Alarmed by Populism? It’s time to put your money where your mouth is

By James Patterson

This is an unashamed plug for a new political project, and an appeal for donations. Many think we now live in an age of extremes. Populists, of the left and the right, seem to be in ascendancy across the world. The White House is occupied by a man willing to do business with white nationalists. Britain has been plunged into the chaotic uncertainty of Brexit. This followed a sulphurous referendum campaign in which social and economic liberalism was represented as an establishment ploy. The British Labour Party has been subjected to a hostile takeover by the ultra-left. Jeremy Corbyn has been its Trojan horse. Elsewhere, unsavoury characters have enjoyed electoral success by flaunting their illiberalism. This is illustrated by recent election outcomes in Brazil and Italy.

Those opposed to reactionary populism seem to have been bested by events. Commentators, such as Owen Jones of the Guardian, sneeringly refer to them as ‘centrists’. They are said to have lost the war. They are often told to pick a side. There is a single explanation often given for the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election, the success of the Leave campaign in the UK and the Corbyn takeover of the British Labour Party. That is ‘centrists’ or ‘liberals’ failed to make a case that resonated with people. They hid behind bland, technocratic, managerialist language. Their positions lacked the visceral appeal of those espoused by Trump or Nigel Farage or Corbyn.

Social media is often cited as a factor in the ascendancy of populism. Twitter has not exactly proved conducive to reasoned debate. It is very easy for those with opinions to declare a trenchant position on any given topic. The format discourages discussion of nuances. Increasingly, those interested in politics or current affairs retreat into echo chambers. Interactions with those who have a different opinion are often rancorous and antagonistic.

Nora Mulready, a welfare rights worker and former Labour activist, has come up with a possible antidote, ‘the Unfinished Revolution Project’. This is a series of filmed conversations. Contributors will include politicians, academics and NGO professionals among others. They will discuss, at length, contentious topics such as estate regeneration, political Islamism and the #MeToo movement. Their opinions will often differ. However, the project is intended to explore these differences and also to find the common ground. Those opposed to populism need to decide what is they are for. The project may contribute to the intellectual renewal of the political centre. Please give generously.

https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/the-unfinished-revolution-project

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Back From The Brink

By Dave Cohen

I was dreading Labour Party Conference.

Convinced that the party had a summit lined up of ignoring Brexit and careering happily towards certain defeat, I was already fearing the narrative that this loss would be placed squarely at the tail of me and my fellow media-controlling lizards.

As the weekend approached, you could sense the excitement from delegates heading to Liverpool, ready to declare war on the only enemies they feel truly passionate about – their own MPs, and Binyamin Netanyahu.

Throughout the summer I was being reminded on a daily basis by friends and former comrades on Twitter that my feelings of discomfort about Labour’s problem with Jews were not only unfounded, but a direct result of me having been got to by Mossad.

Why then did I feel more optimistic at the end of conference about Labour than I had for the previous three years? The answer, which I had never imagined would be an answer to anything, was John McDonnell.

While a small but significant chunk of the Labour membership have been responding to every conversation on Twitter about Labour with “Yes, but Israel”, urged on by Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to kill the story and engage in any other issue, McDonnell has been asking serious questions about what a future Labour government would do if they won power.

Ideas had been peeping out all summer, interesting continuations of the work of Jon Cruddas and Ed Miliband from before 2015, that could have been setting the political agenda if it hadn’t been for you-know-what. One of the few rays of light in this dark summer of Semitism was knowing that McDonnell was as exasperated as I was at the months of pointless Jew-baiting.

Whatever he may have done in the past McDonnell, like Martin McGuinness 20 years ago, seems to have discovered a taste for engaging with people he doesn’t necessarily agree with. He’s been watching the PLP – not to carp, or threaten deselection, but to learn from them. MPs like Lisa Nandy, developing a raft of ideas for bridging the gap between towns and cities: Luciana Berger pioneering new ways of dealing with mental health, David Lammy scoring hit after hit against the Tories simply by standing up for immigrant communities. Labour’s talented MPs have been blocking out the angry din, articulating the hopes and ideas that brought them into politics in the first place.

Freed by the breath-taking incompetence of George Osborne from having to flesh out every policy and cost every penny, McDonnell can think aloud and honestly about our economic future in a way I haven’t seen from our party since Blair and Brown in the mid-1990s.

Meanwhile deselection, which threatened to be the main story of the conference, was barely mentioned after the weekend. (Deselection is a proven vote loser: I can vouch for this. A year ago, Momentum activists deselected our local councillors. Three inexperienced Momentum members were chosen to replace them, all three lost to the Lib Dems.)

Instead Brexit, which in Corbyn’s ideal world is never mentioned in his polite circles again until faithfully delivered hard and fast by May and Johnson, became the main issue at conference.

The split among Corbyn supporters that emerged this summer over anti-Semitism went public over Brexit, its surfacing at conference a big defeat for Corbyn and the hardliners. Their position of ordering us not to upset the far-right Brexiteers was shown up in its absurdity. Three years ago the people who correctly asked “who’s going to vote for a Labour party that promises to manage austerity slightly better than the Tories?” are now asking their members to stick with a party that promises to manage Brexit slightly better than Theresa May. That first argument persuades us this second is without foundation.

To the die-hard Remainers who have been waiting for Labour to get fully behind a second referendum, this was one more depressing confirmation of the party’s spineless dereliction of their moral duty. For those of us who’ve been trying to get Labour to even mention Brexit, it was a rare and welcome sighting in public of a debate that should have been happening across the party for more than two years.

It’s true there was much confusion, and what appeared to be a stand-off between Starmer and McDonnell about whether Labour would back a second referendum. This is totally understandable – after all that silence our Brexit policy is still bumping into obstacles as it adjusts to this unusual experience of illumination.

