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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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Ilhan Omar and Chris Williamson: A Tale of Two Parties


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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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The “Many” Shake Off Their Chains to Defy Britain’s Parliamentary Elites


The stunning result of the British elections last week heralds a sea-change in the country’s politics. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn energized a new layer of younger voters to enter into the political process, pushing up Labour’s vote to 40 percent of a greatly increased participation rate and winning 30 seats away from the Tories. He was visibly transformed in the course of his 90 election rallies, becoming more and more assured in his delivery as the response to his message snowballed.

Conventional political wisdom, expounded by the Labour rightwing and the media, had expected May to win with a 100-seat majority. The result showed that this narrative was completely disconnected from the social changes that had propelled youth and students into the election – the damning impact of the Brexit referendum and 10 years of tightening austerity policies that particularly impacted youth.

May is now limping into Brexit negotiations in an unholy alliance with the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland. For American readers, this is like injecting a dose of fundamentalist Southern crazy into the staid corridors of Westminster: anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, evolution-denying and global warming-denying. The DUP will demand more money to spend on schools and hospitals in Northern Ireland – something the Tories have denied to England and Wales – and the neoimperialist Tory hardliners will no doubt balk at that.

But the endemic corruption of the DUP and their past association with Protestant terror groups make them an untrustworthy partner. Their leader, Arlene Foster, is closely connected with the “cash for ash” scandal, a scheme to pay applicants for using renewable energy like wood pellets. The rate paid was more than the cost of heating, meaning that users made profits simply by heating their properties – one farmer is in line to receive £1m of public money over the next 20 years for heating an empty shed. Foster’s refusal to take responsibility for the lack of cost controls led to the collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland (there is no government at all in the devolved Stormont parliament at the moment).

Corbyn is right to declare victory. He has consolidated his leadership of the Labour party and shattered the remnants of Blairite neoliberal philosophy with a dynamic campaign for an anti-austerity manifesto. Understandably, rightwing Labour MPs are angry. They had hoped for a massive Labour defeat they could have blamed on Corbyn and had plans to launch a new centrist party, now of course abandoned. While begrudgingly acknowledging his electoral success, they immediately began to badmouth his leadership, accusing him of missing an “open goal” by not winning an overall majority – even though the loss of Scottish seats to the SNP in 2015 made an outright Labour victory nearly impossible.

The result has also strengthened the hand of Momentum activists within the Labour party. While the Labour establishment channeled resources into defending the safe majorities of centrist MPs, Momentum mobilized its supporters for the hard work of campaigning in marginal constituencies, contributing to Labour wins in places like Bedford and Croydon. According to Skwawkbox, “Up in Bolton West, the Tories won the seat in 2015 by 801 votes. Labour’s Julie Hilling had an excellent chance of ousting Tory Chris Green. Ms Hilling received so little support that she had no funding even for Labour garden stakes. She did not even receive a campaign manager from Labour central – her campaign had to be run by volunteers with no experience. Ms Hilling fought a brave campaign but, on a night where Labour was making even astonishing gains like Canterbury, she lost by the narrow margin of 936 votes.”

Corbyn and Momentum have been vindicated, giving Momentum an advantage over Labour MPs who confined their election material to local issues and refused to even mention Corbyn or national Labour policies. However, the election was decided by the support generated around Labour’s manifesto, contrasting with Tory missteps over May’s “dementia tax” and her awkward U-turn. Even two terror attacks did not distract voters from the way austerity cuts had made citizens more vulnerable – Boris Johnson, former London mayor and bookies’ choice to replace May as Tory leader, famously removed barriers from London and Westminster bridges seven years ago because he didn’t like their aesthetic, which is why the terrorists were able to drive unhindered on the pavement to kill pedestrians.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones honourably made an admission that his assessment of Corbyn was wrong: “Labour is now permanently transformed. Its policy programme is unchallengeable. It is now the party’s consensus. It cannot and will not be taken away. Those who claimed it could not win the support of millions were simply wrong. No, Labour didn’t win, but from where it started, that was never going to happen. That policy programme enabled the party to achieve one of the biggest shifts in support in British history – yes, eclipsing Tony Blair’s swing in 1997. Social democracy is in crisis across the western world. British Labour is now one of the most successful centre-left parties, many of which have been reduced to pitiful rumps under rightwing leaderships. And indeed, other parties in Europe and the United States should learn lessons from this experience.”

