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 being principled when the world falls in

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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.

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.

Boris Johnson – don’t write the obituaries yet

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Most of the analyses I’ve read start from the implausibility of Brexit as a way of doing politics which couldn’t possibly achieve all the wonders which have been promised of it. It is argued that Boris Johnson has so closely associated himself with Brexit that he must fail. They go on to say that he faces an unsolvable crisis: he must agree something with the EU, and whatever the EU offers will be unpalatable to his own party. Therefore, and in particular since Johnson has given himself a deadline of October to resolve the Brexit crisis, he will be out of office relatively soon.

I get where people are coming from. In particular now that we have – at last – a rising movement against the Tories which is able to bring thousands of people to the streets, it is hard not to feel that our strength must connect, somehow, to their weakness. But the above approach risks underestimating Johnson. He brings to his new position certain strengths, which are worth spelling out:

We live in a time which repeatedly rewards amorphous leaders who don’t care about resolving our ecological and social crises, but do care about the people who vote for them, and who indulge the cruellest fantasies of their base. Across the world, people like Johnson are winning elections, and people unlike him are losing them.

To this context, Johnson brings the skills of an illusionist, the ability to say “look over there,” while simultaneously taking the pound coin out of your hand and hiding it in his pocket. This is the purpose of the Johnson gaffes, his jokes. And this is the place at which the comparison with Trump belongs. Indeed Johnson’s method worked for him often enough in the past. If you don’t believe me, try this thought experiment. Ask yourself how many left-wing voters (by which I mean everyone from anarchists to people who’ve deserted Labour for the Liberal Democrats) refer to Jeremy Corbyn, without cringing, as “Jeremy”. Now ask yourself how many right-wing voters are willing to say “Boris” and smile wryly? Prepare to see any number of Boris Johnson speeches making all sorts of policy proposals which ought to appeal to people far from Johnson’s natural base. Their purpose will not be to recruit swing voters, so much as to neutralise opposition, to shove debate to the places where Johnson feels most comfortable, to prevent people from focussing on the policies which hurt him the most.

While Brexit has corroded the support of the Conservatives, it has done equal damage to the Labour vote. In fact, it offers an unequivocally pro-Brexit Tory party at least the possibility of a very quick fix solution (an electoral pact with the Brexit party) that would be much harder for Labour to match (a pact with the Liberal Democrats, anyone?).

Although Johnson is notoriously lazy and uninterested in detail he has survived in less pressured contexts (the London Mayor) by leaving policy to subordinates, and trusting their judgment. Among the likes of Dominic Cummings are people with a sustained political vision. They have been in internal opposition since 2016 and they bring all the ambition and hunger of frustrated people – a virtue which Johnson himself patently lacks.

While Johnson faces all sorts of obstacles over the next three months; should he survive that initial period – any number of institutional arrangements will start pointing in his favour: eg the fixed term parliaments act, which means that he can repeatedly lose votes in parliament without being forced out of power; the success Johnson has had in purging the May ministers and painting his new Cabinet as a new government; the tendency of the electorate to allow a new government a honeymoon period; the general effect that incumbency has in conveying authority on even unpopular leaders.

Although Johnson appears to face the pressures of an unmovable object and unstoppable force, these are not in face equal opposites. The EU has compelling reasons for not agreeing to a free trade agreement in which imported goods from the US could trade in France behind the advantages of US protection and a soft US-UK trade deal. It has all the fixity, in other words of Scylla. But the Tory party has nothing of Charibdis. (If you don’t believe me, think of the last time you read about the Never-Trumpers in Congress revolting against their President Trump).

Fitting all this together, it is possible to imagine the outlines of a Johnson strategy for the next three months which might succeed. He could begin by negotiating with the EU, testing if there is any possibility of a MayDeal2 (i.e. the same as present, but with the backstop watered down by some technological fix to the problem of Irish trade). If Johnson can produce that deal he has a significant advantage over May: the allies in the Cabinet and the DUP to persuade the Brexiteer MPs to vote for it.

