Tag Archives: Labour

Antisemitism: why the far left could still be part of the answer

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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.

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.

How King Jeremy will rule, where his friends will be found

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One of the most familiar misreadings of the distribution of power within the Labour Party imagines that the Party operates like one of the monarchies of the middle ages. There is a King whose power is under threat from a caste of barons (the union leaders). The King has reached an agreement with them under which they fund his regime. In return he allows them a disproportionate save over his party’s policies. The key to the happy functioning of this regime, as imagined by the press, is that the King is prohibited from reaching too far towards public opinion. Life itself would demand that he adopt the sensible policies of the parliamentary centre (such as, say, the immediate sale of the National Health Service to some billionaire combining the enlightened business practices of a Richard Branson with the personal morals of a Rupert Murdoch). Labour is restrained from adopting such common sense policies only by the self-interest of the union barons, who insist on interposing themselves into policies debates in which they could have no reasonable stake (it being plainly offensive to recall that UNISON’s members, for example, staff, clean and supply the same NHS).

If we think beyond this parody to how parties actually operate, one of the ironies of the last few weeks is that the Labour leadership has created something like baronial society, save that the Council with which Labour’s new monarch is surrounded, is composed of MPs not of trade unionists.

When William the Bastard landed at Hastings in 1066 (he became William the Conqueror only on seizing London), he had an army of fewer than 10,000 soldiers. Having defeated Harold, he had to rule a society of some 3 million people. He had enough troops to occupy a dozen castles; he was not strong enough to hold a country without persuading the existing rulers that his kingdom was secure and it was in their interests to submit.

In Labour’s recent election Jeremy Corbyn was the preferred candidate of around 20 of Labour’s 232 MPs: principally the then nine members of the Socialist Campaign Group, and a similar cohort from the 45 or so Labour MPs elected for the first time in 2015. The Campaign Group comprises such Parliamentary stalwarts as Dennis Skinner, veterans within no interest in a front bench role (it is even a rule of the SCG that on becoming a shadow minister, you have to leave the Group). The new MPs were for the opposite reasons unsuitable for rapid promotion. Corbyn’s isolation is shown by the presence of just two of his supporters (McDonell, Abbott) within the 28-strong shadow cabinet, and this proportion barely rises when you include junior ministers as well. Altogether Labour has a frontbench of 150 MPs and Lords: only three in total come from the Campaign Group.

In early modern England, it became common to present the relationship between the King and his subjects as a contract, in which the throne agreed not to govern beyond certain limits, and the people agreed in return to submit to the King’s rule. But certain features of this relationship are worth noting: the bargain between King and people was not recorded in writing (there was no constitution), indeed the terms of the bargain could not be formally negotiated (because to do so was to admit a dual power within the regime as King John discovered to his cost by conceding Magna Carta). That said, most people, from barons to the lowest serf, believed they knew the limits beyond which the King had agreed not to cross. When the feudal commons rebelled, they did so in the name of the King and the proper implementation of the King’s laws.

From the last fortnight it seems that the lines of the social contract underpinning Corbyn’s leadership are now tolerably clear:

  • Jeremy Corbyn has agreed not to use his role as Labour Party to promote the Labour left to ministerial roles in greater proportion than their numbers in the Parliamentary Labour Party (strictly, speaking, as I’ve tried to show, Corbynistas are presently underrepresented on Labour’s front bench). This may possibly change as the new cohort find their feet, but Corbyn has effectively agreed not to promote them rapidly
  • Corbyn has agreed not to back proposals for mandatory reselection of MPs – ie provided that their opposition to his leadership does not exceed a certain extent (yet to be defined), he will not use the Corbyn voters to oust his critics and replace them with his supporters
  • Corbyn has agreed that for the time being – although possibly, this concession is limited until there has been a thorough discussion within the Party as a whole – he will not seek to impose on the Labour Party views with regards to foreign policy (ie Trident, Nato, the EU, presumably the bombing of Syria) which are out of kilter with those of Labour’s most right-wing supporters
  • Corbyn has left the key tasks of internal party discipline (and, to an extent, the nuclear option of whether or not to allow the PLP to topple the leadership) in the hands of the most determined organisers of the “Anyone But Corbyn” bloc in Labour’s recent election – ie Rosie Winterton, Alan Campbell and Mark Tami, the same individuals who were the whips during the leadership contest.

In return, the PLP (Labour’s barons) have agreed

  • Not to stage an open rebellion against Corbyn’s leadership, or at least not to do so at least until after local elections next year
  • Tentatively, to allow Corbyn a role in the formulation of economic policy which has been refused to him in foreign policy terms (although, the terms of this part of the deal is still subject to skirmishing, so that for example rather than allow Corbyn simply to declare that Labour will reverse the Tories’ cuts to legal aid, ie make a spending commitment, a compromise has been reached under which a Labour peer Lord Bach will consider what parts of legal aid shall be restored. We will wait to see whether there shall be similar internal party investigations of housing, education and health policy).

What happens from here?

In a heroic scenario, Corbyn consolidates his leadership by persuading enough Labour MPs that in conventional Labour Party terms he is up for the job, will increase their chances of winning an election and therefore getting better jobs as actual ministers, etc. He is able to do this by following, essentially, a similar path to Syriza in Greece in about February-March 2015, ie having policies for the reversal of austerity which are backed by large numbers of economists, and showing that a redistributive government would run Britain better than the giant tax haven Osborne envisages.

