Chris Sutherland analyses the lasts contours of the one of the most successful political campaign of recent years
Has reporter John Ware’s BBC Panorama programme, ‘Is Labour Anti-Semitic’ (broadcast 10 July 2019), effectively triggered a split and possible purge of the Labour left? Keir Starmer’s decision not to contest a High Court action by seven former staffers of the party’s ‘Governance and Legal Unit’ is important for two reasons. First, he can draw a line against four years of accusations of anti-Semitism. Second, we might never know the truth of what went on in party HQ (2015-2018), of which the ‘disputes team’ may have been just one facet.
Corbyn described Starmer’s decision as ‘political rather than legal’ and for that he faces being sued by John Ware and the former Labour general secretary, Iain McNicol, who ran party HQ at the time. A legal defence fund by Corbyn grassroots supporters has raised over £300,000 in its first week so there is plenty of ground-swell support. Len McCluskey described the reputed £500,000 pay-out to former staffers as a misuse of party funds. Starmer positioned it as a re-booting of the party ‘under new management’. The staffers portrayed themselves as victims of Corbyn’s interference and for allowing space for anti-Semites to flourish. Corbyn supporters pointed to a leaked 850-page Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) report in March 2020 portraying the ‘disputes team’ as part of an internal war between the leadership and party HQ, which like the PLP, saw Corbyn as an interloper.
Rather than just publish the NEC report in full, Starmer has appointed Martin Forde QC to do his own investigation with a double-edged brief – investigating the report-writers as much as reporting on its findings. Crucially, Forde isn’t expected to report back until Christmas which is going to come too late for Corbyn, as another report by the ‘Equality and Human Rights Commission’ (EHRC) is shortly to be released and is expected to be hostile. The Labour Party is the only party to be investigated by a quango responsible to its opponents. Critics have pointed to problems with its Commissioners and its refusal to investigate parallel allegations of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party. Nevertheless, it has become a key player.
The EHRC involvement was triggered by anti-Semitic allegations against the party by the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAA). The EHRC has powers to identify matters of illegality where provisions of the Equality Act have been breached and can issue Section 21 Notices to enforce recommendations. A hostile EHRC report would have significant implications for Labour. One would be to withdraw the party whip from Corbyn himself, casting him into the wilderness as an independent. And what then? Do the left follow or do they stay? Or will they be pushed?
Somewhere between the interface of the three reports (NEC/Forde/EHRC) is a looming crisis for the Labour left. The timing doesn’t help Corbyn because the Forde inquiry will come months after the EHRC has come and gone, the staffers long forgotten and the anti-Semitic smear campaign having done its job. To add insult to injury, the John Ware Panorama programme has been nominated for a BAFTA! Where does that leave the impartiality of the BBC? The BBC knew all about John Ware. ‘Is Labour Anti-Semitic?’ was the third such anti-Corbyn broadcast identified by the Media Reform Coalition (MRC) which wrote: ‘Handing two editions to the same presenter with known (and hostile) political views on Corbyn without seeking to offer a counter-posing perspective is hardly a ringing endorsement of the BBC’s commitment to due impartiality’.
Ware himself had written for the right-wing ‘Standpoint’ describing Corbyn as ‘a Labour leader whose entire political career has been stimulated by disdain for the west, appeasement of extremism and who would barely understand what fighting for the revival of British values is really all about’. Ware has never been a neutral observer. In March 2020, he was part of a consortium which bought the fiercely anti-Corbyn Jewish Chronicle. Sqwawkbox has detailed a succession of Ware’s Islamophobic work, accusing one pro-Palestinian charity of being a front for terrorism (‘Faith, Hate and Charity’ 2006) in which the BBC was forced to pay undisclosed damages and was criticised by the Islamic Human Rights Commission and Muslim Council of Britain.
Ware’s ‘Is Labour Anti-Semitic?’ received a record number of complaints – 1,593 within a two week period. It was Labour’s statement prior to the broadcast about the staffers being ‘disaffected former staff … with personal and political axes to grind’ that led to the 2020 defamation case in the High Court. Labour was given just a few days’ notice of the programme with just one spokesman, a shaky Shadow Communities Secretary, Andrew Gwynne, against a succession of ‘talking head’ witnesses, each affirming the narrative of Corbyn’s alleged interference in the Unit’s affairs and for being responsible for a mass outbreak of anti-Semitism, much of it assumed or associative, cleverly edited and packaged, backed by the BBC’s full resources.
First, the eight staffers: whistleblowers, vulnerable, filmed against a studio backcloth, soft-lighting and background music. Then eight more unnamed and unattributed witnesses, backed up by commentary from two writer-historians. An ordinary member of the public watching the hour-long ‘special’ would have been hard-pressed to spot the tricks!
