JUDY BEISHON reviews a detailed account of how claims of anti-Semitism were used as cover by Labour’s pro-capitalist right-wing to destabilise Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, which spotlights the campaign against the left-wing former MP Chris Williamson.
Labour, the anti-Semitism crisis, and the destroying of an MP
By Lee Garratt
Published by Thinkwell Books, 2021, £11-99
The removal of Chris Williamson and Jeremy Corbyn from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), and Rebecca Long-Bailey from the front bench, was in each case based on accusations of anti-Semitism, or on comments on accusations of anti-Semitism. There was no actual evidence of anti-Semitism in their cases and they all made clear that it should have no place in the labour movement. However, that issue had become a battering ram of the Labour Party right wing against the Corbyn-led left and its prime method for removing certain individuals from positions of influence.
Lee Garratt’s book documents well the deliberate smearing of those prominent Labour lefts and many others – such as former MP and London mayor Ken Livingstone – who were targeted on similar grounds.
A central focus is the attacks made against Chris Williamson. Chris was first elected as the Labour MP for Derby North in 2010, with a majority of 613. He lost the seat in 2015 by just 41 votes but won it back in 2017 with a 2,015 majority. So he returned to parliament during Jeremy Corbyn’s five years as Labour leader, and was one of the small number of firm supporters of Corbyn’s left policies within the PLP.
Due to that political stand, he was targeted by the party’s right wing. Also, Lee Garratt explains how Chris Williamson’s involvement in the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy – especially his own ‘roadshow’ tour in 2018 to campaign for party democracy and mandatory reselection of parliamentary candidates – was a major irritant to right-wing Labour MPs who feared facing reselection contests.
In 2019, several ‘complaints’ were seized on to suspend Williamson. He had re-tweeted a petition against a ban on a concert in which an Israeli Jewish musician was due to play. He didn’t know that the musician had been accused of using anti-Semitic language. Phrases were taken out of context from a speech Chris had made to Sheffield Momentum, including that Labour had “backed off far too much” in the face of anti-Semitism accusations. A third feeble accusation was that he had booked a House of Commons room for ‘Jewish Voice for Labour’ to show a film about the anti-Semitism accusations. The detail of these denunciations is provided in the book, along with explanation on why anti-Semitism wasn’t a factor.
Chris noted that Sky TV had been informed about his suspension before he was. Four months later he was briefly reinstated – for just two days – and then was re-suspended in the midst of a cacophony of demands for it from the capitalist media, the Labour right, pro-capitalist Jewish organisations, Tories, and others who wanted to damage Corbyn-led Labour. Williamson sought to clear his name by resorting to the state justice system, and as the capitalist court judges are inherently biased against the left, it was a considerable victory that he won his case, with Labour ordered to pay all the costs. The court ruled it unlawful for the re-suspension to have been based on the “ferocity of the outcry”!
However, in twists and turns which showed the determination of the forces ranged against Chris Williamson, Labour officers had pre-emptively imposed new trumped-up charges, so he remained suspended; and the capitalist media deliberately misreported the court case as having gone against him.
The book covers the subsequent events, including the scandal of a Panorama TV broadcast in July 2019: Is Labour anti-Semitic? Interviewees included Ella Rose, who was later revealed to have moved from work at the Israeli embassy to working for the right-wing led Jewish Labour Movement. She, plus a number of anti-Corbyn members of Labour’s staff, together with professor Alan Johnson, a research fellow at the ‘Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre’, all fed the idea that Labour wasn’t ‘safe’ for Jewish people.
Lee Garratt reminds the reader that anti-Semitism is illegal in Britain, yet not one Labour MP has been found guilty of an anti-Semitic crime. He added: “Indeed, to find evidence of any anti-Semitic acts that have resulted in police action, anywhere in the country amongst Labour’s half a million members, is difficult. There seems to be only a handful of members scattered around who have faced criminal charges. And to my knowledge, at this moment in time, not one of them has been found guilty”.