The French Socialist party is a prime example. Once the ruling party, its turn to austerity policies under former leader Francois Hollande cut its vote share down to just 9.5% in Sunday’s elections, setting it on course to lose 200 seats. The Labour party would have followed it into oblivion if the Blairites had succeeded in ousting Corbyn and running the party their way. However, under Corbyn it gained 150,000 new members after the election, raising party membership to around 800,000.

As well as calling for free tuition for university students, building thousands of new homes, and a stronger National Health Service, Labour’s manifesto revives the idea of the democratization of the economy: “In government, Labour would give more people a stake – and a say – in our economy by doubling the size of the co-operative sector and introducing a ‘right to own,’ making employees the buyer of first refusal when the company they work for is up for sale. We will act to ‘insource’ our public and local council services as preferred providers,” the manifesto says.

The most significant part of the manifesto is its plan to finance these measures by increased taxes on the top five percent and corporations. This highlights the inequality created by the Tories through the entire period of austerity by tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poorest. It showed that there was a “magic money tree” but only for the extremely wealthy; Labour called for this wealth to be used for the benefit of the rest of society.

Corbyn’s message of hope – “For the Many, Not the Few” – inspired popular comedian Steve Coogan at an election rally in Birmingham to support him with the words of  Romantic poet Percy Shelley, written after the Peterloo massacre in 1819:

“Rise, like lions from the slumber
“In unvanquishable number!
“Shake loose your chains like morning dew
“Which in sleep were placed on you:
“Ye are many – they are few!”

Like Bernie Sanders in the US, politics have been impacted by the rise of a social movement opposed to neoliberal austerity and fighting for jobs, healthcare and education. The lions are rising to challenge the plutocratic few.

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Anti-Semitism in the Labour Party?


Recently there have been recurring accusations of anti-semitism within the British Labour party. These accusations are spurious; that’s not to say that anti-semitism does not exist on the left at all, but the real source of racism and anti-semitism in Britain today is from the right, enhanced by the scurrilous anti-immigrant Brexit campaign.

In the US, there has been a spike in the number of anti-semitic messages on Twitter, directed especially against Jewish journalists, encouraged by Trump’s racist campaign. The Anti-Defamation League found that more than 800 journalists had been the subject of anti-semitic attacks, mainly from Trump supporters; Trump’s final election ad was grossly anti-semitic.

There is no question that the Jewish community is right to be concerned about the growth of rightwing movements in Europe who spout racism in more or less veiled forms.

Jewish communities have an emotional connection with Israel as part of their sense of identity, which has strengthened as identity politics became more pronounced in the postmodern era. However, the rightwing Israeli Likud government has taken advantage of this sentiment to exert political pressure on governments in its own interests. Most Jewish communities in the US are liberal politically, but the rightwing AIPAC has established an outsized influence on foreign policy.

This is facilitated by an ideological positioning of Jewish experience as exceptional, privileging their persecution in Europe – which has the effect of divorcing Jewish struggles from other oppressed groups with which they have often identified historically.

It is also cynically exploited by the British political establishment to attack the credibility of Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. But where were they when Ed Miliband faced the dog-whistle anti-semitism of the Daily Mail and the Sun in 2015? Instead of defending him, the Jewish leadership in Britain attacked him for his principled defence of Palestinian rights.

Today the accusations of anti-semitism have been seized on by the Tories and PLP Blairites to attack the Labour party left and Momentum. Jim Cook contributes a guest editorial analyzing the conflation of anti-semitism with criticisms of the Israeli state.

