Chris Williamson speaking at JC4PM, London 2018. Photo: Jim Aindow Chris Williamson speaking at JC4PM, London 2018. Photo: Jim Aindow

The decision to suspend Chris Williamson is a capitulation to the right that only gives more ground for attacks on the left, argues Shabbir Lakha

Chris Williamson MP has been suspended from the Labour Party and has had the whip removed, pending an investigation. What did Williamson do to warrant this disciplinary action? He booked a room in Parliament for a screening of Jackie Walker’s film “Witch hunt” and a video of him speaking at a recent meeting was released in which he says that:

“The party that has done more to stand up to racism is now being demonised as a racist, bigoted party. I’ve got to say, I think our party’s response has been partly responsible for that. Because in my opinion…we’ve backed off too much, we’ve given too much ground, we’ve been too apologetic.”

The charge against Williamson was led by Tom Watson, the Deputy Leader and self-appointed overseer of complaints of antisemitism in the Labour Party, and was quickly backed by anti-racist giants Yvette “we need to be tougher on immigration” Cooper and Margaret “give natives priority for social housing” Hodge.

The attack on Chris Williamson is not new. As one of the most vocal MPs defending Corbyn against the attacks from the right and someone who has maintained his connection with the movements and supporting an antiwar foreign policy, he has been at the front of the firing line for a long time. There have been demands for his suspension on a number of occasions, and last year he was branded as an antisemite and blacklisted by a number of Labour groups around the country.

Williamson’s language may not have been perfectly chosen, but it cannot with any seriousness be interpreted as in any way antisemitic. It is utterly clear what he meant. He was saying that the Labour Party should have challenged the exaggerated claims of antisemitism levelled against it. In this, he is clearly correct. The right has repeatedly been able to rehash the antisemitism smear precisely because the leadership has given credibility to the claims by giving too much ground to them.

The fact of the matter is that by all measures from most surveys and polls, antisemitism in the Labour Party has reduced since 2015, is at a lower level than in society in general and much lower than among Conservative Party members and supporters. It has also been dealt with most energetically in the Labour Party. Recent statistics showing the number of complaints of antisemitism in the last year, the number of them that actually applied to Labour members and the number upheld show very clearly that far from being widespread, antisemitism in Labour is a problem among a tiny fraction of members.

Yes, one case of antisemitism is too many. Yes antisemitism does indeed exist in the Labour party and those claiming it doesn’t are wrong. Yes, MPs like Luciana Berger and others have faced genuine antisemitic abuse (although largely from the far right) and this needs to be unequivocally opposed. But the idea that this means it is antisemitic to call out an overt smear campaign is ridiculous, and it’s sad to see much of the Labour left supporting the attacks on Williamson and cheering his suspension.

The fundamental problem here is that people are failing to locate this attack as part of an overall campaign to undermine or even remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. The attacks on Williamson follow a week dominated by the defections of a group of MPs who used their resignations from Labour to renew the attack on Corbyn’s leadership, which was enthusiastically taken up by the media. Tom Watson then released a video threatening more resignations unless there was ‘a change of direction’ in the party. On the weekend the Mail on Sunday ran a vicious attack by former secret service chief Richard Dearlove on Corbyn advisor Seumas Milne. This week they turned their attention to high profile Corbyn supporter Chris Williamson.

Giving ground to these attacks will do nothing to counter antisemitism and antisemitic hate crimes which are on the rise. Just this week, an elderly Jewish man in Islington was attacked, and reports show that incidents of antisemitic hate crimes have almost tripled in the last ten years. It is the left that is out on the streets campaigning against racism and sharing solidarity with Jewish communities, and it is precisely people like Jeremy Corbyn and Chris Williamson who have been the most ardent supporters of these campaigns.

Making these kinds of concessions won’t stop the attacks. Just like they didn’t when the IHRA definition was adopted, or any other time that the left has made concessions instead of standing up to attacks. This is part of a slow coup that has just picked up pace. What it will do is further weaken the left, encourage the belief that there is a major problem with antisemitism in the Corbyn leadership and demoralise and confuse activists. It will also increase the confidence of Corbyn’s enemies in Labour and the British establishment who stand behind them. The only way to stop the attacks is to stand up to them. Every inch given to the right, is more ground to launch further attacks.

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.