If not now, when? Democracy and the Labour Party

JVL Introduction

We publish here the text of a talk given by Graham Bash, Political Officer of Jewish Voice for Labour, on Saturday 30 January, on the theme of “The Labour Party, Free Speech and Democracy”.

The meeting was billed as “ NOT a Labour Party meeting but an opportunity for Labour Party members to discuss the issues that aren’t allowed to be discussed in Labour Party meetings.”

Although Graham Bash spoke in his personal capacity, JVL Officers subsequently met, considered Graham’s talk and have given it their full endorsement.

Graham Bash said

We are in the eye of a storm. Just to organise this meeting can get you suspended. As we have seen. The whole of the left is assessing its response – so I speak today in a personal capacity.

I want to make two basic points:

First, this attack on free speech is unprecedented in my lifetime. 

Secondly, although we are facing and fighting this attack primarily in the Labour Party, it is an issue that goes well beyond the Labour Party.

We are at a critical moment – having to fight for free speech simultaneously at a number of different levels. And the breadth of that threat – the all-embracing nature of the attack – must help us assess what we do in the party itself.

Firstly, of course is the fight in the Labour Party. 52 years ago almost to the day I joined the Labour Party. I have been a member ever since. This is the worst attack on free speech I have ever experienced. Even war criminal Blair never attempted to silence the opposition!

A number of us face the threat of expulsion if we insist on telling the truth – the truth about Jeremy Corbyn, on antisemitism in the party, on the report of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, even talking about the witch-hunt gets you witch-hunted – or speaking on the same platform – or defending – those who have been expelled.

In the recent wave, I understand that at least 74 party officers have been suspended, no doubt more by now.

And now – ultimate irony – party branches are being instructed that resolutions to affiliate to JVL are out of order. An instruction with no basis in the rules of the party.

There are now growing calls for the left to leave the Labour Party. I oppose this – BUT if we stay, we have to fight as a visible focal point of resistance. That is the only chance we have of stopping a mass exodus. The days of keeping our head down are over.

What is remarkable is how party members and constituency Labour Parties have resisted – without leadership from the top. In so many parties we have said no. We do not accept your diktat. We will tell the truth. On the latest count there are 80 CLPs who have defied the instruction to be silent, and 160 secretaries and chairs of 235 CLPs who have written a letter of protest to the General Secretary elect.

We have repeated – and I do so today – the words that got Jeremy suspended in the first place – yes, the scale of the problem of antisemitism in the Labour Party was “dramatically overstated for political reasons.”

I am furious that Jewish members are being used as a political football in what is a blatantly factional manoeuvre. And I can do without offensive references to the feelings of the ‘Jewish community’. Jewish people, like all peoples are diverse – we are Zionists, non-Zionists, anti-Zionists. There is not a single Jewish voice. But this is more than just a fight for the Labour Party, though I will come back to this.

Secondly, this is also a fight against racism.

What is so disturbing is that the real structural racism in British society today – against Black and Asian people – is in the Labour Party sidelined, relegated.  Never mind Windrush deportations, police violence, disproportionate imprisonment, economic injustice, Grenfell – the Chakrabarti report, remember, was a report into ‘antisemitism and other forms of racism’. The report denied it, but there is a hierarchy of anti-racism.

And let us remember, to our shame, when Marc Wadsworth said just that at the launch of the Chakrabarti report – reminding us that the narrative of anti-black racism was silenced – what did the party – and much of the left – do? Apologise, recognise the truth of what he was saying, show solidarity? No, none of these things – we expelled him!

So how do we fight this hierarchy of anti-racism?

I have been investigated – and exonerated – by the party for using the words ‘Jewish exceptionalism’. This was how I answered it. Quote

“Through political experience, inner struggle and self-clarification I have become a socialist, internationalist, universalist Jew. This means that I understand that the oppression of peoples, religions and classes is interconnected. Universalism is opposed to ‘exceptionalism’ or ‘particularism’ which sees each oppression as separate from all others. I am opposed to all exceptionalism, whether black, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or any other form of exceptionalism which places the fight against one form of oppression above the fight against any other. I believe there is no hierarchy of anti-racism. To me all racisms are equally abhorrent.”  End quote.

This divide between the anti-racist struggles is dangerous. What happened at Millwall football club recently sent a shiver down my spine – racist football fans attacking supporters of the Black Lives Matter bending of the knee as antisemites. I first saw that five years ago in Thanet when the far right attacked us on the left as antisemites for attending a meeting at which my partner Jackie Walker was speaking against racism.

