The politics of offence
Eddie Ford thinks everybody should be open to political criticism - even those who are pregnant or receiving treatment for illness
For some time now the ongoing civil war in the Labour Party, which still has a long time to run, has revolved around the slander that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism. From this it automatically follows that criticising the foundational basis of the state of the Israel, or even its core governmental policies, is also anti-Semitic - or, in the words of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, claiming that the existence of Israel is a “racist endeavour”.
This is a notion peddled endlessly by the Labour right and the mass media, especially the BBC - which is not called the British Broadcasting Company for nothing: it patriotically serves the interests of the establishment, whilst pretending it is a neutral and objective arbiter. Aghast BBC reporters comment on the ‘anti-Semitism’ crisis in the same breathless way that god-fearing folk in the 17th century must have muttered about the menace of witchery. The fact that a visit to a local Labour Party meeting almost anywhere in the country would immediately demonstrate that such an accusation has no basis in reality makes no difference, of course. When a lie is this effective - and so useful as part of the campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the left - you want to keep it going for as long as possible; just as the persecution of ‘witches’ helped the elite impose social control and divert attention from their own failings. For example, it was a victory for the right - within the Labour Party and in society as a whole - when the Labour leadership finally accepted the IHRA’s “working definition” of anti-Semitism, even if they grumbled bitterly about Corbyn not committing himself to the full text (ie, all of the implicitly pro-Israel examples). Zionism had scored a hugely symbolic victory.
One distinctly noticeable trait or offshoot of the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ slander campaign has been the flourishing of the politics of offence - certain things, of which there are more by the day, are deemed beyond the pale. They cannot be said or written, unless you enjoy being the object of ritual condemnation. This new weapon is not the result of mere accident, it goes without saying: a certain morbid sensitivity is being deliberately promoted in order to shut down rational political criticism and debate. You cannot say anything which might offend The Jewish Chronicle or the Jewish Labour Movement. Even worse is to offend the ‘Jewish community’, as if we are dealing with a single monolithic entity in which all share the same views - an idea which itself crosses over to genuine anti-Semitism: presumably we are meant to believe that all Jewish people are Zionists or harbour loyalty the Israeli state, which is palpably ridiculous.
Unfortunately, as commented upon before in this publication, large sections of the left have internalised the politics of offence - this presumably happened via the soft-Maoism which influenced the far-left in the United States, the municipal socialism of the 1970s, second-wave feminism, the group-think imposed by the rival leaders of Trotskyist micro sects, no platforming political opponents, etc. But, whatever its exact origins or political composition, the politics of offence now runs deep on an ideological level for many on the left - provoking a Pavlovian outrage whenever this or that is said.
Hence last year Owen Jones - still nominally a leftwinger the last time I checked - condemned Pete Willsman in the pages of The Guardian for damaging “the struggle against the disgusting disease of anti-Semitism” - merely for making the observation on Labour’s national executive that some people disseminating “duff information” about Labour’s supposed ‘anti-Semitism’ problem - including senior rabbis and writers for The Jewish Chronicle - were “Trump fanatics”. The fact that this had a certain truth was irrelevant: Willsman had offended the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the JLM - therefore his comments were unacceptable. You can say exactly the same about Chris Williamson, of course, and near countless others. The right not to be offended overrides the right to free expression or plain speaking.
Having said that, there is a large degree of hypocrisy in all this. Margaret Hodge can call Jeremy Corbyn “a fucking anti-Semite and a racist”, whilst others compare the Labour leader to Hitler without batting an eye, but that is fine - part of the ‘normal rough and tumble of politics’. The right can say what the hell they like - but the left is supposed to be ‘respectful’ and ‘moderate’.
However, the politics of offence has mutated into something even more degenerate - the politics of personal offence, where aspects of everyday life are also weaponised, It is doubtful whether those in the late 1960s and 70s who went round saying ‘the personal is political’ meant it in quite the way that it is now being used by figures in the Labour Party and the labour movement generally.
Speaking at the Durham Miners’ Gala over the weekend, Unite boss Len McCluskey attacked Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, and his friends in the media, for being a “fucking disgrace” - to loud cheers.1 This was a reference to the hullabaloo following the Panorama predictable hatchet job on the Corbyn leadership concerning “political interference” in the investigation into alleged anti-Semitism within the party. Watson had written to Labour’s general secretary, Jennie Formby, expressing outrage at the way former staff members had been treated and also suggesting that she might have been involved in the deletion of emails dealing with various awkward cases yet to be addressed - ie, that she was part of a cover-up. In reply, Formby said she was “very disappointed” by Watson’s approach, adding that “traducing” her reputation when she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer was an “inappropriate way” to discuss this issue.
