Category Archives: British Labour party

Book Review: Protest and Power in the Labour Party


There’s a genre of journalism that consists of interviews with political actors to produce an apparent “behind-the-scenes” look at the politics of power. Bob Woodward, for example, has written a number of volumes about the American presidency that chronicle internal dissensions in the White House – but do not leave us much the wiser about the true significance of the power struggle. The author tends not to account for the gap between the stated intentions of politicians and the historical outcome of their actions.

This approach, then, has considerable limitations. None of them are overcome in David Kogan’s new book, Protest and Power: The Battle for the Labour Party. He presents a history of ideological conflicts within the party as a Game of Thrones struggle for supremacy, where the terrain being fought over is the party leadership. The book’s dustjacket promises a revelation of “Corbyn’s long march to take control of Labour” (Robert Peston); how the left “turned decades of protest into the once unthinkable – the prospect of power” (Nick Robinson); and “the political drama of the popular uprising that is Corbyn’s Labour party” (Jon Lansman).

But anyone looking for insights into the dynamic of the disputes within today’s Labour party will be sorely disappointed. Kogan’s superficial assessment of the party’s condition is that it is splintered in multiple ways, between Corbyn’s alleged machine politics and the new membership, as well as between leavers and remainers. Kogan’s top-down analysis, made inevitable by his method of interviewing established political performers rather than actual party members, avoids situating his interviews in a more objective description of relations between the party tops and the grassroots.

What the recent Panorama documentary about anti-semitism within Labour demonstrated was the existence of a tight-knit clique of young apparatchiks in the party’s compliance unit, most of whom came out of student politics, and who were linked by their determined hostility to Corbyn and their claims that the party is institutionally antisemitic. The subsequent ideological fallout has confirmed once again that what is driving the rifts in the party today is the tension between the bulk of the parliamentary party, aided by the party bureaucracy, on the one hand, and the empowered membership on the other.

Kogan assumes a historical logic of repetition, where the intra-party conflicts inevitably reproduce what came before. He writes: “The different elements of the Labour movement in the mid-seventies: the big tent centrists, the pragmatic center-right, the Tribunite soft-left and the New Left have never really gone away, they have just taken different forms over the decades.”  Kogan’s thesis is that there is a continuity of the Labour left from the 1970s to the present that managed unexpectedly to attract majority support within the party in 2015. The huge growth in party membership after Corbyn’s election, he says, does not alter the value of Labour’s history in assessing its future prospects. In fact, he implies that the influx of new members was absorbed into the party’s structures with no noticeable effect on the leadership which “learned its politics in the 1970s and 1980s,” at the genesis of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) in 1973.

The result of Kogan’s approach is a narrative that is remarkably bland, a flattening-out of the historical process. He writes that the competing groups “have seen Labour’s pendulum swing from the centrist governments of the 1960s and 1970s, to the first manifestation of the New Left between 1978 and 1982, and back to the centre under New Labour in the 1990s. New Labour had thirteen years in government until 2010 when it was repudiated first by the country and then by the party. In 2015 the left rose again, reincarnated by the veterans of the 1980s who used the new, powerful engine of social media to elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader.”

This talking-heads form of journalism leads Kogan to accept uncritically the establishment narrative in the guise of a “definitive account.” New Labour’s electoral defeat and ousting from the party leadership is framed by a quote from Blairite Peter Mandelson that explains it as merely the result of the breakup of the “progressive alliance” between the northern working class and socially liberal southern middle class, triggered by divisions over the Iraq war.

Where the narrative picks up is when it tells the story of Corbyn’s election as party leader, when individual decisions and opinions meshed with a dynamic movement. Even so, his account is curiously one-sided, and decidedly inferior to Alex Nunns’ The Candidate. Corbyn’s popularity among the young was a complete surprise, he writes: nobody could have foreseen “the impact of Corbyn’s appeal to the young who had never been in the Labour party.” He mentions as a kind of aside that “this was the generation that, since 2010, had suffered from hikes in tuition fees, cuts in benefits and the overall impact of austerity.” And he adds his own assessment of its significance: “It was a prime target market if it could be reached”  – in other words, a demographic that could be manipulated, rather than a generation with its own self-consciousness and agency. Austerity, which had spawned a number of active protest groups, was simply a political influencing factor, not a reality for masses of people.

Kogan ignores the social content of the “Corbyn movement” because he sees it as merely a rerun of the Bennite left’s struggle with the party right. In fact, what was new in the movement was that it represented a fusion of the Bennite appreciation of the importance of extra-parliamentary struggles with the enthusiasm and horizontal democracy of anti-austerity movements like Occupy, UK Uncut and the antiglobalisation protests of the 2000s.

The movement was unleashed after Corbyn’s nomination for the party leadership united loyal party members, older members who had left the party in disgust with New Labour, and the new social movements in his support. Voting for Corbyn became a way to express political hostility to the Westminster political establishment that denied representation for the victims of austerity. The key factors in his election were not the manoeuvring and organising of Corbyn’s close supporters, which gets highlighted in Kogan’s account, but the radicalisation of the membership at the base and the rapid politicisation of the anti-austerity movement after Corbyn’s candidacy was announced. These fused around his ethical socialist message, which resonated in the heart of the labour movement.

Jon Lansman’s description of Corbyn campaigning is interesting, but doesn’t go far to explain what the social movement was all about; Lansman took it for granted that there was finally a mass left movement, but he understood it in terms of the old Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. Corbyn’s campaign message, says Lansman, “was anti-austerity, it was hope. It was not triangulation. It was politics that inspired.” But he characterises it as a repeat of the Bennite arguments: “You know, the people could feel enthusiastic, refreshed by things they’d never heard before; it was from twenty years before they were born. So, even if they were old ideas, the alternative economic strategy hadn’t had a hearing for decades.”

