Category Archives: Me; running

The Labour Party and Anti-Semitism

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With two weeks to go to the General Election, the press has resumed its focus on the character of the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, and his suitability to be Prime Minister. Key to this is an allegation that the party is institutionally anti-semitic in that a) a significant proportion of its members are anti-semites, and b) the present Labour Party leadership, on receiving complaints repeatedly frustrates them, with the purpose of keeping people in membership who should be excluded.

People have tried to engage with these allegations, particularly the first one, “sociologically”, i.e. by asking how many complaints there have been, whether there have or should have been a similar volume of complaints in the Conservative Party, etc. These approaches don’t however persuade anyone other than the already persuaded. They feel like a form of “defender’s” reasoning, i.e. that if it was possible to prove that only 1% of the members of the Labour Party were anti-Semites (or 0.1% or 0.0001%) then this would “prove” that the party was above criticism. They are usually backed up by a statement along the lines of “but any anti-semitism would be too much”. If that sentence is to have any meaning – and the intention is to cut out all racism including anti-Jewish racism from all politics – then the sociological explanation can’t wash. Because it concedes into the indefinite future the continuing presence of anti-Jewish racism, and sounds suspiciously like an argument for leaving it in place.

What I want to do here is first of all remind people of the history of membership complaints in the Labour Party, and then write about the complaints individually using case-studies, before coming back in at the end to making some brief comments about the prevalence within the Labour Party of each of the types of behavior to which those particular complaints relate. Be wanted this is long (c1800 words): but the issue requires a certain detail.

When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, he was seen to be taking the party into political positions (eg pacifism, social redistribution) which the party had not held for many years. Labour also had a leadership election system in which it was very easy to join, and hundreds of thousands of people did. Therefore the press ran a large number of stories to the effect that Labour was being taken over by a new kind of ultra-leftwing person. MPs, leaders of Constituency Labour Parties, etc – responded by trying to exclude some off the new members on factional lines. At this stage, ie 2015-6, none of the story was about anti-semitism, but what did happen was that the party set in train tens of thousands of investigations. The most common basis of investigation was that people had expressed on social media a support for a Green or non-Labour left candidate in a previous election. When the complaints of anti-semitism began in any serious number, which was later, this experience was disastrous: it left a legacy in which complaints were over-politicised, and frequently spurious, and a delayed outcome to an investigation was seen as a desirable outcome – since it favoured the then status quo (i.e. excluding potential Corbyn voters).

When complaints of anti-semitism began, they were made in large number. The best-known example is one single MP on the right of the party Margaret Hodge who made two hundred complaints, all of which therefore had to be investigated. Only 20 of her complaints were about members of the Labour Party, and that party on learning that someone was not a member generally stopped investigating at that point. But, on the other hand, it could not stop investigating until someone’s membership status had been confirmed. Delays at this stage contributed to a sense that Labour had something to hide. But we need to be clear: the people who were responsible for the delays were Corbyn’s critics and not the present leadership: the people responsible for investigating complaints were the same as in 2015-6, and they brought to the complaints the old lethargy. Further the people making the complaints prioritised volume, with 673 complaints made between April 2018 and February 2019,a number which was then duly leaked to the press. The result was that investigators had to wade through hundreds of complaints in order to find a relatively small number that might possibly lead to sanction.

The best way to understand the approach of the Labour Party and its present leadership to the complaints is by looking at three typical subjects of complaints.

EXPULSION INEVITABLE
There exists a class of people who have been members of the Labour Party and who have shared clearly racist messages, either with a historic focus (i.e. claims that the Holocaust did not happen or that the numbers were exaggerated) or a present-day one (i.e. claims that British or European politics is secretly dominated by a cabal of Jews). So in August 2019, the recently retired former chair of South Dorset Labour Party Mollie Collins was found to have shared on social media, in 2016, a link to a website saying, “Rothschilds bankers did 9/11 not Muslims”. At the time of writing, Ms Collins has on her facebook page, a message insisting on her innocence, claiming that she had been targeted by “fifth columnists” defending her “favourite politician” Ken Livingstone, and claiming to have been the victim of a “truly Inquisition style process with not the slightest chance of justice for those falsely accused.” Ms Collins was expelled, and rightly so.

