The smallest things can have the biggest influence on a political career. If then Labour Leader Michael Foot had put a different coat on that day he went to the Cenotaph, perhaps he would have become Prime Minister. His crime, in eyes of the media, was not that he chose a warm coat on a cold day but that he was a unilateralist – at a time when the establishment did not want Labour to challenge nuclear weapons (or nuclear power).
Thirty years on, it’s easy to forget what abuse the press hurled at Ken Livingstone when he was Leader of the Greater London Council (GLC). Week in, week out he was accused of thought crimes such as supporting gay rights, terrorists and central control over what nursery rhymes children could sing. In an attempt to harness a Middle England ideological consensus against “Red Ken”, the Tory Government brought in Section 28 (which made it illegal for public bodies to state that gay sexuality was as valid as heterosexuality) and made it illegal for TV companies to broadcast elected Sinn Fein politicians (which the broadcasters countered by using actors to voice over the muted politicians).
Ken was already in office when the abuse began – an office which he used to fund all manner of services such as childcare and cheaper fares. He won public support which did not waver under the media attack, and the Tories had to abolish the whole GLC to get rid of him – messing up London Government for years, till the Greater London Authority (GLA) was created to replace the GLC. In time, Ken’s radical policies on gay rights and Irish republicanism became mainstream. Labour equalised the age of consent and invented civil partnerships, and the Tories brought in gay marriage. Tony Blair shook hands with Gerry Adams (and history). Kids began singing “The Wheels on the Bus”, so no one really tried to defend their right to sing “Ba, ba, black sheep” anyway.
During the 1980s, when the press criticised a figure on the right of the Labour Party, those members on the left were told to keep quiet so the Party would appear united. Whenever a figure on the left of the Party was vilified in the press, the right hung them out to dry – even if this risked losing an election.
In Bermondsey, for example, Labour’s by-election candidate Peter Tatchell was vilified for being gay (and for supporting community protest as a way of influencing Westminster politicians). Labour’s leaders all but disowned him, and a photo of Tatchell out canvassing on his own accompanied the press ridicule of him. The seat fell to Simon Hughes at that election and for several more. Twenty-five years on, Hughes admitted that he too had had gay relationships. Tatchell’s magnanimity in response was a model of the good manners of left wing politicians exemplified later by Jeremy Corbyn.
The same tactics have been used locally. The left wing Mildred Gordon, MP for Bow & Poplar for two Parliaments, was never supported by local right wing members – who never defended her when lies were printed in the press about her earlier life and seemed content to mutter that the press coverage made her unelectable. It didn’t – but the lies in the press came to be believed to the point where the Telegraph’s recent obituary of Ms Gordon was almost entirely wrong.
Here in the second decade of the third millennium, nothing has changed. Politicians are still being misquoted, ridiculed and vilified if they offer a radical alternative.
This is what was done to Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman – in a campaign which relied on racist and islamophobic stereotypes as well as left wing ones. Many of these incidents have been chronicled in London Bangla before.
Time and again, his political opponents accused Mayor Rahman of being homophobic – without ever offering any evidence. He made sure there was an LGBT forum in the Borough, supported the local gay community who were trying to keep gay pubs open and went on Gay Pride demos. (On the first Pride demo he went on, he had his photo taken with a large, happy and colourful drag queen. The press never used that photo to illustrate their “he’s homophobic” stories, preferring ones in which they had caught him looking tired or serious.)
Time and again, his political opponents accused Mayor Rahman of being anti-semitic. Time and again, when the English Defence League threatened to march through the Borough, Mayor Rahman stressed that the local Jewish and Muslim communities had a shared interest in stopping the fascists. One of the meetings to organise a defensive counter-demonstration took place in a local synagogue. The rabbi handed out skull caps to the men and passed round the refreshments – a choice of single malt or orange juice. Joining the rabbi were people from the local mosque and Muslim members of Lutfur’s Cabinet, an Anglican vicar, representatives of the Borough’s LGBT Forum and other stray activists. At the end, one of the participants pointed out – we’ve planned this very well, for a local of people who are all prejudiced against each other…
Where Mayor Lutfur Rahman was politically naieve was to assume that once he had been elected Mayor, his political opponents would leave him to fulfil his election mandate and govern the Borough. His opponents, politicians and the media, carried out a war of attrition that must have left his head swimming. Why were they so scared of one Bangladeshi, Muslim man with socialist leanings having executive power in the Borough? Ah. Question answered.