The pitfalls of taking participants’ words at face value is shown by Kogan’s acceptance of Lansman’s account of the history of Momentum. While Lansman himself was focused on organisational structure, the other founders “wanted it to be a totally horizontal organisation, totally anarchic.” He admits that in 2015 he was still thinking in terms of a larger CLPD that would support Corbyn at the constituency level, but he and his colleagues moved closer together after the “chicken coup” of 2016 that made Momentum more prominent in the Labour party.

The opportunism of the attempted coup against Corbyn is inadvertently illustrated in an interview with right-wing MP Margaret Hodge. She says “Corbyn was blamed for the referendum going wrong. It felt like an opportune moment in which to move against him.” But the effect of the coup’s announcement was to energise the membership to defend Corbyn in a second leadership election. Momentum leaders were able to organise a mass demonstration of support in Parliament Square in a matter of hours, and quickly doubled its own membership, becoming a force within the party in only a few months. However, Lansman controlled the mailing lists and shifted its membership structure from the delegate system it had initially adopted to one-member-one-vote. His rationale was to prevent Momentum from becoming embroiled in internal fighting over an independent political line, and he steered the organisation to changing the Labour party itself through influencing parliamentary and functionary selections.

A new constitution was devised in secret and emailed to Momentum’s members that required them to become members of the Labour party, the national committee was abolished and replaced with a Labour-only coordinating group. An online mode of organisation without a regional structure was created specifically to curb the influence of the sectarian left. In other words, Lansman circumvented the perennial desire of left activists for an alternative socialist grouping that would challenge Labour from the outside by making Momentum an element within the party. This bureaucratic manoeuvre was temporarily effective but did not resolve the underlying tension between the leadership and the grassroots.

If we look at that history from the viewpoint of those grassroots, we find that Momentum groups sprang up autonomously around the second leadership election in 2016, independent of the national body. The national organisation was formed after the event to coordinate these groups. Momentum was able to successfully organise interventions in national elections because it broadly facilitated what its members wanted to do anyway. But grassroots members are still chafing at the way decisions are being taken by Lansman personally without consultation, and have strong disagreements with some of his interventions in party disciplinary actions and statements on antisemitism in the party.

Kogan’s top-down approach seriously misleads him when he asserts that “Jon Lansman’s challenge to Unite in March over the Labour party general secretaryship was an example of the grassroots challenging the unions over a key post”. Momentum’s leadership is not a synonym for the grassroots, and Lansman’s claim to represent it was not supported by any kind of democratic vote within his organisation. His rhetoric was part of a campaign to win support away from the Unite-backed candidate Jennie Formby, risking a split in the left vote that could have seen a right-winger elected. He was eventually forced to withdraw after one of his supporters, Christine Shawcroft, called for the party to sever its connection with the unions, creating a monumental backlash from those same grassroots. John McDonnell had to declare explicit support for Formby before Lansman abandoned his candidature, and reportedly Corbyn also called Lansman personally about it.

Since Kogan’s claim to originality lies in his interviews with many of the key Labour figures of the last 40 years, it is a shame that he develops no theoretical framework that would situate their views more concretely in the party’s history. None of his interviewees reveal much about what they were involved in. But that is to be expected when asking politicians about their past – more critical analysis of their responses would be needed to avoid being taken in by their self-justifying rationalisations, and Kogan has not done the historical research this would require.

David Kogan, Protest and Power: The Battle for the Labour Party (Bloomsbury, 2019)

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Filed under Anti-austerity, Britain, British Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, labour mp's, Labour Party, political analysis, Uncategorized

The lesson of European parliamentary elections: Tax the rich!


mason

The prominent left journalist Paul Mason has rightly been taken to task for his unprincipled attack on senior members of the Labour leadership after the party’s disappointing results in the European parliamentary elections.

But the content of his article deserves a more detailed analysis. He makes the panicky claim that “We have to begin from the facts: the struggle against rightwing authoritarianism and fascism is now the main priority.” Of course, it’s important to struggle against rightwing authoritarianism. But the only facts he references are the large vote for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. He conveniently forgets the utter humiliation of the extreme rightwing Islamophobe “Tommy Robinson” in the Northwest, who slunk off from the count rather than face the tiny vote for him in this working-class stronghold.

Prof. John Curtice assesses the vote as showing the country is equally divided for and against Brexit – so nothing much has changed materially since the referendum in 2016. What has changed is the complete disintegration of the Tory party’s vote: Farage was able to hoover up its disaffected voters as well as those of the dying UKIP he abandoned. The election result is not evidence of a sudden rise in xenophobia: the bulk of the Brexit party’s voters are the same people who always voted for the right.

It got support in Labour heartlands because the statements of a number of Labour MPs gave the impression that the referendum vote would be overturned, allowing Farage to present himself as defending a democratic decision. As Skwawkbox commented: “To working-class leave voters who voted leave because they were sick to death of feeling ignored and discounted – and who feel even more ignored and discounted by media and politicians looking to prevent the enactment of their vote – that message resonated.”

Labour also lost voters to the Liberal Democrats because they took a clear anti-Brexit position. However, it is not clear they would stick with the LibDems in a general election, given their association with the Tory coalition government. Their call for a second referendum obfuscates the fact that the social conditions that motivated people to vote Leave have not just persisted, they have gotten worse.

Theresa May’s tearful resignation as Tory leader marks the collapse of her party’s hegemony in the UK. Her indifference to her own dismal record is not a personal characteristic, but is shared by her entire party. Although the proximate cause is the failure of the government’s Brexit negotiations to arrive at a deal that both factions of the party could agree on, the roots of the crisis go back to the 2008 banking crash.

Austerity after 2010 began to dismantle the core of the welfare state that was the foundation of parliamentary legitimacy and national identity. Oblivious to the social effects of austerity policies, Cameron called the referendum when parts of the UK were already profoundly alienated from Westminster representation.