THE DIFFICULT CASES
There have also been harder cases eg where the person accused of anti-semitism is Jewish, or where they have a very long history of building the Labour Party, and promoting left-wing values, so that for example the case for a sanction is clear, but the nature of the sanction requires some thought. Take for example, Jackie Walker, who had been a member of the Labour Party for decades, and who was accused amongst other things of having written on social media that Jews were “chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade”. The comments were untrue, they played into racist stereotypes, and they were likely to cause offence. But in any rational investigation system, you do not simply ask what happened (i.e. what the behavior was) you also ask what kind of punishment it should merit.

For Jackie Walker’s defenders, it was significant that she is Jewish. This is in fact a striking feature of the Labour Party complaints in general – many of the accusers are Jewish (quite a number are non-Jewish people presenting themselves as defenders of Jews) – but also many of the accused are Jewish, typically anti-zionist Jews who have long campaigned against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinans. Jews in the latter position are both repeatedly accused of anti-semtism and repeatedly its victims.

It is entirely plausible that such people could be trapped into anti-semitic modes of thinking. Non-Jews rarely understand this, but in fact anti-semitism has all the inward-facing element of every other prejudice. Think of women who pass on sexist values to their daughters. Think of LGBT people who internalise homophobia and repeat it privately in LGBT circles – these things happen – and it is exactly the same with anti-semitism. Being told that the world is secretly run by a nearly-cabal of invisible, hostile people, you can start internalising that logic, and using it when you are criticised.

But conversely, anti-Zionist Jews are also repeatedly the victims of anti-semitic abuse from other Jews. They are told that they are “kapos” i.e. like the Jewish people who were employed in the camps in in-between roles, between the guards and the prisoners. This is the equivalent in Jewish circles of when black people are accused of being “coconuts” (i.e. white on the inside) – it is every bit as unpleasant, because it says to the victims that they are not really Jewish, and if anything it has more specific and nastier historical connotations.

This certainly was the case with Jackie Walker who received a large quantity of abuse, some of it directed against her as Jew and some as a black woman.

The point of any disciplinary process, of any type, is not to punish people but to prevent behavior. In a less-charged atmosphere, any objective investigator would have asked whether her expulsion was appropriate. If her crime was to say that Jews were the perpetrators of the slave trade, then was she willing to acknowledge that this was a myth? To withdraw the statement and to apologise for it? To read, and understand the origins of that statement in a particular kind of right-wing and racist argument (albeit – another complexity – an argument of black nationalist origin)?

In the actual atmosphere of the last two years, with numerous people lobbying for Jackie Walker’s expulsion, she was indeed expelled (albeit for breach of party rules rather than anti-semitism). The Labour Party leadership did what its critics asked it to do.

COMPLAINT UNWARRANTED
Another typical case is that of Wirral councilor (and another Jewish woman) Jo Bird who argued at a public meeting for a rigorous system of investigating complaints of anti-semitism. In a flat-footed attempted at humour, she called this “Jew process”. She was suspended for 9 days and reinstated. Anti-Corbyn newspapers used her story as further proof the institutional racism of the Labour Party but bluntly it was nothing of that sort. Ms Bird wasn’t Mel Brooks, she neither enjoyed his genius for comic timing nor (this is the Labour Party) his capacity for bad taste. Above all, she lacked his audience: a generation of people willing to mock their own fears.

In conclusion: do the above case histories prove that Labour is institutionally racist, that its leaders have been sabotaging complaints, making life easy for their friends, etc?

Of the 673 complaints made to the Labour Party up to February 2019, 12 led to expulsions. IE twelve were of the “Mollie Collins” or the “Jackie Walker” sort. The others were of the “Jo Bird” sort – either in that they were not so serious that they justified punishment, or that the person making a serious comment was not a member of the Labour Party and there was nothing Labour could do.

Not one of the 661 complaints which led to no sanction or to a lesser punishment has resulted, as far as I can tell, in a further complaint that the person should actually have been expelled.

I will leave leaders to conclude for themselves whether this is such a pattern of behavior that support for the present leadership of the Labour Party is, as has been argued this week, “incompatible with the British values of which we are so proud – of dignity and respect for all people”.

On wanting “even more than Corbyn” while an election is on…

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This is going to be a weird three weeks for people who wouldn’t mind capitalism to be made kinder but really want something else to emerge.

