James Harvey asks why the AWL has been proscribed when it has given such unstinting service to the right in promoting the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ big lie
The recent decision of Labour’s national executive committee to proscribe the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty almost makes you feel sorry for the average AWL member, who must be asking: what have we done to deserve such shabby and ungrateful treatment at the hands of the Labour bureaucracy? How dare they lump us in with such left groups as the Labour Left Alliance and the Socialist Labour Network, who were also proscribed at the same NEC meeting on March 29. After all we have done, and continue doing, in support of Labour’s pro-imperialist leadership, they now turn on us and discard their faithful servants without so much as a second thought. Truly there is no gratitude left in the world!
It must all be very distressing for the AWL to find itself out in the cold and so shamefully abandoned. Worse still, it now shares the same fate as Labour left groups that the AWL accuses of being anti-Semitic and acting as useful idiots for Putin during the Ukraine war. Such pain was evident when a leading AWL supporter, Peter Radcliffe, put the group’s case when he appeared recently on Not the Andrew Marr show. The presenter, Crispin Flintoff, asked, why proscribe a group so close to Labour leadership positions on Ukraine, a second referendum on the European Union, and purging the left through (false) accusations of anti-Semitism? Radcliffe was hard put to produce a coherent response. The core of his defence was a standard Labour loyalism and the AWL’s long history of campaigning for a Labour government as the only alternative to the Tories.
According to the faithful Peter, it seems that Keir Starmer does not know what is in the party’s best interests: he is worried, it appears, about the potential strength of the AWL’s influence within Labour’s ranks. So, despite being on the same page as Starmer on so many issues, Radcliffe asserted that the AWL is now under attack because it is the most credible opposition to the Labour leadership’s attempts to ensure total conformity within the party! For anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of the AWL’s complicity in the witch-hunt and the cover it provided for the most outrageous attacks on the authentic left, such an utterly self-serving explanation is risible. Such attempts at self-justification are also very revealing about the bankruptcy of AWL politics.
Its new-found opposition to bans and proscriptions and demands for freedom of speech within Labour have also provoked some wry amusement amongst those of us who defended such principled positions from the very beginning of the Labour right’s onslaught. Where was the AWL when Labour Against the Witchhunt was proscribed and supporters of Palestinian rights were smeared as anti-Semites and hounded by the media? Did they support the pickets and protests at the Labour conference and outside NEC meetings in opposition to bans and proscriptions? Not only was the AWL absent from Labour movement demonstrations and meetings in favour of free speech, but it actively lined up with the right and joined in the attack. The role of individual AWL supporters in the constituencies in collaborating with the Labour bureaucracy by targeting leftwingers for expulsion is well-known.
All of this scabbing is not simply an accidental lapse in judgement: it is all of a piece with the AWL’s wider social-imperialist politics and practice since the 2000s. Its current support for US imperialism and the aims of Nato expansion in Ukraine only builds on its earlier backing for imperialism’s ‘progressive’ wars of intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and the AWL’s active defence of Israel, and despite the inherent racism, expansionism and bellicose nature of the whole settler-colonial project.
This is why it is important to look at why the Labour leadership has now imposed these bans and proscriptions. The AWL’s own explanation – that it represents a real challenge to Starmer that has to be removed – does not really stand up. Having proven to be such ‘useful idiots’ for the Labour right throughout the witch-hunt, they are no threat at all to the party leadership. Perhaps the real explanation lies in the dynamics of a witch-hunt, which quickly takes on a momentum of its own – especially in such a bureaucratised, top-down, managerial-style party as Labour.
The party apparat has regained secure control once again after the temporary disruptions of the Corbyn period. As was all too apparent under his leadership, Labour MPs and full-time officials – both at the party’s HQ and in the regions – still retained considerable power, which they successfully used to undermine the left and democratic accountability within the party. Furthermore, we know how Corbyn and the rest of the official left compromised, thus failing to take the fight to the Labour right, and the political disaster that resulted. This weakness and acquiescence gave the bureaucracy a safe space from which to attack the left – an offensive which has continued to this day.
It may be that these party bureaucrats lack the political finesse to understand the valuable role the AWL has played for the right. To these hacks the AWL is just another bunch of Trots who need to be purged like all the rest. Apart from the tendency of purges to quickly get out of hand and embroil new victims far beyond the original targets, this latest move might have a more direct purpose in further weakening the soft left. If they can even go for such collaborators with the Labour right as the AWL, then even the mildest of critics are not safe.
Through its role in Another Europe is Possible and now the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign, the AWL has developed clear links with some soft left MPs and trade union bureaucrats. It is thus possible that behind this move against the AWL the real aim is to further muzzle even this hitherto accepted ‘left’ current. However, whatever the exact circumstances, the proscription of the AWL clearly points towards the direction that Labour is taking under Starmer. Even the most lukewarm of criticism cannot be tolerated and will be suppressed, irrespective of how useful a role its perpetrators may have played in the past.
Given the group’s poisonous, social-imperialist politics, few on the militant, genuine left will naturally have much sympathy for the AWL. With such an appalling record it would be easy to indulge in a little Schadenfreude and derive just some small pleasure from the way that the AWL biters have now themselves been bitten. However, that misses the point.
Despite our vehement opposition to the openly pro-imperialist politics of the AWL, we must, at this present juncture, oppose its proscription in the name of defending what remains of free speech in the Labour Party.
. The Weekly Worker has an extensive archive of articles outlining how the politics and role of the AWL have developed from the 2000s onwards. For just a couple of examples of these processes, see ‘Matgamna’s chauvinistic tirade’ (October 31 2013): weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/984/awl-matgamnas-chauvinistic-tirade; and ‘Those who side with imperialism’ (October 23 2014): weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1031/those-who-side-with-imperialism.