A New Place Of Exile

Richard Hutton

Category: Goings on in the Labour Party

How should the Left respond to Keir Starmer’s leadership? A look at the options

How can the Left respond most effectively to Keir Starmer’s appointment as leader of the Labour Party?

An array of possible options:

A) Announce their refusal to serve in his shadow cabinet, then complain when they’re not offered a shadow-cabinet post.

B) Make snide comments about him during interviews to the Times, Telegraph, Sun, Guardian, Observer, BBC, New Statesman, Daily Mail.

C) Pretend to have sworn at one of his prominent allies.

D) Denounce Labour Party members in florid terms.

E) Threaten to resign from Parliament if he doesn’t step down.

F) Send derisive texts about him during Parliamentary meetings, to journalists at the Huffington Post.

G) Announce their resignation from ministerial roles, on live television.

H) Resign en masse, and launch an ineffectual leadership challenge.

I) Blame him for every instance of online misbehaviour any supporter of his engages in.

J) Conduct a protest-march of MPs, over a minor disciplinary case.

K) Join cynically-contrived demonstrations against their own party.

L) Leak photos of him sharing the company of somebody controversial, to the GuidoFawkes site.

M) Claim that even the simplest policy announcements he makes are incomprehensible.

N) Claim that his most sophisticated policies are too dumb.

O) Complain that he’s too radical.

P) Complain that he’s too moderate.

Q) Suggest that he’s not opposing the government enough.

R) Suggest that he’s opposing the government too much.

S) Leak the party’s manifesto ahead of a General Election.

T) Take selfies with members of the government.

U) Exhort people to vote for the government.

V) Flounce off, and form a new Centrist party.

W) Flounce off, and take jobs with the government.

X) When they do well off the back of his popularity, claim it’s entirely due to their own merits.

Y) When they do badly in an election, attribute 100% of the blame to him.

Z) Continuously tweet that a different leader of the Opposition would be 20 points ahead of the government.

Or…

Support Starmer constructively: be critical of the bad, and supportive of any good. Lobby tirelessly for what should be done. Try to draw the Shadow Cabinet towards worthwhile policies – which will improve the Labour Party, and life for people in Britain. And not give up.

People are free to make their own minds up.

Why Chris Williamson needs to step down as an MP – for everyone’s sake, including his own.

It is slightly unclear why the latest round of furore over Labour and anti-Semitism has begun.

However, it coincides with the efforts of Labour MPs to obviate the party’s belated Democracy Review.

It also dovetails with the Tory leadership contest, having entered its final stage [1].

 

What served as the pretext this time was the brief reinstatement, and resuspension, of Chris Williamson MP – a noted advocate of the Democracy Review.

Much to the chagrin of an inevitably anonymous series of his peers, Williamson had joked that he wanted to see a number of them being de-selected; which, unsurprisingly, did not prove endearing.

However, Williamson had initially been suspended from the party in February 2019; after reportedly saying “Labour has been ‘too apologetic’ about antisemitism”, as the Guardian’s headline puts it.

That is not a fair reflection of Williamson’s remarks, as can be seen from watching the Guardian’s own video. What he had said is that:

“The party that has done more to stand up to racism is now being demonised as a racist, bigoted party.

I’ve got to say I think our party’s response has been partly responsible for that, you know. Because in my opinion…I’ve got to say, we’ve backed off far too much, we’ve given too much ground, we’ve been too apologetic…

And we’ve done more to actually address the scourge of anti-Semitism than any other political party” [2].

Needless to say, referring to anti-Semitism as a “scourge” hardly indicates sympathy for the prejudice.

It is also pretty clear that Williamson was not suggesting Labour had been too apologetic about anti-Semitism – but that it had been too willing to accept accusations of being a racist party.

That is perhaps a matter of opinion.

Nonetheless, the issue evidently has been used to try and undermine Jeremy Corbyn personally, and Labour more generally, by their political opponents.

This is a point Williamson can be heard making in the more expansive video of his speech, uploaded by the Daily Mail – which, oddly enough, was more accurate with its headline than the Guardian had been.

Although its accompanying article was somewhat less exact.

 

It may be tempting, then, to be supportive of Williamson – but I don’t agree that this is merited. It is important to watch the video of Williamson speaking.

It is fair to say that the media’s coverage of these matters is unhelpful, and frequently wide of the mark. Or something far worse, at times. Likewise, that people involved in Labour’s leadership, including Corbyn, have often made life needlessly difficult for themselves.

But then, that is all anyone needs to say. It does not necessitate rabble-rousing, or histrionics. Williamson’s tone is way over the top, and beyond insensitive. That’s not good enough as conduct to begin with – particularly given the circumstances.

Neither is it an anomaly for Williamson; who has repeatedly made ill-considered gestures, and thoughtless remarks – indifferent to any wider personal impact, or political repercussions, these might have. Often being very blithe in the process [3].

He is not alone in that respect among Labour politicians. Nor is it difficult to demonstrate that the behaviour of Williamson and similar personalities has proven damaging to themselves, as well as to Corbyn – and Labour – in a way that mudslinging has not.

 

There has been a very obvious campaign of denunciation run against Jeremy Corbyn; which began once it became apparent that he might win the Labour leadership contest of 2015.

According to one commentator alone, Corbyn is variously implicated in anti-Semitism, while being an intolerant populist, a purveyor of Stalinesque elitism, and a hard-left conservative [4].

Elsewhere, Corbyn has been accused of overseeing a Trotskyite uprising, being a secret supporter of Brexit, and personally responsible for Brexit, an apologist for the IRA, an apologist for Islamist terrorism; and even the informant for a Czech spy.

No doubt, all from the confines of his allotment [5].

 

In fact, disparaging claims against Corbyn have centered on a remarkably wide variety of issues.

When he opposed the continued underpayment of European agency workers, Labour politicians likened him to Nigel Farage.

When he spoke up in defence of migrants at his party’s conference, Labour politicians complained that he was not listening to the public’s supposed concerns about immigration.

He’s wrong to prioritise Labour Party members over the public, said the Observer newspaper in September 2016.

He’s wrong to prioritise the public over Labour Party members, said the same paper two years later.

He’s not appealing enough to the middle class.

He’s appealing too much to the middle class.

Corbyn is a red Tory. A right-wing sell-out (a Blairite, it notes in the URL); who doesn’t care about the problems faced by people on low wages, says the journalist John Rentoul.

Corbyn is an anti-Capitalist, who is insufficiently grovelling towards companies which employ people on low wages, says the same John Rentoul.

He’s too radical, according to Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley (note the URL).

He’s not radical at all, according to the same Andrew Rawnsley, in the same paper.

And too radically left-wing, says Nick Cohen in the Observer.

And not radically left-wing enough, says Nick Cohen in The Spectator – a famous hot-bed of radical left-wing thought.

Corbyn is too elitist, says the Times.

Too populist, says the BBC.

Too nostalgic, bemoans John Harris in the Guardian.

Not nostalgic enough, bemoans Harris in the New Statesman.

Corbyn is like Donald Trump, suggests James O’Brien.

He almost makes Trump look like a genius, in fact, O’Brien adds on LBC radio.

He’s not like Donald Trump after all, O’Brien explains.

He’s worse than Donald Trump, O’Brien concludes.

Corbyn’s problem is that he’s too principled – suggests one pundit in The New Statesman.

Corbyn’s problem is that he’s not principled at all – suggests another pundit in The New Statesman.

Too milquetoast, says Brendan O’Neill in The Spectator.

Too terrifying, says O’Neill in the same publication.

Too sensitive, O’Neill opines in The Sun.

Too insensitive, he suggests back in The Spectator.

And a threat to life as we know it.

Too mundane to be a threat to life as we know it.

Not a communist.

Definitely a communist.

He’s not interested in power, says Nick Cohen in The Spectator.

He’s too interested in power, says Nick Cohen in Standpoint Magazine.

He’s unelectable, says Nick Cohen in the Observer.

He’s too electable, says Nick Cohen again in the Observer.

Too keen on Brexit, complains Dan Hodges.

Not keen enough on Brexit, complains Dan Hodges – covering both bases, there.

He’s wrong not to oppose Theresa May’s plans for Brexit, says Phillip Collins in The Times.

He’s wrong not to support Theresa May’s plans for Brexit, says Phillip Collins in The Times.

By failing to oppose Tory Brexit, he’s acting against the national interest, says an angry Peter Mandelson in the New Statesman.

By failing to support Tory Brexit, he’s acting against the national interest, says a no less angry Peter Mandelson in the Daily Mail.

He’s wrong for not wanting a general election.

He’s wrong for wanting a general election.

Corbyn makes Labour’s electoral oblivion inevitable.

He should easily have won the General Election of 2017, with a landslide victory.

 

In sum, whatever Corbyn says or does, his critics will denounce – no matter how much they contradict themselves in the process.

This evidently has not prevented him being elected to lead the party; or retaining his position, in a second leadership vote. Nor did it prevent the surge of support for Labour in the 2017 General Election; despite all efforts to the contrary.

Likewise, a commotion over anti-Semitism was contrived by Labour MPs hostile towards Corbyn, to coincide with the onset of Labour’s NEC votes in July-August 2018 [6].

Yet the nine pro-Corbyn candidates were all elected to the NEC. Eight of them comfortably.

Languishing last among them, however, was Peter Willsman; who had thrown a temper tantrum in response to the allegations of anti-Semitism. Failing to learn his lesson, he would be suspended from the party in May 2019; after equally ill-considered comments came to light.

In February 2019, similar accusations about Corbyn and anti-Semitism were made to serve as one pretext for launching The Independent Group – later renamed Change UK; thereafter the Independent Group For Change [7].

Amidst a blaze of media hype, Change UK entered the European elections of May 2019 with zero MEPs – and left the elections with none. The party disintegrated immediately afterwards.

So, all of the nonsense directed at Corbyn has achieved precisely nothing in four years. Beyond the personal embarrassment of those concerned, at any rate.

 

By contrast, the behaviour of Ken Livingstone, Peter Willsman, and Chris Williamson, has resulted in their own respective downfalls.

Handing easy gifts to their political foes. Creating needless problems for others to contend with; while undermining Corbyn, and Labour, in the process.

More to the point, somebody’s conduct does not need to have the worst of motives, in order to be unacceptable.

I don’t think Chris Williamson is anti-Semitic, or that he has any sympathy for anti-Semitism. But I think he is irresponsible. That he very consciously plays to the gallery – in a deeply divisive and inconsiderate fashion; purposely courts controversy, no matter the cost to others; and that his judgment is severely flawed.

These are serious failings in their own right. They do not help anyone, or benefit any cause. Instead, they only serve to damage them.

Regardless of any wider context, or anybody else’s shortcomings, Williamson’s personal conduct is troubling; and ultimately indicates that he cannot be regarded as fit or proper to hold an office of high trust and responsibility.

They are sufficient reasons to say he needs to step down as a Member of Parliament. For everyone’s sake; including his own.

 

 

 

Notes

[1] At the time of writing, Jeremy Hunt remains the one Tory leadership candidate who can still potentially beat Boris Johnson, in a race to the bottom.

This was made plain when Hunt recently suggested that Jeremy Corbyn might create another Auschwitz, in Britain. Suffice to say, Hunt’s comments are more than a bit unhinged.

Hunt attempted to justify his presentiment, however:

“I think some of his comments, for example about Jewish people not understanding English irony, betray some deeply-held prejudices which ought to worry people.”

Corbyn had not said this, of course.

As Jewish News go on to almost clarify themselves, he had instead described “a group of British Zionists of lacking any ‘sense of irony’ despite having lived in this country ‘for a very long time’” (link in the original).

This is not quite accurate either. Nor is it the whole story.

In 2013, Corbyn had given a short speech at a conference called ‘Britain’s Legacy in Palestine’.

During the course of this, Corbyn alluded to several pro-Israel activists, who attended a previous lecture made by the Palestinian Ambassador Manuel Hassassian, at a Palestine Solidarity event, in January 2013; and were seemingly oblivious to the drollery of a remark he had made.

One of the activists in question was Richard Millett – who, in 2018, complained about Corbyn’s speech, to the Daily Mail.

That Millett very clearly had not understood Hassassian’s joke is demonstrated in his blogpost; under which a number of similar personalities had posted comments. Seemingly no more alert to sarcasm than Millett himself.

There is no independent transcript of either Hassassian’s words, or the comments made to him; and journalistic coverage would seem to have merely duplicated material directly from Millett’s blog, despite his unreliability.

Nonetheless, even going by Millett’s write-up, it is clear that Hassassian had made a dry joke about his own despondency at the diminishing prospect of a two-state solution, for the Israel-Palestine conflict.

It was this which Corbyn had been referring to; as Millett and his peers would seem to have reproached Hassassian aggressively in response.

Several attempts at tortuously extrapolating a prejudicial inference from Corbyn’s words ensued, in August 2018; along with various misrepresentations of what he had actually said.

Needless to say, alluding to one group of Zionists is not the same as referring to Zionists – let alone Jewish people – en masse.

It is also clearly a nonsense to suggest that Zionism and Jewish identity are coterminous; while implying that Corbyn can be faulted for supposedly doing the exact same thing. Which he had not done, anyway.

Quite the opposite, as it happens; before devoting the rest of his speech to criticism of Britain and British colonialism. Not that either of these aspects received much notice.

More could be said here – but people can watch the video of Corbyn’s speech for themselves; and make their own minds up about whether he had meant anything untoward, or was simply poking fun at several individuals.

 

[2] My transcript – the ellipses denote unintelligible/inaudible parts spoken by Williamson. Other peoples’ hearing may be better than mine, I will concede, however.

 

[3] Chris Williamson has been criticised for a number of incidents, in addition to the speech which led to his suspension.

Some of the allegations against Williamson are not accurate, while several are badly distorted; and none of these cases resulted in disciplinary procedures.

However, others exemplify the reasons why his conduct is both a problem, and cause for concern – sufficient to warrant his replacement as an MP.

One of these involved Williamson signing and promoting a petition, in defence of the musician Gilad Atzmon.

Atzmon is a disquieting personality, by all accounts.

He is himself Jewish and Israeli, yet has repeatedly made anti-Semitic statements; and was barred from performing at a venue in Islington, by the Labour council, ultimately on account of this.

A petition was created on Atzmon’s behalf; which Williamson then endorsed on Twitter.

There perhaps is an uncomfortable question to be asked about the rights and wrongs of banning a musician from performing, on account of their obnoxious views. But there is no reason to believe that this was Williamson’s motivation.

In fact, Williamson professed to have been unaware of Atzmon’s past comments. Stating “I wasn’t aware of this until after I tweeted the petition”.

There is room for doubt, but this is at least plausible for Williamson’s part. Atzmon is quite notorious, and openly repudiated, by many Palestine-rights activists; but he remains an obscure figure in general.

Moreover, anyone familiar with Atzmon’s past history must surely have foreseen how much controversy would ensue. Particularly in the current political environment.

Equally, it is maybe not surprising that anyone unfamiliar with Atzmon’s anti-Semitic statements could be misled by the petition, as it omits any reference to them.

It begs the question, however, why Williamson did sign and publicise the petition in the first place. This can perhaps be answered by the petition itself (I’m not linking to it directly here, as it is still active).

It states that the Council had banned Atzmon “in response to pressure from a single ardent pro-Israel campaigner”.

In his apology on Twitter, Williamson attested that he signed the petition, after being told Atzmon had “been banned by Islington council merely because of his pro-Palestinian views”. 

This was not true – but nonetheless, incidents of that kind have occurred in the past, on grounds which were unjustified (although the circumstances were not always straightforward).

So, it is not inconceivable somebody could read the petition, and believe it was accurate. However, the language of the petition itself should have given anyone cause for serious doubt.

Not least of all its quite ridiculous complaint that “Britain is now a tyrannical Orwellian state” and “we are witnessing an end to a free society, as we know it”. The remainder of its wording was hardly more temperate.

So, Williamson may not have known very much about Atzmon; but he can be faulted for signing such an obviously tendentious petition to begin with.

It is also fair to be concerned about any MP supporting an initiative, when they knew nothing of substance about it. Especially when, potentially at least, it could prove harmful.

Likewise, Williamson has retweeted posts by a Twitter user, who had previously made anti-Semitic remarks.

Williamson was seemingly unaware of this – and it would not be fair to assume that retweeting somebody’s recent comments means endorsing anything they have ever said or done in the past.

However, when it was brought to Williamson’s attention, and was plainly true, he dismissed the concerns very nonchalantly.

There have been commentaries defending Williamson, and calling for his reinstatement; on the grounds that the speech which resulted in his suspension was misrepresented. It undoubtedly has been.

Likewise, a number of his critics are extremely hypocritical.

Ultimately, it makes no odds.

There is no concrete reason to doubt that Williamson is sincere when he states his opposition to all forms of racism – but clearly, actively mitigating prejudices, of any kind, requires more than platitudes.

Williamson’s decidedly glib sentiments are not matched by his conduct. Instead, there have been repeated instances where he was demonstrably unconcerned; even when something untoward had been in evidence. This is clearly a significant failing.

So, the initial reason for Williamson’s suspension may not have been valid; but I think his overall behaviour necessitates his resignation, or replacement.

 

[4] As it happens, Bloodworth was bemoaning Corbyn’s opposition to regime change – of the kind which proved such a noted success in Chile during 1973. Or more recently, in Iraq, and Libya.

It is a mystery why Corbyn does not welcome the prospect of something similar occurring in Venezuela.

 

[5] Corbyn supposedly informed the Czechoslovakian agent, at regular intervals, about Margaret Thatcher’s choice of breakfast.

Just the kind of thing you might expect from a Trotskyite, of the Stalinist variety. And if what I hear is correct, some Trotskyite Stalinists might even be communists.

The Czech agent was a busy man, it would seem. How he found space in his schedule to collaborate with Corbyn, at the same time as founding the Live Aid concert, was not explained by any of the newspapers which reported his claims verbatim.

 

[6] To cut a very long story short, during the Summer of 2018, Labour’s leadership engaged in several weeks of pointless bickering with colleagues, over four examples in the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism relating to the State of Israel; only to adopt them anyway, once the elections had concluded.

A combination of calculated political cynicism, indifference towards accuracy, boorish antics, invective, mudslinging, ineptitude, and disregard for freedom of expression – or pluralism – made the surrounding upset one of the most farcical, but troubling, episodes in recent political and journalistic history.

To no avail, all round.

 

[7] Other pretexts for Labour MPs resigning, and creating the Independent Group/Change UK, were Jeremy Corbyn’s supposedly insouciant attitude towards Venezuela’s government; and his “handling” of Brexit.

The latter is perhaps plausible. After all, even a Labour MP who had lobbied for the first EU referendum – called for it a second time – voted to conduct it, and derided others for not accepting its result, has faulted Corbyn for respecting the outcome.

However, the impetus was largely the upshot of a US-UK lobbying network.

This is made plain by Chuka Umunna’s involvement. Umunna being an advisor to the Progressive Centre think tank – which includes a number of politicians, entrepreneurs, journalists, and lobbyists.

It was derived from the Global Progress nexus – itself set up by the Centre for American Progress; staffed by former aides of Barack Obama, and Bill/Hillary Clinton, amongst others.

Change UK bore all the hallmarks of these peoples’ combined talents, strategic mastery, and personal foresight; in as much as it failed abysmally.

Suffice to say, for present purposes, three MPs had also quit the Conservative Party to join this endeavour; and cannot plausibly have done so in order to protest against Jeremy Corbyn, on any grounds.

 

The multiple facets of the ongoing clamour about anti-Semitism and the left.

Something can be anti-Semitic, while not being a severe problem in need of draconian responses. Something can be a serious problem, without being anti-Semitic.

Anti-Semitism can be a unique form of prejudice; and still just a prejudice, no different to any other.

People can be sincere, and inept. They can be well-meaning, and wrong.

Efforts to remedy situations can be a worthwhile endeavor; and a pointless exercise.

An issue can warrant care and attention; and still be riven by cynical mudslinging.

People can be jaded and dismissive – not to say downright curmudgeonly at times; but still willing to help anyone resolve a genuine problem, when it is in evidence.

People can be openly solicitous, but mainly for their own benefit; and prove undependable when it matters most.

People can be right about something, and yet their behaviour still be out of order. They can be wrong about something, without it being a major grievance.

People can say the right things, for the wrong reasons; and say the wrong thing, for the right reasons.

Comments referring to Jewish or Muslim people can really be about the Israel-Palestine conflict; and comments about the Israel-Palestine conflict can really be a chip at people who are Jewish, or Muslim.

It is easy to condemn acts of terrorism, without applying collective blame to people who had no personal involvement. It is difficult to criticise Islamic extremism, without referring to Islam, at some point.

It is easy to criticise the government of Israel, and not use anti-Semitic language. It is virtually impossible to make criticisms of the Israeli government, and avoid being called an anti-Semite.

Being called an anti-Semite by idiots doesn’t matter very much. Unwittingly being a cause of grief to people does matter – especially if the people in question are members of a group which has suffered centuries of pain and persecution, wherever they have been.

Israelis deserve to live safe lives, in their homeland. Palestinians deserve a homeland of their own, and peace.

Jews and Muslims should not be made to feel unwelcome wherever they are, merely on account of their identity. Personal identity does not automatically validate anyone’s political views.

Media outlets can affect concern for the well-being of one group, in order to justify persecuting another.

The Guardian can be a basically decent newspaper, while its opinion pieces are trash; and its political journalism unworthy of the time from anyone’s day.

Something can seem simple, but be complex. And something can be complex, while seeming simple.

People can be different, and still the same.

Because we’re all human, underneath all of this.

Neither Mear One’s mural, nor Jeremy Corbyn are anti-Semitic – but sometimes satire goes wrong.

You may have read various articles about the furore surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s expression of support for a supposedly anti-Semitic mural.

The artwork in question was called False Profits, and it was created by an artist called Mear One. Here is the screenshot, as it appears on the Guido Fawkes website:

Scary stuff, no? A cabal of men, with a Freemason symbol behind them? I mean that’s straight out the annals of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, right?

Well, no.

To put it succinctly, the mural is not an anti-Semitic image. It is a critique of capitalists, exploiting workers.

However, it is problematic – and there is a valid criticism which can be made of both the artist and to some extent Corbyn; but it’s not the one that anyone seems to be making.

People have got the wrong idea about this mural – but that’s the point at issue here. It is wide open to misinterpretation – the imagery is very easily misconstrued; and so there’s a need to think more carefully about how something impacts on an audience.

Let’s go through the themes of the mural first of all.

In 2012, the artist uploaded a video to Youtube which describes the point he was trying to make:

“I came to paint a mural that depicted the elite banking cartel known as the Rothschilds, Rockerfellers, Morgans – the ruling class elite view, the Wizards of Oz; they would be playing a board game of Monopoly on the backs of the working class”.

Well, any reference to the Rothschilds is always liable to make people slightly uncomfortable – because they were frequently cited by actual anti-Semitic demagogues.

But the Rockerfellers and the Morgans are not Jewish. Instead, as Mear One says, what they have in common is that they are families synonymous with capital.

That this was the point of the mural is evident from simply looking at the full picture, rather than the cropped version:

Look at the hooded lad on the left-hand side, with his sign about the New World Order. Then at the gaunt mother on the right edge – the machine cogs, the polluting factories in the background. The Monopoly game on the backs of faceless men, doubled over.

This is not high art – if anything, it’s a fairly gauche purview on capitalism.

But what about the pyramid in the background? I mean, that’s a bit of an odd symbol, surely? Where might you have seen it before?

On US currency bills:

Let’s not have any laurel-resting, though. Mear One presumably included this symbol in his painting, in order to illustrate the theme of US capital.

So what actually is it, originally? What does the motto “novus ordo seclorum” mean?

The unfinished Pyramid is the Great Seal of the United States. Contrary to the mural’s suggestion, though, “novus ordo seclorum”does not mean New World Order – it means “new order of the ages”.

It was intended to signify a vision for the future, following the establishment of the United States, and the Declaration Of Independence.

Needless to say, regardless of whether you share the artist’s viewpoint, this is all mundane enough.

It is tempting therefore – and maybe even justifiable – to dismiss this incident out of hand, as nothing more than a misunderstanding; but if you’ve read this far, you will have surmised that it takes a fair bit of research to understand the artist’s point.

This was a mural, for people to walk past in the street – and it is a picture which is easily misunderstood. Indeed, it has been by a number of people; and has resulted in Corbyn issuing an apology.

This ease of misinterpretation does matter.

In fact, the same week that histrionics erupted over this mural, a similar incident made the news – namely a Scottish comedian using anti-Semitic language, while making parodies of Nazism; through the medium of pug.

It resulted in a boorish diatribe from another comedian, defending the jokes on the basis of free-expression.

That is, it received the exact opposite response to the censure which Mear One’s anti-capitalist mural prompted: namely, defending the use of anti-Semitic language in a joke; as opposed to denouncing a mural, because it bears a faint resemblance to anti-Semitic images.

There is an obvious cynicism to some of the reactions to both of these instances – but they don’t need to be given ground, in order to address the problem here properly.

The few-ish people who visit this site will have gathered that I tend to write a lot of parodies. Some of these involve lampooning xenophobia – including the genteel form it can take, at times. And in one case, a short play satirizing anti-Semitism.

Whether you care to take my word for it or not is entirely at your discretion, but I would say that it is not necessary to use racist words in order satirize racism. Quite the opposite. Not least of all because it simply ends up being unfunny if you do.

