Thane Rosenbaum’s book is part of a growing literature in the US, expressing doubts about that country’s free speech (“First Amendment”) tradition. Most of my readers come from the UK so it’s worth explaining what he’s against.
In as short as I can make this for Brits: the US Constitution was ratified in 1790. Eighteen month later, the First Amendment was added, as part of a group of amendments all protecting the individual from arbitrary government by protecting rights to jury trial, the right to silence, etc. The first amendment limits the legislature from curbing free expression, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”. For more than a century after the amendment was ratified, judges ignored it. In the 1920s, judges invoked the first amendment, but in a canting, hypocritical way, eulogising its importance while criminalising all speech Socialists, Communists and radical trade unionists.
Since 1945, the First Amendment was extended beyond its original remit (“Congress shall…”) to include all parts of the government, and all private citizens in the US. All speech has required to be tolerated, even pornographers, fascists… Since about 1990, free speech has become a totem for the US right, a shield to protect everything they say, and a sword against their enemies. So, after the Trump coup of 6 January, the President defended himself from impeachment was by saying that it didn’t matter that he had incited his supporters to kill, to destroy property, or to sack Capitol Hill, the First Amendment makes all speech legal, irrespective of what comes from it.
Through the 39 chapters of his book, Rosenbaum gives his readers a series of reasons to doubt whether the First Amendment still does any good in protecting what most people would consider free speech.
His book begins in 2017 with Charlottesville, and the various neo-Nazis gathered there to chant “Jews will not replace us”. The idea behind that chant is the belief that every black person present in the US is merely by being alive, carrying out an act of violence against whites. And that Jews are the secret organisers behind the imagined mass murder of white people. These fantasies of anti-white violence are invoked, pretty obviously, to legitimise what fascists can tell themselves is pre-emptive and defensive violence on their party, murders such as the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in which 11 Jewish worshipers were killed.
Why, Rosenbaum asks, would anyone want to allow speech which is an incitement to murder? In reality, the First Amendment, is just one of several ways in which US law struggles to keep up with what every other affluent society has been doing for decades. No other country in the developed world permits this, any more than they tolerate the death penalty, or allow employers to go without paying maternity pay.
From there, Rosenbaum goes to other kinds of speech tolerated under the First Amendment, social media trolling, cyberbullying. Again, outside the US these are dealt with in the civil or criminal law as acts of “hate speech” (the US term) or “harassment” (as in the UK and Europe). Why does the US make itself the exception? “Other nations,” he writes, “managed to avoid the free speech madness”.
Rosenbaum responds to the argument that bad ideas die out when they are subjected to public discussion. To which, he asks, what happens if you are the individual who has to hear them, and you are in the middle of a riot?
From there, Rosenbaum pivots. He wants to be seen as a careful, balanced, person. Not an extremist, just someone worried about the excess of free speech. Therefore, there is a mandatory chapter insisting that as much as the right is a problem, there is also an issue of intolerant students. (He also has some pretty stomach-turning things to say about the rights of Palestinian to speak – or as Rosenbaum sees it, their obligation to be silent).
There is a lot wrong with this book. But it has its moments, too. Rosenbaum makes points which 90% of Americans don’t get to hear. That the First Amendment was only ever supposed to be a rule that bound governments, not individuals. That it is a right to speak, not an obligation to listen. That it does nothing to protect right-wing or far-right speakers, from the acts of people who will permit them to have a platform but are also intending to debate, to heckle, to subject them to slow handclapping.
That not every kind of spoken word is an idea.
That the much spoken-about free marketplace of ideas does not exist and could not meaningfully exist in a world dominated by the tech giants.
That the hearing of unpleasant words can cause physical harm, that stays in people’s bodies, that ruins their lives.
That the people who are on the receiving end of hate speech have a right to dignity and, at the very least, these two things need to be balanced.
Reading a book like this, as a socialist, or a European, or a practising lawyer, or someone who reads more than, I don’t know, one book every decade, you have to pinch yourself every two seconds and tell yourself: Let it go. You are not the audience for this book. It is not aimed at you. It is addressed at an imagined Middle American audience saturated with the assumptions of that media culture.
