Graham Bash: We are in the eye of a storm


This is the text of a speech given by GRAHAM BASH at a meeting “The Labour Party, Free Speech and Democracy” held on Saturday 30 January 2021. Graham Bash has been a Labour Party member for 52 years, and is the political officer for Jewish Voice for Labour. Graham speaks in a personal capacity about how the Left should respond to the current attack on free speech in the Labour Party.

I want to make two basic points:

First, this attack on free speech is unprecedented in my lifetime.

Secondly, although we are facing and fighting this attack primarily in the Labour Party, it is an issue that goes well beyond the Labour Party.

We are at a critical moment – having to fight for free speech simultaneously at a number of different levels. And the breadth of that threat – the all-embracing nature of the attack – must help us assess what we do in the party itself.

Firstly, of course is the fight in the Labour Party. 52 years ago almost to the day I joined the Labour Party. I have been a member ever since. This is the worst attack on free speech I have ever experienced. Even war criminal Blair never attempted to silence the opposition!

A number of us face the threat of expulsion if we insist on telling the truth – the truth about Jeremy Corbyn, on antisemitism in the party, on the report of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, even talking about the witch-hunt gets you witch-hunted – or speaking on the same platform – or defending – those who have been expelled.

In the recent wave, I understand that at least 74 party officers have been suspended, no doubt more by now.

And now – ultimate irony – party branches are being instructed that resolutions to affiliate to Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) are out of order. An instruction with no basis in the rules of the party.

There are now growing calls for the left to leave the Labour Party. I oppose this – BUT if we stay, we have to fight as a visible focal point of resistance. That is the only chance we have of stopping a mass exodus. The days of keeping our head down are over.

What is remarkable is how party members and constituency Labour Parties have resisted – without leadership from the top. In so many parties we have said no. We do not accept your diktat. We will tell the truth. On the latest count there are 80 CLPs who have defied the instruction to be silent, and 160 secretaries and chairs of 235 CLPs who have written a letter of protest to the General Secretary elect.

We have repeated – and I do so today – the words that got Jeremy suspended in the first place – yes, the scale of the problem of antisemitism in the Labour Party was “dramatically overstated for political reasons.”

I am furious that Jewish members are being used as a political football in what is a blatantly factional manoeuvre. And I can do without offensive references to the feelings of the ‘Jewish community’. Jewish people, like all peoples are diverse – we are Zionists, non-Zionists, anti-Zionists. There is not a single Jewish voice. But this is more than just a fight for the Labour Party, though I will come back to this.

Secondly, this is also a fight against racism.

What is so disturbing is that the real structural racism in British society today – against Black and Asian people – is in the Labour Party, sidelined, relegated.  Never mind Windrush deportations, police violence, disproportionate imprisonment, economic injustice, Grenfell… The Chakrabarti report, remember, was a report into ‘antisemitism and other forms of racism’. The report denied it, but there is a hierarchy of anti-racism.

And let us remember, to our shame, when Marc Wadsworth said just that at the launch of the Chakrabarti report – reminding us that the narrative of anti-black racism was silenced – what did the party – and much of the left – do? Apologise, recognise the truth of what he was saying, show solidarity? No, none of these things – we expelled him!

So how do we fight this hierarchy of anti-racism?

I have been investigated – and exonerated – by the party for using the words ‘Jewish exceptionalism’. This was how I answered it.

“Through political experience, inner struggle and self-clarification I have become a socialist, internationalist, universalist Jew. This means that I understand that the oppression of peoples, religions and classes is interconnected. Universalism is opposed to ‘exceptionalism’ or ‘particularism’ which sees each oppression as separate from all others.

I am opposed to all exceptionalism, whether Black, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or any other form of exceptionalism which places the fight against one form of oppression above the fight against any other. I believe there is no hierarchy of anti-racism. To me all racisms are equally abhorrent.”

