Lee Garratt's book "Labour, the Anti-Semitism Crisis & the Destroying of an MP" is an interesting and thought-provoking read. It provides a full history of Labour’s so-called anti-Semitism crisis, from Jeremy Corbyn’s shock election as leader, in Sept 2015, to Keir Starmer’s current attempts to purge and/or silence left-wing elements within the party, often described as a “witch-hunt”. Garratt particularly focuses on Chris Williamson, a left-wing MP who along with Jeremy Corbyn and Ken Livingstone was one of those most targeted in a publicity onslaught that started in 2015.
Tony Greenstein has already written a thorough review, but I provide additional reflections - as someone who in contrast to Tony does not identify as “left-wing” and has never been a member of the Labour party. I would strongly recommend Garratt’s book to anyone seeking to understand the origins and development of this crisis. As a socialist Garratt laments the damage it has done to the left, but I find it symptomatic of wider failings in British civil society.
A rising left-wing star with working-class roots
Garratt devotes a chapter to the biography of Chris Williamson, showing how he started from humble beginnings and grafted his way up, becoming a Labour councillor in 1991, Chair of Housing in 1994 and eventually leader of Derby Council. He was a proactive politician who as Council Leader between 2005 and 2008, implemented several innovative measures that Garratt considers to have had a material impact on peoples’ living standards and on the city’s landscape.
Garratt contrasts him with “the gilded careerists of the later New Labour years – people such as Luciana Berger who was “parachuted” into the safe Wavertree Constituency of Liverpool, without consultation with the local membership. She later became one of Williamson’s main detractors.
Williamson entered national politics in 2010 as MP for Derby North, and came to prominence in 2015, when he joined Michael Meacher in drafting an open letter to Ed Miliband opposing austerity, asking to bring rail back into public ownership and repeal all anti-trade union legislation. But what really engendered the opposition of the bulk of Labour MPs was his involvement with the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) which threatened job-for-life enjoyed by the incumbents of many seats and conjured up the spectre of reselection. According to Garratt this “put him under the glare of the saboteur’s lantern - as these were also, to a man and woman, precisely the same people who were to hound him for antisemitism”. He engaged in a "democracy roadshow", which some MPs saw as threatening to unseat them.
Williamson saw himself as putting power into the hands of ordinary people. His principles could sometimes cost him dearly, especially when he opposed the establishment of a free school supported by an influential local Sikh group shortly before the 2015 election; he went on to lose his seat by a wafer-thin margin. However, he had a pragmatic side, and when Labour lost its Council majority in 2006, he was prepared to do a deal with the Conservatives that allowed him to access PFI funds and implement his policies.
Out of office in 2015, Williamson gathered widespread support and managed to win back his seat in July 2017 with three times his 2010 majority.
Williamson at the heart of controversy
Garratt takes the party to task for paying undue respect to the so-called Campaign against Antisemitism (CAA), a highly politicised body dedicated to undermining people critical of Israel, and one which has inexplicably been allowed to enjoy charitable status. Instead of calling out this sham charity, the Labour Party preferred to treat its pronouncements “as matters of grave fact which needed acting on urgently”.
Williamson took a completely different line and while asserting that antisemitism was dreadful and needed to be fought, pointed out that the concept had been weaponised against critics of the State of Israel. When in July 2018, Margaret Hodge launched into a rant equating the Labour leadership with the Nazis, he accused her of indulging in hyperbole and trivialising “the terrible horrors of the Holocaust”. Then on 23 September, he compared the “witch-hunt” to George Orwell’s 1984, where “good is bad, black is white and we had the Ministry of Truth and all the rest of it”.
But what caused most uproar was his statement at a Yorkshire Momentum meeting of 23rd February 2019: “we have backed off too much, we have given too much ground, we have been too apologetic”. Many, including myself, expressed relief that over three years into Corbyn’s leadership, someone had the courage to state the obvious - like Hans Christian Andersen's little boy who pointed out that "the Emperor had no Clothes".
