Keep Corbyn rally, 2017.

Liverpool Conference – a Launchpad for the Labour Left

A Jewish Voice for Labour statement

The renewed assault on Labour’s National Executive Committee for guaranteeing freedom of speech on the question of Palestine at its meeting on 4th September reveals that the real agenda of many of those attacking Jeremy Corbyn is to protect Israel from justifiable and damning criticism, to undermine solidarity with Palestine and to destroy prospects for a genuinely left-led Labour government. The left must respond by pursuing Palestinian rights activism, championing all that’s good about Corbyn’s anti-racist, pro-justice, anti-austerity Labour Party, and standing firm against attempts to rid the party of its core socialist activists.

We must not be diverted from these goals. This means resisting the temptation to turn on the party leadership for its handling of the antisemitism row. Nothing would please the sensation-seeking media more than a conference dominated by this issue.

The suggestion that Corbyn’s supporters are a pack of “hard left” attack dogs hounding out meek, open-minded members of Parliament, is a laughable reversal of the truth. Since Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party, he and those who want to see a transformative socialist government elected to power, have faced an unprecedented barrage of attacks, amplified by a willing mainstream media – against him as a person, against his key allies nationally and against his supporters at grassroots level.

Local activists have been suspended in large numbers to stop them from standing as councillors, from participating in party activities and from voting in internal party elections – often using trumped up allegations of bullying, misogyny and racism. Jewish members have suffered, along with many innocent non-Jewish comrades, from the unrelenting campaign to brand the party as “institutionally antisemitic”. Long-standing efforts by pro-Israel advocates to insist that criticising Israel is an affront to all Jews have now been focussed intensely on the Labour Party.

We know there is ignorance and prejudice in our party, as everywhere in society. We must do more to educate members about the origins of antisemitism and the forms it can take. We must learn to distinguish carefully between the state of Israel and Jewish people, and between the ideology of Zionism and the Jewish faith. In cases of genuine anti-Jewish bigotry, there is a real need for effective disciplinary measures.

It is now clear, however, that whatever steps the Party takes to deal with antisemitism in its ranks, however often the leadership bows to pressure from its enemies on this issue (within and outside the party, Jewish and otherwise) it will never be enough for those combining to derail the movement around the man who could be Britain’s first anti-imperialist Prime Minister.

This has been clear from the hostile stories fed each day to media in the run-up to the NEC’s decision on the IHRA document, promising retribution if it were not accepted in full, and swearing to take down the “antisemite” Corbyn even if it were. Margaret Hodge, former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Frank Field, Tony Blair – all piled in for the kill. Notorious anti-Palestinian zealots have been paraded in the media as if they were legitimate commentators on Labour Party affairs.

There is huge anger across the Party at the lack of resistance to the attacks, and particularly at the acceptance by the NEC of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism with all its examples. JVL’s principled opposition to this has been submitted to the party’s leading bodies, citing authoritative Jewish, legal and academic sources, explaining the incompetence of the IHRA document as a tool in fighting antisemitism and the dangers it poses to freedom of speech. See for example Brian Klug,  Sir Stephen Sedley,  Antony LermanDavid Feldman and the author of the original draft of what became the IHRA document, Kenneth Stern.

Pro-Israel advocates, backed shamefully by Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement, want the derailing of the left project around Jeremy Corbyn to continue at conference in Liverpool in late September. They want to lure the party into yet another destructive battle about the IHRA – a battle the left will lose amid lurid media stories demonising the Palestinians, smearing those who support them and taking down as many key Corbyn allies as they can in the process.

We must not let this happen.

KEEP CONFERENCE ON TRACK FOR LABOUR GAINS

Efforts by the right and the Israel lobby to keep the IHRA row front and centre stage must not be allowed to distract us from working for a government that will both champion international solidarity with Palestinians and other oppressed people, and break with the ruinous neo-liberal consensus. There is much we can build on.

1. In trying to prevent any examination of the nature of the Israeli state or of the history of Zionism, the right have drawn attention to Palestinian history and experience. By polarising the party on this issue, they have forced many members to read and learn about Israel and Palestine, acquiring knowledge that has persuaded many to pick the side for Palestinian liberation. This offers a launchpad for constructive solidarity work within the party.

2. The Code of Conduct adopted by the NEC in July – for all its faults in accepting the underlying IHRA framework – still stands. Further consultation is going on and lawyers are working on a new draft. We must make sure that the Code’s critical interpretation of the most problematic IHRA examples are retained.

3. The NEC on September 4 conceded the “IHRA in full, with all examples,” but also stated unequivocally: “This does not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians.” It needs to be made clear that the protections for free speech contained in the Human Rights Act underpin the rules, procedures, codes of conduct and supporting documents in the party’s disciplinary processes. Attempts to deploy the IHRA definition plus examples to silence members will have to be interpreted in this light. We must defend every individual unjustly accused.

4. The party’s disciplinary machinery is being overhauled. We must make sure that the result is a system which ensures due process and natural justice. It must be one which exposes and dismisses malicious cases, including those brought on the basis of the IHRA definition. This will be important not only for the Party but for the many other parts of civil society where the IHRA document is being wheeled out – such as local authorities, faith groups and education bodies. The IHRA document has no legal status but it is being introduced by the back door as if it did. The precedents we set internally will have benefits outside.

Conference 2018 needs to be the launch of the party’s general election bid, focusing on the issues that matter to the 12 million driven into poverty, to those thrust into insecurity and to the millions who are desperate for social justice. Millions whose first concern is for an egalitarian, anti-austerity, internationalist and anti-racist political alternative to the Tories. For the many not the few!