This is the transcript of a speech given by veteran Labour activist Graham Bash at a fringe meeting of the Scottish Labour Party Conference in Dundee in March 2019.
Comrades, I’m devastated that Chris Williamson has been suspended from the Labour Party. We are in a pivotal moment, at a tipping point.
The witch-hunt against the left has now claimed a leading parliamentary ally of Jeremy Corbyn. We are in the middle of another attempted coup – this time, possibly, a slow one – but it is gathering force, and the false and exaggerated allegations of antisemitism within the party will not stop unless and until Jeremy himself is either toppled or – and this is the immediate aim – taken prisoner by the right of our party. This coup is about re-establishing the primacy of the PLP against the members – and it is a coup supported by sections of the left itself, including the leadership of Momentum.
Chris has been suspended because he is one of the few Labour MPs to speak out against the smears, because he booked a room in Parliament to show the film ‘WitchHunt’ – about the witch-hunt in the party and the struggle of Palestinians for justice – and for what he said at a meeting of Sheffield Momentum. As an act of elementary solidarity I will now repeat those words – so if anyone is recording, turn on now! Speaking of the allegations that the party is overrun by antisemitism, he said, quote,
“The party that has done more to stand up to racism is now being demonised as a racist, bigoted party. I have got to say, I think our party’s response has been partly responsible for that because in my opinion we’ve backed off too much. We’ve given too much ground. We’ve been too apologetic. We’ve done more to address the scourge of antisemitism than any other political party.” Close quotes. My only criticism is that he was stating the bleedin’ obvious!
This speech came after General Secretary Jennie Formby released data about how the party had dealt with these allegations of antisemitism. I quote here from an article in the current issue of Labour Briefing.
“Jennie Formby’s data confirms that the grounds for the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and Labour have indeed been grossly exaggerated, and in some cases fabricated. Over the last ten months there were:
• 1,106 referrals of antisemitism allegations;
• 433 of these had nothing to do with party members, leaving 673 to be investigated;
• 220 of these were dismissed entirely for lack of evidence;
• this left 453 cases;
• 453 is 0.08% of the party’s 540,000 members – that’s about 1/12th of 1%;
• 96 of these resulted in suspensions – that’s 0.01%, or 1/100th of 1% of members;
• there were twelve expulsions – that’s 0.002%, or 1/500th of 1% of members!
• Margaret Hodge MP was informed by Jennie Formby that of the 200 dossiers she had submitted, only 20 were found to be by Labour Party members. In other words, her allegations of antisemitism in the party had been exaggerated tenfold. And single handedly she accounted for approaching one fifth of all referrals.”
Let’s be crystal clear. One case of antisemitism in the party is one too many but to quote from the article again, “This is not a wave, it is not even a ripple.”
In our Thanet and Sandwich Labour Party facebook page, one of our comrades, by no means on the left, said this:
“Gotta hand it to the LP. Every time I think they can’t get any more ridiculous, they manage to surprise me. What seems to be happening now is that it’s being considered antisemitic not just to say antisemitic things yourself, but to disagree with the LP about how accusations of antisemitism in others should be handled. It’s “meta-antisemitism” – the antisemitism that you commit by discussing antisemitism wrongly.”
The charge against Williamson was led by Tom Watson, the Deputy Leader and self-appointed overseer of complaints of antisemitism in the Labour Party. Watson is extremely unconcerned when it comes to racism against black people and Muslims. He went along with all New Labour’s anti-terrorism and Prevent measures.
He also abstained on Theresa May’s 2014 Immigration Act which introduced the ‘hostile environment policy’ which led to the deportation of hundreds of black people.
And what double standards! Only this Monday Siobhain Mcdonagh MP came out with a familiar trope – and she faces no sanction. Listen to this. When asked if the Labour Party was taking antisemitism seriously, she replied:
“I’m not sure that some people in the Labour Party can, because it’s very much part of their politics – of hard left politics – to be against capitalists, and to see Jewish people as the financers of capital”.
She is suggesting that all or many Labour Party members believe that banks are controlled by Jews, classic Protocols of the Elders of Zion territory. She draws the conclusion that, therefore, Labour’s critique of the financial casino activities that almost crashed the world economy is motivated by antisemitism. She owes the tens and hundreds of thousands of Party members who are campaigning for effective oversight of the banks a speedy and humble apology. Fighting for a fairer society and against inequality and austerity is not a symptom of antisemitism. McDonagh cannot be allowed to silence criticism of capitalism within a socialist party.