The fall-out between Starmer and McDonnell was serious but somehow you got a sense that they sorted it out like adults – something else we haven’t seen in the party for three years.

Another issue that emerged after months of indifference was the welcome attack on the far right in Europe. I’d been exasperated at my local branch trying to stress the importance of this. At first I thought maybe they struggled with a rise of fascism that was based on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in equal measure. I realised that for the die-hard supporters, events in Europe are of no interest whatsoever.

Corbyn was a marginal figure at conference. Up until now for all his faults – ambivalence to discussing Brexit, supporting Putin, attacking the free press, rock bottom polling figures, and so on – he at least could take credit for moving the debate on the economy further left than Miliband managed. Now McDonnell has taken control of the economic agenda – apart from the green jobs announcement, which was all Corbyn had left for his own speech, having previously shown even less interest in tackling climate change than staying in the EU.

Corbyn was at his most animated when condemning Gordon Brown. Attacking the old left and centre may have been necessary to take hold of the party machinery, but three years on, his grip on power as tight as it will ever be, why does he still feel the need to attack the party he has represented for decades?

The answer is the same as it has always been. He’s proved throughout his career that he is simply not as comfortable taking on the Tories as he is trashing anyone or anything to do with pre-2015 Labour.

I got a sense that for many of his erstwhile supporters, this truth, known to those of us desperate for the Tories to be kicked out of office, is beginning to filter through.

Sure, the faithful got their Palestine debate. We already knew Momentum members considered that issue more important than Brexit, the NHS, the economy, welfare, education and climate change. Can you imagine McDonnell having that list of priorities? And can you imagine Corbyn not?

All of which makes it now completely legitimate to ask, if the non-Corbynite left can get behind McDonnell’s engaging with the whole of the party, which is the antithesis of the boss’s approach, what is the point of Corbyn staying as leader?

Obviously it’s not that simple. The outrage among some members at this very suggestion would keep Twitter in meltdown for days. I understand their feelings. Before the 2015 election, like them I refused to believe the evidence of my own eyes on the doorstep, convinced by the flow of horror stories on Twitter that revulsion for Tory policies causing appalling hardship would mean people could never vote for them again.

Then there’s the issue of who replaces him. McDonnell doesn’t want to be leader, and he won’t want to be seen as the one to get rid of his old friend. He’s angered the faithful enough by backing IHRA, he won’t want to upset the grassroots any more for now. But if McDonnell and Starmer can get their act together in the autumn, they should be able to land blow after blow on the hollowed-out corpse that is the Conservative Party. Labour could shoot ahead in the polls – but Corbyn’s popularity will not rise with it. People will piece together the facts and conclude the bleedin’ obvious for themselves.

And if McDonnell won’t do the deed, will McCluskey? After last week’s conference, that could be a genuine possibility.

 

Tony Blair’s next speech

By Dave Cohen

“I want to talk today about Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. I know I’ve been a divisive figure in the past, but I’m sure everyone across the political spectrum will agree on one thing, which is, the last thing anyone wants to hear right now is another speech by me about Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.

This time though, it’s different. I promise. I realise, in criticising Jeremy, I’ve been making a basic mistake. I’ve been reacting emotionally, taking it personally, because I thought the changes that have happened over the last three years were all about me.

Initially, they were. The 2015 leadership election was specifically about breaking with New Labour. But the 2017 General Election was about something else, and only now are we beginning to see what that was.

I’m not going to talk about our record during 13 years of power, what are seen as our achievements and failures. We knew mostly what we wanted to do, and did what we could to achieve it. But there were two crucial areas where we didn’t set the agenda. The first was economic policy. Rightly or wrongly, we felt we had to break the myth, and it’s always been a myth, that the Conservatives are better at running the economy than we are. To do that we felt we had to play by their rules. We spent money on services and investment, and redistributed income, but we should have been bolder.

One of the reasons we weren’t bolder was because of that second area, the Tory press. After what they did to Neil Kinnock we understood that the newspapers, run largely as they are by a small rump of ideologically right-wing prejudiced zealots, had to be neutralised. We couldn’t beat them, but we had to work out how to live with them.

Ed Miliband made the crucial break with our policy. When he took on the Murdoch press, then the Daily Mail, I thought he was playing a dangerous game. I never felt we could do what he did, but when I saw what happened when he stood up to the bullies, I realised he was right.

When it came to the economy, Ed stuck reluctantly to the Tory agenda. What lost him the election was that by 2015, it no longer mattered how accurately we costed our economic policy. We were playing catch-up to the coalition’s disastrous austerity, and swing voters were never going to vote for a slightly less painful version of that.

Which is where Jeremy came in. In the leadership election, while the other three candidates were still talking about how to manage the economy better than the Tories, Jeremy was saying to hell with that, how much worse can we possibly be than George Osborne? Corbyn made the second break from accepted Labour policy when he attacked the Osborne-Cameron economic disaster, and this resonated with millions of voters, far more than Ed Balls could have managed with his accurately detailed but dull-looking financial statements. Jeremy deserves credit for that.

When it came to the 2017 election, the Tories had given up completely on financial prudence. The press were too busy arguing among themselves, and there wasn’t a soul left in the country who believed Labour could be any worse at running the economy than George Osborne, with the possible exception of George Osborne.

The result of that election surprised everyone. The only argument had been whether the Tory majority would be in double or triple figures. Len McCluskey, who had already been talking about how many seats Labour would have to lose before deciding whether Jeremy should stay on, was one of many from across the spectrum who thought we would be thrashed.

What none of us had factored in – me, Len McCluskey, the press, even Corbyn himself, was that tribal affiliations to Labour run deep.

The party is always bigger than the leader.