In those last five years I have had the privilege – at times a doubtful privilege – of seeing these issues through her eyes. I have seen and felt her pain and anger as she has been attacked and vilified, her heritages challenged, her ancestors’ histories made invisible.  There were references in the papers before her disciplinary hearing to her “unhealthy obsession with the African Holocaust” – a reference which the party refused to delete. Just imagine if that had been said about the Jewish Holocaust.

I remember my own history too. As a child, I was told “Hitler should have finished the job and put you Jews in the gas ovens”, or “You Jews killed our Jesus”, and at football matches the singing: “I’ve never felt more gassing the Jews”. This was prejudice, not institutional racism, not an equivalent of anti-Black or anti-Asian racism depriving me of power – but it did have its impact. And my experience of racism – and the traditions I learned from my dad about the lessons of Cable Street and the need for working class unity against racism and fascism – led me all those years ago to the labour movement.

And this is the conundrum. There is a substantial socialist internationalist Jewish left in Britain around the JVL and beyond. There is also a section of the right and among supporters of Israel – Jewish and non-Jewish – who have cynically manipulated the issue of antisemitism as a weapon to defeat the left. Those like Angela Rayner (what Jeremy said may have been correct but it was unacceptable to say it) and Margaret Hodge (trivialising the Holocaust when facing discipline in the PLP was like waiting for the knock on the door in Nazi Germany).

But this is not just a binary divide – socialist internationalists against cynical manipulators. Life is rarely that easy.

I was part of that generation of Jews born in Britain soon after the war, soon after the Jewish Holocaust. We were safe. And yet the Holocaust was part of the collective memory – the collective trauma – of many Jews, and it still is.

I know this because it was part of me, too. For years until I was in my ’20s I had a recurring nightmare – being chased and caught by Nazi concentration camp guards, they took my trousers down, saw I was circumcised and I knew I was doomed.

I remember a meeting of my previous CLP in Hackney some five years ago, early on in Corbyn’s leadership when the issue of antisemitism in the party first raised its head. I saw it among some young Jewish Labour members – a terror, a terror without foundation. This wasn’t contrived for political reasons. For them it was real. I remember my gut response was to feel empathy – I didn’t find the courage, but my instinct was to put arms around one of the young men and to say to him, “It’s all right, you have nothing to fear”.

So there is this fear, at times terror, that has no basis in any current objective reality. It is this that makes the crime of those who exploit this fear for factional purposes all the greater – and all the more dangerous.

So how do we begin to connect? Certainly not by conceding to the agenda that feeds that terror, certainly not by apologising for something for which we are not responsible. Our answer is both to understand and empathise and to tell the truth about the realities of racism in modern day Britain – and to repeat the message of universalism as their route out of the ghetto of exceptionalism. To connect, always connect, the struggles, not reinforce the separation!

Thirdly this is a fight against the silencing of Palestinian voices.

The voices which witness the occupation, the daily assaults, curfews, arbitrary arrests, detentions, house demolitions, travel restrictions, checkpoints, irrigation systems destroyed, exclusion and discrimination in the Israeli state and Occupied Territories.

We have been told in the Labour Party we cannot say this – so let me say it. Israel is a racist endeavour. It is an apartheid state. It is a state, as Ilan Pappe so graphically put it, born of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. For saying these things many of us lifelong anti-racists are labelled as antisemitic or – if we are Jewish – as self-haters or even ‘kapos’. I have spent the entire lockdown reading book after book on the rise of the Nazis and about the Jewish Holocaust. These allegations are so deeply offensive.

And in today’s Labour Party we are banned even from discussing a motion to support a charity bike ride for Palestinian children.

Above all, this is about our right to think, interrogate, question, challenge – and we even face a clampdown on our right to discuss historical issues.

We must be free to examine our histories on the basis that no peoples have a monopoly of truth or right. Victims of oppression in time can become perpetrators of oppression. That is the dialectic of history, the inter-connectedness of all peoples. That is our internationalist response against all forms of exceptionalism.

Yes, to discuss historical events may be controversial – even to some, offensive. But party members have been disciplined for talking about history. Above all, Ken Livingstone for raising the issue of the Haavara Agreement reached by some Zionists in Germany and in the US which led to the breaking of the anti-Hitler economic boycott. These are often complex issues. We don’t have to agree. But let’s have those debates – we may all learn something if we do – because to ban discussion about our histories leads to the outlawing of thought and ultimately to the burning of books – another lesson from history! Continue like this and we will end up burning the books of Ilan Pappe and so many others who tell the truth about Palestine, of Hannah Arendt  and Primo Levi whose universalism challenges the prevailing accepted hierarchies.