During the middle ages the Ottoman Empire was seen as, and became, a place of refuge for Jews from Europe. I read many years ago of an English aristocrat who went, as tourist or diplomat, to the ‘Sublime Porte,’ the seat of government of the Empire and found, to his horror, that he, like all Christians, was rated as being at the same level as Jews. Jews lived quite comfortably, albeit like Christians as second class citizens, all over north Africa and through the Middle East including in Palestine and with even a few thousand in Jerusalem.

What changed all this was of course the betrayal of the Arabs by the British and French at the end of WWI. The British, Lawrence of Arabia for one, promised Arabs their freedom from the Ottoman Empire while the Turks tried to enlist Muslim solidarity. At the end of the war the British and the French reneged on any promises made to Arabs and, treating them with their accustomed imperial disdain, proceeded to carve up the Middle East in their own interests – albeit with the need to allow for some local interests to avoid continuous all-out war.

Concurrent with that was the 1917 Balfour Declaration that, “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

The “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities” meant about as much then as the rights of indigenous people in America, Australia, Asia and Africa, that is not very much. Jews bought up land in Palestine from absentee landlords and set about populating it with Jews and driving peasant families from their ancient homes. This, not surprisingly, led to increasing opposition from Palestinians who for some reason did not see their homeland as “A land without a people for a people without a land” – originally a Christian phrase for a way of getting rid of Jews – from Europe.

The Palestinian people have fought the invasion of European settlers for at least a century with loss of life on both sides, though increasingly more Arab lives lost than Jewish. In the course of this struggle Muslims worldwide have, not surprisingly, tended to support the Palestinian side. They too have experienced European, including via the USA, disdain, exploitation, humiliation, occupation and murder: things they can clearly see in Palestine/Israel. Many Muslims have continued to experience at least some of those injuries even after moving to Europe, or the USA.

It is a pity that some Muslims have picked up on European anti-Semitic tropes, perhaps on the basis of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. This is counter-productive to the Palestinian cause as it gives the Israeli government yet another stick to beat them with. It can also tend to alienate the many Jews worldwide who support the Palestinians in their struggle and also maintain a long tradition of liberal and socialist principle, not least during the height of the Civil Rights movement of the US.

But the bar is set exceptionally low for someone to be charged with anti-Semitism. When Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was accused of such anti-Semitism there were letters to the Guardian that said that opposition to Zionism was not anti-Semitism, Zionism is a political position not an attribute of Jewish identity. I fully agreed, and agree, with that. But I also started looking at the Jewish Chronicle (JC) to see what attitudes there were. I was a bit surprised to find that, yes, some Jews think that Zionism and support for the state of Israel are part of being a Jew.

For instance: Yehuda Bauer, professor of Holocaust Studies at Hebrew University, is quoted in JC September 7 2016 as saying: “Anti-Zionism is a slogan, there’s nothing real behind it. It’s anti-Jewish, it’s antisemitic.”

Melanie Phillips, JC September 29 2016 says in “My letter to the Prime Minister,” “The animus against Israel cannot be separated from hostility to Jews. Antisemitism singles out Jews for treatment applied to no other people: double standards, imputation of conspiratorial powers and false claims they are committing crimes of which they are in fact the victims. This is precisely the treatment applied to Israel.”

Josh Jackman in JC October 10 2016: “The Board of Deputies has condemned a planned event by a pro-Palestinian student group which aims to separate anti-Zionism from antisemitism.” And further, he quotes Marie van der Zyl, Board vice-president who claims: “For the vast majority of British Jews, political, cultural and religious affiliation with the state of Israel is a fundamental part of their Jewish identity.”

So Zionism is just another name for Judaism? And so anti-Zionism is just another name for anti-Semitism? This is nonsense. Zionism is, now at least, the assertion that Jews are entitled to take and live in the lands previously known as Palestine. It is a political assertion and as such these is no reason whatsoever why it should not be opposed without the opposition being labelled as effectively ‘immoral’, not wrong but morally wrong and basically disgusting. Anti-Semitism in itself is a form of racism and so, yes, immoral, disgusting, stupid and ignorant.

