The whole movement should reject this cynical attack on Unison’s Roger McKenzie

Unison assistant general secretary Roger McKenzie

JVL Introduction

In what is clearly a politically motivated intervention, a dossier has been submitted to the Labour Party accusing Roger McKenzie, running for the leadership of Unison, of antisemitism.

Roger McKenzie is, of course, one of the trade union movement’s best-known black leaders. He is also a left-wing candidate, with a long history of antiracist campaigning.

Should he win the election, the left in the Party will be greatly strengthened – which no doubt lies behind this smear campaign now.

In this Morning Star analysis Ben Chacko investigates and puts the campaign against McKenzie in wider perspective.

This article was originally published by Morning Star on Sun 8 Nov 2020. Read the original here.

The whole movement should reject this cynical attack on Unison's Roger McKenzie

The flimsy attempt to portray one of Britain’s leading black trade unionists as a racist is a transparent bid by the Labour right to interfere in a union election

LABOUR movement activists may have thought they had entered the Twilight Zone on Friday evening on hearing that Roger McKenzie, one of British trade unionism’s leading figures, is being accused of anti-semitism.

McKenzie is running for the leadership of Unison — one of the two biggest unions in the country — and the existence of a “lengthy dossier” that has been submitted to the Labour Party about him has conveniently been leaked just as ballots are landing on doormats.

It might seem rather brazen to level accusations of racism against one of the trade union movement’s best known black leaders in the year that Black Lives Matter swept the world. Especially given McKenzie’s long history of anti-racist campaigning and the passion with which he has always challenged racism — a passion informed by personal experience of racist abuse directed at him and his family from childhood onwards.

McKenzie was the first black person in TUC history and in Unison to hold a regional secretary post, became Unison’s first black assistant general secretary and, if elected, would be the union’s first black general secretary.

He has firmly rejected the accusations. “Roger has not been contacted by the party and condemns an attempted trial by media,” a spokesperson said. “If necessary he will contest any allegations that he has breached party rules and remains focused on his campaign … and steadfast in his lifelong opposition to racism and anti-semitism.”

Nobody who knows or has worked with McKenzie will believe these allegations for a moment — but then, the same is true of the allegations against Jeremy Corbyn, as testified by the repeated, resounding votes of confidence in the former Labour leader by Jewish activists in his own constituency party, Islington North.

Since claims that Jeremy Corbyn presided over increased tolerance for anti-semitism in Labour (claims not supported by statistical evidence) began, there have been a number of dramatic escalations.

Over time accusations shifted from being directed at associates or allies of Corbyn to the leader himself. The bar for being considered “part of the problem” was continually lowered over the course of debates — the word is a generous one — such as that over the IHRA definition. Most recently of course the suspension from party membership of the man who was leader till six months ago illustrated his successor’s scorched-earth approach to the destruction of the Labour left.

The rehashing of these claims for use against McKenzie is nonetheless a very serious further escalation. Are we to allow the shills trying to hound Corbyn out of Labour to decide who can and who cannot be a trade union leader? This is transparently a bid by the Labour right to interfere in the Unison leadership election against a socialist candidate who has been endorsed by Corbyn, and to extend the wave of purges and resignations from that unhappy political party to the wider movement.

The motives are obvious. Unison is a big Labour affiliate with significant influence within the Labour machine, seats on the party’s national executive and so on. The Labour right’s bid to purge all traces of Corbynism from the party, its capacity to use administrative measures to disenfranchise and silence the left, is already provoking resistance from affiliated unions. A McKenzie-led Unison would significantly strengthen that resistance. His unhesitating solidarity with Corbyn over the past 10 days has made that very clear.

Beyond the leadership, there are other reasons for the right to widen the attack to the trade unions. In contrast to much of the 20th century, the unions have become a force for the left within Labour.

They are overwhelmingly pro-public ownership and generally anti-war. Union support and platforms helped launch Corbyn’s 2015 leadership bid, the stunning success of which astonished and appalled the parliamentary Labour party. And the Corbyn movement did not come out of nowhere, but had its roots in the anti-austerity, anti-racist and anti-war movements — the People’s Assembly, Stand Up to Racism, the Stop the War Coalition and so on — organisations that often campaign through and within the trade unions and overlap with them in causes and activists. For the right, making the trade union movement a hostile environment for such campaigns helps guarantee that nothing like the Corbyn leadership could ever happen again.

Will it work? As ever this depends on the left’s response, but there is no reason to assume it will.

In fact there isn’t much evidence that the attacks on the left over anti-semitism have been effective in an electoral sense at all.

Their direct effect on Labour’s electoral fortunes was never obvious. Certainly they were less significant as a factor in Labour’s 2019 defeat than the party’s support for a second referendum on the EU; we should never let the Labour right, which relentlessly pushed Corbyn to accept such a referendum, cover up the fact that 52 of the 54 seats Labour lost to the Tories last December were Leave-voting.

