Witchhunt one of the key issues at Labour Party conference 2019

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While the majority of CLP delegates reject fast-track expulsions and the anti-left smear campaign, the right has the backing of the capitalist media. That, together with a conciliating leadership, gives them the upper hand, writes Peter Manson (this article first appeared in the Weekly Worker of September 26).

In the words of deputy leader Tom Watson, there is “a battle for the future of the Labour Party” going on. However, it is not about “factionalism”, as Watson claims, but the very nature of the party itself.

It goes without saying that as a key part of this battle the right has weaponised anti-Semitism – mainly by ludicrously equating anti-Zionism with “hostility to or prejudice against Jews”, but also by making numerous allegations of anti-Semitism that are just totally false. Take what happened at the Labour conference on September 22.

A suspended Labour member, Pete Gregson, had erected a banner, which featured a cartoon by Carlos Latuff. This portrayed Binyamin Netanyahu piloting a plane marked ‘The Lobby’, firing a “Defamation” missile and shouting “Anti-Semite!” at Jeremy Corbyn as he was speaking about “Palestinian rights”. Various pro-Zionists not only physically attacked the banner, but actually cut it in half – three times (after being quickly repaired), before the perpetrators were eventually apprehended. Even though two days earlier the police had said they could not see anything improper about it, eventually two officers removed the banner. Incredibly, Jeremy Corbyn tweeted soon after: “I’m disgusted that this banner was displayed near our … conference centre. We asked the police to remove it and I’m glad they did. This kind of anti-Semitic poison has no place whatsoever in our society.” Presumably Corbyn had been advised that it was bad PR.

If that is true, it is a clear capitulation to the witch-hunt. However, as far as most delegates from Constituency Labour Parties were concerned, there is no need to capitulate. This was shown by the good turnout at the September 24 meeting organised by Labour Against the Witchhunt, where almost 200 people gave speakers, including Ken Livingstone, Jackie Walker and Chris Williamson, standing ovations for their impassioned contributions. To prevent the meeting being sabotaged, the venue had not even been advertised!

Some comrades had insisted that the attendance would be poor if it were not publicised, but the organisers had taken note of what had happened to other meetings planned earlier in the week and in the run-up to conference. Back in August three Brighton venues cancelled an event featuring Chris Williamson: the Holiday Inn “had to cancel after two men turned up to threaten their staff”, he wrote.

Then on September 23 a book launch at Waterstones in Brighton was called off after complaints about the “anti-Semitism” of the authors – a team of academics, who had produced a study of the current anti-Corbyn campaign entitled Bad news for Labour: anti-Semitism, the party and public belief.

The organisers of the LAW meeting felt they had no alternative but to rely on word-of-mouth and individual emails, etc, to build for its own meeting – and even then the venue was not disclosed until just before the event started. Nevertheless, the meeting was packed out, with standing room only.

However, despite the spirit and determination of delegates, the right was still on the offensive. With Watson still planning to use his deputy leader speech to spread lies, with MPs aiding the ongoing anti-Corbyn campaign, with the pro-capitalist media acting as chief propagandist, the right to free speech is being jeopardised. Venues booked for events organised by groups – including the Labour Representation Committee, LAW’s ‘An evening with Jackie Walker’ and even Jewish Voice for Labour were cancelled and had to be re-arranged at the last minute, thanks to the disgusting ‘anti-Semitism’ smear campaign.

Brighton LLA booked, with three days notice, the Rialto Theatre, for Saturday and Monday, and put on a packed programme with events around free speech, including some of those by LRC and LAW, plus the book launch that had been cancelled by Waterstones. For example, on September 21, almost 100 activists packed into the Rialto – whose management and staff had refused to be intimidated.


But conciliation won a victory on the very first day of conference, when the NEC’s proposal to “fast-track” the expulsion of undesirables such as ‘anti-Semites’ was carried.

The NEC was proposing a series of seven rule changes, including on the disciplinary process, but delegates only got to see them that very morning – in the 225-page report of the conference arrangements committee! There were 20 other rule changes proposed by CLPs, but the time allowed for debate was totally insufficient.

