There is another way to resolve Labour’s toxic wrangles around complaints

JVL Introduction

People can change, stresses David Rosenberg.

People aren’t generally attracted to the far right and racist movements by hate but because they seek help with real problems that mainstream politicians and parties fail to respond to.

We must replace the paranoid and toxic atmosphere sometimes felt in the party with an atmosphere “for learning, positive consensus and progressive change”.

This article was originally published by Rebel Notes on Wed 24 Jul 2019. Read the original here.

There is another way to resolve Labour’s toxic wrangles around complaints

Oswald-Mosley-is-saluted-by-members-of-his-British-Union-of-Fascists-before-beginning-the-march-to-Cable-StreetCharles Wegg-Prosser, a law graduate and product of Downside Independent Catholic School, enthusiastically joined the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1934  taking at face value Oswald Mosley’s propagandist arguments about how he would build  “A Greater Britain”. Wegg-Prosser believed that the fascist movement was a radical force for social progress and national unity. At one time he was director of its large Shoreditch branch  and later stood as a BUF candidate in the 1937 local election in another of its strongholds – Limehouse. Labour won the seat comfortably as a very strong fascist campaign was decisively rejected. Wegg Prosser left the fascists later that year. He wrote this to Mosley:

“Your methods have become increasingly dictatorial… You are sidestepping the whole issue of social betterment by the anti-Jewish campaign… You introduce a movement imitating foreign dictators. you run it as a soulless despotism, you sidetrack the demand for social justice by attacking the Jew, you give people a false answer, and unloose the lowest mob passions.”

Many people who have given their heart and soul to a cause, and then discover there is poison running through it, retreat  into political paralysis, or become cynical. To his credit, Wegg-Prosser did not. He made discreet contacts with anti-fascists and then spent the last years of the 1930s vigorously campaigning against the British Union of Fascists, Screen Shot 2019-07-24 at 11.32.52especially exposing and opposing their anti-Jewish hatred. After the war he was active in the Labour Party and stood unsuccessfully four times at elections for the Labour Party in Paddington South. He continued his legal career and became the first chair of North Kensington Law Centre – a centre that has done so much to support migrants, refugees, the vulnerable and powerless.

He was not alone in switching sides in the 1930s. One of the very impressive achievements of the anti-fascist movement in Britain in that period was its record of winning individuals away from fascism and persuading a number of them to join the ranks of the anti-fascists. They were able to do that because they understood  that fascism, rather than individual fascists was the core of the problem. They recognised that people who travelled on a journey towards fascism were in many cases not motivated by hate (though no doubt their leaders and a hard-core around them definitely were). They were often people with real difficulties in their lives socially, economically, psychologically, who were desperately looking for solutions, but could not see it coming from mainstream politicians they feel had let them down. Ever more hopeless and embittered, they were becoming easy prey for far right demagogues pushing solutions based on blaming the Jews.

But a number were persuaded, especially by anti-fascists in the Communist Party, to switch sides and gain a new understanding of the forces really responsible for their problems. People do change, given the space to change. And sometimes, like Charles Wegg-Prosser, they show deep remorse. Up to a certain point on their journey people are receptive to alternative, better arguments. In 2010, four years after the British National Party won 12 council seats in Barking and Dagenham, they not only lost every seat, but lost a significant number of votes in every ward. despite a higher voter turnout. Many first time BNP voters changed their minds and returned to the Labour fold.

We live in different times to the 1930s. Social media times – which can be very useful for identifying particular patterns of behaviour. But at the same time we are more likely to damn people forever for one thoughtless social media post, typecast them as a dyed in the wool, racist/Islamophobe/antisemite/homophobe etc and see them as totally irredeemable, even if it is just one, seemingly out of character, post.

In the last few days, in addition to the other big political goings on, there has been a focus once again on Labour’s procedures for handling complaints of antisemitism. Jeremy Corbyn steered a careful path this week, which won support from the shadow Cabinet and then the Labour NEC. It defended the improvements since Jennie Formby became General Secretary, agreed an approach that involved tightening up and speeding up the procedures, and acting decisively in the most absolutely clear-cut cases, while protecting rights of appeal and allowing people to show remorse.

In a rebuff to the  venomous behaviour of Tom Watson, many members of the PLP gave Jennie Formby a standing ovation earlier this week. The usual gaggle of pro-Zionist Jewish Labour MPs together with the obsequious non-Jewish members desperate to stay close to very right wing, anti-Labour Jewish “leaders”, are fuming: “not enough expulsions”, “we need an independent process”, “we need to involve the Jewish community”, which for them means its right wingers who claim to speak for the rest of us.

