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.