And then there’s Dame Margaret Hodge! As Jewish socialist David Rosenburg explained,
“She trivialises the Holocaust. After she went up to Corbyn in a pre-meditated act and called him a “fucking racist and antisemite”, she was reported to the LP by a third party who witnessed it. On receiving a letter to say that she had been reported (standard procedure following a complaint) she said it made her think of her father in Nazi Germany waiting for the knock on the door, thereby comparing the LP which she is privileged to represent, as akin to Nazis. We know all too well the horrific consequences of those who got that knock on the door in Nazi Germany, many of whom ended ultimately in death camps. Is she seriously saying that such consequences were being lined up for her?”
And she capitulated to the BNP. As David explains, she advocated a racist local housing policy in Barking where she was MP since 1994. Quotes “In the early 2000s, Labour supporters were defecting to the BNP. The BNP secured 12 council seats in Barking and Dagenham. Nine of them were in wards in her constituency. She tried to claw back BNP voters not by challenging their ideas but accommodating to them. Her housing policy prioritised “indigenous” needs over “migrants” needs”
Ok, rant part 1 almost over – for the moment
Now let me belatedly introduce myself.
I have been a Labour Party member for 50 years, now in South Thanet CLP. I was a founder of Labour Briefing some 38 years ago, a founder of the Labour Representation Committee, a founder of Labour Against the War. All of these were my way of surviving the New Labour years.
But today I speak in a different capacity – as someone who is Jewish and a proud founder member – and now an officer – of Jewish Voice for Labour. This is an organisation of Jews in the Labour Party which is non-Zionist and does not insist on support for Israel as a condition of membership.
I know what antisemitism is. And I don’t accept lectures on antisemitism from those who have neither experienced it or fought it. I will not exaggerate my experience. I did not suffer discrimination or exclusion in the way that black and Asian people still do. But I did suffer prejudice.
How many times as a child was I told that Hitler should have finished the job and sent the Jews to the gas chambers – I was told that when I was six. I was told that you Jews killed our Jesus and laughed at when I tried to patiently explain that Jesus was a Jewish leader – yes, I was already a political activist at six! How many times have I had to walk out of football grounds when fans of my own team – West Ham – were singing “I never felt more like gassing the Jews”.
My experience of antisemitism -especially when I was young – made me feel an outsider, a feeling I’ve never lost. I also learned lessons from my father about fighting the fascists at Cable Street in East London in the 1930s – how the Jewish East End in alliance with the dockers and other sections of the labour movement, stopped Mosley’s fascist thugs. And these experiences – and learning about the traditions of Jewish socialism – led me into anti-racist struggles, made me a socialist internationalist and, at the age of 19, I joined the Labour Party.
I have been a member of eight different constituency parties and my experience over half a century is that I have rarely encountered any antisemitism in the party. Indeed it has been a safe haven for me, a refuge.
I have come across antisemitism in the party only once – in Hackney North where an idiot came out with antisemitic filth, the secretary called for his eviction from the meeting, it was passed unanimously and he was never seen again.
I am sensitive to antisemitism, I have a sixth sense about it. I know what antisemitism is and I also know what it isn’t.
So what is the problem? There was no problem until the lifelong anti-racist Jeremy Corbyn became leader. His predecessor as leader Ed Miliband was Jewish and the main challenger to Ed was his brother David, also Jewish. Clearly all these antisemites in the party were doing rather a poor job.
Jeremy became leader and it all started. He was a threat – a threat of course to the right wing of the party because he was a socialist, and – because of his pro-Palestinian credentials – a threat to supporters of the state of Israel. JC becomes leader and – all of a sudden – the party has a major problem with antisemitism
The Labour Party is part of society – the best part of society in my opinion – but part of society nonetheless. Of course there are examples of antisemitism in the party but from my experience it is under-represented in the party – just as you would expect, just as the data reveals.
What we have seen is a pincer attack with sections of the right wing joining up with pro-Israel supporters and manufacturing a crisis that largely does not exist. And they do it by conflating antisemitism with anti-Zionism. And a lot of this has been done with the full support of the Jewish Labour Movement – an affiliated organisation of the party that is Zionist in its constitution and supports Israel.
So who are the main victims of this campaign to malign the LP as antisemitic in what has become a witch-hunt?
Firstly Jews, anti-Zionist Jews, such as Moshe Machover, renowned 82 year old Jewish Israeli professor of philosophy, Glyn Secker, secretary of JVL, a lifelong anti-racist – both suspensions lifted within a few days – and my partner Jackie Walker, suspended for two and a half years, with her trial at last fixed for March 26th and 27th and awaiting expulsion.
