IHRA: NEC left capitulates

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But there might yet be light at the end of the tunnel, says Carla Roberts

As expected, Labour’s national executive committee decided on September 4 to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance ‘working definition’ of anti-Semitism – including, crucially, all its 11 examples. So now, for instance, to describe Israel as “racist” will be officially anti-Semitic in the Labour Party – even though the new ‘nation state’ law enshrines racism to an even greater extent in Israel’s constitution.

What is only transpiring now, however, is the fact that Jeremy Corbyn was royally shafted by his allies on the NEC. He had prepared a 500-word “personal statement” to be read out at the beginning of the meeting, which he wanted adopted alongside the whole IHRA document. According to The Times, it was this sentence that raised particular concern: “Nor should it be regarded as anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact, or to support another settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

Apparently, it “was made clear” to Corbyn that the majority of the NEC would vote against his document, and so in order to save face he withdrew it. That is a real shame: it would have been very interesting to see exactly which of his so-called allies were prepared to stab him in the back. After all, there is now a slim majority of pro-Corbyn forces on the executive. We know that Momentum owner Jon Lansman has been at the front of the queue, but unfortunately Unite also declared in the run-up to the meeting that it would back the full IHRA document. We can only speculate as to who else might have helped humiliate Corbyn, including the soft Zionist Rhea Wolfson (a fellow traveller of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and member of the Jewish Labour Movement). Fortunately, she is about to end her term on the NEC.

Instead, the NEC adopted a short statement alongside the IHRA wording, which says: “We recommend that we adopt the IHRA in full, with all examples. This does not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians. We re-invite organisations to engage in consultation on the code of conduct.”1)The Times September 5.

To make matters more complicated, the usually well-informed Skwawkbox reports that “senior Labour sources have confirmed that the protections of the existing code of conduct still apply and govern the application of the additional IHRA examples that were adopted yesterday.”

We do not have to go into much detail about why the full IHRA definition is so dangerous, as most readers will have become experts on the matter over the last few weeks. A short paragraph from Labour Against the Witchhunt’s recent leaflet, distributed at the September 4 lobby outside Labour’s HQ, will suffice:

The intent of this document is notto define anti-Semitism – after all, the Oxford English Dictionary manages that in six words: “Hostility to or prejudice against Jews”. No, its sole purpose is to conflate criticism of Zionism and Israel with anti-Semitism. In effect, the IHRA definition is labeling criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.

Legal experts have also come out to give their opinion on the document: Geoffrey Robertson QC describes it as “not fit for purpose”; professor David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism, criticises it as “bewilderingly imprecise”; former appeals court judge Stephen Sedley believes that the document would place “Israel’s occupation and colonisation of Palestine beyond permissible criticism” and Hugh Tomlinson QC has warned that it will have “a chilling effect on freedom of speech”.

Not about Jews

In their identical front pages of July 25, the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish Telegraph and Jewish News openly stated that, “Had the full IHRA definition with examples relating to Israel been approved [by the NEC], hundreds, if not thousands, of Labour and Momentum members would need to be expelled.”

Jeremy Corbyn would be the prime target, needless to say. And that is, of course, what this whole saga is really about. It has nothing to do with trying to protect anybody from anti-Semitism or abuse of any kind. It is all about getting rid of Corbyn as Labour leader. From an establishment point of view he has been and – as his personal statement shows – remains very unreliable, especially when it comes to the important issue of Middle Eastern politics. Israel’s position as US imperialism’s only remaining stable outpost in the area must be protected at all costs.

But even without his personal statement, the right is still not satisfied. In an interview that was published a day before the vote, Margaret Hodge MP was asked whether, if Labour passed the IHRA definition in full, with no caveats, the anti-Semitism issue would be over. She replied: “I think the moment has passed. The problem is that Jeremy Corbyn is the problem.” Spot on, Margaret. The September 5 vote by the Parliamentary Labour Party further confirmed that adopting the full IHRA definition will make no difference.

Now, this all seems pretty clear. In the last few months, dozens of leftwing organisations and thousands of Labour Party members have signed letters, attended meetings and, yes, sometimes raved and shouted online, pantomime-like, to the Labour leader: “Don’t do it – it’s a trap!”

But Corbyn has stepped into one trap after another. After all, the full IHRA definition makes Corbyn officially, and even according to Labour Party rules, an anti-Semite – at long last.

