Kevin Bean reviews The Labour files, a series of four TV programmes from Al Jazeera Investigations, directed by Phil Rees and available on YouTube
Timed to coincide with the Labour Party conference, the The Labour files looked at the causes and consequences of the witch-hunt against the left in the party.
Its starting point was a huge tranche of emails and internal party material – the ‘Labour files’ of the title – which formed the basis of its narrative about events in the party following the election of Jeremy Corbyn. Alongside this were interviews with expelled members and others, which highlighted particular case studies and examples of the Labour right’s onslaught on the left.
The documentary also drew on a previous Al Jazeera film, The lobby, to establish a wider political context and to link the attacks on the Corbyn leadership and the left to agents of the Israeli state and pro-Zionist party officials. In several hours of film the documentary also considered the role of the media, especially the BBC, in this campaign against the left, as well as the response of the Labour bureaucracy and the Starmer leadership to allegations that a ‘hierarchy of racism’ existed within the party. The swift action and readiness of the party machine to deal with alleged ‘anti-Semitism’ was contrasted with the tardiness of the party machine in acting against claimed anti-black and anti-Muslim racism. In what looked like a late addition after the main filming was completed, the programme also devoted 20 minutes in part four to the alleged hacking of email accounts and attempts to silence criticism of Newham’s Labour council leader by a local media blog and party activists.
The most powerful elements of the documentary were the excerpts from internal Labour emails and documents, and the interview clips. Many of these were already in the public domain and would have been familiar to many already. The sabotage carried out by Labour bureaucrats and their successful attempts to smear leftwing activists, as revealed in these messages and documents, is now firmly established as a matter of public record. Even so, it still remained shocking to hear again about how so many party members had been fitted up and verballed during the witch-hunt.
For me the stand-out examples were those of so-called ‘Labour investigator’ Ben Westerman, who lied about what Rica Bird, a Jewish party member who was subsequently expelled, had said during an “informal interview”, or the cack-handed attempt at a latter-day Zinoviev letter drafted by a Wirral Labour councillor, and cited by Labour’s then deputy leader, Tom Watson, which fabricated transparently false ‘evidence’ against the left in Wallasey CLP. Other examples in the film of bureaucratic manoeuvres and slanders against the left drawn from Brighton, Liverpool Riverside and Croydon, as well as during the internal selection process for the party’s candidate for Liverpool city mayor, were just as shocking. Moreover, these highlighted cases are merely the tip of the iceberg: this is not past history; the witch-hunt still remains in full swing under the Starmer leadership. As Brighton activist Greg Hadfield so accurately put it, on this evidence “the Labour Party is a criminal conspiracy against its members”.
However, if these interviews and email transcripts were not enough to provide a sufficiently compelling weight of evidence, something else was also on hand to support the main premises of the programme. A well-established element in contemporary documentaries is the ‘neutral’ voice or figure supposedly representing ‘sensible’ opinion. Theirs is the authoritative voice that sets the standards and invites us to make judgements on the evidence revealed in the film. The choice of such a ‘talking head’ is very important in understanding and assessing the intentions of the film-makers and the key themes they wish to highlight. In doing so the political and moral framework of the documentary can be explicitly revealed to the viewer. So the choice of Peter Oborne as just such a commentator in The Labour files has an importance that goes beyond mere production values.
A former chief political commentator at The Daily Telegraph, Oborne is an idiosyncratic, if conservative, critic of the failings of the media and the behaviour of the ‘political class’ – a term he is credited with originally coining. So, in contrasting the “decency and fairness” which should characterise the Labour Party and its politics, according to Oborne, with the reality revealed by the film, he framed his argument within his wider normative critique of contemporary politics and public life. Thus, in defence of Corbyn’s decency and fairness, Oborne drew attention to the fact that disciplinary action against so-called ‘anti-Semitism’ actually increased after Labour’s rightwing general secretary Iain McNicol was replaced by a Corbyn nominee, Jennie Formby!
Oborne was not the only one to implicitly concede the Labour right’s case that there was a serious problem with anti-Semitism in the party. The Labour files also featured James Schneider, a leading figure of Momentum and a member of Corbyn’s inner circle in this period, who justified the way the left buckled under pressure and had been ‘forced’ to accept the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. This ‘working definition’ equated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, and so was consciously used by the Labour right to open up further attacks and expulsions of the left.
In accepting Oborne’s critique of how contemporary politics are conducted as its starting point and failing to look more critically at the Corbyn leadership’s response to the attacks made upon it, the programme dodged some of the most important questions about what was going on in the Labour Party. Whilst the accounts of Anna Rothery, Jenny Manson, Becky Massey et al were valuable reminders of the type of lies and vicious behaviour of which the Labour right are capable, the film did not really explain why the party machine felt the need to resort to such tactics. Most importantly, the failures of the Corbyn leadership and the compromises and retreats that the official left undertook to placate the Labour right were left completely unexamined, and so a significant factor in how the witch-hunt has unfolded was left out of the reckoning altogether.
Although unexplored by The Labour files, these questions still remain crucial for today’s rather disorientated and demoralised left. Drawing up such a balance sheet and making a real assessment of both why the pro-capitalist Labour right launched these particular attacks and the woefully inadequate response of the Labour left is vital if we are going to build any sort of working class politics worthy of that name. This is especially important, as many comrades are now concluding that the continuing witch-hunt and Starmer’s tightening grip over the party show that Labour is dead and that we now need some form of new party. It is true that The Labour files shows that the Labour machine is thoroughly corrupt and is a weapon to fight the left. It is part of an apparatus to control the working class and ensure that the party remains a safe second eleven for capitalism which could be called into action when the main bourgeois party is not up to the job. As has been the case virtually since Labour’s inception, the leadership is structurally integrated into the state and its politics are thoroughly pro-capitalist.
For Marxists this film tell us nothing new about Labour: it simply provides yet more evidence, if it were needed, about the absolute rottenness and thoroughly reactionary nature of Labourism as an ideology and an organisational form. However, Labour Party Marxists argue that Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party while it retains its links with the organised working class through the trade union link and, as such, should not be lightly abandoned as a site for struggle for revolutionaries.
Both recent and historical experience has shown that any ‘new’ initiative that might emerge from a rejection of this perspective will probably take the form of a broad alliance of left reformists and avowed Marxists, based on lowest-common-denominator politics and rotten compromises to keep everyone on board. Whatever its verbal rejection of Labourism, it will repeat the same mistakes and be, in essence, a Labour Party mark two.
That is why we are repeating our call to continue to fight back within Labour and re-establish a militant campaign within the party against the Labour leadership’s witch-hunt. That is an important first step to rally the left, whether inside or outside the party. But much more is required. The fight against the witch-hunt has to be linked to the fight to forge Labour into a vehicle for militant politics. That struggle is not one to ‘reclaim‘ Labour – it was never truly ours in the first place – but rather to refound it as a united front open to all socialist and working class organisations and currents.
That can only be achieved as part of our central task: the building of an explicitly Marxist party that rejects Labourism and is fully committed to the overthrow of capitalism and the self-emancipation of the working class.