And now we have the report of the Home Affairs Committee “Antisemitism inquiry” which, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (October 16 2016): “Important is the committee’s valiant attempt to define what can be constituted as anti-Semitism in modern Britain, and by extension, in Western political discourse. “The report states what should be obvious but sadly is not – that the starting point for any discussion on anti-Semitism should be what the Jewish community and Jews themselves feel is anti-Semitic.”

Zionism was never a part of being a Jew. By some accounts it originated in European ‘Christian’ circles when all sorts of nationalisms were springing up. Jews could be “subjects” just like Protestants, Catholics and even Muslims but “citizens”? So some 19th century Protestants thought it would be a good idea to encourage Jews to go to “the Holy Land”, this would not only get rid of the Jews but also accomplish the divine plan of gathering Jews together in anticipation of Armageddon and the return of the messiah – a belief still held by hordes of American Christians to this day.

There can be lots of reasons why such a call for a ‘homeland’ might be opposed politically but that opposition cannot be defined in itself as ‘racist’ and neither can political opposition to Zionism be called anti-Semitic. Anti-Zionism is not part of the “racist” family but more like part of the ideological or political family that would include “Un-American”.

The main claim to Israel’s moral authority is of course the Holocaust: nothing else could even come close to excusing the crimes committed against the Palestinian people. But even the Holocaust grants no special privilege to Jews, Zionists or the state of Israel: how could massive hurt grant the right to hurt others?  It could perhaps justify a Jewish state in Germany but whatever the Mufti of Jerusalem may or may not have done in WWII the Palestinians were not responsible for the Holocaust. Even some of the survivors, not that there are many left now, were opposed to the use of the suffering of themselves and their fellows for narrow political ends.

There are Jews who are anti-Zionist: some of the most orthodox see the return by force of arms, rather than with the messiah, as blasphemy. But the most eloquent opponents of the Israeli state and of Zionism, in the English language anyway, are Israeli and American Jews. They are clearly not anti-Semitic so they have earned the even more ridiculous label of “self-hating Jews” – itself an anti-Semitic jibe. I must admit that in my reading about the Holocaust, Israel, Palestine and American politics, in books by respected Jewish and non-Jewish, Zionist and non-Zionist, historians and other commentators, I’ve come across several “self-hating Jews” and I can only admire their courage.

So what’s this ‘anti-Semitism in the Labour Party all about? Ken Livingstone is quoted by Lianne Kolirin, JC 5 September 2016, as saying on a radio breakfast show, “The simple fact is that until they started to undermine Jeremy, no Labour MP in my lifetime had ever said there was any issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party.”

Despite being the only nuclear power in the region, having the most effective armed forces in the region and having the world’s ‘super-power’ covering their back – and giving them lots of money to buy arms – it seems that Israel is facing an existential threat due to BDS. A Republican Congressman, Doug Lamborn, claimed in a phone call to the Jerusalem post that BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) is “the re-emergence of the scourge of anti-Semitism. It is the same hatred just put into new clothing”.

The Israeli political elite is afraid of what they call “delegitimation;” the main thrust of that internationally is the BDS movement and they are afraid that the Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, might move from under the US foreign policy umbrella into support for the rights of Palestinians. Hence all this “anti-Semitism in the Labour Party” nonsense. The real movement of socialists, and many liberals, worldwide is for the state of Israel and its Zionist supporters to treat Palestinians as fellow human beings.

But the rulers, and the bulk of the inhabitants, of Israel are not Holocaust survivors. Many of them come from the United States and Europe and share the imperialist disdain for “the natives” that so many from the United States and Europe have held for centuries. They need, for their own long term safety and for the sake of common decency to work for a resolution of their differences with Palestinians – but there is little ground for optimism in this regard at the moment.

The Zionists feel that Israel is the natural “home” of the Jewish people everywhere, but the question must be asked, “What about the Palestinians?” And the answer of the state of Israel, the Zionists and the right wing Christian nutters in the US is, “What about the Palestinians?” And these racists have the nerve to call us anti-Semites.

