Reasons to be Cheerful: part 3

Back in 1997 when Labour swept to power in a tidal wave of sentiment against Thatcher, its theme song was D: Ream’s “Things can only get better”. Of course they did, temporarily, and then Blair and his New Labour cronies took us steadily rightward, took the country into unjust and unnecessary wars, ignored the desire in the country for real and radical change, and, over time, threw away the several millions of votes Labour had gained.

THE-VERY-BEST-OF-IAN-DURY-AND-THE-BLOCKHEADS-REASONS-TO-BE-CHEERFULAfter last Thursday’s election, the song in my head is classic Ian Dury: “Reasons to be Cheerful: Part 3.” May said Corbyn would take us back to the 1970s. The song was released in 1979.  Parts 1 and 2 were clearly the two leadership elections Corbyn had to fight to establish himself as leader, and Part 3 was this incredible General Election we have just experienced. While the most ostrich-like commentators will try to pretend that Labour lost the election, they know the truth only too well.

This election was called opportunistically by a Tory PM who believed the lazy propaganda of the media commentariat (with the honorable exceptions of the Daily Mirror and the Morning Star) that there was a strong likelihood of a Tory-landslide that would humiliate Jeremy Corbyn and destroy the Labour Party; that May was a “credible leader” and Corbyn wasn’t; that the Conservatives were poised take seats where they hadn’t before in traditional Labour strongholds such as Wales.

The result was a net loss of 13 Tory seats, which meant they had completely squandered their parliamentary majority, and net gains by Labour of 30 seats, gaining in seats in Wales and also including several that would have simply been described as “impossible” never mind unlikely (think Kensington or Warwick Leamington). Labour gained 3 million more votes than its last effort just two years ago, and Jeremy Corbyn’s personal ratings have been shooting up. He calmly brushed aside every ridiculous smear that the Tories, the Blairite remnants, and the compliant media tried to throw at him, and they will have none left to offer next time around. Far from being humiliated, Corbyn is now secure and admired by a much wider spectrum of people. It is May who looks isolated, friendless and demoralised.

In the weeks leading up to Polling Day, I had the occasional wobble, including on election2605c6e63a3c06e3e7ea39f1dcd1c846 day itself, when I woke up and asked myself, “What if they are right? What if I am living in a left bubble?”. But despite everything I had read in mainstream media outlets, from Jonathan Freedland, Andrew Rawnsley, to Paul Dacre, during the campaign, a couple of weeks ago  I was confident enough that they had so seriously misjudged the real picture, that I put my money where my mouth is and placed a bet at 11/1 odds on a hung parliament. Labour under Corbyn and McDonnell are driven by a redistributive principle, and even before they have taken office it seems they have already helped me to redistribute some of William Hill’s excessive profiits.

The Tories are in crisis, with Theresa May just about clinging on. Back in 2010, Cameron could be a bit more choosy and take in Lib-Dems as his dupes to prop up his coalition. May has been forced to be less choosy. Her only option left was to call on the swivel-eyed loons (climate change-deniers, homophobes, creationists, fellow-travellers of Loyalist terrorism) of the DUP, for Christ’s sake, for a “confidence and supply” deal. The DUP will surely try to extract a price that will be unpalatable for significant numbers of Tories. Then what?

Boris Johnson claims he is 100% behind Theresa May. I’m sure he is (with a 6-inch steel bladed knife). Another  possible replacement, Amber Rudd, is effectively out of the contest after her own majority in her constituency was reduced from several thousands to a few hundred. Rudd only just survived this election – she knows she won’t survive the next. And while they are tearing bits out of each other, the clock is ticking for their EU negotiations. It’s not pretty. There are no strong and stable leaders in sight among the Tory ranks.