But if we decide to silence our own voices on our own history – remember we are silencing other voices too – the narratives of oppression – the voices of the African slaves and their descendants, the voices of the Palestinian people today. Because all peoples are connected, if we silence one history, we end up silencing them all.

What connects all of this is the fight for freedom of speech and freedom of thought – in the Labour Party and beyond.

They are trying to prevent us from discussing:

  • the EHRC report – from raising the slightest criticism even though it is fundamentally flawed – not just politically, but legally shot through with errors;
  • to prevent us from discussing the witch-hunting of Jeremy;
  • to prevent us from discussing the racist nature of the Israeli state;
  • And now threats to free speech in our universities which face funding cuts if they do not implement the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

This clampdown is becoming sinister.

So we in the party have to fight – but how? 

Those 80 CLPs and party secretaries and chairs are heroes who didn’t ask for – or wait for – permission. That is our inspiration – the basis and the beginnings of our resistance. These and our Labour left groups we have built in the last six years. We must connect and unite from the bottom, link up with the left of the NEC, the trade unions and beyond – build alliances and resist. Yes, there are a number of separate campaigns – the suspended officers’ group, Labour in Exile, Save Our Socialists, the call from Labour Black Socialists for a selective boycott of campaigns for those Labour candidates who refuse to recognise the issue of racism – well good, we should support them all as the indispensable beginning of our resistance.  Our task is to connect them and ensure that  the trade unions, the NEC lefts, and left MPs are centrally involved.

But there is a problem. Comrades are leaving the party in disgust. And now under the hammer blows of suspensions, we are having to work out what to do next.

Some good comrades advise us: keep your heads down, don’t get suspended or expelled, wait for Labour Party conference. Keep the Labour left intact.

At other times this may have made some sense – but now? Wait for a conference that may not even happen? That may not even allow us the right to dissent?

And another call – wait for the council elections so we can get our left wing councillors elected. Well, not if you are in Bristol where a South West Region officer has just sacked left, suspended candidates.

This is the face of Starmer’s Labour Party.

If we do not act now what will be left of the Labour left come conference?

And work out what it means.

With the wave of suspensions any of us could well be CLP secretaries or chairs. I am now our CLP’s vice-chair. If our chair gets suspended, I’m next in line. Am I prepared to rule out of order resolutions because the General Secretary elect doesn’t like what it says?

I am not for unnecessary confrontation – and I am not saying that we campaign only on the witch-hunt, and certainly not that we must always raise it at every meeting. Of course in formulating our response and the wording of our resolutions, the particular circumstances of our local party, the balance of forces, how best to keep the local left together – all these factors must be seriously and responsibly considered.

But I think the minimum position is for left officers to inform party members of the diktat, instruction, advice, whatever the term, from the Gen Sec elect or from region – and let the meeting decide. But if we take it upon ourselves to rule out motions, if we police and stifle our movement’s resistance – we become part of the problem – and as a force for socialist transformation, we will be finished.

It won’t be easy – but there is no alternative.


Comments (30)

  • DJ says:

    I agree with the sentiments of this considered article. These are unprecedented times. Unity of purpose is required. Supporters of this site and JVL as a valued organisation should be under no illusions about the threats we face.

  • Paul Smith says:

    With regard to Jackie Walker, ‘There were references in the papers before her disciplinary hearing to her “unhealthy obsession with the African Holocaust” – a reference which the party refused to delete.’ Could the relevant pages be published? Since the BLM movement, things have changed and those who used such language, and those who defended it, should be named and challenged.

  • Helen Marks says:

    Great exposition of the grave situation in the Labour Paryy. Thanks Graham. I hope I manage to follow yours and Jackie’s example in speaking out truthfully.

  • Mary Davies says:

    Excellent article. Moving. We must RESIST this sinister, fascist dictatorship denying our right to free speech which defends the oppressed.

    Love you all at JVL. Keep up the resilience, bravery and impressive work you do. xx

  • Tom Reed says:

    An important speech from Graham Bash. Thanks Helen Marks for the succinct comment.

  • Rachel Lever says:

    Stay and fight or leave and build? Both. It has been assumed to be an “either/or” question suggesting that they negate each other, rather than strengthening and reinforcing each other.