The referendum unleashed social forces that turned a Tory political project into a constitutional crisis. Cameron originally called it to counter the electoral threat from the anti-EU party UKIP, which was attracting support from the ultra-right of the Tories and its voters who were blaming immigration for welfare cuts. The narrow victory of the Leave vote, however, transformed his attempt to deflect the political cost of austerity into a crisis of governmental legitimacy, and Cameron immediately resigned. The vote cut across party lines, superseded the constitutional sovereignty of parliament, and threw its authority into disarray. The majority for Brexit was thus a signal of the disintegration of consensus, not an aberration or the result of a rise in racism.

Mason has imperiously written off Brexit voters as supporting a project of the “racist and xenophobic right.” But the referendum Leave vote gathered those who were signalling disaffection with the Westminster elite that had devastated their communities. The rhetoric of national sovereignty and “taking back control” had a resonance for many working-class voters who wanted a restoration of the 1950s economy and welfare state, symbolized by the Leave campaign’s cynical slogan of returning £350 million per week from the EU to the NHS.

Mason’s prescription for winning back “socially conservative” voters from ex-industrial towns is “to fight personal insecurity, crime, drugs, antisocial behaviour and organised crime as enthusiastically as it fights racism. It needs to sideline all voices who believe having a strong national security policy is somehow ‘imperialist’. It needs to forget scrapping Trident.” Essentially he holds that the antidote to pro-Brexit views is to return to the failed politics of New Labour, forgetting that New Labour’s record in these ex-industrial towns is as tarnished as the Tories’, since both encouraged the financialisation of the economy that drained resources away from these areas to the Southeast.

What was Corbyn’s mistake? In Mason’s opinion, it was “an attempt at triangulation between two wings of Corbynism: between the demands of an economic nationalist current from the old left, and the internationalist and progressive politics embedded in Labour’s new urban heartlands.” He is attempting to pit the sources of Corbynism against each other, as though nothing new was created out of the fusion of anti-austerity protesters with the legacy of Bennism that led to Corbyn’s election as party leader. One of the fruits of this fusion was the successful 2017 election manifesto. Since then Corbynism has developed creative policies that address how to deal with the power of transnational capital.

It is true that Labour’s position of uniting both leavers and remainers on the grounds of their shared experience of austerity is hard to explain on the doorstep, in the context of a political discourse that drowns out everything but Brexit. In the next general election, a simpler position needs to be developed that places the blame for the realities facing both sections of society more squarely on those responsible. I’m going to suggest: “Tax the rich!” In order to restore and rebuild communities in Britain, the economic elite must be made to pay back the social resources they have leached out of privatization of necessities and fraudulent contracts.

The way to win the war against the right is to campaign on the message: “Rebuild our towns! Rebuild the NHS! Tax the rich!”

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Book Review: “Corbynism, A Critical Approach” Part One


Jeremy Corbyn has become the symbol for everything the British establishment loves to hate. The media mounts sustained attacks on him, the army uses his image for target practice, and Labour centrists smear his record with accusations of antisemitism. On the ideological front, academics Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts have recently produced a highly critical account of Corbyn and the Corbyn movement, in which their interpretation is sustained by an apparently “Marxist” logic.

Part One: Is Corbyn a populist?

The two authors previously published an article in the New Statesman that argued antisemitism in the Labour party was the logical outcome of a critique of capitalism that framed it as a conspiracy of the economic elite, citing the idiosyncratic views of the Canadian theorist Moishe Postone. Their book, Corbynism: A Critical Approach, extends this argument much further, claiming that Corbynism rests on a populist understanding of capitalist society that stresses the divisions between “us” and the elite. Corbyn, they say, fills a “symbolic space” carved out by the economic and political collapse after the 2008 banking crash. His “depoliticised image of moral exceptionalism” became attractive to the Labour membership because of “the particularly moralistic way in which the broad liberal-left came to terms with both the 2008 financial crash and the Tory program of public spending cuts that followed.”

The symbolic space they describe is large enough to include a diverse array of populist movements: Occupy, UK Uncut, Bernie Sanders, Trump’s voters, and more bizarrely an “austerity nostalgia” that the authors say accounts for the election of Cameron’s Tory government (ignoring the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote). But grouping together all these movements as somehow equivalent distracts from their specific nature and the social realities underlying them. Corbyn’s support is characterized as a left populist movement marshaled behind Bennite “economic protectionist” policies, expressing the zeitgeist of “a certain kind of society,” Corbyn himself being “a kind of cipher for a wider political moment.”

The problem with their analysis is that they view the social responses to the 2008 crash as an unreflective populist reflex, when in reality there are always a series of complex mediations between the contingencies of any specific political moment and the logic of capitalist economy. The protests against austerity cuts and UK Uncut’s campaign against tax evasion were clearly part of the wider political moment, but were mediated by a cultural sense of fairness, distinguishing them radically from, say, the Republican “tea party.” In the same way, when the Labour membership rejected the leadership of New Labour and moved towards an anti-austerity alternative, its response to inequality was mediated by its conception of what Labour should stand for. The authors discount the agency of the membership: it favoured Corbyn not because of his moral exceptionalism but because of his ethical socialism. This was an expression of his politics maintained over many years that aligned him with the shift in the party, as well as with anti-austerity protestors and returning ex-members.

The significance of this return to ethical socialism is that it continues a long tradition of the labour movement. In his book, Losing Labour’s Soul? Labour historian Eric Shaw clarifies how New Labour, while retaining the social democratic principle of redistribution, had abandoned ethical socialism in its policies and practice. “The ethical socialist criticised capitalism not simply because it distributed resources in a grossly unequal manner but because it extolled the values of acquisitiveness, ruthless competitiveness and individual aggrandisement, all derived from the market mentality and market practices.” The welfare state was intended to be insulated from market forces and to embody the values of public service, solidarity, altruism and cooperation. This notion of the “public service ethos” had survived the decline of the industrial working class because it was “historically deeply embedded in both the ideology and the culture of the Labour party.”