Did Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator see a comedian using the same language as Hitler? No – what it did instead was depict a crackpot ranting away about total nonsense; so that when people watched Hitler doing much the same thing, they saw him for what he actually was.

If Chaplin can manage to make fun of somebody like Hitler, without being hurtful towards the people persecuted by the Third Reich, then I am sure anyone else can manage it about his tinpot derivatives in the present day.

It is a problem when people do use derogatory language, even in jest – and especially with satire, because it is usually intended to be subtle; and the point being made is not always immediately clear. It is often purposely ambiguous, in fact; and it frequently does result in something being misunderstood.

If you want illustrative examples of this, look no further than Charlie Hebdo cartoons – be it their picture of the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram:

Or their image of Aylan Kurdi, depicted as an adult assaulting women:

Shockingly callous, right?

No. People looked at these images, and saw them as racist caricatures; when they were not.

But that is the fault of the cartoonists, and no-one else. If satire requires an extensive background knowledge of context, in order to get the point being made, then it is weak.

The French public were outraged at the kidnapping of Nigerian girls – while supporting the misogynistic policies of their own government, aimed at single mothers living on low incomes in France.

The European public were horrified when an infant refugee drowned, trying to reach safety from war. They reacted with hysteria to sketchy reports of refugees sexually assaulting women in Cologne.

It was the double standards of these attitudes which the Hebdo cartoonists were depicting – and they evidently made a hash of it.

It happens – I don’t write satire in order to be cruel towards people; but to demonstrate how silly something affecting them is. To show it up for the nonsense it amounts to – and sometimes it goes wrong.

It isn’t really good enough to simply say ‘I can do what I like, because free speech’ – or to pretend that everyone else is stupid. It necessitates a bit of self-criticism; and maybe in some cases an apology.

Or at least a clarification, which rests on the basis that somebody else’s misperception arose off the back of your ineptitude.

What you say matters, because it can hurt people – however unintentionally. How you choose to depict something will have an impact, for better or worse, on any audience it receives.

This is the actual problem with Mear One’s mural – a lack of thought, about how someone else might see it; and an unwillingness to accept that it was ineffectual as satire.

It’s the same faultiness behind the Hebdo cartoons, and the pug jokes – and probably also some of the less successful pieces I have written.

This is not about free-expression – it is about using your brain properly; and accepting that sometimes, you cock things up.

Now let’s never speak of my ineptitude again.

Misleading claims continue to be made about anti-Semitism. This revolves primarily around the Israel-Palestine conflict. Is there a constructive way forward?

A number of comment pieces appeared in the media, in the wake of the Labour Party’s conference of September 2017 – alleging that anti-Semitic incidents had occurred during the event; and that it represented the continuation of a wider problem within the party. It is not the first time that this has happened.

Are these claims supported by any evidence? If so, how can the problem be addressed effectively? If not, why are the accusations being made?

 

Sources and discourses 

First, let’s look at the allegations in question.

The media commentaries revolved primarily around one incident, involving a man called Miko Peled; who was reported to have said that freedom of expression should cover “the freedom to criticise and to discuss every issue, whether it’s the Holocaust: yes or no, Palestine, the liberation, the whole spectrum: there should be no limits on the discussion”.

Somewhat paradoxically, Peled had then gone on to talk about refusing to grant a platform to Zionists in discussions:

“It’s about the limits of tolerance: we don’t invite the Nazis and give them an hour to explain why they are right; we do not invite apartheid South Africa racists to explain why apartheid was good for the blacks; and in the same way we do not invite Zionists – it’s a very similar kind of thing.”

Peled would subsequently clarify his meaning in an email to the Guardian:

“The Holocaust was a terrible crime that we must study and from which we must all learn. I reject the idea that Holocaust deniers, foolish as they may be, should be treated as criminals and I doubt that supporters of Israel should be given the authority to judge who is or is not a racist and antisemite.

Promoters of racist ideologies should not be given a public platform, and to me that does include people who promote Zionism – which is a racist ideology whose followers have committed and continue to commit crimes against the people of Palestine.

If we are to do justice to the memory of the millions of victims of the Holocaust, Jewish and Roma and many, many others, then we must engage in robust debate and education about the causes of current, ongoing violence and injustice.”

It should go without saying that Peled was not suggesting the Holocaust’s occurrence was open to debate; but rather, that Holocaust deniers should not face criminal prosecution. Furthermore, that people who promote state persecution should not be granted public platforms.

Regardless of anyone’s opinion about either facet of Peled’s viewpoint, it is clear that he was not expressing anti-Semitic sentiments of any kind. It also needs to be born in mind – as so many media commentaries failed to do – that Peled is himself a Jewish Israeli peace activist; which makes it somewhat implausible that he would have anti-Semitic sympathies [1].

 

However, a number of articles also referred to comments made by the Unite union leader, Len McCluskey, about accusations of anti-Semitism which had been leveled at the Labour Party during 2016.

In an interview with the BBC’s programme, Newsnight, McCluskey declaimed that he had never been at a Labour Party meeting “where there was any anti-Semitic language”. He also stated that he believed the allegations being made in 2016 were: “mood music that was created by people who were trying to undermine Jeremy Corbyn”. As he continued:

“Unfortunately, at the time there were lots of people playing games. Everybody wanted to create this image that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership had become misogynist, had become racist, had become anti-Semitic and it was wrong”.

So, McCluskey was clearly making two points: first, that there isn’t a problem with anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Second, that there was a political motivation behind the allegations.

 

What then were the complaints made in response to both Peled’s and McCluskey’s comments?

Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland contended that McCluskey – along with the film director, Ken Loach, and the Labour politician, Ken Livingstone – had not merely denied an existent problem; but were themselves engaging in anti-Semitism.

He suggested they:

“don’t just tell Jewish Labour supporters that they are mistaken to detect antisemitism around them: they tell them they have made it all up – and that they have done so for sinister, nefarious purposes”.

However, Freedland then begins to make a series of claims which are at odds with what any of the three men had said. With regard to McCluskey, he notes that:

“I believe it was mood music that was created by people who were trying to undermine Jeremy Corbyn,” McCluskey told BBC’s Newsnight. (Again, for an avowed progressive to describe an ethnic minority’s experience of racism as “mood music” is quite a break from the usual accepted practice.)”

McCluskey clearly wasn’t describing “an ethnic minority’s experience of racism” as “mood music”, though. The quote Freedland himself provides makes plain that McCluskey’s reference had been towards Jeremy Corbyn’s political opponents.

Freedland then goes on to complain:

“Meanwhile, Livingstone was on the radio cheerfully saying that it was perfectly possible to say offensive things about Jews without being anti-Jewish. He too has long argued that this whole business is bogus and confected, and that Labour does not have any kind of antisemitism problem”.

What Livingstone actually said differs markedly from Freedland’s attribution; as anyone who follows the link provide in Freedland’s paragraph can readily discern:

“Some people have made offensive comments, it doesn’t mean they’re inherently anti-Semitic and hate Jews. They just go over the top when they criticise Israel. The people criticising Israeli government policy aren’t criticising people who are Jewish in Britain. They’re criticising a government like Jeremy Corbyn criticises Saudi Arabia for its abuse of many of its peoples.”

The meaning of this is plain enough.

Freedland’s reference to Ken Loach is no more accurate:

“Asked to react to a speaker at a Brighton fringe meeting who had said Labour supporters should feel free to debate any topic, including the veracity of the Holocaust – “did it happen or didn’t it happen”, as the BBC interviewer put it – Loach could not give a simple, unequivocal denunciation of Holocaust denial. ‘I think history is for all of us to discuss,’ he said”.

In fact, Freedland suggests that Loach was himself engaging in Holocaust denial:

“Loach had not been asked whether there should be discussion of the meaning of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews. He had been asked about the fact of it happening. And on that, he said there should be discussion – the same apparently innocuous formulation routinely advanced by hardcore Holocaust deniers”.

It’s noteworthy that Freedland does not provide a link to the actual interview.

Instead, Freedland’s source was an article in The Tablet; entitled ‘This BBC Interview Perfectly Illustrates Britain’s Left-Wing Anti-Semitism Problem’; and sub-titled “Famed filmmaker Ken Loach accused Jews of fabricating claims of anti-Semitism, then refused to condemn Holocaust denial”.

The Tablet article doesn’t provide a link to the actual BBC interview, either. Instead it provides a transcript, supposedly demonstrating the truth of its author’s claim:

COBURN: There was a fringe meeting yesterday that we talked about at the beginning of the show where there was a discussion about the Holocaust, did it happen or didn’t it… would you say that was unacceptable?

LOACH: I think history is for us all to discuss, wouldn’t you?

COBURN: Say that again, sorry, I missed that.

LOACH: History is for all of us to discuss. All history is our common heritage to discuss and analyze. The founding of the state of Israel, for example, based on ethnic cleansing is there for us all to discuss. The role of Israel now is there for us to discuss. So don’t try to subvert that by false stories of anti-Semitism.

Note the ellipses in the first paragraph.

The video footage of the interview is available on the BBC’s website. As it transpires, Loach had not been asked to condemn Holocaust denial; less still did he suggest that the Holocaust’s occurrence was open to discussion. In fact, the question initially put to him is perhaps the cause of misunderstanding herein.

The interviewer states that: “there was a fringe meeting yesterday, that we talked about at the beginning of the show, where there was a discussion about the Holocaust – did it happen or didn’t it”. What the Tablet’s ellipses omit is that Loach interrupts mid-question, and says “I don’t think it was a discussion about the Holocaust”. The interviewer continues, however, asking “would you say that was unacceptable?”.

This is evidently not a valid question, given that it rests on a false premise. The comment at issue was Miko Peled’s reference, which was not a discussion about whether the Holocaust had occurred or not; instead it had been a statement of the need for free-expression when discussing history. A point which Loach evidently picked up on, and reiterated.

 

So, to summarise: the BBC’s interviewer misrepresented what had been said at a Labour fringe meeting. Jonathan Freedland then complained that Loach had not given a straightforward answer, to what was a misleading question. Surely a bit of commonsense needs to be applied here.

Loach was being asked to say whether a discussion which hadn’t happened was unacceptable. It’s not surprising that he was unable to “give a simple, unequivocal denunciation of Holocaust denial” – not least of all, because he wasn’t asked to do so at any point. When Loach went on to say that “history is for all of us to discuss”, it is more plausible to assume that he had been referring to the actual comment Peled had made: that there should be freedom to discuss history [2].

It is therefore untenable for Freedland to suggest that “distinguished men of the left are echoing, even inadvertently, the language of Holocaust denial”; or that “the leader of Britain’s biggest trade union is rehashing the age-old notion of a Jewish conspiracy”. None of the men quoted had said anything to either effect.

For all of the inaccuracy behind Freedland’s claims, it is clear enough that the three men alluded to had been making two general points: namely, that allegations about anti-Semitism being prevalent in the Labour Party do not tally with their personal experience; and that these allegations have been utilized for political reasons – specifically in order to undermine Jeremy Corbyn.

So, there are several basic questions to answer here: firstly, if there is a problem of any extent with anti-Semitism in the Labour party. Secondly, whether the issue has been exploited to fulfill a political agenda. Third: can an effective remedy to both issues be devised?

 

One person who took issue with the remarks made by Len McClusky was Shami Chakrabarti; who contested the view that anti-Semitism was not a problem within the Labour Party.

Chakrabarti was interviewed by Newsnight on 26th September 2017; and was asked to comment on McClusky’s view that allegations of anti-Semitism had been “mood music”, intended to undermine Jeremy Corbyn.

She replied that McCluskey was wrong; stating that “with the greatest respect to Len, I was the person charged with investigating this, it wasn’t Len; so I have seen things that clearly Len has not seen”. Chakrabarti further noted that “there are real reasons why somebody like Len might not have experienced racism and anti-Semitism”. That is, because McCluskey is not a member of an ethnic minority; nor is he Jewish.

However, Chakrabarti is also a political appointee of Jeremy Corbyn’s; and had been expressly requested by him to conduct an internal inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism within the Labour Party. So, two key allies of Corbyn’s have said different things. What is the truth of the matter?

 

There is perhaps not the conflict between the two viewpoints that initially appears. Moreover, what may be at issue here is the definition of having a problem – i.e. one which is widespread, and significant; or one which is minimal – but still existent, and in need of being addressed.

McCluskey et al had spoken about never witnessing anti-Semitic expressions at public meetings. However, abuse seldom occurs in public: incidents often take place in private settings, away from public attention; so it is something which can go on, with many people being left unaware of it happening.

But there is another – less obvious reason – why there may be a problem; yet people not witness it. The allegations being made in 2016 had revolved around comments posted on social media websites – specifically, on personal Twitter and Facebook accounts; and to a lesser extent, had concerned behaviour among students on university campuses. It stands to reason, therefore, that some people can have used abusive epithets; while others may remain unaware of it happening.

In addition to an issue of scale, it is also questionable what constitutes abuse. Chakrabarti had, of course, published a report on the matter. While this noted that “the Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism”; it had continued that “there is too much clear evidence (going back some years) of minority hateful or ignorant attitudes and behaviours festering within a sometimes bitter incivility of discourse” (p. 1). It also added that “I have heard too many Jewish voices express concern that antisemitism has not been taken seriously enough in the Labour Party and broader Left for some years” (p. 1).

It seems fair to conclude, therefore, that in so far as there is a problem with anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, it is not extensive; but nonetheless, a minority of people have engaged in unacceptable behaviour, and that this needs to be addressed.

In that respect, Chakrabarti’s report alluded primarily to the use of language. It made a series of recommendations to improve “the tone of constructive debate” (p. 6). That is, establishing an atmosphere where people “can disagree with kindness and civility and where difficult issues are resolved without resorting to abuse” (p. 8).

This is where it would be helpful for a sense of proportion to apply. The suggestion being made that the Labour Party has an extensive problem with anti-Semitism is evidently not true; but nor is it valid to say that no problem at all exists.

Equally, what is at issue revolves around the use of language – especially during debates about the Israel-Palestine conflict (and to a lesser extent, secularism versus religion). This is not helped either by ignoring the need for more constructive dialogue; nor by histrionic – let alone misleading – media coverage, which disregards the point at issue [3].

 

Politicization of the issue  

However, as noted, the second concern here is whether allegations of anti-Semitism have been exploited for political reasons; either to damage the Labour Party, or to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. There is sufficient evidence to put the matter beyond any doubt [4].

Numerous commentaries have been published, in a wide variety of outlets, and on a regular basis; seeking to implicate Jeremy Corbyn in anti-Semitism, on the basis of comments made by other people.

This began during the initial leadership contest in 2015. It reached a nadir during the council elections of 2016, when data from the Labour Compliance Unit was continuously leaked to the media; which resulted in several members of Labour being suspended. A plethora of articles ensued throughout this epoch; with journalists and Labour MPs bemoaning Corbyn personally, on account of the issue.

Evidence indicates that people within the Labour Party were attempting to damage Labour’s electoral prospects; which was itself set to serve as a pretext for forcing Corbyn’s resignation – something which a number of Labour MPs had been planning for, immediately after he was elected to lead the Party in September 2015; and which would come to fruition in the wake of the EU referendum, on 24th June 2016.

While this effort ultimately proved unsuccessful, the theme continued in a Home Affairs Committee inquiry, which was concluded in October 2016 [5]; and, of course, it resurfaced during coverage of the Labour Party’s conference in 2017 [6].

 

There is a great deal more which can be said about this concerted effort; but it is not strictly necessary for present purposes. Suffice to say, a small number of party members had been reported to have made antisemitic comments; in the majority of cases, the people had been both members of Labour – and made the offending posts – before Corbyn had been elected to lead the party.

In each instance, the individuals were suspended promptly; the allegations were investigated, and action was taken when necessary. Moreover, opinion poll data – which the Home Affairs Committee had themselves cited – made clear that antisemitic attitudes were less prevalent in the Labour Party than in British society as a whole; as well as being lower than in the Conservative Party, and the UK Independence Party.

Corbyn had himself repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism; and commissioned Shami Chakrabarti to conduct an inquiry into the behaviour of Labour Party members – then devise a set of guidelines to address it effectively, where needed.

Yet the controversy continued – and, in fact, the Chakrabarti report would itself be subject to the same commotion; with various commentators who had initially praised it upon publication, suddenly denouncing it, after Chakrabarti had been made a peer at Corbyn’s suggestion. The contents of the report had not changed during the interim [7].

Needless to say, these complaints had no basis in fact. As anybody who took the trouble to read Charkrabarti’s report – or even the excerpts provided herein – can surely surmise, it was highly critical of the Labour Party, and the behaviour  some of its members had engaged in. It outlined a rigorous approach to tackling anti-Semitism – or any other form of prejudice – and delineated the respective problems of racist epithets, stereotyping, and inflammatory language; while providing guidelines on how Labour members should conduct themselves, with regard to each separate one. It also stressed the need to make disciplinary procedures more adequate.

It’s clear therefore the number of media articles and commentaries generated by this issue have been out of proportion with the scale of any actual problem; while many of the criticisms being made have been overstated, or inaccurate [8].

There clearly has been a collective attempt, from a variety of sources, to embroil both the Labour party and its leader in an ongoing furore over anti-Semitism. This includes input from the Conservative Party, along with numerous media commentators, a number of Jeremy Corbyn’s detractors within the Labour Party; and several Pro-Israel campaign groups. [9].

Regardless of how extensive any problem with anti-Semitism within the Labour party may be, therefore, the issue has evidently been exploited for various political purposes – both to damage Labour from without, and to undermine Corbyn from within [10]. What this primarily revolves around is discourse about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

It would not be accurate to suggest that this was the sole factor at issue – for instance, the Chakrabarti report referred to “the painful experience of a Labour councillor who was told that he would be particularly good at a finance role (for no reason other than being Jewish)” (p. 10). However, the Israel-Palestine conflict is evidently the theme underscoring much of the acrimony in question. It is also the main point of concern for many of the individuals and organisations who are making misleading claims about anti-Semitism; regardless of their specific agendas.

 

Is there a constructive way forward?

Is it possible to maintain productive discussion, which strikes an effective balance between civility and free expression?

The Chakrabarti report includes a number of suggestions which are helpful here. As noted, it defined three separate problems:

  1. Explicit abusive language
  2. Stereotyping
  3. Insensitive and incendiary language, metaphors, distortions and comparisons

It then provided guidance on language and behaviour among Labour Party members accordingly. Namely:

“I recommend that the use of racist epithets has no place in the Labour Party”.

“critical and abusive reference to any particular person or group based on actual or perceived physical characteristics cannot be tolerated”.

“I recommend that racial or religious tropes and stereotypes about any group of people should have no place in our modern Labour Party”.

“I recommend that Labour members resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons in debates about Israel-Palestine in particular”.

“I further recommend that excuse for, denial, approval or minimisation of the Holocaust and attempts to blur responsibility for it, have no place in the Labour Party”.

The report also recommends that people “use the term ‘Zionist’ advisedly, carefully and never euphemistically or as part of personal abuse”. This is all sound advice; and should prove easy enough for anybody to comply with.

 

However, Chakrabarti’s report was undertaken with Labour Party members in mind. There is a broader context which requires some consideration.

A factor which the Chakrabarti report does not allude to directly is false allegations. They are obviously not acceptable in their own right; but they make it far more difficult to tackle anti-Semitism when it is in evidence.

One charge often made by people on the receiving end of anti-Semitic abuse is that their complaints are not taken seriously. Untrue accusations are a part of the reason behind that. There are abundant examples of demonstrable falsehood on this theme, published across a variety of mediums: be they scurrilous articles, false statements made by politicians – or similar public figures; or websites and organisations purposely set up to run public relations campaigns on behalf of the Israeli government, which then engage in harassment and intimidation of its critics. This is the context in which disbelief exists.

While it is unlikely that such efforts will stop, people who are concerned with either anti-Semitism or the Israel-Palestine conflict can at least exercise caution – and check evidence. This has to apply both ways, however: the fact that so many commentaries exploit anti-Semitism as an issue, in this manner, obviously does not preclude its existence. But motivation and context remain important when making assessments; and certainly when those leveling these charges have a vested interest in drawing someone into disrepute, then prudence is needed before drawing conclusions.

 

A related factor is poor-quality journalism; which either fosters or perpetuates inaccurate claims. A number of websites and individuals are continuously treated as reliable sources of information by mainstream outlets; even when they are known to be untrustworthy. Again, it is unlikely that either facet of this scenario will change; but people can surely do better in their own right, and exercise due care, when attempting to address reported incidents properly.

Within the Labour Party itself, this will have bearing for disciplinary procedures. These can not justifiably be conducted via the media, even if journalists held themselves to higher standards than is currently evident. As Chakrabarti’s report noted:

“it is completely unfair, unacceptable and a breach of Data Protection law that anyone should have found out about being the subject to an investigation or their suspension by way of the media and indeed that leaks, briefing or other publicity should so often have accompanied a suspension pending investigation” (p. 17).

It is important to build confidence in disciplinary procedures, which will allay currently justifiable suspicions regarding witch-hunts. This would also help address anti-Semitic incidents effectively: how can accusations be investigated, and dealt with, if proper procedures are lacking?

 

Perhaps the most significant issue here, however, is the use of language. The Israel-Palestine conflict generates intensely bitter disagreement; and there are people on both sides of this debate whose behavior is counterproductive. One factor at issue in this area is people making allusions to Nazi Germany – likening Palestinians or Israelis to Nazis; or else, in a variety of ways, instrumentalising that period of history to serve contemporary political ends.

It clearly isn’t acceptable to attribute collective responsibility for Nazi crimes to Palestinians, nor to liken Israelis to the regime which persecuted and murdered many of their ancestors; often within living memory. A number of the Nazis’ Jewish victims are still living – and for that matter, are often poorly treated within Israel itself. Even if it were not ahistorical, however, it is both hurtful and false for people who had no involvement in the crimes of Nazi Germany to have blame ascribed to them.

It is also unhelpful. The Charkrabarti report alludes to this, in fact; and suggests that “surely it is better to use the modern universal language of human rights, be it of dispossession, discrimination, segregation, occupation or persecution and to leave Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust out of it” (p. 12) [11].

 

The Israel-Palestine conflict is evidently a problematic subject of debate. So, perhaps a question to ask yourself here would be – what is your aim? Is it to further the cause of peace, and justice? If so, how are your words and actions contributing to that goal? Are they making it easier, or more difficult, to achieve?

It is possible to conduct open and honest discussion about Israel and Palestine; while taking due care to avoid giving unnecessary offence. It not only facilitates productive dialogue, but will help to obviate the current moral panic over anti-Semitism; and make it much easier to address real instances of it in the process, when they have become evident. The same will hold true for anti-Muslim prejudice; which has itself been inflamed by rhetoric surrounding this issue.

There is also a need for integrity; and a bit of commonsense is evidently required, likewise. False allegations should have no more of a place in public discourse than derogatory rhetoric, or inflammatory language. Willfully distorting somebody’s meaning, or engaging in casuistry, is hardly constructive. Equally, people should consider how their wording is liable to come across to others. Civility and mutual respect are surely the basic foundations of productive dialogue; and peace.

 

 

Notes

[1] Arguably the most egregious falsehood made in regard to Peled was by Howard Jacobson in the New York Times; who claimed that “a motion to question the truth of the Holocaust was proposed”. This has no basis in fact. Jacobson’s link goes to an article in the Guardian; which puts the inaccuracy of his claim beyond doubt.

It’s not particularly difficult to discern Jacobson’s motivation. See: ‘Let’s see the ‘criticism’ of Israel for what it really is‘ by Howard Jacobson; Independent (18th February 2009).

Oddly enough, writing about the libel case David Irving had brought against Deborah Lipstadt (concluded in 2000, in Lipstadt’s favour), Jacobson had himself opined that there should be:

“a decisive no to all neo-Nazi revisionism, but no as well to letting the Holocaust set as incontestable as stone. How will we adequately understand what it was, how it came about, what it goes on being in men’s minds, unless we are forever asking questions of it?

…in the general we are the poorer for every disagreement not voiced, every dispute not pursued”

Which bears a distinct resemblance to Peled’s own words:

“The Holocaust was a terrible crime that we must study and from which we must all learn…

If we are to do justice to the memory of the millions of victims of the Holocaust, Jewish and Roma and many, many others, then we must engage in robust debate and education about the causes of current, ongoing violence and injustice.”

Perhaps common ground can be found here, after all.

 

[2] Ken Loach published a response to Jonathan Freedland’s article. See ‘Ken Loach responds to Jonathan Freedland‘ by Ken Loach; Jewish Voice For Labour (5th October 2017).

As he notes, Freedland had suggested that “Ken Loach, Len McCluskey and Ken Livingstone are not Jewish – a fact that might limit their authority to speak on the matter”. It clearly doesn’t do this – they were commenting on the incidence of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, as they saw it. Personal experience is not a prerequisite for bearing witness.

Be that as it may, however, numerous people who are themselves both Jewish and Labour Party members have made objections to the media coverage of this issue. For example, a letter published in the Guardian by a number of Jewish Labour Party members contended that:

“We do not accept that antisemitism is “rife” in the Labour party. Of the examples that have been repeated in the media, many have been reported inaccurately, some are trivial, and a very few may be genuine examples of antisemitism”.