Labour, meanwhile, is bouyant. It has instantly gone up five points in polls taken since the election, while the Tories have dropped five, and the leaderless UKIP have enjoyed a slight recovery. The feelgood factor across the Labour Party is palpable. Labour has already recruited an astonishing 150,000 new members since the polls closed, and if it was people-power and the ability to mobilise armies of activists for canvassing in marginal areas that was so crucial to the result, Labour will have already enhanced its capacity to do that next time with even greater impact. All those young people who registered before the deadline, are now registered for the next election, which surely will not be more than six months to one year away. The party has an exciting new, popular, coherent and costed manifesto, which fundamentally breaks with the failed Blair agenda. It will not need much tweaking before the next election. And finally the simple figures in the results themselves reveal where the Tories’ most marginal constituencies are and where canvassing, public meetings and events should continue now. Just a very small swing will bring another 20 seats and Labour would have high hopes of  gaining in several others.
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Make no mistake. This is a crisis, and a nightmare, not just for the Tories, but also for the Labour Right. More right-wing Labour MPs may have been elected, but they owe their majorities to Corbyn’s campaign, and the centre of gravity among the Party membership has shifted leftwards. Any actions of sabotage and serial disloyalty to the leadership this time round will surely merit re-selection procedures. They will have no desire to risk that when the Party is poised for power. Meanwhile Several centre-Left Labour MPs who had opposed Corbyn in the last two years are now openly and honestly acknowledging his achievements in this election, which further isolates the right. The old Chinese curse of living in interesting times is surely upon us. Theresa May and Tony Blair are running into the obscure wheat field of history, and we really do have many reasons to be cheerful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Democracy must answer back to terror and Theresa May

A woman holds a placard as they take part in a vigil for the victims of an attack on concert goers at Manchester Arena, in central ManchesterIt was surely right to pause national election campaigning in the immediate aftermath of the horrific attack in Manchester. It gave us time to absorb and respect the incredible responses by ordinary people in Manchester as the tragedy unfolded, and to acknowledge the vital role of emergency services cut to the bone by Tory austerity policies. We have witnessed outstanding examples of solidarity and support. Full credit too to Jeremy Corbyn for his deeply humane public statements, which got a short-lived full airing by the media before they reduced them drastically to a single sentence.
Theresa May, who had looked so weak and distraught in the face of the press posse on the day of her u-turn on social care, did not miss a trick in hogging the limelight with confident, belligerent and unchallenged pronouncements in front of Downing Street about security and the national interest, while the Tory-supporting press had a campaign-free day to continue spreading their smears attempting to link Corbyn and McDonnell to terrorism.
As May unleashes a narrow and transparently militaristic response, with soldiers on the streets, she is simultaneously trying to suspend national campaigning until Sunday – in the middle of the Bank Holiday weekend (even though her canvassers were already back on the streets in some areas yesterday evening, including within Manchester itself).
The last thing she wants is Corbyn and his team continuing to address mass outdoor meetings reviving the themes that were biting so hard into the Tory polling lead last week. Nor would she want Labour to be able to amplify its critique, expressed early in the campaign, of the Tories’ hypocritical approach to national security, centred on an aggressive foreign policy, arms sales to murderous dictatorships and intimate friendship with Donald Trump. While she was talking about security, her new best friend was completing more arms sales and strengthening reactionary political alliances in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
If the Manchester outrage was an attack on democracy then democracy has to answer back, and Labour must revive its national campaign no later than tomorrow. If May is forced back on to the campaign trail, rather than being able to hold forth in front of Downing Street as a stateswoman, she will try to make the debate in the next few days all about terrorism. Labour has the arguments to deal with that, and then park it, as it returns to the themes the election is really all about – poverty, the NHS, education, housing, zero hours contracts, foodbank Britain, etc.
She had already tried earlier in the campaign to make the election solely about Brexit (aided and abetted by some sectarian sections of the left/anti-racist movement), but Corbyn’s team exposed and destroyed that cynical manoeuvre when they unleashed their brilliant and exciting manifesto, which took on the full range of failures of the Tory administrations since 2010, well before Brexit was even dreamed of.
Yesterday I was feeling sickened and numbed by the horrifying details of what occurred in Manchester, and also by the crashing halt to the momentum Labour built up last week. I felt despair about their prospects of reviving that campaign in the post-terror attack atmosphere, with a little over two weeks to polling day. I will leave it to the conspiracy theorists to speculate about this attack happening in the immediate aftermath of a full-blooded media assault alleging that Labour’s leaders were friendly to the IRA, in a city where a major IRA attack occurred back in the day, and to ask how much the security forces knew about the person identified by them as the perpetrator. We won’t know the truth of that for many years to come, if ever. But we cannot afford to dwell on that today. Our response has to be to seize the initiative once more and be out on the streets canvassing and campaigning on the real issues of this election. We know what they are.
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And this morning I feel a little more positive having read that some 622,000 people registered to vote on the deadline day, 22 May. They included 246,000 in the 18-24 age bracket and 207,000 who were 25-34 year olds. A luta continua!