Now, I strongly suspect that most in the crowd at Durham were not standing up for common decency when they cheered McCluskey - they were actually taking a stand on the ongoing civil war in Labour, by siding with those daring to fight back against the slanderous attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, as opposed to those who take a craven position. For communists this is only to be applauded, of course. But there is also the issue of the politics of offence. McCluskey’s anger focused primarily on Formby’s health - saying: “The attacks on Jennie would be wrong in normal circumstances, but when they are in the circumstances where she is battling cancer, they are unacceptable”. Beyond the pale. Meaning that Watson, as McCluskey put it, “should be fucking well ashamed” of himself.
Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry, John McDonnell, etc have all piled in behind the verdict of the Unite general secretary, saying how wrong and disgraceful it was for Watson to say what he did at such a time. One Labour activist (‘Rachael Swindon #EL4C’ - aka Rachael Cousins from Swindon) even advocated on Twitter that Watson be suspended “pending an investigation under the disability discrimination Equality Act”.
In other words, they were not criticising Tom Watson for his foul, rightwing politics or systematic attempts to undermine Jeremy Corbyn - feeding the media narrative of an ‘institutionally racist’ Labour Party and all that garbage. That might risk saying something controversial. No, rather they were expressing outrage at his ungallant behaviour towards a lady in distress - ie, an experienced woman politician currently receiving treatment for a serious medical condition. She becomes instead a victim who needs special protection.
We saw the same sort of approach, this time more overtly from the right, when it came to Ellie Reeves - sister of fellow Labour MP, Rachel Reeves, and wife of John Cryer, chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party. On July 3 the Evening Standard, London’s Tory-lite free sheet, had a scoop about an “explosive row” within Labour over the “bullying” of the then 22-weeks-pregnant Ellie Reeves.2 This “bullying” turned out to be a putative attempt to deselect her by a local party member in Lewisham West and Penge, who was unhappy that she was one of the 120 MPs and peers calling upon Jeremy Corbyn to “immediately” remove the Labour whip from Chris Williamson after his suspension over totally unfounded allegations relating to anti-Semitism was lifted on June 26 (Williamson was suspended again two days later).
The local party chair suggested that a proposed vote of no confidence against Reeves should be submitted in time for the Constituency Labour Party’s next meeting on July 6 - only for Labour HQ to swoop in like a hawk and bring a halt to the move, on the basis that it would be “wrong” to make such a move against a pregnant MP soon be on maternity leave. A spokesperson for Corbyn said the guidelines on reselection would be “clarified” to make sure that MPs like Reeves are exempt.
Naturally, The Sun could not resist running a story about a “bullying” Corbynista ditching his bid to deselect Reeves - reporting that the threat had “sparked absolute fury among Labour moderates, who had demanded pregnant MPs are protected from leftie bids to purge them” (July 4). Understated as always, Tom Watson said the move to deselect Reeves was “disgusting” and an example of “mob rule”. He went on to tweet that it was an attempt by activists to “bully another pregnant MP out of the party”. He was alluding to Luciana Berger, who almost certainly would have been deselected, had she not defected in February to Change UK - from which she soon resigned and is now sitting as an independent. At the time, as Weekly Worker readers will remember, the Labour right and media presented her as a victim of intolerant anti-Semitism - nothing to do with the fact, of course, that her local CLP was getting totally fed-up with her rightwing politics ... and that she had refused to undertake not to defect.
We are now in a situation where an early general election is very likely. Presumably Reeves’s CLP are well aware of this fact too, and they should have the right to deselect her if they think she is not suitable. Apparently though, her pregnancy means she should automatically be reselected as the candidate - pregnant women cannot be held accountable. Maybe the Labour right would extend that ‘principle’ to the electorate. Should the “mob” not be allowed to vote in a general election if their sitting MP happens to be pregnant? The idea of the “mob” voting out such an MP is surely “disgusting”. Well, no, it is not. It is called democracy.
Obviously, we all wish Jennie Formby well in terms of her medical treatment - and the same goes for Ellie Reeves and her pregnancy. But at the end of the day, both should be open to political criticism and subject to democratic accountability - even if Len McCluskey, the Labour right and The Sun find that unacceptable. Normal politics should not be suspended because someone is suffering from an illness or is expecting a child - any suggestion to the contrary can only be described as patronising, sexist and dangerous l