Kangaroo Court for Antiracist MP

This is a guest post. The author wishes to remain anonymous.

On March 26th, my MP, Thangam Debbonaire, attended a rally against antisemitism in London. Her reward from the Constituency Labour Party (CLP) was to be summoned to ‘explain her actions’. The date for the interrogation was set for April 5th. With some trepidation (I am a Jewish party member and anticipated the airing of some unpleasant tropes) I decided to attend the meeting to support Thangam. The motion against her asserted that she ‘should not have joined… to protest against unspecified and unsubstantiated allegations of “anti-semitism” in her own party.’ There were three Motions on the agenda reflecting this criticism, including an amendment.

I was encouraged when an email from the new NEC General Secretary, Jennie Formby, was read out at the start of the meeting:

‘Over the past few weeks there has been an increased discussion about antisemitism in the Labour Party and wider society, both in media and amongst members. I understand some local Labour Party members may be planning to discuss this matter, at branch and constituency meetings. As Jeremy Corbyn has made clear, tackling antisemitism in the party is a central priority. If your party is considering holding such discussions, please therefore make every effort to ensure they take place on our founding principles of solidarity, and equality. Criticism of any individual or organisation who has expressed concern about antisemitism would be deeply unhelpful to that process. I would urge all members and CLPs to actively support Jeremy’s commitment to taking immediate and effective steps to combat antisemitism. We are proudly anti-racist, and at our best when we work together uniting people in hope, and against fear and division. Yours, Jennie Formby, General Secretary.’

Alas, the encouragement was short-lived since the three motions up for discussion flew in the face of this request from the top of the Party. The disillusion, in fact, was instant, as the Chair (Annie Thomas) implicitly suggested that the accusations of antisemitism were a distraction from more important issues such as child poverty:

We missed that opportunity, as instead we’ve been focusing on other things; and the killing of civilians in Gaza [N.B no mention of Kashmir] has received scant attention. The recent furore started with a little known six year-old Facebook comment, and has escalated into demonstrations by groups hostile to Corbyn and the Labour Party, but attended by some Labour MPs, Tory MPs and the DUP. It was disheartening. In December we had a visit from a member of JVL, Richard Cooper. The discussion on antisemitism was well received, there was unanimous support for what he was saying… and I want us tonight to affiliate to the JVL to also reaffirm our commitment to Jeremy Corbyn and to fight the Tories, and not let the media divide us.’

She then called on Michael Levine to submit his amendment to the main motion (which proposed ‘an affiliation to Jewish Voices for Labour (JVL) including a donation of £150’). The amendment stated that ‘many recent accusations of anti-Semitism against Labour Party members are in the form of attributing guilt by association’ (presumably an example would be Corbyn taking tea with members of Hamas and Hezbollah). The irony of this appeared to be lost on the CLP members: How can it be acceptable for Corbyn to associate with terrorists on the one hand, but unacceptable, on the other, for Thangam to attend a rally where – unbeknown to her – Lord Tebbit and Ian Paisley Jnr happened to be present? And for Corbyn to share platforms with Sheikh Raed Salah (who revived the medieval antisemitic ‘blood libel’ slur that Jews cook with children’s blood), and Paul Eisen (a self-confessed Holocaust denier)?

Mr Levine proposed the amendment thus: ‘We know that if at some time in the future there were to be a powerful fascist party attacking the Jews it would be the Labour Party that would rally round them.I was bursting to respond, that it sure as hell it didn’t feel like it! Kevin Whitston then seconded the amendment by condemning Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman for writing about Corbyn’s association with known antisemites: ‘There has to be a revulsion – I would have thought – at the way in which basic, democratic, liberal values – I’m not even talking here about socialism – to meet and to talk and exchange ideas, is under threat because of the associations that can be drawn out, and people can be damned by association.’ Again, blatant inconsistency with the charge against Thangam. He went on to claim that this Amendment  ‘tries to say what it thinks antisemitism is. Now that’s pretty courageous!’ (The amendment repeated the useless Klug definition of antisemitism, prejudice ‘against Jews as Jews’; it ignored the IHRA definition that has been widely accepted including by Labour).

Annie Thomas’ response was bewildering. She said that the CLP had already accepted the Amendment… but that the floor was open for anyone wishing to speak against it…

Thankfully there were a couple of speakers took her up on this, one of whom said:

I really feel the amendment and the Motion is not fit for purpose. For an anti-racist Party debating racism, the amendment is only concerned with protecting those accused. We wouldn’t act this way with any other form of prejudice, we wouldn’t go out of our way to have an amendment solely for protecting those who associate with racists. The whole purpose of this is an opportunity to stamp out antisemitism, and an opportunity, as the General Secretary says, to eradicate the stain in the Labour Party, so this is a missed opportunity.’