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Fighting for Their Lives vs. Parliamentary Fictions: Members Reclaim the Labour Party for the People


Rank and file Labour party members in Britain, whether or not they support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, are acutely aware of the implications of major Tory cuts in benefits that affect thousands of people. This awareness has spurred sections of the membership into a new democratic activism that sets them against the parliamentary wing of the party.

Much of the Tory legislation was smuggled in by stealth, with some Labour MPs voting in favour, and is only now being put into effect. As a result, many families don’t realize the extent of the assault on their living standards about to take place – not even counting the Brexit effect on food prices due to hit them in the new year.

Liverpool city councillor Jane Corbett writes in the Guardian that 840 households in her city alone could soon face eviction. “They will all be affected by the new, lower benefit cap of £20,000 being introduced from 7 November. This follows a tsunami of regressive changes to the benefits system since 2010, including the bedroom tax, the freezing of benefit rates and cuts to equivalent working tax credits for those on universal credit. … Aside from the devastating social consequences and stress, in financial terms all this policy is doing is shifting the cost from the government over to the council, housing associations and our other local partners. This at the same time as we’re facing huge cuts to our budgets: £90m alone in the case of Liverpool city council over the next three years.”

These issues are literally life and death for many people: after losing their homes or being refused benefits, there has been a rise in incidents of suicide. Even Conservative councils have protested the loss of £600 millions of educational services grants despite being given a new legal requirement to run support services for local schools.

Ex-front bencher Angela Eagle recently showed just how out of touch the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is from the issues confronting poorer communities. She called on fellow MPs to develop Labour policy by answering “the questions that face people in their everyday lives” such as the abstractions of “growing automation and the loss of jobs,” rather than the immediate attacks on housing benefits or the withdrawal of support for the disabled. Her assumption that only MPs can determine policy is countered by party members’ beginning to assert their right to democracy within the party.

Likewise, at a time when the government plans to rapidly decimate social entitlements, Labour’s  soft left is obsessed with the electoral implications of Brexit and has decided to recover a lost political centre by restoring a native English collectivism. Jonathan Rutherford of “Labour Together” writes that Brexit “was a vote against globalisation and a reassertion of an English and British common national inheritance over the progressive cosmopolitan culture of the elites.” Jeremy Corbyn, he says, represents this elite, but the party needs instead “a new Labour political philosophy and political economy which draws on values that are widely shared amongst voters: family, work, decency, fairness and responsibility.”

Apart from the Tory assault on the social safety net, what Rutherford also omits to mention is the role of the Blairite years in fostering cynicism among working class communities about Labour politicians and the massive increase in inequality the Blair government helped to sustain. His celebration of “patriotic socialism” and traditional English values is essentially an ideological framing of the Brexit vote. Britain’s national inheritance, heavily fashioned by imperial privilege, also includes a mean-spirited and vindictive ruling elite that built its wealth on slavery and colonial exploitation, and is skilled in manipulating voters with propaganda masquerading as news.

It’s hard to disagree with Sam Tarry, Corbyn’s campaign director, when he told the Huffington Post: “there are a huge amount of people in the PLP who … have no skills in terms of community organising. No skills in terms of building a movement. No strategy for winning a general election and are kind of quite intellectually bankrupt.” “I think really this sort of new left that has been born in the Labour Party, that really is the only sort of strategy we’ve got at the moment, we’ve got to make it work,” he added. “That’s actually building a far bigger project than just Corbyn himself. He is a lightning rod, he’s a conductor, he’s that person who symbolises a more just, a more equal and more sustainable society.”

Corbyn’s supporters are determined to campaign against Tory cuts, and at the recent Labour Assembly Against Austerity in London made clear that they viewed it as their responsibility to decide Labour’s policies for the next election. That brings them into conflict with party’s MPs and right wing, which is mounting a rearguard action by suspending leading members of Momentum from the party.