ChakrabartiShamiThey have been pushed back. the detail will be discussed more and refined before Labour Conference. And it has been confirmed that antisemitism will not be separated out but these processes will apply to all complaints that discrimination/abuse has occurred against members across the range of protected characteristics. Good. But this is a time when Labour members need to get their voices heard. We need to be stressing the need to resurrect an important document that has got more and more obscured – Shami Chakrabarti’s excellent report from 2016.

That report contained many key principles and firm recommendations. For example, she argued that although “expulsion may no doubt be necessary in some cases of gross, repeated or unrepentant unacceptable behaviour”, her clear preference was for resorting to a greater “range of disciplinary sanctions short of expulsion”, using education.

She argued that “It should also be possible (in the interests of proportionality) for some concerns to be addressed informally without the need (at least initially) to set in train a formal investigation. Some members may have used inappropriate language in complete ignorance of its potential harm. An informal discussion may create an opportunity for resolution and learning in such circumstances.”

She sought to replace the paranoid and toxic atmosphere that was felt at times in the party with an atmosphere “for learning, positive consensus and progressive change” where members “discussed and debated difficult issues and differences, in an atmosphere of civility and a discourse of mutual respect”. For her that also meant “a moratorium on the retrospective trawling of members’ social media accounts and past comments.”

And in relation to those, it seems, desperate to expel as many members as possible, as quickly as possible, and whose actions facilitate trial by media, she wrote:

“The Labour Party should seek to uphold the strongest principles of natural justice…it is important to remember that the beginning of an investigation into alleged misconduct is just that. The making of a complaint marks the beginning, not the end, of a hopefully fair process that might end in a warning, admonishment, some further sanction up to and including expulsion from the Party, or exoneration and no further action whatsoever.”

She urged party disciplinary bodies “to consider greater use of a wide and creative range of sanctions. These may include a warning, the requirement for apologies and/or some other form of sensitive reparation to another member or person or persons, a public warning or reprimand”.

If that was still not considered sufficient then they may have to use “suspension from the Party for up to two years, and expulsion.” But, she added, “I do not recommend lifetime bans from the Labour Party. Present or future members of the NEC should not be robbed of their discretion to consider how someone may have changed their attitude”.

These are very wise words. And as the discussions continue on Labour’s policies for handling complaints it is time to rehabilitate the central themes of the Chakrabarti Report. I suspect the one time fascist, Charles Wegg-Prosser, who gave three of his years to Oswald Mosley, but decades afterwards to the Labour Party and to the defence of the rights of the most vulnerable, would strongly agree.

Comments (8)

  • Mike Scott says:

    I do agree with the general thrust of this article: most of the antisemitism I have come across in a long public sector and labour movement career has been of the thoughtless, ignorant type, rather than explicit and aggressive.

    When challenged, those responsible have usually been shocked to hear that what they’ve said could be regarded as antisemitic and have apologised profusely – the most recent example was a discussion about calling Spurs supporters “Yids”(!)

    I believe that “passive” antisemitism of that sort is best dealt with by discussion and education and that suspension and expulsion should be reserved for the “active” antisemites. There is no benefit to anyone in punishing ignorance and thoughtlessness.

    As for the Chakrabarti Report, I agree that it is a big step in the right direction and am unclear why it hasn’t already been implemented. However, I must repeat my earlier comments that it isn’t in accord with best disciplinary practice in the labour movement, in that it only allows for appeals on the basis of breach of process. I would expect that appeals could be allowed on any basis, including proportionality, failure to give due consideration to evidence, bias on the part of the Panel, etc, etc.

  • Rene Gimpel says:

    An excellent, nuanced set of observations by David Rosenberg. I will add to Mike Scott’s comment.

    I attended the JVL counter-demonstration in Parliament Square, when the anti-Corbyn faction of the Labour Party were sharing a platform with some of the Board of Deputies and others.

    This happened to be on the evening of an All Members’ Meeting of my CLP, Kensington. I repaired there, still wearing my JVL badge. An elderly comrade noted the badge and I gave an explanation. He ruminated, then made an antisemitic remark of the mindless sort that David and Scott highlight, to the effect that of course, Jews do control large swathes of the media.