In a disaster scenario, Labour MPs continue to undermine his leadership by briefing against him, weakly restrained by a group of whips, who are his committed opponents. Labour drags on to the spring, does badly then, and the PLP launches its coup at that moment.

Corbyn has an advantage over his PLP opponents in that they tend to see the battle strictly in internal Labour terms. To a greater extent than them, he sees the consolidation of his leadership as dependent on how Labour does. They can only imagine a disaster, possibly mitigated for some time, but in the end they can see only his defeat. He, by contrast, understands that success outside the Labour Party would give him greater power to (albeit very, very slowly) renegotiate the terms of his present contract with the parliamentarians. New blood could be brought in, reselection may yet emerge as the mere logical corollary of the great redrawing of constituency boundaries – but only if Corbyn proves himself electorally.

Corbyn’s principal disadvantage is that even he has a very weak sense of the targeted abuse that will come his way as and when he takes on not the Conservative MPs but the interests of the rich that stand behind them. It is simply not the case that when Labour and the Tories oppose each other, there is a battle of opinion, on equal terms, with the great British public waiting to step in as referees and declare one or the other side the victor. The more effectively Corbyn lands blows against the Tories, the more he raises people’s hopes of, for example, that distant impossible utopia in which a millionaire would have to declare their true income and might in future pay even just half as much tax as the typical streetsweeper, the more weeks he will like his first, and the greater the storm of popular indignation that the press will try to summon against him.

The most decisive battle isn’t going to be between Corbyn and the Labour Party (a working compromise has been reached on that front), but between a redistributively-minded Corbyn leadership and the champions of the rich. There will be a role for those – in the Labour Party or not – who can lay a blow on capital. It may yet prove an equally important task to that of those who focus on the internal struggle within Labour.

The civility of Corbyn

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LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North and candidate in the Labour Party leadership election, speaks to supporters at the Rock Tower on September 10, 2015 in London, England. Voting closed in the Labour Party leadership contest with the results of which due to be announced on September 12. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

Why did he do so well? From the point of view of the Labour right this was supposed to be an auction in contemporaneity. Corbyn represented the 1970s, an industrial economy, trade union power, hand-knitted sweaters; whereas his rivals were supposed to represent the glittering forces of the scientific future. People would vote for the new wouldn’t they? Maybe they just did.

Think for a moment of the most familiar consequences of neo-liberalism – job insecurity, the partial but real removal of the wealthy from the tax system and the degradation of public services that follows, the private sector annexation of common space, health, education … – all of these tend to leave the individual feeling alone. Churches, working-men’s clubs, unions, co-operatives, even pubs are seeing a decline in the number of people who use them. In the context of what can feel like a general demise of collectivity, the personal qualities of our leaders take on a new and unfamiliar importance. When leaders let us down we shout “not in our name”, and look for someone different who we can identify with. In this context Corbyn’s seeming personal incorruptibility – his most often noticed virtue is that he is our Parliament’s lowest expense claimer – seems immediate and new.

Now reverse the exercise, and see neo-liberalism as the accidental creator of new solidarities, whether that is the seeming prevalence of non-monetised relationships online, a new speed of communication through social media, or through (some) social campaigns a re-collectivised public space. And it becomes possible to argue that there is, immanent in our present, a more collective future waiting to emerge. Seen from this perspective, Britain becomes something surprising – a residually social democratic society, with a left consensus that re-emerges whenever you ask people whether we need public services. Corbyn’s civility – his refusal to boast, his unwillingness to antagonise – can feel like the long-awaited reconnection of “politics” with the values of the majority. It certainly feels much more immediate than the Blairite gurning for the interests of the super-rich.

The politics of 1995 maintained was that it was possible to finesse a basic law of politics, and of life, that rich people and workers have different and incompatible interests by making a definite promise that new technology would enable both to prosper. In 1995, it was possible to argue that the world was on the verge of a technological revolution – and if you compare the list of the world’s richest companies in 2015 with its predecessor of twenty years ago it is possible to argue that list has changed more in the last twenty years than it had in the previous 50. Amazon was new once, Apple felt new a generation ago, Facebook had barely been invented…

Now listen to Blair in 2015, mid-campaign, complaining that the future is being ignored: “We should be discussing how technology should revolutionise public services; how young people are not just in well-paid, decent jobs but also have the chance to start businesses that benefit their communities; how Britain stays united and in Europe; what reform of welfare and social care can work in an era of radical demographic change.” Doesn’t it all feel so tired? Voters just know that the million jobs moved from employment to self-employment are not better paid, they’re worse. The privatisation of public services is in the eyes of no one (save perhaps Richard Branson’s accountant) an unexplored frontier. The Europe that crushed Syriza has delivered no enthusiast claiming to have seen the future and it works.

In due course, Corbyn may well look old. The 99 speeches he has already given (he reaches a century today) already wear on his face. There will be a time when it is no longer possible to see them as the benign look of a runner reaching his racing weight. Faced with a five-year barrage that the last month has barely foreshadowed – attacked by the rich, by the Tories, distrusted by a majority of his own MPs – he may struggle. (Those of us outside the Labour Party will need to remember that he is being attacked not for any flaws but for his socialist politics) One day we may become nostalgic for those socialists who respond to invective with its like. But, today, he has more than earned his victory.

Beneath the paving stones, comrades, it’s beige.