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LABOUR’S shift towards support for a second referendum on EU membership and its decision to suspend Chris Williamson mark retreats by the leadership.
The consequences could be disastrous for its survival. A huge sense of betrayal is clearly felt by many Labour members — though not necessarily the same ones — over each issue.
If we are to avoid the reversal of the most impressive socialist advance seen anywhere in the developed world over recent years, the left is going to need to fight back against these defeats in a united way.
That might seem impossible when prominent leftwingers such as Owen Jones have openly welcomed Labour’s decision to suspend Williamson. But his claim that the move will help repair relations with “the Jewish community” rests on three false premises.
One, it assumes that those who most vocally denounce the Labour leadership as tolerant of rising anti-semitism are representative of “the Jewish community.”
But as Jewish Voice for Labour’s immediate condemnation of the suspension showed, that is at least a simplification.
It is just a week since 200 prominent British Jews signed a letter to the Guardian stating that they regarded Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party as a “crucial ally” in the fight against anti-semitism.
Two, it assumes that ceding ground to those attacking Corbyn on this issue will placate them. But the response to general secretary Jennie Formby’s release of thorough and detailed statistics on the number of complaints received and Labour’s painstaking investigations of them echoed that, years before, to the equally thoughtful and useful report by Shami Chakrabarti on anti-semitism in Labour. The attackers did not even pause to read the information before intensifying the attacks.
Three, it assumes that Williamson is being attacked because of his comments in Sheffield comparing Labour’s record on fighting anti-semitism to that of other parties. But this is unlikely. Even given the anti-Corbyn brigade’s propensity for wild exaggeration the comments were hardly inflammatory.
Williamson has long been a particular thorn in the side of the right because, not holding a shadow cabinet seat like most Corbyn allies, he has taken it upon himself to speak out for unpopular but worthy causes where many who would otherwise do so are constrained by collective responsibility — examples include condemning the expulsion of anti-racist campaigner Marc Wadsworth and his passionate and principled stand against Donald Trump’s regime change bid in Venezuela.
Possibly worst of all in the eyes of right-wing MPs, his Democracy Roadshow highlighted the nature of MPs’ accountability or otherwise to their local parties and looked at how we address the democratic deficit in British politics, threatening to challenge the jobs-for-life, insiders’ club nature of the House of Commons.
Essentially, Williamson was targeted because he is a socialist, a democrat and an anti-imperialist. He has not always been a master diplomat and has clashed with figures on the left as well as the right, but our movement is under serious attack by people who want to destroy it.
We need to distinguish between disagreement and excommunication, and defend victims of a right-wing offensive even if we disagree with what they said.
As author and campaigner John Rees points out, the 38 MP signatories to a letter calling for Williamson’s suspension read like a roll-call of people who would as happily throw Corbyn himself under a bus.
Some are held back from criticising decisions by the leadership because of understandable loyalty to it. Corbyn is under constant, unremitting attack. Why add to it?
This view was put by Michael Chessum over Labour’s move towards support for a second referendum, when he urged disappointed members to “trust Corbyn” — a slightly disingenuous recommendation from someone who had long campaigned for the leadership to change its previous position.
On Williamson it was taken up by Jones, who tweeted: “By the way, if you’re angry with the decision to suspend Chris Williamson then you’re angry with the Labour leadership for taking this correct decision. And then maybe ask: How have I ended up in this weird political position?”
Jones must recall, though, that he has more than once disagreed with the Labour leadership and made his views plain.
Jones is also surely aware that the room for manoeuvre of Labour’s leadership is extraordinarily constrained. Anyone who imagines that any and every position taken by Labour represents Corbyn’s preferred stance is ignoring the fact that the leader is under pressure from the Parliamentary Labour Party, the affiliated trade unions and the TUC, and the mass membership of the party.
His decisions will reflect what is politically possible in any given circumstance. Given that, our job as socialists who want to see a transformative Labour government must be to try to increase his room for manoeuvre and his options for socialist advance.
Staying quiet in the face of bad policy doesn’t do that. The right put constant, public pressure on Corbyn to do things: denounce this or that ally, support this or that war, commit Labour to overriding the referendum result.
If those of us who disagree decide to hold our tongues, the leadership in practice is being pressed in one direction only and it is hardly surprising if its radicalism is being systematically blunted in the process.
It was therefore welcome to see that many key allies of the leader, such as Ian Lavery, Richard Burgon, Rebecca Long Bailey and Jon Trickett, have made clear that they object to the shift towards a second referendum.
But that will not be enough. It’s a tall order, but the People’s Brexit campaign needs to develop some of the prominence, at least in terms of local activity, that the People’s Vote campaign has built up with its millionaire backers.
The stakes are high — Labour support for a second referendum may not deliver a second referendum, but it could well deliver a Tory election victory.
Most Labour constituencies voted Leave, and some MPs claiming cast-iron mandates from their constituents when it allows them to ignore the wishes of party members seem curiously keen to ignore their constituents on this. And that is just one issue.
We should be working with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to organise greater pressure on Labour to change its pro-nuclear weapons policy, with the Stop the War Coalition to harden its opposition to foreign wars, with Disabled People Against Cuts to develop and improve its policies on rising hate crime, access to work, the benefits system and more.
These campaigns can be effective because we are in an era of mobilisation. That is clear from the sheer size of the modern Labour Party, but also from the wave of strikes in precarious sectors of the economy and from the huge, unprecedented and international “children’s strikes” on the issue of climate change.
Labour’s current difficulties are focused on areas where the enemy is strongest: battles for influence in Parliament and trial by a monopoly-owned media. Its greatest steps forward since 2015 have been when it focuses its efforts on community and workplace campaigning.
This is not to say we do not need strategies for dealing with Parliament. Some of the ideas promoted by Williamson during the Democracy Roadshow need to be built on: the democratisation of the party would limit sabotage by the more unruly MPs.
But Labour can be a mass force in community politics before it has solved the problem of the PLP, and ultimately that is what will deliver radical change.
We certainly need it. The children’s strikes show up the total failure of existing politics to deal with the lethal threat of climate chaos.
Our system is unsustainable, resting on inadequate pay, ballooning debt, property speculation and chronic job insecurity. The Conservatives quite obviously have no answer to any of this: their policies are more of the same.
Ditto for the so-called Independent Group, whose utter vacuity when it comes to policy has been clear in a succession of embarrassing media interviews.
Corbyn’s Labour is the only game in town when it comes to answering the big questions. Its defeat would be a catastrophe for Britain.
Its advance depends on much more than parliamentary gameplay. The best vehicle for engaging communities with the socialist project may be Momentum in one area, the People’s Assembly in another, the trades council in a third.
The best vehicle for engaging workplaces is trade unionism and the increasing focus on the need to look outwards and recruit non-organised workers by several trade unions is a development of the utmost importance for our future as a movement.
Corbynism involves a shift in focus from Westminster to the street. That’s where our victory will come from.
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