However, he was heavily criticised in the press, normal suspects like Jonathan Freedland, Luciana Berger and Tom Watson weighed in, and many MPs pressed for his suspension. Under heavy pressure from the Party, Williamson gave a qualified apology, one he later came to regret, and he was finally suspended after complaints about his booking a parliamentary committee room to show Jon Pullman's Witch-Hunt film.
Many Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) were up in arms. The national party used bureaucratic red tape to stifle debate, a foretaste of what was to come under Keir Starmer’s leadership, but Williamson was nonetheless reinstated after four months. However, after protests from Ruth Smeeth, Jess Philips, the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and others, the party reimposed the suspension, causing Williamson to take legal action against the party in the High Court.
He eventually won this case and recovered his costs, and the judge severely admonished the party. The media badly misreported this, making it look as if he had lost, whereas in reality he remained subject to a second suspension that the party had put in place. However, by then the die was cast, and Williamson could only stand as an independent in the 2019 General Election.
With friends like these
What Garratt really communicates is the abundance of bad faith and cowardly actors within the Labour Party and British public life more generally. The following statement is particularly poignant:
“Right-wing bully boys such as Ian Austin can easily be seen for who they are and their comments taken as such. But when people like John McDonnell express support, yet saddle it with further conditions, one would be better off without that support in the first place; their crocodile tears and misplaced concern serving only to give further credence to the lies and calumnies”.
He berates fellow “socialist” MPs for their lack of solidarity, noting that the Socialist Campaign Group did not go beyond “a few ambiguous, wishy-washy faux solidarity statements to the media”. He critiques Hope not Hate, a so-called anti-racism campaign group, for treating the conclusions of the EHRC report blaming Corbyn and supporters as “unequivocal and damning”. Clearly this organisation takes no lessons from Richard Sanders and Peter Oborne, Daniel Finn, Jonathan Cook and others who have shown this to be a profoundly flawed document.
But Corbyn and his supporters in the Labour Party bureaucracy also come in for criticism. Garratt is particularly critical of Jenny Formby, the Labour Party’s General Secretary for clamping down on CLPs that supported Williamson, and repeatedly reneging on commitments she made on the condition that Chris apologised for statements and cancelled the Witch-Hunt film.
The mainstream media under scrutiny
Garratt comments similarly upon the British media saying that, while much of it “acts as unofficial cheerleader to the Conservative Party (a position quite unique in Europe)”, previously favourable and fair-minded media organisations had played a much more damaging role during the whole “crisis”. He draws attention to the influential position of Jonathan Freedland, an unapologetic Zionist and editor of the “Comment is free” section of the Guardian newspaper. While leaving little space for dissenting views, Freedland allowed journalists like Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman, John Harris and Tracy-Ann Oberman to express opinions about Israel, Palestine and antisemitism “which were at best misleading and, at worst, cunningly mendacious”.
The Guardian also censored contrary evidence and opinion, notably so when on July 9th 2019, it retracted an Open Letter in support of Chris Williamson signed by over 100 Jewish people from a wide swathe of society, on dubious grounds.
In the same month it disgracefully censored Steve Bell’s interesting cartoon that lampooned the ongoing and inflated witch-hunt against alleged anti-Semites. Bell's cartoon character was inspired by Matthew Hopkins, the real-life "Witchfinder General", whom puritans appointed to root out witches during the English Civil War. Bell had worked with the newspaper for nearly 40 years and strongly objected to this censorship, but without avail, and in 2020 the Guardian dispensed with his services.
Opponents claim that by depicting Netanyahu as a puppeteer controlling both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, Bell had evoked "the classic antisemitic trope of Jews controlling non-Jewish politicians". Their reasoning is fallacious because Bell in no way holds Jews in general to be responsible for this controlling behaviour. But he could have pointed to evidence that the State of Israel was exerting such control. The Al Jazeera documentary the Lobby and Sir Alan Duncan's diary are irrefutable testimony to the level of Israeli influence in the UK, while Netanyahu has boasted about his ability to exercise such control in the USA.