I mean, the temptation is to just fold all yourself into Labour, not just canvassing (is a good thing) but sitting at your TV screen shouting your love for Corbyn, your hatred for the Tories. Until you become not so very different from the Labour friends I had ten years ago for whom the difference between “a post revolutionary state” and “workers control the means of production” could be summarised in the question “yeah, but have the Liberal Democrats still got an elected councillor in Barnsbury? Because, if they do, it’s not my definition of full luxury space communism.”

At this stage of an election there’s always a pressure to negate your revolutionary politics and becomes just Labour. Even under Brown or Miliband there was that pressure. Because if the Great British population of 60 million people wasn’t about to vote for 50p an hour on the minimum wage, introduced at some vague and indefinite state in the future when budgets were balanced, they sure as hell weren’t going to vote for a world run by workers and the poor.

But with Corbyn in charge it’s not so much that reformism is somewhere over there it’s right over here. It’s *your* arguments for socialised health care, it’s *your* vision of pushing back against the workers and the landlords.

And yet Corbyn is actually very different from that socialism in which some of us believe.

In some ways he’s more – he’s much, much, closer to power.

And in other ways he’s less.

If we’re honest with ourselves, one of his biggest weakness is that he takes into the heart of politics (parliament, the harsh glare of the TV screens) the values and people of the British far-left and some of these aren’t so pretty:

The my-enemy’s-enemy calculations of the anti-war left

The anti-migration politics of western Stalinism

The bullying and sexism of the trade union bureaucracy.

The inability to distinguish a business run by the state from one run by its own workers

(and that’s before I get into the anti-semitism which sneaks its way in from other places but all sorts of left subcultures have so tied themselves to Corbyn they can’t admit that it’s there).

Save for the first of these, I’m not talking about Corbyn himself but the people around him, and yet Corbyn has to work with the people who bring into Labour / the NEC those other politics, that’s just the price of his position.

One of the reasons why the first old beardie Karl was so keen on revolutions was that they were supposed to be a great purging fire during which we all collectively burned off the great covering of brown stuff which had crusted over us “the muck of ages”) – long before we came close to power, we were meant to change, new people were supposed to emerge. But that hasn’t happened, or on nothing like the scale that is needed.

So, for the next few weeks I’ll be shouting at the TV screens like everyone else, but I won’t stop thinking of an idea from the workers’ movement a hundred years ago – this isn’t about the loaves, it’s about the bakery.

We Fight Fascists

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I read Daniel Sonabend’s new book on the 43 Group this morning in a single sitting.

Of the three full-length books written about this period of anti-fascist history his is easily the best (as the author of the worst of the three – my PhD thesis – this hurts. But it’s true).

The real comparison is with Morris Beckman’s 43 Group, which many friends will have read. Sonabend’s is more interesting and compelling for the following reasons:

Beckman is a participant’s account and it centers everything around him. But, actually, he wasn’t that important in the 43 Group. Yes he was one of the initial core that set it up, yes he was a later founder member. But in the group’s key period 1947-8, he was not part of the inner core of 3-4 decision makers, and the account in his memoir of what the Group did in response to key steps taken by fascists is vague (at key moments, he wasn’t there and didn’t know what they’d done).

You couldn’t say this 20 years ago when he was around, constantly giving talks and visible to the 1990s left (unlike the more important figures in 1945-7 of Gerry Flamberg, Len Sherman, etc). We can admit it now.

Relegating Beckman to a secondary player in the group’s history allows all sorts of different personalities to emerge – the 43 Group spy chiefs, the actual spies, the organisers of the physical attacks on fascists, the people who negotiated to keep the Board of Deputies at arms’ length, etc.

Sonanbend doesn’t make any real attempt to understand the Communist Party’s approach to anti-fascism in this period (or the approach of the Labour left which took its lead from the CP), either the bureaucratic attempts the leadership made to downplay the Mosley threat between about 1944 and 1947, or the revolt within the membership, particularly in Hackney, which made a much more effective mass anti-fascism possible as Mosley achieved a breakthrough in summer 1947 – and anti-fascist organising took on much more the nature of a mass community campaign. The one part of the narrative where I thought more detail could have been given was in this period of summer/autumn 1947 where relationships with the wider left were significant – but aren’t properly explained. Sonanbend keeps his focus on the 43 Group throughout, and that approach has real strengths as well as occasional weaknesses.

Going back though to Morris Beckman’s memoir. Rather like the standard narrative of anti-fascism in the 1980s, which is no doubt modelled on Beckman’s book, Beckman wanted every battle to end in victory, every anti-fascist innovation to succeed. He wrote out moments of boredom, cowardice and failure. His story is compelling but, weirdly, it lowers the stakes – because there were more anti-fascists, because we were stronger and cleverer we were always certain to win.

