Back to basics

Is waging a war on the left really the way to get people to vote Labour?

JVL Introduction

In this article Talal Hangari looks the recent bout of bans and proscriptions and reminds us of the affront to elementary principles of natural justice and free discussion that they represent.

This isn’t a ‘broad church’, but a leadership clique with one clear goal – to crush the left.

Hangari provides a historical perspective on this current debacle, affirming clearly that ‘Labour should support, not limit, free debate and discussion among its members. The only rational way to conduct politics is to ground our positions on truth, and the only way to find truth is to allow the broadest possible range of views to be expressed in the party.’

Talal Hangari, author of this article, was expelled from the Cambridge University Labour Club in May 2021 for criticising the IHRA definition of antisemitism. (Yes, you read that right!)

This was despite the intervention of Kenneth Stern, the lead author of the IHRA definition, who wrote that he ‘agree[d] with the main argument’ of Hangari’s article and ‘hope[d]’ his ‘suspension [wa]s overturned and the matter dropped’.

Free Speech and the Labour Party: A Historical Perspective

 Talal Hangari

The Left-Liberal tradition has tended to prize rationality in its approach to politics. A corollary of that commitment is adherence to the principle of freedom of expression, which received perhaps its most forceful expression in J.S. Mill’s seminal On Liberty. The only way to know that your beliefs about a subject are justified is, Mill wrote, ‘a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.’  If you have any interest in rationally investigating the truth value of a claim, you should be open to the possibility that, as a fallible human being, you might be wrong. It follows that you should allow others to express their views and debate with, rather than suppress, those who differ with you. But even granting that you’re right about an issue, you should acknowledge that wrong opinions often contain a portion of the truth, and to ignore (or worse, censor) those opinions is to lose out on the truth they might contain. Furthermore, the certainty of your own views does not endow you with the right to decide that no one else should be exposed to opinions you find objectionable.

Labour’s National Executive Committee recently repudiated these elementary principles by voting to proscribe a number of organisations associated with the Labour left, automatically expelling supporters of those groups and sending a clear message to ordinary members: Labour is not a broad church and will not tolerate dissent. It is by now obvious that Keir Starmer’s rhetoric about ‘unity’ in the party leadership election was fraudulent; Labour has unmistakably lurched to the right.

Unfortunately, Labour’s use of draconian disciplinary measures to accomplish factional political objectives will not surprise those familiar with the history of the party. Neither will the use of such measures to attack the Labour left in particular, which has overwhelmingly been the target of proscriptions and arbitrary restrictions on free speech over the years.

The 1950s and ‘60s saw fierce divides in Labour over issues including nuclear weapons, military spending, and further extensions of public ownership. Nye Bevan, the architect of the NHS during the post-war Labour government, emerged as a spokesman for the left in parliament and frequently criticised party leader Clement Attlee in the Commons. Bevan was popular with the membership, but was disapproved of by most Labour MPs and the right-wing union leaders. Mere debate was judged to be an insufficient remedy for his criticisms; instead, the PLP voted by 188 votes in favour to 51 against to prevent Bevanite MPs meeting separately from the rest of the PLP with restrictive standing orders, accusing them of being an ‘organised, secret’ ‘special group within the party’. According to Harold Wilson, then a Bevanite MP, the right-wing of the PLP continued with their own separate meetings.

In 1955, the Shadow Cabinet recommended that the party expel Bevan over his opposition to nuclear weapons tests (a position which large numbers of members agreed with—the 1960 party conference voted in favour of a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament) and his vocal criticisms of the front bench. In the end the motion to expel Bevan was voted down by the NEC, but the attempt is just one of many examples of the shocking contempt for free expression that has pervaded the party at its highest levels for decades. A working-class socialist and lifelong supporter of the labour movement was deemed by senior party members to be outside the margins of reasonable discussion.

Alongside expulsions, proscriptions have been an enduring tool of the Labour right to limit free speech within the party. The Militant Tendency, a Marxist organisation which published its own newspaper and had been part of Labour since 1964, was proscribed by the NEC in December 1982. As a ‘Trotskyite entrist group’ it was deemed ‘ineligible for affiliation to the Party’; hence in 1983 the five members of Militant’s editorial board were all expelled. The fact that Marxists have constituted an important part of the labour movement throughout its history was irrelevant, and the existence of organised factions on the right of the party did not precipitate similar action against them. The NEC’s ability to selectively apply the rules for political purposes is clearly in tension with the rights of ordinary members, especially when a number of NEC positions are not accountable to CLPs.