Corbyn’s election as party leader validates Shaw’s argument; his appeal to the membership derives substantially from his rehabilitation of ethical socialist values against New Labour’s market philosophy. These values are clearly apparent when Corbyn describes socialism as a type of society where “we each care for all, everybody caring for everybody else,” appealing to a strongly-held popular desire for social support that seeks to restore collectivist priorities. In his speech to the 2017 party conference, he criticized the Tories not only for driving down wages, but also for their promotion of ruthless competitiveness and individual acquisitiveness: “their disregard for rampant inequality, the hollowing out of our public services, the disdain for the powerless and the poor have made our society more brutal and less caring.”

At the 2015 Labour party conference, Corbyn posited the unifying ideal of “shared majority British values” such as “fair play for all,” defined against the selfish individualism of hedge fund-backed Tory leaders, and attributed his election to the idea of “a kinder politics and a more caring society.” New Yorker correspondent Sam Knight also noticedthe appeal of Corbyn’s ethical approach to the broader left-leaning public. After his first speech for Labour’s pro-EU campaign at the University of London in 2016, a student asked about the refugee crisis in Europe. “The crisis has flummoxed leaders on the left and the right, from Berlin to Athens,” wrote Knight, “but Corbyn didn’t need to think. ‘They are all human beings, just like you and me,’ he said. ‘In a different set of circumstances, we could all be in those refugee camps.’ When he speaks simply and off the cuff, Corbyn can have the moral clarity of a priest. The room broke into loud applause.”

Ethical socialists sought to integrate the community through a sense of belonging and shared fate. While the revisionist right concluded in the 1950s that the future of social democracy was tied to the efficient management of the capitalist economy, Shaw maintains that the vision of ethical socialism persisted insofar as its values were embodied in the universalist aspects of the welfare state, which both secured a fairer distribution of life-chances and “a mode of human interaction in which people related and behaved towards each other as equals in a spirit of mutual respect.” One important corollary to this principle for Labour is that basic needs should be filled by public organizations. The idea that the public domain should be insulated from market forces and commercial competition became central to social democratic thought. The maintenance of a large and expanding public sphere, governed by an ethos of public service, came therefore to be seen as the principal institutional expression of ethical socialist values, according to Shaw.

The National Health Service, then, forms an oasis of ethical socialism in a capitalist society and has taken on the responsibility for the overall well-being of the public, even though that is not what was intended at its foundation. The reluctance of Thatcherite governments to dismantle it and its current centrality in public opposition to privatization is a testament to the persistence of the social change begun in 1945. New Labour, Shaw says, shed this socialist tradition when its introduction of the market principle into the public domain “represented an explicit effort to re-engineer the culture of the public sector and to lessen the role of professional norms in favour of market or instrumental rationality.” For Bolton and Pitts, this is only normal, since they believe “we live in a world structured and socially reproduced as and by capital, a social relation which exists as a world market” so that “local wealth only appears as such through its validation as social, or global, wealth.” They make the assumption that use-values needed to maintain life are only accessible through the global market, as though they all have to pass through the portals of Amazon. Trade therefore can and must be extended globally, not limited to the national or local community.

This assumption is a misapplication of the labour theory of value. It the basis of their objection to Corbyn’s stress on the shared process involved in wealth creation, which he called “a cooperative process between workers, public investment in services and … innovative and creative individuals and businesses.” The wealth Corbyn is referring to takes the form of products needed by society, in technical terms use-values, the consolidation of productive capacity that includes the workforce rather than the accumulation of money. However, the authors comment: “The wealth Corbyn talks about here … in capitalism takes the form of value,” and as such has to be mediated in the world market. Since they consider that in a capitalist society “the fulfilment of social needs and the need to make profit exist in an inseparable contradiction,” the authors equate all forms of wealth-creation with abstract labour, which is validated as wealth in the market, so that for them “labour and capital are two sides of the same coin.” In effect, they extend the sway of capitalist logic into all forms of social life.

They assert that Corbynism naturalizes concrete labour, regarding it as “production as such,” or “the means by which humans interact with the external world in order to satisfy their needs, existing in the same way across history.” But human needs still have to be satisfied, even under capitalism: concrete labour is only part of capital circulation if it is engaged in producing commodities to be sold on the market, in which case it takes on the form of abstract labour. Socialism, from Corbyn’s point of view, has the aim of organizing production for society’s needs and removing it from the sphere of capital circulation. This does not necessarily mean a totally state-controlled national economy – the NHS, for example, has survived up until now as an institution oriented to people’s need for healthcare and not an insurance-based market. The political pressure for privatization of the NHS is precisely to return it to the ambit of the market and make the efforts of doctors and nurses subject to “globally mediated” abstract labour.

To give another example, workers who installed badly-fitting windows, faulty fire doors and combustible insulation on Grenfell Tower were engaged in labour that contributed to the creation of surplus value realized by the subcontractors, contractors and manufacturers involved in the refurbishment. The firefighters who courageously attempted to contain the fire and then risked their lives to rescue people after the initial instructions for them to stay put in their flats were rescinded were, however, from the point of view of capital, engaging in labour that had no value.

Bolton and Pitts further confuse the nature of labour when they critique the “Preston model,” often cited by Corbyn as an example of how Labour policy might work, which uses the procurement policy of locally-based “anchor” institutions such as hospitals and universities to favour local supply chains, local businesses and cooperatives. They describe it analogous to what they call Bennite national “protectionism,” which they consider reactionary in the face of international trade and production. However, if the surplus value produced in a community is redirected into local supply chains, the model provides more jobs and local control over the economy, it increases the tax base for local services and keeps wealth in the form of both money and use-values within the community. It answers corporate disinvestment in a way that the building of an Amazon warehouse would not. The Preston model is not socialism: but it has in practice increased democratic participation, reduced unemployment in the city, and strengthened the hand of the labour movement in its struggle against local deprivation and central government cuts.

