Preparing for battles ahead
David Shearer of Labour Party Marxists reports on a meeting full of vigorous debate
Some 45 comrades attended the all-members meeting of Labour Against the Witchhunt on May 4. LAW, of course, was set up to oppose the Labour right’s attempt to depose Jeremy Corbyn by targeting the left, using various false accusations - in particular allegations of anti-Semitism.
Opening the meeting, Tina Werkmann stressed from the chair LAW’s important campaigning work, which has resulted in some (admittedly limited) recent successes - not least forcing the Mail on Sunday to withdraw its malicious accusation against Ken Livingstone, when it claimed he had said it was “not anti-Semitic to hate the Jews of Israel”. In fact he had stated that the claim he had said such a thing was one of the lies spread about him.
But this was only one of many “outrageous attempts to smear” comrades, including, of course, Chris Williamson MP, who has been suspended merely for stating that Labour had been “too apologetic” over accusations of anti-Semitism (even though most have been totally false). And LAW has organised protests, drafted model motions used by various Constituency Labour Parties and branches, not least in relation to comrade Williamson. Comrade Werkmann welcomed the letter Corbyn had just sent to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, where he complained about the “mischievous representation” of the foreword he wrote in 2011 to JA Hobson’s 1902 book Imperialism - a study.
But she expected the smears to continue and said that LAW needed to “make a bigger impact” for that reason. However, the fact that almost 400 comrades had joined the organisation, while just under 2,000 have asked to receive its email bulletins, illustrates the progress already made.
The two main motions discussed at the meeting concerned, firstly, the link between opposing the witch-hunt and building a fighting, democratic Labour left; and, secondly, LAW’s attitude towards the May 23 European Union elections.
Moving the first motion on behalf of the steering committee, Jackie Walker - herself recently expelled from Labour over absurd allegations - stated that the witch-hunt was so “embedded” that many comrades are terrified in case what they say is taken out of context and used to make false accusations against them. And things are not helped when groups such as Momentum - what she called the “faux left” - in reality end up siding with the right by refusing to defend the witch-hunt’s victims.
She agreed with comrade Werkmann that Corbyn may have finally “woken up” when it comes to the witch-hunt directed against himself, but he still will not admit that it is not just him who is being targeted. The problem is, he is still trying to accommodate the rightwing-dominated Parliamentary Labour Party. So we need to continue our work, aiming to raise people’s consciousness in order to build an “anti-racist, anti-Zionist, left organisation” within Labour.
One of the first to speak from the floor was Pete Firmin, who opposed the whole motion, on the grounds that it was not the role of LAW to “build an alternative Labour left”. In fact the motion stated that LAW should “help build” such an alternative - mainly through continuing our current campaigning - but, fortunately, he was the only comrade who took such a view.
However, a number of comrades opposed the clause in the motion that recommended that LAW should include among its aims the disaffiliation from the party of the ultra-Zionist Jewish Labour Movement. Graham Bash moved an amendment to delete the clause, stating that, while he was, of course, opposed to the JLM, this should not be “our campaigning priority”, especially in view of the current balance of forces - there was a risk that we could “end up isolating ourselves”.
In opposing this amendment, John Bridge of Labour Party Marxists said that JLM was a major force amongst those demanding a purge of the left and “the best form of defence is attack”. As for the opposition to LAW’s role in helping to build an alternative Labour left, no-one is saying that LAW should be at the centre of such a campaign, but we must play a full part in developing it as part and parcel of combating what is an attack on the whole Labour left.
But Moshé Machover - himself an early victim of the witch-hunt, who was quickly reinstated into the party after a vigorous campaign - stated it was not LAW’s function even to “help build” an alternative Labour left: we should merely “support” such an aim, he thought. His amendment to that effect was carried, although another amendment of his, opposing the call for LAW to “approach other local, regional and national organisations and individuals who are interested in building a democratic and transparent Labour left”, was - rather mysteriously - narrowly defeated.
Similarly, comrade Bash’s amendment to delete reference to the JLM was carried, by 18 votes to 15. However, the motion, as amended, was overwhelmingly supported, with only comrade Firmin voting against.
Tony Greenstein’s amendment, stressing that we need to prioritise three campaigns - for the reinstatement of Chris Williamson; for Labour to reject the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism; and for Zionism to become “a legitimate topic of discussion” - was carried overwhelmingly.
The second important motion debated concerned LAW’s attitude to the European elections - especially in view of George Galloway’s call to support the rightwing Brexit Party on May 23. Perhaps surprisingly, this had been met with various degrees of approval from some Lexiteers, including comrades on LAW’s unofficial Facebook group.
In moving this, Mark Lewis emphasised the need to vote Labour. That was the motion’s whole purpose - as opposed to associating with the right. It was not about our attitude on Brexit - he accepted that LAW comrades held varying views on that one. However, that topic crept into the subsequent debate - as did a discussion on Galloway’s own merits and weaknesses. For instance, comrade Firmin said that we should “be wary” of such “mavericks”, while others recalled positively his various past roles on the left.