I’ll be honest, those tribal affiliations helped me. In 2005, a lot of traditional Labour supporters were angry either with our involvement in the war against Iraq, or our embrace of multiculturalism and the European Union’s new rules on freedom of movement. A lot of people who normally vote Labour refused on that occasion, but not enough to stop me winning that third General Election.

That deep-seated loyalty to Labour helped Jeremy bring us closer to the Tories in 2017 than was thought possible, and it cemented his position as leader of the party.

I’m not happy with that. But finally, I accept it. That’s where Labour is now.

What happens next, with the Tory party almost utterly destroyed as far as the public can see, and the real possibility of Corbyn as Prime Minister of a minority Labour government?

For most who don’t follow politics closely, that looks on the surface to be a good alternative. And actually, if you look at Labour’s domestic wish-list, there’s not a lot Jeremy and I disagree on. Spending more on the NHS, bringing millions out of child poverty, tax breaks and help for the poor – even John McDonnell’s boldest policies will take more than one five-year term to restore the health of the nation’s economy to 2010 levels.

There’s also not a lot to distinguish between our approaches to foreign policy.

Seriously.

On the surface, they couldn’t be more different, but there are crucial similarities. We both approach foreign policy from what we believe to be a moral standpoint. And, however much you may want to see a negotiated compromise between two opposing countries, there are times when you feel you have to take sides.

In my case it was the side of the Eastern European Muslims, then joining with the US against Saddam. Jeremy has chosen to back Russia’s support of President Assad in Syria, and President Rouhani and the Ayatollahs in Iran. I don’t think either of us will ever persuade the other to agree to the opposite view on these issues – but we both acknowledge our beliefs are equally and firmly held.

I’ve noticed that when I disagree with Jeremy on foreign policy, and the issue of anti-Semitism, it has the opposite effect to what’s intended. The view of the majority of the membership, and I now accept a lot of Labour supporters across the country, is “if Tony says it, it must be wrong.” I understand that. For better or worse, in this country I am forever tied in with freedom of movement, and the Iraq war.

Even so, for the thousands of members and many MPs who are against me, but strongly disagree with Jeremy, this is an almost intractable problem. Many have left the party, but have nowhere to go. As the new Labour rulers say whenever a non-Corbynite member leaves, good riddance.

There is one issue, though, where I am certain I have the support not just of Labour voters and MPs but most members. Even those who voted Leave, are coming round to the idea that the Tory Brexit we are sleepwalking into will be a disaster for the country. Jeremy’s refusal to highlight this, or engage seriously with the subject, I think is mistaken.

I’m not asking Jeremy to change his views. No one can accuse him of being a softy Europe lover: if he starts to properly attack the Tory Brexit plans, and opens the debate about what our country should become, it would amount to a massive shift in the stalemate that has ground us down and made the country ungovernable for more than two years. If there’s one politician who could persuade people to think again about allowing Tory Brexit it’s him.

And yet he’s entrusting all the economic arguments to the very people who inflicted the chaos of austerity onto this country. Gove, Johnson, Davis, Duncan Smith, May – each played a crucial role in the most economically disastrous government in the history of all Conservative governments.

All the pointers are to a Brexit that would trash everything he believes in – but Jeremy’s response appears to be – “yes, it’s true I’m hitching myself to a dangerous campaign that could end in disaster, but don’t worry, I have truth and morality on my side, I’ll be able to persuade Boris and Nigel that once we’re out of Europe, we’ll be able to build a workers’ democracy with increased business regulation and massive government investment in our public services.”

Imagine a Labour leader, taking the nation into such an enormous risky endeavour with such naïve faith in his ability to change the views of people who fundamentally disagree with him.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well.

The question now, I understand, is no longer ‘how do we replace Jeremy with someone who could win?’ Instead ‘given that Labour will probably win under Jeremy, what can we do to make that victory work for the majority of Labour voters and the rest of the country?’

The answer is obvious to me. If you’re still a member of the party, bring up Brexit morning noon and night. Contact your local Momentum group and tell them to bring it up at Conference. Ask your MPs to ask Jeremy what plans he has for the day after Brexit?

If you’re no longer a member, but long for the day when Labour are back in power, start organising in your communities – at work, at home, in your schools and hospitals. You will all know someone who voted Leave and is worried about what will happen, or someone with an EU passport whose future here is still uncertain. Talk to them, take up their case, let them know we’re not ignoring them.

We may not be able to stop Brexit, but with the Tories no longer interested in the outcome, it’s up to us to take responsibility and talk about how we’re going to rebuild Britain – and by us I mean Labour.

Remember – the party is always bigger than the leader.”

 

Labour’s brilliant summer

By Mark Newman

If you think that the Labour leadership must be feeling bruised and downhearted about the events of the last three months then you’ve missed the point of this summer.

Maybe you’re wondering why Labour are still unable to pull away in the polls despite facing the worst government in living memory, or you’ve watched bewildered as the only initiative to have surfaced all summer appears to have been a poorly thought out plan to curb press freedom, in which case you haven’t grasped why the leadership will be looking back on the last three or four months as the most successful yet in Corbyn’s bid to become Prime Minister.

Whether you’re angry at how the anti-Semitism issue has been weaponised by the right in order to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn, or despairing at the inability of the leadership to empathise with the unease felt by Jewish members of Labour – don’t worry, this summer hasn’t been about you and your feelings about voting for the party.

The only voters that matter, the really important ones, are the four million who chose Ukip in 2015. In 2017 most of them went to the Tories by default, but since Theresa May’s Chequers disaster they have been searching for a new home. And Labour, it seems, have been reaching out.

If you think that’s ludicrous, look at what the party have been doing since February, when Jeremy Corbyn announced he would back a customs union – which of course the EU will only accept if Labour also come round to keeping the single market and freedom of movement. Since that moment, the leadership have barely spoken about Brexit, leaving Keir Starmer a lone voice to hint that they might soften their stance, when the leadership are clearly planning no such thing.