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Ilhan Omar and Chris Williamson: A Tale of Two Parties


omar

It’s very instructive to compare the difference in treatment of Minnesota Democratic representative Ilhan Omar (above) and Derby North MP Chris Williamson. While Omar got crucial support from within her party in defence of her right to speak out about the influence of the Israel lobby (AIPAC) in Washington, Williamson was pilloried by the Labour party deputy leader Tom Watson and hung out to dry by centrist MPs when he defended the reputation of the party against accusations of being “institutionally antisemitic.”

The Democratic leadership of the House had drafted a resolution condemning anti-Semitism in what was seen as a direct rebuke of remarks Omar was alleged to have made. But other Democrats pushed back: Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote, “We must not equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel.” New York Congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Incidents like these do beg the question: where are the resolutions against homophobic statements? For anti-blackness? For xenophobia? For a member saying he’ll ‘send Obama home to Kenya?’”

The reaction from the left of the party forced the inclusion of Islamophobia and the hatred of “African-Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, immigrants and others” in the resolution, which passed the House by an overwhelming 407-23 last week, with only Republicans voting against. NBC News reported that Omar issued a joint statement with fellow Muslim lawmakers Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and André Carson of Indiana, calling the vote “historic on many fronts. It’s the first time we have voted on a resolution condemning Anti-Muslim bigotry.”  They also said they were “tremendously proud to be part of a body that has put forth a condemnation of all forms of bigotry including anti-Semitism, racism, and white supremacy. … Our nation is having a difficult conversation and we believe this is great progress.”

In the speech which attracted the attacks from the Democratic establishment last week, Omar said: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country. And I want to ask, why is it ok for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries, or Big Pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobby … that is influencing policy?” Immediately after she made this remark, Democrat Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on which Ilhan Omar sits, as well, then accused Omar of making a “vile anti-Semitic slur.” And Democratic Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) claimed on Twitter that “questioning support for the U.S.-Israel relationship is unacceptable.”

She also faced hostility for tweets published on March 3 saying, “I am told every day that I am anti-American if I am not pro-Israel. I find that to be problematic and I am not alone. I just happen to be willing to speak up on it and open myself to attacks … I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress or serve on committee.” Paul Waldman commented in the Washington Post that “she didn’t say or even imply anything at all about Jews. She said that she was being asked to support Israel in order to have the privilege of serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which was true. … Her argument, to repeat, isn’t about how Jews feel about Israel, it’s about what is being demanded of her.”

Phyllis Bennis from the Institute for Policy Studies and Jewish Voices for Peace pointed out that, in any case, the attacks were nothing to do with what she had actually said. “It’s about the fact that she is a Muslim African immigrant, a Somali refugee, who is talking about Palestinian rights, who is talking about the power of the Israel lobby, and the big pharma lobby, and the lobby for fossil fuels. And that’s not OK. … She was talking about members of Congress, not Jews, who are forced to pledge some kind of affiliation, support, loyalty, whatever you want to call it, to Israel to maintain the privileging of Israel in U.S. foreign policy … She wasn’t talking about any individual people, Jews or otherwise, having so-called dual loyalty. She was talking about the kind of pressure that is brought to bear on members of Congress to be uncritically supportive of Israel; a kind of pressure that does not exist for any other country in the world.” Moreover, because she is a Black Muslim woman who wears her hijab in Congress, she is more likely to attract false accusations because she conflicts with the accepted image of a Congressional representative.

In the UK, when Derby North MP Chris Williamson said “we’ve been too apologetic” over antisemitism allegations, seeking to stress the history of the party in fighting all forms of racism, 38 centrist MPs demanded his suspension from the party, and got it. Williamson was targeted because he is a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and has been touring constituencies throughout the country calling for democratic reselection of parliamentary candidates. It was because of who he is, not what he said.

In the US, Democratic congresspeople now more adequately reflect the diversity of their constituents, thanks to the primary process of selecting representatives which elevated Moslem, Native American and Latino candidates to Congress. It’s different in the UK, where the parliamentary Labour party represents a New Labour consensus that is both anachronistic and hostile to supporters of Corbyn. Anti-imperialist politics upsets these MPs partly because of the influence of organizations like “Labour Friends of Israel,” which acts as a pro-Israeli lobby within the Labour party.

The aim of the anti-semitism smears is to silence critics of Israeli foreign and domestic policy, as well as the state’s quasi-diplomatic efforts to influence government support. In the US, this aligns with the “decades-old strategic ties between U.S. and Israeli military, security, geo-political and nuclear goals. Those ties—between the Pentagon and the IDF, the CIA and the Mossad, Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump with their shared antagonism to Iran and eagerness to partner with Saudi Arabia—are all far more important in maintaining the Washington-Tel Aviv alliance than any embrace of Israel by the U.S. public,” notes Bennis.

While in the US the controversy has opened up a media debate about whether AIPAC’s influence in Washington is too strong, even the New York Times calling out its boast that it was responsible for encouraging the Democratic leadership to go after Ilhan Omar, the media in the UK is uniformly blasting Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour party, and even equating anti-capitalism with anti-semitism. This campaign merges the hostility of centrist MPs to the enhanced power of the party membership with the sheer panic of the establishment at the prospect of a government collapse over Brexit which could result in a Corbyn-led Labour government. There could not be a stronger argument for the re-introduction of mandatory reselection for Labour MPs, in preparation for the inevitable general election.

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Against the McCarthyite Witchhunt of Chris Williamson


Labour party activists are coming out in support of Derby North MP Chris Williamson, who was suspended from the party pending investigation into expressions he used at a Sheffield Momentum meeting that rejected the accusations of institutional racism against the party. Sheffield Hallam CLP and Hackney North CLP have already passed resolutions strongly in his support.