This divide between the anti-racist struggles is dangerous. What happened at Millwall football club recently sent a shiver down my spine – racist football fans attacking supporters of the Black Lives Matter bending of the knee as antisemites. I first saw that five years ago in Thanet when the far right attacked us on the left as antisemites for attending a meeting at which my partner Jackie Walker was speaking against racism.

In the last five years I have had the privilege – at times a doubtful privilege – of seeing these issues through her eyes. I have seen and felt her pain and anger as she has been attacked and vilified, her heritages challenged, her ancestors’ histories made invisible.  There were references in the papers before her disciplinary hearing to her “unhealthy obsession with the African Holocaust” – a reference which the party refused to delete. Just imagine if that had been said about the Jewish Holocaust.

I remember my own history too. As a child, I was told “Hitler should have finished the job and put you Jews in the gas ovens”, or “You Jews killed our Jesus”, and at football matches the singing: “I’ve never felt more gassing the Jews”.

This was prejudice, not institutional racism, not an equivalent of anti-Black or anti-Asian racism depriving me of power – but it did have its impact. And my experience of racism – and the traditions I learned from my dad about the lessons of Cable Street and the need for working class unity against racism and fascism – led me all those years ago to the labour movement.

And this is the conundrum. There is a substantial socialist internationalist Jewish left in Britain around the JVL and beyond. There is also a section of the right and among supporters of Israel – Jewish and non-Jewish – who have cynically manipulated the issue of antisemitism as a weapon to defeat the left. Those like Angela Rayner (what Jeremy said may have been correct but it was unacceptable to say it) and Margaret Hodge (trivialising the Holocaust when facing discipline in the PLP was like waiting for the knock on the door in Nazi Germany).

But this is not just a binary divide – socialist internationalists against cynical manipulators. Life is rarely that easy.

I was part of that generation of Jews born in Britain soon after the war, soon after the Jewish Holocaust. We were safe. And yet the Holocaust was part of the collective memory – the collective trauma – of many Jews, and it still is.

I know this because it was part of me, too. For years until I was in my 20s I had a recurring nightmare – being chased and caught by Nazi concentration camp guards, they took my trousers down, saw I was circumcised and I knew I was doomed.

I remember a meeting of my previous CLP in Hackney some five years ago, early on in Corbyn’s leadership when the issue of antisemitism in the party first raised its head. I saw it among some young Jewish Labour members – a terror, a terror without foundation. This wasn’t contrived for political reasons. For them it was real. I remember my gut response was to feel empathy – I didn’t find the courage, but my instinct was to put arms around one of the young men and to say to him, “It’s all right, you have nothing to fear”.

So there is this fear, at times terror, that has no basis in any current objective reality. It is this that makes the crime of those who exploit this fear for factional purposes all the greater – and all the more dangerous.

So how do we begin to connect? Certainly not by conceding to the agenda that feeds that terror, certainly not by apologising for something for which we are not responsible. Our answer is both to understand and empathise and to tell the truth about the realities of racism in modern day Britain – and to repeat the message of universalism as their route out of the ghetto of exceptionalism. To connect, always connect, the struggles, not reinforce the separation!

Thirdly, this is a fight against the silencing of Palestinian voices.

The voices which witness the occupation, the daily assaults, curfews, arbitrary arrests, detentions, house demolitions, travel restrictions, checkpoints, irrigation systems destroyed, exclusion and discrimination in the Israeli state and Occupied Territories.

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. It is a state, as Ilan Pappe so graphically put it, born of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.

For saying these things many of us lifelong anti-racists are labelled as antisemitic or – if we are Jewish – as self-haters or even ‘kapos’. I have spent the entire lockdown reading book after book on the rise of the Nazis and about the Jewish Holocaust. These allegations are so deeply offensive.

And in today’s Labour Party we are banned even from discussing a motion to support a charity bike ride for Palestinian children.

Above all, this is about our right to think, interrogate, question, challenge – and we even face a clampdown on our right to discuss historical issues.