Mayor Lutfur Rahman had mud thrown at him at every turn: the same is now being done to Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn. He might have expected that the giga-normously massive majority he won the leadership by, after an open debate, would have silenced his critics. They had been unable to inspire members on anything like a similar scale: surely they would want to sit down and work out how to turn this torrent of support for a Labour Leader into the kind of force that swept Tony Blair to office in 1997?
No, they wouldn’t. As many a Labour dimwit has before them, Corbyn’s critics blamed the voters – and gained lots of press coverage for speaking out, making them feel all the more important. The time servers of the Parliamentary Labour Party, many of them selected on the strength of only a few hundred voters in their own constituency parties, decided that it was down to them to stand by the political tactics that had lost Labour two General Elections and put their own egos first. As Jeremy Corbyn grappled with finding ways to put together a parliamentary attack team that would take the anti-austerity fight to the Tories, he found he was himself under attack from the parliamentary troops behind him. Enter the anti-semitism allegations.
Before we go any further, we must say that anti-semitism is a longstanding brand of racism that is abhorrent and has to end. Islamophobia, too, has a long history and is hugely present today and it is repugnant and must be stopped. Both are endemic in UK society and need to be countered – with words and deeds. As mass membership political parties reflect wider society, it is to be expected that both will be present in mainstream political parties (as are homophobia, sexism and anti-black racism) – expected, but not accepted. The key issue should not be whether you can find anti-semitism in a political party – it is what that party does about it that is important.
What actually happened on 26th April was that at 8am the right wing Guido Fawkes blog quoted a Facebook post which Labour MP for Bradford West Naz Shah had posted some months before she became an MP. We don’t know how many Facebook sites Mr “Fawkes” has read, or if he has gone back two years on all of them, but he found it.
At 1pm the same day, the Jewish Chronicle found a second Facebook post. We don’t know if it was chance that they, too, had been reading old Facebook posts or whether they had only begun after seeing the Guido Fawkes revelation – or if the two had been reading them together. A third Facebook post was quoted in the media later that day.
The content of the posts has been well aired. Sensible debate on whether the posts were anti-semitic or were posts critical of the actions of the Israeli state (which, at the time of the posts, was busy bombing Gaza and its Palestinian residents to smithereens) has had less of an airing. This is a shame. We could all have learned something – but the point of the revelations was not to weed out anti-semitism from the Labour Party or tackle it in society at large.
If “Guido Fawkes” and the Jewish Chronicle had been making a priority of finding anti-semites in the Labour Party, if doing so was so important to them – why did they wait until a week before national elections to look?
As soon as the allegations were made, Labour’s political opponents jumped on them, calling on Labour to take disciplinary action against Ms Shah. She resigned as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP by 1.30pm – after which, the calls were for more action to be taken against her and against whichever other anti-semites were also hiding in the Labour Party (without evidence being produced that there were any).
The Labour Party Rule Book is not very complicated. Doing anything that makes a meeting inaccessible or intimidating is outlawed, as is public activity that brings the Party into disrepute. Procedures are set out which allow any individual member to ask for investigations of the actions of other members with a view to disciplinary action being taken. There are no records of action begin taken against individuals for alleged anti-semitism before last week’s revelations. Since the revelations, a number of MPs have come forward to say that anti-semitism in the Party is so rife that Jeremy Corbyn has to get a grip on it and root it out. If their prime concern is anti-semitism, why were they not using the provisions of the Labour Party Rule Book months ago? Why have they waited till the week before the May elections to speak out?
