Do Britain’s Liberal Democracts care about evidence and free speech?

Jo Swinson, Andrew Marr show. Screengrab.

JVL Introduction

In a brave statement in openDemocracy, eight Liberal Democrats speak out – unhappily but firmly – against their Party’s willingess to exploit allegations of leftwing and Labour antisemitism against all the evidence.

This article was originally published by openDemocracy on Mon 16 Sep 2019. Read the original here.

Lib Dem members: party line on Labour anti-Semitism is ‘ill-judged and uncritical'

Party group call for Lib Dem leadership to distance itself from Labour anti-Semitism ‘smear campaign’.

We are a group of Liberal Democrats proud of the recent growth in support for our party, but seriously concerned that our leaders’ repeated utterances about alleged antisemitism have not been based on sound evidence. We have tried to raise this issue with them and get it discussed within the party, but much to our disappointment, have encountered a total refusal, as if the topic were taboo. The experience has led us to publish this article.

There exists prejudice against Jews and other minorities in all corners of British society, but we have found no hard evidence behind repeated assertions (echoed by the Lib Dem leadership) that it is exceptional or rampant on the Labour left. Since 2017, some of us have been trying to get the leadership to discuss the issue properly, but without success. The experience motivated us to form this group, and write them an open letter in May, asking them to “tell the truth about alleged antisemitism”. We highlighted three problems:

  • repeated public statements by party leaders lending our voice to constant media allegations that the Labour Party was a den of rampant left-wing antisemitism; we attached hard statistical evidence that they were based on unproven and unsourced information, and were stifling rational debate about both Israel/Palestine and the dangers of antisemitism and racism.
  • the party’s federal board had unreasonably suspended ‘Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine’ (LDFP), alleging antisemitism, mainly on account of LDFP posting on its website a link to an article pointing out that a pro-Israel donor was funding the breakaway Independent Group (TIG) of MPs. The federal board provided no evidence that the article was in any way inaccurate or antisemitic in intent.
  • The Party had uncritically adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of antisemitism with its eleven ‘examples’, notwithstanding weighty evidence that pro-Israel lobbyists and media allies were using it to shield Israel’s Zionist doctrine (supported by many millions of US “Christian Zionists”) from any criticism, and close down free speech on Israel and Palestine (see here for example). We advocated reverting to a simple OED-type definition like hostile to or prejudiced against Jews.

We did not get any response from the Party leadership, but tried to get the topic discussed on four different Lib Dem online forums, only to find ourselves shut out of one platform after another. On one of them, Party activists and officers subjected us and others to troll-like abuse. We have formally complained about our treatment but, having seen no action since 16 June, are not holding our breath.

The federal board has now reinstated LDFP, but under unjustified and humiliating conditions that will make it much harder for it to speak truth to power and question the IHRA definition.

Our party leaders need to rise to the challenge

The recent leadership campaign provided the party leaders with an opportunity to reset its compass on this topic, but they instead continued giving credence to the idea that the Labour Party is a den of antisemitism, notably at a hustings on 10 July and in answers to questions from Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (LDFI). At the hustings, Jo Swinson spoke of Jewish people leaving the country if Jeremy Corbyn is elected prime minister.

At another event on 1 July, the ex-Labour ex-TIG MP Chuka Umunna baldly accused Labour of being “racist”; earlier statements show that he meant Labour was “institutionally antisemitic”. In taking this position, Umunna contradicted a statement he made in 2016, to the effect that Labour was not institutionally antisemitic and that he had not seen a single case in his local party in over 20 years.

A Huffington Post article reported Jo Swinson accusing Jeremy Corbyn of using “’Disgusting’ Trump-Style Spin” in criticising the Panorama documentary entitled “Is Labour antisemitic?” Many viewers may have been taken in by this documentary, but Lib Dems needed to exercise more diligence and critically review what others have said before making any public judgements.

A series of authors have analysed the documentary and found it biased and unprofessional. This group of Cambridge Labour party members have revealed a litany of shortcomings involving unreliable or disreputable witnesses, untruthful statements, failure to platform alternative views and expert opinion, double standards regarding so-called “gagging orders”, and the selective use of material. No less than eight of those interviewed as witnesses to “antisemitic incidents” are office-holders or former office-holders in the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), a partisan group affiliated to the World Zionist Organization which funds illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land. Amazingly, the makers of the documentary concealed the names of all but one of these individuals, and at no time mentioned their JLM affiliations.

