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Black Lives Matter protest

Black Lives Matter protest, Photo: Socialist Appeal Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY 2.0, linked at bottom of article

John Woodcock’s record shows the absurdity of his review into “progressive extremism” and the transparency of the government’s attempts to criminalise protest, writes Yonas Makoni

It is hard to know where to start with the news that ‘Lord Walney’ (a.k.a. John Woodcock) is heading a review into the ‘extreme fringes of the hard-Left and far-Right in the UK’. Lord Walney’s comments to the Telegraph focused on the dangers of far-left groups ‘hijacking important causes’ and on ‘noble and essential movements’ like Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter ‘overstepping the mark into antisocial behaviour’.

Of immediate concern is the incredibly elastic definition of ‘extremism’, which in this instance seems to mean anything Woodcock finds distasteful. This handy definition allows him to equate XR activists blocking the traffic around Trafalgar Square and the Socialist Workers Party holding Zoom meetings entitled ‘BLM: Racism, resistance and revolution’ with the racist violence and political assassinations (e.g. Jo Cox) of the far-Right.

Woodcock argues that BLM are extremist because they “have pushed a very hardline and absolutist view about defunding the police”, which was “a world away from where the vast majority of [BLM] supporters would be”. This “risks taking attention away from really legitimate and urgent debates on reform which may need to be had”, he claims.

On the other hand, there is supposedly a purity in the social movements that is at risk of being corrupted by ‘entryist’ groups like the SWP. These “anti-democracy, anti-capitalist far-Left fringe groups” are presumably infiltrating and manipulating these movements by sharing their points of view within them and handing out placards at their protests.

The implications of this definition of extremism are clearly very worrying and leave the door open for all sorts of abuse. If Woodcock disagrees with socialist groups, perhaps he should argue against them politically, rather than try to legislate them out of existence. Surely, the extremist view is the one that declares itself the arbiter of what counts as acceptable opinion?

In a twist of fate, Woodcock’s own antisocial behaviour has also risked taking attention away from this debate. Earlier in his Parliamentary career, he made a name for himself as a rabid anti-Corbynite, declaring in 2018 that “Labour has been taken over at nearly every level by the hard left, far beyond the dominance they achieved at the height of 1980s militancy”.

He branded himself as a fierce supporter of the extremist regimes in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Visiting Istanbul in 2017, he met members of the far-right MHP party and praised Erdogan’s “fight against terrorism”. In 2016, he argued against Labour’s call to end British support for Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen, calling it an “empty gesture” and arguing that the Saudis were “the only influence who can bring about change”. Meeting with the Saudi King in 2018, he said he was “hugely struck by the King’s ambition to modernise the country”.

Suspended from the Labour Party in 2018 over sexual harassment allegations, which he denies, he went independent and urged people to back Boris Johnson in the 2019 election. He then stepped down as an MP in 2019 before the general election, having reduced a Labour majority of 5,000 votes to one of 219.

With such a record of self-serving opportunism and disloyalty to both party and constituents, it is hard to imagine anyone more suited for a high-ranking position with the current government. So of course Boris nominated him for the House of Lords, where he now serves as a life peer, before appointing him as the ‘independent advisor on political violence and disruption’.

Woodcock’s hardline anti-Leftism also makes him an ideal candidate to head this review which is clearly a continuation of the government’s recent crusades against ‘wokeism’. While he briefly mentions that far-Right extremism is the more dangerous of the two, it should not be forgotten that this report was commissioned by a government which has moved ever closer to the far-Right ideologically while vigorously attacking the Left.

In recent months, Priti Patel has spared no effort denouncing the movement. In September, she called XR ‘criminals who disrupt our free society’ and said the movement was a ‘shameful attack on our way of life’. On Friday, she attacked the Black Lives Matter protests, calling them ‘dreadful’ and saying, in a Freudian slip, that she doesn’t ‘support protest’.

Similarly, in December equalities minister Liz Truss launched a bizarre tirade against schools teaching awareness of racism and sexism and the corrosive influence of ‘postmodern philosophy’. And a month later, corrupt housing minister Robert Jenrick heroically intervened in the Telegraph to ‘save Britain’s statues from the woke militants who want to erase our past’.

Woodcock is clearly a willing stooge in this campaign, which has intensified as the government continues to lose legitimacy over its handling of the Covid crisis. Perhaps then, this review is not so much an attempt to criminalise opposition, as it is an appeal to the ‘moral majority’ who feel disconnected from these new social movements and, specifically, the identity politics prevalent within them.

Although it is easy to mock this seemingly desperate attempt, the biggest danger here is that the left takes the bait and accepts the government’s framing of the situation. We shouldn’t accept the government’s one-dimensional characterisation of these movements. In reality, there is no contradiction between the interests of the ‘white working class’, as Truss would have it, and the aims of BLM and the fight against climate change.

Woodcock’s role in this exemplifies how far the Labour Right will go in fighting back against the movement. In spite of superficial disagreements, the establishment still stands firmly united against any attempt to challenge the status quo. In order to succeed, the movement must stand equally strong against the government’s petty attempts to divide it.

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