Hero or villain? The Livingstone question

My favourite political image among the protests and street activism that has marked the first three months of 2017 is a banner held on the St Patrick’s Day parade. It proclaimed:”More Blacks! More dogs! More Irish!” – mocking the daily racism of the 1960s when people looking for homes were confronted by openly discriminatory window signs rejecting applicants from these categories. The first Race Relations Act of 1968 finally knocked that appalling behaviour on the head, but not the sentiments behind it. It took another 20 years of grassroots campaigns led by victims of racism, finally aided by another layer of government, to normalise anti-racism and explicitly promote multiculturalism.

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GLC leader Ken Livingstone addressing  GLC London Against Racism rally 1984.

That layer of government was the Greater London Council (GLC). Under a visionary Left Labour leadership from 1981 it railed against continuing inequalities and discriminatory practices and the mindset supporting them – whether it was racist, sexist, homophobic or disablist. Through a generous grants programme it gave grassroots  campaigners including Caribbean, African, South Asian, Irish and Jewish groups, the resources to make their voices count. The GLC also brought those groups and campaigns together through its Ethnic Minorities Unit, whose activities dovetailed with those of the GLC’s Women’s Committee. These policies were denounced at the time as “loony left” by the right-wing press. Maggie Thatcher felt so threatened by this equalities agenda that she dictatorially closed down the GLC.

The imagination and determination to push this agenda through was rightly identified very strongly with the GLC’s leader – one Ken Livingstone. In place of the old paternalistic grants policy which mainly favoured rather conservative existing groups, the GLC under Livingstone developed a grassroots strategy whereby innovative groups without resources were encouraged to identify a need in London, make a plan for addressing it and ask the GLC to fund it.

I  was a beneficiary, appointed as sole worker for the Jewish Cultural and Anti-Racist Project, a Jewish Socialists’ Group initiative funded by the GLC.  Our two years of funding came to an end through Maggie’s act of destruction. But I remember a delicious moment one year in, when our project grant came up for renewal. Alongside other groups we were invited to the public gallery. Labour had a solid majority on the council, so at the meeting confirming renewal Ken Livingstone read through a list of groups that the grants committee had approved. The Tories could express their objection but they had no power to stop any of the approved grants going through. Most did so without objection but every so often – a lesbian project, or an Irish project –  the Tory would say “We object!”. Livingstone read out “Jewish Socialists’ Group” in a manner which suggested he enjoyed the particular combination of those words as much as we did. The Tory rose: “We object”. Livingstone retorted, smiling, “You don’t like the name!”

How can it be that three decades on, the person who played such a pivotal role in the fight for equality came within a hairsbreadth of expulsion by the Labour Party for bringing the party in to disrepute over the issue of anti-Jewish racism, having made dubious comments about Hitler and Zionism; and for defending another MP’s comments, which she herself apologised for, after she recognised they had crossed a line into antisemitism?

The knee-jerk reaction of many left wingers, tired of cynical, manufactured and distorted accusations of antisemitism was to leap to his defence,  Others who harboured doubts about the veracity of Livingstone’s comments and his tact were more reticent. He claimed that the real reasons he was threatened with expulsion were his support for Palestine and for Jeremy Corbyn.  As someone who admired his earlier work, I’m not convinced. I believe that his controversial and completely unnecessary intervention – based on a very poor quality source – undermined Jeremy Corbyn and was detrimental to the Palestinian cause. It was also a free gift to right wingers in both the Labour and Conservative parties, and to pro-Zionist and pro-Conservative elements in the Jewish community determined to do Labour and Corbyn down.