From that perspective this book is … ok. Ish. Kind of.
It doesn’t have the wide reading of a Jeremy Waldron, or the fizz of a P. E. Moskowitz, or the commitment of a Natasha Lennard or a Shane Burley or a Talia Lavin. But it’s a start.
Be honest with yourself. When you saw the woman, her arms locked behind her back – you recognised her, didn’t you?
For she had been in Poland in winter 2020, when women asked only to control her own lives. And the journalist from the BBC was forced to acknowledge that the protests were illegal, and the police acting strictly within their rights. And to show that in Britain we had not fallen quite so far, the journalist let the emotion catch in his voice, even while he called the actions of the police a necessity.
And, for those who see further, where did the massacares at Rabaa in 2013 or in Khartoum in 2019 begin, or the scenes in New York or Portland the men and women who could not breathe, if not in the days and weeks before, with images like Clapham Common, reported, repeated, so familiar that you the viewer permit the small disgrace to pass, make yourself incapable of resisting the large?
We need to admit a truth that no politician has dared tell. That the actions of the police did not come unannounced, that they are not an aberration in own low, dishonest times. That a year without democracy has paved the way for them.
Crimes made on the whim of ministers, made law within days, changed to avoid a difficult question. The friends of those in power enriched. That man is a friend of government, nothing he does can break the law. This woman its enemy; the cells gape for her.
Most readers will, I suspect, have read the news that on Sunday Karen Reissmann was issued with a fixed penalty notice after organising a protest in Manchester against government plans to pay nurses a pay “rise” of just 1%.
Less than a year has passed since Boris Johnson was in hospital with Covid. On his release, he thanked the nurses who had watched over him. He credited them with saving his lives. He said, “It’s hard to find words to express my debt.” Well now what know what his words are: a 1% pay rise, and ten thousand pound penalty notice if you protest.
The list of protests which have been subject to arbitrary and unlawful policing is growing all the time. In Belfast, in summer 2020, a loyalist assembly to “protect monuments” was facilitated by the police to help it comply with Covid Regulations. In Derry, meanwhile, Black Lives Matter protesters were harassed, fined, and threatened with prosecution. Even the Police Ombudsman was obliged to characterise this behaviour as “unfair” and “differential treatment”. In Brighton, in February 2021, a protest in favour of the domestic support charity Rise, which had been stripped of a contract to assist local citizens, led to police officers approaching the perceived organiser, and threatening to fine her.
Here what I want to do is explain how protests can take place legally under Covid, and what to do if the police exceed their powers by serving a fixed penalty notice on you, or on a friend or fellow-protester.
Protesting in the present lockdown: You can’t. Well, possibly, you can’t. I’ll explain that possibly in a moment
The main Coronavirus regulations are now here. How lockdown has worked since January is, in effect, the whole country has been put in tier 4 (and the tier 4 rules were tightened). The rules of for tiers 1, 2 and 3 prevent people from gathering outside in groups of 6 or more. But they make an express exception for protests. Eg if you look at the tier 3 restrictions here, under para 4, exception 13, there is a rule allowing some people to protest.
The rules for tier 4 don’t have that exception. Therefore, on the face of them, all political protests have been banned – whoever does them, and under whatever form, for the duration of the lockdown.
Now this ban is almost certain “unlawful”, for the reason that it is an absolute ban. No protests are permitted under any circumstances at all (not even with facemasks, social distancing, etc). The European Convention on Human Rights protect people’s right of freedom of assembly, and while this is a relatively weak protection, it kicks in exactly at the moment when all protest is banned. In any event, the structure of the main regulations is such that they appear to make rights of protest a primary right. (They are structured into the main body of the SI, not its schedules, and are the only right given that primacy). This is only a lawyer’s educated guess, but it’s my best hunch that if someone was to judicially review the SI, or its use, say, by Manchester police, there’s about an 80% chance that any judge would agree – that the regulations should be read as if allowing protests, provided only that those protests were proportionately organised; i.e. involving, as Saturday’s did, relatively few people, socially distanced, with masks on, etc.