But gradually facts have emerged. The Canary (James Wright’s ‘Almost all the sources …’ 11 August 2019) reported that eight of the un-attributed ‘talking heads’ were well known senior officers of the JLM, two of whom had featured prominently in Al Jazeera’s 4-part expose ‘The Lobby’ of 2016. It was later proved that one of the staffers, Ben Westerman, had lied on camera about being asked if he was ‘from Israel’ during a trip to Liverpool Riverside Constituency Labour Party (CLP) – the actual conversation had been recorded. Ware forgot to tell his audience that the two writer historians were Alan Johnson, a senior figure at BICOM (Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre) and Dave Rich, Head of Policy at CST (Community Support Trust).
Ware failed to mention a crucial context in the resignation of the ‘staffers’ in 2017. In the process of leaving, they had destroyed thousands of documents of ‘live’ cases, throwing the work of the Governance and Legal Unit into chaos. The programme describes cars arriving in the dead of night from Corbyn’s office to pick up files without mentioning that Corbyn staff had had to be diverted to try and get the files back into some kind of order. A staffer had taken copies of the destroyed files which were then leaked to the Times breaching the confidentiality of the members being investigated.
Nor was there any mention of the Governance and Legal Unit’s refusal to implement the 2016 Chakrabarti Report recommending a graduated system of sanctions for alleged offenders of anti-Semitism. Most of the primary evidence is contained in the leaked NEC Report but which has been kept from the public eye.
Ware then selectively cropped an email by Corbyn’s adviser, Seumas Milne in order to give an anti-Corbyn slant. The veteran Ware would have known exactly what he was doing during editing. The interspersion of historic footage of Corbyn on pro-Palestinian platforms followed similar lines of ‘associative proof’ of support for terrorism, ignoring his life-long condemnation of all political violence. Similarly, footage of the London demonstration against Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza implied the ‘left’s’ intrinsic anti-Semitism rather than spontaneous anger at the slaughter of civilians by Israeli forces (2,310 killed, 10,895 wounded including 3,374 children).
Liverpool Riverside CLP was never allowed tell its side of the story. It was forced to accept a top-down re-organisation, its chair, John Davies, suspended for three months, later reinstated and cleared of all charges. Yet out of a 2,500 membership only one had actually been disciplined for anti-Semitism.The story of Liverpool Riverside CLP is the subject of a report by ‘Jewish Voices for Labour’ (JVL): ‘The Riverside Scandal’ (16 October 2019) which gives a fascinating insight into how a witch-hunt starts and escalates and the unequal balance of forces of the respective sides.
By any journalistic standards ‘Is Labour Anti-Semitic?’ was a highly, selective, partisan programme which now sits at the axis of a potentially major shift in the country’s second major political party. The BBC should be having a long, hard look at itself. When a broadcaster starts shaping national politics, we all have a problem.
There is anti-Semitism in the Labour Party just as there is in society as a whole, though figures suggest a small fraction of the party, less than 1% of the membership and it’s even higher in parties to the right of Labour. For cross party comparison of anti-Semitism, there are interesting comparative statistics presented by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAA)’s Annual Anti-Semitism Barometer and by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research.
Few observers would deny the racism of the East London Mural ‘False Profits’ by Mear One, or the foolish statement by Naz Shah, for which she profusely apologised. Name-calling, tropes on world conspiracies, holocaust denial, racial stereotyping, trolling on social media, attacks against people, property, graves and synagogues – these are all racist crimes. Party members found guilty of this should rightly be expelled.
So what now? Probably, but not immediately, elements of the left, together with Jeremy Corbyn will be purged. If the party whip is withdrawn from Corbyn following the EHRC report, there’s bound to be a reaction. It’s difficult to second-guess if anyone will follow him, or whether this will presage a major split or outright civil war. Corbyn now faces at least two more legal actions by Ware and McNicol. What a sad reflection of the days when Corbyn was elected Labour Leader, against all the odds, not once but twice, all those mass rallies during the heady days of the 2017 general election, all that hope for a renewed and fairer society, now evaporating before our eyes. The privateers are massing, the neo-liberals and soft-Tories are back in charge. The left is bracing itself. All that hope, now awaiting its day in court.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for the Labour left to split, form its own party and start afresh – if only for ideological clarity, out of political honesty if nothing else. Labour only works when the right is in control. The left will always face the full hostility of the establishment and party bureaucracy. It was an illusion that it could simply take over the machinery of the party and hope it would work for it. The staffers weren’t neutral. They preferred Labour’s defeat to Corbyn’s success. The labour movement is long overdue re-alignment for the modern world, for climate change, for the challenges of post-pandemic society. Does the left really want to go on with the old ways, repeating the same mistakes? History proves time and again that Labour fails the working class. Ralph Miliband wrote a book about it – Parliamentary Socialism: a study in the politics of Labour’ (Merlin, 1964). Pity his sons took no notice of it!
Chris Sutherland is a lifelong socialist, living in St. Andrews, a member of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign but not of any political party and a ‘Yes’ voter.’ He lived and worked in Norwich for over thirty years, helping found and run the ‘Norwich Unemployed Workers Centre’ 1996-2003 He has self-published on Kindle ‘Frobisher’s Field’ and ‘Lions & Tigers’.