    My reaction was to point out that this remark smacked of conspiracy theory and such theories were a slippery slope, from which no good would come. I added that the Labour Party is the party of all its members, but we do ourselves a disservice if we build our politics on such fantasies.

    After the meeting, the same comrade sought me out and told me that on reflection, what I had told him was correct and he would not make the same error again.

    I have experienced milder from of antisemitic remarks in my professional and social life. In 40 years of Labour Party adherence and until that evening, I had never experienced any antisemitism from within.

    I’d like to think that the elderly comrade is one saved for the Party and not expelled for his thoughtless remark. I will not be running to anyone, shouting “Out, damned spot.”

  • Marie Lynam says:

    I agree with this question of dealing with different opinions in the way David Rosenberg does. It is discussion that allows people to situate themselves in the field of any question. When the question requires knowledge of history and of world politics, the general membership cannot be expected to enter the party at the most advance level of sophistication. The party needs to be an educator, and to create party structures where political debate takes place. None of this is happening however, and this is the source of the slowness in members getting to know and getting to learn. A workers’ party is not just a tool to get the working class to join the train of power. It must be the tool through which it learns to become the power, and drive its own train to power.
    The party that we have a present wants to change society FOR the working class. It must become the party to let the working class change society itself.
    I suggest that many in the party’s structures – such as they are at present – are not mistaken or uncomprehending. They are afraid. If the working class leads social change, the party of the working class has to become the servant of the working class. Its role is no longer to tell the working class what is good for it, but to let the working class assert what is good for it. The role of such a working class party becomes that of transmitting to its members the experiences and the traditions of all national and international working class history. Such a party finds the need to set up schools, reading circles, internal public meetings that bring the party members close to the workers, debates on the strikes, reasons for the strikes, opposition to the profits of automation never going to the workers, opposition to the wars that the owners resort to – for profit motives – and that the ordinary workers are expected to join, praise and glorify. The party needs to encourage the Unions into schools. To teach to the labour members the history of every part of the working class movement. And the party must teach to the members the experiences made in working class power in the world. The view of the party regarding membership education is disciplinary. It is based on the concept that bad people are incapable of learning and changing. This is where doing things FOR people takes the party. It amounts to not trusting people to know what they want and eventually rule themselves, hence society.
    Outside the party, the owners of capital watch with great anxiety the progression of this debate in the party. They support our party leaders who don’t want the working class to develop any social role, and they stimulate our party leaders who expel workers because they cannot convince them. This is capital versus labour, in the party itself.
    In truth, the rise of this concern in the party results from the absolute need for the party to change; because the alternative for it is to disappear, like the socialists in the rest of Europe.
    There is much more to be said regarding all this.
    Greetings.

  • Dave Lewis says:

    Great and incredibly thoughtful article, yet again, David. Thank you.

  • Colin Lomas says:

    It’s good to hear such common sense views by David Rosenberg on Labour party’s dealing with anti-Semitism.
    it should be compulsory reading for Tom Watson. His pose as the St George who kills the anti-Semitic dragon, is in fact simply a crude (and very ill-judged) bid to become party leader.

  • John C says:

    The Chakrabarti report, with its focus on natural justice, does indeed deserve a shout-out (in favour) from the wider membership. As I recall, when it was released it was effectively neutered by a chorus of disapproval from the usual suspects. Let’s not lose sight of its importance and potential usefulness.

    It is so beyond ironic into the furthest reaches of the bizarre that we are living through an aggressive PR campaign these days where the right is trying to paint the Labour Party as just such a cause, as if it were the modern day BUF, which has “a poison running through it” – and this precisely in order to drive the membership “to retreat into political paralysis or become cynical”.

    If that is, indeed, the front line in this PR war, I think David Rosenberg’s “rebel notes” and the astute comments above me do set out the best way forward.

  • Jeremy says:

    Thank you David. Very good argument and undoubtedly correct.

    It reminds me of Suresh Grover’s comments at my CLP (Camberwell & Peckham) who said in response to a question, “I don’t advocate zero tolerance,” to the total astonishment of those present. Racism is so pervasive, he argued, that there are bound to be members of society or a mass party, who reflect some of that and need education. If we simply say, zero tolerance, then we are closing down a dialogue and ending our chances of changing their attitudes.

  • It’s all very well harking back to past victories against British fascism, what we’re up against now, the setting up of Jewish issues as an obstacle to Labour Party empowerment, is so devious and cunning I keep looking for possible parallels in the Third Reich(?).

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