Some readers will be thinking – surely the law can’t be so uncertain that there is a genuine scope for doubt as to whether a law is unlawful. Actually, that happens from time to time, and one of the moments it happens more than ever is during a national emergency. As any number of legaltheorists have pointed out, the whole purpose of a state of emergency is that the law becomes uncertain – these are the ideal conditions for more authoritarian forms of government to take root.
The first and most basic problem with the Covid anti-protest laws is that they were made as secondary legislation, this is in breach of a very long-held principle of UK law that it is the role of parliament and no ministers to make law. No controversial laws should be introduced through secondary legislation, and certainly no criminal offence. The practice has been heavily criticised by a Joint Committee of the House of Commons and House of Lords.
The legislation has also been arbitrarily applied. Two months into the Coronavirus Act, the Crown Prosecution Services carried out a survey of all 44 Magistrates Court prosecutions carried out by that date. It found that in every single instance to that date the Defendant had been wrongly charged.
In early 2021, the CPS again reviewed its use of the new powers to prosecute. Some 127 out of 1020 charges brought under the various coronavirus Regulations were withdrawn or quashed, worse still, every one of 232 charging decisions under the Coronavirus Act were found to have been wrongly brought.
In the Manchester case, it is clear that police did not know what they were doing. The journalists describe officers scrolled down their phone screens, desperately trying to work out what the law actually said.
So what can you do? The bad news about the fixed penalty notices is that there is no appeal mechanism. The good news is that, in contrast to a court order, there is no enforcement mechanism, or no direct one. If you fail to pay, you can’t be subject to bailiffs. The regulations define a fixed penalty notice as an “opportunity of discharging any liability to conviction for the offence by payment of a fixed penalty to an authority specified in the notice”.
You are perfectly entitled to say – I have had my “opportunity” and I decline to make use of it. What the police then have to do is pass the case to the CPS who then make a decision whether to prosecute. If you are a nurse involved in a protest against a 1% pay rise then you can be pretty confident that either a) the arguments I’ve set out above would succeed, in the magistrates or on appeal, or in any event b) that any fine will be in the hundreds not the tens of thousands of pounds.
All I need to say at the end of this piece is that none of what I’ve been describing here cuts against the health case for a lockdown. That is and was a necessary step towards saving lives. What I am criticising is rather the way constitutional power has seeped towards the executive, resulting in the expansion of the law and its use in an authoritarian manner. The kind of policing we are witnessing is all of a piece with the corruption shown by ministers in the lockdown, the interpretation of the criminal rules so as to protect advisers and ministers, etc.
With the news of Corbyn’s suspension from the Labour Party, many of my friends are again debating whether socialists should stay in Labour. To my mind, this is the wrong question. It reflects two assumption, of the groups outside Labour and their ex-members, one of which I share, while the other is wrong.
The first assumption is that Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party will be more like Neil Kinnock’s or Tony Blair’s than Corbyn’s or Miliband’s, i.e. at every chance Starmer will give his support to the police, to the rich and to the Conservatives.
[Yes he will: he’s been in charge for a year and we’ve seen his record. There is nothing now that will reinvigorate the old, left-wing Keir Starmer of the 1980s and 1990s]
The second assumption is that the far left in no way contributed to Labour’s antisemitism crisis. That, if mistakes were made by other people, we were innocent of them.
[But, in reality, at key moments, the outside Labour left has bolstered the people who were handling this issue worse than anyone]
The fact that only one of these assumptions is true, makes the next steps particularly difficult for anyone interested in creating a principled left.
Here I want to set out what I think is a better answer.
Admit and accept
The first thing we need to acknowledge is the obvious: the left wouldn’t be in this trouble if the left as whole (including the left both inside and outside Labour) hadn’t understated the scale of antisemitism in British society, and of antisemitism on the left.
Key figures in the Labour Party have repeatedly said things which crossed the line into antisemitism. They begin with Ken Livingstone’s remarks that “when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism…” The offence of that interview was not, as last week’s mealy-mouthed EHRC report suggested, that Livingstone was likely to upset Jews by supporting his colleague Naz Shah’s remarks about Israel. The offence was that Livingstone made Jews complicit in the Holocaust.
Jackie Walker, the national vice-chair of Momentum, claimed that “many Jews (my ancestors too) were the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade”.