But fascism was (briefly) a mass presence in east London – able to hold meetings of up to 3000 people at a time in summer and autumn 1947-8 – buoyed by an awful moment in which resentment at Israeli terrorist atrocities during the war combined with ignorance or indifference to the fact of the Holocaust to make anti-semitism a popular cause.

What Sonanbend has done is bring out all the little moments when victory wasn’t assured. So that reading it is like being in a real fight – your heart beats faster as you read – because there just are times when there were more fascists or a clever anti-fascist ruse fell flat on its face,

There’s one passage near the end which really brings out what was at stake in the anti-fascist struggle. Which is where you hear about an anti-fascist mole: Wendy Turner. She wasn’t Jewish (unlike most people in the 43 Group) but agreed to spent a year of her life passing on intelligence on key fascist leaders – getting close to the point of danger, in order to pass back information. Ultimately, Turner suffered a mental health breakdown and was hospitalised – and worse.

I’m not going to give more details about how this happened or what exactly went wrong – turn to Sonanbend’s book for them. But what I do know for sure is that ever 43 Group member of any standing knew about the disaster that befell her. They talked about that horror among themselves, and slowly, cautiously with outsiders.

Sonanbend’s book is full of incidents when prominent members of the 43 Group were struck on the head, or menaced with guns. And where they struck back against the fascists with more than equal force. The people involved in the Group knew how much was at stake – this makes their organising ultimately more compelling, more admirable, and more relevant as we face our own far right with its own path to violence.

Heat

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Today, the Judge will be kind
He will listen to my client.
Today, the the Judge will lift a hand to his face
And hide the sun glaring through the window
Permit the uneven clanking of the fan
Forgive the cracked plaster of the courtroom walls
He will be satisfied
That it is right and necessary to put rent before food
(No-one is proposing that the children should starve).

And today the costs of public welfare
Which 47 times you voted to cut
Will be that bit less.
Because what winner with the public would expect
A mother with a young child
In work, on benefits,
To eat all seven days of the week.

“What else can I do?” Not a question but a challenge
You said those words before leaving for Iraq
The sadness caught drily in your voice
All those plans of yours
Overcome by the noonday heat – your eyes cast down
But that was long ago, before
You promised that hope and history would rhyme.

You could have been a teacher
It is a bland kind of goodness, unshowy
And it would have been better
Than what you have become.
You might have swept the streets
You laugh! A man like you: a hero;
But don’t the streets still need to be swept?
No worker in blue overalls
Ever had the chance
To make three million people poorer
With one vote.

Today the Judge will be kind.
But tomorrow the rains will fall.
Hard, dry, unforgiving.

The enemy that returns

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A friend and I were talking the other day. You’ve always lived in London, haven’t you, I said. Except for those five years I spent in prison, he answered. I laughed awkwardly. It seemed so exaggerated; if you’ve been inside real prisons then what right… But I knew what he meant.

I used to think that it was the place I hated: the book of rules, the wooden walls into which six centuries of predecessors’ names had been carved the letters as sharp as teeth, the fifty thou a year fees, the high walls of class and gender and race apartheid which determined who got in, the small mindedness of the teachers, the thousand different plans the institution had for making everyone inside that bit smaller than we’d been.

But as I get older I acknowledge it wasn’t the place: it was the people. It was the way money swirled around them, the six square streets of London (never more than six) to which everyone retreated when the terms ended. Their idea of the world that it consisted of people like them and no-one else, no-one, came close to counting.

I was there for five years. I survived only in the company of people who were as uncomfortable there as I was. The bitter, the bright, the angry, the ones whose parents had borrowed the fees from more successful cousins, the ones who escaped in their dreams to Soho.

We were at one extreme. Another group, the large majority, got on with it. Played cricket, football, the field game, the wall game, fives. Planned the career they’d have, their Daddy’s bank.

At the far side of them there was another group: the ones the least comprehensible to me. The boys for whom this place was the best imaginable, the best of times, its emptiness its snobbery a utopia, a nirvana, their own private Petrograd and this was their October 1917.

Boris wasn’t even my contemporary, but he returned to the school every year after he’d left, sounding out his favourite teachers, seeking out the titled children five ten years his junior. A flash of blond hair, unmistakeable. Even then he was looking for allies, a better class of servant to advance his future glittering career.