Furthermore, regarding Labour’s own disciplinary actions: “Out of the hundreds of suspensions that have occurred, only a statistically small number have been upheld. For example, out of the 673 complaints of anti-Semitism during the peak witch-hunt year of April 2018 to January 2019, only twelve were upheld. Many, if not all, of these expulsions are questionable, and some are subject to legal challenge”.
The Labour Party – probably backed or prompted by Corbyn – formally complained about the Panorama programme, following which seven of the staff members and the programme maker John Ware responded with court action. Later came another major outrage, when in July 2020 the Starmer-led leadership went against legal advice that Labour would win against the eight complainants, and gave them an apology, plus a large sum in ‘damages’.
That politically motivated decision was all the more reprehensible as it followed the leaking, in April 2020, of an internal Labour report into the anti-Semitism allegations, which revealed pervasive, vile, politically motivated abuse against the Corbyn leadership from within the party’s staff.
Six months later the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) released a report on anti-Semitism in Labour which, despite an extensive investigation, viewed that only two individuals had breached the Equality Act: Ken Livingstone and a Rossendale Labour councillor, Pam Bromley. (See The Establishment HRC Does The Job, Socialism Today No.244, December 2020) As Lee Garratt writes, the allegations against those two “collapse under the slightest investigation”; and the EHRC didn’t even define anti-Semitism. He points out that the EHRC had hastily withdrawn a similar judgement against Chris Williamson after a legal challenge was launched, indicating the unsoundness of its conclusions.
Not surprisingly, Starmer tried to elevate the EHRC report’s credence by making another grovelling apology “for all the pain and grief” caused. Corbyn, however, rightly said that the scale of anti-Semitism had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons”. That utterance of the truth was what he was then rapidly suspended for himself.
This was all part of Starmer’s shifting of Labour back to the right, drawing a line under the Corbyn era. Corbyn had his party membership restored by the then still left-influenced national executive committee but is still excluded from the PLP. Labour members have been told they can’t even discuss Corbyn’s exclusion, never mind disagree with it, nor can they criticise the EHRC report.
When the cases are examined, most of the allegations have been regarding comments made on social media or verbally, which vary in type. Some stem from the accuser taking advantage of ambiguity, or from mistakes in sources or backgrounds, and others from dishonest, outright distortion of meaning or especially contrived ‘definitions’ of anti-Semitism. In addition, the attacks came to encompass anyone who argued that anti-Semitism isn’t prevalent in Labour, or who defended someone wrongly accused, or even for simply enabling a debate on the issues.
One of the witch-hunting tools was a definition of anti-Semitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) which hadn’t been intended by its originators as a tool for setting boundaries of behaviour. It included a clause which conflated anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel. Another clause labelled it as anti-Semitic to claim that “the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavour”. In 2016 the House of Commons Home Affairs committee argued that the IHRA definition could only be accepted with “additional caveats”, in other words not unconditionally.
The lefts who have been attacked were accused of ‘bringing the party into disrepute’, while right-wingers like Margaret Hodge and Joan Ryan were lauded for launching vitriolic and groundless insults at Williamson, Corbyn and other lefts, and engaged in sabotage of Labour’s election prospects – or desertion from the party, as Ryan did.
Another deserter is the focus of a chapter in the book titled: The Strange Tale of Luciana Berger. Berger was the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree constituency, where she came to face criticism for strongly opposing Corbyn’s policies. She subsequently left Labour in February 2019 to co-found the small, short-lived group ‘Change UK’, claiming she had to escape from anti-Semitism in Labour directed at her as a Jew. Yet, as Garratt recounts, the anti-Semitism she was targeted with came from the far right, not from Wavertree Labour “or from anyone with any serious connections to the party”.
Behind the attacks
While the book is a useful source of information on how anti-Semitism was used as a political weapon, it could have been strengthened by explicitly drawing out the class interests that underlay the witch hunt. Lee Garratt presents the deluge of anti-Semitism allegations as mainly stemming from the propaganda of right-wing Zionism in Israel, acting through bodies like the anti-Corbyn self-appointed ‘representatives’ of Jews in Britain like the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and then being taken up by “mischief makers” and “malcontents” inside Labour’s leadership and bureaucracy.
