The renewed suspension of Chris Williamson and the degeneration of Momentum shows that the left in the party needs to get organised, says Carla Roberts of Labour Party Marxists
For a few very brief, bright days last week it looked as if Jeremy Corbyn and his allies had finally decided to come out fighting in the ongoing civil war. First, there was the announcement on June 25 that Labour’s national executive committee had taken the first steps to launch the reformed trigger ballots – which, if implemented in full, will give local party members, for the first time in 30 years, a real say over who should be their parliamentary candidate. Then, on June 26, we celebrated the news that Chris Williamson MP had been reinstated by an ‘anti-Semitism panel’ of the NEC.
Both decisions were surprising, to put it mildly. As we have previously explained, the NEC had been dragging its feet over trigger ballots since January, when Jennie Formby was first commissioned to “urgently” produce guidelines. However, soon after, Chuka Umunna and co walked out. Rather than celebrate the exit of some of the most vile anti-Corbyn MPs, Labour HQ immediately back-peddled and kicked the implementation of the rule change from last year’s conference into the long grass.
Equally surprising was the decision of the three NEC members – Keith Vaz, Huda Elmi and George Howarth – to reinstate Chris Williamson to full party membership. Apparently, the panel was advised by an independent barrister that Williamson had breached an unspecified rule, but that this was not serious enough to warrant his ongoing suspension. So the panel decided to link his reinstatement to a dubious ‘warning’.
Interestingly, the panel’s composition had changed at the last minute. Originally, it was to consist of Momentum owner Jon Lansman and Claudia Webbe of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, in addition to Howarth, who is a rightwing former MP. But first Webbe decided to attend a “local government conference” in Brussels and then Jon Lansman had to pull out, because “he was celebrating a new arrival to his family”. Hmm.
We have a nagging suspicion this might have had more to do with neither of them wanting to be seen to be – directly – responsible for sending the hugely popular Williamson to the gallows. Both of them were elected on the soft-left slate put forward by the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance (a lash-up between, chiefly, the CLPD and Momentum) and a decision like that could well have been the final and overdue nail in the coffin of the CLGA.
The new panel was not as ostensibly ‘leftwing’ as the old one, with Huda Elmi (a former member of Momentum’s national coordinating group) being the only CLGA candidate on the panel. As opposed to her (former?) mentor, Lansman, Elmi has turned out to be a rather good addition to the NEC. She opposed the party’s adoption of the ‘definition’ of anti-Semitism published by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance with all 11 examples as “incredibly disappointing” and called for the abolition of the Equality and Human Rights Commission after it announced its investigation into ‘Labour anti-Semitism’ – or so rants the Jewish Chronicle.
She voted for Williamson’s reinstatement – just like, somewhat mysteriously, Keith Vaz. He is not exactly known as a leftwinger. There are a number of possible reasons why he might have voted the way he did:
- He really was so out of it from taking his mysterious medication that he could not make any rational decisions that day. (Or does he take the medication every day? In which case he probably should not be an MP.)
- He just did what “Corbyn wanted”, as some newspapers speculated.
- Having been attacked in the national media – for hiring of rent boys – he might have felt sympathy for Williamson. The media has been demanding his head for many long months.
- Or maybe, just maybe, he actually looked at the so-called ‘evidence’ and found that it did not warrant Williamson’s ongoing suspension?
As we know, Labour’s deputy leader and super-saboteur, Tom Watson, got right onto it and gathered the party’s most rightwing MPs and members of the House of Lords. His foam-flecked open letter called on Jeremy Corbyn to single-handedly overturn the panel’s decision – after previously coordinating a campaign that charged Corbyn and Labour HQ with interfering in disciplinary cases! You could not make it up.
Under the party’s rulebook, neither the general secretary nor the leader of the party can overturn decisions made by NEC panels – only the NEC has the power to do so. Tom Watson knows that, of course. The letter was designed with one aim only: to get huge publicity and further tighten the screws on Corbyn. Naturally, every newspaper picked it up and the Jewish Chronicle even fumed that Labour MPs “who cannot bring themselves to sign it can no longer claim to support the Jewish community in Britain”.
Lo and behold, in the context of the national media frenzy, Vaz suddenly discovered his medical condition. Which means that – in ‘newspeak’ – Jennie Formby just had to rule that the whip had, in fact, never been restored in the first place.
The NEC disputes panel (made up of all NEC members who show up), meeting next on July 9, will now look at Williamson’s “pattern of behaviour”. This formulation is a funny one. Every newspaper is quoting the phrase – The Sun thinks that it was a “pattern of behaviours goading the Jewish community”. And yet the only evidence such papers ever publish is Williamson’s comment at a Sheffield Momentum meeting that the party was “too apologetic” in terms of the anti-Semitism smear campaign. The full quote in context clearly shows that his comment was neither anti-Semitic nor denying the existence of anti-Semitism in the party or wider society – and he was most certainly not “goading the Jewish community”:
The party that has done more to stand up to racism is now being demonised as a racist, bigoted party. I have got to say, I think our party’s response has been partly responsible for that, because in my opinion … we’ve backed off far too much, we have given too much ground, we’ve been too apologetic … We’ve done more to address the scourge of anti-Semitism than any other party.