It is, of course, very unlikely that Corbyn would be charged under the new rule. However, the damage has already been done: Corbyn has been declared an anti-Semite by pretty much all the mainstream press. Nobody raises an eyebrow now when another “Jewish community leader” declares that Corbyn “hates Jews”. John Mann MP can get away with claiming, “We are now seeing the first British Jewish people leaving – that is the state we are in. That is the responsibility of the Labour Party.” Utter bullshit, of course. But where there’s smoke …

In that sense, the whole debate over the IHRA has already achieved one of its main objectives. Whatever Corbyn and the NEC do now or in the future, it makes no difference. His ill-fated strategy of trying to appease the right wing in the Labour Party has backfired spectacularly. Clearly, it has gone so far that some of his ‘allies’ have utterly internalised this approach, with Jon Lansman playing the part of Brutus – stabbing Corbyn in the back while assuring him of his enduring love.

NEC elections

The capitulation of some on the NEC left also somewhat puts into perspective the fact that all nine ‘pro-Corbyn’ candidates have again swept the board in the NEC elections. After all, it really depends what these NEC members actually dowith their votes.

We have commented at length about the undemocratic way in which the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance has been choosing ‘worthy’ candidates in backroom deals – cobbled together by a handful of self-selected Labour lefts, who, “convinced of the left’s unelectability, continued to support centrist candidates and rejected any moves to present a leftwing platform or support openly left candidates”.

In this context, it is excellent that Ann Black – for the first time without the support of CLGA – has been convincingly booted off the NEC. She picked up just over 45,000 votes, as opposed to the 101,000 she got in 2016. She had supported the move to stop tens of thousands of pro-Corbyn members from voting in the second leadership election and, as chair of the NEC disciplinary panel, gave her backing to much of the witch-hunt against the left – for instance, by voting for the suspension of Brighton  and Hove District Labour Party.

It is also welcome news that Pete Willsman has been re-elected, despite being disowned by Momentum and his former comrade in the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, Jon Lansman. Now he seems to be observing some vow of silence. Despite that, his re-election to the NEC is important, because it shows that a good proportion of the membership is putting two fingers up to both the witch-hunters in the bourgeois media and those facilitating and aiding the witch-hunt inside the party – on the right and the left.

The results, however, also show that despite rising membership figures, fewer people voted this year compared to 2016. The highest vote this year – 88,176 – was achieved by Yasmine Dar: almost 13,000 fewer votes than those for Ann Black in 2016, when she came first. If we ignore comrade Willsman’s skewed result (a small minority of left voters obviously followed Momentum’s advice as he picked up only 70,321 votes – only 2,500 more than the highest-placed unsuccessful candidate, Eddie Izzard), the distance between the worst left candidate and the best rightwinger remained roughly the same, compared to 2016 – about 9,000 votes.

Izzard in fact seems to have benefited from presenting himself as independent and unaligned to either side: he got almost 18,000 votes more than the next ‘moderate’, Johanna Baxter (50,185). In 2016, five rightwingers achieved over 50,000 votes. The elections were a mixed bag, in other words, which perhaps shows a lot of members on both sides getting fed up with the current state of the party.

This is an unfortunate but understandable reaction to the ongoing civil war. Many joined in the mistaken belief that all it would take was to ‘vote Corbyn’ so that he could deliver, messiah-like, some form of socialism. The reality of boring meetings, nasty underhand tactics by the right and the never-ending attacks in the media show that transforming the Labour Party into a real party of labour is a serious job, however, that requires hard and dedicated work at all levels.

But Corbyn, from the start, has denied that there is a need to defeat the right. He continues to insist that there could be some kind of ‘unity’ with them. We note John McDonnell’s most recent attempt to placate the right by inviting the despicable Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, “to come and talk to us and sit down with Jeremy”, when the man deserves to be told where to go, having compared Jeremy Corbyn to Enoch Powell. It is highly unlikely that Corbyn – and especially McDonnell – actually believe in the possibility of such unity; they have been around long enough to know better. Nevertheless, it is the agreed strategy that is supposed to hand Corbyn the keys to No10 Downing Street.

But even if the Labour Party won the next general election and Corbyn became prime minister, there can be no doubt that the right would still continue to sabotage and undermine him – chiefly and most efficiently orchestrated by the rightwing majority in the PLP. They will not give up until Corbyn is gone – or until they have been forced out themselves, of course.