For a long while this was clever positioning by Labour. Allowing the Tories to own Brexit means Labour will not be blamed when it all goes horribly wrong next year. But for many traditional Labour supporters the refusal to back freedom of movement or wholeheartedly endorse the campaign to protect the three million EU citizens living here is seen as going against everything they believe in.

Those people may have also felt unease about the continuing anti-Semitism row, but the truth is there aren’t enough of you who will stop voting Labour because of it. If there were, Corbyn and his team would have apologised and shut down the debate long ago.

Looking at the people Labour have been alienating over the summer, it’s almost entirely the big city left – left-leaning journalists, Labour-voting Jews, and remain voters, all of whom are accused of being Tory enablers whenever they say anything that might be seen as criticism, constructive or otherwise, of the leadership.

These are mainly people in inner-city constituencies like Corbyn’s own, with massive five-figure majorities. In terms of winning or losing seats, they don’t matter. Corbyn himself could lose 20,000 of these people in Islington North alone and still be returned as the MP. Labour may be squandering metropolitan votes by the thousand, but it won’t lose them a single Parliamentary seat and they’re picking up new fans along the way.

Labour’s pro-Corbyn membership are being urged to be gentle towards the fascists and far right who are calling for the same hard Brexit that Theresa May is instigating, and Labour are refusing to condemn. The activist Owen Jones, employed as a bellwether on every newly floated leadership idea on an almost daily basis, warns his followers and detractors of the dangers of upsetting the forces of the far right.

While Momentum have been expending huge amounts of energy criticising anyone on the left expressing even the smallest misgivings about Labour’s anti-Semitism stance, right wing bully boys like Steven Yaxley-Lennon and Jacob Rees Mogg have barely raised a sneer. Truly shocking Brexit papers have been released in recent days, but apart from Starmer there’s been hardly a word from the most senior figures in Corbyn’s team on these titanic No Deal scenarios.

Four years ago the far left were furious when Ed Miliband introduced the now infamous Caps On Immigration mugs. Now the people who shouted loudest against those mugs are refusing to engage in the one activity that used to be their usp – fighting fascists on the ground.

While some may have been horrified to see former BNP leader Nick Griffin backing Corbyn’s stance on anti-Semitism, this won’t have bothered the leadership. It will have given Ukip voters, already told by their own leaders that they have been betrayed by the Tories, one more reason to switch their allegiance to Labour.

Those Ukip votes matter because so many of them are in Tory-held marginals like Pudsey (majority 331) and Southampton Itchen (31). Labour only need a handful of these to rid the Tories of their majority. No wonder Momentum activists are spending so much time in Chingford, Ian Duncan Smith is in real danger of losing his seat.

It’s one thing to allow the Tories to implode over Brexit – it was Miliband’s tactic in 2014 but it’s more likely to work now – quite another to refuse to articulate a single idea of what kind of country we want to become after next March.

But if you’re a typical Labour activist from the pre-Corbyn era, what are you supposed to do?

Keeping anti-Semitism as the story of the summer has allowed the leadership to avoid discussing Brexit or climate change, another subject where Corbyn appears to be ambivalent. More important, it has made it harder for Corbyn’s critics within the party to stay loyal to him, while showing them they have nowhere else to go – especially the MPs.

All this talk of a new party has also helped, because it has spelled out the options to the electorate.

Forming a centre party will split the left vote and continue the life of the worst government in living memory. You may not like Corbyn, his followers and his leadership team, you may not have any idea what he intends to do about Brexit, or climate change, or how to save the NHS or our bankrupt councils or our crumbling education system or our cruel and broken welfare state. You know Brexit will kill off any financial plans John McDonnell may have for rebuilding our decimated country. But you also understand that the alternative – a hollowed-out, torn apart, angry right-wing Tory non-government with an even worse leader than they already have – cannot be countenanced.

In these volatile times there is only one danger Corbyn’s party faces, and that is the rising tide of anger on the left about Brexit. Some advocates of a second vote have learned from decades of Daily Mail hectoring that the only way to get what you want is to shout louder than the other side, and if they can persuade Labour conference to discuss the issue then the leadership will be forced to make a stand that will potentially lose them those marginal voters. Which is why I expect them to make sure the issue is side-lined.

For the vast majority who voted Remain, but were prepared to accept the result, or Leave, in the expectation that its political leaders had a plan, the only hope appears to be if the Lib Dems can reverse their fortunes and articulate the views of that silenced majority. A new leader would need to navigate an incredibly difficult path, managing the expectations of the noisy religious anti-Brexiters and offering a People’s Vote that would be acceptable to almost everyone – apart from Jacob Rees-Mogg and Jeremy Corbyn.

Good luck with that.

The Fear Of Falling Apart

By Jake Wilde

One of the reasons why Corbynites use hysterical language when talking about those who occupy the political space between themselves and the Tories is the fear that Stephen Bush eloquently describes in his piece for The Times. This terror of what is often described as a ‘new centrist party’ results in nonsensical articles from the usual suspects of the Labour Leader’s Office What’s App group, correlating the rise of everything bad, from fascism to global warming, to a mythical section of the population that is somehow simultaneously secretly in charge of everything yet that also doesn’t exist.

The Corbynites’ fear though is not that a new centrist party would result in Labour haemorrhaging support overnight. The current leadership of Labour might owe more in ideology and personnel to TUSC than the party of Attlee, Wilson and Blair, but they believe their days of being treated less seriously than the Monster Raving Loony Party are behind them. Rather the fear is that a new party would only have one immediate target – to deny the country the opportunity of being subjected to Corbynism.