They also stated that “we, personally, have not experienced any antisemitic prejudice in our dealings with Labour party colleagues”; and that:

“We believe these accusations are part of a wider campaign against the Labour leadership, and they have been timed particularly to do damage to the Labour party and its prospects in elections in the coming week. As Jews, we are appalled that a serious issue is being used in this cynical and manipulative way, diverting attention from much more widespread examples of Islamophobia and xenophobia in the Conservative and other parties”.

One signatory was Michele Hanson – who published an article on the subject, making much the same point; more acerbically.

 

[3] Low-quality journalism is a factor underscoring this furore. For an example of rushing into print with obviously unreliable claims, which turned out to be untrue, see ‘Naz Shah’s Apology Was Not Edited By Labour Officials’ – originally entitled ‘Labour HQ Deleted References To Anti-Semitism From Naz Shah’s Apology’ – by Jim Waterson; Buzzfeed (27th April 2016).

Arguably a far worse example of carelessness was printed in an article by Carole Malone, in the Mirror newspaper; which claimed that the Labour MP Luciana Berger had been the victim of anti-Semitic abuse – which she had been; but that the culprits were supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s. This was untrue, as Berger herself clarified via Twitter. See ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are like Lenin style bully boys who’d send women to the gulag‘ by Carole Malone; Mirror (16th July 2016). Also: ‘Web troll admits sending vile threats to Liverpool MP Luciana Berger‘ by Luke Traynor; Liverpool Echo (14th July 2016).

Rhea Wolfson was another person targeted in the same manner. This was ignored by the Parliamentary Committee report, supposedly written to address anti-Semitism; and by the majority of media outlets – notably, including those which have otherwise published an inordinate number of articles on the general issue.

Despite being both Jewish and a member of the Momentum campaign group, Wolfson had also been disbarred from contesting an election to the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee, at the instigation of the former Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy; on the grounds that Momentum had been implicated in anti-Semitism. The cynicism required to undermine a Jewish politician by implying that they are anti-Semitic on a guilt-by-association basis is quite something.

More recently, in an article about the Labour Party conference of 2017, the Independent had reported a series of incidents, which were supposed cause for concern about anti-Semitism:

* The Labour leader of Brighton and Hove City Council warning it would need “reassurances” of action against anti-Semitism before the conference is allowed to return.

* A call for Mr Corbyn to investigate the Labour Party Marxists group, accused of producing and circulating a leaflet quoting a prominent Nazi.

* Criticism of the Labour leader for failing to attend a Labour Friends of Israel reception – despite speaking at a Daily Mirror party.

The article failed to note that “the Labour leader of Brighton and Hove City Council” was Warren Morgan; who has been openly hostile towards Jeremy Corbyn. This obviously casts a different light on matters. See ‘Local Labour Party taken over by ‘fringe left wing’, council leader claims‘ by Joel Adams; The Argus (13th July 2016).

The reference to “the Labour Party Marxists group, accused of producing and circulating a leaflet quoting a prominent Nazi” is equally misleading. It refers to an article created by an Israeli academic, called Moshe Machover; written in defence of Ken Livingstone – who had been suspended from Labour in 2016, for saying that Adolf Hitler had supported Zionism. Machover’s article provided a quote from the Nazi official – Reinhard Heydrich – which alludes to the policy in question. It would be fair to say that this attempt to vindicate Livingstone was poorly conceived; but it clearly was not an endorsement of Nazism, as the Independent’s article (by no means alone) intimated. The third point raised by the Independent is borderline nonsensical, so it can be left aside here.

 

[4] It is not possible to prove definitively that the Labour Party’s Compliance Unit was leaking information about Labour Party members to the media; but there is enough evidence to make it a plausible scenario.

During the council elections of 2016, supposedly anti-Semitic comments made by Labour party members were leaked to press outlets; and in particular, to the Guido Fawkes website. However, the comments in question had almost all pre-dated Corbyn’s election to the leadership of Labour.

It would seem that people within the Labour Party were seeking to exploit the issue, in order to damage their own party’s electoral prospects; and thereafter supplant Corbyn. See ‘Jeremy Corbyn facing ‘coup attempt’ over anti-Semitism row as ministers hold talks with plotters’ by Peter Dominiczak, Christopher Hope, and Kate McCann; Telegraph (30 April 2016).

This followed a succession of leaks, staged resignations, and public criticism across the course of the previous year; all drawing Corbyn and Labour into disrepute. The people in question would then stage their coup after the EU referendum, of 23rd June 2016. They announced their intentions beforehand – again, in the Telegraph. See ‘Labour rebels hope to topple Jeremy Corbyn in 24-hour blitz after EU referendum‘ by Ben Riley-Smith; Telegraph (13th June 2016). This effort would, of course, fail.

See also:

Jeremy Corbyn faces open revolt after ‘incompetent’ two day reshuffle‘ by Steven Swinford, Ben Riley-Smith and Christopher Hope; Telegraph (5th January 2016).

Revealed: plot to oust Jeremy Corbyn by using veteran Labour MP Margaret Hodge to spark leadership contest‘ by Michael Wilkinson; Telegraph (3rd May 2016).

Labour anti-Semitism row threatens to divide the Party‘ by By Camilla Turner; Telegraph (6th March 2016).

The Telegraph was evidently provided with information. It was also the recipient of leaked material concerning one suspended Labour Party member; and was informed of the reasons for this suspension before the person in question had been.

The efforts undertaken by Labour MPs to undermine Corbyn began before he had first been elected to lead the party. See ‘Labour leadership election: MPs prepare to resist Corbynistas‘ by Daniel Boffey; Observer (5th September 2015).

For an overview of the campaign conducted by a number of Labour Party MPs against Jeremy Corbyn , see ‘No Easy Answers‘ by Daniel Finn; Jacobin (7th Match 2017).

 

[5] The Home Affairs Committee Report is perhaps what those who would (eventually) bemoan the Chakrabarti Report had wanted: namely, an excoriation of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party; which gave a veneer of authority to their claims that criticism of Israel’s government should be classified as anti-Semitic – and thereby unacceptable – at their say so.

The Committee report promotes this view, by virtue of citing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. This was itself derived from the ‘EUMC working definition’ of anti-Semitism; which had been created during 2004-2005. The purpose behind it was to conflate criticism of the Israeli government with anti-Semitic prejudice. As it notes: “such manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity”.

However, even this was not as overbearing as the Committee report is. For all of its shortcomings, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism prefaces the examples relating to the state of Israel, with the statement “contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include…”. The Committee report omits this qualifier; stating instead that “the IHRA goes on to list a number of contemporary examples of antisemitism, including…” (p. 9).

It also follows the same suit as a number of Pro-Israel lobbying organisations, in misconstruing a recommendation made by the Macpherson Report (i.e. the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry; paragraph 45.17). The Committee report states that “it is for the victim to determine whether a crime against them was motivated by a particular characteristic (the Macpherson definition)” (pp. 10-11). This is not the case; as is outlined by the Committee themselves shortly afterwards:

“for an incident to be found to be antisemitic, or for a perpetrator to be prosecuted for a criminal offence that was motivated or aggravated by antisemitism, requires more than just the victim’s perception that it was antisemitic. It also requires evidence, and it requires that someone other than the victim makes an objective interpretation of that evidence” (p. 11).

The report also focused overwhelmingly on the Labour Party. To suggest that there was not a political motive in evidence would be untenable. This was reaffirmed when Corbyn’s response to the Committee was derided by a number of Labour MPs who were hostile towards him. His published response to it, however, accurately discerned the shortcomings of the Committee report – namely, that:

“The committee chose not to look in any detail at – or come up with proposals for – combatting antisemitism in other parties, our major civic institutions, in the workplace, in schools, in all those places where Jewish people’s life chances might be at risk through antisemitism”.

Moreover, that:

“The Committee heard evidence from too narrow a pool of opinion, and its then-chair rejected both Chakrabarti’s and the Jewish Labour Movement’s requests to appear and give evidence before it. Not a single woman was called to give oral evidence in public, and the report violates natural justice by criticising individuals without giving them a right to be heard. The report’s political framing and disproportionate emphasis on Labour risks undermining the positive and welcome recommendations made in it”.

The poor quality of the Committee report is perhaps explained by its methodology, as much as the intentions behind it. The supposed examples of anti-Semitism revolved around the same comments quoted continuously throughout media articles during the Spring of 2016; and focused primarily on statements people had made about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

For example, the Committee report declaims that:

“Mr Corbyn was specifically challenged about the views of his Executive Director of Strategy and Communications, Seumas Milne, who had been filmed at a demonstration in 2009, at which he said that Hamas “will not be broken” due to the “spirit of resistance of the Palestinian people”. The Covenant of Hamas states that “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it” and that “There is no solution for the Palestinian problem except by Jihad.”

Mr Corbyn told the Committee that he did not think it “appropriate” for him to be asked questions about the views of “every single member of staff” he employs, and said that he had not seen the video concerned, but described Mr Milne as a man of “immense intellect” and a “scholar”.

This is not an accurate representation of matters. The Committee report provides the source for Milne’s comments; and the “demonstration in 2009” had been a Stop The War protest against Operation Cast Lead. What Milne had actually said did not amount to an endorsement of Hamas’s covenant, as the Committee implied.

Instead, Milne had said: “it is a war that will fail, and is failing – even now, despite the horrific casualties, Hamas is not broken and will not be broken because of the spirit of resistance of the Palestinian people”. In other words, the war was taking peoples’ lives to no avail; and it needed to stop.

Furthermore, Milne’s stated aim was to press for an “arms embargo” – that is, for Britain’s government to stop providing the Israeli military with the weapons being used in this conflict. Given that Milne was suggesting the British government was culpable for the violence, it defies reason to suggest that he was being discriminatory towards Israel’s government, either.

As a further testament to the lack of quality in the Committee report, however, it notes

“A recent survey found that one in ten voters believe that Jewish people have too much influence in the UK; 6% disagree that “A British Jew would make an equally acceptable Prime Minister as a member of any other faith”; and 7% would be less likely to vote for a political party if its leader was Jewish”

This, of course, indicates how low levels of anti-Semitism within Britain are. Unstated by the Committee is that the data they were citing demonstrates negativity towards Jewish people was even lower among Labour Party supporters than amongst the general public.

This survey was compiled by Yougov, on behalf of Tim Bale; who had himself published an article in the New Statesman opining that there was a particular problem with anti-Semitism within the Labour Party – evidently in defiance of his own data. This is consistent with the overall quality of his output, in fairness. See for example: ‘Snap election a win-win for Theresa May: she’ll crush Labour and make Brexit a little easier’ by Tim Bale; Reaction (19th April 2017).

For a critical analysis of the Committee report, which did evaluate evidence responsibly, see ‘Crying wolf? A cavalier use of evidence in the UK’s latest Home Affairs Committee report is feeding a moral panic about antisemitism, rather than dealing with an increasingly racist, intolerant society’ by Richard Kuper; Open Democracy (24th October 2016).

One of the contributors to the Chakrabarti report was David Feldman, who is among the few people concerned herein to have genuine expertise on anti-Semitism. For his evaluation of the strengths and weakness behind various definitions of anti-Semitism oft cited, see: ‘Will Britain’s new definition of antisemitism help Jewish people? I’m sceptical‘ by David Feldman; Guardian (28th December 2016). And his more in-depth submission to a Parliamentary Inquiry into anti-Semitism: ‘Sub-Report For The Parliamentary Committee Against Anti-Semitism‘ by David Feldman (1st January 2015).

For an analysis of the problems behind the ‘EUMC working definition’ of anti-Semitism, and the related attempts to redefine anti-Semitism in order to include criticism of the State of Israel, see: ‘Hue and cry over the UCU‘ by Richard Kuper; Open Democracy (1st June 2011).

For an assessment of the British government adopting a problematic definition of anti-Semitism, see ‘Defining Anti-Semitism’ by Stephen Sedley; London Review Of Books (4th May 2017).

For an overview of contemporary anti-Semitism in Britain, see ‘Could it happen here? What existing data tell us about contemporary antisemitism in the UK‘ by Jonathan Boyd and L. Daniel Staetsky; Institute for Jewish Policy Review (May 2015).

 

[6] Another supposed incident of anti-Semitism at the Labour Party conference concerned Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, of the Free Speech on Israel group. As reported by the BBC:

“At a fringe event later on Tuesday, JLM chair Jeremy Newmark said her remarks – which were applauded by some in the hall – accusing Jews of colluding with the right-wing media amounted to anti-Semitism”.

This is not accurate. According to the BBC:

“She told delegates the Jewish Labour Movement would have “a bit more credibility” if it “didn’t spend so much of its time running to the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph with stories”.

Wimborne-Idrissi had therefore specifically criticized the Jewish Labour Movement. This was recorded by the BBC. Wimborne-Idrissi begins speaking at roughly 2 hours 10 minutes into the video; and had been referring to the rule change proposed by the Jewish Labour Movement at the conference – which would result in people being banned from the Labour Party if they make anti-Semitic statements.

She then states “the person who moved it from the Jewish Labour Movement would have a bit more credibility if his organisation did not spend so much of its time running to the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph with stories”. This is very obviously not the same as “accusing Jews of colluding with the right-wing media”.

Moreover, it is a matter of public record that leading members of the Jewish Labour Movement, including Newmark, have complained about the Labour party via the pages of right-wing news publications; as well as to other media outlets. See for example: ‘Why does Labour find it so hard to weed out antisemitism?‘ by Jeremy Newmark; Telegraph (17th February 2016)

See also in passing: ‘Corbyn’s day of disaster: ANDREW PIERCE on the tidal wave of criticism Labour has faced since delegates aired anti-Semitic views at a conference event’ by Andrew Pierce; Daily Mail (27th September 2017)

The text of the rule change proposed by the Jewish Labour Movement, was not adopted in its entirety. Instead, after a consultation with Shami Chakrabarti, a different resolution was passed. It is not entirely clear from media reports what this comprised. It was alluded to by Chakrabarti in the Newsnight interview linked-to previously; and the somewhat unreliable Skwawkbox website claims to have received a leaked document containing Chakrabarti’s amendments. This needs to be treated with some caution; but a member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee has stated that the rule change adopted by Labour was less draconian than the one proposed by the Jewish Labour Movement.

Much the same has to be said about Jeremy Newmark’s claims on this issue. Newmark was found to have been making false allegations about anti-Semitism, during an employment tribunal in 2013. See paragraphs 131 and 148 in the Employment Tribunal: Fraser Vs University College Union transcript.

Jewish Voice For Labour have posted a piece by Jamie Stern-Weiner on their site, which provides a far more evidence-based assessment of the allegations about anti-Semitic incidents at the Labour Party conference of 2017, than appeared anywhere in the mainstream media. See: ‘Labour Conference or Nuremberg Rally? Assessing the Evidence‘ by Jamie Stern-Weiner; Jewish Voice For Labour (12th October 2017).

As a final point here, there is a very obvious problem with citing ‘anti-Semitic tropes’ – namely the fact that this can encompass anything at all, at will. For example, both Jeremy Newmark, and Richard Angellamongst others – had accused Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi of using an anti-Semitic trope. They were thereby clearly suggesting that her criticism of the Jewish Labour Movement was not honest. Wimborne-Idrissi is Jewish; and deceitfulness was a trait long ascribed to Jewish people by anti-Semites. So, were Newmark and Angell et al using an ‘anti-semitic trope’?

 

[7] Responses to the Chakrabarti Inquiry were initially positive; if, in some cases, determined to use it as a petty exercise in politicking. For example, Richard Angell of the Progress organisation, ‘graded’ the report; and misrepresented its content. Angell opines that “not surprisingly the leader who commissioned the report avoids criticism for having called Hamas and Hezbollah ‘friends’ and the implications for debate in the party”. In reality, the Chakrabarti report addressed precisely this issue:

“Sharing a platform or having a meeting around some kind of problem or injustice never has meant, does not and never will mean, sharing any or all of the views (past, present or future) of everyone in the room. It is instead the business of peace-building and of the promotion of fundamental human rights” (pp. 13-14).

Angell also complained that:

“at the event Jeremy Corbyn had an opportunity to put his words into action and slap down the use of an antisemitism trope – that Jews conspire with the media – when Marc Wadsworth of Momemtum Black Connexions – having circulated a press release calling for the deselection of MPs – focused his wrath on Jewish Labour member of parliament Ruth Smeeth for ‘conspiring with the Daily Telegraph’ in front on the whole press conference”.

This suggestion does not withstand any real scrutiny. While the incident in question was unpleasant, it is not tenable to claim that Wadsworth had suggested “Jews conspire with the media”; nor anything to that effect. Angell would repeat this allegation, in 2017. His motives are evidently borne of a political animus directed towards Jeremy Corbyn; rather than any sincere concern.

Less single-minded in their response was the Board of Deputies; which initially welcomed the Chakrabarti Report – then denounced it as a “whitewash”. The Community Security Trust followed suit – welcoming it in June; denouncing it in October.

While these responses were evidently opportunistic; a more determined excoriation was undertaken on the anniversary of the Chakrabarti Report’s publication. This was conducted at the behest of Judith Ornstein; who published both a book and a short film, decrying the Chakrabarti Report as a Whitewash.

The film was written by David Hirsh; who has a track record of making untrue claims about anti-Semitism – as noted in the same Employment Tribunal of 2013 as Jeremy Newmark; in which Hirsh (along with a colleague from his Engage lobbying organisation, Jane Ashworth) had been found to have borne false witness. Their efforts in this regard go back to at least 2005; when they published an article on the Progress website, entitled ‘The state they’re in‘.

This tendency is borne out by the film itself. It opens with an edited portion of Corbyn’s speech to a Stop The War meeting in 2009, in which he says:

“Tomorrow evening it will be my pleasure and honour to host an event in Parliament where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking. I also invited friends from Hamas to come and speak as well”.

Hirsh edits out Corbyn’s statement after this section, that they had been invited “so that we can promote that peace, that understanding and that dialogue”; and omits Corbyn’s reference that “unfortunately the Israelis would not allow them to travel here”.

Hirsh’s film then quotes Corbyn saying:

“The idea that an organisation that is dedicated towards the good of the Palestinian people, and bringing about long-term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region, should be labelled as a terrorist organisation by the British government is really a big, big historical mistake”

Again, it omits what Corbyn goes on to say: “and I would invite the government to reconsider its position on this matter and start talking directly to Hamas and Hezbollah – that is the only way forward to bring about peace”.

The full video is available on Youtube; and I have written about this issue previously. Suffice to say, the suggestion that Corbyn was eulogising Hamas and Hezbollah, rather than promoting the need for dialogue in order to end the Israel-Gaza conflict of 2008-2009, is devoid of sense.

Ornstein’s respective works on this theme were derived from submissions made by – amongst others – Ruth Smeeth MP, Howard Jacobson, and Ruth Deech, to a specially devoted website: http://www.whitewashed.co.uk/

They also featured Luke Akehurst – a former Labour Party Councillor, who has an overt political hostility towards Jeremy Corbyn; and a background in Pro-Israel lobbying efforts. For example, his involvement in a website called We Believe In Israel; which aims to facilitate public relations campaigns on behalf of the Israeli government, particularly during its military operations.

Akehurst has also made inaccurate claims about anti-Semitism recently; as adjudged by an Ofcom ruling. The Al Jazeera news channel had published a documentary about lobbying being conducted within Britain, by an Israeli government official.

Akehurst had complained that the programme was anti-Semitic; but Ofcom declared otherwise. Significantly, Ofcom had cited the “International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (“IHRA”) working definition of anti-Semitism” (p. 24), that Britain’s Government adopted in December 2016; which was purposely designed to conflate criticism of Israel’s government with anti-Semitism. Even within this conducive framework, Akehurst’s claims were found to be devoid of basis.

Needless to say, none of the people claiming that the Chakrabarti Report was a “whitewash” have ever provided evidence of any wrongdoing. Instead, the accusations ensued as a result of Chakrabarti being made a peer at Corbyn’s request, in October 2016. See for example:

UK Jews fume as lawyer in ‘whitewash’ anti-Semitism report gets top Labour job‘ in The Times of Israel (7th October 2016)

Shami Chakrabarti has ‘sold out the Jewish community’ for shadow cabinet job, Board of Deputies claims‘ by Kate McCann; Telegraph (7th October 2016).

The agenda at work here is clear enough; and had been indicated by the Board of Deputies in their initial response to the Chakrabarti report: “the report was weak on the demonisation of Israel and omitted any mention of party figures who have displayed friendship towards terrorists”.

Writing in the Guardian, one of the people who had submitted evidence to Chakrabarti’s inquiry – Keith Khan-Harris – had presciently forewarned that while the Chakrabarti Report deserved “to be discussed seriously and calmly”, this would not happen; and the report would instead be subsumed in political wrangling. Khan-Harris then demonstrates the point, by doing exactly that.

He writes:

“Corbyn is under attack for saying at the launch that: “Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organisations.”

A generous interpretation of this line is that the Labour leader was trying to make a point about how we need to draw a line between minorities in the UK and what their brethren are doing elsewhere. Yet the apparent equivalence drawn between Israel and Isis was, at the very least, tone deaf and ignorant of how it would be received in a constituency with which he needs to build bridges”.

The link leads to to an article by Harriet Sherwood. Both Sherwood and Khan-Harris seem not to have taken much care, here. What Corbyn had actually said was easy enough to understand:

“To assume that a Jewish friend or fellow member is wealthy, part of some kind of financial or media conspiracy, or takes a particular position on politics in general, or on Israel and Palestine in particular, is just wrong.

Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu Government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organisations. Nor should Muslims be regarded as sexist, antisemitic or otherwise suspect, as has become an ugly Islamophobic norm. We judge people on their individual values and actions, not en masse.

No one should be expected either to condemn or defend the actions of foreign powers on account of their faith or race.”.

Needless to say, “various self-styled Islamic states or organisations” clearly precludes one Islamic State from being the point of reference. Corbyn’s words were derived from the Chakrabarti Report itself – which Khan-Harris had suggested was meritorious. Chakrabarti had written about this particular issue at length on pages 10-11 of her report: the very obvious point being made, by both her and Corbyn, was that racial/religious stereotypes and notions of collective guilt should have no place in the thinking of Labour Party members.

It perhaps goes without saying that none of the various commentators – or Labour MPs – accusing Chakrabarti of being compromised by her peerage said anything similar about Janet Royall, on account of hers. This is despite the fact that the two had published similar reports; and Royall had contributed to the Chakrabarti Inquiry.

On a purely personal note, Chakrabarti’s report evinces an optimistic tone; which is not an outlook that I share. I had written two thirds of a research essay in 2009-10 (before falling ill for several months, and deciding not to complete it); about the claims that a new form of anti-Semitism had emerged among ‘the Left’. It remains relevant, unfortunately. I received a number of abusive comments in response, and several threats as a consequence of writing that essay. The counterpart would perhaps be when a far-right Christian website replicated a portion of it, for their own unpleasant purposes; which was not any more encouraging.

 

[8] As noted, an abundance of articles were published during the Spring of 2016, all reiterating the same basic claims about anti-Semitism within the Labour party. While these do not vary much in their assertions or quality, they nonetheless demonstrate the inordinate level of coverage the issue received:

Is the Labour Party’s problem with racism beyond repair?‘ by Dan Hodges; Telegraph (17th February 2016)

Anti-Semitism is a poison – and the left must take leadership against it‘ by Owen Jones; Guardian (15th March 2016)

Revealed: How Jewish members of Labour are fed up at party bosses over ‘sickening’ anti-Semitism in the party as a candidate is suspended for a SECOND time for sending a series of tweets attacking Israel‘ by Matt Dathan; Daily Mail (15th March 2016)

Jeremy Corbyn ‘impotent’ as he fails to halt Labour’s anti-Semitism, warns Jewish leader‘ by Michael Wilkinson; Telegraph (16th March 2016)

Labour and the left have an antisemitism problem‘ by Jonathan Freedland; Guardian (18th March 2016)

What is it about the Left which makes anti-Semitism so common?‘ by Abi Wilkinson; Telegraph (25th March 2016)

Anti-semitism at the heart of Corbyn’s Labour Party: Devastating dossier exposes how extensive anti-Jewish bigotry is in Labour and poses profoundly troubling questions its leaders MUST answer‘ by Guy Adams; Daily Mail (2nd April 2016)

Corbyn not doing enough to stamp out anti-Semitism‘ by Stephen Pollard; Daily Express (9th April 2016)

Labour’s problem with anti-Semitism‘ By Ross Hawkins; BBC (13th April 2016)

Jeremy Corbyn told to ‘get a grip’ of anti-Semitism in the Labour party‘ by Kevin Schofield, Emilio Casalicchio, Agnes Chambre and John Ashmore; Politics Home (13th April 2016)

Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of tackling Labour’s anti-Semitism problem‘ by Alan Johnson; Prospect (25th April 2016)

Labour has “serious anti-Semitism problem”, peers warn‘ by BBC (28th April 2016):

Labour’s anti-Semitism row explained‘ by ITV (28th April 2016)

If Labour wants to stamp out anti-Semitism, it should take a lesson from Naz Shah
by Henry Zeffman; New Statesman (28 April 2016)

Labour’s anti-Semitism problem stems from its grassroots‘ by Douglas Murray; The Spectator (28th April 2016)

‘Top Jewish figure hits out at Corbyn over Labour’s “anti-semitic demons”‘ by Joseph Watts; Evening Standard (28th April 2016)

I saw the darkness of antisemitism, but I never thought it would get this dark’ by Nick Cohen; Observer (30th April 2016)

Corbyn may not be antisemitic. But is he a real leader?‘ by Matthew D’Ancona; The Guardian (1st May 2016)

Ken Livingstone and the hard Left are spreading the insidious virus of anti-Semitism’ by Ephraim Mirvis; Telegraph (3rd May 2016)

Jewish leaders call for UK’s Labour Party to act on anti-Semitism “cancer”‘ by Michael Holden; Reuters (4th May 2016)

Momentum, anti-Semitism and the problem with Labour’s grassroots activists‘ by Julia Rampen; New Statesman (4th July 2016)

This list is by no means exhaustive; nor were articles of this kind limited to the British media. I have written about this period in more detail. See ‘Does the Labour Party have ‘a problem with anti-Semitism’? No; and the accusations raise more questions than answers‘.