If that deal cannot be made, then Johnson could sensibly test the resolve of the Remain Conservatives. He starts from such a low point of comparison (the defeats repeatedly suffered by Theresa May) that even a narrow loss could be packaged as a quasi-victory.

If I am wrong and there are enough Grieves to prevent a No Deal Brexit, Johnson has one last asset which May lacks: the ability to speak to the Brexit party as one comrade to another, and to negotiate with them an election pact which would purge the Remainers from Parliament.

Any number of my friends are reading Johnson’s weakness from an assumption that a group of Tory MPs will be principled and show backbone in the defence of what they believe – but if your hopes for the future depend on them, then you’re starting from the wrong place.

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 New Authoritarians: more interviews, articles

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In case any friends have missed them, I’m sharing here links to a couple of interviews I’ve done in the last few days. One was for the anti-fascist magazine and podcast Hope not Hate, whose researcher Joe Mulhall and I discussed Trump, Le Pen, the European elections, how the content of the far right has been broadening, so that fascism becomes a small part, but also how and why that process might reverse in future:

Another was with US based broadcaster The Real News. It’s a shorter link in which I explain much more briefly difference between an electoral far right and fascism:

Here’s a link to a post I wrote for Jacobin on the EU elections – as a moment of stabilisation rather than breakthrough for the far right.

Here’s a 20-minute talk I gave at the Conference for the Analysis of the Radical Right – setting out the approach of The New Authoritarians – and how the right has been changing since 2016.

Finally, an interview with Gr Gary Null on the Progressive Radio Network:

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.

Game of Thrones: One show, two approaches to life

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A while ago I went through a course which was intended to train people to be novelists. We learned a lot about sentences, but never about story. The only people who understood that were screenwriters. They had a very clear idea of how to write. With its language of “inciting incidents”, “midpoints”, “innermost caves” and “rebirth”, their understanding of story was as clear and as dogmatic as ang ideology. Sure, we novelists-in-training would answer but what about us? Do we have to follow the same sequence? Obviously, one lecturer would tell us. God no, the next would say.

This difference of approach helps to explain the subtle change that took place in Game of Thrones at the end of series 6 and culminated in this week’s episode.

Up to the end of series 6, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss were working with George R R Martin’s novel sequence A Song of Ice and Fire. Essentially, their approach was to follow the plot narrowly and literally, at least at the start, although it wasn’t long before they were cutting whole subplots (eg in the novels, Catelyn Stark is brought to back to life and fights the Lannisters silently from beyond the grave – not thankfully on TV).

Martin, famously, has stalled in finishing off the books. Only five novels out of an intended seven have been published, the last of them eight years ago. He used to tell interviewers that when he started the books he had begun with lots of people in one place and as they split apart more and more characters joined them. At some point they would start moving back together. “I think I’m reaching the turning point,” he wrote in 2011, “that’s starting to happen now.” The rest of us are still waiting.

In all of series 7 and the first three episodes of series 8, you could see Benioff and Weiss imposing the urgency of professional plotters on what had been previously Martin’s discursive, divergent story. One of the show’s two main protagonists Daenerys Targaryen was dragged from Dragonstone to King’s Landing, then north of the Wall and to Winterfell at a pace which would previously have been unthinkable. The Wall collapsed, with the significant exception of Cersei Lannister all the major characters were taken to Winterfell in order to fight a final, decisive battle with the Night King.

Even in episode 3, you could see the same approach at work – a screenwriter’s sensibility. The episode was plotted as a sequence of alternate moments, with good rising then bad, until just when everything seemed lost…

The opening cast the battle through the terrified eyes of Samwell Tarly, the writerliest (i.e. biggest coward) of all the soldier characters. In the middle parts of the episode, once the army of the undead had conquered Winterfell, there were moments of real horror – the spots of zombie blood falling on Arya. The denoument was a beautiful piece of “backwards writing” (i.e. when you start with a scene – the death of the Night King, and plot a route to it from the conclusion). A series of potential “good assassins” were tried but each defeated: Theon with his war charge, Danerys with fire, Jon trapped too far away to be any use at all. It was a bravura piece of writing to keep Arya off-screen for a full 25 minutes as each hero was defeated.