Momentum’s next step is to fight for positions in the Labour party apparatus, not the issue of deselection of MPs. In London, the party’s regional board elections will take place in November, and Momentum’s candidates will face competition from the soft left as well as the right. The board is important not only because it will play an important role in councillor selections and dealing with the constituency boundary review, but also because it will hear appeals from people unfairly barred from voting in the leadership election.

Outside of London, Momentum activists have already won some victories in changing the leadership of some constituency parties. They have done so because of their readiness to fight on issues of inequality and social justice. Within Momentum itself there are frustrating issues of democratic structure, but it has enabled like-minded activists to find a network for political expression for the first time.

As Hilary Wainwright explains about her local Momentum group in Hackney, “we try to ensure that our meetings always include a discussion with local campaigns – like the occupation of empty council houses by Sisters Uncut, seeking to create and get council support for a centre for women facing domestic violence. We discuss with them how Momentum can support them, build their social base, their alliances and their political impact. We focus on this promotion of grassroots solutions alongside political education aimed at the young people enthused by the new politics and canvassing for the Labour Party and opening up local party structures to the creative initiatives around them. Our own institutions are being built to facilitate this dual strategy of reaching outside the Labour Party as well as working inside it.”

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Parliament vs. the People: Corbyn and a New Kind of Politics in Britain


Jeremy Corbyn has been able to win an increased majority for his leadership of the British Labour party after a bruising second election, which occupied much of the headlines over the past few months. Many Labour MPs had a difficult time disguising their hostility as he reorganized his shadow cabinet, but they have had to acknowledge that the party’s base remains solidly behind him. While new party members are enthused by Corbyn’s socialist stand against the super-rich, discredited ex-Labour premier Tony Blair found himself “baffled” by the turn politics has taken.

He is confused because Corbyn did not so much win re-election as Labour’s membership, assumed by Blair to be a passive group of subscribers, asserted its right to control the direction of the party. Corbyn and his supporters in Momentum represent a new kind of politics, one that combines electoral campaigning and locally-based activism. Critics who call him unelectable or not prime-minister-material miss the fact that he wants to build a different sort of party to the monolithic Labourism of the past, one that does not depend on silver-tongued orators like Keir Hardie or Neil Kinnock.

The legitimacy of parliamentary representation, in any case, has been undermined by the legacy of Blair’s New Labour and the Cameron coalition governments – most Labour MPs embraced the premise that austerity policies were inevitable, taking their lead from Westminster insiders and not from their constituents. Corbyn’s insistence on democracy within the Labour party is an assertion of popular sovereignty, which on principle is antagonistic to the British tradition of rule from above.

Parliament has not been the real seat of power since the Callaghan government capitulated to the IMF in the 1970s, but a parliamentary majority still remains the ultimate goal for the Labour establishment. Leftwing sociologist Hilary Wainwright explains why: “Underlying Labour’s devotion to the parliamentary system as a fixed point of reference and conditioning factor of their political mentality is deference to the moral authority of the British state … associated with the potent symbolism of the monarch as the entity to which MPs swear their allegiance – as distinct from the republican European convention of an oath to the people. … To suggest authority lies anywhere else is in effect a challenge to the authority of the state.”

The Labour party’s membership have long dreamed of making MPs and the party leader accountable to them, and are now raising again the demands for mandatory reselection of MPs and party control over policy that were aired by the Bennite movement of the 1980s. Like Benn, Corbyn seeks to legitimize forms of political democracy outside parliament, relocating sovereignty in the people. “Only with Corbyn’s first leadership campaign did the new politics come into the mainstream,” Asher, a Momentum volunteer, told Wainwright. “I get infuriated when people talk of the new politics as a Jeremy fan club. This isn’t and was never about just one man.” Another volunteer, Adam, adds that “Corbyn is ‘a figurehead of the new politics’ but ‘not in control of it’.”

Wainwright commented that Corbyn has demonstrated “he would open up spaces in politics for the disenfranchised and ensure they had a voice. … Gemma Jamieson Malik, for example, a London PhD student driven by housing costs to live out of London, explains: ‘It’s not that I’m a Jeremy Corbyn fan. It’s that he’s opened a space for a new politics I and my friends can feel part of. He’s generated a new energy around Labour’.” Emily, a Momentum volunteer, said: “It’s not good enough for a leader to speak for people, it’s about empowering those people to speak for themselves. In essence, it’s about creating a vehicle for the untapped potential of communities to collectively organise and lead the fightback.”