They have been having a field day denouncing Labour for not expelling him, claiming that it proves that the Labour Party is not serious about tackling antisemitism, that the Jewish community has been let down by Labour’s disciplinary process and so on. Why pro-Conservative elements such as Jewish Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush, who rushed to congratulate Trump on winning the US election, or Chief Rabbi Mirvis who penned a vicious attack on Labour on the front page of the Daily Telegraph the day before London’s mayoral election while saying nothing about the Tories openly Islamopbhobic campaign against Sadiq Khan, feel they have the right to comment on Labour’s internal disciplinary processes is beyond me.

The bad blood between Livingstone  and self-proclaimed Jewish leaders, however, goes back a long way. It is nothing to do with Israel/Palestine or Nazis, and it shows those “leaders” in a poor light. I will say more on that further down.

But those of us in the left and centre left of the Labour Party, who certainly do have the right to comment on those procedures, have every reason to be cynical about those individuals put in place under Tony Blair who still dominate the bodies enacting these disciplinary  procedures. While they act against loose cannons such as Livingstone, who unfortunately has form when it comes to speaking first and engaging his brain second, they completely ignore the daily acts of Labour right-wingers, which bring the party into disrepute and harm its electoral chances. I am talking here of the likes of tblair_mandelson_36092bMandelson, Blair, Wes Streeting, Michael Dugher and Ruth Smeeth, who deliberately and repeatedly insult, demean and seek to undermine a Labour leader overwhelmingly elected twice to lead the party by its members. And they often take to the columns of the anti-Labour right-wing press to do so. They are surely the people who deserve to be at the front of any queue of those who might be legitimately charged with bringing the party into disrepute. In that context I am glad Livingstone was not expelled. And, indeed, rather than suspend him for a further year, maybe, as other Jewish left-wingers have suggested, he should be challenged to go for a year without mentioning Hitler.

But what is the real story with Livingstone and the Jewish community? What are the merits of what he has said, and the “academic” source he based them on? Did the timing of his intervention help or undermine Jeremy Corbyn at a time when Labour was being assailed with charges of antisemitism? Has it helped or hindered the Palestinian cause?

Livingstone took power in the GLC in 1981 at the same time as the Jewish Board of Deputies (BoD) was increasingly falling in with Thatcher’s government and its reactionary norms. Thatcher  was extremely hostile to the GLC’s anti-racist agenda. Nevertheless the BoD initially co-operated with the GLC’s Ethnic Minorities Unit.

As Livingstone democratised and revolutionised the GLC’s grants procedures, a range of  politically independent groups among both secular and religious Jews, including dissident and marginalised groups, applied for funding for their projects. The BoD, which saw itself as the sole legitimate political representative of Jews in Britain, wrote to Livingstone insisting on its right to vet any applications to the GLC for funding by Jewish groups. Livingstone quite rightly refused, on democratic grounds, and was never forgiven. As well as being involved with the Jewish Socialists’ Group’s (JSG) application, I was also part of a small group of four people called the Jewish Employment Action Group, which was taking up cases of antisemitism in the workplace. One of the four was a maverick member of the Board of Deputies. We asked for and received a grant of £220 (that’s all!). That maverick BoD member was hauled over the coals by the BoD’s paranoid leaders. Whenever the BoD got a hint that a particular Jewish group was applying for funds, it sent in unsolicited “references” to try to dissuade Livingstone’s GLC from funding them. I was shown the unsolicited “reference ” on the JSG, by the Grants Officer dealing with our application. It was a filthy document, full of lies and unfounded smears and allegations linking us to organisations described as “terrorist”. Fortunately the GLC disregarded it, but it revealed the BoD’s methods.

In 1983 the Board suspended its participation in the work of the GLC’s Ethnic Minorities Unit, an entity  that was developing an imaginative, inclusive agenda for tackling all forms of racism in London and actively promoting multiculturalism. I have a leaked copy of the internal minutes from the BoD’s Defence Committee which agreed this action. It sets out five charges against the GLC, listed a to e, including: “The use of County Hall by pro-PLO factions and by terrorist representative groups”.

