Socialists should support Williamson
The left is not obliged to abide by rules which the right holds in such contempt, argues Tony Greenstein.
With the unexpected victory of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 the question of whether socialists should be inside or outside the Labour Party was settled amongst the socialist left - with the exception of the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party (and even in the latter there was some dissent).
However, people are in danger of mistaking what is a question of tactics for one of principle. There is no automatic reason why socialists should operate inside the Labour Party. If, as has happened in other European countries (for example, France), the working class should abandon the party of social democracy, there would be no question of socialists clinging to the rotten corpse of New Labour.
The allegiance of the trade unions - in practice the trade union leadership - would be an important, but not decisive, factor. In the United States the majority of unions support the Democrats, but this does not mean that socialists should embed themselves in what is an openly bourgeois party - although tactically again they may choose to operate within it.
I make these points because the deselection of Chris Williamson has thrown them into sharp relief. What has happened to Chris has raised questions about the whole Corbyn project and where it is heading. We have seen, as I predicted three years ago with Jon Lansman’s coup in Momentum, an increasing differentiation within the Corbyn left - such that Lansman and his acolytes can no longer be considered part of it, even if they have not broken formally with him yet.
There is also a danger in this period that socialists within the Labour Party will adopt fixed positions and, instead of thinking strategically about the position of the left, will simply subordinate their thinking to fixed formulae, without assessing the overall position where we find ourselves.
In the past four years the ruling class has waged a bitter and unending war against the left in the Labour Party, using ‘anti-Semitism’ as its primary weapon. ‘Anti-Semite’ has replaced the taunt of ‘communist’ - almost literally at times. In the words of one of the more stupid New Labour MPs, Siobhain McDonagh, if you are anti-capitalist you are anti-Semitic, on the basis that all Jews are capitalists!1 Contrary to the belief of many, if not most, on the Labour left, the battle around the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and ‘anti-Semitism’ has never been about Jews, but capitalism - and in particular the Atlanticist foreign policy of the British state, of which Israel is the visible symbol.
That is part of the reason why the formation of Jewish Voice for Labour - although a good idea in itself - has made no visible impression. It was never about Jews. Jews were merely the alibi: the metonym for the interests of capitalism.
That is why the whole ‘anti-Semitism’ moral panic has taken on the form of a McCarthyist witch-hunt. And why, when a whole series of academic and legal scholars criticised the IHRA ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism, it still sailed through Labour’s national executive committee. It was backed by the mass ranks of the bourgeois press.
Professor David Feldman, vice-chair of the Chakrabarti enquiry and director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism, described the definition as “bewilderingly imprecise”,2 while Sir Stephen Sedley, a Jewish former court of appeal judge, wrote that the IHRA “fails the first test of any definition: it is indefinite”.3 Hugh Tomlinson QC declared that the IHRA has “a potential chilling effect on public bodies, which … may seek to sanction or prohibit any conduct which has been labelled by third parties as anti-Semitic without applying any clear criterion of assessment”.4
Geoffrey Robertson QC bluntly described the IHRA ‘definition’ as “unfit for purpose”.5 Even the person who drafted it, American academic Kenneth Stern, has described it as having become “a tool to target or chill speech”.6 It should be clear that the anti-Semitism smear campaign was not based on logic. It had become a crucial part of ruling class ideology, possessing a material and social weight of its own.
The reason for this attack was not hard to find. Corbyn came to power on a wave of popularity amongst all sections of the labour movement. His opponents fooled themselves into believing that the Labour Party had been the subject of a mass Trotskyist takeover, that those who had entered after 2015 were unrepresentative of anyone but themselves.
Anyone who watched the BBC documentary, in 2017, Labour: the summer that changed everything, will remember the shocked countenances of rightwing Labour MPs, as it became clear that, far from heading towards a Michael Foot-style defeat, Corbyn had actually increased Labour’s number of seats by 30 and achieved the biggest swing to Labour since 1945.
Lucy Powell was “seen gasping … ‘Oh my God ... that’s unbelievable. Oh my God. That’s [a] 30-seats gain’, … as BBC anchor David Dimbleby announces that Theresa May appeared to have squandered her parliamentary majority.” Stephen Kinnock was famously shown looking totally stunned, as his wife advised him to say nothing until he had collected his thoughts.7
Of course, the reaction of New Labour MPs was completely understandable. They had been looking forward to the electorate doing what they had been unable to achieve with Owen Smith’s full-frontal charge at Corbyn in 2016. It was a severe disappointment.
And it was not only a surprise to Corbyn’s opponents. After the 2017 election I argued that the CPGB’s theses and the admission of Jack Conrad that, although his predictions of an increased Tory majority were wrong, the purpose of making such predictions was “to counter the ensuing demoralisation of those who thought that a Corbyn-led Labour government was the ‘big prize’”, made no sense. If you thought a Corbyn government was possible, I argued, why dampen down people’s expectations? It was “a non-sequitur”.8 To which Jack replied: “Comrade Greenstein criticises us for taking opinion polls seriously. OK, if he has another, better, more accurate method of judging the public mood outside a general election, he ought to let us into the secret.”9
My response was:
If we don’t understand the movement that has grown up around Corbyn, then we will not understand its strengths and its weaknesses … [Opinion polls] reflect the volume of propaganda that is directed at the populace. These polls were skin-deep ... there was a built-in assumption that young people who were overwhelmingly pro-Corbyn would not vote. Of course, one doesn’t ignore them, but nor should one live by them either.10
On my blog I had predicted that Corbyn could even win outright and certainly a hung parliament was a probability.11
Today we are in a different situation and I am doubtful that Corbyn can repeat what he did. Today the election is much harder to predict. The wind has gone out of the sails of the Corbyn movement. The movement itself is divided and demoralised. If I were to hazard a guess, then the choice will be between a majority Tory government and a hung parliament at best. My preference is for the latter, but I fear the former. I also fear that many people are going to wake up disappointed on what is going to be an unlucky Friday December 13.