A woman then called out the hypocrisy of finding Thangam ‘guilty by association’, but Corbyn not. For this she received a resounding, pleasantly surprising round of applause. But then she was interrupted by the Chair who barked: ‘Finish up! Finish up!’ well within her allotted two minutes.

There followed the vote on the amendment. It had to be recounted twice but in the end the amendment was rejected (89 to 98, with 12 abstentions).

While the main motion (proposing affiliation with JVL) didn’t criticise Thangam explicitly, the implication was clear (‘A number of Tory MPs, Norman Tebbit and Ian Paisley Junior from the DUP also supported the same demonstration’). The inference was that Thangam had attended the rally in bad faith – to collude or share a sinister platform with the enemy. It also claimed that ‘Portions of the media and politicians hostile to the interests of the LP have weaponised recent allegations into unfair criticisms of the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn’.

Now one would have to be extremely naive to believe that the press and media wouldn’t report subjectively on such matters (whether they be right-wing or left-wing), because that is their business. And if something reported doesn’t fit with one’s world view, it doesn’t necessarily render it untrue. Corbyn has recently warned in a vaguely ominous manner that: ‘Change is coming’ with reference to press regulation. This will no doubt please his Canary-reading supporters, who only wish to hear about misdemeanours within other political parties.

The main motion proposed affiliation to JVL. JVL is a small, recently formed outlier group of Jews and non-Jewish supporters whose mission is to undermine the Jewish Labour Movement, to dismiss claims of antisemitism in the Labour Party and to promote an antizionist agenda. JVL opposes the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of antisemitism (which Labour has adopted) because it exposes their frequent anti-Israel propaganda as a cover for antisemitic tropes. In fact, several members of JVL have already been suspended or expelled from Labour for antisemitic rhetoric and online abuse (e.g. Jackie Walker and Tony Greenstein, among others).

A man asked why the motion was not proposing to affiliate with the JLM (Jewish Labour Movement) since ‘they’ve been in existence and supporting the Labour Party for 100 years’. He was ignored. He also pointed out the inflammatory nature of the following paragraph in the motion, which – given the context – can only be referring to Jews:

When people see inequality, ecological disaster and war alongside the accumulation of unprecedented wealth, in the private hands of a few, it is reasonable that they seek out explanations.’ [The solution …..‘A confident and participatory socialist politics’].

I was relieved when this motion was defeated, though again narrowly: 84 for, 108 against, 21 abstentions.

A second motion – from Ashley branch, proposed by Jo Benefield, calling on Thangham to explain why she went to the rally – was astonishingly marked in the agenda ‘to be noted’, i.e. not debated. It criticised Thangam for going to the rally ‘to protest against unspecified and unsubstantiated allegations of “anti-semitism” in her own party.’ It suggested that allegations of antisemitism in Labour are ‘unspecified and unsubstantiated’ and ‘It is the political right that is permeated with the poison of anti-Semitism, and the left wing who have consistently stood in solidarity with Jewish people against persecution and oppression.’

Upon the marking of the Motion, Ms Benefield declared: ‘It’s all smears!A case in point… Given its provocative, rabble-rousing content, it was also telling that the Executive wanted the Motion ‘noted’, rather than rejected after discussion. Effectively the meeting was fixed by Momentum.

A Motion on Gaza was then quickly hurried through, with no debate… No one dared.

Thangam then gave an informative, vibrant presentation about drugs policy alongside some experts, and I thought that was the end of the antisemitism debate. But no. In the Q+A about drug regulation, a woman, let’s call her ‘L’, resumed the fray: ‘Why did you think it was right to go on the demonstration against antisemitism that brought the Labour party into disrepute?’ A man at the back joined in, chastising Thangam for attending the antisemitism rally instead of holding the government to account over Cambridge Analytica (as if the two were mutually exclusive alternatives). He said she was ‘disappointing’, and harangued her for ‘joining a whole bunch of MPs with that “no confidence” motion, in 2016’ , saying it was a tactic to distract attention from the Chilcot Report and the Panama Papers – ‘You failed miserably!’  he shouted.