This target is achievable for a new party even without a fully formed national organisation being in place. For example, though naturally preferable to do so, it wouldn’t be necessary to appear on the ballot paper in every constituency. Nor would there need to be a significant ground game if an effective and diverse advertising campaign was deployed.

The key though, will be to have an identity. This can be provided in one of two ways. Firstly by having a charismatic and credible leader, someone capable of answering those difficult questions about the party’s purpose. Secondly it will need to create an agenda that distinguishes it from alternatives. At the moment the most obvious point of difference is to take a contrary view on Brexit but this, in the longer term, is likely to be a mistake.

It’s stating the obvious to say that Brexit has created entrenched positions, but the debate will change completely once the UK formally leaves the European Union. This is why I think that the best time for a new party is some time after 29 March 2019, and probably only as we approach the next General Election. Granted, with a weak and unstable government, there’s no guarantee that the next election will be on or near the statutory date of 5 May 2022 but the closer we get to this date, the less a new party will feel like a breakaway and more like one formed organically from the politically homeless. For, as Stephen Bush also points out, “roughly every year, a third of the [Labour] party leaves and is replaced by members who are more closely aligned to the present leadership”. A continuation of this level of churn will help to draw a distinction between the new party and a Labour Party increasingly committed to a dogmatic agenda, soaked through with regressive views.

Furthermore, the more time that elapses between now and an election, the more likely that Labour MPs opposed to Corbynism will be forced out, again making the new party look and feel less like a breakaway. And the less connection the new party has to this toxic incarnation of the Labour Party the better.

It’s good to talk (about the burka)

By Nora Mulready

This is a cross-post, reproduced by kind permission of the author, from the original.

Every human being has the right to wear what they want. That includes people who choose to wear the burka or the niqab. However, to portray the debate about the burka and niqab as one solely or even predominantly about the individual choices of grown women is to miss the far more fundamental question at the heart of this debate. What are the values we are prepared to see morally normalised in British society? The burka and niqab are the physical manifestation of the belief that women should not be seen in public, and that we must cover every inch of our bodies & hair if we are to step outside. Regardless of the individual choices, (where they are choices), made by women, are we happy as a society to let such a regressive idea of how women should live go publicly unchallenged? I’m sorry, but I cannot believe that we should so casually throw away hard won gender equality at the altar of religious sensitivity.

Many people have suggested that ‘white men’, or even all non-burka/niqab-wearing Muslims, should stay out of this debate, that it is not their place to comment. This is a matter for the women and the women only. This is utterly wrong. Britain is a society where people from a huge range of backgrounds, cultures and personal beliefs live together, side by side, and, in most part, we do so in a cohesive and harmonious way. We have celebrated the idea that we are diverse yet united for a very long time. This has been rooted in the belief that we are fundamentally one society, where we all have equal rights and an equal stake in what happens. The question of whether, as a society, we are prepared to either tacitly or explicitly support the view that women should not be seen in public is a profound philosophical debate and everyone – male, female, Muslim and non-Muslim – is fully entitled to participate in this discussion. The values we choose to publicly uphold, as a collective, shared society, impact on us all.

There is an unfortunate tendency in Britain of mainstream politicians, particularly on the left, opting out of public discussions about regressive, and even abusive, cultural or religious practices on the basis that it is somehow not their place to comment. The mindset of cultural relativism, “it’s their culture”, continues to shut down important discussions about child veiling in state primary schools and the puritan curriculum taught in deeply conservative religious schools, just as it used to shut down important conversations about forced marriage and FGM, long after they began to percolate the consciousness of mainstream British society. Nimko Ali, FGM campaigner and survivor, recently wrote on twitter, “the act of FGM as painful as it was for me was never as painful as the dismissal of my experience as culture when I know it was abuse and a violation of my human rights.” By largely shying away from public discussions on these topics, hugely important conversations, which should have been happening in the mainstream of British politics were, and are, pushed to the fringes. Political capital is then made out of these issues by extremists, who use the silence of mainstream politicians to push the ideas that 1. people are no longer allowed to speak openly in British society, and 2. that entire communities can be demonised. In the long run, staying silent does not help create a better, kinder, more inclusive society. It only breeds resentment, tensions, anger and extremism.

This must be remembered now. Although triggered by the deliberately unpleasant “post box” and “bank-robber” comments by Boris Johnson, the debate currently happening about the burka and niqab is a good thing. There is clearly an appetite for the conversation in the country, so let’s have it. Bring the discussion out into the open, and into the mainstream, take the debate out of the hands of extremists on all sides. This discussion is not about challenging the clothing choices of individual women, it is about whether there is a moral imperative – or even, at least, a moral right – in a free, democratic and secular country to challenge the normalisation of the idea that women should not be seen in public, for whatever reason. In a shared society, it is only through genuine, sincere and open discussion, in which everyone – everyone – from burka/niqab-wearing Muslim women to “white men” – has a right to participate, that we have a hope of both upholding important principles and, somehow, finding a shared way through. It’s good to talk (about the burka).

That Jones Isn’t Funny Anymore

By David Paxton

To observe Owen Jones at work is to see somebody carefully negotiating difficult terrain. He has been the vanguard for this latest form of full-time campaigner-cum-party surrogate disguised as a commentator. People for whom purpose and credibility are at constant odds with each other.

Jones is both inside the tent and outside and does wondrous work trying to square the circle. “All commentators are biased it’s just that I’m honest about it” is the line and it’s a typically good one. But the tension many political commentators experience between having friends in the game, being a player yourself, and commentating on that game, has rarely been more obvious than it is with Jones. And so his output constantly resembles tactics far more than just a writer trying to make sense of the world from their particular vantage point. And it’s those contortions (see him on Brexit), the tightrope-walking, and most of all, the tactical silences from the inside man of the Corbyn show, that made for such great spectator sport.

The Labour antisemitism saga has changed all that.