In 2018, we all had to deal with the pain of Jeremy Corbyn’s ill-judged comments on antisemitic mural. “Rockerfeller [Rockefeller] destroyed Diego Viera [Rivera]’s mural because it includes a picture of Lenin”.
On every occasion, Corbyn’s outlier sites could be founded defending this nonsense: Skwawkbox, the Canary, Vox Online.
Who manufactured this scandal? We did, you and me, and people like us who share our politics, by our inability to admit and speak out against what was happening.
Every time Counterfire insisted that Ken Livingstone was no antisemite, or the SWP made Chris Williamson the main speaker at their Marxism event, the extra-Labour left were saying to socialists in the Labour Party – there is no problem, the real issue is Palestine, if people have spoken racist words or have racist friends, who cares?
See the crisis as a whole
The second thing to be said is that the dominant explanation of Labour’s crisis fails to explain where antisemitism comes from, or how events in Britain connects to what is going on everywhere else.
In America, where Jews are living at the centre the global increase in anti-Jewish racism, where their President actively encourages that racism, and at a time which has witnessed the most violent antisemitic attacks in all of American history, Jews are reaching for the opposite conclusions to their counterparts here.
Some 51 percent of American Jews blame the political right for antisemitism, only 12 percent the left. How is it possible that two sets of Jewish people could have such wildly different explanations of what is going on?
One short answer is that people deal with what’s in front of them. Philip Roth once wrote, “I’m never more of a Jew than I am in a church when the organ begins”. To which a British Jew might add: or when the Chair of Wavertree CLP appears on David Icke shows, or when Ken Livingstone opens his mouth.
Another way of looking at it is that opinion-formers in the UK have worked hard to frame antisemitism as a matter of sly words and not of violent acts, as occurring in Britain but no anywhere else, and as a product of the left and not the right.
This too is also a form of denial. If you want a recent instance of it, then you need look no further than the Board of Deputies which posted on its Twitter account this week that “the US elections results matter all around the world”. Trump, the Board wrote, “has not sufficiently disavowed white supremacists; but abroad he has increased peace in the Middle East by bringing about the Abraham Accords”. (Those Accords put relations between Israel and the UAE on a diplomatic footing.)
The Board and those philosemitic politicians who take a lead from them have treated opposition to anti-semitism as a qualified duty. If members of the British Labour Party have used antisemitic language intermittently, then that Party must be denounced, and its leaders broken. But if leaders of the Republican Party have proved themselves a nest of antisemites who spread their poisonous doctrines through the world, then that Party must be praised, conciliated, and exempted from any criticism.
Antisemitism, on both left and right
The way I see Labour’s antisemitism crisis is as merely the domestic expression of a much bigger situation in which anti-Jewish racism has risen since 2015 with the breakdown of a previous kind of neoliberal politics.
It has been replaced by a new combination of state and private capital, in which the political conflict in most countries is between parties of “nationalists” and of “internationalists”. The former think that capitalism will be healthier if it breaks up the multinational institutions of the postwar period, if it spends more on welfare, but it selects people for entitlement to welfare on racial lines and excludes migrants and international racial minorities (blacks, Muslims, etc). The politics of Trump, Brexit, Bolsonaro… all polarise for and against along these lines.
Where the nationalists have been most successful (as in Trump’s Republican Party), antisemitism has grown faster than at any other time since 1945. The reason this has happened is that the right wants to pose as anti-capitalist, or at least as anti-globalist, and the idea of removing the Jews (financiers) from the economy provides them a way of imagining a reformed, “national” system which is still capitalism.
When my friends on the left say that the US far right is the “root” of the rise of global antisemitism, they’re correct – as far as that analysis goes. What they don’t seem to be able to grasp is that when you pull up a weed, it produces many further roots, all over your garden. Antisemitism is growing not merely on the right but all over the political spectrum.
You can see this in the United States. Although Trump’s support is greatest on the right and on the far right of American politics; the role he has played in legitimising anti-Jewish racism has had an impact even on people who hate him.