 

[9] One example is the self-styled Campaign Against Antisemitism UK; which is in reality a pro-Israel lobbying group, set up to counter criticism of the Israeli government and military, in the wake of Operation Protective Edge (2014). This is an effort being conducted with the interests of Israel’s government in mind; disguised as a community concern with anti-Semitism.

The Campaign Against Antisemitism UK harasses various people – including some who arguably have made anti-Semitic comments – by posting their personal details on the group’s Facebook page; and thereafter encouraging its followers to report the person in question to their employers. It also runs profiles of “antisemitism in political parties”, with an overwhelming amount of cases supposedly being evinced by Labour politicians. Suffice to say, very few of these incidents withstand any real scrutiny; and revolve primarily around comments made about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Despite claiming to be apolitical, the organisation’s patrons are listed on its website; and comprise a number of mostly Conservative politicians, along with Richard Kemp – who has repeatedly made excuses for war crimes perpetrated by Israel’s military. Kemp has also served as an advisor to the Gatestone Institute, which promotes anti-Muslim authors and far-right politicians. One of the Gatestone Institute’s funders is the Middle East Forum; which has itself set up various ‘watch’ sites to harass and intimidate their political opponents.

Another Campaign Against Antisemitism UK patron is Ruth Deech – who is involved in the lobbying organisation UK Lawyers for Israel. It’s fairly obvious that this patronage is rooted in an attempt at defending the state of Israel from political activism. Deech has worked to undermine criticism of Israeli policy, on UK campuses; having written a letter to several universities, discouraging students from taking part in Israeli Apartheid week by intimating that legal consequences might arise.

The actual staff of the Campaign Against Antisemitism UK follow a similar suit. As with many similar organisations, its claims evince the basic dynamic of a witch-hunt – namely, leveling accusations at people; then when somebody denies their accuracy, casting their denial as further proof of guilt.

The key individuals involved in this group are Gideon Falter, Nathan Hopstein, Stephen Silverman – and to a lesser extent, Jonathan Sacerdoti. Falter, in particular, has a track-record of making false claims about antisemitism.

As an example of its work, the Campaign Against Antisemitism UK bemoaned Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election to lead the Labour Party, in September 2016 via the Daily Express. They also published a statement on their website; which declaimed that they had “instigated disciplinary proceedings against Jeremy Corbyn over his promotion of the lie that accusations of antisemitism are dishonest and nefarious”.

The organisation’s complaint was fairly prolix; but according to the letter they submitted to the Labour’s Party’s Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, their case against Corbyn was that he had promoted “the allegation that Jews lie and deceive in order to further hidden agendas” and that this “is an age-old antisemitic trope”. The incident they cite does not support this, however. As the Campaign Against Antisemitism UK eventually get around to outlining:

“Although Mr Corbyn and his allies have a long history of association with antisemites, it was not until 5th April this year that he crossed the line and made an antisemitic statement. At that point, when his brother, Piers Corbyn, characterised the antisemitic abuse complained of by Jewish MP Louise Ellman as a politically motivated “absurd” attack on his brother, Jeremy Corbyn agreed, saying his brother “was not wrong”.

This should not require any further comment; however, the Campaign Against Antisemitism UK had misrepresented matters. The comment made by Corbyn had originally appeared in an interview with The Sun newspaper.

Piers Corbyn had posted on Twitter: “ABSURD! JC + All #Corbyns are committee #AntiNazi. #Zionists cant cope with anyone supporting rights for #Palestine”. The Sun notes:

“Today the hard-left Labour leader defended his brother saying: “No, my brother isn’t wrong”.

Questioned by The Sun after a speech in Harlow, Essex, the Leader of the Opposition added: “My brother has his point of view, I have mine and we actually fundamentally agree – we are a family that were brought up fighting racism from the day we were born.”

A more responsible reading, therefore, would be that Jeremy Corbyn was stating his brother “was not wrong” to say they were both opponents of racism. Perhaps more to the point, those at the forefront of this furore are seldom themselves Jewish. Nonetheless – to the best of my knowledge, at least – there has never been an ‘anti-Semitic trope’ about politicians continuously whinging to the press.

The Campaign Against Antisemitism UK has also exaggerated the extent of anti-Semitic opinion in Britain; having promoted a distorted interpretation of data. It has focused these efforts on Muslims; as have many of the individuals and organisations it is linked to. The obvious unreliability of this organisation as a source did not stop it being cited throughout the Home Affairs Committee report into anti-Semitism, however.

 

[10] The issue of anti-Semitism among Labour Party members was exploited for political ends by the Conservative Party, amongst others. It had pushed these accusations during the local and Mayoral elections of 2016; while simultaneously conducting a defamatory campaign against Sadiq Khan, on account of his Muslim background.

David Cameron had raised both issues during Prime Minister’s Questions on 4th May 2016. This was evidently a part of the Conservatives electoral campaign; and as with everything else to David Cameron’s name, it resulted in failure. The person Khan had ‘shared a platform with’ was a Conservative Party supporter; who had subsequently sued Michael Fallon for repeating Cameron’s remarks. Cameron was himself protected from litigation by Parliamentary privilege. Oddly, and perhaps predictably, Cameron has himself been involved with an openly anti-Semitic politician called Michel Kaminski.

This resurfaced again during the Conservative Party conference of 2017 – when Theresa May had reiterated the same basic claim as David Cameron; namely that the Labour party was “riven with the stain of anti-semitism”. As it happens, a number of Conservative MPs have themselves courted controversy with their remarks about the Israel-Palestine conflict; whilst Alan Duncan would become the target of an Israeli government official, seeking to undermine his position, seemingly because of Duncan’s prior criticisms of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Several other Conservative, and Liberal Democrat, politicians have followed suit; as mentioned in David Feldman’s submission to a Parliamentary Committee in 2015. So why hasn’t any similar furore erupted over these political parties? Surely if the concern about anti-Semitism was genuine, it would have done.

For a more blatant example of Conservatives seeking to exploit the issue of anti-Semitism for political gain, see ‘The Jewish Labour Movement is fighting our friends and propping up our enemies‘ by Jeremy Brier; Jewish Chronicle (3rd May 2017).

 

[11] While the Chakrabarti report focused on the problem of people using references to the history of Nazi Germany when criticising the Israeli government, there is a long-standing counterpart of using the same theme to criticise Muslims. See ‘Islamofascist slanders‘ by Anne Karpf; Guardian (4th November 2008).

Has The Labour Party Been Inundated With ‘Trotsky Entryists’? The Evidence Indicates Otherwise.

A claim which has been made repeatedly by critics and opponents of Jeremy Corbyn is that his leadership of the Labour Party has resulted in it being deluged with entryism, by people affiliated with far-left political parties. Only recently, the Labour Deputy Leader contended that “Trotsky entryists” were “caucusing and factionalising and putting pressure” on young supporters of Labour; supposedly leaving the party itself prone to a ‘hard-left’ takeover.

However, the same allegation has been made repeatedly ever since Corbyn became the front-runner in the initial leadership contest; and during the months immediately after he had been elected to lead the party.

So does the evidence support or contradict this claim? On the basis of numbers alone, it’s impossible to conclude that the claim is accurate. Moreover, the individual examples cited by various media publications fail to support the overall allegation.

Firstly, let’s look at the actual data. The articles writing about this supposed phenomenon cite three main sources of entryism into Labour – the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party (which is the modern permutation of the group Militant), and the Communist Party of Britain. The number of votes cast for these three parties indicates plainly how many people support them.

Both of the two socialist parties currently contest elections as part of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition. At the last General Election, in May 2015, they gained a total of 36,368 votes.

There are in fact several communist parties in Britain. At the same General Election in 2015, the party simply entitled ‘Communist’ gained the most support with 555 votes. The Communist Party of Britain received 275. The Communist League had 174 votes. The Scottish Communist Party received 136.

Let’s rest on the basis that all of these people joined Labour in the wake of Corbyn’s election; and add that to the number of people who voted for the TUSC in the General Election of 2015. The total number of people who supported these particular far-left parties in 2015 was therefore 37,508.

The current total membership of the Labour party, in August 2016, is 515,000 people. So, on the off-chance that every single last voter for the TUSC and the various communist parties have joined Labour, ‘Trotsky Entryists’ would now comprise c. 7% of the Labour Party’s membership. Needless to say, even if the entire quotient of these voters have joined Labour, it could barely be deemed significant.

Let’s test this thoroughly, however. Given the paucity of voters who support the communist parties, they can be left aside here. 36,368 people voted for the TUSC in May 2015. So are there signs that this support has reduced significantly since Corbyn was elected to lead the Labour party – which would indicate their supporters defecting to Labour? No – in fact, quite the contrary. The TUSC contested the local council elections, in May 2016 – although the turnout for these was not the same as during the General Election, it would nonetheless indicate whether every single TUSC voter had switched their allegiance to Labour. So how many people voted for TUSC in 2016? According to the TUSC themselves:

“Overall TUSC candidates won a total of 43,309 votes in these elections, comprised of 3,540 votes in Scotland, 2,040 votes in Wales, 6,826 votes in the two mayoral contests, and 30,903 in the English council elections.”

Leaving aside the mayoral contests, this is almost the exact same number as voted for them the previous year: 36,483. So, it’s reasonable to conclude that any possible decamping of these voters to the Labour Party has been minimal, to non-existent.

In fact, the idea that this group of voters has joined Labour is actually defied by the very increase in Labour’s membership, since May 2015. The number of Labour Party members began to rise immediately, following the General Election of 2015. As reported in the Mirror Newspaper, during August 2015:

“Figures shown to Mirror Online suggest there are now around 270,000 fully-fledged Labour members – up more than a third from 194,000 before the General Election. The numbers do not include another 70,000 or so people who’ve signed up to vote for Labour’s next leader without joining the party itself”.

So, an increase of 76,000 members after May 2015, and before Corbyn was elected to lead Labour in September 2015. As of October 2015, however, a further 50,000 people had joined the Labour party. By December 2015, it had 388,000 members. During a 48 hour period, in July 2016, 183,000 people joined the Labour party. As noted, its membership currently stands at 515,000. Suffice to say, these numbers simply cannot be explained by supporters – let alone members – of the socialist/communist parties joining Labour. It is a physical impossibility.

Has there been any entryism at all, then? There was evidently some, during the Labour Party’s leadership contest in 2015. As Michael Crick noted, 1,200 people had been removed from the leadership ballot by the Labour Party:

“Of the 1,200, almost 300 people have been identified as people who’ve stood in the recent past as candidates for other parties. Labour tell me this includes 214 Green candidates in recent elections, 37 people who stood for the Trades Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), 13 Conservatives, 7 Ukip candidates, and one BNP. Oh, and a man who stood at some election or other for the Morecambe Bay Independents.”

Needless to say, perhaps, but these people were all removed; and the scale of their attempted entryism was evidently minimal. However, Crick also demurred presciently that “the various Trots and Greens would like you to believe they made a crucial difference. And journalists love it as a story too.” Indeed.

 

As a narrative, the claims about Trotskyite entryism clearly aren’t based on numerical evidence. However, do the reports of sinister incidents involving supposed entryists withstand more scrutiny? Not really. If anything, what seems to emerge is a distinct narrative being applied; which exaggerates matters quite considerably.

Writing in the Huffington Post, Owen Bennett makes a number of claims on this theme, which are contradicted by the actual evidence. In response to Tom Watson’s allegation of entryism, Bennett contends:

“Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hit back at the claims, accusing Watson of “patronising members and peddling baseless conspiracy theories”. But just last week The Socialist Party – known as Militant in the 1980s – was boasting of receiving a round of applause at a meeting of Labour supporters when it called for the deselection of MPs”.

As it happens, it wasn’t Corbyn who said this; but rather a member of his leadership campaign team. However, Bennett’s second claim would appear to be accurate. Is it quite what it seems from Bennett’s write-up, though? No. What appears to have happened is that among the hundreds of Labour Party members reputedly attending the meeting, one Socialist Party member supposedly stood up and called “for the deselection of all Blairite politicians, including cuts-making councillors”, and “received strong applause” in response. While this would indicate that a Socialist Party member had attended an unofficial meeting of Labour supporters, it evidently does not provide evidence of anything widespread – let alone particularly untoward – occurring. It is one person attending a public gathering. That’s if their own claims are actually true to begin with. Nothing seems to corroborate them.

Moreover, the constituency Labour party had been banned from holding an official meeting in the wake of the Parliamentary coup; on the pretext that Angela Eagle had received threats – ostensibly from Labour supporters. People were obviously unhappy enough about this situation to attend a conference protesting against it. Presupposing that the Socialist Party’s fairly self-serving claim is accurate, it is obviously far from consequential.

One person standing up in a meeting of hundreds, being applauded in the present circumstances for objecting to problematic MPs and Councillors, is a trifling incident, to say the very least. If they really did gain applause from those present, it was surely for nothing more than voicing an opinion many of the Labour supporters already held of their own accord. To suggest as one of Bennett’s own – predictably anonymous – sources does that this is evidence of infiltration, subverting the local Labour party, is implausible. By all accounts, the person in question had not become a member of the Labour Party – but simply attended one of its membership’s meetings.

The Guardian newspaper followed much the same suit – contending that the “Leader of expelled leftwing group Militant expects readmission to Labour”. As it outlines:

“Peter Taaffe, the veteran leader of Militant – the hard-left group pushed out of Labour in the 1980s and now renamed the Socialist party – expects to be readmitted to Labour if Jeremy Corbyn wins September’s leadership election”.

Suffice to say, Taaffe cannot join Labour, because he is a member of a different political party: the aforementioned Socialist Party. Moreover, he and his cohort have had a year to join the Labour Party since Corbyn was elected to lead it; and have evidently not done so. The suggestion that they could, or will, join Labour in the event of Corbyn winning the current leadership contest therefore seems to be completely baseless. It also flatly disproves the claim that the Momentum group is somehow coterminous with Militant; as has been suggested, previously. How could that be the case, when the bona fide Militant are openly acknowledging that they do not currently occupy any place within the Labour Party?

 

The figure currently at the centre of these claims, of course, is Tom Watson. Following the furore which erupted in the aftermath of his initial claims, Watson addressed a public letter to Jeremy Corbyn; supposedly compiling proof of his allegations. So how does this evidence measure up against his accusations?

The allegations themselves were made in the Guardian. Namely that:

“There are Trots that have come back to the party, and they certainly don’t have the best interests of the Labour party at heart. They see the Labour party as a vehicle for revolutionary socialism, and they’re not remotely interested in winning elections, and that’s a problem. But I don’t think the vast majority of people that have joined the Labour party and have been mobilised by the people that are in Momentum are all Trots and Bolsheviks.

Some of these people are deeply interested in political change, in building a more equal society, and are just on a journey in politics that they’re new to, and I don’t want them to feel that I’m labelling them because I’m not. But there are some old hands twisting young arms in this process, and I’m under no illusions about what’s going on. They are caucusing and factionalising and putting pressure where they can, and that’s how Trotsky entryists operate”.

In the public letter he has written, however – published in the Huffington Post– Watson changes his claims slightly. Firstly, he writes that “there is no denying that tightly organised factions are also organising within Momentum and the party”. He then states: “there has been an increase in members of proscribed organisations attempting to join the party”.

These are two quite different statements. Unsuccessfully attempting to join the party is not the same as doing so, undetected. In fact, Watson then refers to people who have been “excluded from the party” – and mentions attaching a document, “drawn up using publicly available information” which shows that members of proscribed organisations “are joining Labour”.

To what extent are these slightly contradictory claims true? In his dossier, Watson cites five categories of entryism. The first of these is under the heading ‘organising within Momentum branches to influence local Labour branches’. While on the surface the three examples he cites appear to support his case, they prompt more questions than answers. To take the initial one, Watson refers to an organisation called Red Flag, derived from a previous “Trotskyist group” called Worker’s Power. According to Watson, Red Flag “is encouraging organising within Momentum branches and CLPs – urging supporters to pass a model motion against the PLP”. Well, this is not quite accurate to begin with – the motion in question is quite specific in referring to “rebels in the PLP” who “have organised a vote of no confidence and a leadership contest to overthrow Jeremy Corbyn”.

However, regardless of its goal, how influential is this likely to have proven? It’s difficult to say, because the URL Watson provides simply contains the template for a motion, intended to be handed-out at Momentum meetings. Was it actually distributed? It’s not possible to answer without evidence; and Watson provides none. That said, it appears not to have been shared by anybody online, to judge by the five share-icons at the right-hand side of the webpage; all of which currently read zero. More to the point, perhaps, but how widespread is membership of Red Flag? It’s a fairly tenuous indicator, but at the present-time of writing, the Red Flag organisation has 64 followers on Twitter. It’s Facebook account is no more popular. It seems fair to conclude that if this group really has engaged in entryism, it is on an extremely limited scale.

This is no less true of the second example Watson cites – whereby a group called Labour Party Marxists supposedly encouraged “supporters to pass a model motion at Momentum branches calling for mandatory reselection of MPs”. The URL Watson provides is a PDF file:

Click to access lpm0010_160707.pdf

which seems to no longer exist. In fact, the group itself appears to have been no more popular than Red Flag, to judge by its Facebook account. Given its recent lack of notices, it’s questionable whether it is even still active.

However, the third example Watson gives is the Alliance for Worker’s Liberty. This is a larger group than either of the previous two. So, has it engaged in large-scale entryism? As far as the public record shows, almost certainly not. The Guardian published an article in October 2015, noting that four members of Labour had been expelled on the grounds of previous involvement in the Alliance For Worker’s Liberty. A further former member of the AWL was expelled from Labour in February 2016. At the time of writing, this seems to be the sum total of AWL ‘entryists’ into the Labour Party. If anything, this would undermine the notion of entryism being a significant problem, given that these five people were disbarred from Labour.

More to the point, perhaps, but the examples from the AWL website don’t quite support what Watson alleges. Rather than discussing entryism into Labour, the first actually seems to encourage entryism into Momentum:

“This time we must use the new upsurge around and influx into Momentum groups to put our organisation on a stronger footing (etc)”

This is even more apparent in the second example Watson gives:

” Join Momentum and get involved with it’s campaigning. Set up constituency left caucuses and discuss the politics on which to fight for a Corbyn vote: free movement of labour; rebuild the NHS; fight the cuts and a new, renewed right-wing Tory government.”

So, the issue herein is not entryism into the Labour Party; but entryism into Momentum. This evidently poses a different problem. It remains impossible to say whether any of this has actually happened or not, however. Has it? Watson doesn’t say.

Other incidents Watson cites follow much the same suit. Under the heading ‘far-left entryism’, he provides three excerpts from Socialist Party webpages. Watson prefaces one quote with a reference to the Socialist Party organising meetings “to ‘defy’ Labour’s NEC”. However, the passage itself simply states that:

“Local parties should defy these edicts and continue meeting, or #Keep Corbyn meetings should be organised independently, including by trade union branches – and involving Corbyn supporters inside and outside the Labour Party”.

As the webpage it comes from notes, this was in response to the moratorium on local Labour Party meetings. This does not comprise entryism. It doesn’t seem to amount to anything at all, beyond a vague suggestion being made.

The other two examples are more discernible. In the first case, Momentum supposedly colluded with the Socialist Party to organise a demonstration in support of Jeremy Corbyn, in the wake of the Labour Coup:

“Around 250 people gathered at short notice to demonstrate their support for Jeremy Corbyn in Leeds. The demonstration was called by Momentum after discussion with the Socialist Party and others from trade unions and campaigning groups around Leeds.”

There is no evidence to support this suggestion of cooperation, however. In fact, it is rendered unlikely – as the author notes: “it is regrettable that the Socialist Party was not permitted a speaker at the demonstration despite our support and help initiating it”. So, even if they did help organise this demonstration, they evidently were not an altogether welcome presence. This is reaffirmed by a further reference to another demonstration; noting that “disappointingly, Momentum once again refused to allow Socialist Party members to speak”.

This is also in evidence in the second example Watson cites here. He quotes the following in his dossier:

“Socialist Party member Iain Dalton was also able to address the rally, unlike recent ones in nearby Leeds (*see footnote).

Footnote: This sentence was amended online on 15.7.16 to remove an inaccurate reference to Socialist Party members not being able to address previous Momentum meetings in York; the participation of Socialist Party members has in fact been welcomed in York Momentum”.

This was an impromptu rally, held in York. However, the same webpage includes references which expressly note that at other Momentum rallies, Socialist Party members were a unwanted guests:

“At a meeting of Tower Hamlets Momentum a few months ago, Jon Lansman made it clear that I and other Socialist Party members would not be welcome to participate”.

And:

“It was disappointing therefore that Momentum Plymouth members attempted to prevent Socialist Party members from handing out leaflets”.

If anything, these indicate that Socialist Party members have tried to participate in Momentum initiatives; without very much success.

The rest of Watson’s examples are of a piece, really – nebulous aspersions, which rest upon taking the unreliable boasts of a self-promoting fringe political group at face-value. Some do not even meet that standard. For instance, Watson alludes to “Momentum campaign sessions for Corbyn open to anyone outside of party”; but provides as proof a Momentum advert which states “the meeting/session is open to members of Momentum, volunteers and supporters of Jeremy Corbyn”. So what does that indicate? It was simply an advert for a phone-bank session, organised by Momentum. In fact, the advert itself indicates that Watson has omitted a key word. It states plainly (and in full):

“The meeting/session is open to members of Momentum, volunteers and supporters of Jeremy Corbyn only. Local trade unions will also be invited”.

More concrete is Watson’s reference to Jill Mountford – one of the five former AWL members -who was expelled from Labour in February 2016; “running phonebanks for Corbyn”. Watson then provides a copy of Mountford’s comment to that effect on Twitter: “Created logins for 60 Lewisham @PeoplesMomentum supporters to do phone bank work for JC whenever & wherever fitting around work & kids etc”. Not to put too fine a point on matters, but this clearly does not amount to entryism. Mountford was banned from the Labour Party – but there’s nothing to say she can’t organise phonebanks for Momentum.

All told, Watson’s claims of entryism are very nebulous; and the examples he provides are – at best – petty incidents. They seem not to centre on the Labour Party itself, for the most part; but revolve around the Momentum group instead. What evidence is publicly available fails to support Watson’s case that anything untoward is happening on any significant scale, however. There is certainly nothing to support Watson’s original claim that ‘arm-twisting’ of any kind has taken place. If anything, the examples he himself compiled indicate how ineffectual efforts at ‘entryism’ have proven – not least of all when Socialist Party members found themselves unwelcome at Momentum events.

Moreover, at least one claim Watson makes in his letter is – to say the least – implausible. He finishes his missive, by noting “I have attached a document that I am reliably informed is being shared between Momentum members with links to far-left parties”. In reality, the quotation in question turns out to be a blogpost, written by the Labour group, Progress; reviewing Michael Crick’s book Militant. It seems unlikely that far-left operatives have infiltrated the Labour Party, with sufficient stealth to avoid any detection; in order to circulate copies of a book review.

In fact, the actual political agenda behind Watson’s claims have been generally overlooked, in favour of the furore surrounding his reference to Trotsky entryism. In the Guardian interview which quoted his initial allegation, Watson went on to explain his intention to reintroduce the electoral-college system for electing Labour party leaders; which would end the one-member, one-vote system introduced by Ed Miliband; consequently granting a disproportionate level of influence to Parliamentary MPs and Unions in choosing a leader. This represents a far more troubling prospect for internal party democracy, than an extremely minimal number of left-wing political activists attempting – and on the basis of all presently-available evidence, failing – to influence another group of left-wing political activists.

As a final note, it would be remiss not to point out that these ‘Trotsky Entryists’ all reputedly joined the Labour party immediately after Corbyn was elected to lead it in September 2015; and yet, according to the very same sources, they apparently didn’t join it after all – but will only do so from now on.

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‘Owen Jones: Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer’ – Some Answers To Some Of The Questions

Owen Jones’ recent piece ‘Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer‘ has generated a fair amount of discussion, along with some controversy; being lauded – with unabashed hypocrisy – by many of his political opponents; and decried by many people who seem to generally agree with him. I think it’s worth reading, personally; as it raises some important points which nobody should be afraid of giving thought to.

Firstly though, it’s not surprising that ‘Corbyn supporters’ have tended to react dismissively – there is evidently a concerted effort being undertaken by numerous people throughout the media to undermine Jeremy Corbyn, particularly with regard to the current Labour leadership contest; and much of this is deeply cynical. Jones’ questions are not of a piece with this, however. Instead, as he outlines, his intention is to “address the weaknesses” Corbyn’s political antagonists are “honing in on”. For Jones, this is evidently about more than just Corbyn – it’s partly about his aim to see the Labour party become a positive force for good; but also his desire to avoid another defeat for the Left of the party, which would be racked-up alongside “Labour’s 1983 electoral disaster” under Michael Foot. As Jones says:

“If Labour ends up being routed, then there’s a very good chance those ideas will once again be associated with calamitous defeat for a generation. A snap election is entirely plausible, and — as things stands, thanks to the actions of all sides of the Labour party — Labour faces electoral oblivion”.

