Open Selection and trigger ballots
Veronica Fagan examines how we make Labour MPs accountable to their members and the significance of the ‘Independent Group’.
There was great deal of furore when Wavertree Labour Party called a special meeting to consider a motion of no confidence in Luciana Berger, writes. This we were told was antisemitism (despite the fact that the issue wasn’t mentioned in the motion). On the contrary, it seems that there was bullying to persuade members to cancel the meeting.
John McDonnell, interviewed on the Today programme when news of the meeting first broke, rightly stated that he understood the meeting had been called because there were concerns that Ms Berger was discussing leaving the party and creating something else. Those rumours proved to be correct. Will Tom Watson, who called for the suspension of Wavertree CLP over this, now apologise?
Berger is not the only one of the defectors that had critics in their local parties. Chris Leslie’s Nottingham East Party passed a motion of no confidence in him last November. His response was to claim that the party had been ‘infiltrated by the intolerant hard left.’ Angela Smith also lost a motion of no confidence in her last November, partly motivated by her support for fracking while Gavin Shucker lost a vote last September.
In all these localities – and more – Socialist Resistance would have supported motions of no confidence. We supported the rule change at annual conference calling for open selection and continue to support the campaign, which had coincidently just produced a new video when allthis broke. We were disappointed when the (left-dominated) NEC blocked the possibility of conference voting on this – and we think passing it.
One of the reasons we support open selection is that it should depersonalise discussions. If all MPs are accountable, accusations of persecution have less purchase. Being an MP should no more be a job for life than being a shop steward – we need accountability at all levels of our movement.
But we should be clear that open selection, let alone the current trigger ballot system would not lead to a quick removal of all those MPs with whom we have differences. When what was in effect open selection existed only a small number of MPs were deselected.
So when Socialist Appeal headline their article on the split, ‘ByeBye Blairites’, now show the rest the door”, we agree with the first formula, but not the second. That’s not the relationship of forces that currently exists inside the Labour Party, nor do we think homogeneity is in the interests of the Corbyn project.
From this point of view, we are not convinced that talk of a loyalty oath is helpful or progressive. Indeed, we think it’s in the interests of the left to support the right to criticism both of the leadership and the party per se.
On the other hand, we do support the call coming from a spectrum of opinion – ranging from Stockport Momentum to Jeremy Corbyn – that the defectors should resign as MPs and trigger by-elections. It is hypocritical to wax not so lyrical about how much they love their constituents and remove their choice of who represents them in Westminster. From this point of view, we also support the idea floated by Corbyn that it should be easier to for the electorate to recall their MPs, not only in the currently very restricted situation of those sentenced to prison for more than six months.
The dynamics which have led to the creation of the Independent group have been a long time coming.
As far as Labour is concerned, what is being said by the defectors is very familiar. Even while they have no policies as a group: New Labour vacuousness, Blairism and Third Way politics are clearly visible. Their primary objective is to destroy Corbynism and stop a Labour government. They are bitterly hostile to the idea of Corbyn in Number 10; in their view this would be a national disaster.
On allegations of antisemitism and to some extent on the question of the European Union, to which we will return, the same tropes have been trotted out ever since Corbyn so remarkably won the leadership of the Labour Party in October 2015.
On antisemitism, Socialist Resistance has been clear and consistent. Antisemitism like all forms of racism, indeed all forms of prejudice, is pernicious – and with the growth of the far right in Britain and internationally, a growing danger. It has no place in the labour movement and it is the responsibility of us all to challenge it wherever it raises its head – whether in the virtual world or the physical one.
However, antisemitism is being weaponised by these people in order to destroy Corbynism. In particular all and any support for the Palestinian people is claimed by them as being antisemitic, along with any criticism of the Israeli government. This is unacceptable Conflating antisemitism with support for the Palestinians – particularly for the growing international campaign for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions is also unacceptable. And while the main objective of those arguing that position is to shore up defence of the Israeli state however many crimes it commits against Palestinians, the silencing and vilifying of Jews who oppose that view is also an important goal.
Within the Labour Party, this line of argument has been long propagated by the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), an affiliated society. It is also affiliated to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Zionist Federation of the UK, and organises within the World Zionist Organisation alongside the Israeli Labor Party. Its objects include ‘to maintain and promote Labour or Socialist Zionism as the movement for self-determination of the Jewish people within the state of Israel.’
This organisation, which is open to anyone who supports its aims whatever their background, claims to be thevoice of Jews in the Labour Party. This claim has been increasingly challenged, not only by the increased visibility of Jews organising in opposition to the Israeli states crimes against the Palestinian people in Britain and internationally, but particularly by the creation of Jewish Voice for Labour.
Now the JLM, whose parliamentary chair is defector Luciana Berger, is apparently discussing itself whether to break from the party. This will be a contentious debate as to leave would be to give up the access they still have to the structures of the Labour Party, locally and nationally.
For the left, it should be clear is that interventions like that of Shadow Cabinet member Barry Gardiner, which repeat the myth that British Jews feel ‘let down’ by Labour need to be condemned. There has been too much accommodation to the JLM and Labour Friends of Israel, against the advice of those of us who have warned from the beginning that they will come back for more unless or until they have achieved their real goal of destroying Corbyn.