He doesn’t spell out that the Labour right were representing capitalist interests, other than with oblique references, such as to “a wider cynical plot”. This lack of reference to the fundamental class interests at play is probably why he expresses “incredulity” and “surprise” at the unfolding events, and at various stages uses the phrases: “it remains baffling”; “something of a mystery”; and “it defies analysis. One is stunned”.
Chris Williamson too, in an ‘afterword’ he wrote for the book, at one point argues that the “the biggest single factor” in the failure of Corbynism “was the leadership’s repeated attempts to appease the Israel lobby”. This, as with Lee, doesn’t highlight the extent to which the ‘Israel lobby’ was seized on as a tool by the Labour right. Also, while the slur of anti-Semitism was heavily used to denigrate the Corbyn leadership and had an impact, a bigger issue for a substantial layer of working-class voters in the 2019 general election was Corbyn succumbing to Labour being associated with the pro-capitalist ‘remain in the EU’ camp led by Starmer, instead of presenting a clear, working-class based, socialist and internationalist opposition to the capitalist EU.
However, Chris does also mention in his afterword the overriding reason for the anti-Semitism accusations, writing: “The popular movement [Jeremy] inspired represented the biggest challenge to the status quo since Tony Benn was in his pomp at the beginning of the 1980s. The prospect of genuine radical change in this country was once again a real possibility and that sent a shiver down the spine of the vested interests that members elected him to challenge”. Although both Lee and Chris avoid directly referring to capitalism, Chris here touches on why the Labour right acted to place the party firmly back in the hands of the pro-capitalist camp, a mission much more profound than mischief-making or stemming from disgruntlement.
Corbyn and Williamson were removed as Labour MPs because of the echo they were receiving from ordinary people across the country for policies that threatened untrammelled capitalist interests. Pressure and organising by the right-wing so-called ‘Israel lobby’ clearly played a significant role, which is well documented, but representatives of British capitalism, both inside and outside the Labour Party, had their own overriding motives.
One relevant issue not raised in the book, is that the Labour right found false allegations of anti-Semitism to be a useful tool because they saw political vulnerabilities in the Labour left on the issue of Israel-Palestine which they could try to exploit.
Lee Garratt mentions the media’s attacks on Corbyn following a Stop the War meeting in 2009, where Corbyn said it was his “pleasure” to welcome his “friends” from Hamas and Hezbollah to the platform. Lee comments: “For many on the left, there was – and remains – nothing wrong in this”. A little later he adds: “Did Corbyn’s use of ‘friends’ mean that he supported every word and action of Hamas and Hezbollah? Of course not”.
However, why should socialists support or be welcoming towards any of the words and actions of right-wing Islamist parties like Hamas and Hezbollah, that strive for capitalist, religion-based states, are willing to use force against workers’ protests, and that don’t have programmes that can liberate the Palestinians? It is mistaken to be ambiguous regarding those organisations, reluctant to criticize them because the Palestinians are suffering a brutal occupation.
On the contrary, workers’ movements in Britain and internationally need to adopt a class-based position, which can be boldly and confidently defended in all situations. This means supporting the Palestinians’ struggle without giving any credence to their pro-capitalist ‘leaders’. Only the development of democratically-controlled mass action by the Palestinians, together with the building of a new mass Palestinian workers’ party, will be able to take their struggle forward.
Likewise, regarding Israel, it is important for socialists to consider how the Israeli ruling class and its governments – which perpetuate the occupation and cycles of bloodshed – will be challenged and removed. In whose hands does the solution lie? After decades of attempts by the world’s capitalist powers to resolve the conflict, it is clear they have no solution. For a path forwards, as well as supporting the Palestinians’ struggle and opposing the brutal military onslaughts against them, socialists also need to look to the many workers’ struggles that take place in Israel – the regular combative workplace struggles against employers, and at times the significant flare-ups of anti-government protest.
The left internationally should support those struggles and recognise that workers in Israel will be forced more and more to fight against capitalist interests, as will workers worldwide, with the background of global capitalist crisis and attacks on living standards. A new mass workers’ party armed with socialist ideas can be built in Israel, as elsewhere.
