15 February 2021 | UK NEWS
A group of far-left activists, several of whom had previously been suspended by or expelled from the Labour Party for a range of offences, held an organising meeting on Saturday afternoon. They called for “free speech” within the party.
The purpose of the meeting, attended by hundreds of people, was to set out and vote upon the strategic aims of the ‘Labour Against the Witch-Hunt’ group’s campaign, approve its Charter for Free Speech (as amended), decide upon a formal name for the campaign and elect its Steering Group moving forwards.
There were significant disagreements among some speakers during the event – in particular as regards how far the definition of ‘free speech’ should extend and what should be tolerated – but all of the motions moved were ultimately passed with a significant majority.
Among those in attendance, besides the speakers, were Norman Thomas, the suspended former Chair of the South Thanet CLP, and John Courtneidge, who had also been suspended by the Labour Party. Mr Courtneidge was elected to the campaign’s Steering Group near the end of the call.
Ronnie Kasrils, a former Minister in the South African Mandela and Mbeki Governments between 1994 and 2008, was also present and addressed the group.
Some speakers appeared to express distaste for other significant figures or organisations on the left. Long-standing Guardian columnist Owen Jones was described as a “useful idiot”, along with criticism of the newspaper itself, while the Corbynite campaign organisation Momentum was described as part of “the stupid left”.
The new name adopted was the ‘Labour Campaign for Free Speech’, although speakers noted that not all those involved were presently members of the Labour Party. Instead, they said, the use of the term would refer to the wider “labour movement”, rather than the Labour Party specifically.
The group passed motions confirming that its primary aims included rejecting the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism, and rejecting the EHRC report into the Labour Party in its entirety. They also advocated for the immediate release of Julian Assange, who is presently incarcerated at Belmarsh Prison.
Former party leader Jeremy Corbyn was suspended as a member of the party by its current leadership for rejecting the conclusions of the EHRC report. He has since been reinstated, but remains without the parliamentary party whip.
But the campaign meeting also included several speakers who made highly controversial statements, and had done so in the past, in particular as regards Israeli-Palestinian relations and anti-Semitism.
Graham Bash, understood to be the partner of former Momentum Vice-Chair Jackie Walker (who was expelled from the party in 2019 amid allegations of anti-Semitism), condemned recent Israeli actions as “exclusion and discrimination”, adding that: “We have been told in the Labour Party we cannot say this, so let me say it: Israel is a racist endeavour. It is an apartheid state.”
He went on to say that it was “born of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people”.
Former Labour MP Chris Williamson spoke of his willingness to “defend comrades who’d been falsely accused”, including Ms Walker. He added: “The problem that we have is that the political class has been captured in this country, on both sides of the chamber in the House of Commons.
“All political parties have been captured by the Zionist Lobby, and by corporate capitalism, I regret to say. And that includes, obviously, the Labour Party.”
He then asserted that there had been a “concerted attempt” to “use every dirty trick in the book” to make sure the party would not be able to “implement a modest, socialist domestic programme and an anti-imperialist foreign policy”.
He laid part of the blame at the door of “the grassroots, those who claimed to be socialists in the ‘so-called’ Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs”, accusing them of failing to “speak out sufficiently” and saying they “didn’t push back strongly enough at all”. He described them as “apologists for Israel” and “apologists for neoliberalism and the military-industrial complex”.
Mr Williamson was blocked from standing for re-election to his seat in Derby North as a Labour candidate by the party’s National Executive Committee in November 2019. He subsequently stood as an independent candidate in that year’s General Election, but lost his deposit.
He also noted that: “We’ve seen the spectacle of people like Ken Loach being witch-hunted, and Oxford University apologising for the fact that an event that hosted him took place on the university campus. He was accused of having a history of blatant anti-Semitism – this is a complete lie!”
He added: “We absolutely, therefore, have to speak out as loudly as we possibly can, and demand others speak out loudly. People who are supposed to be socialists inside the Labour Party; people who are supposed to stand up and support the Palestinian people; people who claim to favour an ethical foreign policy.
“Their voices need to be heard, and we need to be pushing them to actually raise those voices.”
He was referring to a recent event hosted by Oxford University in which Mr Loach was invited to talk about his career. The university has since apologised for going ahead with it, after having earlier refused calls for it to be cancelled.
Mr Williamson also stated his belief that “things really started to go wrong” when Labour’s National Executive Committee “agreed to adopt the IHRA working definition, or examples, of anti-Semitism”, describing this as “the first domino”.
He added: “I regret to say, it’s useful idiots, it’s people like Owen Jones and the ‘optics left’ who helped to facilitate the enemies of a socialist domestic agenda at home, and an anti-imperialist foreign policy. They were falling over themselves to throw people like me, and Jackie, and others, under the bus.
“An outrageous state of affairs, and of course we know the role that newspapers like The Guardian played in all that as well.”
