Joining with the witch-hunters


Stitching up Chris Williamson marks a turning point for Corbyn and McDonnell, writes Carla Roberts

It is not often the case that a court judgment is reported in entirely diametrically opposed ways. So did the suspended Labour MP, Chris Williamson, lose or win his case against the Labour Party? The entire bourgeois media claims the former, whereas lefty news outlets like The Canary or the Skwawkbox say it is the latter. Both sides have based their reporting more on wishful thinking than reality.

Williamson sought two rulings from the judge. Firstly, that the June 26 decision of the NEC’s three-person anti-Semitism panel, which reinstated him to full membership after his February 27 suspension, should stand. Keith Vaz MP, Gerald Howarth MP and Momentum’s Huda Elmi had voted to issue Williamson “with a formal warning for the heinous crime of, among other similarly ludicrous charges, stating that Labour had been “too apologetic” in response to the right’s allegations of anti-Semitism.

They did not refer him to the national constitutional committee, which is what the right was hoping for and what the unnamed “internal investigator” on his case had recommended.1)The full judgment is available here: https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/asa-winstanley/court-overturns-labour-re-suspension-left-wing-mp  The NCC richly deserves its nickname as ‘national kangaroo court’ – despite its recent enlargement from 11 to 25 members, it is still dominated by the right and a referral usually results in expulsion.

Readers of the Weekly Worker know that all hell broke loose in the hours following the decision to reinstate the comrade: Tom Watson, as ever acting as witch-finder general, orchestrated in record time a public letter signed by 90 MPs and peers, which demanded that Jeremy Corbyn should remove the whip from Williamson. This was followed by a letter of 70 ‘concerned’ Labour Party staffers and much-publicised rants by the usual suspects like Margaret Hodge MP, who claimed that the decision proved that “the party is turning a blind eye to Jew-hate”.

This is when Keith Vaz remembered that he had been undergoing a mysterious “medical procedure” when making this decision, which meant he was actually “not fit” to do so. He asked Labour’s general secretary Jennie Formby to set aside the panel’s decision. And, lo and behold, on that same evening of June 28, Formby informed all members of the NEC that the next meeting of the NEC disputes panel on July 9 would have to make a decision on this. The disputes panel (which in fact includes every NEC member who can be bothered to show up) proclaimed that, yes, the anti-Semitism panel’s decision could not stand. On July 19, the same body referred Williamson’s case to the NCC.

But Justice Edward Pepperall, delivering his judgment at Birmingham Civil Justice Centre on October 10, agreed with Chris Williamson: he ruled that “the party acted unfairly” – when resuspending Williamson on July 9 “there was no proper reason for reopening the case against Mr Williamson and referring the original allegations to the NCC”. Judge Pepperall declared the resuspension “unlawful” and that “the Labour Party is no longer able lawfully to pursue the original disciplinary case against Mr Williamson”.

So far, so good. But then it gets rather Kafkaesque. Most of us had been unaware that on September 3, comrade Williamson had been slapped with yet another suspension – one week before his hearing against this resuspension started (which we shall call his second suspension). So his lawyers worked overtime to include in their case a challenge to this new, third suspension. However, as the party had followed its own constitutional procedures correctly when it comes to suspension number three, the judge could find “nothing inherently unfair in investigating these fresh allegations”. This is why Chris Williamson remains suspended from the party.

This is the trouble, of course, with going to a bourgeois court to sort out issues which are, in effect, matters of political disagreement and discourse. The judge stressed:

“This case is not about whether Mr Williamson is, or is not, anti-Semitic or even whether he has, or has not, breached the rules of the Labour Party. The issue is whether the party has acted lawfully in its investigation and prosecution.”

Scathing criticism

It seems pretty clear that Labour’s lawyers were well aware that they would have lost the original court case and that this was the reason for the Kafkaesque ‘double suspension’. And indeed, the judge makes a number of scathing criticisms of the process:

  • He states that it was “not difficult to infer that the true reason for the decision [of July 9] in this case was that [NEC] members were influenced by the ferocity of the outcry following the June decision [to reinstate Williamson].” He references Tom Watson’s campaign and quotes various ‘enraged’ politicians.
  • The judge also clearly does not believe Keith Vaz’s story, who “by June 27 appears to have had second thoughts about the matter” by raising “issues about his health”. “It would be surprising if, as an experienced parliamentarian, Mr Vaz (a) had taken part in an important meeting if he felt himself unfit to do so; and (b) then failed to clearly make that point in his subsequent email.” Further, the judge thinks it “surprising” that neither George Howarth nor Huda Elmi “raised the issue of his fitness either at the time or subsequently”.
  • The judge was also critical of the fact that, while Williamson had to sign a confidentiality agreement, the party was briefing against him all the way through: “The proceedings of the disputes panel are supposed to be confidential. Nevertheless, the decision of this panel was immediately leaked to the press, together with the views expressed by the individual panel members. Indeed, Mr Williamson says that he learnt of the decision not from the party, but from media reports.”

Much of Pepperall’s judgment rests, however, on technical issues around the role of the “NEC organisation committee”, which is apparently the only body that could have overturned the decision of the NEC anti-Semitism panel, and not, as actually happened, the NEC disputes panel (though we would like to challenge anybody to tell us who exactly sits on this organisation committee). According to the rules, it is “a sub-committee of the NEC, appointed by the NEC and comprising of NEC members”. But the rules also say that the “NEC disputes panel [made up of all NEC members] is a panel of the NEC organisation committee.”