In the face of the media onslaught, and while he removed from his back the knives his own parliamentary colleagues were merrily sticking into it, Jeremy Corbyn has become very defensive about the allegations. He has tried to reassure, to appease the media, to tolerate the parliamentary traitors as if they were naughty toddlers crayoning on the walls. It’s highly reminiscent of the days when Mayor Lutfur Rahman tried to concentrate on his achievements and running the borough.
Jeremy Corbyn is not the first but only the latest figure on the left of the Labour Party to be attacked by the right-wing media and his own opponents inside the Party. But appeasement will not work. At Prime Minister’s Question Time on the eve of polling day, David Cameron taunted Jeremy with allegations that he supported Hamas and Hezbollah (and, by implication, terrorist acts). That was a really helpful one to throw into the pre-election mix, of course. Jeremy patiently denied the allegations and tried to talk about housing. The listening public was waiting for a rousing defence. Jeremy had been similarly attacked for allegedly supporting Sinn Fein in past decades – only for Sinn Fein to have been a crucial part in achieving peace through dialogue. We so wanted to hear Jeremy say that peace was so important to the people of the Middle East, not least those in Gaza when they were being bombed by Israel, that he would talk to anyone – while the Prime Minister had no answers, other than let lives be lost as the bombing continued. Let’s be clear: Jeremy Corbyn is more saviour than sinner in this process. He is the figurehead of a huge popular movement – but it needs organising to match the scale of the attack against it which is centred on Jeremy himself.
And this is the clever bit. The point about raising the anti-semitism allegations is not to help Labour out by finding anti-semitism it didn’t know it had and to deal with the miscreants. One MP, her agent and perhaps a dozen others suspended for making questionable statements does not make a party with around a quarter of a million members institutionally anti-semitic. The point of the nature and timing of the attack is to depress the vote – to give Labour’s festering parliamentarians a reason to challenge Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership. They know they cannot win at the ballot box in a leadership contest – and they need a false premise on which to base a challenge. Heard that before somewhere?
The Tories are in difficulties. If the Parliamentary Labour Party united and took them on (and, to their credit, many MPs are learning to do so), they could be thrown out of office at local, regional and national levels. To defend themselves, the Tories are on the attack. As Lutfur Rahman found out, winning a popular vote is no guarantee that you will stay in office. If Jeremy Corbyn is forced out of office, he would come under great pressure to lead a movement of the tens of thousands who voted for him – leaving the Labour Party nothing but a little rump of careerist MPs and their bag-carriers. It is the reverse of what happened in the early 1980s, when a sizeable chunk of right-wingers abandoned Michael Foot’s Labour Party – clearing the way for the Tories to govern for the whole decade and most of the next one. That is the scenario the Tories are pushing for today, with the gift of the anti-semitism allegations. And it is the outcome some stupid, stupid, career-driven, turncoat, treacherous Labour politicians may help them bring about.
All this makes polling day – Thursday 5th May – crunch day.
Sadiq Khan, Labour candidate for London Mayor, has not inspired a big Labour vote. Although he is ahead in the polls, the Tories have a record of winning elections despite their poll position – not least because Labour voters who reply to pollsters often don’t actually turn out on polling day. Khan was chosen as the best of a bad bunch – not least by a sizeable “stop Tessa Jowell” alliance. There will not be a great enthusiasm among most of those who go out and vote for the son of a bus driver who grew up on a Council estate, where he developed no sense of loyalty and a penchant for believing his own publicity. Many electors will vote for Khan through very gritted teeth. But the tens of thousands who turned out to vote for Jeremy Corbyn now have to turn out to vote for Sadiq Khan, and they have to urge their friends and families to do so too.
Perhaps Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn was politically naieve was to assume that once he had been elected Leader, his political opponents in his own Party would leave him to fulfil his election mandate, govern the Party – and lead it in a challenge to the Tories. His opponents, politicians and in the media, are carrying out a war of attrition that must be making his head swim – and making it all the harder to lead the challenge of the Tories. Why are they so scared of one anti-racist, socialist man who has inspired hundreds of thousands to believe that Labour can lead a fight against austerity? Ah. Question answered.
Polling day is Thursday, 5th May. Vote. Vote Labour.