He also criticised the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, for his decision last year to consider cutting funding to higher-education institutions that refuse to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, and went on to praise the UCL’s Academic Board for retracting it. He described this as “a welcome step”.
A former high-profile Labour activist, Tony Greenstein (who was expelled from the party in 2018 on the grounds of anti-Semitism, although he is himself Jewish), also made several contributions to the call.
He called for the campaign group to reject both the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism, and the EHRC report into the Labour Party and its right to investigate the party at all, outright.
In moving his motion on this topic, he said: “What we should do is reject the idea that the EHRC had any right to conduct an investigation into the Labour Party in the first place. The EHRC is not an anti-racist, or an anti-sexist, or any other body.
“It’s a state body – its members, its Commissioners are nominated and put there by the Conservatives. And they’re now putting people in as Commissioners who support the Hostile Environment Policy. They’re not even anti-racist.”
He also stated that Alasdair Henderson, the EHRC Commissioner who oversaw the report into the Labour Party, had ‘liked’ tweets from “people like Roger Scruton, for example – an out-and-out fascist – who edited the Salisbury Review”, adding that “in essence, those who drew up the report reached their conclusions and then looked around for the evidence”.
Mr Greenstein went on to say that “Starmer’s campaign to silence free speech has originated in the Labour Party”, adding that the fledgling group would not exclude anyone who was not “a racist or a fascist, for example”.
After calling for “ending the Prevent programme, which demonises supporters of the Palestinians and Muslims in particular”, he also appealed for “opposing the interference of the state in the running of political parties, such as the EHRC report on Labour’s ‘so-called anti-Semitism'”.
He added that he did not feel the EHRC had done anything to address the perception of Islamophobia within the Conservative Party, and also said: “Our main priority in this sense is rejecting the IHRA, which is now, I think, under quite severe attack, and we have to join in that attack.”
Mr Greenstein went on to describe the EHRC report as “not worth the paper it’s written on”, commenting further on the social media behaviour of Mr Henderson and saying: “He’s of the far-right, and that’s where this report emanated.”
He then said that this was why, in his view, the current party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, would “not allow any discussion on it, because he knows it would fall to pieces if people were allowed a genuine debate”.
Separately, Mr Greenstein commented on the anti-Semitism allegations within the Labour Party, saying: “The aim of the campaign was always about getting rid of Jeremy Corbyn in the end.
“Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was unacceptable to the ruling class, the establishment, in this country but also in the United States and Israel. The great tragedy of Corbyn and what I would call the ‘soft left’, or maybe in the case of Momentum, the ‘stupid left’, is they didn’t realise that.
“They really, genuinely thought it had something to do with anti-Semitism, and we should be clear: the campaign that we’ve witnessed had nothing whatsoever to do with anti-Semitism. It had nothing actually to do with Jews, either – it was always focused on removing Corbyn.”
He suggested this had given people “a certain sense of moral righteousness – nothing more, nothing less”, adding that “that doesn’t mean there weren’t a few anti-Semites in the Labour Party – there were, there always have been and there always will be”.
Mr Greenstein also called for the abolition of libel and defamation laws, saying: “I do believe, as a general rule and principle, the libel laws are used to restrict the right of people to exercise free speech. And they’re only available to the rich, the powerful and the privileged, by and large.
“There’s no legal aid, and there never has been any legal aid, for libel. So, I would suggest we should support the abolition of the libel and defamation laws altogether, which would then allow a level playing field.” He added that he found the current system “undemocratic”.
He lost his libel case against the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism last November.
Other speakers on the call included Sami Ramadani, a lecturer in Sociology and a member of the Stop the War Coalition’s Steering Group, and David Miller, a lecturer in Political Sociology at Bristol University who was suspended from the Labour Party last year and later resigned. An excerpt from Mr Miller’s contribution to this call was earlier reported over the weekend:
Towards the end of the call, a pro-Israel attendee with the screen name of Amena Hussein ventured to speak, asking the panel “why you lie constantly and delegitimise Israel”. Mr Greenstein immediately replied: “Because it’s a racist state.”
A hectic exchange followed, with the attendee responding: “Israel is not a racist state – it’s not even an apartheid state – so why do you keep delegitimising Israel?”
Mr Greenstein replied: “Tell that to B’Tselem.” The attendee then alleged that this organisation was “funded by Iran”. Posing the same question next directly to Mr Williamson, he replied: “[Israel] does it itself”. She countered with: “There is no apartheid in Israel – you know that and I know that.”
She then said: “You’re having a good living off of Israel, aren’t you, Tony Greenstein?” Mr Greenstein replied: “You have nothing to say.” At this point, the attendee’s microphone was muted, with the host saying: “Okay, I think that’s enough.”
Following the heated exchange, Mr Greenstein posted an assertion in the chat box that Palestinians considered the Israeli flag to be “a swastika”:
It is not the first time that several of the speakers at this event have engaged together on these themes. Last August, the Jewish charity CST reported on a similar call.