Rising tide of resistance
Oversubscribed and eager to fight. Clive Dean of Labour Party Marxists reports on a successful launch
Promoted by Labour Against the Witchhunt and Labour Left Alliance, the newly formed Campaign for Free Speech held an online launch rally on Saturday December 12. It was oversubscribed on Zoom and hundreds more watched the live stream on Facebook. So the organisers will certainly be pleased by the attendance.
With 14 speakers packed into four hours it was a very busy event, if rather frustrating. Audience participation was restricted to written questions, and from these a small number were selected for the speakers to answer in a short three-minute reply at the end of the session.
With a broad spread of speakers you get a range of political backgrounds. This can be a good thing, as each provides a fresh insight into the subject at hand. However, when the subject is free speech, the danger is that everyone has their own definition, and that contradictory red lines make for an illusory consensus. The organisers hope to clarify matters on January 23 when they hold a ‘building’ event, to amend and approve the ‘Draft Charter for Free Speech’1 and to explore ways to combat its suppression. It may not be plain sailing.
The first speaker was Graham Bash from the Labour Briefing. He described the current clampdown on free speech in the Labour Party as the worst he has known in 52 years as a member - even worse than under Tony Blair. He was inspired by the grassroots resistance in the party to the diktats from Keir Starmer and his general secretary, David Evans, despite the absence of a lead from the top. Eighty Constituency Labour Parties have passed motions in defiance of the ban on discussing the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the Parliamentary Labour Party and 235 CLP officers have signed the letter calling for the ‘not competent business’ rulings to be rescinded. Comrade Bash was determined to speak out against the oppression of the Palestinians by Israel, which he described as an apartheid state and a racist endeavour. It seems these opinions can no longer be tolerated in Labour, which has even banned a motion in support of a charity bike ride for Palestinian children.
The second speaker was Kerry Anne Mendoza, editor of the online media channel The Canary. She declared it is deeply insidious to see how the witch-hunt has weaponised the language and tools of anti-racism to further the cause of racism. She described how the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel has been declared anti-Semitic and outlawed in Germany. This means that no public-funded bodies there can support BDS as an expression of solidarity with the Palestinian cause. She drew a parallel with the Equality and Human Rights Commission intervention in the Labour Party here, which has created a legal precedent for suppressing free speech.
Next we heard from Jonathan Coulter, who was billed as representing Lib Dems for Free Speech. He told us that many leading figures in the Liberal Democrats are well aware of the lies and injustice associated with the witch-hunt in the Labour Party, but refuse to speak out due to tribal party loyalty. He described the anti-Semitism lie within Labour as part of a bigger problem, where the rightwing-controlled media is able to tell such lies unchallenged. But he called for a ‘broader campaign’, which would be supported by politicians like Ed Miliband and Kenneth Clarke. Some chance!
Next former Labour MP Chris Williamson raised the question of Julian Assange, who is about to spend his second Christmas locked up in Belmarsh prison, and is facing extradition to the USA in 2021 on espionage charges. He praised Julian’s record as a journalist shedding light on war crimes and demanded his immediate release. Comrade Williamson then identified sections of the secret state that interfere in British politics and drew attention to the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, which will allow security services to break the law while investigating us. He pointed out that freedom of speech is vital to any project to enhance democracy and transform society, and we all should have the right to speak the truth.
Next up was comrade Moshé Machover, a regular contributor to the Weekly Worker. Moshé described two “devices” that are used to curtail freedom of speech. First, the ‘safe spaces’ proposition, which sounds reasonable, but in reality gives privileged groups a licence not to hear unwelcome opinions. We see this currently in Labour, where Evans declares that the party must become “a safe space for Jewish members”. Of course, he does not mean all Jewish members - just those who feel uncomfortable when they hear anti-Zionist opinions. The second “device” described by comrade Machover is the big lie of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, and the fact that it is never quantified. The EHRC’s failure to document the scale of the problem proves that its report is unscientific and written in bad faith.
The final speaker in the first session was Craig Murray. He told us he is due to go on trial in January - charged with contempt of court for writing about … a trial. He regards the charges as politically motivated and a blatant attack on freedom of speech. There will be no jury and, if convicted, he faces up to two years in prison.
Craig also detailed how the Prevent programme has interfered with freedom of speech. Before its introduction he was frequently invited to speak at universities against the exaggeration of an Islamic terrorist threat, and against wars in the Middle East. However, such invitations have now dried up, because the scale of bureaucracy required to authorise such an event means they no longer happen. He then gave us some insight into how his journalist friends live with what they know is a total lie being served up to the British public. They know the anti-Semitism problem in the Labour Party isn’t real, but they also know it is their job to toe the line at work, and write what is required.
In answers to questions we learnt that Chris Williamson favours free speech for all, Craig Murray would ban racist speech while Kerry Anne Mendoza is aware that bans on hate speech can rebound and be used against the left.
