute Boy might sound less like striking a feminist blow against patriarchy.) How wrong they were! They were so sure that Labour was going to lose the election, when as everyone now knows… well, actually, Labour did lose, but never mind — the centrists were still wrong. Slugs! By refusing to compromise on his left wing principles, Jeremy Corbyn shifted the Overton Window, opened up some clear red water between Labour and the Tories, and flipped social liberals for Socialism. In losing the election by a mere 55 seats out of a possible 650, he achieved total vindication for his strategy, and proved that he only has to do more of the same in order to find himself at the head of the Government after the next election (unlike — say — Gordon Brown, who lost by 48 seats and resigned, the melt). Onward, comrades! Onward to Socialism!

Now, I don’t believe that many people primarily choose whether or not to vote for a party to vote on the basis of how ‘left’ or ‘right’ they believe it to be. But ideas of leftness and rightness provide people with a way of summarising their relationships with political parties, and for this reason, I think it’s worth paying attention to the answers they give to survey questions about where they place themselves and the major parties on the left-right spectrum. And so we come to waves 5 and 12 of the British Election Study (or BES), in which a staggering 30725 and 34464 respondents took part immediately prior to the UK General Elections of 2015 and 2017. In the following chart, based on BES data, the grey areas show how people identified themselves, while the red and blue lines show how they typically situated the Labour Party and the Conservative Party on the same axis (respectively).1


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Antisemitism and the misuse of statistics

Last week saw the publication of a very strange report entitled ‘How serious is the threat of antisemitism in Britain today?’ and published on the website of the controversial Jewish Voice for Labour group. It was written by Alan Maddison, an ‘independent strategist’ and associate member of the group with a history of previous attempts to discredit claims of antisemitism. Maddison begins by noting some recent media headlines about antisemitism, and then proceeds to set out the following position:

A review of the latest evidence, presented here, suggests that these headlines are unnecessarily alarmist. The pro rata risks for assaults are lower for Jewish people than for those from other races or religions. The increase in antisemitic hate crimes reported to the police is around half that reported for other victim groups. Finally, a Jewish person is 50 times more likely to be the victim of a general assault than one motivated by antisemitism

Having set out this position, Maddison promises to ‘review the latest evidence behind these more reassuring statements, and place antisemitic hate crime in a broader perspective’. Unfortunately, the way in which he does so discredits the entire enterprise, and calls into question Jewish Voice for Labour’s motivations in publishing his report.

I’ll go through Maddison’s arguments one by one.

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The left, the right, the centre – and what they care about most

Why did people vote as they did in the June 2017 UK general election, and how might they vote in the next one — whenever it comes? One of the best sources of information on that question is wave 13 of the British Election Study: a very large survey conducted just after the election for a consortium of academics at the University of Manchester, the University of Oxford, and the University of Nottingham. Altogether 31196 respondents completed the survey, of whom 27019 (after weighting) answered the question ‘As far as you’re concerned, what is the SINGLE MOST important issue facing the country at the present time?’ and 23194 (again after weighting) identified themselves politically by positioning themselves on an eleven point scale from left to right. 21213 both placed themselves on the scale and gave their view on the most important issue. I’ve been working with this dataset for a little while, looking at how demographic variables predict perceptions of the most important issue (see my earlier post for my initial exploration of this topic), but here I’d like to focus on the association of particular issues with particular positions on the political spectrum:


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