Enter the truly vile so-called ‘Socialists Against Anti-Semitism’. It has published an outrageously dumb and one-sided ‘dossier’ on Williamson, in which it is doing the work of the witch-hunters: This lists as ‘evidence’ his public support for Ken Livingstone, Tony Greenstein, Jackie Walker and Pete Willsman (none of whom have been expelled or even charged by the party over anti-Semitism); the fact that he “spoke at an event where a LP audience member is claimed to have used an openly anti-Semitic trope” (my emphasis), as well as tweets by rightwingers and various journalists who rant against Williamson. Convincing stuff it is not.
Still, despite the lack of evidence, such is the state of the civil war in the party that a clear majority of the NEC will no doubt decide to overturn the panel’s decision and refer Williamson’s case to the national constitutional committee (NCC). This is where the NEC sends all the disciplinary cases that it cannot/does not want to deal with. Despite this body’s recent expansion from 11 to 25 members, it is still dominated by the right and a referral to the NCC usually results in expulsion – which is how it got its well-deserved epithet: ‘national kangaroo court’.
This might not be what Jeremy Corbyn wants, but his ongoing campaign of appeasing the right inside and outside the party has led to the situation where so-called leftwingers have swallowed the lie that the party has a huge problem with anti-Semitism. Witness Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey – both feted as loyal Corbyn supporters – coming out against Williamson. This is unfortunately a self-made crisis. Had Corbyn put two fingers up to the witch-hunters early on, their campaign would have never become so successful – and so devastating for good comrades like Williamson and many others. But they are mere collateral damage. The chief target, of course, is Corbyn himself, who remains totally unacceptable from the ruling class’s point of view.
Jon Lansman might have chickened out of making the decision to refer Williamson to the NCC himself, but he has quickly jumped on to the saboteurs’ bandwagon. In an already infamous tweet, he has demanded Williamson’s expulsion: “He has to go.”
Does anyone seriously imagine that Chris Williamson will get a fair hearing from the NEC disputes panel, when several of those who will sit in judgement upon him have already torn his reputation to shreds on social media, without even having seen all the evidence?
He is another person on the CLGA’s NEC slate who turns out to be rather more independently minded than Lansman would have liked.
But this is a new low for the Momentum owner, who has been moving rapidly to the right. Clearly, in the view of many of those who retained their Momentum membership, this has been a qualitative turning point. Social media is awash with reports of people cancelling their membership. And it is true that Momentum nationally can hardly be regarded as part of the left. It cannot be turned around, because Jon Lansman rules it with an iron fist. There is no internal democracy, no mechanisms that could force Lansman to hand over the huge database of Corbyn supporters. In this context we note a rather bizarre article on the website Red Flag, where Jeremy Dewar “demands a sovereign Momentum conference”. You are two years too late, comrade.
Certainly, the civil war in the Labour Party seems to be approaching its climax, especially with the prospect of a UK constitutional crisis. Faced with the prospect of a mad-cap, no-deal Brexit under prime minister Boris Johnson, it is entirely possible that a large number of rightwing Labour MPs might yet resign the whip to build some kind of alliance with the ‘remain’ Tories, Liberal Democrats, Change UK, the Greens and the Scottish National Party. This makes it all the more important for the left to start organising for trigger ballots – and for the full implementation of the rule change agreed at conference 2018. The recent back-peddling over comrade Williamson does not bode well for the rest of the NEC’s meeting on July 9, which is supposed to look at issuing a timetable and guidelines for trigger ballots (or not). Unless we can get rid of the rightwingers in the Parliamentary Labour Party, the Corbyn project will be sabotaged.
In this ongoing civil war, Momentum nationally has proven to be utterly useless. Yes, it has occasionally played a useful role in organising activists to travel to marginal and winnable seats. But first it failed to speak out on the witch-hunt – and now it has come out on the wrong side of it. Chris Williamson, however, is incredibly popular among Labour members, chiefly because he has been campaigning for more party democracy and because he has stood up for many of those who have wrongfully been accused of anti-Semitism.
As I write, Labour Against the Witchhunt’s ‘Open Letter to the NEC’, demanding Chris’s immediate reinstatement, has been signed by over 3,300 people in just two days. Its page listing all statements and resolutions in support of Chris Williamson has been liked by almost 6,000 people. And there is the centrist website, Labourlist.org, which organises a weekly, highly biased, poll of the sort that finds Keir Starmer “the most popular member of the shadow cabinet” – participants usually do not exceed 5,000. This week, however, 10,066 people took part – and 61% of them thought that “Chris Williamson should be readmitted”.
We understand that there are now moves underway to build a new transparent and democratic Labour left to challenge Momentum – and unite the myriad of already existing local Labour left organisations, dissident Momentum groups and so on that exist on the Labour left. This is highly encouraging and long overdue. Maybe this campaign might even get Jon Lansman off the NEC.
Reinstate Chris Williamson
NEC lobby: Tuesday July 9, 9am-12 noon
Labour Party HQ, 105 Victoria Street, Southside, London SW1.
Please come along to show your solidarity with the only MP who has dared to stand up to the witch-hunters. The only one who has defended members wrongly accused of being anti-Semites.
Now it’s our turn to stand with him!
Organised by Labour Against the Witchhunt