Some of Jones’ questions can be answered; but some can’t – and it would have been better if he had asked them of all Labour supporters, rather than solely Corbyn’s. Moreover, most of the problems Jones identifies seem to require the same solution – namely an improved media communication operation for Corbyn’s part. However, some of the points Jones makes in criticism of Corbyn are valid, while others are debatable, and some are wrong – if not problematic in their own right. So, let’s look at the questions he asks, one by one.

 

“How can the disastrous polling be turned around?”

As Jones writes:

“Labour’s current polling is calamitous. No party has ever won an election with such disastrous polling, or even come close. Historically any party with such terrible polling goes on to suffer a bad defeat.”

This is not an adequate depiction of matters. What has precipitated the current polling is the attempted coup, launched in the wake of the EU referendum; and the disarray which has followed. Prior to that, there was little difference between the popularity of Labour and the Conservatives.

Ipsos Mori monitors voter-intention trends, on a monthly basis. Between 11th – 14th June 2016, 35% of people intended to vote Conservative, while 34% of people intended to vote for Labour. This was essentially unchanged a month later: between 9th – 11th July 2016, the percentages were 36% and 35% respectively. Ipsos Mori do not have a subsequent poll at the time of writing; but it is obvious, at least, that voter intention was steady up until this point. Labour’s popularity had in fact improved to this level from January 2016; and been stable prior to the coup. It also stands to reason that the number of people willing to vote for Labour would decrease in present circumstances. This has a self-evident solution – the conclusion of the leadership contest, and the establishment of party unity; not that this is straightforward. Nonetheless, that’s the upshot.

However, the broader issue is how many people would be willing to vote for Labour in a General Election; and, more specifically, what might change peoples’ allegiance from the Conservatives to Labour. So what would? Several causal-factors are plausible; but the primary one will be economic circumstance. This is not difficult to prove – on the contrary, voter-intention trends during the five years of the coalition put this beyond doubt, as can be seen by tracking the change in public opinion from Spring 2013 onwards; which is when the economy began to recover and grow again, having followed two recessions and a period of stagnation between 2010-13. Voter allegiance also changed dramatically, and instantaneously, in the immediate aftermath of the recession during 2008. Again, the data on this can be accessed via Ipsos Mori.

Can, or will, something similar be a factor in the upcoming years? Almost certainly. Thanks to the recent EU referendum result, it now falls to Theresa May’s Conservative government to invoke Article 50, and begin Britain’s formal departure from the European Union. This will probably lead to the break-up of the UK; and precipitate four-years, minimum, of economic recession and turmoil. It takes two years to negotiate withdrawal from the EU, and another two years to renegotiate a new treaty. That’s without taking into consideration how much of this might be contested; along with the fact that there is currently no clarity on what precisely the new agreement would comprise (something akin to the EU-Norway treaty seems probable; but its possibility has been disputed). Needless to say, perhaps, but all of this is beyond Corbyn’s and Labour’s control.

Another citation Jones makes here, though, is the prospect of a “snap general-election”. This is not currently imminent; nor does it seem particularly likely. The fixed-term Parliament Act ensures that a General Election could only take place before 2020, on very specific conditions:

  • if a motion for an early general election is agreed either by at least two-thirds of the whole House or without division; or
  • if a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative government is confirmed by the Commons within 14 days.

Given that neither of these are presently applicable, there’s no current basis for presuming a General Election will take place for four years.

Let’s consider it hypothetically, however. Suppose Labour did lose a General Election this year? Well, nothing substantive would change. Corbyn would surely step aside in the wake of an election defeat. His detractors would have gained what they wanted; the overall result would be an additional year of Conservative government to what was expected anyway – enacting policies which those at the forefront of bemoaning Corbyn themselves appear to support. This is hardly the apocalyptic scenario being depicted by Corbyn’s critics. If anything, it serves to demonstrate how counterproductive the Labour coup itself really is.

Perhaps the addendum to Jones’ pessimism about Labour’s electoral prospects is his view that “a lifetime of Tory rule” may beckon. How plausible is this scenario? Not very. It requires ignoring the fact that David Cameron resigned in the wake of the Brexit vote; that Boris Johnson and George Osborne chose not to contest the Conservative party leadership at all; that the last remaining challenger – Andrea Leadsom – withdrew from the final round; in order to suppose that present circumstances are currently roseate for Theresa May. Again, this overlooks the obligation on Britain’s current Prime Minister to initiate a withdrawal from the EU, with all of the fall-out that this entails.

It also means leaving aside the other salient fact, however, that every single Conservative party leadership contestant, including May, ruled-out holding a General Election until 2020; despite the disarray among their opponents meaning the circumstance couldn’t be more advantageous. Moreover, David Cameron had spent the previous years gerrymandering – purposely removing young voters from the electoral register; and seeking to redesign the electoral boundaries in his party’s favour. Why would any of this have happened if the people involved were assured of their long-term prospects? Perhaps it would have done, regardless – but the indications suggest otherwise.

Further to this, Jones alludes to the former Labour leader, Michael Foot, attracting “huge rallies across the country in the build-up to Labour’s 1983 general election disaster”. Jones is not alone in making this point of comparison to Corbyn. It is something which needs a more thorough consideration, however. As Red Pepper magazine note, “Labour’s 1983 election campaign” has often been cited “to say it is impossible for a leader like Jeremy Corbyn to win any election from the left”. There are several factors underscoring the 1983 election result which are invariably ignored by people citing it, though – and Jones does not differ. One is the damaging impact that candidates from the Social Democratic Party, which had split from Labour, had on Labour votes in marginal constituencies; another is the effect which the Falklands War had on boosting the popularity of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. A further one is the aftermath of the late 1970’s years of turmoil and discontent, which had seen the Labour government of its day decline in popularity.

To put it succinctly, Foot did not lose because he was too left-wing. Instead, a combination of factors resulted in Labour’s defeat. One of these, however does bear consideration – namely, the poor election campaign Foot’s party had overseen in 1983. It’s on this issue that Jones does level a valid criticism at Corbyn. In fact, most of the questions Jones asks – and the criticisms he makes – revolve around this same theme: the shortcomings of Corbyn’s communication with and through the media. This is not something which can justifiably be rejected as a charge; but even so, that doesn’t mean everything Jones says about it is accurate.

 

“Where is the clear vision?”

Jones is right that Corbyn’s media operation is not currently as effective as it needs to be. But even this is not quite straightforward. Jones asks “Where is the clear vision?”; adding that “‘Anti-austerity’ just defines you by what you are against. What’s the positive vision, that can be understood clearly on a doorstep, that will resonate with people who aren’t particularly political?”. This is a fair question to ask. However, Jones then quotes Corbyn outlining precisely what he is aiming for:

“An economy that doesn’t cut public expenditure as a principle, that instead is prepared to invest and participate in the widest economy in order to give opportunities and decency for everyone. A welfare system that doesn’t punish those with disabilities but instead supports people with disabilities. A health service that is there for all, for all time, without any charges and without any privatisation within that NHS. And a foreign policy that’s based on human rights, the promotion of democracy around the world.”

Jones then concludes: “I’m not at all convinced that this is a vision which will resonate with the majority of people. Compare and contrast to the Tories’ messaging”. Well, firstly, the Tories messaging evidently didn’t resonate with the majority of people either: 36% of the electorate is a minority of voters; and it seems reasonable to assume that most of these people would vote Conservative regardless of any message. Secondly, Jones can’t have it both ways here: it cannot reasonably be said that there’s no effective message; and that it’s the substance of the message which is the actual problem.

As it happens, there is – certainly – a lack of clarity on messaging; and this is one thing which New Labour did get right, albeit for the wrong reasons. This is something which Corbyn does need to improve on – but there is, self-evidently, a difference between saying that a message needs improved expression, and that the political commitments themselves are wrong. If the latter is your view – fair enough; but say so, and explain why. It can then be discussed properly. As it stands, it can’t. All which can be deduced is that Corbyn needs to improve his media operation.

So what needs to be done? Jones himself answers his own question on this, in fact:

“An effective media strategy means appearing on TV and radio at every possible opportunity, and lobbying for appearances when they are not offered; reacting swiftly to momentous events like a change in Prime Minister; having message discipline underpinning a coherent vision; planning ahead, so that you are always one step ahead; sending press releases in good time so they can be reported on, and so on. Such a strategy does not seem to be in place.”

This is a fair criticism to level at Corbyn; but surely it denotes the need for improvement, rather than a change of leadership?

The same can be said of an additional question Jones asks: “What’s the strategy to win over the over-44s?”. As he notes:

“When I asked Jeremy Corbyn in my recent interview what his strategy was, he came up with some sensible starting points: respect for older people (this needs fleshing out in policy terms), dealing with pensioner poverty, and social care. The problem is — that’s the first I’ve heard of it. Where’s the strategy to relentlessly appeal to older Britons who are so critical in deciding elections? There’s no point having a vision unless it is repeated ad infinitum, rather than being offered after being prompted: it will go over everyone’s head”.

So there’s the solution then, surely: better messaging and media communication?

It’s on this issue that Jones’ criticism begins to become problematic, though. He asks, fairly enough, “What’s the media strategy?”; but then opines:

“Sadiq Khan was not standing on a radical left programme in his London Mayoral bid. Nonetheless he was remorselessly portrayed as the puppet of extremists by his opponent and his ally — the capital’s only mass newspaper, as well as several national newspapers. He managed to counteract it, and won. His ratings are extremely favourable. The press lost”.

So what did Khan do? Nobody citing his election in order to criticise Corbyn, or even simply positing him as a point of comparison, ever explains. Was it Khan himself who proved decisive? The answer here is probably not. For one thing, London is evidently not representative of the UK as a whole. However, so far, the only person who appears to have undertaken a proper analysis of the votes cast in this mayoral contest – there has been virtually no media interest in the Bristol mayoral contest, and its equally significant election of Marvin Rees – is the New Statesman journalist, Stephen Bush; who concluded that “victory in London was Jeremy Corbyn’s, not Sadiq Khan’s”. So what was his reasoning for this?

“A lot has been written about Khan’s victory being a rebuke to Corbyn’s approach to politics. But if you look at where he did best, with the exception of his home seat of Tooting, he largely did exactly as you’d expect a generic Labour candidate to do, with his margin of victory down to exactly the kinds of voters that Corbyn has added to the Labour tent”

This is obviously only a snapshot of one complex election; but nonetheless, it is apparent that Khan benefited from the influx of support which Labour gained in the wake of Corbyn being elected to lead the party. Personally, I do not see this factor as something which should be taken for granted – but rather, as the beginning of a change for the better, which should be embraced by Labour.

However, Jones also contends that:

“Corbyn often seems entirely missing in action, particularly at critical moments: Theresa May becoming the new Prime Minister, the appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, the collapse of the Government’s economic strategy, the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, soaring hate crimes after Brexit, and so on.”

How true is this? Not very. Nor does does it seem a particularly fair criticism to make, given that all of these occurred in the aftermath of the Labour coup. Nonetheless, Corbyn took issue with Johnson’s appointment during the first Prime Minister’s Questions session after Theresa May became the new leader of the Conservatives; asking:

The Prime Minister is rightly concerned that:

“If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly…than if you’re white.”

Before appointing her new Foreign Secretary, did she discuss with him his description of black people as “piccaninnies” and ask why he had questioned the motives of US President Obama on the basis of his “part-Kenyan” heritage?

Theresa May did not answer the question. Furthermore, Corbyn had also spoken out against the rise in hate-crimes following Brexit; again in Parliament.

Jones’ allusion to the “collapse of the Government’s economic strategy” presumably refers to the 2020 budget-surplus plan being abandoned by George Osborne. Corbyn’s shadow chancellor did make a public statement about this. By contrast, the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change presumably received no statement from Labour, as the Shadow Secretary for this department, Lisa Nandy, had deserted her post. It does not seem justifiable to fault Corbyn for making no real comment about this administrative change, amidst the chaos which followed Nandy et al’s puerility.

As a last point here, what was Corbyn supposed to say when May became the Prime Minister, exactly? Was it not covered by what he asked of her during Prime Ministers Questions? If not, Jones doesn’t explain what he has in mind here; and it will have to be left aside.

 

“How are the policies significantly different from the last general election?”

It’s not particularly easy to answer this, because Labour does not currently have a manifesto; so a like-for-like comparison cannot be made. However, even as it stands, the obvious point of difference is that Miliband’s Labour were committed to the continuation of austerity, whereas Corbyn is opposed to it. Moreover, under Corbyn, Labour is developing policies in consultation with the party’s membership. This is evidently a work in progress at the time of writing. Corbyn’s own priorities indicate what his overall intentions are, and can be accessed on his personal website. So, the nascent information is there for people who are genuinely interested in it.

It could also not be clearer what Corbyn’s current ambitions for a Labour government would be: abolishing tuition fees, establishing a living wage, ensuring an adequate supply of council housing, for example. So when Jones suggests that “surely there needs to be a clear idea of what sort of policies will be offered,” this is fair enough – but again, Corbyn has evidently made clear what sort of policies he would pursue. That they haven’t been given word-for-word definition is not something which seems realistic to expect at the present moment in time; especially given the current circumstances. Could they be advertised better? Yes; but this seems a fairly straightforward matter to resolve once a more concrete framework of policies has actually been defined. At present, that is not applicable.

Again, however, Jones’s criticisms of Corbyn become self-contradictory. He outlines several policies from Labour’s previous manifesto – such as deficit-reduction, and renationalisation of railways; and then suggests that these are unlikely to gain any traction among the public. This seems to be much of a nothingness as criticism: either these are good ideas, or they’re not. If not, then they can – and should – be discussed, and discarded. Simply pointing out that Corbyn’s Labour have retained some of Miliband’s commitments, however, doesn’t really mean anything. Would anyone seriously suggest that these policies caused Labour its losses in the General Election of 2015? Surely not. It also begs the question why, if Corbyn offers nothing more than Miliband, has there been such a histrionic outpouring – on a daily basis – since Corbyn was elected to lead the party? Clearly, something doesn’t add up.

Moreover, irrespective of any similarities, there are significant differences between Corbyn’s Labour and Miliband’s – the fact that Corbyn actually opposes the damaging policies of the Conservative government is unarguably the key one. Indeed, Jones should know this better than most, as he was frequently scathing of Labour’s passivity in the face of iniquitous Conservative policies, between 2010-15. See, for instance, his article about Labour’s decision to abstain when the coalition government re-wrote the law, in order to avoid reimbursing workfare participants who had been unlawfully sanctioned; or his previous, even more fulminant, condemnation of Labour’s rhetoric towards people in receipt of benefits under Miliband’s leadership.

Needless to say, Corbyn did not abstain when the workfare law was rewritten; nor did he fail to oppose the government in 2015, when it introduced yet more benefit-cuts to Parliament in a bill which the majority of Labour MPs abstained on at its second reading. It seems obvious, from this fairly limited example alone, that Corbyn’s leadership marks a significant change of course for Labour. This is borne out by Labour’s subsequent critiques and opposition to the government’s policies during the past year.

 

“What’s the strategy to win over Scotland?”

The problem that Labour have in Scotland is straightforward to elucidate, yet remains almost universally ignored – namely, an upsurge of nationalism, boosting the popularity of the Scottish National Party. This is not something which Scottish Labour are currently confronting; let alone effectively.

Significantly, Jones demonstrated this himself, in a piece he had written during August 2015. Specifically:

“Scotland cannot be won back straight away, even if this is a test Jeremy’s opponents will set. As things stand, Labour face being wiped out in next May’s Holyrood elections. The SNP won 6 Westminster seats in 2010; in 2015 they won 56. Huge Labour majorities became huge SNP majorities. The SNP’s lead in Scottish opinion polls is astronomical. Scottish Labour as a party currently remains a husk. The idea such a profound political shift simply be suddenly turned around — even though Jeremy is by far the best candidate to do so — in a matter of months is fantasy land stuff.”

Jones’ own proposal, however, was for Labour to offer an “uncompromising apology” to the people of Scotland, for something which he doesn’t outline; before “grovelling”, and subsequently “relaunching Scottish Labour as a new grassroots insurgent movement that can take on the SNP from the left”.

This misses the point, by a significant degree. Labour have confronted the SNP from the left – and it hasn’t worked. At the recent local elections in May 2016, the Scottish electorate voted predominantly for the SNP and the Conservatives: two parties committed to low-tax, and spending-cuts; as their government, and its opposition. Labour need to begin confronting the SNP from the standpoint of left-wing unionism. This is not simply about winning votes – if Scotland does become independent, what would almost certainly follow is a dramatic decline in the standards of living for many people. This is not something which has received any honest debate so far. Indeed, it appears not to have received any real discussion, from any quarter in the media.

Moreover, despite their rhetoric, the SNP are not committed to social democracy. Quite the contrary, they have governed Scotland for a decade; and while they have overseen some progressive policies – such as ending prescription charges – they have also been responsible for imposing austerity policies on Scotland; and have privatised public services such as the Calmac ferry service, Scot Rail, while cutting college places, and reducing local government funding. All of this remains generally uncontested.

Why have the SNP been able to undertake these policies, with barely any notice arising? Perhaps, at least in part, because neither Labour – nor the Conservatives – have disputed them during recent years, given that they were wed to much the same policies. Corbyn has confronted this, however – specifically objecting to the inadequacy of nationalism to address social problems.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the SNP have been able to pretend that Labour and the Conservatives were indistinguishable; as evinced when the party’s deputy leader, Stewart Hosie, said: “Given their toxic alliance with the Tories for the last two and a half years, people in Scotland would be forgiven for thinking that Labour’s focus is not what they can do for Scotland – but what they can do for their Tory allies”; adding “the general election is Scotland’s opportunity to hold real power at Westminster and to deliver on the priorities of the people who live here – ending austerity, protecting our public services and investing in jobs.”

The SNP is in government in Holyrood. What has it actually done to end austerity, protect public services, and invest in jobs? Is Westminster really to blame for Scotland’s problems? Holyrood has tax powers which the SNP do not use, when they could raise revenue. Why not? Because what motivates the SNP is nationalism; not socialism. The SNP cite austerity as part of this framework – that poverty and inequality is inflicted on Scotland by England and the British Parliament; instead of being an aspect of the economic system which the SNP themselves support. The SNP’s anti-austerity stance is a pretext for independence, not greater equality.

As before, Jones should know this better than most, as it was made plain when he interviewed the Scottish National Party’s MP, Mhairi Black, earlier this year; who said as much – that she would opt for Scottish independence over a socialist United Kingdom.

Labour will not revive itself in Scotland by pretending that up is down, black is white, and independence is an apolitical issue, or a solution to economic problems. It is not. Nationalism should be confronted – so should the SNP’s actual record in government. This does not have to comprise the toxic animosity which has bedeviled political discourse on the issue of Scottish independence during recent years; instead Labour should make plain that it, and unionism, offers people something better.

It may be of irrelevance by 2020, however, if Scotland undertakes a second independence referendum and votes to leave the UK; it could also be rendered immaterial if the Scottish National Party was to enter a governing coalition with Labour. As it stands, there are too many unknown factors to evaluate, which preclude offering a concrete answer here. Be that as it may, there is a need for Scottish Labour to confront nationalism properly.

 

 “What’s the strategy to win over Conservative voters?”

Not to put too fine a point on matters, but you can’t win Conservative voters over – they are Conservative voters. Their support cannot be gained by Labour. Swing-voters are a different matter – they vote from self-interest. The only factor which is liable to see them switch allegiance in significant number is an economic downturn which jeapordises their income; and it seems insensible to adjudge otherwise. Think about it – why would they vote for a change of government, if they believe their interests are being served by the current administration? Consider also the longevity of British governments: 18 years of consecutive Conservative governments, followed by 13 years of Labour administrations; succeeded by at least 10 years of Conservative government. It takes a lot to precipitate a change.

It does not appear as if particular policies of one kind or another can achieve this. Quite the contrary – in the aftermath of the 2015 General Election, Labour conducted a focus-group inquiry into the reasons why swing-voters opted for parties other than Labour. With regard to the Conservatives, the reasons given were divorced from reality.

Oddly enough, several media outlets – quoting inevitably nameless ‘Labour sources’ – claimed on successive occasions that this report had been undertaken in secret, and had only come to light through being leaked to the press. ITV news made this assertion in January 2016; while the New Statesman reiterated it in March 2016. In reality it was published by the Independent, in October 2015.

As it noted:

“The damning findings, obtained by The Independent, show that swing voters who have deserted Labour see the party as standing “for down and outs, not people like me.” The research found that Labour’s only strength is its values. While the party is viewed as “nice,” it is still “in thrall to the undeserving” and “in denial about its ‘appalling’ track record on the economy”.

Furthermore:

“Labour’s research found that swing voters were relieved that the Conservatives won this year. Some said the Tories would take the tough decisions needed, “especially cracking down on immigration” – the main issue for many – and wanted “benefit scroungers” to be “penalised.”

Leaving aside the inherent vulgarity of these sentiments, they are demonstrably devoid of reason. Labour had pledged to put ‘controls on immigration’, to be ‘tough’ on benefit claimants (specifically the unemployed), and was openly committed to essentially the same economic plans as the Conservatives. It clearly did not result in electoral success. In fact, I can personally attest that I was left reluctant to vote for Labour precisely because it made such problematic commitments.

The flip-side to this is the fact that Labour’s vote-share fell among those aged 65-plus, who are the highest turnout group. As Ipsos Mori note, “this group is where the Conservatives were most successful, gaining a 5.5 point swing from Labour since 2010”. Perhaps needless to say, but with the exception of proposing to end Winter fuel allowance for the most affluent among them, Labour had pledged to continue the Conservatives’ policies towards pensioners. It clearly made no substantive difference.

Labour can evidently not win-over people who subscribe to Tory myths on the economy, benefits, and immigration by attempting to placate them. They tried, and failed. What seems to be more pressing is for Labour to confront these fictions; and target people who might vote for the party, because they agree with its values and aims, but perhaps don’t currently support it; or else do not turn up and actually cast a vote in elections.

So, what can also be considered here is Jones’ question:

“how can the enthusiasm of the mass membership be mobilised, to reach the tens of millions of people who don’t turn up to political rallies?”

Perhaps Jones is thinking on too large a scale here. There are at least three galvanising prospects which are immediately apparent – one is through increasing voter-engagement. Labour suffered particularly badly from a poor turnout at the last General Election: they were expected to receive 35% of the vote – in the event, they gained only 30%. Turn-out is vital. Labour’s vote lay primarily among people aged 18-34, voters in social class DE, private and social renters, BME voters, and young women. This is Labour’s vote-base, and there’s no purpose in taking it for granted – not when turn-out is low among all of these groups. The young are half as likely to vote as the old. This can only really be remedied by making the Labour party more inclusive – and ensuring that their input is properly valued, and represented. 

So, another possibility is the ability to revitalise constituency Labour parties and local representation, ensuring that good, local MPs can contest elections; rather than scions of nepotism or partisan cronies being parachuted into safe-seats, and essentially given tenure, no matter how mediocre they might be.

A third is through funding: Labour’s financial resources were reduced by a further instance of David Cameron’s gerrymandering. This is not merely a replacement for lost income, however; but in so far as any money in politics is clean, membership fees are as pristine as it gets, and can provide Labour with financial support that does not have any corrupting strings attached. Perhaps a fourth factor to be considered here is more debatable – the power of enthusiasm; which is vital if people are to overcome the pessimism which buttresses conservative policies: the view that nothing can be changed, so nobody should try, is insidious. It can only be overcome if people have cause for hope.

 

“How would we deal with people’s concerns about immigration?”

This is the most problematic of Jones’ questions. It is also where Jones’ criticisms of Corbyn are at their least valid. As he contends: “Britain just voted to leave the European Union in what, above all else, was a vote on immigration”. In reality the referendum was not a vote on immigration. The fact that many people believed otherwise is significant; as Jones continues:

“Labour has to at least engage with where people are at. In my proposed strategy blog last year, I suggested Labour offer an ‘immigration dividend’: ringfencing the extra money EU immigrants put into the economy and using it to invest in communities with higher levels of immigration. To his credit, Corbyn has occasionally spoken about reinstating the Migrant Impacts Fund, abolished by Cameron’s government — but only intermittently, to the extent where I doubt the vast majority of the electorate are even aware of this position. So how could the leadership devise a strategy to respond on immigration?”

The answer is by confronting anti-immigration sentiment properly; and addressing the causes of it effectively.

The majority of British people have just voted to relinquish their own freedom of movement, in the mistaken belief that a) immigration damages Britain b) leaving the EU will mitigate that. Neither are true. So why do many people believe otherwise? Perhaps because much of our political discourse centres on the myths about immigration, rather than the reality underscoring it.

Does immigration cause job losses? No. Does it cause homelessness? No. Does it cause poverty, or low wages? No. So what does cause these problems? Poor employment rights and work regulations; exploitative employers; weak regional economies; and a failure to invest in housing development. These are what need to be remedied.