This is where we might yet see some light at the end of the IHRA tunnel. In our view, the saboteurs and the plotters should have been expelled from the party long ago, but Corbyn is clearly not going down that road. There are, however, some encouraging developments when it comes to the method with which the party selects its parliamentary candidates. This is of the utmost importance, considering the role that the PLP majority has been playing in Labour’s civil war.

Mandatory?

Mandatory reselection has a reputation as a rather scary, vicious tool of the militant left. In reality it is a very basic, democratic procedure that Labour already employs, for example, to select council candidates. The left in the party has fought for it for decades and it was the main demand of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, which managed to get a variant of it into the Labour Party rulebook for a few years, between 1980-89.

However, since Corbyn’s election in 2015, the CLDP (under Pete Willsman) and Momentum (run by former CLPD stalwart Jon Lansman) have followed his political trajectory and dropped the demand in order not to spook the right. In January this year, Jon Lansman gave a long interview to The Independent, in which he said: “Momentum nationally is not going to campaign to deselect any MP and we will stick by that.” He defended the current rules: “… the existing process was already in place, should local parties wish to ditch their candidate at an election, known as the trigger ballot.”

So, instead of doing away with the undemocratic trigger ballot altogether, Jon Lansman’s Momentum merely drew up a lame proposal to raise the threshold from 50% to 66% – ie, two-thirds of the local branches and affiliates would have to vote ‘yes’ to a sitting MP, otherwise a full selection process would begin. He even had this proposal sanctioned by the membership in one of Momentum’s tortuous and clearly biased online ‘consultations’.

Such a ‘reform’ would still disproportionately favour the sitting MP, of course: rather than allowing for a full and democratic automatic reselection process before every election, a sitting MP would still have to be challenged. Lansman’s tinkering would merely restore the trigger ballot to what it was when introduced by Neil Kinnock in 1990 in order to curb the power of the unions, before Tony Blair reduced it to today’s 50%.

A pathetic proposal by the so-called Labour left. No wonder then that others in the Labour Party have taken up the gauntlet. There are eight rule changes going forward to this year’s conference that propose reforms to the way parliamentary candidates are selected – from the most radical one, proposed by International Labour, which would simply do away with the trigger ballot altogether (our preference) to the lamest, based on Momentum’s tinkering with the trigger ballot, which is proposed by three CLPs. (We intend to look at all the motions in next week’s issue of the Weekly Worker.)

The new campaign for mandatory reselection was first driven by International Labour, which did an excellent job in publicising its motion (under the title ‘Open selection’, which is presumably meant to make it sound less scary). Like all rule changes, this was tabled last year so that it could be voted on in 2018 – an anti-democratic relic of a rule, which another proposal to this year’s conference quite rightly wants to do away with.

Then in March 2018, in the face of the increasingly vicious anti-Semitism smear campaign, Unite leader Len McCluskey confirmed that a motion calling for mandatory reselection, which was adopted at the union’s conference in 2017, would not follow many other good motions into obscurity, but that he and his fellow Unite colleagues would actually campaign for it in the Labour Party. That was followed in August this year by a similar motion agreed by the Fire Brigades Union – newly reaffiliated to Labour under Matt Wrack.

Last but not least is the incredibly successful ‘Democracy Roadshow’ organised by Chris Williamson MP, who, together with Tosh McDonald of the Aslef union, has been touring the whole country with the demand for more democracy in the party, crucially on the question of mandatory reselection. Comrade Williamson is fast becoming the most popular Labour politician on the left – and deservedly so. Incredibly, he has been the only MP who has openly spoken out against the witch-hunt in the party. Having clearly opposed mandatory reselection when he was elected leader in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn has in recent months been more ‘flexible’ on the issue, calling for “more democratic accountability” for the members.

And now, it seems, this pressure has rubbed off on Jon Lansman. In the ‘Comment is free’ section of The Guardian on September 3, we read with great interest an article penned by Momentum’s unelected national coordinator, Laura Parker, who was appointed to the position by Lansman. In a rather strained comparison, she tries to link the success of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in the US with the current method of selecting Labour’s parliamentary candidates:

Instead of being able to run in an open contest on a positive and propositional platform, as Ocasio-Cortez did, Labour has a built-in mechanism that forces local party members to mount a negative campaign against their sitting MP just to instigate a race. We want to see a process that gives a fair chance to all candidates and improves the atmosphere in local parties by doing away with the negative, divisive stage of campaigning and making it an open contest from the start. This means, in all constituencies, local members and the sitting MP would be free to compete for the Labour Party’s backing at the general election – and able to run positive, vibrant campaigns, talking about the issues voters actually care about, in order to become the Labour candidate.