If you could take this single episode and see it in its own terms, it worked.

But did it? If you think of that moment with Arya above the Night King – flying in the air, jumping almost unnoticed: the scene itself requires us to assume an almost supernatural ability for the character to cover long distances through hunting zombies, then to move around Winterfell at almost inconceivable speed – before finally leaping from the snow (trying doing this at winter without losing your footing…). It requires us to imagine her, in other words, having almost superhuman powers. If an audience is willing to give Arya that credit it’s because we’ve been through the previous seven episodes with her, watched her apprenticeship as a Faceless Man at the House of Black and White. It’s because, in other words, Benioff and Weiss were able to trade off a great deal of pre-empting done prior to series 6.

And this was the pattern throughout the episode (as indeed it has been, ever since they took over). The scriptwriters keep on taking from a reserve of goodwill that the previous six series had built up. They never give back.

There was never a “Hodor” moment when you learned something about a character and their story surprisingly, gloriously, made sense in the end.

So in episode three there were repeated moments when characters, having played a role which the whole previous show had built towards – then added nothing to it. The Dothraki horsemen (the series’ principal black characters) rode out to battle and were slain, pointlessly. The Night King died without adding in any way to our understanding of where he came from or who he is except we learned the very mundane fact he couldn’t be killed by fire.

One way to read this is as a bunch of Hollywood scripwriters doing what they excel at – simplifying a complex story, allowing it to end. On that technical score, they seem to outperform the slow novelist.

But there’s a second, deeper sense in which Martin’s novelistic consciousness offers a much more interesting idea about how people could live.

The joy of A Song of Ice and Fire is that beneath a cynical exterior (the near-killing of Bran, the Red Wedding), there was always a subtle possibility of change. It was in the same family as “ignore your family and do what’s right,” but it went deeper than that and took in a heady dose of redemption. In the books, this was reflected in the character of Theon – stupid, selfish, and then subject to such long and cruel and humiliating punishments, that you felt maybe he could do alright in the end.

A novelist can wait for this kind of redemption, a film-maker can’t.

The Theon arch was so obvious that even Benioff and Weiss managed not to ruin it (although with their references to “home” and “good man” they did their best).

What they seemed to be doing throughout was steering away from Martin’s notion of a hard-earned transformation in favour of a well-meaning and vaguely liberal attitude towards life in which the small characters win because they are small. In which characters just do what they do. They make mistakes (this isn’t a superhero film), but the misakes have no real weight.

So you end up with the banality of Lyanna Mormont’s death, a sequence in which the baddest of zombie monsters brings a dying hero close to it for no comprehensible motive other than to facilitate its own death.

Or the survival of Tyrion and Sansa in the crypt: after the cleverest character in the show puts an army of children in a situation of utter terror – without any effect, the zombies don’t do anything there – no one dies.

It doesn’t sound like a large difference, but what the episode forgot was that even good people are capabale of such monumental stupidity that you find yourself gasping and wanting to rub your eyes. That mistakes carry consequences. That the monsters in our lives are more than an assembly of glass pieces that fall apart at the right touch. That redemption has to be earned, really, properly earned.

Blair Peach: the case for a public inquiry

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Three weeks ago I spoke at a public meeting organised by Southall Resists 40, alongside Suresh Grove, Gareth Pierce, Avtar Brah, Clarence Baker and others, calling for justice for Blair Peach. This is what I said:

My subject is the Inquest into the killing of Blair Peach.

The purpose of an inquest is to decide who died and how. It is not a criminal trial; and yet it plays a part in criminal proceedings. We know this, for example, from the 2016 inquest into the Hillsborough tragedy. That inquest’s verdict of unlawful killing led directly to the prosecution of the officer on charge on that day.