Yet many on the left don’t differentiate between the classes in Israel. At the same time they often describe themselves as ‘pro-Palestinian’, as over one hundred Jewish signatories did in a letter reprinted in Garratt’s book that was sent to The Guardian in July 2019.
That letter, sent to oppose the right’s call to suspend Chris Williamson, also said: “As anti-racist Jews, we regard Chris as our ally: he stands as we do with the oppressed rather than the oppressor”. Socialists stand with the oppressed, but it is also important to blame the Israeli capitalist class for the oppression of the Palestinians, and not the Israeli working class and middle class, or to leave the responsibility unclear. This matters on two levels. Primarily, as Israel’s working class will have to play the role of building a force that can challenge and remove the Israeli capitalists and their system, it helps to increase awareness of the class divide and that role. Secondly, for the layer of Jewish people in Britain and internationally who themselves conflate being Jewish with Israel to one degree or another, attacks simply on a non-class qualified ‘Israel’ don’t help to reduce their fear of anti-Semitism.
The unqualified references to Israel in the book include one in Chris Williamson’s afterword, where he calls Corbyn “a longstanding critic of Israel and supporter of the Palestinian people”. Many on the left, including Chris, might regard such formulations as just short-hand, or unintentional in the literal meaning. But why not instead use terms that help to raise class consciousness and that are less open to counter-productive interpretation? The same point can be made in relation to Lee Garratt quoting academic Norman Finkelstein as saying: “Corbyn, he did not present a threat only to Israel and Israel’s supporters, he posed a threat to the whole British elite”. A class differentiation is made regarding Britain, but not Israel.
Consciousness of the past
The book’s author touches on the history of anti-Semitism. He says: “That Jews have suffered over the last two thousand years or so is beyond argument. The history of a ‘people’ without the security of a nation-state has left them exposed, for a variety of reasons, to persecution and ill-treatment”.
He places the origin of the persecution as down to “the apportioning of collective blame” for the death of Jesus, which was “to enable anti-Semitism in the Christian world for millennia”. Following that, Jews became “scattered around Europe (and elsewhere) often in sizeable numbers but rarely in such concentration and strength to afford real security… Who would one blame when the crops failed? When the economy crashed? It is always much easier to blame the minority”.
His brief portrayal of history is flawed. For example, what today is usually described as the ‘nation-state’ didn’t exist for most of the last 2,000 years; and he doesn’t mention the socio-economic roles in society that Jews were forced to fall back on at certain stages, which became factors in the persecution. But while his historical account is very truncated, less justifiable is his doubt over whether the consciousness of Jewish people today has been partly shaped by historically suffered trauma.
He writes: “Whether this history amounts to what is sometimes called, as Owen Jones states in his recent book, a ‘collective trauma’ that informs the actions and thoughts of individual Jews today, is more doubtful. This is an important point to make because it is this alleged ‘trauma’ that is sometimes used to excuse the crimes of modern Israel in a way unthinkable for other countries. And it should be noted, this ‘trauma’, the bloody pogroms and atrocities of the Jewish past are now, undeniably, history. With the exception of the Holocaust (and that occurrence is felt and remembered only through a handful of survivors and their recollections) there is no recent, direct experience of any atrocity for a Jew living in Britain today”.
It is certainly wrong for the history to ever be used “to excuse the crimes of modern Israel” but it is also mistaken to suggest that Jewish people today have no reason to feel any weight from the past, or from anti-Semitism they come across in present society. Lee should ask himself why it is right, as it is, to recognise the Palestinians’ mourning and commemoration of the ‘Naqba’ – their 1948 mass expulsion when the State of Israel was created – but not to recognise that historic pogroms against Jews have impacted on their present consciousness. He compounds this mistake by raising it at the start of the first chapter of his book, possibly deterring some readers from continuing.