But comrade Bridge reiterated that the motion was not about Galloway per se: it was about the need to fight within Labour and vote for its candidates - it is essential to clarify that we are a Labour campaign. But that did not stop some comrades from stating that we should not be discussing “our attitude to Brexit” and there were amendments moved calling for the removal of all reference to Galloway and the Brexit Party. But these were overwhelmingly defeated and the motion was carried with only four comrades voting against.
Before these two major motions were discussed, however, there was an item of controversy regarding an individual LAW member. The steering committee proposed to expel Peter Gregson over his refusal to remove a link from his personal website to someone who was recommending an article posted on the well-known holocaust-denial site, Codoh.
In moving the motion, Tony Greenstein said that every campaign had to “set borders” on who can or cannot be a member. He said that comrade Gregson seemed to have “no problems” in associating with holocaust deniers and that this was not just a matter of “free speech”, as Gregson had said. The motion stated: “As the witch-hunt has centred on the campaign to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, LAW needs to confront any hint or trace of genuine anti-Semitism in our own ranks.”
Not that the comrade himself was accused of anti-Semitism: he was simply being stubborn in refusing to remove the link to someone advocating an article posted on a holocaust-denial website. Comrade Greenstein put this down to the fact that Gregson had elevated the question of personal pride over and above political principle. In the email exchange that followed Greenstein’s objection to the link, comrade Gregson had said, “If he had asked me in a polite, civil, reasonable manner, I would have taken it down.” In fact he is still repeating that remark.
The first to speak from the floor was comrade Gregson himself, who simply repeated his arguments about free speech, people motivated by personal antagonism, etc. He complained that he had been dubbed a “loose cannon”, amongst other things, but he was simply a rebel who refused to comply with people’s ‘unreasonable’ demands. He seemed to take pride in the fact that he has been expelled from numerous groups - he reported that he had just been “kicked out” of a local campaign he had been involved in.
Other comrades from the floor tried to assure comrade Gregson that “we’re not against you” - “We’re your friends,” said one, but you need to “retract your position” so as not to undermine LAW. But unfortunately this had no effect on Gregson - he would not undertake to remove the link, no matter how “polite, civil [or] reasonable” the request.
However, other comrades did not agree that comrade Gregson should be expelled. They argued that there was great irony in a situation where a group set up specifically to campaign against expulsions was itself expelling people and that this would set up a “dangerous precedent”. One comrade said it was a case of “guilt by association”, in that Gregson was not himself accused of holocaust denial, but merely of recommending an article that included a link to the Codoh website.
But the majority were adamant that he was being stubborn and unreasonable. Comrade Bash stated that we had two linked tasks - opposing all the fake accusations of anti-Semitism and holocaust denial, while also doing everything we could to combat all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism and holocaust denial. Comrade Bridge said it was essential to “draw a line” - LAW was a group which, like all political organisations, needed to impose limits on what views its members expressed, whether directly or indirectly through what they recommended. We decided soon after the start of the campaign to exclude groups that either themselves expressed a form of anti-Semitism (Socialist Fight) or were in reality siding with the witch-hunters (Alliance for Workers’ Liberty).
In his reply to the debate, comrade Greenstein stressed that he had no personal antagonism towards comrade Gregson - in fact he had agreed to be a witness on his behalf at the hearing of the GMB union, which decided to expel him for organising a petition for those who agreed that Israel is a “racist endeavour”. As comrade Greenstein put it, Gregson himself is neither an anti-Semite nor a holocaust denier, but he sees no problem in associating with holocaust deniers.
Gregson himself was given considerable time to respond as the final speaker after a debate that lasted an hour. But in the end it was to no avail - 24 comrades voted for his expulsion, while nine opposed it and eight abstained. Comrade Gregson then quickly left the meeting without fuss.
Despite this controversy, the meeting had successfully set out the tasks that LAW needed to undertake in the near future and, in order to aid this process, four additional comrades - Graham Bash, Kevin Bean, John Dunn and Suzanne Gannon - were unanimously elected to the steering committee, where they joined comrades Walker and Werkmann, plus Stan Keable and Steve Price.
Fighting the witch-hunt as a key part of building the foundations for an independent, democratic Labour left
Moved by steering committee
- The witch-hunt in the Labour Party is accelerating. There are many new allegations, suspensions and investigations. In the run-up to the May local and European elections, the campaign of the right in and outside the Labour Party is designed to smear Jeremy Corbyn in particular, and the left in general.
- Overwhelmingly, it is clear that a number of party members under attack (often election candidates) are not guilty of anti-Semitic comments. Words are often taken out of context, twisted and misrepresented to prove their ‘guilt’. In the few cases where there is real evidence of prejudiced views or support for questionable conspiracy theories, patient discussion is usually the best option, with suspension or expulsion the last resort. As socialists, we believe in the potential for change; that people, through experience, joint struggles and rational argument, can learn.