The inquest into the killing of Blair Peach could have resulted in a similar verdict and could have led to a similar criminal prosecution.

The reason it didn’t is down to the role played by the coroner, John Burton.

Anyone who has acted as a representative – in court maybe, or before an employer – will know what it is like when the person you are speaking to simply refuses to listen.

At the inquest, the Anti-Nazi League was represented by a senior criminal barrister, Richard Harvey. Celia Stubbs was represented by Stephen Sedley, later for many years a judge in the Court of Appeal. They were not shy people men, they were not junior lawyers, but tough, battle-hardened advocates.

But as these lawyers cross-examined the police witnesses they were repeatedly interrupted by the Coroner. When police officers who had been within yards of Peach’s death said that they could not remember anything, Burton said he admired them. When witnesses from Southall who had seen the killing described Peach’s death, including members of the Atwal family, Burton denounced them as liars.

Three of Burton’s decisions, in particular, have been criticised. First, the coroner initially refused the request of Blair Peach’s family to have the case heard by a jury. By tradition, juries were required in all inquests. Since 1926, they had been optional, except where the death occurred in circumstances whose repetition would be prejudicial to public safety.

But this was exactly the case that the victims of the police riot at Southall wanted to pursue. They said that the conduct of the police on 23 April 1979 police was in no way justifiable. That in order to keep open a meeting attended by fewer than thirty members of the National Front, the police had rioted against the local community: beating dozens of people, making 700 arrests, charging 345 people. How could a police riot not be “prejudicial to public safety”?

The refusal to call a jury was overturned by the Court of Appeal. Yet, despite the success of that appeal, Burton remained in charge of the inquest.

Second, midway through the inquest, Burton told the jury that there were two “extreme” theories as to how Peach had been killed. One, which was made up for the first time by him, no witness having ever suggested anything close to it, was that a left-wing protester had struck Peach with the idea of creating a martyr. The other, equally ‘extreme’ theory was that Blair Peach had been killed by the police.

In effect Burton told the jury that any verdict was available to them, except the most obvious: that a police officer had unlawfully killed Blair Peach.

In order to protect the police officers after Peach’s death, Burton had to discredit every piece of evidence in front of the jury:

  • the eyewitnesses who had seen police officers strike Blair Peach
  • the pathologists who identified the most likely weapon, a home-made cosh, a hosepipe filled with lead, or perhaps a police radio
  • the fact of a police raid on the lockers of the officers of the Special Patrol Group who were surrounding Peach when he was struck, and the weapons found there: a leather-covered stick, out-sized truncheons, a metal cosh.

Burton’s third, crucial intervention, was to refuse to allow the jurors to see the police’s own investigation into the killing: the Cass report.

Kept from the inquest jury, the report ran to 2,500 pages. It was a thorough document. Commander Cass identified six police officers who had disembarked from their vehicle immediately before Peach was struck. Cass also named a prime suspect for the killing: Officer E, an Inspector in the SPG, Alan Murray.

Murray had been on edge all day, arguing with a television crew.

He had lied about where his police vehicle had stopped; only changing his account when he realised that the vehicle’s location could be identified from police logs.

Inspector Murray claimed that another group of other police officers had also been at the scene. He later admitted that this was a lie.

Murray refused to attend an identification parade. He then grew a beard so as to make it impossible for the witnesses to identify him.

He sent a solicitor to Cass, in an attempt to warn him against continuing with the investigation.

Murray had control over the unit’s radio, one of the weapons identified by the pathologists as a possible cause of the unusual blow to Peach’s skull

Coroner John Burton died in 2004; no one will ever be able to prove why he went to such extraordinary lengths to keep the results of this investigation from the jury, or why he worked so hard to minimise any scrutiny of the police.

What we do know, of course, is that Blair Peach’s killers were never prosecuted. And, in that way, Blair Peach joins the 1500 other people who have died in police custody since 1990 without a single police officer or prison guard having been successfully prosecuted for manslaughter, let alone murder.

What we know above all is that the events of Blair Peach’s death are still crying out for justice.