The right point to Corbyn’s personal unpopularity as the reason the party lost, and you could argue that anti-semitism allegations were responsible for his dire ratings. But a brilliant analysis of the poll data by Lee Jones of The Full Brexit last December suggested otherwise.

While polls did find those not voting Labour placed “the leadership” as their number one reason (with Brexit at number two, and almost nobody objecting to Labour’s actual socialist policies), once the reasons people gave for disliking Corbyn are unpacked, “Labour’s Remain drift, and Corbyn’s clear inability to resist it, were the top reasons behind Corbyn’s plunging personal rating – which had fallen by 45 percentage points from the 2017 general election. Issues like anti-semitism, links to terrorist organisations [to take another common attack line] etc, barely registered.”

The main impact of the attacks was not on the Labour vote but elsewhere. They were used to cow the left, to disorient it and keep it constantly on the defensive. The issue also tied up Labour activists in internal battles where time and energy could have been spent on campaigning and organising community support for Labour, so it may have had an indirect impact on its electoral performance.

To what extent the accusations were connected to support for Israel and its occupation of Palestine is contentious. Probably for most Labour MPs this was not a key issue, except more vaguely, in that support for Israel was taken as a signifier of a more general support for Britain’s place in the US-led imperialist camp and the network of allies that comes with that. Corbyn’s support for Palestine in such eyes was indistinguishable from his opposition to war: indications that he would change British foreign policy in ways unacceptable to them if he became prime minister.

But the impact of the attacks has certainly made it harder to campaign in solidarity with Palestine, and indeed, most of the examples used to construct the pathetically flimsy case against McKenzie relate to Palestine (such as having shared “cartoons depicting Gaza as a prison camp” and articles that referred to that besieged strip as “an Israeli-administered ghetto.”)

These allegations are spurious and rely on a misinterpretation of even the IHRA definition of anti-semitism so gross that it would define comments on Gaza from former British prime minister David Cameron (who once called it a “prison camp”) or John Holmes, the UN’s humanitarian chief (“an open-air prison”) as anti-semitic.

If this false interpretation of IHRA were followed it would so restrict the rights of Palestinians to campaign for justice and meaningful statehood that it would itself be a form of anti-Palestinian bigotry.

This takes us back to the basic reasons why our whole movement should stand in solidarity with McKenzie in the face of these cynical accusations. Giving ground to absurd claims that examples like the above are anti-semitic seriously weakens campaigning against imperialism, and in weakening anti-imperialist politics it weakens anti-racist politics. Nor, in the cause of natural justice, should we ignore the fact that almost none of the accusations are even based on things McKenzie said or wrote, but things he liked or shared online — not that there is anything remotely racist about them anyway, but the distinction shows how thin the case against him is.

The communist revolutionary Angela Davis famously said: “In a racist society it’s not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” Those leading the charge against Corbyn have already prevented the election of Britain’s first anti-racist prime minister, in the sense of a politician for whom actively organising and campaigning against racism are core parts of their politics.

Now, with even greater audacity, they take aim at one of the leading veterans of anti-racist campaigning in Britain, a man who knows what it is to suffer discrimination and abuse because of his race, and a widely admired trade union heavyweight to boot.

We cannot allow it. As trade unionists, as socialists, as anti-racists, we must stand with Roger McKenzie and make clear the Labour right’s political game has no place in our unions.

Comments (9)

  • steve mitchell says:

    No matter how many apologies the leadership makes. It doesn’t matter how much compensation it gives to those who are intent on ensuring the Party drops its progressive agenda and prevents any meaningful support for the Palestinians the blackmailers will return. They are members of our own Party and will never give up until Labour regresses to the Blair days. Worse still they are doing the bidding of a foreign state. I read an article in Byline Times recently disclosing the names of Labour MPs who are members or former members of the Henry Jackson Society. A notorious ultra conservative institution. Why isn’t the leadership going after them instead of persecuting socialists who have fought racism all their adult lives

  • Harry Law says:

    The IHRA was all about protecting Israel from criticism, this was obvious when the IHRA plus examples was adopted by Labour conference alongside a statement which ensures this will not in any way undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians.” Here is the proof..
    In a second statement, the JLC’s chief executive, Simon Johnson, said Corbyn had “attempted shamefully to undermine the entire IHRA definition”, adding that the free speech caveat “drives a coach and horses” through that definition. “It is clearly more important to the Labour leader to protect the free speech of those who hate Israel than it is to protect the Jewish community from the real threats that it faces,” Johnson said.
    Margaret Hodge, a Labour backbencher who has been very critical of Corbyn’s handling of the antisemitism issue, said she was disappointed that the party had issued the short clarification to accompany the adoption of the code. She tweeted:
    Two steps forward and one step back. Why dilute the welcome adoption IN FULL of the #IHRA definition of #Antisemitism with an unnecessary qualification?
    6:04 PM • Sep 4, 2018•Twitter Web Client

    Len McCluskey urged the Labour party to adopt the IHRA definition plus examples in full. Hoping that they could draw a line under it and move on. What a fool.
    Mr McCluskey, who is a close ally of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, said the party had been “insensitive” in not adopting the definition.
    Mr McCluskey said the problem of anti-Semitism in the party was “not manufactured” but had “certainly been wildly exaggerated”.
    The IHRA is going to prove to be a weapon of mass destruction far more potent than anything else. And just to get a bit of peace and quiet the fools voted for it.

