The Labour Party has capitulated to intense pressure from the right and suspended MP Chris Williamson for standing up to smears against the left. Williamson’s suspension on Thursday came after parts of the Labour left joined in with a right wing campaign to hound him out of the party.
Labour has suspended Williamson while he is investigated over complaints of antisemitism. He was accused of antisemitism for booking a room in parliament for the Jewish Voice for Labour group.
The group had planned to show a film about accusations of antisemitism made against Labour Party activists.
He faced further accusations for telling a Momentum meeting in Sheffield that Labour had been “too apologetic” in the face of accusations of antisemitism, and given “too much ground”.
Neither of these things are antisemitic. But Williamson’s suspension is the latest culmination of attempts by the right to paint Labour—and the rest of the left—as being riddled with antisemitism.
His crime was to openly challenge that.
Corbyn and the left have faced increasing accusations of antisemitism ever since he was elected in 2015 based on their support for Palestinians.
The accusation is that the left’s opposition to Israel draws activists towards antisemitic ideas—and that Corbyn’s support for Palestine encouraged antisemites to join Labour.
An intense campaign by the right forced the Labour Party to adopt a definition of antisemitism last year that restricts legitimate criticism of Israel. Examples attached to the International Holocaust Rememberance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition says it could be antisemitic to call the state of Israel “a racist endeavour”.
This restricts the right to point out that Israel was founded on the ethnic cleansing of some 850,000 Palestinians, or to compare Israel today to apartheid South Africa.
It also makes it harder to point out that Israel’s founding ideology of Zionism is racist towards Arabs, or to call for a single state in Palestine with equal rights for all its citizens.
Yet rather than defending the right to criticise Israel, influential sections of the left made concessions to the idea that it is antisemitic.
They hope that by showing they are listening to the right’s accusations, the criticism will stop and Corbyn will be allowed to continue as leader. Instead they open up space for more smears and accusations.
Williamson’s suspension came after prominent figures on Labour’s soft left rounded on him for standing up to the accusations.
After pressure, Williamson apologised for his comments at the Momentum meeting. But he still insisted that Labour had “held ourselves to a higher standard than any other political party when it comes to anti-racism”. And he correctly pointed out that “there have been very few cases of antisemitism in the Labour Party.”
Yet Williamson’s apology led deputy leader Tom Watson to demand his suspension.
And 38 MPs, organised by the soft left Tribune group, also demanded that Williamson be suspended.
Prominent soft left writers such as Owen Jones, Michael Segalov and Ellie Mae O’Hagan joined in. None of them claimed that Williamson’s comments were antisemitic.
But Segalov claimed Williamson had been “baiting the Jewish community”. Jones said he hoped Williamson’s suspension would be part of a “healing process”.
It’s a repeat of the mistake the left made when it caved in over the IHRA definition. They hoped that this would show they were listening to concerns about antisemitism—even when those “concerns” were actually about criticism of Israel.
Instead they made a fatal concession to the argument that the left is to blame for antisemitism—and gave the right a stick to beat them with.
Labour activists can now be targeted simply for disagreeing that the left is antisemitic, or defending someone who has been accused of antisemitism.
And almost as soon as Williamson was suspended, the right took aim at Corbyn, claiming that their shared position on the left of the party meant Corbyn also shared Williamson’s alleged tolerance of racism.
The real danger is that the assault will make it harder to criticise the state of Israel—and that the left will go along with this. Just last week Segalov wrote an article in the Guardian newspaper suggesting that Labour adopted a training course that brands anti-Zionism antisemitic.
But it also leaves Labour’s left wing leadership more vulnerable to the right. The resignation of nine Labour MPs last week has put immense pressure on Corbyn to give in to the right’s demands.
It’s now open season on the left.
The best response is to bring the issue of Palestine back to the fore, and to defend the right to criticise Israel—and to refuse to bow to pressure from the right.