- Instead, we are again seeing automatic suspensions. The Labour right is energetically promoting this approach, of course - it facilitates the purge of Corbyn supporters and awkward trouble-makers.
- Meanwhile, those like Margaret Hodge, Louise Ellman and Tom Watson insult, sabotage, make bogus accusations and work hand-in-glove with the capitalist media - without any repercussions.
- That such behaviour goes unpunished is the product of the short-sighted and futile attempt to appease the right. This can only undermine the Corbyn leadership and often plays into the false ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ narrative. Now it is “common knowledge” that Jeremy Corbyn is “responsible for anti-Semitism inside and outside the Labour Party”, as Ruth Smeeth MP recently claimed.
- Appeasement is designed to stop more rightwingers leaving and getting Corbyn into No10. LAW notes the delay to the roll-out of trigger ballots, which conference in 2018 voted for. The delay is particularly worrying in the context of a possible snap election or, worse, a national government. The vast majority of Labour MPs are clearly deeply hostile to Corbyn and his politics. Even if he was prime minister, the right inside and outside the Labour Party would not stop their campaign against him. They want him either removed, taken prisoner or tamed. Labour Party members must be allowed to hold all their representatives to account.
- Momentum has proved unfit for purpose. While a number of local Momentum branches continue to do good work, the national leadership of the organisation has often been deafeningly silent or actually supported suspensions and expulsions - something that even the Jewish Labour Movement recognised when it praised Momentum in the lead motion at its recent AGM.
- LAW supports a Labour left that:
- organises democratically and transparently;
- both supports Corbyn against attacks by the right, and is independent and able to criticise the leadership when necessary;
- is consistently anti-racist and internationalist - a stance which by definition includes anti-Zionism and supporting the Palestinians.
- In addition to our aims and priorities outlined above, we also resolve to campaign:
- for Labour CLPs and trade union branches to affiliate to LAW and Jewish Voice for Labour;
- for the immediate implementation of the reformed trigger ballots;
- for the scrapping of all bans and proscriptions: if the mass of socialists in Britain joined the party, it would put us in a much stronger position in the ongoing civil war within the party.
- In addition to our ongoing public campaigning we therefore instruct the steering committee to:
- produce more model motions, statements and public interventions on the subjects and issues above;
- approach other local, regional and national organisations and individuals who are interested in building a democratic and transparent Labour left;
- start planning for an intervention around those aims at Labour Party conference 2019 in Brighton.
- produce basic information for members who have been suspended or are put under investigation, including details of potential pro bono legal advisors.
- We will prioritise the following three campaigns:
- For the reinstatement of Chris Williamson MP.
- For the Labour Party and other organisations to reject the definition of anti-Semitism published by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
- To make Zionism a legitimate topic of discussion.
George Galloway and the EU elections
Moved by Mark Lewis
LAW believes that:
- George Galloway’s decision to support Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party at the May 23 EU elections is a reactionary stance. Galloway is an outspoken supporter of the rights of the Palestinians and has made useful interventions opposing the witch-hunt in the Labour Party. But on this issue he is badly mistaken. A vote for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is a vote for rightwing chauvinism and an anti-migrant stance.
- No ‘tactical’ consideration can justify support for the Brexit Party and we are disturbed to see comments along those lines in pro-Corbyn Facebook groups, including the ‘LAW Unofficial’ group.
- Despite our public criticisms of the current dire situation in the party, with a rightwing witch-hunt tearing through its ranks, Labour Against the Witchhunt is a campaign centred on driving through changes in the Labour Party. We urge all our supporters and members to join or rejoin the party - if they are allowed. This does not mean we exclude from LAW anybody who has been illegitimately suspended, expelled or barred from membership as part of the witch-hunt against Corbyn and his supporters.
- Given this orientation, we naturally urge all our supporters and members to vote and campaign for the Labour Party in the May 2019 EU elections.
Pete Gregson and LAW
Moved by steering committee
Labour Against the Witchhunt was set up explicitly to fight the witch-hunt against Corbyn supporters in the Labour Party. As the witch-hunt has centred on the campaign to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, LAW needs to confront any hint or trace of genuine anti-Semitism in our own ranks. That is why supporters of Socialist Fight were expelled.
Members of LAW - and in particular Tony Greenstein - have spent considerable time and effort trying to patiently discuss and explain to Peter Gregson why some of his formulations are, in our view problematic: for example, in his petition on the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism (which LAW never supported). The last straw for us was Peter Gregson’s refusal to distance himself from the holocaust denier, Nick Kollerstrom.
We do not wish to be associated and tainted with holocaust denial and therefore believe that Peter Gregson can no longer remain a member of Labour Against the Witchhunt.
We do not believe that Peter Gregson should be expelled from either the GMB union or the Labour Party. These are broad organisations of the working class that contain many different viewpoints.