The second session had a specific theme: the struggle against the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. First off was Tony Greenstein, another Weekly Worker regular. He informed us that it is not really a definition at all. It is designed to block criticism of Israel and Zionism, and label it as anti-Semitic - precisely the role it plays in the Labour Party. The IHRA ‘definition’ is therefore a threat to freedom of speech and we should reject it.
Next up was Kevin Bean, a member of the University and College Union. He told us that earlier this year education secretary Gavin Williamson wrote to vice-chancellors, urging them to adopt the IHRA ‘definition’. His letter contained an implied threat that otherwise funding may be cut and their ability to award degrees threatened. Williamson had also claimed that there was an anti-Semitism problem on campuses, and that if he did not see the overwhelming majority adopting the definition by Christmas “then I will act”. According to comrade Bean, just 29 out of 133 universities have followed Gavin Williamson’s edict, but usually the decision to adopt the definition was taken by managers rather than via the traditional pseudo-democratic university senate body. The UCU has a long record of opposing the IHRA definition, and recently wrote to Gavin Williamson rejecting his call. Branches were watching developments closely, ready to counter any restrictions to academic free speech.
Comrade Bean then drew attention to the recent conference on anti-Semitism hosted by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo. Included amongst the speakers from the UK were Michael Gove, John Mann and Luciana Berger, the former Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, where comrade Bean was a CLP officer before his suspension. The conference labelled anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements as anti-Semitic - along with any opposition to Israeli or US foreign policy. So the anti-Semitism weapon is being used to narrow what is acceptable in political discourse, and in general delegitimise ideas which threaten the status quo.
Leah Levane from Jewish Voice for Labour spoke next. She drew attention to the widespread opposition to the IHRA definition within Israel, and to articles on the JVL website that debunk the definition. We are told that it is widely accepted internationally, another myth. As a local Labour councillor speaking out against the definition, Leah revealed that she wonders when an email will arrive telling her that she too is being investigated or suspended.
Sami Ramadani from the Stop the War Coalition was a late addition to the platform. He referenced a similar big lie that was prevalent at the time of the Iraq war in 2003. This maintained that if you opposed the war then you were a supporter of the Saddam regime. This was problematic for Iraqis living in exile, and meant many of them stayed silent rather than risk speaking out against the war. Regarding the current anti-Semitism lie, he pointed out that this had been used to defeat the Labour left, and is now being extended to silence all anti-capitalist forces and those opposing US foreign policy.
The next speaker was Ronnie Kasrils, a former ANC minister in the South African government. He compared the anti-communist witch-hunt in apartheid South Africa to the anti-Semitism witch-hunt within Labour - astonishing, given Labour’s previous support for the anti-apartheid struggle, he said. What started with the suppression of free speech in South Africa led on to the outlawing of opposition and the emergence of the terrorist state. Here anti-Semitism is used as a shield to protect Israel and silence us; it is used to stigmatise the Palestinian cause and outlaw BDS. Ronnie described how both witch-hunts falsely accuse their opponents: the ANC supposedly wanted to drive the whites into the sea, while supporters of Palestine allegedly want to see the extinction of the Jewish people. The reality is that both struggles share the objective of changing an unjust system, not destroying a people.
Ronnie Kasrils was followed by Ronnie Barkan, a Jewish author and activist living in Berlin. His contribution revolved around two points: first, the discourse that ‘anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic’ is false, based on the conflation of Zionism with Judaism. And, second, that this false discourse is a distraction from the fight against war and oppression and for Palestinian rights. His contribution went into some detail to prove these points, but there were no direct references to the need for a campaign for free speech.
Steve Zeltzer spoke next. He explained that Zionism in America has a long history of collaboration with the state against socialist forces in the labour movement. Currently anti-terrorism laws in the US are being used to silence critics of Israel by closing down websites and preventing online meetings. He believed the correct response was not just to defend the victims of the witch-hunt, but for the labour movement to go on the offensive against Israel and in solidarity with Palestine.
The final speaker was Rowan Gaudet from Independent Jewish Voices (Canada). In 2019 IJVC launched its ‘No IHRA’ campaign to fight the adoption of the so-called definition. It was successful in some major cities and more recently a diverse coalition managed to block the new law in Ontario. But the definition was adopted anyway via an order in council.
At the end of the rally Tina Werkmann of LAW and the LLA declared that it had been the most inspirational meeting she had ever attended. I am afraid I cannot quite go along with that. Also it is necessary to recognise that much of the left will themselves struggle with free speech if it means tolerating speech attacks on ideas they hold dear. Can we agree to free speech for racists, homophobes, fascists …? We say ‘yes’. Others will say ‘no’.
But the good attendance and the international nature of the gathering were indeed positives - let us hope that more members of the Labour Party now appreciate that the struggle for socialism goes way beyond just replacing Keir Starmer and David Evans. We need to base ourselves on solid principles.