Photo: Jeremy Corbyn / Revealing Brexit Documents / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, linked at the bottom of article Photo: Jeremy Corbyn / Revealing Brexit Documents / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, linked at the bottom of article

The Labour right has always been hostile to the left, but the ferocity of Starmer’s attacks is exceptional, argues Martin Hall

There is much debate on the left regarding whether Labour’s current situation is exceptional or simply a return to business as usual.

It is, in a sense, both.

The post-Corbyn Thermidor was expected by many outside and inside the Labour Party, but its speed and severity has taken us all by surprise.

8 months into the Starmer leadership, which was won on a commitment in his ten pledges to “maintain our radical values and work tirelessly to get Labour in to power”, the left has been purged from the shadow cabinet, Jeremy Corbyn has been suspended, and the witch-hunt against the left in the party is in overdrive, with many activists suspended.

A disproportionate number of those activists are Jews investigated for alleged antisemitism, comments made regarding the level of antisemitism, or for being in proximity to individuals Labour deems undesirable.

Playing fast and loose

In perhaps the most egregious case, Jewish socialist and Professor of Logic Moshe Machover has been suspended (having been expelled and reinstated in 2017) for “conduct online and offline”, an element of which is association at a demonstration with someone “who should be shunned”, a phrase that would occasion laughter and bring to mind Monty Python sketches, if it weren’t being used to attack socialists. 

Moreover, Labour’s Governance and Legal Unit appears to have been playing fast and loose with the party’s own rules, with a part of its Social Media Policy being grafted onto a letter to Machover in the context of an allegation not pertaining to social media.

Jewish Voice for Labour activist Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi also finds herself suspended – simply for saying that she is uncomfortable with the suspension of other party members.

Meanwhile, Deputy Leader Angela Rayner has announced that she personally will suspend “thousands upon thousands” unless they “get real” about antisemitism.

Leaving aside the fact that this is the sort of interference in process that the EHRC Report condemned, what it means in practice is any socialist who disagrees with the line the party leadership is now taking on what it deems to be antisemitism stands at risk of suspension.

Stories are appearing daily on social media about CLPs not allowing motions to be debated regarding Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension. In one CLP in the north west, the chair cut off anyone attempting to discuss the situation and repeatedly ignored a Jewish member who had her hand up to speak for the entire meeting.

Louise Regan, a much-respected NEU activist and campaigner for Palestine, has been suspended from Nottingham East CLP, which she chairs, based on one Jewish member supposedly feeling uncomfortable with the tabling and subsequent discussion of a motion calling for Jeremy Corbyn to have the whip reinstated.

Louise’s own MP, Nadia Whittome, a member of the Socialist Campaign Group no less, intervened against the “out of order” motion, in language using very similar terminology to her deputy leader:

Our members need to get real … if they think making people feel unsafe or unwelcome in our meetings is a response to the EHRC report then they need to be out of our party immediately.

The only appropriate response to this nonsense is to state that if people think such a discussion can in any way make anyone feel unsafe, then they have taken leave of their senses. They certainly shouldn’t be in a political party or any other organisation where ideas, strategy and tactics are contested.

Open authoritarianism

What has provided the impetus for these actions? A letter from Dave Evans, the party’s General Secretary, telling members that they cannot discuss the Corbyn case, and offering guidance.

This is being interpreted – as it was designed to be – by right-wing chairs to stop any discussion of the party’s response to the EHRC report, of the levels of antisemitism in the party, and to stymie Palestine activism and criticism of Israeli apartheid.

In terms of the latter, East London Palestine Solidarity Campaign has reported that Bethnal Green & Bow, and Poplar & Limehouse CLPs, have ruled motions supporting the annual “Big Ride for Palestine” event out of order based on the Evans letter.

That’s a charity bike ride now deemed beyond the pale.

This is unabashed authoritarianism. It is exceptional in a number of ways:

  1. Because the former leader of the party who took them into a general election 12 months ago has been suspended, reinstated, then had the whip withdrawn, against the wishes of the party’s National Executive Committee
  2. Because it mirrors structurally what happened in mid-century USA in the extraordinary McCarthy era, where to suggest that accusations of communism were exaggerated was to leave yourself open to the accusation that therefore, you must be a communist
  3. Because of the absolutely one-sided reporting of this in the corporate media, which has throughout the period of the Corbyn leadership and after ignored the figures, and routinely allowed organisations like the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Labour Movement (which you don’t have to be Jewish or a Labour Party member to join) to present themselves as the spokespersons of a supposedly homogenous Jewish community in the first case, and the entire Jewish membership of Labour in the second
  4. Because it involves dismissing other Jewish voices, often in ways that are antisemitic
  5. Because of the sheer ferocity and scale of the attacks

Regarding the figures, when a survey asked prior to the 2019 general election how may Labour members were being investigated for antisemitism, the average estimate given was 34%. The actual figure was 0.1%, which give us a three hundred-fold level of exaggeration. None of that exaggeration has done anything to help fight antisemitism.

The causes of the clampdown

In terms of the ferocity, as Kevin Ovenden has written, the Labour leadership intends “every fortnight” to “disinter the body of Corbynism 2015-2019 and ritualistically execute it”. This is being done without mercy.

Why? Partly because, in general, the Labour right is better at fighting the left than the left is at fighting the right, as it has no interest in party unity. It understands that they’re not on the same side.

However, the level of vitriol can only be explained if we understand just how much of an exception Corbynism was in Labour’s history.  

Corbynism was the British expression of a wider radicalisation reflected in the emergence of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

In the UK, with the first past the post system, and the fact that Labour had always had a small radically reforming left within its ranks, it happened in a mainstream social democratic party (indeed in one which had lurched to the neoliberal right over many years) thanks to rule changes brought in by the previous leadership, and the organising efforts of the left in and out of Labour.

It was by far the most radical, dynamic and effective left-wing movement that has ever emerged in Labour. It was in a sense a left-wing insurgency in the party that reflected a deep opposition not just to the Tories but to the neoliberal regime in general. It spread panic among the party’s previously dominant right and centre.

It was defeated, and as Chris Nineham argues here, its defeat was a clear indication of the impossibility of reforming Labour.

Now, Starmer and the party bureaucracy want to bury not just the Corbyn movement but the very memory of it. And we haven’t even discussed the context of all of this: a pandemic and the deepest recession since records began.

Their response is to spend their time fighting the left, abstaining on much of what goes through the Commons, and abrogating even the slightest responsibility for standing up for the working class, who are going to be asked to pay for the crisis once more.

While an understanding of the party’s history does forearm us regarding these swings to the right, the tendency of the centre and soft left to go along with that after a defeat, and Labour’s weakness regarding putting working people first, the ferocity of what is being unleashed against the party’s left wing is exceptional.

It is nothing less than an attempt to paint the last 5 years as an aberration, grind the fighting left in the party into the dust, further demoralise those who stay, and ensure that never again does the left gain power in the party.

The task for the left

At the time of writing 76 CLPs have passed motions either supporting the whip being returned to Jeremy Corbyn, expressing solidarity with him, no confidence in Keir Starmer or Dave Evans, or calling for the guidance mentioned above to be withdrawn.

Still, the numbers supporting Starmer’s decision and those wanting the whip reinstated for the former leader are pretty much the same. Some of those will be on the right, and some will have told themselves that this is the way to electoral success in 2024.

That logic of tailing bourgeois politics runs through the party’s history since its formation.

Of course, the campaign to defend Corbyn needs to be fought hard by those in and outside of Labour. But the events of the last five years, and the sheer viciousness of those now running Labour should convince us of the need to re-establish the left on a new basis.

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