The one problem immigration does generate is placing pressure on public services – but then so does austerity; far more so, to much less popular chagrin. Corbyn has broached these issues, on several occasions. For instance, speaking in April 2016:

“Learning abroad and working abroad, increases the opportunities and skills of British people and migration brings benefits as well as challenges at home. But it’s only if there is government action to train enough skilled workers to stop the exploitation of migrant labour to undercut wages and invest in local services and housing in areas of rapid population growth that they will be felt across the country”.

And again, more expansively, in June (the delivery differs slightly from the text):

“On migration, we cannot deny the inevitable; we live in a smaller world. Most of us in Britain know someone who has studied, worked or retired abroad.  We have reciprocal arrangements with the European Union. Our citizens, well over one million of them, live in other EU countries and EU citizens come to live and work here.

But it is not that simple, I’ve already talked about how some industries are affected by the undercutting of wages and the action that can be taken to tackle that. But some communities can change dramatically and rapidly and that can be disconcerting for some people. That doesn’t make them Little Englanders, xenophobes or racists. More people living in an area can put real pressure on local services like GPs surgeries, schools and housing.

This isn’t the fault of migrants.  It’s a failure of government. The coalition government in 2010 abolished the Migrant Impact Fund; a national fund to manage the short term impacts of migration on local communities. By abolishing it, David Cameron’s Coalition undermined the proper preparation and investment that communities need to adapt. We are clear, we would restore such a fund and it could be funded from unspent [EU funding].

We cannot and should not want to close the borders. Not for European citizens wanting to come here, tens of thousands of whom work in our NHS. And not for British citizens who want to take advantage of opportunities elsewhere in Europe.

But we do have to make sure that public services are able to sustain the communities we have here, part of that is through a Migrant Impact Fund, but partly too it is about reversing the damaging and unnecessary austerity policies that this government continues to impose on our communities and our country”.

The message here could not have been clearer. Should it need further explication, Corbyn was asked by the BBC about Labour voters’ attitudes towards the impact of immigration on their communities. As Corbyn replied:

“Let’s not turn this into blaming people who travel, work and migrate around Europe. Let’s instead ensure governments respond to the needs of all communities; and that unscrupulous employers that are grossly exploiting migrant workers and trying to limit their rights need to be dealt with.”

Corbyn had also stressed the need to reform the Posting of Workers Directive, in order “to close a loophole that allows workers from one country to work in another and be paid less than local workers doing the same job.  Although the instances are relatively few, such incidents undermine community cohesion by exploiting migrant workers and undercutting local workers”. So, if Jones’ criticism of Corbyn on this issue is essentially the same as the aforementioned need to improve his media communication, fair enough; if not, then Jones doesn’t really have a point.

In fact, Jones’ overall views on this subject coincide with the narrative that Labour has lost a significant number of votes to Ukip due to ‘concerns about immigration’; a theory pushed with more vigour than accuracy by the likes of Matthew Goodwin, and the Guardian columnist, John Harris. By all accounts, there’s no real basis to this vein of contention. The polling firm, Populus, conducted a survey of who intended to vote for Ukip at the General Election of 2015; and reported that:

“Studying how Ukip supporters voted in 2010 demonstrates why the party represents a threat to all Westminster parties, but particularly the Conservative Party. Just 14% of current Ukip supporters voted Ukip in 2010. That leaves a very large proportion of voters moving from other parties to Ukip, and the largest source of these new Ukippers are ex-Conservative voters. 45% of current Ukippers voted Conservative in 2010. 14% voted Liberal Democrat, and 10% voted Labour”.

Moreover, the theme persistent in Goodwin/Harris’ articles – that working class voters, specifically, have deserted Labour for Ukip – does not withstand any real scrutiny. Looking at the data provided on the General Election of 2015, by Ipsos Mori, 41% of people in social class DE voted Labour, while only 17% voted for Ukip (the Conservatives gained 27%, by point of contrast).

Jones and his peers seem to believe that Labour can only prosper if it engages in open hostility towards migrants – and for that matter, misleads the public about immigration by making pledges it cannot possibly keep. Aside from the ethics of this, it is myopic; and almost certainly destined to prove counterproductive. As noted previously, Labour did engage in anti-migrant rhetoric during the General Election of 2015. It bore nothing for them; save to further embed myths surrounding the issue in the political mainstream. Moreover, 65% of Black/Ethnic Minority voters supported Labour. Does the need for their continued support not count for anything? Is it not liable to be jeapordised by adopting the rhetoric of anti-migrant politics?

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There needs to be a more compassionate and truthful discourse on the subject of immigration. It does not cause the social problems which are widely attributed to it; and the actual factors behind these need to be countered with better investment in infrastructure; job creation; and decent, secure employment. This is the actual bedrock of working class identity in society: work.

Ukip should not be ‘love-bombed’, as Jones has suggested elsewhere. Instead, they should be confronted. Ukip are wrong about immigration – as they are about the supposed relationship between same-sex marriage and inclement weather; the putative dangers posed to moral decency by women wearing short-skirts; the workings of EU fishing policy; and any other permutation of flat-earth theory they care to devise. Nobody pretends that Ukip has a point, except when the subject is immigration. Why? There is no valid reason.

 

There is, however, an elephant in the room here; and it’s unhelpful – though nonetheless valid – for Jones to frame his questions and criticisms as a series for Corbyn’s supporters alone to answer. Every single enquiry Jones makes can – and should – be asked of Corbyn’s opponents and detractors within the Labour Party. They have a case to answer.

They presided over successive General Election defeats, in 2010, and 2015. They oversaw a wipe-out of Labour’s Parliamentary seats in Scotland. They have launched a coup plunging Labour into disarray, and a damaging second leadership contest – which is what has precipitated the current dire polling – during the onset of a national economic crisis. They alienated swathes of Labour’s supporters during their period in government – causing an unprecedented decline in voter turn-out between 1997-2001; very nearly losing office in 2005.

They ignored warnings of the looming financial collapse that began in 2008; which is what caused their removal from government. They took Britain into a disastrous war, which damaged the reputation of their senior politicians beyond repair. They cut benefits for lone parents during their first year in office. They also privatised the benefit service’s medical agency, paving the way for Atos’s work capability assessments and the cruelties they bore. They abrogated civil liberties. They assisted in the US programme of torture. They initiated the privatisation of comprehensive schools; privatised prisons; and constructed immigration detention centres which were also outsourced to the private sector. Whole swathes of the country were abandoned to economic decline; which is something that played a key role in the outcome of the EU referendum.

Labour then spent five years in opposition, variously crossing picket-lines, abstaining as the government rewrote the law – having fraudulently deprived workfare participants of income; pledging to be ‘tough’ on unemployed people  – before going on to abstain, yet again, on a Bill which was openly designed to impoverish the very people Labour is supposed to protect. Their leader was demonised by the press between 2010-15; and was undermined with endless whispering campaigns conducted by the same MPs behaving in like manner towards Corbyn.

So then, what is their plan? It appears to consist of nothing more than appealing to Tory voters in the South East by adopting Conservative policies; and Ukip voters in the North, by engaging in anti-immigration rhetoric. Where will this lead? What does their media strategy comprise, beyond empty platitudes; and an endless stream of malicious gossip? There is nothing else in evidence so far.

My personal view is that it’s true enough Corbyn may not lead Labour into government, no – and certainly not without major improvements; but that no-one else can. Moreover, it will not be Labour, nor Corbyn, who are operative herein – what will decide the outcome of the General Election in 2020 is whether or not the public desire a change of government; and what will ultimately determine this is the state of the economy. The factor which, without any doubt, will underscore that is Britain’s departure from the European Union.

It is not simply a question of whether Labour can win a General Election, however; it is also a matter of whether they deserve to govern. Jones asks if people are prepared for “a lifetime of Tory rule?”. Many people did not get through five years of Tory rule; as the spate of suicides and premature deaths of benefit claimants attests. This process did not begin with the Conservative-led coalition government – it has merely been taken to an extreme by the Tory party. Many of the most harmful Conservative policies are in fact a continuation of Labour policies; formulated while they were in government. This trajectory needs to be opposed; and brought to an end. Those seeking to supplant Corbyn will not do so – as they demonstrated, repeatedly, between the years 2010-15.

There is another question, however, for people to consider here: if Jeremy Corbyn really is the useless ‘unelectable’ leader which the media and his internecine detractors insist, then why are they continuously trying to convince people of this with false claims, smears, innuendo, and the very lowest type of misinformation? Until people have an answer to that, then the subject of ‘electability’ remains a pointless discussion. If Corbyn is popular, and the Labour party is not, then it isn’t Corbyn who is the problem. More to the point, the Britain of 2016 is not the same as Britain in 1983. It’s time people faced up to this reality.

The Need For Sense & Clarity On Anti-Semitism.

This week has seen two Labour MPs – Naz Shah, and Ken Livingstone – suspended from the Labour party, having both made comments which were deemed anti-Semitic. The merits of these decisions are currently being adjudicated by Labour; and can be left aside for present purposes.

More pertinent are the demands for Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to address the issue effectively. This is something which can be achieved- but it is perhaps not as straightforward as commentaries within the media have suggested.

The primary elephant in the room is the Israel-Palestine conflict; which is what all of the cited incidents revolve around. The secondary one is that these allegations are intended to blacken the names of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party.

Other than Livingstone’s remarks today, all of the tweets, Facebook posts, and sundry other comments unearthed recently, were made several years ago – mainly during the conflict in Gaza, during August 2014. All of the people in question joined the Labour party before Corbyn was elected to lead it – and have each been suspended under his tenure. It hasn’t stopped people pretending that Corbyn has personally created this problem.

What’s worse is that, for various reasons, a lot of people seem to be genuinely confused about what is or isn’t anti-Semitic – and a large part of this is due to the discourse surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict: from many voices on both sides of that divide. It is virtually impossible to act fairly on allegations of this kind.

It’s fair to say that people need to be careful with their use of language – but other people need to be careful with the conclusions they draw from what somebody has said; and while there isn’t any excuse for racism, there isn’t any valid reason for people to willfully misconstrue what somebody has said, either. This is a subject which is proliferated with false allegations and contrived exaggerations- they need to stop. Accusations need to be taken seriously – crying wolf continuously precludes this happening.

Corbyn should take the initiative on this – he could set up a special task-force, which investigates claims objectively and rigorously; and if anti-Semitism is evident among people within the Labour party, it can be rooted-out and tackled effectively. It would also be a constructive step if Labour devises clear guidelines on what is and isn’t acceptable as a mode of discourse on the Israel-Palestine issue – from both parties to that debate; because neither behave impeccably.

But this does not justify turning the matter into a witch-hunt; let alone making claims which are false. Incidents which are brought to light can be dealt with properly, easily enough – but only ever as and when they arise; and this is being made more difficult than it ever should be by the obvious political-cynicism swirling around this. How can people reasonably be expected to take at face-value allegations which are being made by unreliable commentators?

And for what little it matters, personally, I think the Israel-Palestine conflict is best avoided as a topic of discussion in politics, as far as possible. It seldom brings anything but the worst out in people. This week has made that perfectly clear.

Does the Labour Party have ‘a problem with anti-Semitism’? No; and the accusations raise more questions than answers.

Media Commentaries

Does the Labour Party have “a problem with anti-Semitism”? This accusation gained prominence in March 2016, when two Labour Party members, Vicki Kirby and Gerald Downing were removed from the organisation; generating several comment pieces in the national press. In addition to this, allegations had been made against Labour-affiliated students at Oxford University. The commentaries bemoaned the Labour party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for not doing enough to tackle anti-Semitism; and, in some cases, suggested that they have actually encouraged the prejudice.

So then, are these claims supported by evidence; and does the Labour party, or its leader, have a case to answer? No. In fact, what becomes clear when the various allegations are tested against the evidence is that they are not merely inaccurate, but in most cases false. This is cause for concern in its own right.

Firstly, let’s look at the allegations made against Vicki Kirby and Gerald Downing – the two people whose removal from the Labour party precipitated a deluge of commentaries.

As reported in the Guardian, on the 15th of March:

“Labour has suspended for a second time an activist at the centre of a row about antisemitic tweets. Vicki Kirby was a parliamentary candidate when she was put under investigation by the party in 2014 after a series of posts on Twitter in which she apparently suggested Adolf Hitler might be a “Zionist God” and that Jews had “big noses”. She was readmitted to the party with a warning after a period of suspension, but the controversy has resurfaced after she was appointed vice-chairman of Labour’s branch in Woking, Surrey”.

However, the news of this was first broken by the GuidoFawkes blog, a day earlier; which helpfully provides the source of its own story – a webpage by Woking’s Labour Party branch; dated the 22nd of February 2016. It announces that the “newly elected vice chair Vicki Kirby” had “been attending meetings” organised by a group called Save Our Services In Surrey – dedicated to opposing austerity.

The tweets in question were also compiled by the GuidoFawkes blog – there are six in total; dated between 2011-2014. Four of them are from August 2014. Kirby was suspended from the Labour party on 15th March 2016. So, both of her suspensions revolve around the same six tweets.

Moreover, the GuidoFawkes Blog had also broken the story about Gerry Downing [1]. It published a piece about him on the 8th of March 2016; decrying him as an apologist for Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States in September 2001. A day later it published a second piece on Downing, entitled ‘Gerry Downing “we must address the Jewish question”. So, those are the allegations of anti-Semitism made against Kirby and Downing; and it would be fair to say that the GuidoFawkes blog has played a key role in bringing these two stories to mainstream media attention.

Writing in the Guardian on the 19th of March 2016, Jonathan Freedland referred to the cases of both Downing and Kirby; and contended that Jeremy Corbyn bore a particular responsibility for them [2]. The article was entitled ‘Labour and the left have an antisemitism problem‘; and sub-titled ‘Under Jeremy Corbyn the party has attracted many activists with views hostile to Jews’. The only ‘activists’ cited are Kirby and Downing. Freedland refers to the aforementioned material – noting that Downing:

“said it was time to wrestle with the ‘Jewish Question'”; while Kirby “hailed Hitler as a ‘Zionist God’ and tweeted a line about Jews having ‘big noses’, complete with a ‘lol'”.

Freedland then expressly attributes responsibility for this to Jeremy Corbyn: “Thanks to Corbyn, the Labour party is expanding, attracting many leftists who would previously have rejected it or been rejected by it. Among those are people with hostile views of Jews”.

The facts of the case disprove Freedland’s claim, however. Neither Downing nor Kirby were attracted to the party by Corbyn – both had joined Labour before Corbyn had been elected to the leadership. As was plain from her first suspension from the party, Kirby had been a member of Labour at least as far back as 2014; whereas Downing was suspended from the party for the first time in August 2015, as he noted in a comment posted on the New Internationalist website. He also stated on Facebook that he has been a member of Labour “for some 30 years, with a few breaks”. So, Freedland evidently doesn’t have a point with regard to Corbyn here.

However, he goes on to make a more general point about ‘the left’ and anti-Semitism which is significant – specifically that Jewish people have spent “years, lamenting that parts of the left were succumbing to views of Jews drenched in prejudice”; and that these warnings have been ignored in “the belief that what Jews are complaining about is not antisemitism at all, but criticism of Israel”. On the same tack, reacting to the news about Vicki Kirby, on the 15th March 2016 Owen Jones had published a piece on the Guardian’s website, called ‘Antisemitism is a poison – the left must take leadership against it’; which had said much the same thing:

“It is incumbent on the progressively minded to take antisemitism seriously. We wouldn’t belittle the seriousness of other forms of bigotry, or seek to deflect from it. It is possible to passionately oppose antisemitism on the one hand, and on the other oppose the policies of Israel’s government and support Palestinian national self-determination. Both these issues have to be completely disentangled: a discussion about serious antisemitism should not be a launchpad into a debate about Israel”.

So both authors suggest that ‘the left’ has a problem with distinguishing anti-Semitism from criticism of Israel – which to all intents and purposes centres on the policies of the country’s government. They also imply that there is a straightforward distinction to be drawn between these two things.

However, neither the case of Kirby nor Downing support this viewpoint. On the contrary, they serve to demonstrate how difficult it actually is to establish whether a sentiment is anti-Semitic, or is criticism of Israel’s government. The GuidoFawkes site provides a screenshot of Kirby’s comments on Twitter, which are at the centre of the allegations against her. As can be seen, the majority of these were references toIsrael, rather than Jews:

The four tweets Kirby had posted in August 2014 alluded to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, which had been taking place during July and August that year. Kirby’s reference to Jews having ‘big noses’ and ‘supporting spurs’, posted in 2011, is also more questionable than it initially seems – it appears to be a line partially misquoted from David Baddiel’s comedy about anti-Semitism, ‘The Infidel’; which had been released in 2010; and features the following exchange:

Rabbi: What do you know about Jews?

Mahmud Nasir: They’ve got big noses? They like money… oh, they do. Uh, sportsmen?

It would be fair to say that Kirby’s wording in these tweets is problematic; and it’s possible that the reference to Jewish people having big noses was a genuinely derogatory statement, rather than a quote – quite what the reference to the ‘charade’ relates to is unclear – but taken together, the tweets don’t seem to offer anywhere near as foregone a conclusion as Jones or Freedland suggest. Moreover, Kirby was not initially suspended for making references to Jews – but specifically for her criticisms of Israel’s military action, as reported by the Independent in August 2014:

“We invented Israel when saving them from Hitler, who now seems to be their teacher,” while another said: “I will never forget and I will make sure my kids teach their children how evil Israel is!” Another tweet read: “Apparently you can ask IS/ISIS/ISIL questions on ask.fm. Anyone thought of asking them why they’re not attacking the real oppressors #Israel?”

These are obviously unpleasant comments, irrespective of whether or not they were motivated by anti-Semitism. Kirby was punished for posting them, however; and warned of her future conduct. Given that nothing similar appears to have been posted by her since then, it would seem that the matter was dealt with effectively by the Labour party. It is also perfectly clear that the focus of them was upon Israel.

In fact, Freedland himself acknowledges how difficult it can be to discern anti-Semitism from criticism of Israel; which goes some way towards explaining why others would struggle to see it any more distinctly:

“Many good people on the left want to make things neat and simple by saying that Israel and Zionism have nothing to do with Jews or Judaism. That they can deplore the former even while they protect and show solidarity with the latter. But it’s not quite as easy as that…a recent survey found that 93% of British Jews said Israel formed some part of their identity. Through ties of family or history, they are bound up with it.”.

If Freedland sees it this way, it perhaps explains why other people take the same view, but from a negative standpoint; and how criticism of the one can segue into the other, without prejudice or racism necessarily being a factor. If the state of Israel and Jewish identity overlap in many respects, it is obvious that criticism can follow suit.

If anything, the distinction between anti-Semitism and reproaches of Israel’s government is even less clear cut in the case of Downing. The references to Downing’s essay misquote its title; and none allude to its content properly. It was not called “we must address the Jewish question” as the GuidoFawkes blog claimed; nor did it suggest that “it was time to wrestle with the ‘Jewish Question'” as Freedland suggested. Instead it was entitled ‘Why Marxists must address the Jewish question concretely today’; published on 22nd August 2015. So what is the ‘Jewish question’ it proposes to address?

According to the GuidoFawkes blog “The piece speaks for itself”; and this is supposedly illustrated by the following quote:

“The role Zionists have played in the attempted witch-hunt against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign is glaringly obvious… Since the dawning of the period of neo-liberal capitalism in the 1970s, elements of the Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie, from Milton Friedman to Henry Kissinger to the pro-Israel ideologues of the War on Terror, have played a vanguard role for the capitalist offensive against the workers.”

The ellipses denotes the removal of six and a half paragraphs. The actual text in question discusses something quite different to what’s implied here by the Fawkes site:

“The role Zionists have played in the attempted witch-hunt against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign is glaringly obvious. So is their role in British politics in general. In the last parliament, 80% of Tory MP’s supported the Conservative Friends of Israel. Leading figures in Labour like Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are involved with Labour Friends of Israel, whose sponsor list is a roll-call of Blairite neocons and war makers. The Lib Dems were similarly affected. This gives immense power”.

So, this was evidently not a reference to Judaism, but to ‘Pro-Israel’ lobby groups. Downing’s article is by no means free from problematic qualities; but is it anti-Semitic? It’s more difficult to say than the commentaries discussing it suggest. In fact, despite its references to “Jewish militants” and “the Jewish bourgeois”, the piece itself is primarily about Israel. As it concludes: “The end of ethnocracy in Israel would spell the defeat of this extra resource of imperialism, which today’s Western ruling classes value highly indeed”. It is easy enough to see why somebody would read Downing’s piece and conclude that it is rooted in anti-Semitic hostility; but it seems to be more a badly written and ill-thought out treatise on the demerits of Western imperialism, written from a half-baked Marxist standpoint, than opprobrium aimed at people for being Jewish.

This is the point at issue, here: it isn’t entirely clear whether these two individuals are anti-Semitic; or whether their criticisms of Israel are poorly worded. It could be either which is true. Their views on Israel could be rooted in racism; but they could equally well not be. Either way, the facts of both cases fail to support the conclusion drawn by Freedland that Kirby and Downing’s membership of the Labour party has implications for its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Both of them joined the party before Corbyn was elected to lead it – both were removed while he leads the party.

Labour Friends Of Israel

Freedland is not alone in alleging that Jeremy Corbyn is implicated in anti-Semitism; nor is it a suggestion limited to media columnists. A number of the Labour party’s own MPs have written pieces – or made public statements – which contended that anti-Semitism has become a problem within the Labour party, specifically because of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership [3]. Do they have any more of a point than Freedland? No. In fact, this is where the conflation of anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel’s government becomes deeply problematic.

Writing in the Telegraph,  Tom Harris – a former Labour MP – suggested that ‘The Labour Party is increasingly anti-Semitic'[4]. From the outset, however, Harris amalgamates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism; stating that: “The influx of anti-Israel far Left supporters has worsened the bias of the PLP against Jewish people”. The cases of Kirby and Downing are cited as the proof that this has been due to Corbyn’s leadership. Needless to say by now, this is untrue.

Moreover, throughout Harris’ piece, there is no reference to any form of sectarian hostility aimed at Jews; but, instead, repeated allusions to Israel. For instance:

“the recent growth in party membership as a root cause of Labour’s current anti-Semitism problem: hatred of Israel – real, blind, vicious, hatred – is felt most keenly and most loudly by those on the extreme Left, many of them Trotskyites who joined to shore up Mr Corbyn’s leadership and who see him as the world’s last best hope of overturning capitalism and, they hope, Israel while he’s at it”.

In fact, Harris goes on to make it plain that he sees criticism of Israel as intrinsically anti-Semitic: “anti-Zionism is not the same as anti-Semitism, these people plead in their defence…Yet what is Zionism other than support for the creation and continued existence of the state of Israel?”. Harris concludes because of this that “Labour must not, cannot tolerate such a view”; and that “Labour does indeed have a problem with Jews”.

Moreover, Harris refers to another Telegraph article, quoting the Labour MP – John Mann – making the exact same accusations in relation to an alleged problem with anti-Semitism among a Labour student group at Oxford University [5]. Mann is backed-up on his calls for Jeremy Corbyn to act upon these claims by “Michael Dugher MP and Rachel Reeves MP”. This story had made news when the student leader of the Oxford University Labour Club, Alex Chalmers, gave a public resignation; claiming that “a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews”. As Chalmers states at the beginning of his notice, however: “This comes in the light of OULC’s decision at this evening’s general meeting to endorse Israel Apartheid Week.” So, it’s clear that allegations of anti-Semitism were being made with regard to peoples attitudes towards Israel.

The significance of this may not be immediately obvious. However, what the Telegraph neglects to mention, at any point, is that Tom Harris, Michael Dugher, and Rachel Reeves are all involved at some level in ‘pro-Israel’ lobbying. Dugher and Reeves are ‘officers’ in the Labour Friends of Israel lobby group; while Harris is listed as a ‘supporter’ of it. Louise Ellman, another Labour MP who was quoted in the Guardian’s piece about the Oxford University Labour Club making the same allegations against Corbyn, is also designated an ‘officer’ of this group. Furthermore, the Labour peer, Michael Levy, was quoted by the Guardian – warning that he would resign if anti-Semitism was tolerated by Corbyn’s Labour. As with the Telegraph, the Guardian does not refer to the fact that Levy is a key figure in the Labour Friends of Israel lobby group. This may not initially seem altogether significant; however, it serves to illuminate a problem which underscores persistent allegations of anti-Semitism made against people who have criticised the policies of Israel’s government. Namely, that they are often politically-motivated.

Harris et al are not the only Labour MPs to be affiliated with ‘pro-Israel’ lobbying, who have leveled charges of anti-Semitism at the Labour leadership, or at the party’s supporters. Wes Streeting is another Labour MP, who has alleged that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party has seen anti-Semitism within it increase [6]. As with the previous figures, this centres on Israel.

On the 14th March 2016 the Huffington Post quoted Streeting claiming that: “I’ve had constituents in Ilford North write to me asking ‘What on earth is going on with the Labour party’; ‘Is there still a place for Jews in the Labour party’; ‘Why would Jewish people want to vote for the Labour party’”; and that “Labour is seen as a soft-touch on anti-semitism or looking the other way”. These were in reference to to the cases of Downing and Kirby.

Streeting also posted a statement on his Facebook account; asking: “Why, when Mr Downing’s case was first highlighted by Guido Fawkes, did it take over a day for the Labour Party to act…?”. This seems to be a self-answering question – claims being made by such a disreputable site obviously need to be investigated properly. Moreover, given that Kirby and Downing were removed from the party, Streeting lacks a point here. It would also appear that he is being disingenuous.