Secondly black anti-racist activists, such as Marc Wadsworth, expelled and Jackie again. And thirdly, probably the best anti-racist leader this party has ever produced – Ken Livingstone, forced out for daring to examine the history of the Haavara agreement in the 1930s by which some Zionist organisations played a role in breaking the anti-Hitler trade boycott that threatened to bring the new Nazi regime to its knees. And now Chris Williamson.
Why does this witch-hunt matter?
Because it is used to undermine the best leader this party has ever had.
Because it is a diversion from the fight against the Tories and their austerity programme.
Because it is used to conflate antisemitism with anti-Zionism and silence criticism of the state of Israel, and advocacy for Palestinian rights and close down discussion on key historical issues.
Because it separates antisemitism from all other forms of racism and obscures the racism against black and Asians which structurally excludes them from power in society and within our party.
Because it is a slur on my party – our party – which has a proud record of fighting all forms of racism.
Above all, I believe, as someone who has experienced antisemitism, it hinders the fight against antisemitism itself. This is particularly odious – the way false allegations of antisemitism are being used for factional interest. It is an abuse of the memory of all victims of antisemitism and racism – and if we do not put an end to this it will come back to haunt us.
It is argued that to criticise the Jewish state is to attack a fundamental part of Jewish identity. Well it is for some. But what if, like me, it is not part of your identity?
Let me say what happened at the JLM training session at the 2016 Labour Party conference which led to Jackie Walker’s second suspension. It wasn’t Jackie who made the sharpest intervention at this session, it was me. The trainer said it was ok for people to criticise the Israeli government but not acceptable to challenge the legitimacy of the Jewish state.
So I said – and anyone with a hotline to the Compliance Unit – turn your recorder on again – I said that as an internationalist Jew I opposed the Jewish state because under the Law of Return it gave me a greater right to live in Israel than those Palestinians who were evicted, dispossessed and ethnically cleansed. This was not just a criticism of the current right wing extremist government of Israel. It was a criticism of the Jewish state itself as these crimes were committed by the founding fathers of the state who were of course Labour Zionists. Was this, I asked the trainer, in your eyes a legitimate criticism or does this come within your definition of antisemitism?
He could not answer. He could not deal with what was behind my question – that many Jewish socialists cannot support Israel as it is a racist state based on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians – rather than a state for its citizens. Jackie was singled out, not me, though my challenge was greater. I wonder why.
Having witnessed the racist abuse to which she has been subjected – I can only guess.
They have tried to silence us. They have failed. And the level of support for the resolution on Palestine at last year’s conference is testimony to that. The opposition to the state of Israel, support for the BDS boycott movement internationally is growing. And it is growing in the Labour Party too as JVL continues to grow.
So where are we now?
First a sense of perspective. What happened in September 2015 – when Jeremy won the leadership – was a shifting of the tectonic plates.
Remember where we were. Ed Miliband had lost the May 2015 election. New Labour’s knives were out. The candidates to replace him were so awful that some in the LRC and Briefing were even suggesting we support Andy Burnham!
And then at a Campaign Group meeting in Parliament they went through the options for the left. Some unnamed genius suggested Jeremy Corbyn. He was seen as such a no-hoper that sufficient centre and right MPs in the PLP were persuaded to nominate him and with seconds to spare he scraped onto the ballot paper. One of those – Margaret Beckett – later in a moment of regret referred to herself as a moron. She was right.
It was clear to many of us that if JC got on the ballot paper he would be a strong candidate. I remember saying this at a meeting in Ramsgate a couple of days before the close of nominations and was laughed at. But why the change?
In part the morons had forgotten the change in the electoral system for electing the Labour leader passed after Miliband’s Collins review. Now it was one member one vote – no electoral college, no votes for MPs and now votes for registered supporters. It was one member one vote for affiliated trade union members as well. So confident were the right, so dismissive of the left, that they had forgotten the words of Richard Crossman half a century ago that the right keeps control of the Labour Party in two ways – it was the independence of the PLP and the trade union block vote which kept them in power
But it wasn’t just a historical accident that won it for JC.
Something strange was happening in the world outside. In Greece, the rise of Syriza, in Spain, Podemos, and in the United States, Bernie Sanders. The years of stability and had been broken by the economic crisis of 2008.
It is conditions that determine consciousness. Just as the First World War was the precondition for the Russian Revolution, the 1929 Crash the precondition for Hitler’s rise to power, so too – at a lower level no doubt, at least for the moment – the 2008 crash undermined the stability that sustained New Labour and moderate bourgeois governments and brought in its wake the radical movements of the left and populist movements of the right.