The suspension has aggravated the divisions between the rank and file and the parliamentary party. According to the Guardian, 38 Labour MPs from the soft left Tribune group, including several frontbenchers, signed a letter to the party general secretary Jennie Formby calling for his immediate suspension. The Yorkshire Post had published footage of Williamson telling the meeting: “we’ve backed off far too much, we’ve given too much ground, we’ve been too apologetic” over the antisemitism allegations. He later issued a statement that said it “pains me greatly … that anyone should believe that it is my intention to minimise the cancerous and pernicious nature of antisemitism … I deeply regret, and apologise for, my recent choice of words when speaking about how the Labour party has responded to the ongoing fight against antisemitism inside of our party. I was trying to stress how much the party has done to tackle antisemitism.”

Deputy party leader Tom Watson has led the campaign against Williamson. He criticised the apology as “long-winded and heavily caveated,” and told BBC Radio that “disciplinary action should be concluded swiftly. ‘It’s definitely weeks, not months, in my view,’ Watson said. Although he said Williamson should be allowed to present his case in a formal hearing, the deputy leader condemned his comments.” In a clear challenge to Jeremy Corbyn, Watson also claimed he was not acting as his deputy but had an independent mandate from 200,000 members that gave him a responsibility to speak out. Perhaps a new “people’s vote” on Watson’s position would give members a chance to reconsider his mandate.

Momentum seems to be confused on how to respond to the issue. The organization has backed an open letter apologizing further to the Jewish community for the party’s handling of antisemitism, although reiterating support for Corbyn’s leadership and the party’s anti-racist principles. But its Camden branch urged Momentum’s national leaders to argue for Williamson’s immediate reinstatement, condemning the “new McCarthyism” driving the disciplinary action. In a letter to the leadership it points out that “nothing about that speech deserves the suspension of the Labour whip, let alone suspension from the party. Jewish Voice for Labour have rightly pointed out that Williamson’s suspension is unjust and have called for it to be rescinded. Camden Momentum adds its voice to that call.”

However, Williamson’s defenders have mistaken the official reason for his suspension for the real one. It has little to do with antisemitism and a lot to do with him touring the constituencies presenting the case for compulsory reselection of MPs. Sections of the PLP are desperate to take back control of policy, know their constituency parties are critical of them, and are violently hostile to Corbyn’s radical democratic philosophy. Cultural and political theory professor Jeremy Gilbert  points out that the party rightwing would continue its campaign of vilification against Corbyn even if he were to “convert to Judaism, apply for Israeli citizenship and call for a People’s vote tomorrow: their attacks on him would not relent for one second unless he agreed to give up control of the party.”

He argues that the “independent group” of defecting MPs will attempt to build a centrist party that, like in Germany, would potentially hold the balance of power in parliament and become an obstacle to progressive government. However, first these MPs would have to be re-elected, and there is little evidence that their future party would fare any better than the Liberal Democrats, especially since the Labour rank and file will be vigorously campaigning against them. The Labour party, Gilbert says, needs to face questions about its future relations with the SNP, the Greens, even the Lib Dems. It should convene a national conference with all these parties as well as trade unionists and NGOs to build a mass progressive movement as an alternative to neoliberal hegemony.

But what has transformed the party has been the shift in the rank and file and the new members who have joined it since 2015 in order to fight austerity. Gilbert’s characterization of Corbynism as merely a left variant of Labourism – the assumption that socialism can only be achieved through a parliamentary majority – is way off the mark. Corbyn is not at all averse to building alliances with extra-parliamentary movements, and the experience of Tony Benn when a cabinet minister in the 1974 Labour government shows that the party’s parliamentary campaigns and government power can be important components of a transformational movement, giving it political legitimacy with the public.

Rather than holding a neo-popular front convention, Labour activists should immediately begin selecting new candidates to replace the “independent” parliamentary squatters, and campaign on local issues in such a way as to connect with social movements that already exist in their constituencies. This would help to clarify the public about Labour’s radical programme and the true politics of the defectors.

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Labour defectors and Watson challenge Corbyn’s leadership


On the BBC’s Andrew Marr show this Sunday, Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour party, threw down a challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. He described the defection of nine Labour MPs as a “crisis for the soul of the party” that requires the shadow cabinet to adopt social democratic policies as “the only way to keep the Labour party united.” He himself was prepared to convene a group of MPs that believe in the “social democratic tradition” so that their ideas could be given greater weight in the parliamentary party. Watson repeated the defectors’ rhetoric of “bullying” and “intolerance” to describe attempts by party members to hold MPs accountable for their votes in parliament and statements to the press.

In reality, Watson is advocating a resuscitation of the failed politics of New Labour, not a return to the social democratic tradition of the membership. New Labour broke from this tradition in many ways, including its pro-business and anti-union stance, making benefits conditional on US-style “workfare”, and introducing market relations into social welfare provision. Its limited increases in spending on welfare were perfectly compatible with its “light touch” avoidance of regulation of financial markets that ended in the banking crash of 2008.

Watson and the defectors’ blanket accusations of “antisemitism” are intended to shut down rank and file criticism of the MPs’ differences with Corbyn: their reluctance to raise taxes on the rich, their support for neoliberal austerity policies and opposition to re-nationalisation of public utilities. The “independent” group’s policy platform, such as it is, hankers for the days of the Blairite ascendancy, reviving the “third way” argument of encouraging business so as to fund social welfare. They know there is no political future for this platform, so will continue to occupy the seats in parliament won for them by the efforts of Labour members campaigning on the manifesto produced by the party leadership.

The not entirely unexpected defection of Ian Austin MP makes it clear that the earlier resignations were not primarily about Labour’s Brexit policy. Austin is aggressively pro-Brexit and voted with the Tory government for Theresa May’s deal, while the other eight MPs demand a second referendum to overturn the result of the first one. Austin’s professed reasons for leaving mirror those of the other quitters with his denunciation of a “culture of extremism, antisemitism and intolerance.” But why should party members tolerate behaviour like Austin’s attack on Jeremy Corbyn when the Chilcot report on the run-up to the Iraq war was being discussed in parliament? In very unparliamentary language he told the leader of his own party to “sit down and shut up” and shouted “you’re a disgrace” as Corbyn criticised the Iraq war.