Streeting began making accusations that Corbyn was implicated in the anti-Semitism of others during the Labour leadership campaign; bemoaning Corbyn’s “remarkably one-sided and one-dimensional views on one of the most intractable conflicts and some of the unpalatable company he has kept during his long career in Parliament”. That is, the conflict between Israel and Palestinians; and Corbyn’s involvement with critics of Israel’s government. As Streeting goes on to say “when it comes to defending Israel’s security and right to exist, the Labour Party should always be consistent and uncompromising”.

Streeting subsequently outlines his own past opposition to the Boycotts, Sanctions, and Divestment movement. This was undertaken while he was the President of the National Union of Students. So, this is not merely a matter of opinion for his part, but one of political activism. As with the aformentioned Labour MPs, Streeting is a member of Labour Friends of Israel; and even once wrote an essay for them, entitled ‘Youth activism should be harnessed to make the progressive case for Israel’. It’s fair to say therefore, that Streeting not only elides anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel; but has been involved in ‘pro-Israel’ lobbying efforts. These factors clearly underscore the allegations he has made against the Labour party leader.

More indicative still are Streeting’s activities during his tenure as the NUS President. He visited the West Bank in December 2009; and spoke of it to the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, in beatific terms. Streeting had visited Bethlehem:

“which he says did not look like the “war-torn place” he had expected. “When we passed through, my first impression of the West Bank was that it was just like the place on the other side…. The surroundings were the same, the people were doing the same things – there wasn’t much difference between the two places.” The Palestinian economy in the West Bank seems “to be a lot more stable and active” than he had assumed, he added”.

Suffice to say, Israeli Human Rights groups provide a different portrait of life within the West Bank, during 2009. The reality of life for Palestinians in the territory has been documented in numerous reports published by B’Tselem. Untreated wastewater from Israeli settlements had been polluting the land of Palestinian farmers. Israeli authorities failed to treat wastewater themselves; and obstructed efforts by the Palestinian Authority to build water-treatment plants within Palestinian communities.

Bethlehem; December 2009.

Bethlehem; December 2009.

Israeli settlers were also documented harassing Palestinian farmers, and stealing their crops during the Olive harvest that autumn. The settlements themselves were expanded in 2009. Moreover, seventeen Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces during 2009. Torture and abusive detention were also recorded by B’Tselem. Those subject to these practices included minors; and residents of Bethlehem.

Bethlehem; 2009.

Bethlehem; 2009.

Freedom of movement was also severely restricted for Palestinians in the West Bank, by virtue of check-points, forbidden roads, and physical obstructions; along with a planning and zoning scheme, enforced by the Israeli government – as reported by the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Occupied Palestinian territory. This places severe curtailments on Palestinian use of land and resources; with marked effects upon housing, trade, and general living standards.

These were all a daily fact of life for Palestinians subject to Israeli policy in the West Bank during 2009, when Streeting visited the region. Perhaps he saw nothing of this; but it would seem to be something which can not pass unnoticed without making a determined effort to ignore it.

West Bank barrier.

West Bank barrier.

Streeting has continued in this vein since being elected to Parliament – expressing concern about anti-Semitism, but focusing on criticism aimed at Israel’s government. The elision is made plain by Streeting himself, in an interview he gave to the Jewish Chronicle; speaking about the Parliamentary vote to officially recognise the right of Palestinians to statehood, during 2014:

“Many Israel advocates say they will turn away from Labour as a result of Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander’s position during last summer’s Gaza conflict. So how does Mr Streeting deal with the harm their stance could do to his campaign?

“There’s no doubt that what Ed and Douglas have said on Israel has made some party members uncomfortable,” he said. “I think it’s part of a wider debate we need to have on the left here and in Israel. Issues like the UN vote on Palestinian statehood, that is gesture politics. We have a dangerous climate in this country where some Jews feel they can’t speak out. That’s a concern. They should never feel hesitant or feel that when they raise antisemitism they will get a rant about Israel back in return.”

It’s obvious how self-contradictory this point is. In fact, the Jewish Chronicle’s journalist makes the same conflation in this piece: “Mr Streeting’s own track-record on Israel is clear. During his NUS presidency he was praised for improving relations with the Union of Jewish Students at a time when anti-Israel activism on campuses was growing”. Streeting had expressed almost exactly the same sentiment himself in October 2009:

““It’s not fair for Jewish students to go about their daily lives feeling like they are expected to justify or defend the actions of the state of Israel”.

It’s a point Streeting repeated in November 2015, when the Labour party proposed to end its own contract with the security firm, G4S; citing reports of its unethical practices within the West Bank. Writing in Jewish News, Streeting implied that this was anti-Semitic: “G4S operates in around 125 countries, but it is telling that only its contract with Israel has been cited as a reason for the boycott”; before adding:

“I recently held an open forum at Redbridge Jewish Community Centre, where residents expressed worries about Labour’s stance on the Middle East and even our commitment to tackling anti-Semitism. Many of these residents have been lifelong Labour voters and are in despair, feeling that the Labour Party can no longer be an honest broker for Middle East peace”.

It’s evident that Streeting persistently conflates the state of Israel with Jewish identity; then accuses other people of being anti-Semitic for doing the same thing as himself – that is, failing to make a distinction between people who are Jewish, and Israel. If Streeting does not differentiate between the two, how can others really be faulted by him when they follow suit? It’s not something which can be had both ways.

Much the same is true of several other Labour MPs at the forefront of making allegations of anti-Semitic sympathies against both the Labour party and its leader; whose commentaries conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Chris Bryant published a piece in the Times newspaper – quoted in the paywall-free Independent – titled ‘If Labour gives in to antisemitism it loses its soul’; but subtitled ‘criticising Israel is one thing, but questioning its right to exist is another’ [7]. While, writing in Jewish News, the Labour MP, Angela Smith, opined that “for far too long, some on the left have exhibited a distorted logic when it comes to anti-Semitism by equating every aspect of Jewish identity and culture with the politics of Israel and the Middle East” [8]. So, on the one hand, Jewish identity is bound up with the state of Israel; but on the other, it is separate. Again, it’s not possible to have it both ways

Another Labour MP exhibiting the same tendency is the aforementioned John Mann, who appears not to be a member of Labour Friends of Israel; yet has arguably been the most voluble of Labour MPs in leveling allegations of anti-Semitism at critics of Israel’s government. Back in 2015, Mann decried “the significant increase in antisemitism which emanated from last summer’s conflict between Israel and Gaza” ; contending that “anti-Israel discourse can, at times, be polluted by antisemitism” as “language playing on myths and stereotypes of Jews is deployed”. There is no reference in Mann’s piece to anti-Semitism which does not revolve around Israel, however. Indeed, the report his Parliamentary group authored on the supposed increase of anti-Semitism since the summer conflict of 2014 contains over 200 references to Israel; and was evidently written in response to the reaction the war of 2014 produced [9].

Tellingly, Mann was involved in an employment tribunal during 2013; which tried – and failed – to have Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions debate designated as anti-Semitism on university campuses. The tribunal transcript is worth reading in its entirety – not least of all because Mann was joined in this endeavour by several other people who feature in the present matter. With regard to Mann, however, (and the former Labour MP, Denis MacShane), the tribunal judgment noted that they had been questioned about a report “which had described Jewish students feeling threatened on campus”. Representatives of the University and Colleges Union had “explained that they wished for further information because that matter called for investigation”. However:

“The parliamentarians did not provide any detail and did not genuinely respond to that inquiry at all. Mr Mann led for them and the more conciliatory tone of Dr MacShane gave way to a somewhat hostile display in which Mr Mann made no bones about his view that the union was operating in an anti-Semitic way and that those at its head must address the problem. He did not explain what the anti-Semitic behaviour was supposed to have consisted of besides referring to the boycott debate and characterising any boycott of Israel or Israeli institutions as itself anti-Semitic” (p. 25).

Furthermore, during the tribunal itself, Mann claimed that:

“when it came to antiSemitism in the context of debate about the Middle East, he announced, “It’s clear to me where the line is …” but unfortunately eschewed the opportunity to locate it for us” (p. 37).

The same trait has been apparent in Mann’s statements on anti-Semitism since at least 2006, when he published a letter in the Guardian proposing to “redraw the line between acceptable debate and veiled anti-semitism”; which focused on discourse surrounding Israel. Bemoaning “the incipient growth of anti-semitism on the left under the cloak of anti-Zionism”, Mann complained about critiques that do “not draw a line beyond which legitimate debate becomes illegitimate, and where hostile becomes offensive”. So, what constitutes this line? It’s not made clear – if anything, Mann keeps it opaque. For example, in the same letter, Mann cites ‘the AUT academic boycott’ as crossing the putative line. But what is this boycott, if not an objection to the discriminatory practices within Israeli universities; and therefore opposition to Israeli government policy?

Also during 2006, Mann had published a Parliamentary report into anti-Semitism; which again focused overwhelmingly on criticism of Israel’s government – and arguably serves as a precursor for the same problematic tendencies exhibited by his colleagues: decrying a refusal to distinguish between Jewish people, and Israel; but then advancing precisely this conflation himself. So, on the one hand, Mann bemoans the fact that “some of those who are hostile to Israel make no distinction between Israelis and Jews”; but on the other, exclaims:

“Israel is the world’s only Jewish State and Zionism its founding ideology…moreover, there is a strong attachment between the British Jewish community and Israel. Many British Jews have relatives in Israel and it forms one of the key themes of Jewish education and identity” (pp. 16-17)

So what does apply here? Either Jewish identity is intrinsically bound up with the state of Israel, or it isn’t.

All told, the more Mann and his peers opine on the subject, the less distinct the difference between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism appears; and if these commentators cannot draw a definitive divergence, then it’s unreasonable for them to fault others when they follow suit. This persistent confusion perhaps goes some way towards explaining why so many problems accrue when attempting to discern anti-Semitic sentiments from criticisms of Israel. This was evident in the comments made by Vicki Kirby and Gerry Downing at the heart of this, after all; most of which were devoted to criticisms of Israeli policy, while making references to people who are Jewish.

Political Partisanship

There is a difference between confusion, and outright cynicism, however. Some accusations of anti-Semitism leveled at the Labour party and its leader are rooted in political partisanship; if not in some cases outright malice. As will become clear, these are also remarkably hypocritical.

On the 23rd of March 2016, in Parliament, David Cameron opined that:

“I have to say that we do see a growth in support for segregation and indeed for anti-Semitism in part of the Labour party, and I say to its leader that it is his party and he should sort it out”.

This was during a Parliamentary discussion about the Budget, which had been delivered amidst a great deal of controversy several days prior. Aside from being a very blatant attempt at changing the subject, David Cameron was himself once openly affiliated with an anti-Semitic politician from Poland, called Michal Kaminski; during 2009. Both Cameron and Kaminski had been members of the European Conservatives and Reformists group. Significantly, Cameron’s involvement with Kaminski was defended by the Jewish Chronicle’s editor, Stephen Pollard; which serves to demonstrate how duplicitous these accusations can be.

On the 17th of March 2016, Pollard insinuated – as he would do again, several days later – that Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic, on the basis of his past association with people who had themselves been accused of holding anti-Semitic views. However, Pollard had defended Cameron’s collusion with an openly anti-Semitic politician. Not only that, but Pollard had spoken out on behalf of Kaminski himself. It is perhaps predictable by now, but Pollard focused on Kaminski’s attitude towards Israel.

Dismissing the allegations against Kaminski as “anti-Semitic mudslinging of the worst kind”, Pollard subsequently complained that:

“There are few things more despicable than anti-Semitism, but here’s one of them: using a false charge of anti-Semitism for political gain. Yet it seems there are few depths to which some will not sink in their desperation to damage David Cameron. …Far from being an anti-Semite, Mr Kaminski is about as pro-Israeli an MEP as exists”.

It perhaps goes without saying, but the allegations against Kaminski were documented in fact. He was undoubtedly an apologist for the massacre of Jews by Polish auxiliaries of the Nazi SS, at Jedwabne; during the onset of the Holocaust in July 1941. Pollard was being disingenuous.

As Antony Lerman noted at the time, Pollard’s viewpoint: “whereby you assess the salience of someone’s antisemitism or their perspective on Jews, and whether they are a respectable political partner, on the basis of their views on Israel” results in a set of perverse outcomes: on the one hand, supporting anti-Semites because they are ‘pro-Israel’; on the other, concluding that somebody is anti-Semitic because they criticise Israel’s government, despite the fact that they do not hold any antipathy towards people for being Jewish. It is obvious that Pollard – and for that matter, Cameron – apply the double standards they do on this issue for political gain.

Equally rooted in animus were the accusations made against Jeremy Corbyn by the former Conservative MP, Louise Mensch, during the Labour Party’s leadership campaign in the summer of 2015. Mensch purported to have uncovered evidence that Corbyn’s supporters were targeting another leadership candidate, Liz Kendall, with anti-Semitic abuse. Averring “this is the sewer that is Jeremy Corbyn’s support”, Mensch produced a screenshot, compiling a series of auto-completed searches for Liz Kendall’s name on Twitter; supposedly indicating repeated searches for Kendall’s links to ‘Jews’. In reality, Mensch had conducted these searches herself. As was pointed out by another Twitter user, the crosses to the right of the words mean that these were terms Mensch had put into the Twitter search-engine:

o-MENSCH-570

Mensch was ridiculed for this. However, the risible efforts at fabricating material perhaps resulted in the intentions behind it being overlooked. This was a clear example of somebody forging material, and making false allegations of anti-Semitism, in an attempt to influence the outcome of a democratic election.

Similarly, Nick Cohen writing in the Observer also alleged that Jeremy Corbyn was implicated in anti-Semitism; citing Corbyn’s:

“support for an Anglican cleric who linked to extremist sites that blamed Jews for 9/11, and his defence of an Islamist who recycled the libel that Jews dined on the blood of Christian children from the bottom of a medieval dung heap”.

These claims do not withstand basic tests of evidence and logic [10]. The “Anglican cleric” in question was Stephen Sizer. Sizer had posted a comment on Facebook, linking to an article on the Wikispooks website entitled “9/11 Israel did it”; adding: “Is this anti-Semitic? If so no doubt I’ll be asked to remove it. It raises so many questions”. This occurred in January 2015. Corbyn had indeed written a letter in support of Sizer – but that had been in April 2012. Moreover, Corbyn had expressed his support for Sizer after the latter had “come under attack by certain individuals intent on discrediting the excellent work that Stephen does in highlighting the injustices of the Palestinian Israeli situation, in particular by his very thorough analysis of “Christian Zionism”. So, not only was this about criticism of Israel, it had been three years before Sizer’s reference to 9/11.

The “Islamist” Cohen alludes to was Raed Salah. Salah is undoubtedly a highly controversial figure – an Israeli citizen, and a branch-leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel; with a history of political dissidence, and open conflict with the legal authorities in his home country. It is also true that Salah had cited the notorious ‘Blood Libel’. There is more to this case, however, than Cohen implies. In June 2011, Salah had arrived in Britain, in order to attend a Palestine Solidarity Committee event in the house of Commons, featuring Corbyn – only to be arrested and detained on the grounds of breaching a travel ban to the UK.

To cut a long and complex story short, following an appeal against the Home Office’s decision, the case against Salah was found to be overwhelmingly false; and was subsequently dismissed by a UK Upper Tribunal. This did not exonerate Salah on the charge of making his ‘Blood Libel’ statement; nonetheless, what came to light during this tribunal was that most of the allegations of anti-Semitism made against Salah were baseless, and in at least one instance was based upon fabricated material [11].

Ultimately, the case against Salah was dismissed; and the decision for barring his entry to the UK was overturned by the immigration tribunal. Corbyn’s involvement therein centred on contesting the mechanisms behind Salah’s deportation order. To suggest that this implicates Corbyn in anti-Semitism is devoid of basis in fact; and for Cohen’s part, the accusation is evidently rooted in malice. Cohen has written a series of articles deriding Corbyn, with a regularity bordering on the obsessive – linking him, variously, to terrorism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism; denouncing him as “self-righteous” and “wallowing in cruelty“, and “anti-West“, while accusing him of “hijacking Labour“, and being “Hezbollah’s man in London“. These claims are obviously vindictive; and are uniformly rooted in falsehood.

Student Politics

Something not dissimilar is evident in at least one piece published about the Oxford University furore. Responding in the Guardian to the resignation of Alex Chalmers from the Oxford University Labour Club, Aaron Simons contended ‘It’s time we acknowledged that Oxford’s student left is institutionally antisemitic’. As with the previous commentaries, Simons’ allegations of anti-Semitism focus primarily on criticisms of Israel:

“A committee member stated that all Jews should be expected to publicly denounce Zionism and the state of Israel, and that we should not associate with any Jew who fails to do so. It has been alleged that another OULC member organised a group of students to harass a Jewish student and to shout “filthy Zionist” whenever they saw her”.

There is no evidence provided to back these specific claims up; and the article promptly descends into a polemic against ‘the radical left’, bordering on the hysterical in places:

“The radical left interprets Israeli politics through the “settler-colonial” paradigm. Not only does it take a quite incredible lack of compassion to see a Jewish holocaust refugee as a skull-capped Cecil Rhodes, it is no coincidence that Jews are seamlessly aligned with white colonialism – the radical left’s highest manifestation of whiteness, power, and oppression”.

Needless to say, this does not add up. The settlement policy of the Israeli state is not coterminous with a Jewish refugee who survived the Holocaust. One is a government policy which victimises Palestinians; the other was a victim of a different government’s policy. This is merely a crude attempt at conflating anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel’s government and its policies. Moreover, several of Simons’ assertions are contradicted by the material he cites as evidence.

For example, Simons claims: “One of Oxford’s online political forums removed members with Jewish sounding surnames from the group”. This appears to be untrue. The link provided in support of this claim leads to an article published on Cherwell News, called ‘Concern at No HeterOx “purge” from Facebook group’. It does not contain a reference to anyone’s surname being a factor behind their removal from the Facebook discussion group – the article expressly states that people were removed for their political alignments. What it does reveal is that there was a dispute between people over use of the term ‘Zio’ as short-hand for Zionist; which saw accusations of anti-Semitism being made, again, based on criticisms of Israel.

As quoted in the Cherwell News piece: 

“I believe that some of the responses to my viewpoint were overtly anti-Semitic: the original poster of the ‘Zio’ comment accused me of spreading Israeli propaganda (referring to me as ‘the above Zionist’ and repeating the word I had asked them not to use in a way which was overtly confrontational) in language which resembled an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. When another (non-Zionist) Jew called out their use of anti-Semitic tropes, no action was taken by the admins.”

By all accounts, this seems to have been a trivial dispute, based on questionable inferences; among an online group, dedicated to ‘Queer’ politics. If it does signify anything, it is yet another elision of anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel.

Simons follows this claim up, contending that “one notable far-left student politician said, “I don’t like being smeared as antisemitic, but I don’t bleed from it either.” This doesn’t really indicate very much, as quoted. However, the article being cited is again about the Israel/Palestine conflict; entitled ‘Israel’s defendants have questions to answer’. Its author, James Elliott, discusses “the war crimes committed against Palestinian students”; which he had witnessed when visiting the Israeli military court system. Noting that “Palestinians are taken to prisons in Israel in violation of Geneva Conventions, frequently abused and tortured, then convicted by kangaroo courts on ‘secret evidence’”. The prisons in question “were equipped by G4S”; which Elliott clearly wants Oxford University to withdraw its financial investments from. He then says:

“How anyone could justify a university holding investments in such a company is beyond me, but this is the position of those who oppose boycotts. I don’t like being smeared as anti-Semitic, but I don’t bleed from it either”.

The rest of Simons’ claims about anti-Semitism proliferating left-wing student groups are equally tenuous. For instance, he claims that “One leader of the Oxford student left, who was co-chair of the Oxford Student Council for Racial Awareness and Equality, openly mocked Jewish students protesting antisemitism”. Again, the actual source cited doesn’t really support this claim. It shows two tweets – the one in question:

kbtweet

And the one it had been posted in reply to:

islamophobic-tweet2-e1440514961143

However dubious these kind of comments may be, to suggest that they provide evidence of institutional anti-Semitism is off the wall. They were comments posted on Twitter; and the student later apologised for this.

Simons further claims that the “Goldsmiths student union refused to commemorate Holocaust memorial day”. That turns out not to be true, either. The source provided is an article in the student newspaper, The Tab; which itself misrepresents matters. It transpires that several students objected to what they deemed a ‘Eurocentric’ series of commemorations, proposed by a student union motion. Needless to say, the claims being made about anti-Semitism by Simons which can be tested against any evidence, don’t withstand any real scrutiny; and as with all of the previous examples, his allegations of anti-Semitism revolve primarily around peoples’ criticism of Israel.

Another person adding their voice to this discussion of anti-Semitism, in light of the Oxford University furore, was Jeremy Newmark; Chair of the Jewish Labour Movement. Asking ‘Why does Labour find it so hard to weed out antisemitism?’, Newmark ventured that “it is partly about refusal to engage with contemporary antisemitism as it is understood by most Jewish people today”. It isn’t entirely clear what this understanding actually comprises, however. Newmark proposes that “antisemitism is a constantly mutating virus”, and that “today antisemitism takes a very different form” – but doesn’t really elucidate what form this has taken. There are indications of what he has in mind, though.

The sub-title of his article states “the scandal at Oxford Labour Club shows how antisemitism has mutated since the Nazis, into an obsession with ‘Zionism'”. He also contends that his own group encourages “robust criticism of Israel’s government and its policies. We do not take the “Israel right or wrong approach”. So, despite proving abstruse, it’s reasonable to conclude that Newmark is referring to criticism of Israel when he describes contemporary anti-Semitism. Ultimately, Newmark’s commentary is confusing; and prompts questions, without providing any real answers. This, again, perhaps demonstrates precisely why responses to allegations of anti-Semitism, delivered in this manner, end up in prevarication.

It’s also noteworthy how tendentious the commentaries on the Oxford University furore are. Throughout them, there is no effort made to ask students for a contrary opinion. One was provided in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, however, by Jon Lansman – a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s. Perhaps the key point of relevance here is Lansman’s reference to the careless use of language; which is, in various ways – and with widely differing motives – what seems to underscore the contentions made by all of the previous commentators.

As Lansman avows:

“I am entirely willing to criticise people on the left, as I have done with Ken Livingstone, for sloppy use of language: for using the words Zionist, Jewish and Israeli, interchangeably, as if they meant the same thing. Doing so is always ill-advised and counter-productive. Sometimes it can be an indicator of antisemitism. That can only be judged in context and is often not the case”.

This seems to be the real point at issue: the use of language; and the problems this can cause, following the elision of Jewish identity with Israel. What’s more, Lansman’s commentary stands apart from all of the previous examples in identifying different political forms of Zionism – namely, “right-wing Zionism”, as opposed to “Labour Zionism”. This seems to be a salient point which could help to clarify matters, considerably – and the truth of it is indicated by the relentless admonishment of ‘the left’ by authors identifying themselves simply as Zionists; whose political sympathies are clearly conservative.

Lansman also posits the possibility of another – less sympathetic – reason for allegations of anti-Semitism to have surfaced at the Oxford University Labour Club, however; specifically, that it had become “a key battle ground” between supporters and opponents of Jeremy Corbyn, “for control of Labour’s youth section”. Until the investigation into this matter has been finalised, there are sufficient reasons to justify ambivalence [12].

Paradoxically, if there is one factor which stands out clearly from these various commentaries, it’s their absence of clarity. With widely varying degrees of accuracy and sincerity, all of them revolve around criticism of Israel’s government being deemed anti-Semitic. There isn’t a clear line which demarcates the two things; and this causes problems when trying to confront prejudice, or establish safeguards against it. When does legitimate criticism of a government’s policies become illegitimate? To judge by the claims considered herein, there isn’t a straightforward answer. Moreover, whatever distinction between them does exist has been purposely blurred at times by people whose concern in the matter is less than objective.

Some of the allegations being leveled at the Labour party and its leader are evidently not being made in good faith. Faulting people for not taking allegations of anti-Semitism at face value is not responsible in these circumstances. There are compelling factors which deter drawing hard and fast conclusions when addressing accusations of this kind; and they need to be dealt with carefully and rigorously, if their level of validity is to be established. Alleged incidents of anti-Semitism which prove to be baseless, and are designed to serve an ulterior purpose, do not warrant being taken seriously. There are also contentions which are simply incorrect. This makes a degree of ambivalence unavoidable – the accuracy of claims obviously has to be tested before they can be acted upon.

Some commentaries, however, evince a genuine confusion on this subject, arising from the persistent conflation of Israel and Jewish identity; which results in criticism of one being adjudged hostility towards the other. There are times when this conclusion has been drawn, despite being made questionable – or even being contradicted – by evidence. In fact, this is a problem which authors such as Brian Klug and Antony Lerman have previously attempted to address in slightly different circumstances; and it is something which clearly needs to be given consideration today [13].