As a reminder of how far we’ve come it’s worth re-reading this Jonathan Freedland piece from March 2016. It’s obviously fair and, by today’s standards, very tame about Corbyn. It expresses genuine, and now obviously well-founded, fears within the Jewish community. It repeats the line that was standard for so long:

Which brings us to Jeremy Corbyn. No one accuses him of being an antisemite. But…

Corbyn’s now infamous response to this article, as recorded in the disastrous VICE documentary, went:

The big negative today is the Jonathan Freedland article in The Guardian. Utterly disgusting, subliminal nastiness, the whole lot of it. He’s not a good guy at all.  He seems kind of obsessed with me.

You can’t re-read this without seeing how the current move from problem to crisis was always nailed on. A critic is the enemy and the problem was not to be with Jeremy. Ever.

When the associations with antisemites first started appearing in the media during Corbyn’s leadership campaign, Jones addressed “these guilt-by-association smears” and explained that:

people like me – who support the Palestinian cause out of a sense of justice – will risk meeting or sharing platforms with people who indulge or possess anti-Semitic views.

This is the argument from accidental meeting. It could happen to anyone that supports the Palestinian cause for long enough. You take a risk by doing good. In fact, the harder you try for peace the more likely you are to get into trouble.

The corollary of this argument is the damaging lie that nobody can seek to do right by Palestine without enduring constant scandal. But of course, when faced with real problems these tireless fighters of antisemitism would act.

When Jones’ friend Jackie Walker was suspended by Labour for antisemitic comments, Jones certainly did act. He declared the ‘outrageous suspension’ as having ‘no justification’ and called upon his followers to email the party general secretary to have her reinstated. When Walker reverted back to type, Jones did not address his error, or even describe her actions as antisemitic. He called them ‘totally unacceptable’ and said no more, while dropping Jackie Walker down the memory hole.

Around this time Jones was simultaneously declaring how seriously Labour must take antisemitism. Sure, it still had nothing to do with Corbyn but it must be fought. Except when it’s a smear, that is. He set up this dual position early: we must fight it AND it can be used by nefarious political opponents. As if that matters.

Antisemitism is too serious to become a convenient means to undermine political opponents… There’s no excuse for the left to downplay it, or to pretend it doesn’t exist within its own ranks. Rather than being defensive, the left should seize any opportunity to confront the cancer of antisemitism and eradicate it for good.

This two way position, the ‘walking and chewing gum‘ has served Jones well. He can constantly declare the necessity to fight antisemitism but if the allegations get close to home and affect political expediency, then he can remind us that it can also be ‘a convenient means’. Are there other forms of bigotry that have those fighting it accused of exaggeration by Jones? What utility does this nebulous accusation of bad faith have beyond cover for the guilty? And what is one meant to do with the information? The aims Jones claims to have would be best served without his efforts to leave that constant doubt in the air. It’s rarely specifically applied but instead just allowed to linger and be hinted at as applicable.

In March this year, David Collier revealed the fruits of his long investigation into the Facebook group ‘Palestine Live’. I wrote about it here. Jones, who had previously been vocal about other Facebook group revelations from Tories, said nothing. The scandal blew up. Here was a huge discussion about antisemitism in Labour, the leader of his party was implicated, it went on for days. And nada. Zip. The public commentator, honest about his bias, intent on addressing antisemitism, decided not to comment.

Then the antisemitic mural resurfaced and kicked up a major storm. Once again Jones said nothing. Nothing, that is, until Corbyn finally released a statement. It turned out to be a fuss about nothing, of course, because Corbyn simply hadn’t looked at the content of the controversial mural he was supporting during a controversy about the content of the mural. Within moments of the statement, Jones piped up with a thread to express his ‘relief’ that there was nothing to worry about because Corbyn had a completely plausible explanation. I think we are expected to believe that before seeing that statement Jones was poised to erupt in righteous fury after a period biding his time.

It was in that particular thread that Jones declared ‘all-out war’ against Labour antisemitism. And even included an emoji of a flexing bicep to underscore the muscular vigour with which he would undertake this ‘ceaseless war’.

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Also within the thread he explained why he knows Corbyn is not ‘anything close’ to an antisemite, he wrote:

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It is said that on the matter of antisemitism it’s Jews that should be listened to. Jones is meeting this idea some of the way by listening to Jews who share his opinions. Of course, when the Jewish Margaret Hodge declared Corbyn to be an ‘antisemite and a racist’, Jones declared this ‘a lie and a disgrace’. But again the message is clear, Corbyn doesn’t have ‘even the slightest softness when it comes to antisemitism’.

Circumstances quickly provided Jones with an opportunity to deploy his battalions when, in response to the mural, various Jewish groups and organisations, and many unaffiliated people merely concerned, decided to muster on the lawns of Westminster and demonstrate their anxiety regarding the leadership and the current malaise. I attended the event and met many people who are not regular protestors or enthusiastic joiners but felt they had no other choice. Their feeling can be seen in the choice of their slogan, ‘enough is enough’. Usually a protest is catnip for Jones and one would expect him to be all over this like rash on a baby’s behind. Instead he resigned himself to merely commenting that one of the people present was being insincere and, as Rob Francis notes:

Earlier that day, he’d also shared an article by Jewish Voice for Labour, a group set up last year which opposed Tony Greenstein’s expulsion from the party. He subsequently deleted the tweet as he claimed he’d got confused with a different organisation (Jewish Voice). It’s possible, but I’d note that 1. his original tweet said he wanted to provide some “balance” on the subject (balance?! What balance is there to provide on an anti-racist march?) and 2. whether accidental or not, the upshot was to give JVL a lot of publicity.