We must be free to examine our histories on the basis that no peoples have a monopoly of truth or right. Victims of oppression in time can become perpetrators of oppression. That is the dialectic of history, the inter-connectedness of all peoples. That is our internationalist response against all forms of exceptionalism.

Yes, to discuss historical events may be controversial – even to some, offensive. But party members have been disciplined for talking about history. Above all, Ken Livingstone for raising the issue of the Haavara Agreement reached by some Zionists in Germany and in the US which led to the breaking of the anti-Hitler economic boycott.

These are often complex issues. We don’t have to agree. But let’s have those debates – we may all learn something if we do – because to ban discussion about our histories leads to the outlawing of thought and ultimately to the burning of books – another lesson from history!

Continue like this and we will end up burning the books of Ilan Pappe and of all so many others who tell the truth about Palestine, of Hannah Arendt  and Primo Levi whose universalism challenges the prevailing accepted hierarchies.

But if we decide to silence our own voices on our own history – remember we are silencing other voices too – the narratives of oppression – the voices of the African slaves and their descendants, the voices of the Palestinian people today. Because all peoples are connected, if we silence one history, we end up silencing them all. 

What connects all of this is the fight for freedom of speech and freedom of thought – in the Labour Party and beyond.

They are trying to prevent us from discussing:

• the EHRC report – from raising the slightest criticism even though it is fundamentally flawed – not just politically, but legally shot through with errors; 

• to prevent us from discussing the witch-hunting of Jeremy;

• to prevent us from discussing the racist nature of the Israeli state;

• And now threats to free speech in our universities which face funding cuts if they do not implement the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism.

This clampdown is becoming sinister.

So we in the party have to fight – but how?

Those 80 CLPs and party secretaries and chairs are heroes who didn’t ask for – or wait for – permission. That is our inspiration – the basis and the beginnings of our resistance. These and our Labour left groups we have built in the last six years.

We must connect and unite from the bottom, link up with the left of the NEC, the trade unions and beyond – build alliances and resist. Yes, there are a number of separate campaigns – the suspended officers’ group, Labour in Exile, Save Our Socialists, the call from Labour Black Socialists for a selective boycott of campaigns for those Labour candidates who refuse to recognise the issue of racism… We should support them all as the indispensable beginning of our resistance.  Our task is to connect them and ensure that  the trade unions, the NEC lefts, and left MPs are centrally involved.

But there is a problem. Comrades are leaving the party in disgust. And now under the hammer blows of suspensions, we are having to work out what to do next.

Some good comrades advise us: keep your heads down, don’t get suspended or expelled, wait for Labour Party conference. Keep the Labour left intact.

At other times this may have made some sense – but now? Wait for a conference that may not even happen? That may not even allow us the right to dissent?

And another call – wait for the council elections so we can get our left wing councillors elected. Well, not if you are in Bristol where a South West Region officer has just sacked left, suspended candidates.

This is the face of Starmer’s Labour Party.

If we do not act now what will be left of the Labour left come conference?

And work out what it means.

With the wave of suspensions any of us could well be CLP secretaries or chairs. I am now our CLP’s vice-chair. If our chair gets suspended, I’m next in line. Am I prepared to rule out of order resolutions because the General Secretary elect doesn’t like what they say?

I am not for unnecessary confrontation – and I am not saying that we campaign only on the witch-hunt, and certainly not that we must always raise it at every meeting. Of course in formulating our response and the wording of our resolutions, the particular circumstances of our local party, the balance of forces, how best to keep the local left together – all these factors must be seriously and responsibly considered.

But I think the minimum position is for left officers to inform party members of the diktat, instruction, advice – whatever the term – from the Gen Sec elect or from region – and let the meeting decide. But if we take it upon ourselves to rule out motions, if we police and stifle our movement’s resistance – we become part of the problem – and as a force for socialist transformation, we will be finished.

It won’t be easy – but there is no alternative.

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