In 2018 and 2019, the three most brutal attacks in the US were the Tree of Life murders in October 2018, killings at the Chabad of Poway synagogue outside San Diego in April 2019 and in December 2019 the murder of three people at a New Jersey kosher market.
The San Diego killer John Earnest posted a manifesto referencing Adolf Hitler and William Pierce’s white terrorist Turner Diaries. If Earnest had previously admired Trump, he was now exasperated with him, calling Trump a “coward”, a “Zionist, Jew-loving, anti-White, traito[r]”. (The Tree of Life killer had a similar background).
The attackers in New Jersey, David Anderson and Francine Graham, by contrast, were black. One was a supporter of the black Hebrew Israelite movement, which holds that black people are the true descendants of Israel and Jews merely “imposters” (a term used by Anderson). Anderson’s social media posts denounced the police, quoted the Bible, criticised white police officers as actual or likely supporters of the Klan. Murderous anti-semitism infected people who had more in common with most leftists than they do with the far right.
Since 2015, antisemitism has spread – from the United States through the world. And it has expressed itself on both the right and the left.
When people talk in Britain about antisemitism having grown in the Labour Party: they are correct. That is exactly what happened, and it happened on our watch.
Quitting a crisis with your politics intact
If what I’ve written above is correct, then the question of whether people are in the Labour Party now or in six months’ time is the wrong question to be asking.
Whether they stay or not, we will still have all the most exciting bits of actually existing Corbynism: Tribune and Novara and the people who make Momentum’s films. We will have The World Transformed. All of us will still be trying to make socialists, as best as we can.
The real question is – how do we break the belief that is now held by millions of people that, in Britain, antisemitism is mainly found on the left?
The press debate has focussed on finding a solution to Labour’s dispute mechanisms, as if this will provide the answer to everything. But it won’t.
Yet the very large number of complaints which have been made to the party in the last two years reflect a “civil war’ environment, in which people have made themselves into the voluntary external participants in a disciplinary process. They have sent complaints to the party, in huge number. With Corbyn removed from the leadership, the likelihood is that this volunteer apparatus will stand down. Labour will “look better” in the press and Starmer will be able to claim a victory – while actual antisemitic will be every bit as prevalent and as ignored as they were prior to 2015.
A disciplinary apparatus can only get involved after something has gone wrong. What the left needs isn’t more and better laws (although it would be no difficulty to come up with a better process than the ones Labour currently has). What we need is a culture shift in which the large majority of socialists grasp that people shouldn’t use antisemitic language that (to take just one recent example) telling a Jewish person to stop counting their gold and then (when they complained) that they aren’t Jewish is just bad, annoying, and self-destructive politics.
This is what I mean when I say that the left could be part of the solution.
Think back to perhaps the clearest instance of antisemitism in the whole four-crisis crisis. For me, it was that occasion (which I’ve already alluded to) in 2012 when Corbyn had given his – limit, passing – support to the Brick Lane mural, and in 2018, when this story returned to the newspapers. When all of us had a chance to look at the same image. When we gave ourselves time and we could see how racist it was.
At that moment, what shocked me was how many friends dropped their critical intelligence, shared stories supporting the image, insisted it wasn’t antisemitic. We wanted to take sides and, to do so, we imagined away what was in front of us.
What I want to argue here is that there is a different way of looking at the incident.
The artist, Mear One, had on his account been a year long activist-participant in Occupy Los Angeles. He had been part of an anti-capitalist struggle and had its legacy uppermost in his mind as he flew to London:
“Over the course of this year-long movement my experiences helped to crystallise my post 9/11 thinking on global politics and the economic slave system, deepening my knowledge of fractional-reserve lending and other banking schemes that led to the collapse of the markets in 2008. These facts began to find design in my mind, and while on the flight to London I sketched out my plans for a mural inspired by these recent real-world events.”
You couldn’t have a clearer example of antisemitism growing up within far left circles, and spreading from there, through the Labour Party, into the wider left.
But there’s another way of telling this same story:
That the Occupy movement which shaped Mear One was ideologically mobile
That within a left-identified movement there were also right-wing ideas, including ideas that exaggerated the role of finance, or imagined a capitalism free of usury, or blamed Jews
That the people best placed to challenge those ideas were people on the far left who had a different, rigorous theory of capitalism, untainted by antisemitism
That an artist who saw his mural criticised and overpainted looked instinctively to the far left to support him
This was an opportunity (yes, a missed one – but still a chance) for people to talk to him and explain to him that he was in the wrong.