And so, for Jones, the war was over. And before it ever really began. His actions then and subsequently have been of a familiar type, enough outrage to keep his anti-racist credentials up but always with a view of protecting Corbyn and the project. Always ready to call things smears and complain about ‘weaponisation’. No criticism of value, no action of meaning.

Then we get to the last fortnight.

First a video surfaced of Corbyn addressing a crowd where he compared the length of the blockade of Gaza to the siege of Leningrad and the battle of Stalingrad combined. Labour have since stated that he was not comparing the actions of the IDF to the Wehrmacht, but merely the timeframe. As if the rhetorical worth of Leningrad and Stalingrad lies in comparative time frames (for example, the Labour antisemitism saga has now been going on for 7.2 Stalingrads). This, though perhaps at the mild end, is a comparison between the actions of contemporary Israel and the Nazis.

Jones said nothing.

Another video surfaced from one of Corbyn’s regular appearances on the propaganda station of Iran (his appearances on Press TV, including hosting a show, should be reason enough for censure). In the interview he takes up the cause of a convicted Hamas terrorist and calls him ‘brother’. Then he was asked to address the 2012 Sinai attacks. Corbyn suggested it unlikely that a Muslim would attack a Muslim during Ramadan and then, without any evidence beyond an appeal to the conspiracist’s favourite logic, cui bono, he confesses to ‘suspecting the hand of Israel’ behind the terrorist violence which included an attack on Israel itself. A false flag terrorist attack against their own country. This is straight conspiratorial antisemitism.

If one contrasts this with his reactions to the Skripal poisoning, where, despite lots of good evidence and expert opinion fingering the Russian state, Corbyn worked hard to avoid accusation. Treating Israel by different standards.

Jones said nothing.

Just when it seemed it couldn’t get worse, it was revealed by James Vaughan that Corbyn hosted and chaired a meeting on Holocaust Memorial Day as part of a tour reportedly titled, “Never Again for Anyone – Auschwitz to Gaza”.

The leaflet handed out at the event juxtaposed Holocaust victims with people of Gaza.

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Holocaust minimisation, Holocaust reversal, take your pick.

The co-organisers of the event were the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) who, as Vaughan has pointed out, are content posting images like this on their website:

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The main speaker at the event was a survivor of Auschwitz. He claimed that the Israelis ‘act like the Nazis’ and that Elie Wiesel is the ‘high priest’ of the Zionists’ ‘Holocaust religion’. In a rare act of apparent contrition Corbyn released the following statement:

Views were expressed at the meeting which I do not accept or condone. In the past, in pursuit of justice for the Palestinian people and peace in Israel/Palestine, I have on occasion appeared on platforms with people whose views I completely reject. I apologise for the concerns and anxiety that this has caused.

The apology, and the admittance that actions have caused anxiety, appeared to some as progress by Corbyn. I am more cynical. When an Auschwitz survivor starts saying these things, which I find repulsive, I accept that as a non-Jewish person, so detached from the Holocaust in comparison, I can’t really tell him to stop. I’m just not in the position to do so. And nor is Corbyn, and he knows we know this. Jones was quick to use this dilemma.

So despite the apology there apparently wasn’t much to apologise for. Always tactics. And it’s quite clever actually. Unfortunately, it ignores certain facts:

  1. Reports suggest that other Jews in the audience tried to dispute the thesis of the main speaker. Corbyn, as the chair, wouldn’t allow them to and saw to it that those in disagreement or ‘completely rejecting’ were removed. Including another Holocaust survivor.Survivor
  2. When sat there, Corbyn might have felt unable to protest (as Jones suggests), but this is to start the story in the middle. Corbyn didn’t have to be there at all, and what was said at the meeting could hardly have been a surprise, considering the theme. He chose to be in that position and now chooses to pretend that he had no idea.
  3. Corbyn didn’t just ‘appear on a platform’ as per his statement and Jones’ theory of unfortunate luck when being pro-Palestinian doesn’t stick. He gave the platform in parliament. He hosted the event. “I have shared platforms with people I gave platforms to” isn’t the excuse he thinks it is.
  4. The survivor wasn’t the only person of concern on the platform.
  5. And this really is the rub: Corbyn hosted the event on Holocaust Memorial Day, with a theme clearly implying that Israel was guilty of similar crimes to those commemorated. It’s one of the most offensive things I have heard a contemporary politician knowingly do.

Before we leave the Nazi/Israel comparisons I am reminded of what a clever socialist once said about them.

You get this comparison sometimes, a deeply offensive comparison, between the actions of the Israeli government and the Nazis. And I’ve heard that said by people who support Palestinian justice before… The reason that comparison is made is to cause deliberate offence.

We can only assume that Jones meant everyone apart from Jeremy Corbyn.

The fortnight wasn’t over.

It was also revealed that both Corbyn and McDonnell campaigned to have the word ‘Holocaust’ removed from Holocaust Memorial Day. Jones said nothing.

Though it was unacceptable to Jones when Jackie Walker complained about Jewish monopolisation of the Holocaust, we can only assume that silence is consent when it comes to Corbyn’s efforts.

And finally (ignoring all the other incidents not involving Corbyn), there’s the debacle of the “JC9”.

Weeks ago, it was reported that National Executive Committee member and candidate, Peter Willsman, had ranted about ‘Trump fanatics’ in the Jewish community as a reason for the complaints about antisemitism. He further suggested that he had never seen evidence of antisemitism within the party despite his sitting on the body charged with investigating cases when they arose. Corbyn was present at the meeting. So were the rest of the NEC. The report was ignored by all and when Momentum announced their slate for the NEC elections they called them the #JC9 (Jeremy Corbyn 9), and Willsman was one of them.

Jones expressed his approval:

But audio of the rant was released and the contents were bad. A decision about Willsman was obviously made because, in perfect Whatsapp synchronisation, the new members of the Mystery Gang (now with added Communism) decided they were for the #JC8.