Keir Starmer has followed the same playbook as his illiberal predecessors. The right-wing of the party have a clear goal: crush the left. It began with Starmer’s cynical firing of left-winger Rebecca Long-Bailey from the front bench for approvingly retweeting an interview in The Independent. Then there was the suspension of Corbyn, followed by his half-hearted reinstatement (laughably, he is now a member of the Labour party who sits in parliament but not a Labour MP). It is clear that Labour has drifted to the right, but contrary to the declarations of anti-Corbyn voices, there has been no concomitant increase in the party’s electoral chances. Starmer’s approval rating is lower than Boris Johnson’s, and Labour continues to lag behind the Tories in the polls. This is during a pandemic in which the Conservatives have overseen the preventable deaths of thousands while simultaneously enriching the British elite. There is a lesson here: Starmer should stop attacking Labour members and get on with providing some semblance of an opposition to the Tories.

Labour should support, not limit, free debate and discussion among its members. The only rational way to conduct politics is to ground our positions on truth, and the only way to find truth is to allow the broadest possible range of views to be expressed in the party. The fact that veteran activists and even MPs have often been the target of disciplinary measures highlights how partisanship and factional allegiance have been valued over this principle. Admittedly, there is some ambiguity about what it means to support the widest latitude for free expression within a political party. Fine judgements may at times be required, and decisions should be made democratically and with reference to the specific facts of any particular case. That caveat aside, there is no question that the NEC’s recent decision, and many similar decisions throughout the party’s history, have unjustly alienated members who believe in Labour’s principles, political programme, and wish to see it succeed in general elections. The party should be much more open to discussion and disagreement than it has been to date.



Comments (13)

  • Alan Maddison says:

    Crushing dissent, censoring free speech, ignoring democratic principles, demonising those in disagreement, rejecting debate…….these are all documented behaviours of Right-Wing Authoritarians.

    The fact that they now characterise Starmer’s Labour is extremely worrying, for we know too well where this can lead if ever the get into power.

  • Paul Smith says:

    The ‘ban’ on supporting these organisations is being applied retrospectively. Starmer’s support for the norms of civil liberties is wafer thin. .

  • John Bowley says:

    I recall, with bitterness, how we were told that the incessant and vote losing undermining of Jeremy Corbyn whilst he was our Labour Party Leader was justifiable free speech and that the Labour Party is a Broad Church.

    Now much the same vote losers are liquidating support within the Party.

  • Dave Bradney says:

    You say: “Talal Hangari, author of this article, was expelled from the Cambridge University Labour Club in May 2021 for criticising the IHRA definition of antisemitism.”

    Now that is peculiar, because over a year ago I wrote to Starmer (emailed, that is) with my extremely detailed criticisms of the logically woeful IHRA “definition”. Response: none.

    And reminded him twice that I wanted an answer. Response: none.

    I am still a party member, in “good standing” I assume.

    I suppose we had better add inconsistency to the charge sheet.

  • William Johnston says:

    The word “rational” turns up several times in this article.

    I often distrust the word, since it can be used as a means to undermine the worth of intuition and to impose somewhat linear and reductive ways of thinking.

    At the other end of the scale, however, there is the wholly irrational and terror-stricken reaction of the right. Threatened by the new and by change, they abandon all rational thinking, and instead impose a weird and moralistic structure which cannot stand up to any sort of reasonable arguments, but whose very strength is based on two essential dictates: 1. We are always right; 2. when we are wrong, dictate no. 1 applies.

    In other words, articles such as this are ultimately useless in the face of right-wing thinking. The arguments presented here are unassailable, and will no more change the course decided on by Starmer, Evans etc., than the Munich agreement was going to prevent WW2.

    That does not mean that we should cease to point out the absurdity and injustice of what is happening; just don’t think that those so determinedly, and desperately protecting their own positions will take any notice whatsoever.

    It also means that we should never give up hope, however irrational – not least in the unexpected. Who, after all, in the wake of Ed Milliband’s resignation could have predicted what would then happen?

  • Stephen Richards says:

    There is no debate because there is no logic to their argument. Frightened of exposure & fraud, the NEC protect themselves from their own ignorance & bias.

  • Hamish says:

    “Labour should support and not limit free debate”. But the history as shown by this excellent article is that this will not happen. The Labour movement has been divided, infiltrated and “controlled”, since at least the General strike. Maybe it’s just inevitable that a capitalist state will, just as the undercover police do with mainly left wing groups, want to keep an eye on and where possible be aware of where opposition to it’s continuing rule is. Divide and rule.

