Carla Roberts reviews Oh, Jeremy Corbyn – the big lie [Alexei Sayle (narrator), Chis Reeves (director), Norman Thomas (writer), Platform Films]
I would definitely urge readers to go and see this film, whenever it is shown locally – but please be aware that our enemies have been handed a couple of easy weapons – through a lack of political editing perhaps and various shortcomings.
The “big lie” is a reference, of course, to the campaign to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn. I recognise much of the footage, because the leftwing filmmaker, Chris Reeves of Platform Films, which produced it, has attended many of the meetings, stunts and activities put on by Labour Party Marxists, Labour Against the Witchhunt and other pro-Corbyn groups over the years. We even paid him to record a couple of events that are now part of the film and a lot of my friends and comrades can be seen on screen, either in the background or in the interview section. It is heartening to see reminders of the huge, enthusiastic crowds of Corbyn movement supporters.
Refreshingly, however, the film is also critical of Corbyn – taking him to task for appeasing the witch-hunters who accused him and his supporters of ‘anti-Semitism’. “The Labour leadership’s answer to the attacks seems to be to say ‘sorry’,” laments narrator Alexei Sayle. Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi of Jewish Voice for Labour says: “We kept thinking, Jeremy and John McDonnell will see that they will have to stand up to this now. Surely, they can see that these criticisms are not made in good faith.” Graham Bash, Tony Greenstein and Jackie Walker make similar comments.
Interestingly, we also hear from Andrew Murray, who left the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain in 2016 to join the Labour Party and was seconded from Unite the Union to Labour HQ for the 2017 general election. He subsequently worked as an advisor to Corbyn from 2018 to 2020. “I am critical of how we handled the anti-Semitism thing”, he says, “because in my view we didn’t.” Apparently Jeremy was “very, very upset by the allegations, very personally wounded and it sort of paralysed a political response.” It is a real shame that neither Murray nor Corbyn spoke out when it still could have made a difference.
The big lie is not the kind of exposé that contains bombshells or knockout blows. It is unashamedly of the left and for the left. The film simply tries to tell the story of what happened – and why. Mostly that works well. But, on a few occasions, the film gets things wrong politically. My criticisms however, are relatively minor and, crucially, they are very different to the nonsense heaped onto the film by the mainstream press and so-called leftwingers like Paul Mason, Novara Media and singer Billy Bragg (standing in for Owen Jones in the Guardian, who has been surprisingly reticent on this whole issue). Of course, none of these darlings of the establishment stood up to the witch-hunt in the Labour Party and often they actually supported it. So their presentday stance comes as no surprise.
The main charge is, naturally, that the film is “allegedly ‘anti-Semitic’”, as The Times put it. Their journalists do not seem to have watched the damned thing, so instead Rupert Murdoch’s august publication turns to that useful idiot Paul Mason (for decades a Trotskyist, first in the SWP, then Workers Power, then Permanent Revolution).
In his review posted on LabourList (June 19), Mason claims that
the film presents a full-blown conspiracy theory about Corbyn’s opponents, conflating Zionists, Jews and Israel as part of a force that ‘orchestrated’ his overthrow. That, to me, appears to match at least two examples of anti-Semitism in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, and should raise legal and ethical questions for any venue considering screening it.
Not only does Mason present the hugely controversial IHRA fake ‘definition’ as some kind of holy script: he also thinks non-compliance with it raises “legal questions” – perhaps he believes it has official legal status? Sadly for Mason, this is not the case. It is not legally binding: it is also not a definition, as legal experts have pointed out many times – it is extremely vague.
But then Mason’s claim that the film “conflates Zionists, Jews and Israel” is utter nonsense anyway – and Mason has to admit as much. His single piece of ‘evidence’ consists of his description of a scene in which Moshé Machover states, quite correctly, that “nobody can fail to see that this was a concerted, orchestrated campaign” against Corbyn, followed by the narrator, Alexei Sayle, asking: “But if it was an orchestrated campaign, who was in the orchestra?” Mason himself lists the Zionist groups involved: “the Jewish Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement, Labour Friends of Israel, and the Israel Advocacy Movement”.
In other words, even by Mason’s own logic, the film – as it is – could not be accused of anti-Semitism. But that is a minor admission that, of course, none of the venues which have banned the film will lose much sleep over. From the union bureaucrats of the Tolpuddle Festival, via the cowards in various town halls and council chambers to Sharon Graham of Unite – they all have been falling over themselves to stop the film being shown. To little avail, of course: every cancellation has led to at least two more screenings at other venues. Good.