Care is required here; along with a sense of proportion. Just as people need to be careful over their use of language, others also need to be sensible with the inferences they draw from it. If people do want to tackle anti-Semitism effectively, then strident assumptions and sweeping generalizations are unhelpful; if not counterproductive at times. There is clearly something wrong with the understanding of what anti-Semitism is, when a dispute over use of the term ‘Zionist’ on an internet forum for students is cited as proof that a broad swathe of people are anti-Semitic; while actual involvement in openly anti-Semitic politics is overlooked, because somebody declares themselves ‘pro-Israel’. If it’s no longer clear what is or isn’t anti-Semitic, where are people supposed to start taking issue with it? There needs to be more sense and clarity on anti-Semitism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes

[1] According to Downing he was a “member for some 30 years, with a few breaks, was expelled on 11 August” of 2015. Downing posted this via Facebook on 16th December 2015. The Facebook post appears to have been deleted; but was accessed via a cached document on 31st March 2016. Its original URL was:

https://www.facebook.com/events/131040630594841/permalink/147628388936065/

As it happens, allegations of anti-Semitism leveled at Downing are ultimately irrelevant; as he was not removed from the party on the grounds of being anti-Semitic. In the first instance, of August 2014, he was suspended because of his Marxism. Downing cites the letter of confirmation he received:

“I understand that the reason for the NEC’s decision to auto-exclude you from membership, was the support you have shown through social media, for the organisation Socialist Fight. Your Twitter account also states “ I am a Trotskyist retired bus driver with ambitions to end capitalism on the planet by socialist revolution”, which against the aims and values of the Labour Party”.

In March 2015, he was removed from the party for his comments regarding 9/11 and his expression of support for arming Isis. See ‘We must give tactical military assistance to Isis’ says Trotskyist who was readmitted to the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn’ by Matt Dathan; Daily Mail (10th March 2016): http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3485784/We-tactical-military-assistance-Isis-says-Trotskyist-readmitted-Labour-party-Jeremy-Corbyn.html

Downing’s own piece was entitled ‘The social and political meaning of 9/11 conspiracy theory’ (24th January 2016): http://socialistfight.com/2016/01/24/the-social-and-political-meaning-of-911-conspiracy-theory/

The reference to Isis appears as”We defend the ‘Islamic State’ in Syria and Iraq against the bombing of US imperialism but do not ally with them against the Kurdish defenders of Kobane and Rojava (Western Kurdistan)”; as outlined on his website Socialist Fight’s page ‘Where we stand’: http://socialistfight.com/contact-us/platform

As with Downing’s other pieces, these seem to be examples of half-baked Marxist approaches to complex world events, rather than anything more sinister. It doesn’t seem likely that Downing is anti-Semitic, so much as ingenuous in how this material comes across.

 

[2] Jonathan Freedland has penned a number of vituperative articles disparaging Jeremy Corbyn. For example, suggesting that he resembled a sex-offender, in one article; condescendingly dismissing his supporters as narcissists in another; and likening Corbyn to a dinosaur in a third. See:

‘The Corbyn tribe cares about identity, not power’ by Jonathan Freedland; Guardian (24th July 2015): http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/24/corbyn-tribe-identity-politics-labour

‘Jeremy Corbyn has to represent all of Labour, not just himself’ by Jonathan Freedland; Guardian (18th September 2015): http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/18/jeremy-corbyn-represent-all-labour-national-anthem-debacle

‘With each misstep, Jeremy Corbyn is handing Britain to the Tories’ by Jonathan Freedland; Guardian (27th November 2015): http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/27/misstep-corbyn-terror-mao-labour-alienating-supporters

Despite claiming not to accuse Corbyn of being an anti-Semite, Freedland has of course done precisely this on the same guilt-by-association basis as other individuals discussed herein; which is quite noteworthy given that his own editor at the Jewish Chronicle once publicly defended the anti-Semitic politician, Michal Kaminski. See ‘Friends who are enemies’ by Jonathan Freedland; Jewish Chronicle (17th September 2015): http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/columnists/145154/friends-who-are-enemies

This piece in particular makes it plain what Freedland’s concern revolves around: ” Devoted supporters of Israel will take one look at his long record of vocal opposition to the country and decide he’s no friend of theirs”. Freedland bemoans Corbyn’s supporters for branding “his accusers McCarthyites, smearing him through guilt by association”; a point he then proves by doing precisely this: “what will push Jewish voters away is something more nebulous. At its simplest, it’s the company the new leader keeps”.

Oddly enough, Freedland was himself once accused of being an anti-semite by an opinion piece in the Guardian; which insinuated as much. See ‘Taking exception to making exceptions’ by Elizabeth Jay; Guardian (1st March 2009): http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/mar/01/israeli-elections-2009-gaza

 

[3] In the period immediately before and after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a number of Labour MPs claimed that anti-Semitism was burgeoning in UK politics. As with today’s furore, this was focused on criticism of Israel. For example, Stephen Byers was quoted in the Independent, contending that:

“the ‘line is now being crossed from legitimate criticism’ of the Israeli government into ‘demonisation, dehumanisation of Jews and the application of double standards'”.

James Purnell is also quoted in this article, having spoken in Parliament about anti-Semitism. The actual Parliamentary record makes plain that, again, this revolved to a fair extent around Israel:

“Anti-Semitism is not only a growing threat but it has mutated into a new form of race hatred that has found cover in extreme and unreasonable anti-Zionism”.

What follows is a lengthy discussion about imagery and language, which – as is generally the case – proves self-contradictory and confusing: veering between anti-Semitic incidents, such as attacks on synagogues; and references to Israeli politics. See ‘Anti-Semitism is ‘infecting’ British politics, MPs warn’ By Marie Woolf; Independent (20th April 2004): http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/anti-semitism-is-infecting-british-politics-mps-warn-56945.html

And the Parliamentary debate, entitled ‘Anti-Semitism’ by Hansard; 20th April 2004: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200304/cmhansrd/vo040420/halltext/40420h01.htm

Two months beforehand, Melanie Phillips had written a piece in the Guardian entitled ”Return of the old hatred – Anti-Semitism is on the increase and its roots are not in the Right but in the Sharon-hating Left’ which bemoans “the demonisation and dehumanisation of Israel based on systematic lies, libels and distortions”. Needless to say, these commentaries did no more to clarify matters than their present day equivalents.

 

[4] The Telegraph has published numerous articles on this issue; which all make identical claims, citing the same examples, in the same manner. Reading these pieces rapidly proves monotonous; which perhaps raises another possible reason why their allegations are ignored by some people. As an example of how nebulous and questionable some allegations of anti-Semitism are, see ‘Shadow cabinet minister on ‘hostile’ list is being targeted ‘because she is Jewish’, MPs claim’ by Kate McCann; Telegraph (24th March 2016): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/Jeremy_Corbyn/12203865/Shadow-cabinet-minister-on-hostile-list-is-being-targeted-because-she-is-Jewish-MPs-claim.html

It’s not possible to evaluate the claims made therein, because they rely on hearsay and anonymous attributions – which is a recurrent factor among commentaries on this subject. It defies reason to presume that discretion would be opted for if somebody’s concerns were genuine.

 

[5] Mann had made similar allegations against Ed Miliband in 2014; suggesting that Miliband had failed to support the Labour MP Luciana Berger, when she had been subject to anti-Semitic abuse on Twitter. Miliband is Jewish himself, of course; and the person who had threatened Berger was jailed for 4 weeks, leaving Mann seemingly without a point. He was a Neo-Nazi. See ‘Labour’s first Jewish leader is losing the Jewish vote’ by Dan Hodges; Telegraph (30th October 2014): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/ed-miliband/11198691/Labours-first-Jewish-leader-is-losing-the-Jewish-vote.html

Also, as a point of fact, the votes cast by Jewish Britons appear to have been consistent with the overall populace at the General Election of May 2015 – if not slightly favouring Labour more than average when socio-economic circumstance was factored in. See pages 23-24 in ‘Where Jewish votes may matter most’ by Jonathan Boyd; The Institute for Jewish Policy Research (May 2015): http://www.jpr.org.uk/documents/JPR.Where_Jewish_votes_may_matter_most.Guide_to_2015_General_Election.pdf

 

[6] Further to this, the Ha’aretz article writes that:

“Streeting arrived in Israel last week, the same day a London judge issued an arrest warrant for Tzipi Livni for her involvement in Operation Cast Lead. “It’s just hugely embarrassing,” he said about the incident. “I guess to Israelis it must just seem so really ignorant. Of all the people whom you could try to pin war crime charges on, Tzipi Livni is a really strange choice of character,” he added. “If Britain wants a role in the peace process it needs to engage with the broad range of perspectives,” he said, calling for the legal “loophole” that enabled the arrest warrant be closed”.

Livni was member of the Israeli government’s war cabinet during Operation Cast Lead. This is not the time or place to discuss the matter; suffice to say, there were valid grounds for issuing an arrest warrant against Livni, as she was suspected of war crimes. See ‘British court issued Gaza arrest warrant for former Israeli minister Tzipi Livni’ by Ian Black and Ian Cobain; Guardian (14th December 2009):
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/dec/14/tzipi-livni-israel-gaza-arrest

Streeting’s reference to the need “to engage with the broad range of perspectives” is rendered somewhat incongruous by the occasions when Streeting has faulted Corbyn for doing precisely this.

It is also noteworthy that Bethlehem is within short distance of the Dheisheh Refugee camp; which is home to c. 13,000 Palestinian refugees. See the Dheisheh Refugee Camp Profile by the The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East: http://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/camp/dheisheh-camp

For more in-depth information on the state of human rights in the West Bank during 2009, see ‘B’Tselem’s annual report ‘Human Rights in the Occupied Territories: 1 January 2009 – 30 April 2010’ (2010): http://www.btselem.org/campaigns/2009_annual_report/english/

 

[7] Strangely enough, Streeting and Bryant are members of both the Labour Friends of Israel and Labour Friends Of Palestine and the Middle East lobby groups. However, whereas Bryant voted to support the Parliamentary recognition of Palestinian statehood; Streeting opposed it. See ‘How Labour MPs voted on recognition of Palestinian Statehood’by Labourlist; 13th October 2014: http://labourlist.org/2014/10/how-labour-mps-voted-on-recognition-of-palestinian-statehood/

 

[8] Angela Smith also referred to the anti-Semitic abuse which the Labour MP, Luciana Berger had experienced in March 2016; stating:

“Let us remember too the vile online abuse suffered by Luciana Berger, the Labour MP, in recent days. This is not to say that all those attacking her in the most terribly racist terms were party members, far from it”.

There is currently no evidence that any of those responsible were members of the Labour party. See ‘No place in my party for apologists of anti-Semitism’ by Angela Smith; Jewish News (18th March 2016): http://www.jewishnews.co.uk/opinion-angela-smith-mp-the-increasing-and-disturbing-evidence-of-anti-semitism/

 

[9] Many of these commentaries claim in passing that anti-Semitism has risen in Britain. This is untrue. It is equally inaccurate to suggest that it is less common among people on the Right of the political spectrum than it is on the Left. In reality, it is primarily older generations of poorly educated right-wing males who have negative attitudes towards people who are Jewish. This has been documented by the Pew Research Centre. See ‘Unfavorable Views of Jews and Muslims on the Increase in Europe’ by Pew Research Centre (17th September 2008): http://www.pewglobal.org/2008/09/17/unfavorable-views-of-jews-and-muslims-on-the-increase-in-europe/

It notes that “Great Britain stands out as the only European country included in the survey where there has not been a substantial increase in anti-Semitic attitudes. Just 9% of the British rate Jews unfavorably, which is largely unchanged from recent years”.

In a more recent report from 2015, 7% of Britons held unfavourable views of Jewish people. See ‘Anti-Minority Sentiment Not Rising’ by Bruce Stokes; Pew Research Center (2nd June 2015): http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/06/02/chapter-3-anti-minority-sentiment-not-rising/

While there is a difference between the volume of anti-Semitic opinion and the number of anti-Semitic incidents, it seems fair to say that the proliferation of anti-Semitism in Britain is consistently exaggerated by the media.

 

[10] Cohen’s agenda is obvious enough. Should it remain in doubt, see ‘Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party: one of them must go’ by Nick Cohen; the Spectator (18th August 2015): http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2015/08/corbyn-labour-party-one-must-go/

Cohen has previous form on making allegations of anti-Semitism against his political opponents; and this stretches back to at least 2005. See:

‘Anti-Semitism isn’t a local side effect of a dirty war over a patch of land smaller than Wales. It’s everywhere from Malaysia to Morocco, and it has arrived here’ by Nick Cohen; New Statesman (10th October 2005): http://www.newstatesman.com/node/162996

‘Hatred is turning me into a Jew’ by Nick Cohen; jewish Chronicle (12th February 2009): http://www.thejc.com/comment/comment/hatred-turning-me-a-jew

‘How the left turned against the Jews’ by Nick Cohen; Standpoint Magazine (April 2012):
http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/features-april-12-how-the-left-turned-against-the-jews-nick-cohen-anti-semitism-israel-islamism

All of these pieces repeat the same basic claim that ‘the left’ are anti-Semitic; with the same dearth of evidence each time.

 

[11] The allegations against Jeremy Corbyn regarding his past associations with Raed Salah and Stephen Sizer – amongst others – have been made repeatedly; beginning during the Labour leadership contest of 2015. None of them withstand any real scrutiny; but this has not deterred columnists who are hostile towards Corbyn from repeating them ad nauseum. Needless to say, the accusations all centre on Israel. I wrote about these in greater detail while the Labour leadership contest was still underway. See ‘Jeremy Corbyn, The Left, And Accusations Of Anti-Semitism – What Are They Really About?’: https://richardhutton.wordpress.com/2015/08/28/jeremy-corbyn-the-left-and-accusations-of-anti-semitism-what-are-they-really-about/

 

[12] To date, there have been two instances where Labour students have been subject to false allegations of anti-Semitism. See: ‘Labour Reinstates Suspended Stirling Uni President After False Anti-Semitism Allegations’ by Jamie Ross; Buzzfeed (31st March 2016): http://www.buzzfeed.com/jamieross/president-of-stirling-uni-labour-party-suspended-over-anti-s#.bcqlJq1zo

See also ‘Labour NEC Entrant In Smear Scandal’ by Luke James; Morning Star (26th February 2016):
http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-45c6-Labour-NEC-entrant-in-smear-scandal#.Vu7UKdKLS9L

For a discussion of this overall issue, which alludes to the Oxford University furore, see ‘Young Labour in Left landslide but chaos, manipulation & smears mar NEC election’ by Left Futures (February 2016): http://www.leftfutures.org/2016/02/young-labour-in-left-landslide-but-chaos-manipulation-smears-mar-nec-election/

 

[13] Antony Lerman in particular has written extensively on this subject. See:

‘Sense on Antisemitism’ by Antony Lerman; Prospect Magazine (20th August 2002): http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/senseonantisemitism

‘Antisemitic, or just offensive?’ by Antony Lerman; Guardian (2nd April 2009):
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/apr/02/tony-lerman-oliphant-cartoon-israel

‘The “new antisemitsm”‘  by Antony Lerman; Open Democracy (29th September 2015) https://www.opendemocracy.net/mirrorracisms/antony-lerman/new-antisemitism

The need for greater clarity was discussed in a report attempting to monitor anti-Semitism in the UK. See ‘Could it happen here? What existing data tell us about contemporary antisemitism in the UK’ by Jonathan Boyd and L. Daniel Staetsky; Institute for Jewish Policy Research (May 2015): http://www.jpr.org.uk/documents/JPR.2015.Policy_Debate_-_Contemporary_Antisemitism.pdf

See also ‘Let’s have a sense of proportion’ by David Goldberg; Guardian (26th January 2002): http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/jan/26/religion.uk1

 

Is Seumas Milne An ‘Apologist For Fascism’? No.

‘So Mr Corbyn, what made you appoint fascism-apologist Seumas Milne?’: so asks Kate Godfrey – a former parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party; quoted at length in an article published by the Telegraph.

Milne has just been appointed to a key position within Labour, as the party’s new head of strategy and communications; so clearly it would be a matter of significant concern if Milne does hold problematic political views. Therefore, they warrant evaluation.

Godfrey’s piece attributes several dubious-sounding statements to Milne; but without providing any sources to his original articles. The Telegraph follows suit. So, let’s look at each one, and compare them to the comments Milne makes in his articles.

According to Godfrey, the following are “some of the things that Seumas Milne knows”:

“He knows that the West shouldn’t ‘demonise’ Putin — while Russian jets are scrambled by Assad, and responsibility for six of every seven deaths in Syria lies with the Russian-backed regime.”

“He knows that Assad had ‘no rational motivation’ for the worst chemical attacks since the Iran-Iraq war, and so that they probably didn’t take place.”

“He knows that the Iraqis who worked with the US in Iraq were ‘quislings,’ and that the right of it was with the ‘armed resistance.’”

“He knows that Lee Rigby fought in Afghanistan, and so that his murder ‘wasn’t terrorism in the normal sense.’”

These are clearly some pretty strong charges. So, how accurate are they?

The first of these comments is a reference to an article Milne had written in March 2015; entitled ‘The demonisation of Russia risks paving the way for war – Politicians and the media are using Vladimir Putin and Ukraine to justify military expansionism. It’s dangerous folly’. So, even without reading the article itself, it’s immediately clear that the ‘demonisation’ in question does not relate to Syria – but to the conflict in the Ukraine. However, at no point in the body of the article itself does Milne make any allusion to Vladimir Putin being somehow unfairly demonised. What he does refer to is the way that British politicians were exploiting the threat posed by Putin’s military, to justify their own escalation of military involvement in Ukraine’s conflict:

“the campaign is personal. It’s all about Putin. The Russian president is an expansionist dictator who has launched a “shameless aggression”. He is the epitome of “political depravity”, “carving up” his neighbours as he crushes dissent at home, and routinely is compared to Hitler. Putin has now become a cartoon villain and Russia the target of almost uniformly belligerent propaganda across the western media”

As Milne then goes on to say:

“it’s certainly grist to the mill of those pushing military confrontation with Russia. Hundreds of US troops are arriving in Ukraine this week to bolster the Kiev regime’s war with Russian-backed rebels in the east. Not to be outdone, Britain is sending 75 military advisers of its own.”

Irrespective of anybody’s opinion on the conflict in Ukraine, that is the subject of Milne’s article, not Syria. It was also written in March – Russia did not begin its airstrikes in Syria until September. To imply that Milne defends Putin’s support for Assad’s government herein is therefore wide of the mark. His concern in this article was not with Russia in its own right, but with the war-efforts of Britain, undertaken in Ukraine. Has Milne defended Russia’s involvement in Syria elsewhere, however? Apparently not. He has seemingly published only one article relating to the Syrian conflict from September 2015 to the present – on the 9th September. Russia began its airstrikes on September 30th. It would be fair to point out that what Milne writes in this article should apply to Russia, as much as it does to Nato; but it would be a bit unreasonable to fault somebody for not taking issue with something which had not actually happened at the time of writing.

Godfrey’s claim that Milne “knows that Assad had ‘no rational motivation’ for the worst chemical attacks since the Iran-Iraq war, and so that they probably didn’t take place” also fails to withstand any real scrutiny. The relevant article was entitled ‘An attack on Syria will only spread the war and killing – Instead of removing the chemical weapon threat, another western assault on the Arab world risks escalation and backlash’, published in August 2013, in the wake of the horrific attack on Ghouta. However, Milne does not actually suggest that Assad had “no rational motivation” for deploying chemical weapons. What he writes instead is quite different:

“so far no reliable evidence whatever has been produced to confirm even what chemical might have been used, let alone who delivered it. The western powers and their allies, including the Syrian rebels, insist the Syrian army was responsible. The Damascus government and its international backers, Russia and Iran, blame the rebels.

The regime, which has large stockpiles of chemical weapons, undoubtedly has the capability and the ruthlessness. But it’s hard to see a rational motivation. Its forces have been gaining ground in recent months and the US has repeatedly stated that chemical weapons use is a “red line” for escalation”.

Was Milne’s scepticism justified at this juncture? Obviously both parties to the conflict had a vested interest in blaming their counterpart; while no UN investigation into the incident had been concluded until September 2013. Amidst the various counter-claims being made, there was evidently some cause for ambivalence. Nonetheless, it is clear that Milne does not deny or doubt that the chemical attack had taken place. Moreover, his actual concern herein had little to do with Syria’s government; and was instead focused on the the prospect of America and Britain using this episode as a justification for further military involvement in Syria’s murky civil war:

“that won’t hold back the western powers from the chance to increase their leverage in Syria’s grisly struggle for power”.

The point can be left aside, really. As of August 2013, there was sufficient cause for doubting the motives behind the responses of Britain and America’s government to this incident. Given the events of the two years which have elapsed in the mean-time, Milne was justified in his overall viewpoint. The international community has still done nothing effective to end the Syrian conflict – Britain and America have now turned their attentions away from Assad’s government, to its equally odious counterpart, Isis. Western governments continue to do as little as possible about the humanitarian catastrophe which has arisen, and responded inadequately to the current refugee crisis. More to the point, the allegation that Milne somehow offered a defence for Assad’s crimes is untenable: he was taking issue with the way it was being used by politicians to justify British warfare.

Moving on, then, how true is it to suggest that Milne “knows that the Iraqis who worked with the US in Iraq were ‘quislings,’ and that the right of it was with the ‘armed resistance”? Is this a fair reflection of what Milne had written? To some extent it is. Milne’s article was somewhat questionably entitled ‘The resistance campaign is Iraq’s real war of liberation’; and published in July 2004. It’s subject was the hand-over of power from the occupying forces of America (and Britain), to Iraqis. The relevant quotes appear in two paragraphs. In the first case:

“The much-vaunted handover, when it came, was a secret hole-in-the-corner affair. There were no celebrations as the US proconsul Paul Bremer signed over technical authority to his green zone government of Iraqi quislings two days early to beat the expected resistance onslaught”.

And secondly:

“Faced with the record of over 1,200 civilians killed in Iraq in the last three months, more than 1,000 Iraqi policemen in the past year and nearly 1,000 occupying troops over the same period, Colin Powell pleaded last week that the US had “underestimated” the scale of the insurgency. The Bush solution is to put a new face on the occupation, while maintaining a strategic grip on the country from more than a dozen bases – hence the handover to a puppet administration, brought forward by a year by the intensity of the armed resistance”.

In other words, the occupation of Iraq would continue; but by proxy, as a response to the insurgency which was in its initial stages at this point. It would continue until 2006, and eventually claim approximately 100,000 lives.

However, there is a problematic element to Milne’s article which does warrant criticism. After discussing the charade of America’s government supposedly relinquishing control of Iraq, Milne goes on to adduce that:

“The anti-occupation guerrillas are routinely damned as terrorists, Ba’athist remnants, Islamist fanatics or mindless insurgents without a political programme. In a recantation of his support for the war this week, the liberal writer Michael Ignatieff called them “hateful”. it has become ever clearer that they are in fact a classic resistance movement with widespread support waging an increasingly successful guerrilla war against the occupying armies.”

With the benefit of hindsight this is obviously not accurate. Is it justified to suggest this was apologism at the time? To some degree it arguably was. Milne was evidently more sympathetic to the nascent insurgents than to the occupation forces. As he says:

“The resistance war can of course be cruel, but the innocent deaths it has been responsible for pale next to the toll inflicted by the occupiers”.

While this – at the time – was true enough, it is still a gallingly glib statement. Criticising Milne’s sentiment on this for being wishy-washy would be fair. Contending that it makes him an apologist for fascism, however, is evidently not. This is made plain by more recent articles Milne has written on the subject. In 2013, Milne published a piece which discussed the sectarian war, that erupted in the wake of the insurgency; and while it attributes responsibility for the circumstances behind this to the invasion forces, it nonetheless makes perfectly plain how shockingly violent those involved in it actually are.

Arguably the most egregious attribution, however, is Godfrey’s suggestion that Milne “knows that Lee Rigby fought in Afghanistan, and so that his murder ‘wasn’t terrorism in the normal sense”. This refers to an article Milne penned in response to the ghastly Woolwich murder of Lee Rigby, in December 2013, entitled ‘Woolwich attack: If the whole world’s a battlefield, that holds in Woolwich as well as Waziristan – Denying a link between western wars in the Muslim world and the backlash on our streets only fuels Islamophobia and bloodshed’.

Let’s look at what Milne actually says herein, because it contains several words which have been omitted by Godfrey – who is hardly alone in that respect:

“The videoed butchery of Fusilier Lee Rigby outside Woolwich barracks last May was a horrific act and his killers’ murder conviction a foregone conclusion. Rigby was a British soldier who had taken part in multiple combat operations in Afghanistan. So the attack wasn’t terrorism in the normal sense of an indiscriminate attack on civilians.

The killing of an unarmed man far from the conflict, however, by self-appointed individuals with non-violent political alternatives, isn’t condoned by any significant political or religious tradition. Quite apart from morality, the impact was violently counter-productive for the Muslims that Rigby’s killers claimed to be defending, as Islamophobic attacks spiked across Britain”.

No further comment is really necessary here. To suggest that Milne in any way was ambivalent, let alone condoning, of this murder is simply false. The actual theme of Milne’s article was that the wars being waged in the middle east are a causal factor behind this type of violence; and that the political rhetoric, focusing on Islam as the cause, would generate hostility towards Muslims as a whole, and make matters worse. It is perhaps open to question whether this overview is actually the case – but it is not even close to being excusatory to suggest that it might be.

There are contentious elements to Milne’s various commentaries – some of which undoubtedly will divide opinion; but he is a journalist who specialises in writing about highly complex and emotive subjects. It is difficult to see how he could avoid being controversial. This does not make him an irresponsible journalist, however; less still an apologist for fascism.