I saw him later, once. It was the night the Law Lords had determined Pinochet should remain in jail. I watched as he wooed a drinks party full of ageing London leftists 68ers gone to seed. Between drinks, Boris would scour the room, work out who was standing furthest from him, who was averting their eyes. Those he wooed, a very British Clinton, passing on some quip he’d used a hundred times before. Don’t underestimate his skill at causing potential antagonists to tolerate him.

For five years I ran, round a track I escaped and then! in crowds our fists raised. Thatcher fell. When I left my best happiness was the certainty that I’d never see Boris or Rory or Jo or Jacob again. Their return is the cruellest trick life ever played.

Knut Hamsun, ‘Hunger’

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hunger

Hunger, republished this year to mark the 125th anniversary of its original appearance, is one of those rare and compelling books which feel like they were written decades out of time.

With its sparse writing, modest plot and starving and dishonest narrator, Hunger feels like it should have been written three decades later by a Kafka or a Camus, responding to the horrors of the trenches, the possibilities of a revolution or the threat of its defeat.

Even to speak of Hunger’s plot is to give the impression of substance when, for the majority of the book, the story meanders between seemingly unrelated incidents.

The narrator comes to a city, he starves. He offers articles to a newspaper, he worries about his rent. He sells an article but even this successful commission leads only to further moments of hunger. He is evicted from his room.

The narrator neither learns nor changes and the reader never has a sense of a mission for him to complete or fail. He flirts with a girl, unsuccessfully. At the end of the story and, without purpose, he leaves the city.

Two scenes give a flavour of the book. Near the beginning, the narrator encounters an old beggar. Drunk with hunger and despising the old man’s frailty, the narrator decides to pawn his waistcoat and give the money to the beggar. The recipient is stupefied by the gift and silent. The narrator shouts and swears at his ingratitude.

Returning to the pawnbroker, the narrator seeks the return of the pencil-stub which he has left in one of the waistcoat pockets. The broker lets him take the pencil. Filled with energy, the narrator tells him that it was used previously to write a three-volume philosophical treatise. The pawnbroker humours his blatant lie.

Many generations of readers have sought to impose a logic on Hunger by calling it an existential novel or portraying the narrator as a zero in search of meaning or the opposite: a person seeking to discard meaning by starving himself to death.

The process of giving the novel meaning is encumbered by the events of Hamsun’s life.
The older the Norwegian writer got, the more right-wing he became. Wooed by Hitler, he wooed the nazis back and although his eventual meeting with the fuehrer in 1943 disappointed the latter, Hamsun never disowned fascism.

A letter to Hamsun by his publisher in 1946 strikes a chord with many disappointed readers: “There are few people I have admired as much as you, few I have loved so. None has disappointed me more.”

The conventional response to Hamsun’s politics is to say that he adopted them later in life and that the novel should not be blamed for the author’s subsequent follies.

This is too simple. Hunger does have a philosophy and is coherent in its own terms. If not fascistic, it is certainly misanthropic.

Reading Hunger in 2016, it’s not hard not to feel that the “personality” of the book is hostile and yet the novel is a thing of beauty — a frosty winter’s landscape to watch and admire but not to live in.

Originally published in the Morning Star

 

On not running at all

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calf pack

A couple of weeks ago I was thinking about not running a marathon, since then I’ve not been running at all. When  you see a physio, what they are usually looking for is evidence that you’ve been overworking your body, most often by running too far. If not, then by running too fast. The more memorable cases are ones where there has been some change of technique without increased effort. In runners, that might be something like a new pair of shoes subtly altering your “form”, ie your running technique.

The following (me at the start of this month) constitutes a kind of full house: new running shoes, increased mileage (60 miles in one week), two races in successive days, the second of which was a pb of sorts (10k on the road). In the same seven days which had seen all of these changes, I’d also been experimenting with running with music. Normally, that isn’t my thing at all but I was enjoying playing my phone on shuffle and seeking how even the dullest and most formulaic music (Fields of Athenry by the Dropkick Murphys, bless them) would give my tired muscles a jolt. Six kilometres into my last race, I could feel a soreness in the middle of my left calf. By the race’s final 100 metres my leg was a sniper’s victim taking bullet after bullet.

Three weeks with no running, the physio says. Three weeks at a minimum.