The fight for free speech in Britain today

JVL Introduction

Here is the speech prepared by Graham Bash for the launch rally today, 12th December, of a Campaign for Free Speech today,  co-organised by Labour Left Alliance and Labour against the Witch-hunt.

Scheduled speakers (all in a personal capacity) are Graham Bash (Labour Briefing), Kerry-Anne Mendoza (editor, The Canary), Jonathan Coulter (Lib Dems for Free Speech), Chris Williamson (former Labour MP), Moshé Machover (Israeli socialist, co-founder of Matzpen) and Craig Murray (journalist reporting on the Julian Assange campaign).

Graham Bash says:

We are at a critical moment – having to fight for free speech simultaneously at a number of different levels.

Firstly, of course 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 speaking on the same platform – or defending – those like Jackie, Chris Williamson, Moshe Machover or Tony Greenstein can get us thrown out. So I will do exactly this. I send them my solidarity as I do to all those here today wrongly expelled or suspended. And above all to Ken Livingstone, one of the best anti-racists our movement has produced. I – and we – shall not be silenced.

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 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 – Zionists, non-Zionists, anti-Zionists. There is not a single Jewish voice.

Secondly, this is a fight against racism.

What is so disturbing is that the real 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 was a report into ‘antisemitism and other forms of racism’. The report denied it, but there is a hierarchy of anti-racism.

So how do we fight that?

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

“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.”

This divide between the anti-racist struggles is dangerous. What happened at Millwall football club last week 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 Jackie was speaking against racism.

In those last five years I have had the privilege – at times a doubtful privilege – of seeing these issues through the eyes of Jackie, my Jewish, black partner. I have seen and felt her pain and anger as she has been attacked and vilified, her heritages challenged, her ancestors’ histories made invisible with references in the papers before her disciplinary hearing to her “unhealthy obsession with the African Holocaust” – a reference which the party refused to delate. 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 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 unacceptable to say it) and Margaret Hodge (trivialising the Holocaust when saying 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 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 right wing 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.

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

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.

We have to fight – but how?

We cannot wait for our left leaders – and we haven’t waited. 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.

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


Comments (17)

  • ruby lescott says:

    Brilliant speech. The whole afternoon was uplifting and inspirational, thanks to all organisers and participants.

  • Mary Davies says:

    A poignant speech.

  • Philippa Eglin says:

    Thanks . I fear we have become conditioned and afraid to speak up . AS has been a very successful tool in crushing opposition. It’s skill is convincing intelligent people that what they had touched , seen , experienced, is not reality. Somehow, a man with decades of public service on record , has been an unreconstructed antisemite and racist all the time . I’m not afraid now

  • Digger Johnston says:

    So good to hear it all said clearly and articulately. Thanks Comrade.

  • Christopher wortley says:

    Thank you Graham, my feelings and I’m sure thousands of us, exactly.

  • John Thatcher says:

    Really excellent speech, thank you

  • Harriet Bradley says:

    This is a brilliant and courageous speech by the excellent Graham Bash. It lays out plainly and analytically the facts of this crisis. Solidarity to Graham and Jackie

  • Voirrey Faragher says:

    So clear – thank you. The truth can light the way.

  • Ian Hickinbottom says:

    I concur with Ruby. One of the best Saturday afternoons I’ve spent. The speeches were enlightening and inspirational. Thank you to all who took part and organised such a fantastic event.

  • Tim says:

    Great speech! There must be the widest possible coalition of voices to condemn this attack on legitimate free speech before we sleepwalk into a rather chilling situation where speaking the truth about certain injustices is seen as a punishable offence.

  • Harry Law says:

    As Mike Cushman said in his recent article on this site…”Anyone with a cursory knowledge of human rights will know the protections for free speech and free assembly laid down in articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights”. And, in an exchange of letters with Chris Williamson in the High Court case [Williamson MP v Formby] shortly before his suspension, Formby accused Williamson of a ‘pattern of behaviour’ i.e. “Sharing platforms and giving public praise to people with a history of ‘allegations’ of anti Semitism against them”. In the case of Professor Moshe Machover he was accused of possibly associating [part of a protest] with people disciplined by the Labour party in the past, in the case of Graham Bash a more egregious case I have yet to hear, he is the partner [yes the partner] of one such person he knows he must not associate with, he must shun her immediately, throw her out the house, if they are married he should divorce her immediately./S
    When the Labour party say some of the recommendations in the equalities report do not apply to them [the Labour party] they may have a point, if they want to throw Jeremy Corbyn, Professor Machova or whoever out the party for exercising their right to free speech, then those members may take the party to court, in my opinion the case would be thrown out immediately on the grounds that the Labour party is an unincorporated association [a members club] and not a ‘public’ organization, therefore [no matter how bad it may look] can act outside the Human rights Act if that is what the members [the NEC] want.
    In other words the Human Rights Act lets you defend your rights in UK courts and compels ‘public’ organisations – including the Government, police and local councils – to treat everyone equally, with fairness, dignity and respect, not necessarily the Labour party, you could not make this up.

  • Harry Law says:

    Graham, I applaud your article but please be aware of the fate of Walter Wolfgang an 82 year old of Jewish origin who was physically ejected from the 2005 Labour Conference for shouting ‘nonsense’ at Jack Straw [when Straw was talking nonsense] he was briefly charged under section 44 of the 2000 Terrorism Act. Professor Moshe Machover is in a worse position he is 83 years of age and accused the Labour party of much worse behaviour than Walter did, he brazenly accused [and in writing] the Governance and Legal Unit of sending him a dossier full of lies and rubbish.

  • Jay Kramer says:

    Fantastic speech. Graham says it all

  • Harry Law says:

    A Legal Look at the Labour Party Rule Book
    A Critique of the Disciplinary Rules of the Labour Party by Duncan Shipley Dalton LL.B (Hons) LL.M CPLS MPA (Harvard) Barrister-at-Law Labour member Southampton Itchen CLP
    Human Rights.
    The provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) are not applicable to domestic disciplinary tribunals established by unincorporated associations because such associations are not public authorities under s.6(1) of the 1998 Act. However, as the courts are public authorities under the definition in s.6(3) of the 1998 Act then a court in hearing a case relating to the proceedings of any domestic disciplinary tribunal it is bound to give effect to the convention rights of the parties as far as its own proceedings are concerned.

  • Kuhnberg says:

    The fight is just beginning. Join Jeremy’s newly formed Peace and Justice project at and donate to making a better world.

  • Harry Law says:

    Link from my comment above, this is helpful because it is a QC’s opinion.
    General Assessment of the Disciplinary Rules of the Labour Party.

  • steve mitchell says:

    Recently I heard someone describe fascism as a merger of the elite and the mob. The mob was in action at Millwall. We saw them in action at Vote Leave demos. Democracy is under threat and the Labour leadership are shutting down free speech.

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