  • Harry Law says:

    To my mind the issues of free speech and truth telling is not, or should not be a preserve of the left, the right should be equally disgusted with these diktats from the leadership. I think the court case to be presented by Bindmans is the best option, if that does not do the trick, a wipe out at the local elections could concentrate minds.

  • jenny mahimbo says:

    Totally agree with every word of this.

  • John McLaughlin says:

    There will never be democracy or free speech in the labour party, while starmer is the leader.

  • Elizabeth Ramsden says:

    I whole heartily agree with your stance. Don’t wait for them to pick you our – face them and tell the truth.

  • John Bowley says:

    This is a true article, which I have followed clearly enough at first reading. Thank you Graham (and Jackie, who I saw being expelled for no reason).

    What is happening within our Labour Party is sickening. We must indeed oppose the vile top-down campaign of terror against democratic socialists.

    Thank you again, JVL. Best wishes with your legal challenge, done for us.

  • Anti-fascist says:

    Great presentation.

  • chris wallis says:

    What Mary Davies said.

  • Dave Bradney says:

    “Victims of oppression in time can become perpetrators of oppression”

    Why would anyone object to this? It is a commonplace of psychotherapy, it is a well-recognised phenomenon.

  • Anthony Sperryn says:

    It is sad to read the talk as a description of the present situation in the Labour Party. There are no immediate solutions but one must remember that politics is a power game.

    When I first looked at economics, I came across the concept of “countervailing force”, which, I think it was that J.K.Galbraith came up with.

    At present, it seems that the only countervailing force available to members is to withhold their subscriptions, or for unions to withhold contributions to the Party. This process has already started, and it will soon need a lot of Trevor Chinns to make up the difference in cash available to the Party.

    There has long been a social element to membership, but Graham Bash’s audience, I suppose, could easily come togetherr through personal connections without the oppressive overhang of a formal party structure, regional officers’ interference or the acting general secretary. In other words, the adoption of a “stuff you” response to all the suspensions might be worthwhile and a de facto alternative party quietly comes into existence.

    My belief is that one has to stand up to bullies in life. I remember in one local Party meeting, when I referred to so-and-so’s “friends”, I was immediately accused of anti-semitism. I apologised, but I can’t help feeling that to have had a proper row in the meeting at that time might have been the right approach, to kill the nonsense in the bud. Posts by JVL are showing the way to overcoming the fawning towards Netanyahu and the current racist regime in Israel.

    Another option open is the Law and JVL and Jeremy Corbyn are leading the way here.

    To appeal to the wider public, one needs to remember that the average voter will vote according to the “what’s in it for me” criterion. With all due respect to the idealists, internationalists and others, I believe that political sophistication in Britain is quite low and easily influenced by untruth. The Tories have tried a lot of the Trump-type tactics to stay in power, including voter suppression.

    Social media might also be a way forward, if Zuckerberg is at least in part neutralised, and the key to that might be to pillory the tax-dodging of the tech firms and multi-nationals (why must anybody buy from Amazon?)..

    All is not lost, it just needs an understanding of power to make it happen.

  • john Clark says:

    I am an associate member of JVL, whose presence I find refreshing as it reminds me of my internationalist beliefs that I had when I joined the Labour Party in 1967. I have been a member ever since, despite some provocations that others have felt. I don’t intend to leave (or be expelled) as there is nowhere else to take my commitments to fairness and justice (yes they overlap.) I am as unhappy with Keir Starmer as anyone – censorship, flags, patriotism etc – but I am not clear that attacking him will win us anything. Better that we promote a view of the world where we do not treat each other differently and provide mutual support, with policies that attract everyone who needs or values that fairness and justice I want to promote. I worry about the undermining of democracy at some many levels. Personal attacks create martyrs, ideas help focus thought. JVL can’t do it all – none of us can – but perhaps JVL, in collaboration with other likeminded groups, can help lead this discussion. Enough said.

  • Martin Read says:

    Thank you for keeping the fight alive.

    Worrying times indeed, with Lord Mann- unquestioned by the likes of the BBC- now targeting the likes of the Canary and Skwarkbox and the disingenuous Ian Austin- entirely divisive also stirring up his factional hatred. I notice also that the UK Police Force are starting to selectively arrest and otherwise target non-aligned journalists at politically ‘sensitive’ sites. So the clampdown on free speech is clearly spreading its net ever wider!

  • Ndaizivei Scholastica Esnathy Paul says:

    I think it is important to challenge the use of CLP officers by the General Secretary to silence party members through the creation of a hierarchy of racism.