  • Sandy Palmer says:

    Hi Bird being hounded again and now this. Clearly a carefully planned and orchestrated campaign against the left of the party. Active resistance is where we need to be at the moment.

  • Doug says:

    Vexatious claims of anti semitism are hate crimes and should be prosecuted
    Has anyone thought about counter claiming against whoever submitted the dossier, there are plenty on here who could throw the book at them

  • Di Allen says:

    Thanks, JVL for highlighting this travesty of justice. The Labour Right’s spurious attack’s on our socialist brothers and sisters MUST be thoroughly resisted in as robust a manner as is possible. Their interference in Union business should not be tolerated, neither should their attempts to sabotage the NEC elections by further allegations of antisemitism against Jo Bird.

    I stand with Roger McKenzie.
    I stand with Jo Bird.

  • Allan Howard says:

    Given the literally thousands of articles about A/S in the main-stream newspapers during Jeremy’s tenure as leader (and since), and the thousands of times it’s been covered by TV and radio news etc, it obviously must have had an impact to some degree or other. I mean either people believed it all or they didn’t, and if they didn’t, then they MUST have concluded pretty much from the outset that it was a smear campaign and, as such, that those conspiring in it were trying to sabotage Jeremy’s leadership AND his chances of winning a general election and forming a government, and subverting democracy as such.

    By my arithmetic, there were 2.6 million people approximately that voted Labout in 2017 and DIDN’T in 2019, but there were 10.27 million who DID. So given that they could hardly have been oblivious to all the A/S accusations, then surely there are only TWO possible explanations for why they did – ie either they knew it was a smear campaign and being grossly exaggerated, or it wasn’t a problem for them. But we’ll probably never find out who thought what, and the percentages. And certainly not the latter.

  • Allan Howard says:

    Something obvious just occured to me in respect of what I said above, albeit in relation to those who voted for the Tory Party – ie voted for Boris Johnson. He wasn’t PM of course when he made the remarks about Muslim women in burkas looking like letter-boxes and bank robbers, but he was a high profile figure in the Tory Party, and had been for years. And yet this neither deterred or prevented the Tory membership electing him as leader (and PM, as such), or the the 13 million plus people who voted Tory in last years election.

    But given that it was more than two years beforehand that he made the remarks, and given that there weren’t any high profile figures bringing the matter up or writing letters to the Guardian (and being reported right across the MSM for doing so) calling on people NOT to vote for the Tory Party etc in the weeks prior to the GE….. And I can only assume that the vast majority of traditional Tory voters who voted Remain in the EU referendum would have voted for Johnson and the Tories despite Brexit, and that Brexit was the reason why just about everybody else who voted Tory did so.

    All that said, Boris Johnson didn’t just write what he said by mistake, and there is no doubt that it was deliberate, and he knew of course that it would be widely reported across the MSM. But then the right-wing papers – and the tabloids in particular – had been ‘generating’ bad feeling towards Muslims for years. And Johnson knew it of course.

  • Doug says:

    On a practical level the left has lost discipline again, there are three left wing candidates in the Unison Election.
    Its gonna end in tears again
    Will we never learn?

  • Allan Howard says:

    Harry Law finishes his post by saying:

    ‘The IHRA is going to prove to be a weapon of mass destruction far more potent than anything else. And just to get a bit of peace and quiet the fools voted for it.’

    A bit of peace and quiet! Are you alluding to all the hundreds of articles and TV and radio news items that went on for months prior to the LP finally adopting the definition and the examples? A bit of peace and quiet! You jest of course Harry. Hmm…..

    Oh, right, and I wonder what would have happened and what the reaction would have been if they HADN’T adopted it!

    As if Harry didn’t know damn well what the reaction would have been!

    The following is the sort of black propaganda rhetoric that was being churned out just PRIOR to the definition being adopted:

    Former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks said Sunday the majority of Jews are questioning whether Britain is a safe place to bring up their children.

    The crossbench peer insisted the Labour leader must ‘recant and repent’ and that he risked engulfing the country ‘in the flames of hatred’.

    ‘Jews have been in Britain since 1656, I know of no other occasion in these 362 years when Jews… are asking ‘is this country safe to bring up our children’,’he told the BBC.’

    Just a bit of peace and quiet my foot!

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