Labour lefts’ response
How should Labour’s left leaders have responded to the ‘anti-Semitism’ defamations? Lee and Chris are right in the book to say that making demanded ‘apologies’ only emboldened those making the attacks. They both strongly criticise the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs for generally ‘backing off’ and not seriously fighting back. The main example given is that when Chris was suspended, the group wouldn’t issue a collective statement of solidarity and call for his reinstatement. Richard Burgon is quoted as saying: “What can ten MPs do against 100?” Lee goes as far as saying: “Arguably, all along, it has been these erstwhile supporters that have done the most damage to the left… when people like John McDonnell express support, yet saddle it with further conditions, one would be better off without that support in the first place”.
However, clearly a serious fightback would have meant doing more than putting out statements, so it is necessary to put forward what should have been done, a crucial issue not developed in the book.
Lee mentions that after Williamson’s suspension “over 30 CLPs and a variety of trade unions and other organisations” passed motions in support of him. Chris Williamson’s afterword refers to “Jeremy’s failure to mobilise the grassroots movement he had inspired” and adds: “With their support he could have taken on and defeated the opponents of socialism and anti-imperialism who inhabit the upper echelons of the Labour Party”.
Chris undoubtedly agrees with much of what we, the Socialist Party, put forward during the Corbyn leadership years on the steps needed to transform Labour: mandatory re-selection; restoring Labour’s conference as a decision-making body; ensuring a key role for trade unions; turning outwards to support workers’ struggles; mass rallies (as took place before the 2017 general election); among other proposed measures, none of which were implemented.
Also, the leading Labour lefts rejected our call for debate and discussion involving socialists, anti-cuts groups, trade unionists, etc, from outside Labour as well as within, to chart the way forward. This would have helped to clarify ideas, and unite and sharpen the struggle to defeat the right. Instead, Labour’s left leaders went into a blind alley of attempted conciliation with those agents of capitalism – an impossible ‘unity’ with them.
The capitalist media
Lee Garratt also criticises the role played by “previously favourable and fair-minded media organisations”, which he elaborates on as referring to The Guardian, “for much of its history, one of the few… voices of support for Labour”. Lee only needs to ask himself the question: which Labour? – as the party effectively became ‘two parties in one’ during the Corbyn leadership years. However, he instead diverges into speculating on whether Guardian opinion writer Jonathan Freedland, “informed as he is by an unapologetic Zionism”, and certain other Guardian commentators, were responsible for the anti-Corbyn stance.
It is not just due to individual contributors; Lee himself mentions that in 2019, cartoonist Steve Bell emailed an angry complaint to The Guardian after the paper rejected a cartoon he had done on the anti-Semitism witch-hunt in Labour. “It’s not anti-Semitic nor is it libellous… I suspect the real cause is it contravenes some mysterious editorial line that has been drawn”, Bell wrote.
Lee is particularly angered by the articles of Guardian contributor Owen Jones, on who he devotes six pages. He questions why Jones partly blamed Chris Williamson and others on Labour’s left for the weaponisation of anti-Semitism, without Jones explaining his reasoning for that stance. Instead he resorted to attacks on Williamson’s past record and to personal insults, calling him “king of the cranks”.
Certainly, Jones presented a confusing, selective commentary on this issue, illustrating his lack of political reliability for readers seeking a socialist standpoint. Just before the 2017 general election, in one of his articles he called for Corbyn to stand down as Labour leader. Len McCluskey, recently retired leader of Unite, reports in his autobiography that Jones also asked him to persuade Corbyn to resign at that time, to which Len responded with short shrift. When Starmer was elected Labour leader, Jones called him “a genuinely decent and progressive politician” and said “the left should wish him well”.
A final word. The book’s title refers to “the destroying of an MP”. Yet fortunately, despite the massive stress that Chris Williamson faced from the attacks against him – the phone number of the Samaritans was among the footnotes in the disgraceful investigation letters he was sent – he has definitely not been destroyed as a politician seeking to represent workers’ interests. He went on to found ‘Resist – Movement for a People’s Party’, which stood candidates in May 2021 as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), the body co-founded by former RMT union leader Bob Crow and the Socialist Party to stand anti-austerity candidates in elections. To his credit, his fight goes on.