The suspension of Chris Williamson must be seen in the light of a wider attack on Corbyn, the Palestine solidarity movement and the left.
The suspension of Chris Williamson MP from the Labour Party is the latest phase of an all-out assault on Corbyn’s leadership, the movement in solidarity with Palestine and the left in Britain, and it must be opposed.
The fight against antisemitism is a central plank of our movement and is increasingly urgent. On Tuesday (26 February), a Jewish pensioner was attacked in a deliberate antisemitic assault by a fascist thug. But in a morning where antisemitism was discussed at length, this was barely mentioned. Instead the media focus was on Williamson’s comments and outrage over him booking a room in parliament for Jewish Voice for Labour, a network of Jewish Labour Party members who support Corbyn’s leadership. On Wednesday evening (27 February), it was Jewish socialists and the wider left – smeared throughout the day as racist antisemites – who via Stand Up to Racism organised a vigil in solidarity with the attacked man.
Williamson’s comments at a Momentum meeting in Sheffield have been widely distorted and taken out of context in order to feed into the attacks. Williamson said of the Labour Party, ‘we’ve backed off far too much, we have given too much ground, we’ve been too apologetic’ over what they had done to ‘stand up to racism’, when they had ‘done more to address the scourge of antisemitism than any other party’. Williamson is saying that Labour should fight back against the claim made by the Party’s right, the Tories and the media, that organisation has not acted to deal with antisemitism.
After the video was released Williamson released a statement apologising for his choice of words, saying that ‘our movement can never be “too apologetic” about racism in our ranks’. This was not enough for Tom Watson, who has seized upon the crisis caused by the departure of The Independent Group MPs in an attempt to shift the balance of power in the Party away from Corbyn and towards the right. Watson demanded immediate suspension.
Williamson was speaking for a large section of the Labour membership who feel that the constant attacks on the party are unbalanced. But Corbyn’s supporters were split on the issue with some arguing in favour of the suspension. Some on the left see Williamson as a liability or an unreliable ally. Even if these things are true it is not a reason to support this attack. It’s right that we should expect everyone in our movement, especially elected representatives, to hold themselves to a high standard of debate and not to give our opponents ammunition to turn on us. But we cannot do that by piling in alongside those same opponents in the middle of a full-on attack on the left.
Williamson has made mistakes in the past, such as when he tweeted a petition in support of Israeli jazz musician Gilad Atzmon (although when he learned of Atzmon’s antisemitism he promptly and rightly apologised), or when he praised the conspiracy theorist Vanessa Beeley. But a left committed to fundamental social transformation cannot simply wash its hands of people when they get it wrong. Rather, we must take up these issues with persistent argument and political education.
It is crucial to understand that this goes beyond individuals making mistakes or bad statements. In the context of a witch-hunt, almost anything can be wrestled out of context and re-purposed to further the attacks against the entire movement, causing panic and confusion and forcing further and further concessions.
In September, we were told that Labour adopting the full IHRA definition of antisemitism, which includes ‘claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour’, would draw a line under the attacks. Instead, it has emboldened Corbyn’s enemies in smearing him and his supporters as racists. Now Jewish socialists who support Corbyn are being traduced as ‘self-hating Jews’ and receiving abusive and threatening phone calls. As JVL’s Mike Cushman recently wrote, ‘it is a sign of the intimidation of party members that many of them feel frightened to comment on this issue and have asked me to write on their behalf.’
That is why it is positive that there has been a strong response against the suspension in the last few days. A number of CLPs this week passed motions in support of Williamson and criticising those leading the witch hunt. Many realised the implications of what was happening: that thousands of Labour members who also feel that the leadership has not done enough to fight back against the witch hunt could now be legitimately suspended at the behest of Tom Watson if they speak out.
Corbyn appears to have very little support in the shadow cabinet. His team are fighting an internal battle with their opponents but are not drawing on support from groups such as Jewish Voice for Labour or the wider membership in defending itself. By contrast, the right is using their immense platform in parliament and the media to great effect to win the internal battles. It is good to see Jennie Formby rebuking Tom Watson, but there is no solution to this crisis that doesn’t involve turning out and harnessing the insurgent spirit of Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, and the 2017 snap-election. Indeed, we will have to go much further.
We need to oppose the witch-hunt and call for Chris Williamson’s reinstatement. This is not an attack on one MP but on the whole of the left. It is an attempt to marginalise Corbyn and the pro-Palestinian movement.
We also need to develop a culture of political debate and education in our movement. This cannot be left at the level of saying that Labour needs more political education. The radical left needs to be pro-active in developing spaces independent of the Labour Party where Corbyn supporters of all stripes can discuss history and theory, and debate next steps for the movement.
This can only happen alongside organising and supporting struggles alongside everybody prepared to fight against this government. There is a social crisis in Britain which is obscured in official politics by the Brexit impasse and our media’s obsession with Westminster. The left needs to bring these things into focus. In the near term this can include mobilising for the student strikes against climate change on 15 March, the anti-racism protests the following day, and the Rally for Palestine at the Israeli Embassy on 30 March.