The decision of Momentum to remove their endorsement of Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) secretary Pete Willsman from the #JC9 slate for Labour National Executive Committee has exposed fractures between Momentum, its supporters, other parts of the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance, and the Labour Leader's office.
Willsman has been dropped because of a rant he made at a Labour National Executive Committee (NEC) in which he says he has seen no evidence of antisemitism in the Labour Party, despite sitting on the Disputes Panel for many years, which is currently dealing with multiple complaints of antisemitism. His lazy assertion that the issue is being driven by “Trump fanatics” in the Jewish community is ludicrous, and was bound to be seen as implying almost all of these complaints, if they have come from Jews, are just factional weapons rather than well-founded evidence, or real concern.
Willsman's comments were made two weeks ago and were reflected almost verbatim in a written report Willsman himself circulated immediately after the NEC meeting. Conveniently a leaked recording came out just after NEC ballots went out.
Unfortunately this is now par for the course. Ever since Corbyn was elected as leader, segments of NEC meetings have been leaked, the press have been briefed during meetings, and no doubt many audio recordings have been made. NEC members should not accept being secretly recorded but nonetheless it has become a fact of life. In addition, bar discussions on personal matters, we the want the conduct of these meetings to be publicly available. Ironically perhaps, Willsman is one of only two constituency NEC members who write regular reports of the meetings and thus provide some information of their proceedings. The left on the NEC should demand that the meetings have publicly accessible minutes with clear records of decisions made; this would undermine the practice of secret recordings almost immediately.
It is galling that the comments Willsman made, and documented in his report, only garner such a response from Momentum and others when it hits the mainstream media. We don't know for sure, because there is no record of attendance at the NEC meeting in question, but five other members of the current Momentum-backed slate may have been there, and heard Willsman speak. What did they say to Willsman at the time?
There are divisions within the slate on the issue of antisemitism. Rather than explore these politically, Momentum, or rather the Officers of Momentum's National Coordinating Group, have sought to deal with the issue bureaucratically. The outcry appears to be linked to the tone of Willsman's remarks while the substance of the comments appears not to have bothered them.
Darren Williams and Claudia Webbe have backed Ken Livingstone, Yasmin Dar has appeared at celebrations of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Like much of the left they have sought to downplay, or even not recognise, the antisemitism that exists in our movement. Not voting for Pete Willsman in this circumstance makes little sense. He has just made widely held views more aggressively and with less concern for the image of the slate.
The NCG decision to remove Willsman is announced by social media post; no record of a vote exists and no minutes of any previous meetings of the new NCG are available. The “#JC9” slate, a name that suggests more about loyalty to Corbyn then a commitment to party democracy, was not decided democratically so perhaps they are just being consistent! We should not accept the lack of democratic process. Solidarity supports this petition which asserts that future slates should be decided through open discussion and participation rather than backroom stitch ups. The fundamentally undemocratic nature of Momentum makes raising these demands all the more urgent.
Willsman’s apology for offence and his commitment to refer himself to equalities training is a start, but it's a long way from him, or others understanding the root of the problem. Momentum welcomes Willsman's apology but make no further comment.
The problem is rooted in a lack of common understanding of the specificities of left antisemitism. This is not generally a racialised hostility to Jews as Jews, although that can be an element. It sees Jews, or Zionism, or Zionists, or Israel as more powerful than other groups, nationalisms or states, as organised conspiratorially or with the potential to exert a hidden power. It is largely rooted in at the same time generates hostility to Israel's right to exist.
Stephen Bush in the New Statesman argues that the tension on the Labour left has the Leader's Office on one side believing this to be a discussion of how you can acceptably criticise Israel, and those on the other side who think there is a genuine problem with antisemitism (those, to be fair, include Momentum founder Jon Lansman).
Some Momentum supporters now believe dropping Willsman is not just a move to save face in response to bad PR, but a capitulation to “Zionism”. They argue that the media are pushing a narrative that antisemitism is a major problem in order to stop all criticism of Israel.
There is a serious need for education on this. Knee-jerk reactions to bad publicity are not good enough responses to underlying problems. The left has a problem with antisemitism — defined as above, as a particular form of political hostility which draws on ideas of conspiracy. Leaving education on this matter to one group — either Jewish Labour Movement or Jewish Voice for Labour or even the Labour Party itself — is not good enough.
This isn't about training people to behave themselves. It's essential that open argument and differing views are shared. Only then can we come to any sort of common understanding of the problem we face and how we can tackle them.
Censorship, expulsions or simple denunciation whether from Momentum’s leaders or from the Labour Party legal department will not resolve the problem.
Further reading on left antisemitism here.