An attack on democracy and freedom of criticism

Article 10 (of the European Convention of Human Rights) will protect Labour Party members who, for example, make legitimate criticisms of the Israeli government, or express their opinions on internal Party matters, such as the scale of anti-Semitism within the Party, based on their own experience and within the law. It does not protect criticism of Israel that is anti-Semitic.(EHRC Report on Labour Party)

…the scale of the problem was dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.” Jeremy Corbyn

We speak as the leaders of unions representing working people who desperately need a Labour government. We cannot comprehend why the leadership would not only compromise the opportunity to unite our party behind the implementation of the EHRC’s important recommendations so that they can be taken forward with the members’ full trust and confidence, but also undermine our party’s democratic processes and, ultimately, our party unity.” Statement by 7 trade union leaders

The decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn was as a result of his refusal to withdraw his comments on the scale of anti-Semitism in the party being exaggerated. Having said that he would accept the whole report Keir Starmer has ignored that part of it (as above) which indicates this is a legitimate point of dispute, protected by the European Court of Human Rights. This is not just an attack on Corbyn but on the democratic rights of the whole membership. Even though Corbyn said he accepted the recommendations, apparently he is not allowed to express a view different to that of the leadership. This is a threat not just to supporters of Corbyn, or the left, but to the whole membership of the party.

This is underlined by the two extraordinary edicts sent out by an unelected bureaucrat, the General Secretary, instructing CLPs that they must not discuss these two decisions: the original edict banning discussion on the probably unconstitutional, certainly undemocratic, decision to pay off the ex-members of staff associated with the Panorama programme on anti-Semitism, and the decision in relation to the EHRC report.

Exhibit 1 – “not competent business”

The first of these extraordinary letters sent out by Evans told CLPs that discussion on the Panorama settlement was “not competent business for discussion by local parties”. It appears that the unelected General Secretary can tell the members what they can discuss and what they can’t. This is all the more outrageous because the decision to pay the ‘compensation’ was made by the leadership behind the backs of what is constitutionally “the administrative authority of the party”, the National Executive Committee.

Not only did the party leadership decide to hand out our money but it abandoned the positions previously expressed by the party and conceded to all the views expressed by the so-called whistle blowers, without consulting the NEC or the affiliated organisations. This was a scandalous contempt for the democratic processes of the party.

To add insult to injury the General Secretary then decided that the entire membership had to accept this flagrantly undemocratic decision, and essentially, keep their mouths shut. Not only was the 851 page party report binned, but the decision of the leadership obviously prejudiced the Forde report into anti-Semitism.

His policeman’s letter declared that CLPs could not “repudiate” the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism since it had been agreed by the party. This was tantamount to saying that party members had no right to attempt to change party policy. He ventured a political opinion, which he has no right to express, that it would “undermine the party’s ability to tackle racism”. Of course, no CLP would attempt to “repudiate” it. Only a party conference could do that. But Evans appeared to imply that the decision was set in stone, inviolable. The definition itself is unexceptional; its the ‘examples’ which are contested, including by some Jews. Remember that even the author of the IHRA ‘working definition’ on anti-Semitism (to give it is full name) said that it was being used to silence critics of Israel.

Exhibit 2

The second letter from Evans is even more extraordinary than the first one because not only does it seek to bar CLPs from discussing the EHRC report but in effect it says they cannot disagree with any aspect of it. This not only takes away the democratic right of CLPs and the members to discuss what they chose to, but it is attempting to introduce thought police. It is an unprecedented assault on freedom of expression and freedom of criticism. The CLPs are barred from having a different opinion than the leadership. I cannot think of any precedent for such an assault on the democratic rights of the members and CLPs.

Evans says that members cannot “question the competence” of the EHRC; that is the body that refused to investigate Islamophobia in the Tory party despite all the evidence that it was provided with. Not only that but they should not “repudiate or reject the report or any part of its recommendations”. CLPs are banned from discussing such a thing.

