Reinstate the Wavertree Four
The witch-hunt of leftwingers is now being carried out by ‘leftwingers’, says Paul Drummond
Under the cover of the political lockdown imposed during the coronavirus crisis, the new Labour leadership is once again stepping up the witch-hunt against the Labour left. After a brief respite during the leadership election the purge is starting to pick up speed, as party members are suspended or expelled for a variety of quite spurious and frankly ludicrous charges.
Given the suspension of normal party meetings and political activity, news of what is happening across the country is necessarily limited, but a clear picture about the nature of this purge is starting to emerge from both social media and mainstream media reports. Thus, we hear that a Constituency Labour Party in London may be facing an investigation for anti-Semitism and bullying, whilst individuals are expelled for simply re-tweeting comments by former Labour MP Chris Williamson or making “public criticisms” of party policy!
So far, so familiar! Within hours of his election as leader, Keir Starmer, in a message to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, signalled his intentions of continuing the witch-hunt by using accusations of anti-Semitism against the left. Furthermore, the appointment of Blairite David Evans as general secretary reinforces the already strong grip Starmer and the Labour right hold over the party apparatus. As Starmer continues to demonstrate how he will be a safe pair of hands for capitalism and act ‘responsibly’ in the ‘national interest’, all the pieces have been lined up for a renewed purge. Given his political and professional background, we should expect nothing less from him: openly pro-capitalist policies, a mass purge of the left and reducing the Labour Party to an obedient fan club for ‘the leader’ - these are the hallmarks of Starmer’s neo-Blairite strategy. But what has been the response of the Labour left to this intensified witch-hunt and shift to the right?
A good case study to show the way things are now going in the party is the widely reported suspension of four officers of Liverpool Wavertree CLP (including the chair and secretary) under anti-Semitism charges.1 Based on media reports and social media comments, it appears that the four comrades - Nina Houghton, Kevin Bean, Helen Dickson and Hazuan Hashim - dared to raise political criticisms of an article written in the Jewish Telegraph by their local Labour MP, Paula Barker, which stated, amongst other things: “Luciana [Berger] leaving the Labour Party was a shock to many and I find it deeply regrettable that she felt she could no longer stay.”2
For new readers, the story so far. Luciana Berger MP, parachuted into the safe Labour seat for the 2010 general election, was one of the most vocal opponents of Jeremy Corbyn, using her position as MP to publicly undermine and sabotage him at every opportunity.3 She helped to spread the lie that the Labour Party is overrun by anti-Semites and thereby helped create the current atmosphere, in which pro-Palestinian campaigners are regularly vilified as anti-Semites - and she particularly singled out Labour members in her own Liverpool constituency. In the end Berger defected to the Liberal Democrats, and unsuccessfully stood as a candidate for them in 2020.
This political trajectory really should not have come as a “shock” to anybody who had followed her career and history of consistent opposition to the left. In this slanderous campaign she was aided and abetted by such luminaries as Tom Watson and others on the anti-Corbyn Labour right, who ludicrously declared that she had been “forced out by racist thugs” in her CLP.4
It seems that the four suspended comrades objected to Paula Barker’s article because it reinforced this narrative that anti-Semitism had been the reason why Berger left the party, and ignored the real cause of conflict - political differences between the MP and her CLP. They raised these criticisms and argued their case in an internal party bulletin, in which they explicitly supported their Socialist Campaign Group MP, Paula Barker, but objected to her failure to defend Liverpool Wavertree CLP members from the charges of anti-Semitism in her article.
What seems to have followed was the standard social media storm and leaks to the mainstream media. All the usual suspects joined in, declaring that, by opposing the dominant narrative of the Labour right that the party is overrun with anti-Semites, the four comrades were themselves condoning anti-Semitism! Within a few days of making their statement and expressing political disagreements with their MP, the inevitable happened: the four Liverpool Wavertree CLP officers were suspended following alleged complaints and charges of anti-Semitism and racism.
Role of the left
At first sight this might seem to be a rerun of countless other suspensions and expulsions over the past few years. All the familiar elements of the story are there: crucially accusations of anti-Semitism. But this is not simply a repeat of previous political conflicts in Wavertree CLP.5 There are some very important differences between 2019 and 2020 - not least the defeat of the Corbyn project and the party’s swing to the right that resulted in the election of Keir Starmer.
The most important one in this case - and in many of the other suspensions and expulsions that have taken place - is the role of the Labour left. In the face of the gathering purge now underway nationally, the response of many has been abysmal: few have put their head above the parapet to defend comrades under attack, whilst others have played safe, remaining silent in the hope that the witch-hunt will pass by and that one day better times will return. Given what happened to Chris Williamson, Jackie Walker, Marc Wadsworth, Tony Greenstein, Ken Livingstone and countless others, we should not perhaps be surprised. No MPs rallied to their defence and many established figures on the Labour left simply looked the other way. Most importantly, the scandalous role of Jon Lansman’s Momentum in joining in and supporting the witch-hunt against comrades is well-known.6
However, since the election of Starmer this tendency towards compromise and surrender amongst supposed leftwing MPs and activists has been greatly strengthened. They have made their peace with Starmer and to prove their loyalty to the new regime they are not just joining in the witch-hunt, but actually initiating it! According to some reports and the evidence of social-media exchanges, some of the most active witch-hunters in the Wavertree case are supporters of Momentum, who now seem to be exceeding the Blairite right in their vicious zeal for a purge.
Whether in its old Lansmanite form or the ‘new, improved’ Momentum Renewal brand, this current is openly working with Starmer as his attack-dogs against the left.7 Many honest lefts in the party attribute this apparent shift to the right to opportunism, or suggest that Momentum has simply become a pathway to careerism and positions in the Labour movement for some of the activists who joined in the Corbyn era. Whilst this is undoubtedly true in many cases, the real malaise in the Labour left goes much deeper. If Momentum Renewal has openly gone over to the right, the tendency to compromise and adopt hopeful quietism in the face of the renewed purge amongst those in Forward Momentum, who seek to reclaim the Momentum brand for the left, is no real basis for defeating the witch-hunt.
This was Jeremy Corbyn’s tried and failed strategy, and it will not serve us any better in the era of Starmer. It is just the latest incarnation of the essential historical weakness of the Labour left - an existential unwillingness to fundamentally break with the pro-capitalist right and a desire to maintain ‘party unity’ at all costs - even if it means the sacrifice of good, principled comrades. Cases such as those of the four comrades from Liverpool Wavertree are clearly not just about individuals: they are simply one skirmish in the wider battle for the future control and direction of the party. It is a battle in which the left has been in headlong retreat, ceding vital positions to a resurgent right as it flees.
That retreat must stop now. As a petition in support of the Wavertree comrades puts it,
We will not be silenced! We will continue to oppose attempts to undermine party democracy, censor debate and to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. And we will continue to demand a disciplinary process that is fair, transparent and just - these latest attacks show how overdue that is. This fightback has only just begun - and will continue until the witch-hunt is defeated!8
‘Open second front now’ Weekly Worker February 14 2019.↩︎
‘Open second front now’ Weekly Worker February 14 2019.↩︎
‘Democratise the party’ Weekly Worker January 18 2018.↩︎