The defecting MPs are especially hostile to Corbyn because his election as party leader has enhanced the influence and assertiveness of the party rank and file, which has brought them into conflict with the privileges of the parliamentary party. This is why the defectors describe the party as “broken.” What truly unites them is their belief in their right to debate how the country should be run while ignoring the opinions and needs of their own members and constituents.

Even the organizational methods of the group reflect corporate financial techniques – incorporating themselves as a company rather than as a political party, which means they do not have to disclose their funders. The “shared values” that the group claims to possess appear to be those of a sense of entitlement to ignore the views of the electorate. They all claim to be working in the “national interest” – that is, the interests of the bankers, landlords, and offshore industrialists who make up the establishment – and cynically demand “leadership” from Jeremy Corbyn. HIs strategy of respecting the referendum result while exposing Theresa May’s dependence on the Tory ultra-right is not regarded by the splinter group as leadership, even though his demand that May should take a no-deal Brexit off the table would have circumscribed her manoeuvring. They want a demagogue who would denounce the referendum and align the Labour party with Tory remainers who represent the affluent beneficiaries of a global economy. Doing so, however, would only strengthen the appeal of the extreme Tommy Robinson right. Labour needs to speak for leavers as well as remainers, making itself a party of all the dispossessed.

Corbyn fired back at the quitters at a rally in former Tory Anna Soubry’s constituency of Broxtowe. He restated the party’s policies such as raising corporation tax to fund free education, and to use the power of government purchasing to end the gender pay gap. “I’m disappointed that a small number of Labour MPs have decided to leave our party and join forces with disaffected Tories, who say they have no problem with austerity that has plunged thousands into desperate poverty and insecurity,” he said. The party’s 2017 manifesto promised an end to austerity, it offered “hope, instead of the same old establishment demand for cuts, privatisation and austerity. That’s why we now back public ownership of the utilities and railways, why we now oppose tuition fees and corporate giveaways, and why we’re no longer afraid to ask the rich to pay their fair share of tax.”

“What’s different now about Labour is that the members are much more involved in their communities, and it’s those members that will write the manifesto for the future,” he told the rally. He had reached out to fellow socialist parties in Europe at their conference in Madrid to outline plans for cooperation after Brexit, and explained to them how anger in left-behind communities was behind the referendum result. “What’s happened in deindustrialized parts of Britain is exactly the same as what’s happened in deindustrialized parts of Germany, France, Spain, and many other countries across Europe,” he said. “The real problem is an economic system that discards industrial workers and allows whole communities to collapse and die and good jobs to be replaced by employers like Sports Direct.”

He warned about the growth of the far right across Europe when populist politicians would blame the nearest group of migrant workers for factory closures instead of the multinational companies who moved industries to the next low-wage economy, and called for closer relations with people in Europe. Climate change is a class issue, he said, and he backed the schoolchildren who had organized to protest climate change, adding that green energy would create jobs and protect the environment.

Unlike Watson, who was only concerned with the opinions of other MPs, Corbyn addressed the issues of homelessness, poverty and growing hospital waiting lists in his speech. His calm and successful leadership of the Labour party must be supported against the frantic efforts of the right wing and the corporate media to railroad through a desperate capitulation to Theresa May’s dogmatic plans.

UPDATE: The left-wing blog Counterfire responded to Watson’s challenge by calling for the party leadership to ditch Labour’s “broad church” model and recast the Corbyn project as a “left reformist socialist party. … A clear declaration that Labour wants to build a new socialist party would enthuse hundreds of thousands of activists, recapture the dynamism of the early Corbyn leadership campaigns, re-engage the party with the most disaffected sections of the working class, and open up the path to election victory.”

What a left reformist socialist party would mean in practice is unclear, but ditching the party’s centrists and making a declaration of socialism from above, so to speak, is not going to solve Labour’s problems and will not necessarily re-engage the party with the most disaffected sections of the working class. What is needed most of all is for Labour to strengthen its connections with the resistance to austerity in the communities and give it political expression. Moreover, the author’s contention that Corbynism is in danger of being killed off if the present regime continues assumes the right has much more power than it does. Counterfire is arguing from the particular standpoint of left activists rather than examining the actual movements of public opinion.

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No “People’s Vote” – fight for a general election now!


The British viewing public on Wednesday evening was treated to the sight of Tory prime minister Theresa May calling on other politicians to find a solution to the problems of her disastrous Brexit plan for the sake of the national interest. What she really meant was for the sake of the irretrievably fragmented Tory party. She appeared oblivious to the devastating parliamentary rejection of her plan the day before, which has further deepened the crisis of the British political class. Among this class are centrist Labour MPs calling for another referendum, or “People’s Vote,” which they hope would reverse the decision of the first one.

These Labour MPs ignore the fact that a new referendum could only be called by the Tory government, which would control the questions to be asked and would not include Labour’s position of a customs union and the preservation of workers’ and consumers’ rights. In addition, such a referendum would take at least seven months to organize, while European parliament elections are to be held in May. Since it would have no representation in the parliament, Britain is effectively out of the European Union already.

Gary Younge commented: “May has spent her premiership not trying to unite the country but her party. She has failed, but her party appreciates the effort. It wasn’t Westminster who backed her [in the no-confidence vote] on Wednesday but the Tories and the Democratic Unionist party, who were paid £1bn for their trouble. Last month a third of Tory MPs said they would rather have another party leader. But having failed in that bid, they would rather have May than Corbyn as leader of their country. So more than 100 Tories voted first to get rid of her, and then to keep her.”

