Labour — no time for retreat

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Islington Stand Up To Racism called a vigil the day after an antisemitic attack

The disgraceful decision to suspend Chris Williamson MP from the Labour Party in connection with the antisemitism witch-hunt is the latest capitulation to the right and puts the whole of the Corbyn project in jeopardy. It follows hard on the heels of the retreat over a second referendum on Brexit and the defection of the so-called Independent Group.

All this against the background of Theresa May attempting to square the circle of conflicting Tory views over Brexit. Instead of taking the opportunity of her crisis to promote an alternative socialist vision of society Labour is turning in on itself and demonising its own members.

The defection of the Independent Group, while in itself of minimal significance, has caused destabilisation and disorientation in Labour ranks that is being exploited by more serious enemies like Tom Watson who have remained inside the party. The concessions that have been forced from the leadership put Corbyn in an even more vulnerable position. The right has been emboldened and is in full cry aided and abetted by the mainstream media and “soft left” political commentators like Owen Jones.

Their principle weapon is egregious allegations of antisemitism and one of their objectives is to reverse the Brexit referendum result in line with the wishes of big business and the European ruling class and in the process to undermine Corbyn’s leadership.

If there is a second referendum, and there is no guarantee of a majority for one in parliament, there could well be a backlash against Labour in Leave-voting constituencies and there would certainly be a vicious campaign that would play into the hands of the racists and the far right. If Corbyn fails to secure another referendum he will be pilloried by the Remainers for being too slow and too half-hearted in arguing for one.

The two wings of the opposition to Corbyn may have differing positions on the EU, but they have more in common than divides them. They all want to undermine Corbyn’s leadership and are openly declaring him unfit to be prime minister; they are all neoliberals economically, opposed to the Labour manifesto’s policies of nationalisation and rejection of austerity and they are both using the allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party as a principle weapon in their fight.

It is the issue of antisemitism that is proving to be the most damaging. It is entrenched in the folk narrative of contemporary Labour politics and the accusations that Corbyn has not done enough to eradicate it have stuck. The allegations are false and require a robust rebuttal. The main source of antisemitism both historically and currently are the politics of the far right throughout Europe, including Britain.

The left has traditionally been and is currently a bulwark against all forms of racism including antisemitism. It should go without saying that any form of antisemitism or conspiracy theory using antisemitic tropes in any organisation should be met with immediate expulsion, but the way in which the issue is being used presents a number of obvious problems. It is almost as if the allegations alone are taken as proof.

Jewish socialist Jon Berry has written a highly personal and insightful blog post, “Oh I get it now. I’m an anti-Semite because you said I am. Sorry to be so dim.” He turns the accusation on its head by articulating his disappointment over the way Corbyn has handled the issue — but not in the way his accusers want to hear: “My regret resides in the fact that the moment this ugly farce started he didn’t tell people to get back in their box and take their accusations elsewhere…taking a backward step when someone with impeccable credentials on equality and anti-racism is traduced in this way only encourages even more egregious behaviour and unscrupulous conduct.”

This is the kind of advice that needs to be taken to heart. It is the left that responds vigorously and with alacrity to all forms of racist attacks including antisemitism. It is the left, under the auspices of Stand Up to Racism that held a number of very successful Holocaust Memorial Meetings last month. This is the tradition that Corbyn has always been associated with and we should be more assertive of our proud record.

We are not privy to the internal workings of the Labour Party investigations into the allegations of antisemitism, but we know that many of those referred turned out not to be members of the Labour Party at all. Infamously, Margaret Hodge, one of Corbyn’s most implacable tormentors and who has outrageously denounced him as antisemitic, referred 200 cases referring to 111 individuals, of whom only 20 were actually Labour Party members. The complaints submitted involve about 0.1 percent of the membership. Of course that is too many, but it puts things in perspective.

Jenny Formby, Labour general secretary has reported in detail how the investigations are progressed and what the outcomes have been. For this she was roundly abused by the sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Tom Watson made the ludicrous suggestion that Corbyn himself should take personal responsibility for the oversight of the complaints, thus undermining due process and proper investigation.

Of course this is not primarily about antisemitism. It is about the way in which antisemitism is conflated with criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights. Many of the defectors have openly argued that identifying the Israeli state as a “racist endeavour” is inherently antisemitic. One indication of this came in the wake of the defection of the Independent Group when some Labour students posted “Joan Ryan goes. Palestine Lives”. This was immediately condemned as antisemitic by another of Corbyn’s critics, Jess Phillips. When she was taken to task by author Michael Rosen, who challenged her description, she accused him of “shit-stirring”. Unfortunately the opposition are emboldened in their attacks by Labour’s adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism last year, which links it explicitly to criticism of the nature of the Israeli state.

Our response to this must be to continue to defend the Palestinians and to be unwavering in our criticisms of the actions of the Israeli state.

The extent to which these attacks have put the Labour leadership on the back foot is exemplified by the response from Corbyn’s own allies. John McDonnell argued that not enough action was being taken over the allegations and that Labour needs to be “quicker and fiercer”. Jon Lansman, the leader of Momentum, suggested that hard-core antisemitism was polluting the atmosphere of Constituency Labour Parties. These concessions to the right only weaken Corbyn’s position and pave the way for further retreats.

We cannot predict how the parliamentary pantomime over Brexit will play out, but the extent to which it is distracting Labour from its main focus does not augur well. The alternative approach, exemplified by the Labour rally in Broxtowe, the marginal constituency of Anna Soubry — one of the Tory defectors to the Independent Group — shows what can be achieved when the Labour leadership return to the agenda that proved so successful during the last election campaign.

A clear anti-austerity message, a determination to pursue the popular policies of nationalisation of transport and the utilities, a decent living wage and affordable housing, active opposition to the far right and all forms of racism — these are the issues that can put Corbyn on the front foot. In doing so the limited threat from the defectors and the far greater threat from those opponents who have stayed inside Labour can be neutralised.