Justifying attending the rally (!) Thangam explained that on Monday, March 26th, there were no votes in Parliament, so few MPs were in. However she is a Whip, and Whips, she said, have to be present every day. She was told by the Chief Whip that as Corbyn was not available to receive the letter from the rally organisers, he and others were going instead, and that this had been agreed. She said, ‘Jeremy has said very, very clearly that he supports the rights of MPs to protest. And you know what, I think that Jeremy’s got a standing history of protest, so he’s led by his example. I went, because my Jewish friends and colleagues asked me to go. [Applause.] I went with a group of Labour MPs, and I went because I thought that this party is opposed to all forms of racism, and Jeremy’s said so, many times.’ At this point, shouting and heckling started up, predominantly from ‘Mr Cambridge Analytica’. The Chair appeared to have abdicated from her duty to keep order. The man persisted, so Thangam picked up her things and walked out, with the Chair irrelevantly bellowing into the microphone after her: ’I don’t think in this whole affair the word DESELECTION has ever come about!’

I felt so sorry for Thangam, I followed after her out of the building. After a brief conversation, I returned home in a state of shock. The atmosphere in the room had been intimidating. Where was the respect? Our hard working, brilliant MP was being abused and bullied – not only via the appalling Motions, but from the CLP table as well as the floor. Surely, only a racist would criticise an MP for attending an antiracist rally…

The MP said later in a statement: ‘Unfortunately, my attempt to explain my attendance at the rally was shouted down and no attempt was made to stop this. I therefore left the meeting as it was unproductive. I have no problem being held to account — but this must be in an environment where I can give my response.’

Thangam Debbonaire retained her seat in 2017 with a massive majority of  37,336, reversing a LibDem majority of over 11,000 in 2010. It’s the fourth safest Labour-held seat in the UK! Despite her achievements, Momentum Bristol often call for her deselection – no doubt because in 2016, she ‘resigned’ from the front bench and joined 171 other Labour MPs in a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn. But what actually happened, according to fellow MP, Chi Onwura, writing in the New Statesman, was:

In September Jeremy gave me the job of shadow minister for culture and the digital economy. In the January reshuffle he gave half the job to Thangam Debbonaire. As the leader, he had every right to do so; unfortunately he omitted to tell her or me. When he realised what he had done, he gave the role back to me, without telling Thangam. So far, so annoying, but to be fair uncertainty is part of every reshuffle.  However Jeremy then went on for the next two months refusing my insistence that he speak to Thangam, indeed refusing to speak to either of us, whether directly or through the shadow cabinet, the whips, or his own office.

‘No one knew what he wanted us to do, no one was clear on what we should be doing. Jeremy made it impossible for two of the very few BME women MPs to do their jobs properly, undermining both us and Labour’s role as the voice of opposition to the government. I had undertaken a hugely labour-intensive Freedom of Information request on library opening hours, correlating the results to demonstrate how they had fallen exponentially under the Tories. It was impossible to launch a Labour opposition campaign to protect libraries when no one knew if they were part of my brief or not.  All that work went to waste.

‘If this had been any of my previous employers in the public and private sectors Jeremy might well have found himself before an industrial tribunal for constructive dismissal, probably with racial discrimination thrown in – given that only five per cent of MPs are black and female, picking on us two is statistically interesting to say the least. Indeed as Thangam was undergoing treatment for cancer at the time he could have faced disability action as well. In any other job I would have called on my union for support in confronting an all-white management which prevented two of its few black employees from doing their jobs. I would have expected the Leader of the Labour Party to condemn such ineffectual management which allowed such abuse.

‘But Jeremy dismissed criticism that he was undermining his shadow ministers – just as he had earlier dismissed criticism that not appointing a woman to any of the great offices of state showed a lack of commitment to gender equality. He would decide what the great offices of state were. As I have said previously, being a white man comes with many privileges. Deciding what constitutes gender or ethnic equality isn’t one of them.’

To conclude: I applaud Thangam for her bravery in attending the rally. Knowing as she did how Momentum has taken control of her Constituency Executive, she could so easily have opted for the quiet life and stayed away. Most at the rally were Labour supporters who just want the antisemitism problem addressed so that they can remain in the Party with a good conscience, or rejoin if they have left in protest. Furthermore, many of the Labour MPs and Councillors attended because they have witnessed or experienced dreadful antisemitism. The charge that they’re undermining the party is spurious – not least because in doing so they would also be undermining their jobs.

It’s bad enough seeing so much Holocaust inversion, Israeli-Nazi comparisons, antisemitic conspiracy theories re. 9/11, the Rothchilds, MSM media, in Labour forums. But in Bristol on April 5th, 2018 – with almost half the room voting for motions that condemned an MP for opposing antisemitism – I felt like I’d met it head on.