Corbyn, Wainwright argues, “supports an impressive range of struggles but he weaves a web of networks so they connect with each other, rather than going through him. At present, he can see that something new is going on, transcending traditional political allegiances.”

Paul Mason thinks that Corbyn doesn’t go far enough in that direction. “He is a symptom of the wider recapture of Labour by networked individuals and grassroots campaigners, but he doesn’t come from that tradition,” he maintains. “I think he could have been stronger in building Labour as a network and a movement, learning from the benefits this milieu can bring.”

Mason points out that in the first nine months of Corbyn’s leadership much effort was expended on changing Labour’s economic policy so that the party could present a realistic plan for improving people’s lives. “They brought forward a new fiscal charter and a proposal for state investment, there was a successful opposition to the government’s welfare reforms, they forced the resignation of Iain Duncan-Smith over disability benefit cuts. None of this would have happened if there had been a different kind of leader,” he said, even though Corbyn was hampered by lack of support (if not outright betrayal) from the parliamentary party and party headquarters staff.

However, parliament is not the place where real, rather than rhetorical, opposition to the Tory establishment is most effectively expressed. That’s why Momentum’s plan to turn outwards and campaign directly with the electorate is better than one of infighting in party meetings. Devolution of powers to English cities and regions offers opportunities to challenge government-led austerity, and a chance to change the terms of electability, “overcoming negative media onslaughts through sheer volume and quality of peer-to-peer political interaction,” the organization says. It plans to campaign in local elections over the next two years, building a base of activists who can mobilize party members and win power for left candidates locally, which it hopes will prepare Labour to fight the 2020 general election.

Momentum has a dual strategy, explains national organizer James Schneider: “We want to make the Labour Party more open, participatory, and democratic. We want it to be an activist party, organizing to win in every community, standing for Corbyn’s platform. … But we also want to provide a point of connection between the movements and the party, to use this moment to build popular power and increase capacity at the grassroots level.”

Momentum itself developed spontaneously at the grassroots level after Corbyn’s initial election victory in 2015. Groups emerged over the country, setting up Facebook pages and organizing meetings, before there was any kind of national organization. It was a form of horizontal democracy, like the Occupy movement, and only later was a form of governance structure created to coordinate the local groups’ activities. This distinguishes it from “Our Revolution” in the US, which seems to have failed to connect Sanders’ organizational apparatus with local activists’ energy.

But what is problematic about Momentum is that its leadership appears to have capitulated to the rightwing witchhunt alleging anti-semitism in the Labour party, removing the organization’s vice-chair, Jackie Walker. What distinguishes this ideological assault is the re-definition of anti-semitism as any criticism of Israel or of Zionism, coded as the “distinct nature of post-second-world-war antisemitism” by hostile MPs. In the US a well-funded assault of the same kind is taking place on college campuses against the campaign for divestment from corporations profiting from the occupation of the West Bank (BDS), where university chancellors have been pressured to define any defense of Palestinian rights as hate speech.

While British society accepts many of the premises of social democracy, its class history has produced an aversion to owning the consequences of democratic participation. The radicals in Momentum will have to find ways to overcome the strong social tendency to bureaucracy and sectarianism if they are to build a truly democratic movement; however, they can draw on the enthusiasm and determination of newly politicized millennial youth as well as the experience of older members who have recently rejoined the Labour party.

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Corbyn’s Energized Supporters Counter Blairite Rhetoric


The British Labour party is today divided into two camps. There is the newly-enlarged membership that overwhelmingly elected Jeremy Corbyn as party leader; then there is the parliamentary Labour party that is mortified by having Corbyn as leader.

