Charles Wegg-Prosser, a law graduate and product of Downside Independent Catholic School, enthusiastically joined the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1934 taking at face value Oswald Mosley’s propagandist arguments about how he would build “A Greater Britain”. Wegg-Prosser believed that the fascist movement was a radical force for social progress and national unity. At one time he was director of its large Shoreditch branch and later stood as a BUF candidate in the 1937 local election in another of its strongholds – Limehouse. Labour won the seat comfortably as a very strong fascist campaign was decisively rejected. Wegg Prosser left the fascists later that year. He wrote this to Mosley:
“Your methods have become increasingly dictatorial… You are sidestepping the whole issue of social betterment by the anti-Jewish campaign… You introduce a movement imitating foreign dictators. you run it as a soulless despotism, you sidetrack the demand for social justice by attacking the Jew, you give people a false answer, and unloose the lowest mob passions.”
Many people who have given their heart and soul to a cause, and then discover there is poison running through it, retreat into political paralysis, or become cynical. To his credit, Wegg-Prosser did not. He made discreet contacts with anti-fascists and then spent the last years of the 1930s vigorously campaigning against the British Union of Fascists, especially exposing and opposing their anti-Jewish hatred. After the war he was active in the Labour Party and stood unsuccessfully four times at elections for the Labour Party in Paddington South. He continued his legal career and became the first chair of North Kensington Law Centre – a centre that has done so much to support migrants, refugees, the vulnerable and powerless.
He was not alone in switching sides in the 1930s. One of the very impressive achievements of the anti-fascist movement in Britain in that period was its record of winning individuals away from fascism and persuading a number of them to join the ranks of the anti-fascists. They were able to do that because they understood that fascism, rather than individual fascists was the core of the problem. They recognised that people who travelled on a journey towards fascism were in many cases not motivated by hate (though no doubt their leaders and a hard-core around them definitely were). They were often people with real difficulties in their lives socially, economically, psychologically, who were desperately looking for solutions, but could not see it coming from mainstream politicians they feel had let them down. Ever more hopeless and embittered, they were becoming easy prey for far right demagogues pushing solutions based on blaming the Jews.
But a number were persuaded, especially by anti-fascists in the Communist Party, to switch sides and gain a new understanding of the forces really responsible for their problems. People do change, given the space to change. And sometimes, like Charles Wegg-Prosser, they show deep remorse. Up to a certain point on their journey people are receptive to alternative, better arguments. In 2010, four years after the British National Party won 12 council seats in Barking and Dagenham, they not only lost every seat, but lost a significant number of votes in every ward. despite a higher voter turnout. Many first time BNP voters changed their minds and returned to the Labour fold.
We live in different times to the 1930s. Social media times – which can be very useful for identifying particular patterns of behaviour. But at the same time we are more likely to damn people forever for one thoughtless social media post, typecast them as a dyed in the wool, racist/Islamophobe/antisemite/homophobe etc and see them as totally irredeemable, even if it is just one, seemingly out of character, post.
In the last few days, in addition to the other big political goings on, there has been a focus once again on Labour’s procedures for handling complaints of antisemitism. Jeremy Corbyn steered a careful path this week, which won support from the shadow Cabinet and then the Labour NEC. It defended the improvements since Jennie Formby became General Secretary, agreed an approach that involved tightening up and speeding up the procedures, and acting decisively in the most absolutely clear-cut cases, while protecting rights of appeal and allowing people to show remorse.
In a rebuff to the venomous behaviour of Tom Watson, many members of the PLP gave Jennie Formby a standing ovation earlier this week. The usual gaggle of pro-Zionist Jewish Labour MPs together with the obsequious non-Jewish members desperate to stay close to very right wing, anti-Labour Jewish “leaders”, are fuming: “not enough expulsions”, “we need an independent process”, “we need to involve the Jewish community”, which for them means its right wingers who claim to speak for the rest of us.
They have been pushed back. the detail will be discussed more and refined before Labour Conference. And it has been confirmed that antisemitism will not be separated out but these processes will apply to all complaints that discrimination/abuse has occurred against members across the range of protected characteristics. Good. But this is a time when Labour members need to get their voices heard. We need to be stressing the need to resurrect an important document that has got more and more obscured – Shami Chakrabarti’s excellent report from 2016.
That report contained many key principles and firm recommendations. For example, she argued that although “expulsion may no doubt be necessary in some cases of gross, repeated or unrepentant unacceptable behaviour”, her clear preference was for resorting to a greater “range of disciplinary sanctions short of expulsion”, using education.
She argued that “It should also be possible (in the interests of proportionality) for some concerns to be addressed informally without the need (at least initially) to set in train a formal investigation. Some members may have used inappropriate language in complete ignorance of its potential harm. An informal discussion may create an opportunity for resolution and learning in such circumstances.”
She sought to replace the paranoid and toxic atmosphere that was felt at times in the party with an atmosphere “for learning, positive consensus and progressive change” where members “discussed and debated difficult issues and differences, in an atmosphere of civility and a discourse of mutual respect”. For her that also meant “a moratorium on the retrospective trawling of members’ social media accounts and past comments.”
And in relation to those, it seems, desperate to expel as many members as possible, as quickly as possible, and whose actions facilitate trial by media, she wrote:
“The Labour Party should seek to uphold the strongest principles of natural justice…it is important to remember that the beginning of an investigation into alleged misconduct is just that. The making of a complaint marks the beginning, not the end, of a hopefully fair process that might end in a warning, admonishment, some further sanction up to and including expulsion from the Party, or exoneration and no further action whatsoever.”
She urged party disciplinary bodies “to consider greater use of a wide and creative range of sanctions. These may include a warning, the requirement for apologies and/or some other form of sensitive reparation to another member or person or persons, a public warning or reprimand”.
If that was still not considered sufficient then they may have to use “suspension from the Party for up to two years, and expulsion.” But, she added, “I do not recommend lifetime bans from the Labour Party. Present or future members of the NEC should not be robbed of their discretion to consider how someone may have changed their attitude”.
These are very wise words. And as the discussions continue on Labour’s policies for handling complaints it is time to rehabilitate the central themes of the Chakrabarti Report. I suspect the one time fascist, Charles Wegg-Prosser, who gave three of his years to Oswald Mosley, but decades afterwards to the Labour Party and to the defence of the rights of the most vulnerable, would strongly agree.