There are strong indications that the Guardian and other media outlets have fabricated the whole "crisis" out of hot air. Despite innumerable allegations, Garratt could find no successful prosecutions for antisemitism, the practice of which is a crime, against any of Labour's half a million members. I myself got short shrift when I asked ‘Comment is Free’ to publish an article showing there was a lack of statistical and other evidence behind claims of rampant antisemitism in the Labour Party. Such behaviour is the norm among Britain’s mainstream media which routinely fails to report information or review publications that challenge the dominant editorial line on this topic, and seldom if ever refers to the readily available statistical evidence.
In my review of the conference about the Guardian’s bicentenary, I stated that the newspaper seemed to have yielded to external pressures and sacrificed much of its journalistic integrity during the last decade, a time when coincidentally it attracted the enmity from the leading press barons on account of its revelations about phone-hacking, as well as aggressive attention from Britain's security services following its involvement in the Snowden revelations. Whatever happened within the Guardian during these years, we are entitled to ask why the Guardian has given so much editorial authority on the Labour antisemitism "crisis" to Jonathan Freedland, a partisan advocate of Israeli interests, and why it published 1,380 articles on the topic between 2016 and 2019. Historians will need to give us a full explanation as to what has happened with this newspaper.
Garratt reserves some of his strongest comments for Owen Jones, saying that “for Jones, like so much of the commentariat, how the problem is perceived is king, regardless of the ensuing accuracy.” Jones alternately blamed the media and the Labour Party leadership, as if he were (in my words) hunting with the hounds and running with the hares.
The same arguments about the Guardian apply to the BBC, which played a similarly damaging role, particularly by broadcasting the unprofessional and totally biased documentary called “Is Labour Antisemitic?” just five months before the General Election of 2019.
Garratt summarises all this by saying that “in what was becoming a formulaic, but still shocking dereliction of duty (journalists espousing outright lies), anti-Semitism and its synonymousness with Labour Party members began to take on a whole new fallacious air”.
We should not only blame the media, as many Labour MPs seem to have been dishonestly using antisemitism as a proxy for their objection to the Labour left on other grounds, particularly their fear of reselection. In so doing they have been prepared to support the agenda of:
a foreign power (i.e. Israel) which has been using "antisemitism" as a smokescreen with which to deflect attention from its apartheid reality and human rights abuses, and;
the Conservative Party which has used the smear campaign to disparage the Labour opposition and to divert attention from their own record on racism and discrimination towards minorities – which is worse than Labour’s.
While I greatly sympathise with Chris’s desire for more grass-roots democracy, it is possible that factional groups will at times abuse reselection processes to overturn MPs who serve their communities well. However, the willingness of so many incumbents to tell bald-faced lies about “left-wing antisemitism” suggests that they deserve to be deselected and replaced with more honest candidates.
The guilt for this sordid affair extends far beyond the Labour Party to a British civil society more generally. After speaking to many hundreds of people of varied backgrounds and political persuasions, I have concluded that many are sufficiently well educated and astute to see through the tide of misrepresentation, and often do, but have chosen to ignore it or repeat the lies willy-nilly to serve their own interests. This is one of the most shameful episodes of modern British history.
Relatively speaking, I find Chris Williamson the hero of this story. Whether or not one agrees with his left-wing views (for example his support for Clause IV of the Labour Party’s constitution), he comes over as a principled leader much devoted to his constituents. He deserves full marks for standing up to the Israel Lobby and its UK allies, and for calling out the appeasement and capitulation that has characterized his party’s response under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. And as Chris came to realise, he should never have allowed the party establishment to bully him into an apology: it only emboldens the accusers and helps them justify their cause.