What the situation demanded was someone to talk to the artist, to draw on their shared involvement in protests, and to change what he thought.
To be able to do that, you have to be the sorts of social movement, that sees an artwork being painted over and (without having seen it clearly) is unthinkingly attracted to it. You need to be the sorts of people who think that graffiti is art, not the sort of politician who believes every artist should be in jail.
That’s why, however blithe the left has seemed this week and the past four years – it is worth gambling that the best chance of challenging antisemitic ideas comes from a larger left, changed by the experience of the past four years and learning from them. And to predict that the answer to antisemitism will not come from the centre, or from the Labour right.
I wanted to put together some thoughts on why the Conservatives did well in last week’s election. Almost everyone I know has focused on why Labour’s vote shrank, but logically that can’t be more than half the answer. There is an old Eric Hobsbawm quip about histories of the left, that they risk telling you only what radicals did, what their thinking was, but they never look at the other side, until what’s left is like watching a footage of a boxing match in which you see but one of the fighters punching into a vacuum. Which might as well be the story of our past week. The left has produced many accounts of why we lost, hardly any of why the other side won.
As of six months ago, the Conservatives had a series of obstacles to face, each of which made it unlikely that they would win a majority. The most important barrier was incumbency – most voting is negative, and the longer they are in power the greater the anger aimed at incumbents. For seventy years of two-party competition, British politics has followed essentially the same pattern. In general, a party is elected with a certain core idea (build council housing, the white heat of technology, monetarism, education education education…). That idea, in combination with the unpopularity of its exhausted opponents, gives the party a majority. Over successive elections, the governing party generally loses its majority until it is time for a new party to govern.
Absent the Brexit referendum and what “should” have happened by now is that Cameron and Osborne, having won elections narrowly in 2010 and 2015 would still be defending the ideas with which they were most closely associated (i.e. austerity) but they would be intellectually exhausted, mired in corruption. Their majority would have narrowed to the point at which they started losing in parliament, the Labour Party should have chosen an anti-austerity candidate and the 2019 election would be the ideal opportunity for austerity to be consigned forever to …. (you get the picture).
Brexit, obviously, changed that. Among all its many effects, perhaps the most important has been to create a void space, so that 2010 didn’t happen, 2015 didn’t happen, 2017 didn’t happen and politics was reset as if to zero – and Johnson could say in seeming good faith, as he did whenever he was questioned on his government’s track record of cuts to school, hospitals and libraries, “I have only been in office for three months”.
In truth, Brexit’s impact was deeper – it was, and remains, among other things an attempt to reascribe the blame for austerity onto foreigners in general and the EU in particular, so that people who are annoyed about the collapsing state of our social infrastructure can blame it on something outside and distant, not the Tories, definitely not Boris Johnson, not even Labour, but someone outside, so that the clock is always being reset, and the conservatives can face the voters with the eternal sunshine of a spotless record. Don’t think for a second that we on the left are incapable of the same wilful innocence – but Johnson is doing it now, and Brexit allows him to get away with it.
There are other reasons why Johnson was able to win. During the election campaign, I had a much beloved friend who responded to every day’s reports of Johnson’s campaigning by posting a single recurring message to the effect that Johnson was a formidable campaigner, a rare politician to whom ordinary people connect and had real charisms. My friends made the point ironically, and repeated it so many times that in the ends the words collapsed apart and became just a raspberry jelly trifle of utter meaninglessness. Unfortunately, the satire was on all of us.
Johnson, it turns out, is a formidable campaigner. He does have real charisma. Our inability to see it was our weakness, not his.
I am interested in why so many friends didn’t “get it”. Part of the reason, perhaps, is that if you think about our notions of leadership, they do unfortunately operate with an exaggerated literality. So that a good left-wing politician is one who comes up with previously unconsidered policy proposals. And persuades his party to adopt them, and his electorate to vote for them.