The government is caught in a constitutional conundrum. While a majority of MPs would prefer to remain in the European Union, parliamentary sovereignty was superseded by the electorate’s participation in the referendum. As Chris Bickerton of Cambridge University pointed out, MPs have repeatedly voted to implement its result. “For the House of Commons to endorse a second referendum, it would have to repeal past Brexit legislation in a manner that flouts the position adopted by the main parties in the last general election. Were this to happen, it would tear up established relations between executive and legislature, pitting popular and parliamentary sovereignty against one another. Parliament would in effect be seeking, in a Brechtian fashion, to dissolve ‘the people’ and put another in place that will vote differently in a second referendum.”

May’s negotiations with Brussels have been protracted because of her “red lines” – her insistence on ending freedom of movement, leaving the customs union and single market to pursue an independent trade policy, and ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.  Her dogged insistence on these conditions stem from her need to balance between the Tory party’s ultra-right leavers and centrist remainers. Her fixed strategy is to run out the clock in order to force acceptance of her deal as the only alternative to the chaos of a no-deal Brexit. Moreover, the inflexibility and arrogance of her negotiating stance has alienated any possible allies within Europe. Tom Kibasi, the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, remarked after it emerged she had misled business groups about her withdrawal agreement: “It was as if May sincerely believes that she alone is the arbiter of the national interest and that it should be self-evident that she is right.”

Only a change of government would be a sufficient cause for the EU to renegotiate a deal, which would make it possible to ditch Theresa May’s red lines. According to the Independent, the EU would reopen talks if the red lines were dropped. “Speaking the morning after MPs rejected the prime minister’s deal, Michel Barnier said that the European Council ‘unanimously’ agreed and had ‘always said that if the UK chooses to shift its red lines in the future, and if it makes that choice to be more ambitious and to go beyond a simple free trade agreement, then the EU will be immediately ready to go hand in hand with that development and give a favourable response’.” But there could be no renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement, including the “backstop” hated by the DUP and the Tory ultra-right.

In a supreme historical irony, the Northern Ireland border has become a major stumbling block to any agreement. Partition was enforced in 1921 by the British imperial state to enable the protestant Unionists to stay dominant in the north, where they are a majority. Now the prospect of a hard border in Ireland is being vetoed by the independent Irish state, backed by the EU, while the DUP are implacably opposed to a border in the Irish Sea since it would mean Northern Ireland being treated differently from the UK.

The referendum itself exposed the erosion of parliamentary legitimacy in Britain. Many voters wanted to return to the more stable social-democratic society of the 1950s. For example, Burnley leisure worker Hazel Allen, explained to the Guardian that she voted Leave to protect the NHS, after the town’s A&E unit was closed with no plans to reopen it.  “I have not changed my mind and I don’t want another vote,” she said. “I am deeply disappointed with the government. They could have worked together to achieve what the people wanted, could have been stronger. What we have seen is just weakness and fighting. We voted for something but it doesn’t feel like we’re going to get it. What is the point?” In Glasgow, Lorne Bourhill said that she is against a second vote. “I didn’t want to leave the EU, but people have made their choice. The government should get on with it and find a deal that has enough support. How can I tell my children to vote in a general election if they see decisions being overturned like that?”

The Guardian’s deputy opinion editor, Joseph Harker, wrote a comment piece that was in marked contrast to the paper’s editorial line: “There’s been little attempt to acknowledge the widespread poverty, deprivation, insecurity and marginalisation of so many towns and cities that led them to seek such a drastic solution [as Brexit] to their problems. … I was born and raised in Hull, a medium-sized, solidly working-class city in east Yorkshire. I remember the Thatcher recession of the 1980s, and the hit the city took, along with the collapse of its fishing industry. I also remember feeling incredulous when the media, over the following years, reported the economic boom: the yuppies, the ‘big bang’ in the City of London, the ‘share-owning democracy’. None of that was felt anywhere near us.

“And little has changed. The only two regions of the UK that have recovered after the 2008 crash are London and the south-east. So, during the referendum campaign, to raise the economy as a reason for staying in Europe was always likely to fall on deaf ears – and it did. Yet since 2016, remarkably, most remainers seem to feel that if they keep repeating this message, somehow people will change their minds. It won’t work. … Certainly, few of them are likely to be persuaded by the leading voices in the people’s vote campaign – almost all wealthy and middle class, and most of them southerners. … ‘Why won’t Labour’s leader help us and make all this nightmare end?’ they say. It is of little importance to them that Labour, as a national political party, has to listen to the voices of its northern voters; nor that Corbyn has, so far, played a tactically astute game.

“They forget that in the general election of 2017, less than two years after becoming leader, he gained 3.5 million extra Labour votes (and 1.5 million more than David Cameron had for his majority government in 2015). Corbyn did this backing a soft Brexit. And he did this when there was a clear remain option on the ballot paper – in the form of the Lib Dems, whose vote bombed. Much as the Labour membership is clearly pro-EU, Corbyn’s stance helped Labour in large parts of the country beyond the south-east – it held on to all three seats in Hull, a city that voted 68% leave. He correctly judged that, above all, people wanted to be listened to, and for the misery of austerity to end.”

For Labour to win a general election, it needs the support of voters in swing northern constituencies like Hull as well as its voters in the cities. Corbyn’s strategy is to unite leavers and remainers by focusing on the social problems facing all of them. He told an audience today in Hastings: “While Brexit consumes all the government’s energy, the vital issues that affect people most directly – cash-starved schools, the NHS at breaking point, rising bills, unaffordable housing – have all gone to the back of the queue. Two and a half years of Brexit bungling and failure have left parliament in deadlock. Nothing can be decided. Nothing can get done. We believe that the best outcome for the country remains a general election to break the deadlock and find a solution that works for the whole country.”

The centrist Labour MPs’ call for a second vote should be ignored in favour of Corbyn’s strategy of fighting for a general election to elect a Labour government. There is no point in remaining in the EU if it means keeping a Tory government in power.

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