Once the morons gave us the opening, it was there for the taking. And we were bold and we seized the moment. Happy memories of putting out our stall on Broadstairs sea front with our applications forms for registered supporters – Vote JC for Labour leader, £3 a vote. And they came and they voted – and the other candidates suddenly had feet of clay.
And a similar thing happened with the general election of 2017 – Jeremy surrounded by a hostile PLP which had tried to mount a coup against him, somehow surviving but looking weak. Then another bold move – the manifesto, far to the left of anything we could have anticipated. For the Many, not the Few! Battle was joined, this time it was the Tories – not New Labour – with feet of clay. The outcome was Jeremy stronger, a Corbyn government in waiting. A minority Tory government – sustained by the DUP – almost broken by the election campaign, in political meltdown. Their manifesto promises are dead. Their Tory, red, white and blue Brexit is dead. A weak Tory government that must replace its leader before the next election.
We had destroyed the argument from all sections of the right that a radical programme is incompatible with electoral success.
When Jeremy won the Labour leadership the odds were always massively against us.
We were fighting:
• the state, with veiled threats by generals to overturn a democratically elected Labour government;
• the media, with relentless attacks and ridicule;
• the Tories;
• the undemocratic structures and rules of the Party, with the right wing dominated Compliance Unit – another party within a party – being used to suspend hundreds of Corbyn supporters;
• and all this in the context of a vote on Brexit that put Labour between a rock and a hard place and the near death of Labour Scotland that would take years to recover from, whoever was Labour leader.
• AND the PLP, shamefully refusing to accept the party’s overwhelming verdict, briefing against Jeremy, forcing a second leadership contest, acting as a party within a party and fearing a Corbyn government more than another Tory government.
Unlike, say, Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy had to operate day-to-day in a parliamentary framework, putting together a parliamentary opposition within a hostile PLP. He and John McDonnell were embattled on the front line from the very start.
The only possible way to fight against such powerful opposition forces was to build an anti-establishment insurgency from below.
But this was not the late ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s, when the working class in Britain was powerful – so powerful that Heath called an election in 1974 on the theme of “who rules, the government or the unions”, and lost!
We have suffered decades of defeat since the miners’ strike. Although Jeremy’s victory reflected in part a genuine disaffection from below against austerity and neo-liberalism –part of an international movement, such as in Spain, Greece and the US – at the same time our movement was at a low ebb. That was a key contradiction – between the rise of the most left wing leadership in Labour’s history and the low ebb of class struggle.
Our task was to rebuild the movement, utilising our leadership of the party to help do so. It needed a democratic grassroots movement that would have to try – openly and transparently – to transform the party itself. That insurgency had to be a radical crusade against the establishment and an authentic voice for the dispossessed.
But here was and is the conflict – how to achieve that while at the same time achieving some unity within the PLP and shadow cabinet sufficient to keep the parliamentary opposition on the road. There were two aims – party unity and the building of a radical, democratic grassroots movement. How could the two opposites be reconciled?
And this is the nub of the problem. That tension – exacerbated by the political degeneration and incorporation of Momentum – has now reached a point of separation. I feel for Jeremy – especially after the split by the gang of nine. He has almost impossible choices – fearing another parliamentary split off that could make a general election victory – even against this weak, split, crisis-ridden Tory government – desperately difficult.
And yet – to abandon the radical grassroots movement to the power of the parliamentary party – is to give up in advance on the chance of a lifetime of achieving a radical Labour government.
Our leaders cannot hope to carry out a programme to transform the country without a mass movement behind it – a movement rooted in our communities and, through that, wired into our Constituency Labour Parties.
A Corbyn government that sticks to its guns will face the might of the establishment, probably economic sabotage, a flight of capital – and we need to develop a response, a programme, policies, for a radical Labour government. We need to build from below to sustain a Corbyn government, and where possible, go beyond its excellent but limited manifesto. Or else, lacking programme and base, we will go the way of Syriza, tossed aside by the power of capital, whatever our good intentions.
Have no doubt, the left is on the back foot, but it is not too late to reverse that tide.
Our task is to be both supportive and independent of our leaders – free from their pressures, speaking truth to power.
And to do so, we need to reclaim the same radical spirit and unity that won us the leadership that long three and a half years ago. We need to embody the spirit of those who have fought against oppression, in Jackie Walker’s words, – “black and white, Jew and gentile” – united in the struggle for a better world.