  • A. Benge says:

    This is a very accurate account of the awfulness of the situation. How can ordinary members who are supporting the right of the party be made to realise that this really is “the worst attack on freedom of speech” in most of our lifetimes? Regardless of their opinions on any issue, it’s such a blatant atrocity, often so inhumane and really ominous it seems unimaginable that anyone with intelligence and an ounce of humanity could deny the real danger of what is happening. Why do they find it acceptable?
    There must be some way to persuade them it’s far too serious for anyone to ignore.

  • Margaret Johnson says:

    I was proud to become a card carrying member of the Labour Party. I am no longer proud to be a member I am beginning to feel that the
    NATIONAL parliamentary party no longer represents me or the majority of members in local CLPs.

  • Linda P says:

    Brilliant article and thank you JVL for being a beacon of light in these very murky times.

  • Martyn Meacham says:

    There will be no democracy in the Labour Party until Starmer has been kicked out.

  • Doug says:

    Folk feel that strongly about the attacks they rejoin the party to vote in the forthcoming leadership election

  • Margaret West says:

    It struck me when I read both this and other criticism of the current stifling of honestly held opinion and prohibition of discussion that this involved not only Democracy but the Nolan Principles. (See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-7-principles-of-public-life/the-7-principles-of-public-life–2

    and I have signed this document , in my role as an academic examining research applications.)

    I would say that discussion of some of these prohibited issues is not only desirable but *obligatory” and the edict from David Evans is in effect to disregard these Principles.

    Whether we have actually signed this document is, to me, immaterial for according to it:
    “This includes all those who are elected or appointed to public office, ..”

    so must apply to Constituency Labour Party Officers – who are of course elected.

  • Margaret West says:

    A PS to my previous post apropos Nolan:

    The issue of “competence” has been used by Evans – however the CLP Officers have been elected to do exactly what they are forbidden to do !

    This can be compared with my being required to offer my opinion on a research application in that I would not have been asked if my competence as a referee was in doubt. Those ultimately deciding on the research funding will consider the arguments of myself and the other referees apropos the Application and decide on that basis.

    In a similar manner the CLPs should be able to argue the merit of motions put forward by party members, without hindrance by David Evans. The ability to discuss current political issues is essential to Democracy and most definitely in the public interest (as indicated in one of the Principles ).

  • Harry Law says:

    Margaret here is an opinion on your comments from a left wing Barrister
    The NEC and therefore the GS has no authority in the rules to dictate what is ‘competent business’ for a CLP to discuss. The only authority is in Chap 1, VIII, 3.E-“The NEC shall from time to time, issue guidance and instructions on the conduct of meetings…” CONDUCT not CONTENT Conduct is a noun meaning ‘the manner in which an activity is managed or directed.’ That is not the same as the content or subject the meeting deals with. The NEC can issue guidance on how a meeting can be run/organised but not dictate what motions are competent business.
    Secondly, the idea discussing the IHRA will “…undermine Labour’s ability to campaign against any form of racism…” is so absurd as to be in the realms of irrationality. As previously stated the NEC/GS has no authority in the rules to dictate this. If what is being threatened.
    is disciplinary punishment for breaching the code of conduct in Appendix 9, this is incorrect. The codes are not part of the rules, they are not directly enforceable.

  • Margaret West says:

    Thank you for that Harry – I do realise that dictating what is said and not said is illegal according to Labour Party Rules as is disciplining members for not adhering to these dictates.

    However it does not appear on its own to make the Party depart from its current assault on Democracy and I thought that Nolan *might* tip the balance given its emphasis on *obligation* to adhere to certain principles.

    Vain hope I suppose ..

  • Ted Clement-Evans says:

    We must concentrate on ridding the LP of the anti-Semitism witch hunt and all that that implies such as the suspension of those who condemn the EHRC report or Israel. Whether that is to be a revolt by every CLP against the current leadership or the formation of a break-away party we cannot know but it has to be one or the other. Any other issue should be put aside. Concentrate and unite on these two.

  • Claire Richards says:

    I too am most concerned about the Labour Party now that Kier Starmer leads it. In my opinion Jeremy Corbyn was a man who supported free speech and Starmer is not. I rejoined the Labour Party when Jeremy Corbyn became leader but have since, cancelling my DD and explaining why. The freedom of speech we used to have in the UK is being constantly eroded and today’s Labour Party is not recognising that fact.

  • Clare Le vay says:

    Thanks…I am close to leaving the party but will stay within it so long as there is a vestige of sense left!

Comments are now closed.