That this is indeed Momentum’s new position has since been confirmed with an email to all members on September 4. In other words, having explicitly rejected mandatory reselection (aka “open contest”, aka “open selection”) just a few months ago, Lansman suddenly declares it to be Momentum policy. Not that we oppose it – quite the opposite. But it clearly shows how undemocratically this organisation is run.

What Momentum has not yet told its members is which of the eight rule changes – if any – it is about to support. It is safe to presume that it definitely will notbe the one containing Lansman’s original proposal, which would have kept in place the “built-in mechanism that forces local party members to mount a negative campaign against their sitting MP just to instigate a race”.

But there is a myriad of possibilities on how the current selection process could be reformed to make it more “open”.

Corbyn review

Of course, this development also begs the question as to why Lansman has suddenly changed his mind. Nobody can accuse him of moving to the left. But we know that Momentum have received a large number of protest emails and phone calls about their decision to dump Pete Willsman from the left slate and, of course, for Lansman’s public lobbying for the full IHRA (against Corbyn’s wishes). We even hear from within Momentum HQ that the decision was made to take the phones off the hook, because they were so inundated with angry calls. Maybe Lansman is trying to protect his and Momentum’s last remnants of ‘street cred’.

Or maybe he just simply fears being outflanked – and, perhaps, outvoted at conference. And if there is one thing Lansman does not like it is losing: just remember how he bullshitted his way through his resignation from the race to become Labour’s general secretary when he realised that he would lose to Jennie Formby. Funnily enough, in a September 4 email to members, Momentum claims that “Corbyn, when asked about our proposals”, expressed support for “greater democratic accountability”.

Of course, it is possible that none of the eight proposals will see the light of day at conference, as they may well be superseded by the outcome of the so-called Corbyn review. Although the issue of selection was not originally part of its remit, the first strategically placed leaks to the bourgeois media from Katy Clark’s draft recommendations already contained suggestions that “when MPs forfeit their seat in boundary changes” the party was considering the use of mandatory reselection Considering how the civil war has spun out of all proportion in recent months, it is entirely feasible that the final recommendations will contain something more wide-ranging on this question. This would also explain Jon Lansman’s sudden change of heart – maybe he got to see an early draft? We can only speculate.

No doubt the right would have gone ballistic if it had a sniff of any such move – it wants to avoid mandatory reselection at all costs. As it is, they are very much on the offensive against Corbyn and he knows he could not act as prime minister without majority support. Any move he made would be liable to sabotage by his own side, bringing his premiership to a very quick end. He would be the right’s prisoner, even more so than he currently is.

If mandatory reselection really isone of the proposals contained in the document produced by Corbyn’s right-hand woman, Katy Clark – especially in the way that we understand it: ie, doing away with the trigger ballot and allowing the local membership to choose their candidate without any restrictions – then we would, of course, welcome this move and congratulate Corbyn on finally having discovered his backbone. However, this would also imply that Corbyn and his allies are about to end their strategy of appeasing the right. We are not quite convinced that this is the case.

And, despite its official name of ‘Party Democracy Review’, the process has been far from democratic. Of course, there will have been hundreds, if not thousands, of contributions from members, branches and CLPs concerned about the state of the party. But it is entirely up to those running the review to decide which contributions are ‘accepted’. I would venture the guess that much of the final document will have been agreed well in advance of the ‘consultation’.

A draft of Clark’s proposals will be presented to the next meeting of the NEC on September 18 – ie, a mere four days before conference starts. Any amendments from the NEC will then have to be incorporated into the document before it is presented to delegates and the public – presumably without any chance to read through them beforehand. And anybody who has been to conference knows that it is impossible to make any amendments to such documents.

That is clearly not the way Marxists envisage a real democratic review of party structures. It stinks of the old, bureaucratic way of riding roughshod over the members. A truly democratic, root-and-branch transformation of the Labour Party would require theactiveparticipation of an empowered and educated membership. Nevertheless, we hope that delegates at this year’s conference will get the chance to put two fingers up to the rightwingers in the PLP and vote for such an overdue democratic change.

 

References   [ + ]

1. The Times September 5.