  • Dave Bradney says:

    This says: “In 1955, the Shadow Cabinet recommended that the party expel Bevan over his opposition to nuclear weapons tests”

    That means that adherence to one particular policy was deemed to be essential for continued party membership. Maybe this approach could be justified, but any consideration of it should begin with a discussion around these two questions:

    1. Are members of the party required to agree with every one of its policies? and if the answer to that is No:

    2. Should the party’s policies be categorised as either mandatory or optional for membership, with each policy allocated to one category or the other?

    In the discussion of the events concerning Militant in the eighties, an attempt is made to delegitimse the use of proscriptions with the remark that “The fact that Marxists have constituted an important part of the labour movement throughout its history was irrelevant”.

    Maybe a simple “no proscriptions” approach to how the party deals with organisations whose decision-making takes place wholly or partly outside party structures could be justified, but difficulties with this approach do seem to be apparent even before you consider the history of this within the labour movement. “Entryism” is a practice that tends to be associated with various strands of Trotskyism, at various times, but it would be naive to assume that other types of Marxist don’t also see the potential usefulness of this idea and sometimes act upon it.

    Being a bottom-up socialist, I like decisions, positions, campaigns etc to originate from the grassroots of my own organisation, not elsewhere. That way I and other members will all have had their democratic opportunity to exert some influence over what happens.

  • Sabine Ebert-Forbes says:

    And Hamish, display blindness on the right eye and deafness in the right ear. We all know what that led to. Equally independent thinking does appear to be equally looked upon with disdain. It has come as quite a shock to see people in my clp/branch having seemingly abandoned labour values with an ease,that I cannot understand.

  • Nigel Haines says:

    The bewildered hand-ringing of some on the Party’s Left at the actions of the current right-wing cabal of careerist MP’s backed by full-time officials is no surprise to me. What did you expect in the wake of the right-wing’s challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership after they’d got over the shock of his stunning victory in 2015? Does anyone seriously think the likes of the Kinnock clan, who’ve legally “earned” remuneration of an estimated £10 million in their lifetime of “service” in salaries as European commissioner and MPs, not to mention Blair whose “services” to George W. Bush’s war in Iraq must’ve amounted to a pretty penny judging by press reports of the size of Tony’s property portfolio, would simply give up?. Their ilk won’t depart the political scene and their rights to keep their noses in the trough of capitalism without a helluva fight.
    The Right have shown over decades and decades that they see the “Broad Church” mantra as a useful ploy to keep the Left quiet but when we look like really overturning their cosy accommodation to the Tories, their true political nature is exposed. They are ideological agents of the Tories in the Labour movement and should be dealt with accordingly.
    The path is clear, opposition must be organised for a showdown at this year’s Party Conference. Either the Right’s political perfidy of expulsions and proscribing is overturned, or the Left stages a walkout with the resultant bad publicity for the Starmer gang and there’s the formation of a new Party of Socialist Labour which will organise candidates to stand against all right-wing Labour candidates in any General Election to make sure their access to the Westminster gravy train is ended.

  • Richard Hobson says:

    Is it not time to bite the bullet and drop our electoral support for these right wing bullies? I for one won’t be walking the streets nor standing in a draughty polling station entrance. Neither will they get my vote, I shall abstain or vote for a left wing candidate, unless, of course, the Labour candidate is from the left. This might mean another Tory government, but then Blair and his ilk would have sat comfortably in the Heath cabinet of the 70s so there’s not a lot of difference.
    Some will regard this view as heresy but a few more good electoral spankings may be the only way to teach the centrists that they no longer have the answer to electoral success.

  • Eddie Dougall says:

    Agree wholeheartedly with Talal Hangari’s article.
    Contrast the current Starmer authoritarian rule to the Corbyn leadership when if anything he was too forgiving of those who were viciously attacking him e.g. Jess Philips offering to “stab him in the front” rather than the back. She then goes on, under Starmer, to get the position of defending women against attacks less extreme than hers.
    Ken Loach expulsion being the latest and most unthinking of the vindictive regime.

  • Doug says:

    Lot of hand wringing and intellectual atom splitting, the idea you have design the house on the hill before you buy the land is the worst kind of middle class bollocks
    Houston we have a problem, Red Tories, Houston we have a solution, they are in the wrong party so let’s get them out
    If there is not decisive challenges made at conference then we will bankrupt the party and force them out, they are pursuing a scorched earth policy so never again will someone like JC get another chance
    Labour Day
    Tuesday 5th October
    Resign and withdraw funding at every level en masse
    Invoice in the post

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