A Clause 4 Moment
In mid-August Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) received a letter from David Evans, Labour’s recently appointed General Secretary. The letter warned CLPs and party branches not to discuss, or speculate about the contents of the draft report of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into allegations of antisemitism within the party. Labour had received the report on 13 July with a 28 day deadline for comments. As far as we are aware, CLPs have accepted this instruction. However it seems odd that CLPs should be warned not to discuss, or speculate about the contents of a report which remains hidden from them. Clement Attlee, Labour’s post-war Prime Minister is alleged to have told a rather loose tongued Minister that a period of silence from him would be most welcome. Has it now come to pass that today’s party members have been told to take a vow of silence?
Just what cause does this omerta serve? Presumably, the report will be published at some time in the near future when members will be free to comment. Or will Labour suggest it should not be published, having decided that the matter of antisemitism has been settled? Starmer, with the support of senior party members, has caved into the demands of the affiliated Jewish Labour Movement and the non-affiliated Board of Deputies of British Jews. Starmer has accepted, blindly, that Labour will adopt all the recommendations of the EHRC report. The dear Leader has spoken and his decision can now not be questioned.
Evans’ letter also told CLPs that they have no right to question the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, adopted by the party in September 2018. (The definition is so vague in places it makes it virtually impossible to express a critical view of Israel without it being labelled antisemitic). Nor, the letter says, do CLPs have the powers to overturn that decision. This is a bizarre state of affairs. It seems that Evans is suggesting that once a decision has been made by the Labour leadership that is the end of the matter. That a change in opinion by party members, let alone in external circumstances, can have no bearing or influence on a decision or on existing party policy. Does this apply to all policy decisions? If so, just what is the point of Labour conference where party policy, based on the majority support of motions submitted by CLPs, can be changed if conference so decides?
In his letter Evans applies the same conditions to the financial settlement with seven former members of staff whose grievances were aired on the BBCs Panorama programme in July 2019. On this the letter says, “Those settlements included an unreserved apology and a withdrawal of the allegations previously made by the party about those individuals. The withdrawal and apology are binding on the party and any motions which seek to undermine or contradict them will create a risk of further legal proceedings for both the national party and local parties. As such, motions relating to these settlements and the circumstances behind them are not competent business for discussion by local parties.” (our emphasis). The pertinent question here is: was the financial settlement based on legal advice or was it a political decision taken by the party leadership? In his interview with Channel 4 on 14 August Keir Starmer refused to answer this. (The full transcript of the interview is published in this issue).
Why also would Labour settle with the former members of staff before the contents of the EHRC report are known to party members? If it is an attempt to put the vexed question of antisemitism and racism to bed, it will fail. There are signs already that some Labour MPs, determined to keep the anti-racist pot boiling, are airing their genuine grievances in public. While we believe they should be dealt with, their apparent single minded focus makes it look as if Labour is obsessed with anti-racism at the exclusion of issues that affect the whole of the working class.
The killing of democratic discussion is often levelled at China, North Korea and Russia. But here we have a so-called democratic party doing exactly that. Constituency parties and its members are reduced to mere recipients of a diktat from a party bureaucrat, no doubt at the behest of the party leader and his craven shadow ministers. This is a turning point for Labour. In 1995 a little over a year into his leadership, Tony Blair, with the loyal support of John Prescott, convinced party conference to ditch Clause 4 of the party’s constitution, adopted in 1918. Consequently, large numbers of members resigned, mostly on the left of the party. Is this latest step another attempt by the hierarchy to rid the party of its left wing members? We would urge the left to ignore this, stay in the party and ensure there is no departure from or weakening of the ten pledges Keir Starmer laid out on his election as party leader.
In the Channel 4 interview Keir Starmer reiterated his determination to root out antisemitism in the party. His sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey on 25 June was seen as a clear sign that he was serious. Long-Bailey’s ‘crime’ was to retweet a comment by the actor Maxine Peake that Israel was indirectly responsible for the death of George Floyd as the knee on the neck tactic used by the Philadelphia police officer was learnt in discussions about crowd control tactics with the Israeli police. Although the term Jew or Jewish was not used by Peake in her allegation Starmer deemed the comment to be ‘ an antisemitic conspiracy theory’
Some time later, on 2 August, Barry Sheerman, Labour Co-op member for Huddersfield and a long-time supporter and member of Labour Friends of Israel, irritated by Boris Johnson’s list of ‘cronies’ for elevation to the House of Lords, tweeted that there must have been a run on silver shekels when Richard Desmond and Philip Green were not included on the list. The shekel is the currency of Israel and both Desmond and Green are Jewish. Incredibly, Sheerman claimed that he was surprised to discover that the shekel was Israel’s currency and that when he tweeted the remark he was unaware that Desmond and Green were Jewish. When these facts were pointed out, he offered a sincere apology.
However, the remarkable thing about all this is not so much Sheerman’s confession of ignorance, but the fact that his remarks were ignored by the entire press and by the vocal critics of antisemitism among Labour MPs, Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement. No one among them uttered a word, including Keir Starmer himself. An official Labour statement simply said that as Sheerman had apologised the matter was closed and no action would be taken against him. A classic case of double standards of treatment. We’ll accept that Sheerman is not an antisemite. His explanation for his remarks seemed to confirm this. But we see this as an example of one law for the critics of Israel in the party, and another one for the party’s Israel supporters.