Predictably, Jones received push-back from the Corbyn cultists for abandoning Willsman. In response, the next morning he posted the following:

And there we have it. Jones’ straddling of the divide is finally laid bare for the absurd sham that it is. We are told the problem exists on the ‘fringe’ when discussing conduct during a meeting of National Executive Committee, attended by the leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and involving one of a group of candidates that use the leader’s initials as a handle. Conduct that was not acted upon until audio was released to the public.

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The problem of course is ‘just one man’. Much like the other individuals who Jones has had to discard once the discarding was approved policy. And so, like Jackie Walker, the fringe Peter Willsman will go down the memory hole.

Now we reach today.

Corbyn has just had published in The Guardian a piece titled I Will Root Antisemites Out of LabourWith the exception of a slightly panicked tone and an accusation that the Jewish press are exaggerating, it says nothing we haven’t already heard. In fact, in parts it’s simply copied and pasted from the article he put out in April:

 

Jones is fully aware of the April piece as he recommended it just two days ago. He described today’s slight rehash, rather wonderfully, as ‘exceptional’.

For three years there’s been incident after incident involving Corbyn followed by a litany of ridiculous excuses. “I didn’t see”, “I didn’t look closely enough”, “it was just diplomacy, I didn’t mean it”, “I shared a platform but I rejected the view without actually rejecting it”, “I don’t recall”, “I wasn’t aware of his past”, “I wasn’t chairing the meeting”. Again and again. Over and over. Not a single one of these excuses would be granted to any one of Jones’ political enemies but a torrent of them all added together are declared reasonable when it comes to Corbyn. According to Jones, Corbyn is just the unluckiest man in the world.

It is now inescapable that a great proportion of the current concern felt by the Jewish community about Labour and antisemitism is the fault and responsibility of Labour’s leader and a result of his actions and inactions over decades. The people trying to point out this obvious fact are gaslit by Jones who tells them, in their distress and during a fortnight where serious and repeated allegations have again been brought to light about the conduct of Corbyn, that they are gullibly falling for ‘smears’.

I believe that Corbyn is, in fact, an antisemite. Parsimony demands it as the excuse-making required to draw any other conclusion is now ‘just beyond ludicrous’, to coin a phrase. But if Jones doesn’t wish to admit Corbyn is an antisemite, or can’t see it, then that’s one thing. We can agree to disagree. But to be unable to link Corbyn to the problem, to not allow him to be responsible for his actions, is only to prolong the agony felt by others.

How, for example, are Labour meant to have a nuanced debate about the IHRA definition of antisemitism — which Jones claims to want — when it’s clear, be it a coincidence or not, that Labour’s changes to that definition provide escape clauses for the past actions of the very leader seeking to implement those changes? How is Jones going to be a part of that debate when he can’t bring himself to address any of the specific concerns about the leader?

There is no shortage of those that deny there is any problem at all. And they intrigue me. The question keeps coming up ‘don’t they know or are they lying?’ Is the loyalty and hope blinding them?

You can’t know a man’s mind, but with many of them I am sure they honestly can’t see or cannot understand it. Those who think this is made up by anti-Corbyn cabals are blind or/and stupid – but I believe they believe it. The flaw for Jones is that while keeping his anti-racism credentials as high as possible he has been adept enough to spell out what antisemitism is, and how it manifests. He simply can’t not know. Ignorance isn’t an excuse. As he once said:

The only way the left will come to the positions that I want, is that if people like me speak out passionately and argue this case which is to take antisemitism seriously…

This speaking out, alas, precludes any criticism of the person chiefly responsible for the problem.

So it’s worse than the deniers. In fact, it’s the worst. He’s telling the Jewish community ‘I am on your side’ while also working to undermine the solutions to their qualms. The problem is at the top of the party and Jones tells everyone it’s just ‘the fringe’. It’s just smears. (I have sometimes wondered if this isn’t all just a grand attempt to have that word redefined).

At the end of the movie Primary Colors, the protagonist, Henry, is in crisis. He has seen the politician for whom he works, Jack Stanton, fail to live up to the principles he espouses. Stanton turns on the full persuasion. “This is the price you pay to lead – you don’t think Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was a president?”. It’s a classic dilemma best summed up as ‘systems vs goals’. Or if you prefer, ‘principles vs goals’. Compromise your principles a little, but that’s ok when you accept that your goal is the greater principle in the equation. I have come to accept that it’s idealistic and naive not to accept the necessity of some of that compromise. It’s the world of politics. And we probably forgive Henry for his eventually accepting. But where is the line?

I’m reminded of something Jones said in his ‘All-out War’ thread:

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One can but guess what Jones thinks of the presentation these days as the leader of the party is credibly called a racist by his own MPs and endorsed by America’s Jew haters. But he was willing to abandon Corbyn to protect his dream of socialism. Good for him. However, since the election that dream is tied to Corbyn, and this time it’s just within reach, so Jones is willing to abandon the Jewish community instead. Wherever the line is, I posit that’s the other side of it.

I’ll finish with a prediction:

If Corbyn cannot get out from under this scandal — and the until very recently unthinkable happens — and he is moved aside then, as if by magic, Jones will publicly accept that everything wasn’t a ‘smear’. He’ll never call him an antisemite, but he will move from his current position and accept fault the moment he is politically able. And that’s his morality, and worth as a commentator, right there. And then Jones will once again set about walking his commentator/campaigner high-wire while trying to bring about his beloved dream of turning Britain into the Durham Miners’ Gala. But it just won’t be so funny any more.

In the meantime, Jones is playing all those that will listen to him for fools. By lamenting the distrust within the Labour party on this issue while consistently refusing to make any negative comments about Corbyn, he’s pleading for a cure while working day and night to sell you the disease.