Consider this – an unelected official is barring CLPs and members from raising any criticism or disagreement of anything in the EHRC report.This is an outrageous assault on party democracy and the rights of the members.

If members do not have the right to make their own mind up and discuss the issue freely then you will have a sort of McCarthyism which encourages conformism in the face of power and the silencing of dissent. Over the past period the atmosphere was such that some members simply avoided the issue for fear of being accused of anti-Semitism. This is a recipe for a dead party; tightly controlled from the top rather than by the members.

I will deal with the report in detail in a future article. Suffice it to say here that we should remember what was said by organisations and publications on the right of the Jewish community. In a joint statement of three publications they said that the election of a Labour government under Corbyn would be “an existential threat” to Jews in Britain. Even Tom Watson must have known this was patent nonsense, but none of the opponents of Corbyn in the upper reaches of the Labour Party challenged this calumny. Exaggeration there was a-plenty.

Although this conduct by the leadership relates to the issue of anti-Semitism, it has implications for the way that they operate overall. At stake is the democracy of the party and the democratic rights of the membership. If members do not have the right to disagree with the leadership and challenge them then why would they remain as members? One of the consequences of the bureaucratic domination of the Blair leadership was the unprecedented collapse of the number of members. If autocratic methods win the day in the Labour Party now then a similar decline in membership may occur.

In suspending the whip from Corbyn and issuing Evans autocratic edicts the leadership is threatening the electoral prospects of the Labour Party. Starmer says “there’s no need for a civil war”. If he acts like an autocrat then he must expect members to defend their democratic rights. What happens with the “investigation” of Corbyn, of course, will determine whether the heat is turned up or down. If action is taken against Corbyn for expressing a different opinion to the leadership then those who have not already left the party in disgust will draw the conclusion that Starmer wants to create nothing more than a monolith in which dissent will silenced or driven out. At stake is whether or not the Labour Party has any possibility of being a democratic party, controlled by its members, or simply an army of foot-soldiers issued their instructions by the Leadership.

One final comment. It is undoubtedly true that globally anti-Semitism is on the rise. The idea that the Labour Party or the left generally was the home of it is simply untrue. It does exist in the Labour Party though mostly it is the product of moral outrage at the oppression of Palestinians rather than a hatred of Jews. You can find all manner of garbage and abuse on social media. Historically anti-Semitism has its roots in the right – there was much of it in the Tory Party. The idea that anti-Semitism in the Labour Party was “deeply rooted” in the words of Marie Van Zyl, of the Board of Deputies, is nonsense. I have written previously about anti-semitism real and counterfeit. What the EHRC report fails to comment on is the fact that one of the features of the bitter arguments over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party was the phenomenon of Jewish members who consider themselves to be Zionists accusing other Jewish members who are not, of being anti-Semitic, based on their views on Israel. One thing in the report which, needless to say, the mainstream media has neglected to mention, is the fact that some of those people accused of anti-Semitism were unfairly treated. And even in cases where Jewish members were investigated, but found to have no case to answer, nothing was done to sanction those members who had put in false and vexatious claims.

Anti-Semitism has always been one of a number of means of creating a mentality which binds the supposedly indigenous people together against ‘alien’ forces which are ‘undermining’ their supposed culture. It has been used by the ruling classes the word over as a means of bolstering or securing their political power; of tying ‘the nation’ together, exploiters and exploited (“the rich man at his castle the poor man at his gate”).

Real anti-Semites have no place in the Labour Party. However, genuine anti-semitism cannot be fought by accusing people, Jews included, of being anti-semitic because they don’t support the Israeli state; a state which denies its Arab population equal rights with Jews. Political differences need to be debated openly. A party in which the members fear to discuss an issue for fear of disciplinary consequences cannot flourish as a democratic organisation.

Martin Wicks

November 1st 2020

Postscript. A letter for Labour Party members is circulating which calls for discussion to resolve the issue. We don’t want a compromise with an assault on democracy. Our demand is clear. Reinstate the whip for Corbyn.

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