It is right to criticise Derek Hatton for his 2012 tweet in which he said ‘Jewish people with any sense of humanity need to start speaking out publicly against the ruthless murdering being carried out by Israel!’ It is antisemitic to suggest all Jews are responsible for the actions of the Israeli government. However, this tweet is 7 years old – and has therefore surfaced as a result of the sort of trawl Chakrabarti warned against. Moreover, her report was clear that suspensions should only be used in the most serious of circumstances, of which this is obviously not one.
The left should defend Hatton, who is now a property developer, not because we are eager to see him back in the party but because the attack on him yet again undermines due process.
But it is also unacceptable to suggest that all Jews in Britain think Labour is antisemitic – let alone ‘institutionally’ antisemitic – an allegation made by the defectors with precisely no evidence. 20 years after the McPherson report, it’s outrageous that the understanding of what is meant by institutional racism is so hollow.
Socialist Resistance has also taken a consistent position on the European Union. We have advocated that the Labour leadership should champion a second referendum, and thus put itself at the head of the anti-Brexit movement.
We do so not because we think the European Union, with its reactionary treaties of Maastricht and Lisbon (for example) is the source of all that’s progressive, as the defectors (from both parties) suggest. We do so because, despite the neoliberalism of the EU, the project of leaving is one of the right and they are the forces that have and will be strengthened by going down that dangerous road.
We are deeply critical of the idea that there is a better Brexit on offer if only Labour were conducting the negotiations that would protect jobs, economy or environment – or stem the growing tide of racism unleashed by the first referendum. Of course, a no deal Brexit, the crash out advocated by key elements of the European Research Group (ERG) would be particularly devastating, but withdrawal per se under current political and economic conditions, would lead to reactionary consequences – consequences for which Labour will be blamed if we don’t strain every muscle to prevent it.
While we understood and supported the view taken by delegates to Labour’s annual conference of leaving all options on the table, over recent weeks and months we have become increasingly worried that it is not only the Tories that are running down the clock, but the Labour leadership.
We also agree with Another Europe’s Michael Chessum when he says that another danger is that ‘a section of the Labour leadership and a small chunk of its supporters are already working on the basis that it is better to have Brexit over and done with, and to focus instead on winning working-class leave voters in time for the next election’.
He is right to also point out that one concerning assumption here is that remain voters can be taken for granted, but it is also the case that challenging Labour voters who voted leave not only necessitates putting forward the radical policies of the 2017 Manifesto, but tackling head on the lie that Brexit could be in the interests of working class communities – as well as the idea that it is migrants rather than bosses that are responsible for austerity or insecurity.
Corbyn a threat?
Beyond these two strands, which to a large extent have been instrumentalised by the defectors from Labour, there is a more fundamental political view – that Corbyn’s leadership of the party, and even more his election as prime minister, poses a major threat to their world view as well as their personal privilege. Since Corbyn first got onto the ballot for the Labour leadership, there has been a relentless and consistent campaign to undermine and remove him, in which those who have now set up the Independent group played key roles.
And it is not just Corbyn as an individual they detest, but the many that have joined the party to support him as well as the small but significant steps to open up the political life of the party through the democracy review. Corbyn as leader is a challenge, but it’s the Corbyn movement that is a bigger menace. And Corbyn getting to No 10 would of course give an even greater impetus to the dynamic that has brought hundreds of thousands to join Labour to support him – as well as ensure his lasting legacy.
Mike Gapes for example, who still strongly defends the invasion of Iraq and lauds Saudi Arabia, argues that a Corbyn government ‘would threaten our national security, and international alliances’ and criticises the party’s stance on Syria and Venezuela. Gavin Shucker has been vitriolic about Corbyn’s position on the Salisbury poisoning. Chris Leslie focuses on Labour’s supposedly anti-business stance.
Independent of working-class politics
And this in not just a collection of individual opinions. The statement of the Independent groupitself is telling. Claiming not to be based on ideology but based on evidence, they also state ‘ours is a great country, of which people are rightly proud, where the first duty of government must be to defend its people and do whatever it takes to safeguard Britain’s national security’. They argue: ‘Labour now pursues policies that would weaken our national security; accepts the narratives of states hostile to our country.’ The ideology of Empire glares through the veneer of this supposedly evidence-based tract.
That is clearly linked to an issue that hit the group within hours of its creation. Angela Smith has excused her reference to black people as having ‘a funny tinge’ as being a result of being very tired! She is the same person who attacked Jeremy Corbyn for attending a Jewdas seder but misspelt it as seber. It was clear from her ensuing comments that this was not dyslexia – she has no understanding of Jewish culture yet sets herself up to judge radical Jews and Corbyn who has worked alongside them for decades. This is new politics? No, it is backward looking and reactionary.
And if the media are increasingly drawing comparisons between this grouping and Macron’s La Marche, the spin that his ‘movement’ was above class certainly hasn’t survived for the millions of working-class people who have been protesting against the attacks his government have been meting out.
The Tory defectors
If anyone had any doubt about the nature of the project that Umunna, Berger and the others are seeking to create, the fact that their statement calls on people from all parties to join them further underlined what we have been saying. Never the less, the resignation of three high profile Tory MPs to join the group deserves analysis.
The question of the European Union has been a fault line in the Conservative Party going back decades, and it is scarcely a surprise that the looming prospect of crash out has for some created a fissure they can no longer bridge.
It is interesting that the mainstream media are now devoting some minutes/pages to discussing questions that Socialist Resistance has been trying to raise, about the role of the ERG and the Ukipisation of the Tory Party.
And Labour Party chair Ian Lavery MP sums up very well the so called Independent Group. They represent the 1%, he argues. They are for the Few not the Many.