The Media Reform Coalition analysed the documentary and found serious shortcomings in relation to the BBC’s own editorial guidelines for impartiality and accuracy, going on to say that the BBC’s principal failure was its unwillingness to acknowledge important errors of judgment in making the programme.

We could have more easily understood the approach of leading Lib Dems if they had simply avoided adopting a position on antisemitism allegations during the leadership campaign, and taken their time to study the evidence. It is a pity they launched into an ill-judged and uncritical endorsement of allegations against the Labour Party.

“We must not legitimise an obvious smear campaign that involves media collusion and false personal attacks.”

Lib Dems have a great role to play in fighting Jeremy Corbyn, whose endless dithering over Brexit and old Labour economics make him an easy target. However, we must distance ourselves from the gutter politics that intimidates people and destroys free speech. We must not legitimise an obvious smear campaign that involves media collusion and false personal attacks on large numbers of decent people, including hundreds of Corbyn-supporting Jews.

Instead of this, we should foster healthy internal debate on policy issues of this kind, base our positions on solid evidence and act in accordance with the Party’s pro-Leveson policy on the regulation of the Press, which means helping people hold the media to account for spreading false narratives. We also need to ensure that our new complaints process is effective in holding the Party to account to its ordinary membership.

Signed by:

Jonathan Coulter
Peter Downey
John Hall
Roger Higginson
Dr Thomas Hugh Manning
Pamela Manning
John Payne
Penny Rivers

Comments (9)

  • Jack Epstein says:

    Sense at last particularly the comment about Corbyn !

  • dave says:

    I’ve never known the LibDems to play fair, probably because their policies are just watered down Conservatism these days so they have nothing much of substance to say, but they used to have a lot of nasty far right people involved in the old Liberal days.

    The above is a bit rich coming from a party whose leader was a cheerleader for Tory austerity and which has admitted a bunch of chancers and bigots from Labour and the Tories. As if playing fair on Labour ‘antisemitism’ will make them look better…

  • Jonathan Coulter says:

    Dave, I find your comment extraordinarily small and sectarian. Eight Lib Dems have defied their party leadership and risked the anger of fellow party members in order to do what is right by their own individual consciences – – and you accuse them of simply trying to “look better”.

  • Janet Crosley says:

    Thank you for printing this letter. There are honest people everywhere.

  • Elizabeth Ramsden says:

    Comforting to know that there are courageous and principled people in the LIB DEM unlike their leadership. I think Jo Swinton is going to be the worst LIB Dem leader. She’s too power hungry.

  • Andrew Hornung says:

    No surprises here! As is well documented “The Antisemitism Wars” (edited by Karl Sabbagh), on 26th October 2016 the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Jenny Tonge chaired a pro-Palestine meeting in Parliament which was subsequently attacked as having been anti-Semitic. Who led the attack? Four Liberal Democrat peers WHO HAD NOT EVEN ATTENDED. Fortunately the meeting was filmed so the House of Lords’ investigator soon established that the accusations were groundless. (Incidentally it was also established that the contributor, speaking from the floor, whose views were alleged to be anti-Semitic, was a member of Neturi Karta.)
    Tonge was forced out of the Liberal Democrats.
    So when those MPs most strident in their defamatory accusations against Labour decided to jump ship it was obvious where they would find a warm welcome.
    The Liberal Democrats present a crystal-clear example of the corrupting influence of imperialist ideas on those priding themselves on their high-minded morality.

  • TM says:

    Despite the Liberal Democrat’s opportunism and appalling record of backing a Tory austerity government which led directly to our present crises and the suffering (and deaths) of thousands I welcome this statement by the eight. They highlight the total lack of democracy and curb on free speech in their party. It seems to reflect very clearly our own Blairite wing of the LP. Undoubtedly our own leadership needed to have taken a firm stand against the political weaponisation of antisemitism from the very start. But any stand now against this cynical play with any form of racism for political advancement is to be welcomed. The Establishment has long used racism to divide and rule. Austerity is a misnomer. It actually means an attack on the working class. Antisemitism used by the LIb Dem leadership to attack the progressive policies of Labour is part of that attack.

  • Sheridan Marks says:

    The LD leadership is appalling in its use of second/third hand smears of Jeremy Corbyn concerning AS. Swinson and others are repeating the lies of the MSM without any evidence to justify their allegations. I fully support and stand by Corbyn with his excellent record of fighting AS all his life!!!

  • dave says:

    Jonathan, I respect your stand against fake antisemitism but you cannot or choose not to divorce yourself from the rest of the toxicity of the LibDems. You are posting here on a socialist site and that’s just not you. Remove the fake issue and what remains is real.

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