No wonder then that in terms of Williamson’s third suspension, the party was extra careful not to leak anything to the press. We can, however, glean the new charges from the judgment. They are, to put it mildly, laughable:

  • “Sending an email to a member of the public who had complained to you about your criticism of Margaret Hodge MP that referred her to a video” which was critical of Hodge.
  • “Publicly legitimising or endorsing the misconduct of members or former members” who have been found “grossly detrimental or prejudicial to the Labour Party” – ie, standing up for and speaking on platforms with Marc Wadsworth, Jackie Walker, Ken Livingstone, Stan Keable, Tony Greenstein, etc.
  • “Publicly characterising the disciplinary process of the party” as “politically motivated and/or not genuine”.

But that is exactly what it is. Apparently, Williamson’s lawyer agreed that these were entirely new charges. We disagree. To us they look pretty similar to some of the charges in the first suspension (which the party is not allowed to present any more). These included, according to Pepperall’s judgment:

  • “Allegations of campaigning in favour of members who have been formally disciplined by the party for anti-Semitism.”
  • “Sharing platforms and giving public praise to people with a history of allegations of anti-Semitism against them.”

Of course, we know that very few people have actually been expelled for anti-Semitism. According to Jennie Formby’s report in February 2019, it was a mere 12 members, while in July she reported another eight. But comrades Walker, Wadsworth and Greenstein are not among them. They were all done for the catch-all charge of “bringing the party into disrepute”. So, by pointing out that these comrades have been wrongly smeared as “anti-Semites” – thanks, in part, to leaks from the party – Williamson has himself become guilty. If anything, this entire saga demonstrates how correct Williamson was to characterise the disciplinary process as “politically motivated”.

One of the reasons for this rushed third suspension is, of course, to stop Williamson from standing again for his seat of Derby North, should a general election be called soon (suspended members are barred). We have no doubt that the NEC will not make the same mistake twice and that his third suspension will result in the required expulsion. Judging from the harsh words that Williamson has for the “Labour bureaucracy” in his video explaining the verdict, he too seems to have little hope of his reinstatement any time soon.

Going right

The real tragedy in all of this is, of course, the role of the Labour leadership and their allies. We learn from the judgement that, apparently, Jennie Formby was at first reluctant to issue the third suspension, but was persuaded to do so by the people working in ‘Governance and Legal’ (formerly the compliance unit). She should have stood firm.

The same goes for the leader’s office. Indeed, set on achieving the ‘next Labour government’, what we are seeing is the politics of ambiguity becoming the politics of treachery. A shift more than symbolised by the nauseating chitchat between John McDonnell and Tony Blair’s spin-doctor, Alastair Campbell (the video is here).

We watched open-mouthed as McDonnell declared: “Tony Blair is not a war criminal. I’m hoping he will go down in history for the wonderful thing he did in Northern Ireland and not for what he did in Iraq.” Oh, that would be lovely. Shame that it won’t happen and that instead we will be reminded over and over again how poor old Blair sadly fell for the old ‘weapons of mass destruction’ lie and how that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

We are also relieved to hear that McDonnell is still a “republican”, although a pretty funny one: “I respect the constitutional settlement and it has to be protected.” That includes for him protecting “the monarchy” and “the rule of law”.

And yet apparently McDonnell still sees himself as a “9” on a left-right scale from 1 to 10, while his good mate, Alastair, is a solid “6”. When Campbell asked him if he agreed with his own expulsion from Labour (for publicly boasting that he had voted for the Liberal Democrats), McDonnell quickly replied: “No. Your expulsion was done under a stupid rule brought in by New Labour. You should submit your reapplication, just submit it.” We have no doubt that it would be approved. Should Jackie Walker, Marc Wadsworth, Ken Livingstone or Stan Keable try … we can guess that outcome too.

As an aside, the clause in the rule that Campbell was expelled for is well … “stupid”:

A member of the party who joins and/or supports a political organisation other than an official Labour group or other unit of the party, or supports any candidate who stands against an official Labour candidate, or publicly declares their intent to stand against a Labour candidate, shall automatically be ineligible to be or remain a party member” (chapter 2, clause 1, point 4B).

The rule is clearly aimed at the left. Specifically the CPGB, which in the 1920s had much of its membership holding both Labour and Communist Party cards. Many CLPs supported CPGBers as official Labour candidates. Later, as the anti-CPGB witch-hunt proceeded, many CLPs supported unofficial Labour-communist candidates. So the rule should go. But so too should Alastair Campbell. Because he called for a vote for an openly capitalist party.

Bowing and scraping before the odious Campbell, the shadow chancellor also announced that he himself and Corbyn would resign if Labour loses the next general election. Because, you see, that is “the tradition”. Nonsense, of course. David Lloyd George did not resign in 1922. Nor did Winston Churchill in 1945. Nor did Harold Wilson resign in 1970. And we hear that Corbyn himself is less than keen to do so. After all, he did not resign when Labour lost the 2017 general election and it would have been ludicrous if he had.

Despite all our criticism of Corbyn’s lack of a backbone, his collapse over issues like Trident and his silence in the face of the witch-hunt, his leadership campaign did see hundreds of thousands flocking into Labour’s ranks and in the process trigger a bitter civil war. Offering Corbyn’s resignation is like waving a white flag. McDonnell is clearly interested in appeasing the right rather than in transforming the Labour Party in a socialist direction.

He thinks the next leader has to have only one qualification: “It should be a woman”. He has previously been singing the praises of the very moderate and very tame Rebecca Long-Bailey. But how about if the next leader was a socialist, preferably one with a backbone?