But in 2017 the ruling class was taken by surprise. They were intoxicated by their own rhetoric. The most extreme expression of this was given by that court jester to the British establishment, Nick Cohen, who advised us:
The Tories have gone easy on Corbyn and his comrades to date for the transparently obvious reason that they want to keep them in charge of Labour. In an election, they would tear them to pieces ... Will there be 150, 125, 100 Labour MPs by the end of the flaying? My advice is to think of a number then halve it.12
We may well see the culmination of Corbyn’s refusal to call out the anti-Semitism smear campaign for what it is, coupled with his failure to take a clear stance in opposition to Brexit. Instead of temporising, apologising and promising to do better, he should have nailed this fake and false anti-racism for what it is: support for the world’s most racist state and its barbaric backer in Donald Trump.
Instead we have had an ever increasing witch-hunt since the adoption of the IHRA. There is no longer any pretence that anti-Semitism is the problem: the expression of even mildly critical views of Israel can render you a target. At the same time there is a total abandonment of any criticism of Zionism and the Israeli state. We have the absurdity of John Mann, the ‘anti-Semitism tsar’, being interviewed by the police for a rabidly racist, anti-gypsy booklet, yet being left untouched by Labour general secretary Jennie Formby.13
Momentum and the left removed the hated Iain McNicol, yet Formby has become transformed into a far more deadly version. The targeting of Chris Williamson by the Labour right, the Zionists and the ruling class has put the finishing touches to this campaign. The one socialist MP who has dared to stand up to the anti-Semitism smears has been branded a “Jew baiter” and “anti-Semite” not only by the Labour right, but by Lansman and his cohorts. Not one single Campaign Group MP - not even Dennis Skinner - has protested. Corbyn himself has not dared open his mouth in support of his comrade. Instead we had the obscenity of John McDonnell laughing and joking with Alistair Campbell, whilst reassuring him that “all is forgiven”.14
The high court decision made it clear that the suspension of Chris was unlawful.15 But, when the NEC panel came to the ‘wrong’ decision, the leadership simply repeated the exercise. Even the bourgeois courts found that impossible to uphold, but Jennie Formby’s apparatchiks simply resuspended Chris, anticipating the verdict.
In a situation where the Labour right show a complete and total disregard for even the most basic rules of natural justice, it takes a particular form of legal cretinism to suggest that the Labour left should abide by the very same rules that our opponents observe in the breach. We are in a war, comrades, and in war there are no rules.
Chris Williamson’s decision to stand in Derby North is a brave decision. Of course, it is unlikely that he will win, but he will probably gain a respectable enough vote to make it clear that the right cannot simply tear up Labour’s rule book when it suits them.
In a calculated insult the NEC has imposed a Labour First candidate, Tony Tinley, on the Constituency Labour Party.16 We should demand that the right should not split the Labour vote and withdraw him. Chris Williamson is the Labour man and the only reason that he is not the official candidate is because of the right’s disregard for basic democracy.
It is no surprise that the Morning Star, which has the strongest links on the left to the working class and trade unions, has come out in his support and run Chris’s excellent article. In an echo of Tony Benn’s statement that he resigned from parliament to spend more time on politics, Chris tells us that he “resigned from Labour to spend more time fighting for socialism”.17 That seems to be a pretty good reason for me.
Comrades should not allow their thinking to mimic that of a train which is constrained by the tracks from changing direction. We are free to get off, to reassess our position and our tactics, because we are waging a war. Abiding by the rules that our opponents have such blatant disregard for is not the road the socialism.
Socialists should go up to Derby and give Chris Williamson their full support.
. ‘Will Britain’s new definition of anti-Semitism help Jewish people? I’m sceptical’ The Guardian December 28 2016 (www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/28/britain-definition-antisemitism-british-jews-jewish-people).↩︎
. ‘Defining anti-Semitism’ London Review of Books May 2017: www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n09/stephen-sedley/defining-anti-semitism.↩︎
. Written testimony of Kenneth Stern to the House of Representatives, November 7 2017: https://docs.house.gov/meetings/JU/JU00/20171107/106610/HHRG-115-JU00-Wstate-SternK-20171107.pdf.↩︎
. The Independent November 20 2017: www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/jeremy-corbyn-general-election-labour-mps-reaction-results-video-theresa-may-prime-minister-a8065796.html.↩︎
. ‘The Corbyn phenomenon’ Weekly Worker July 6 2017.↩︎
. Letters Weekly Worker July 13 2017.↩︎
. Letters Weekly Worker July 27 2017.↩︎
. http://azvsas.blogspot.com/2017/04/labour-can-win-if-corbyn-is-bold-key.html; and http://azvsas.blogspot.com/2017/06/general-election-is-labour-on-threshold.html.↩︎
. ‘ Don’t tell me you weren’t warned about Corbyn’ The Observer March 19 2017.↩︎
. ‘Labour should have a female leader if Jeremy Corbyn loses next election’ GQ Magazine October 11 2019; https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/politics/article/john-mcdonnell-brexit-interview-2019.↩︎
. Morning Star November 8 2019.↩︎