Of course, the film goes on to add some other members of the said “orchestra”, which Mason fails to mention: the mainstream media, former deputy Labour leader Tom Watson and almost the entire Parliamentary Labour Party. Mention could also have been made of alleged leftwingers like Mason himself, as well as chief appeaser and Momentum founder Jon Lansman. He was so eager to please the witch-hunters that he went over to them (in a genuinely cringey interview for The Guardian, for example, in which he and Owen Jones try to outdo each other with their witch-finding skills, he actually claims that the phrase, “I hate Israel”, is “clearly anti-Semitic”).
Of course there was a conspiracy against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. The Lobby, Al Jazeera’s documentary, and the report by Martin Forde KC on Labour, contain a mountain of evidence. There was a concerted campaign of sabotage, which most left activists on the ground experienced directly – from day one of Corbyn’s leadership.
The most effective tactic came to be the “big lie” – the claim that anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel are anti-Semitic. Thousands were vilified, smeared and kicked out the Labour Party and other organisations. So successful has that been, it continues to this day.
Until Mason’s review, it was the title that the mainstream media concentrated on (after all, the film can only be seen at special screenings and none of the mainstream media hacks seem to have gone to the trouble to attend).
“There are big lies everywhere and one of the big lies today is of the Labour Party being infested by anti-Semitism”, as Moshé Machover explains in the film. “I doubt there is a single Palestine solidarity activist who has not been accused of anti-Semitism. The Zionists have certainly successfully redefined anti-Semitism, says Tony Greenstein: “It does not mean hatred or hostility to Jews as Jews, but for the Zionists … is opposition to a Jewish, racial, supremacist state.”
On this key issue, the film is very strong.
There are, however, a few criticisms that have to be made.
Firstly, at no point does anybody point out that in fact there were a few (very, very few) cases of anti-Semitism – it would have been a miracle if there had not been. The Labour Party is part of society and reflects the anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia that exists in society (though probably on a much smaller scale). Most allegations were utter nonsense, based on trumped-up charges. But on a very few occasions, the recommendation of Labour Against the Witchhunt was that the accused should indeed retract and apologise for a particular thoughtless phrase or problematic tweet that indeed conflated ‘Jews’ and ‘Zionists’.
This underlined our demand for education and discussion on all issues to do with this subject – not an approach of ‘zero tolerance’, as so stupidly pursued by John McDonnell MP and Jon Lansman. Zero tolerance – ie, the banning of discussion – is the opposite of the kind of open, democratic culture a healthy working class organisation needs. On the particular subject of anti-Semitism it is doubly wrong, because it was the chief weapon of the right against the left.
More importantly – and Mason picks up on this too – the film makes some rather outlandish and frankly bizarre claims about Keir Starmer, which reflect a serious misunderstanding of how the Labour Party and indeed modern capitalism work. The claim is that Starmer is some kind of operative in the intelligence services. Jackie Walker exclaims “Starmer worked for the CIA, didn’t he?” Actually, no, he did not. Rebecca Massey from Brighton gets it right: “He had worked quite closely with the CIA”, which is rather different. Starmer was, after all, appointed Director of Public Prosecutions in 2008 … and duly received a knighthood for services rendered. Andrew Murray puts it like this: “I think Starmer will simply be seen as someone who did the establishment’s bidding, which is really what he’s been doing all his life. He is above all a servant of the state.” Exactly.
Now we get to the most shaky part of the film’s narrative. Starmer is presented as using his undoubted opposition to Brexit first and foremost because it would wreck Corbyn’s election chances. Andrew Murray, showing that he still adheres to the CPB’s nationalist road to socialism, sees Starmer’s creeping advocacy of a second referendum as the means to scuttle the Corbyn project: “It became clear that [a second Brexit referendum] is the thing that can undermine Corbynism.”
Rebecca Massey piles it on: “[Starmer’s] best trick was to make Labour a ‘remain’ party. Let’s stick two fingers up to the majority of the British people who voted for Brexit.” The film then spends a considerable amount of time interviewing Labour Party members, who explain how they did not understand Labour’s policy on Brexit. And, of course, that is exactly how Keir Starmer planned it.
This is overegging things to put it mildly. Surely the comrades at Platform Films will remember that the vast majority of Labour Party members opposed Brexit. In the 2016 referendum around 70% of Labour voters ticked ‘remain’. Corbyn, however, and many members of the traditional Labour left are of the view that a smaller, a nationally fragmented, capitalism is somehow preferable.
Despite his sentimental internationalism when it comes to the Palestinians or other solidarity movements, Corbyn at no point tried to win over the population to a positive vision of workers’ unity across Europe and beyond. Labour’s repudiate Brexit policy was weak, confused and self-defeating. Clearly, Corbyn did not believe in it and it showed. But to claim that this was somehow Starmer’s sneaky doing – on behest of other, shadowy forces – is idiotic.
Starmer did what he did because he believed in it. He believed what liberal capitalism believed. Big business, top civil servants and most of the political class believed that Brexit was bad.
That is the truth and the truth needs no lies, either big or small.