They are oriented to different demographics. Corbyn’s campaign energized party members who had been excluded from decision-making, together with young people who had no previous party affiliation but who are closely connected with the real life problems of housing, jobs and benefits, as Corbyn was able to articulate in his questions to Cameron in parliament.

A grassroots network formed from Corbyn’s leadership campaign organization, Momentum, seeks to extend Labour’s support by launching a mass voter registration drive aimed at reaching people currently not politically active. The phasing out of household voter registration and redrawing of constituency boundaries bids to further gerrymander the archaic electoral system that disenfranchised many of the voters in the last election. Momentum organizer Emma Rees said Corbyn’s campaign promised “a politics that engaged with those shut out from the political system.”

His election victory has also energized a significant slice of the public outside the Labour party – membership of the anti-nuclear movement CND has soared, for example. Corbyn himself is a longstanding opponent of nuclear weapons, much to the discomfort of many Labour MPs, including the shadow defence secretary, Maria Eagle.

Most of the parliamentary party is oriented to the political “middle ground” beloved of New Labour and so did not anticipate Corbyn’s grassroots support. The political middle ground is code for an “aspirational” middle class that may express its concern about the problems of the poor or of refugees but is more concerned about its own lifestyle. It was comparatively easy therefore for David Cameron to appropriate Blairite rhetoric in his speech to the Tory party conference, since he was targeting the same demographic. Early in his address he spoke of how “social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world’s poorest” were now “at the centre of the Conservative Party’s mission.”

Despite the speech’s blatant contradiction with the government’s actions, and its Flashman-like bullying attack on Corbyn, the Blairite Martin Kettle was taken in by its rhetorical similarities. He commented: “both the 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and perhaps even the 2015 Tory government … have also been concerned about fairness and social justice, which Thatcherism always disdained. So it might be more useful to think of the Cameron governments … more as alternative successors to new Labour rather than to Thatcher.”

His ideological orientation to the theoretical political centre is shared by most Labour MPs and has led to a destabilizing tension within the parliamentary party. So far, 20 of them have rebelled by ignoring the party whip and refusing to vote against Tory austerity plans. In addition, 50 threatened to vote in favour of bombing Syria in defiance of popular sentiment, joining with Tory MPs in an all-parliamentary group devoted to pushing for military action.

While the British may still believe in “fair play”, the belief in symbols of imperial ascendancy lives on – at least in the minds of the political class. There is a self-deceptive shouldering of British responsibility to police the moral conduct of the rest of the world, which by sheer chance coincides with supporting US foreign policy, requiring military intervention abroad to make sure unrest there does not interfere with the business of making money at home. So, predictably, in their search for an “ethical” solution to the civil war in Syria that does not rule out bombing, Labour MP Jo Cox joined with Tory MP Andrew Mitchell to call for “a military component that protects civilians as a necessary prerequisite to any future UN or internationally provided safe havens.”

The ongoing civil war between Assad and increasingly radicalized fundamentalist fighters is rhetorically solved in this formulation by the creation of imaginary “safe havens” for refugees. Since no troops are going to make sure these areas of the map remain safe, they remain a political fiction for the purpose of justifying a symbolic bombing of Syrian targets, at the same time appeasing the conscience of the liberal elite and avoiding the need to abandon its occupation of the moral high ground.

Middle East expert Juan Cole, who in contrast to the politicians actually knows something about Syria, objects to Hillary Clinton’s use of the same empty rhetoric. He points out: “these ‘safe zones’ would attract rebels who would use them as bases from which to attack the regime, inviting regime attacks. They would only remain safe zones if some military force guarded their perimeters. But which military force would undertake that task?” He describes the pretence that there is a big group of “moderates” with which the West could ally as a “frankly dishonest discourse.”

If the experts on dishonest discourse in the British parliament take the issue to a vote (after signally failing in 2013), and enough Labour MPs vote against the popular mood, they will dig the party’s grave in England as they did in Scotland. With more members campaigning on the doorsteps and engaging with issues like housing and benefit cuts, MPs’ indifference would increase the momentum for the restoration of the right of constituency organizations to select their own candidates without interference from the party establishment.

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