Nevertheless, it was very encouraging that a slim majority of CLP delegates (52%) voted against the NEC proposals. Sadly, as the affiliates (overwhelmingly the unions, but also ‘socialist societies’, etc) voted in favour of the proposals, with no less than 97% in favour, the rule change on party discipline was passed. Things were not helped by the fact that Momentum – on the wrong side once again – urged supporters in its delegate briefings to vote for the proposals, because “these changes are central to improving the party’s disciplinary system”.

So how will the system be ‘improved’? Well, the most important change is on “fast-track expulsions”. The NEC has given itself the right to arbitrarily expel members holding views judged to be irredeemably offensive. The key paragraph reads:

The NEC and NCC [national constitutional committee] shall not have regard to the mere holding or expression of beliefs and opinions, except in any instance inconsistent with the party’s aims and values, agreed codes of conduct, or involving prejudice towards any protected characteristic [my emphasis].

This is a contemptible move. It gives the NEC the right to expel someone without due process if, in its opinion only, their beliefs are “inconsistent” with what the party stands for.

And there are other changes. For example, until now suspended members were able to participate in their branch meetings (“unless the reason for the suspension in part or in full is their conduct in party meetings”) and were allowed to attend any CLP meetings “to participate in ballots”. This right has now been abolished, leading to the political isolation of an accused member.

Supposedly, all this is the magic bullet that will finally put an end to the ‘anti-Semitism’ smear campaign: the rule change that will finally appease the right wing both within and outside the party and persuade it to call a halt to its relentless campaign directed against Corbyn.

Some hope! Take the Jewish Labour Movement – the organisation representing overt pro-Israeli Zionists within the party. It complained immediately that it had not been sufficiently consulted and the rule change was totally insufficient. Mike Katz, the JLM national chair, told conference that Labour’s relationship with “the Jewish community” (defined by whom?) is at “an all-time low”. The JLM had asked for “independence” in relation to decisions on accusations of anti-Semitism – in other words, such disciplinary matters should be handed over to an outside body. Katz made the JLM view absolutely clear: “We don’t trust the NEC to deliver fast-track justice.”

However, the very next speaker, Duncan Shipley Dalton, affirmed the view of the majority of CLP delegates: “We believe in natural justice [but this] is a travesty of justice. Adopting the IHRA didn’t solve this crisis and this will not solve it either.” Quite right. The comrade, who is a barrister (and incredibly was once a Conservative parliamentary candidate), offered to represent any victims of this new rule on a pro-bono basis.

Labour HQ seems set on a path of self-destruction. The leadership’s adoption of fast-track expulsions will give the green light for a tsunami of fresh smears against Labour members, with the prospect – given the low standards of ‘evidence’ generally required – of hundreds more vexatious allegations.

It was only in July that Jennie Formby reported on the latest figures of individuals accused of anti-Semitism over the previous six months. Of the 1,283 individuals against which a complaint was made, it turned out that only 625 – less than half – were actually Labour members (this says a lot about the people lodging the complaints, in my view).

However, in almost half of those 625 cases it was found that there was no case to answer: no evidence was uncovered of any breach of party rules. In 90 of the remaining cases, members were given either a warning about possible misconduct (eg, relating to comments that might be interpreted – or misinterpreted – as anti-Semitic) or – much the same thing – a “reminder of misconduct”. During that six-month period just eight people were expelled, three were given extended suspensions and another four were issued with warnings.

In other words, there is no anti-Semitism problem within Labour – just a tiny minority of the hundreds of thousands of people who have flooded into the party have problematic views, and virtually none of them are activists who attend meetings.

We need to reiterate the truth about this McCarthyite witch-hunt. Comrades like Jackie Walker, Chris Williamson and Tony Greenstein are simply collateral damage. The specific target is Corbyn and the general aim is to put the left “back in its box”, as one despicable rightwing Labour MP put it in a rare moment of candour.
The current tactics of Corbyn and his allies will more or less guarantee their defeat. Appeasement never works – your opponents simply grow stronger.