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Avnery and Sartawi at GLC County Hall

In 1983 the GLC’s County Hall had indeed hosted the first public meeting in Britain in which an Israeli peace activist, Uri Avnery, shared a platform with a leading PLO representative, Issam Sartawi. I was among the organisers of the meeting. Also in the early 1980s the GLC hosted Sinn Fein members accused of direct links withe IRA.

However the leaked minutes explained that the BoD’s decision to break off relations  with the GLC Ethnic Minorities Unit was taken because of (e), “a grant to the Jewish Socialists’ Group, against the advice of the Board”.

Following the initial skirmishes which were about the GLC being able to function democratically without unwanted and unwarranted interference for the BoD, there were further clashes which related also to pro-Palestinian comments that Livingstone made in the aftermath of the Lebanon war of 1982.

In that period, Livingstone was guilty of a misdemeanour which does link directly to much more recent controversies. He was one of the editors of a left-wing newspaper called Labour Herald which published very crude denunciations of Israel and cartoons of its very right-wing Prime Minister Menachem Begin dressed in Nazi uniform, which drew accusations of antisemitism.  It also carried a review by one Harry Mullin of three publications alleging Zionist-Nazi collaboration. This review crossed a line from anti-Zionism to antisemitism. I was co-writer of a letter from the JSG, showing how this line had been crossed, and how it also served to diminish Nazi responsiblity for the Holocaust. Our letter demanded an apology from Labour Herald for publishing this review. The letter was published but no apology was made. In a private letter Livingstone remarked that Harry Mullin was a respected labour movement writer. It was no great surprise to me to learn that a few years down the line Harry Mullin had found his more natural home in the fascist British National Party, through which he increasingly peddled Holocaust denial. Perhaps this was an early hint of – at best – Livingstone’s lack of sophisticated judgement in this area.

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Lenni Brenner

During the recent controversy, when Livingstone was pressed for the source of his claims that Hitler “was supporting Zionism… before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”, he told the Evening Standard, “Everything I said… was true and I will be presenting the academic book about that to the Labour Party inquiry.”. That “academic” source was Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, written in the early 1980s by Lenni Brenner, an American freelance journalist.  Brenner’s book reads much more like tabloid journalism than any serious academic study. It makes crude allegations of Zionist-Nazi collaboration, treats the actions of some Zionists as representing all Zionists, and utterly distorts the power relations between Zionists and Nazis.

In truth, there were attempts by some Jews in Germany to make deals with the Nazi dictatorship that was hostile and repressive towards all Jews. In Germany’s case these were Zionists (an ideological minority among German Jews), who were criticised by other Zionists and other Jews for doing so. Further attempts to make deals with Nazi rulers were made by some Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, but these attempts do not break down on simple Zionist/anti-Zionist lines. Some bourgeois Jews who were not Zionists also attempted to extract concessions from their oppressors, to save some lives through such deals. On the other hand, many left-wing Zionists participated in the anti-Nazi resistance, especially in the ghettoes. But, whatever deals were attempted in Germany after Hitler came to power, Hitler had already made crystal clear his absolutely poisonous hatred towards all Jews when he published Mein Kampf in 1925, and a second edition in 1926.

When Lenni Brenner came to London in 1983/84 to promote his book the Jewish Socialists’ Group was unimpressed with the publicity but nevertheless invited him to speak to one of our meetings about it. He was terrible. He gave an extremely crude analysis which tried to make facts fit very thin pre-ordained theories. When he was challenged on his “analysis” he reacted with aggression. When audience members argued that his comments were antisemitic he flew into a further rage and told us that he could not be racist or antisemitic because his wife was Black. That, I’m afraid, is the calibre of Livingstone’s prime source.

Of course, if you do serious research you can find many examples that would show that in terms of combating antisemitism and fascism, whether in Germany or, for example, in Poland Europe’s largest Jewish community pre-war, the 1930s and ’40s were not Zionism’s finest hour. And the willingness of Zionists to seek cooperation with the most reactionary regimes towards its goals has a long pedigree that stretches as far back as Theodor Herzl’s meeting with Plehve, a minister in Tsarist Russia, a representative of the murderous oppressors of Jews, radicals and revolutionaries.  Herzl promised  Plehve, on no authority at all, that Jewish radicals and revolutionaries would cease their struggles against Tsarism for 15 years if he would give a charter for Palestine. Nothing came of it, but not for want of trying.