This isn’t the only kind of political leadership though, on the right or at all. Sometimes, an effective political leader is one who goes into a hostile situation, and focuses simply on neutralising anyone else’s attack points. Actually, Johnson did this. It is why he made the point of being so repeatedly photographed visiting hospitals. Because he grasped that the mere repetitive image of being seen in that location would be a more effective way of presenting Johnson as a “pro-healthcare” politician than any amount of saying “I will not privatise the NHS” (a promise which in any event, could only operate as a hostage to fortune as soon as the inevitable US trade deal is announced). He chose to make his commitments fuzzy and general, and they were effective.
In the rest of this piece I want to talk about the contemporaneity of Johnson’s politics. To explain that, I want you to think what would have happened if Labour had won a week ago. Corbyn would be praised. We would be writing of the way in which he had moved the Overton window, i.e. changed our mutual understanding of what set of politics are acceptable to the majority of voters.
But one reason why Johnson was able to win is that his politics – his hyper-conservatism – was already within the Overton window, so that it seemed natural and normal, even though any number of Conservatives have spent the last six months insisting that it is different, shocking and offends against what mainstream Conservatism was supposed to be about.
Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum, there will be different parts of this which mean most to you. They might include: his personal deceit to the point of blatant lying (think of the way he pocketed Joe Pike’s phone), his willingness to dump long-term allies who prop up key tenets of Conservatism (the DUP and the union), the appointment of non-Conservatives to key posts (think of Dominic Cummings and the way in which he has been allowed to run Johnson’s private office as a Continuity Vote Leave private fiefdom), his rejection of the normal ties of loyalty to party leadership and to colleagues which make parties possible as vehicles for the promotion of shared interest, his toleration of Conservative candidates with grim records of racism and anti-semitism, and the encouragement of a kind of far right entryism within the Conservative party, so that even perpetual weathervane Tommy Robinson has applied formembership.
There is a common pattern here, which his of opening up the Conservative Party to people, to ideas, and to money, from those historically outside the Conservatives and to their right, with a view towards reshaping politics. The left used to warn about neoliberalism, but the politics of our present day is to the right of neoliberalism in its diminished toleration of social democracy or indeed democracy itself.
And while Johnson is willing to make noises to the effect that the NHS will continue, in some form, there will still be schools – the greatest risk to our shared social fabric will come not from anything in the manifesto but from the relationships of clientelism with the socially-untethered rich which will undoubtedly characterise Johnson’s future administration.
One reason why no one in Britain was shocked by this is that it seems in global perspective to be frankly, quite a tepid version of the politics that we have seen already in Egypt, in India, in Eastern Europe, and most recently in Brazil. But all these moves had a history. And in accepting them as normal, in tolerating them silently (if that’s we do), we all collectively lose something.
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.
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.
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”.
Some tips for people who want to get through a shitstorm with their dignity intact
Don’t post Chomsky. Really *don’t*. If you don’t know why he’s a tainted source try googling Chomsky / Faurisson
Don’t post articles telling me that x percent of British people think Jews are great. Donald Trump is an anti-Semite who thinks Jews are great.
Stop make excuses for people recirculating racist myths; the slave trade was run by Jews? No, it wasn’t.
Stop pretending that the left / Labour / Corbyn has simply not put one foot wrong on this issue in five years. This is our scandal. Start owning it.
Stop being so defensive. We’re living in the biggest upturn in global antisemitism in decades. Of course a left which is being deliberately, and rightly, populist is vulnerable to far-right ideas finding a home in it.
Do *not* stop talking about Palestine.
Learn from the younger generation of British Jews in their 20s (ie much younger than me) who have not invested their whole lives in Labour or the left and are willing to admit when something’s in front of their face
Learn from the things that previous generations got wrong. There were nationalists among the Spanish anarchists, antisemites in the KPD, “left-wing” arguments for the anti-Dreyfusards. We remember these as minorities because people were principled, argued with antisemites, defeated them
Do not think because your mate is Jewish and leftwing they are incapable of getting this issue wrong. All oppressed groups have moments of doubt, moments when we hear the nonsense outside and internalise it and use it against ourselves
Admit it, confront it, defeat it. That’s our only hope.
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.
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.