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Labour's passive and apologetic stance needs to change

MANY Labour members and supporters, frustrated by the party’s progressive policies being supplanted in media coverage by anti-semitism allegations and internal discipline, understandably want to draw a line under all unpleasantness.

Some suggest giving in to the clamour to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) anti-semitism definition and its working examples that would restrict criticism of Israel.

Others would give a free pass to MPs who disregard the Labour Party code on conducting political debate in a civilised and non-abusive manner, provided they are opponents of Jeremy Corbyn.

Their argument is that party members have more in common with each other than what divides them and that their collective hostility should be directed at the Tory government.

Corbyn’s former spokesman Matt Zarb-Cousin pursued this wishful thinking in a Guardian article this week, distancing himself from a social media campaign that demands the resignation of Corbyn’s deputy Tom Watson.

Zarb-Cousin’s pitch was that “we have to be able to tolerate criticism in good faith, including from those won over by Corbyn after his performance in the 2017 election, such as Watson.

“We have to be able to distinguish between good faith criticism and attacks in bad faith.”

So where was the good faith in Watson’s involvement in the gang-up against Corbyn?

Deputy leadership is an elected position, but the role of its occupant is to support the leader not to act as an alternative power source, yet Watson projected himself as precisely that alternative last week.

He demanded that internal enquiries into the conduct of anti-Corbyn MPs Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin be dropped forthwith and that the leadership reverse its position on the IHRA, failing which the party could “disappear into a vortex of eternal shame and embarrassment.”

Zarb-Cousin’s suggestion that Watson and other supporters of Labour MPs’ defeated coup against Corbyn have been “won over” definitively is at least open to debate.

Just as possible is that they were stopped in their tracks by the general election result and are simply keeping their powder dry for a fresh attempt because of their fundamental political opposition to a leader who favours a political-economic programme at variance with the New Labour gospel of overseas military aggression, private-sector penetration of public services and economic policies approved by the City of London.

The current row over the extent of anti-semitism in the Labour Party didn’t begin with Corbyn but with Ed Miliband, the party’s first Jewish leader.

It was sparked by Miliband’s criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians living in the Gaza open-air prison and contributed to wild allegations that most British Jews felt they had no future here.

Recognition that anti-semitism exists and that it constitutes a problem that must be combated does not translate into accepting the overblown rhetoric deployed by Watson, by anti-Corbyn forces within Labour or by sections of the Jewish media and other Jewish organisations that try to impose an orthodoxy that British Jews have only one opinion on Israel, anti-semitism and the nature of the Labour Party — and that they represent it.

Back-bench Corbyn critic Luciana Berger was even incensed by Labour’s presumption to believe it had the authority to agree its own definition of anti-semitism.

But surely it is self-evident that failure to do so would subcontract the task to people outside the party and accord them the standing to decide what it is and who is guilty of it, thus undermining internal party democracy and accountability.

Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) members and supporters stood up on Tuesday  against the tyranny portraying Britain’s Jews as having a single authentic view when they delivered a letter to the BBC from JVL committee member Pamela Blakelock, protesting against the national broadcaster’s inaccurate reporting of these issues.

Labour general secretary Jennie Formby has written to Hodge, dropping the investigation into her behaviour and setting another hare running over whether she expressed “regret.”

Hodge denies it, quite credibly, and demands the same outcome for Austin, which might seem to fit superficially into the Zarb-Cousin scheme of mass amnesty as the prelude to united anti-Tory struggle.

But demands for disciplinary action on the flimsiest of grounds continue.

Board of Deputies of British Jews general secretary Marie van der Zyl urges that national executive committee member Pete Willsman be “summarily expelled” for what she calls his “disgusting rant against [the] Jewish community and rabbis.”

Labour’s affiliate, the Jewish Labour Movement, formerly Poale Zion, urges the suspension of Chris Williamson for defending Willsman.

And Campaign Against Anti-Semitism chairman Gideon Falter makes no secret of who he has in his sights, slating Corbyn’s weekend video as “just another contradictory, hypocritical, insincere attempt to whitewash his own role as the author of this nightmare.”

These demands for the blood of Corbyn supporters should serve as a reminder that Marc Wadsworth remains expelled after observing that Ruth Smeeth MP was exchanging papers with a Telegraph reporter at a press conference to launch Shami Chakrabarti’s inquiry into anti-semitism.

She fled the meeting in tears, cried “anti-semitism” and was subsequently shepherded to Wadsworth’s disciplinary hearing by a group of MPs who declared that something had to be done about anti-semitism.

In fact, the hearing accepted that Wadsworth was innocent of anti-semitism but denied a lifelong anti-racist campaigner membership anyway.

When this media campaign took off, the playbook read that Corbyn was not anti-semitic but was negligent or indulgent in presiding over an atmosphere in which anti-semitism could flourish in the party.

Now Falter has him as the “author of this nightmare,” while Hodge calls him a “fucking anti-semite and racist” and politicians and media commentators, without a tenth of his record against discrimination and injustice, casually demean him as a bigot.

Clearly, the passive and apologetic stance that the Labour leadership has adopted in response to a calculated campaign to smear Corbyn needs to change.

This not a sideshow. It’s the main event and its culmination, for those who choreograph it, will be Corbyn’s replacement as leader or, failing that, a pre-election exodus of Labour MPs to form a new party, variously described as progressive, moderate or centrist but, in reality, liberal capitalist.

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable is involved in negotiations for a new party, having missed a key parliamentary vote last month because of them.

According to the Express, the likes of Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Stephen Kinnock, Chris Leslie and John Woodcock, who recently left Labour, have met in a Sussex farmhouse to discuss future steps.

“At some point the Corbyn leadership is going to fail and collapse — we only need to see what is happening with the anti-semitism problem — and we need to be ready to step in, win the leadership, rebuild the party as a credible force and repair the damage that has been done,” one participant said.

The ever-helpful BBC Radio 4 Today programme floated the idea yesterday of a movement based on the example of French President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, said by one of its deputies, a wealthy businessman, to have gone beyond left versus right and capitalism versus socialism to meet today’s new reality.

Neither interviewer Nick Robinson nor the businessman noted that this totally new phenomenon is based largely on deputies from France’s socialist and conservative parties that were discredited because of their shared capitalist austerity policies and have been replaced by the Macron mirage continuing the same policy range but implemented by decree.

Labour under Corbyn has bucked the European Union-wide trend of social democratic parties losing support or even collapsing.

It has gained membership and votes because it projects a more radical approach, but this could change if Corbyn is dumped or the party allows itself to be distracted or misled by mass media manoeuvring.

John Haylett is the Morning Star’s political editor. His column appears every other Thursday. 


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