However, this whole effort to try to find evidence of Zionists behaving badly in the 1930s in order to expose the way Zionism behaves today, is such a poor way of supporting the Palestinians and their just demands. It rests on too many crude generalisations. You do not have to go back to Hitler and the 1930s in order to expose and challenge the oppression of Palestinians by Zionist ideology and practice today. As Shami Chakrabarti rightly pointed out in her report, from the Inquiry that followed in the weeks after Livingstone’s remarks, critics of Israeli policy could “use the modern universal language of human rights, be it of dispossession, discrimination, segregation, occupation, persecution and … leave Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust out of it”. I agree with her wholeheartedly. The case against Israel’s occupation and ill-treatment of the Palestinians is unanswerable. Trying to base that case on what some Zionists did in Germany in the 1930s will always end up diverting the argument towards accusations of antisemitism, and ultimately lets both the Israeli government and the Zionist movement in 2017 off the hook.

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Bradford MP Naz Shah

Livingstone was also apprehended for his defence of tweets made by Bradford Labour MP Naz Shah, which were considered by Jewish “leaders” such as  the BoD as offensive. The BoD  apparently believes it has the sole right to define, on behalf of the community, what is offensive to all Jews. It does not have that right. One of Shah’s tweets recycled an innocuous old joke suggesting that Israel should solve its problems by relocating to America. It pokes fun at the mutually sycophantic relationship between Israeli and American governments over the last few decades in which Israel has served the interests of that superpower very well.  My friend, the Jewish comedian Ivor Dembina, pokes fun similarly when he says in his shows, “I think Israel should give back the Occupied territories… but keep New York!” That is edgy but not antisemitic.

The only actually offensive, indeed antisemitic, tweet by Shah was in relation to an online poll regarding Israel’s war on Gaza in 2014, when she tweeted that “the Jews are rallying”. Not “Zionists”, not “supporters of Israel”, but “Jews”. That is antisemitic, and she rightly apologised.

The day after she did so, Ken Livingstone appeared on Vanessa Feltz’s  radio show, of his own volition, to discuss this matter. The timing is crucial and tells us much again about Livingstone’s lack of judgment and his apparent desire for notoriety, whatever the cost to those whose causes he claims to be promoting. The London mayoral elections were approaching and the Tories were running an Islamophobic campaign against Sadiq Khan. If  Livingstone had had the nous, he would have simply noted Shah’s acknowledgement that she had crossed a line into antisemitism, welcomed her apology and then used all the weight of his background in anti-racism in London to utterly condemn the Tories for their thoroughly racist campaign against Khan. That could,  and should, have been the story. Instead he tried to excuse Shah’s tweets as “completely over the top but … not antisemitic”. Immediately after this came his infamous remarks about Hitler and Zionism.

Livingstone’s claims that he is being targeted partly because he supports Jeremy Corbyn don’t stack up well. Corbyn was under massive pressure on this issue from an unholy alliance of Blairites, the mainstream media, Jewish community “leaders” and Tories. A spokesperson for Corbyn had already welcomed Shah’s apology. Livingstone’s intervention further undermined Corbyn. And some who know him well have suggested that this was deliberate – whether for reasons of jealousy or some petty sectarianism.

I do not believe Livingstone is antisemitic. Nor do I believe that right-wing Jews whom the media treats as spokespersons have any right to define what is offensive to all Jews. I respect the integrity of the longstanding socialist and Labour Jewish activists who gave supportive testimony at Livingstone’s hearing, several of whom I know personally. However  I do believe that Livingstone deliberately invites controversy and notoriety, that his judgement on these issues is very poor, that he has set back the Palestinian cause by his utterances, and made life more difficult for the embattled left-wing Labour leadership.

I hope that those of us fighting for justice for the Palestinians, fighting racism in all its forms, including antisemitism, and fighting to strengthen Labour’s progressive leadership will reflect on this episode and ensure that we are directing our fire on our enemies in ways that are both principled and effective.