Why did Labour Suspend Corbyn? – Leo Panitch

Video ThumbnailThe new leadership of the British Labour Party has suspended its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, ostensibly for being soft on antisemitism. The real reason is to prove to British and American elites that the party can be trusted on foreign policy. But will this suspension split the party? Leo Panitch

The new leadership of the British Labour Party has suspended its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, ostensibly for being soft on antisemitism. The real reason is to prove to British and American elites that the party can be trusted on foreign policy. But will this suspension split the party? Leo Panitch joins Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news podcast.

Transcript

Paul Jay

Hi, I’m Paul Jay. Welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast. Please don’t forget there’s a donate button at the top of the webpage.

Amid accusations that Jeremy Corbyn did not vigorously enough repress or investigate accusations of antisemitism against the Labour Party while he was leader, Corbyn has now been suspended both from the caucus in parliament and from the party itself.

Now joining us to give us some context to all of this is Professor Leo Panitch. He’s an emeritus distinguished professor of research at York University and is the author of a new book with Colin Leys called, Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn.

Leo, explain to us what’s happened and then we’ll get into why.

Leo Panitch

Well, this has been coming for some time. The Labour Party agreed when Corbyn was still leader to cooperate with an investigation of the handling of antisemitism in the Labour Party by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which was set up under Tony Blair back in 2007. It was an amalgam of three agencies: The Commission for Racial Equality, The Equal Opportunities Commission and The Disability Rights Commission. But it’s mostly existed under the Tories because Labour was defeated in 2010, and it reported that the Labour Party had not treated this problem seriously enough. There were a couple of cases of explicit harassment of Jewish people and [it claimed] that Corbyn’s leadership office had obstructed the investigation of some dozens of cases or so.

You know, it’s hard to know where to begin with this. The commission itself is very poorly funded. Its first chair was very close to Tony Blair. Its current chair is a lawyer who has been very, very close to Israel and the Israeli campaign.

That is not to say in any sense that there wasn’t a problem with antisemitism in the Labour Party which preexisted Corbin, of course. Although it’s not the kind of antisemitism that you think of when you think of swastikas being painted on a synagogue. Or a Jewish cemetery being torn down. It’s mainly stuff on Twitter and it reflects intemperate language usually having to do with Zionism. And often the people who are accused of being antisemitic are Jews because there’s a long tradition on the Jewish left of seeing the Zionist project as narrowly nationalist, as associated with either British or American imperialism, and of course, most importantly, as dispossessing the Palestinians in their own homeland.

But sometimes Zionism is used as equivalent with racism — “Zionism is a racist project.” And even someone like me, a Jew who was brought up in a Labour-Zionist household and went to a Yiddish Labour-Zionist parochial school for my first seven years of schooling, I find that hurtful.

Although I understand, and of course I think most people who take these intemperate positions understand, that what this is reallyabout, and what hurts so many Jews in Britain and the United States and elsewhere, is their strong identification with Israel and then becoming upset when Israel is criticized very strongly as being racist or imperialist. And, you know, if someone said today that the United States was a racist society, very many liberals would buy into this. But a lot of Jewish people take that [label when applied to Israel] as an assault.

On top of all of this, there’s no doubt that the Netanyahu government responded to the Boycott and Divestment campaign. And responded to what became common language in the last few decades as the prospect of a two-state solution became more and more distant. Responded to the language that Israel was racist, that Zionism was racist, etc. The Israeli government has responded by trying to brand all criticism of Israel as antisemitic.

So, this is what lies at the source of this. But what really needs to be stressed is that a poll was done by Survation asking people, after all of this hullabaloo that’s gone on, how many antisemites they thought there were in the Labour Party. And they said they thought a third of the Labour Party members were antisemites, which at that point would have been two hundred thousand people. That’s not to say antisemitism isn’t a problem in British society or elsewhere, but that really would have been scary.

Paul Jay

Isn’t this because these people define antisemitism as any criticism of Israel?

Leo Panitch

Yes — not only, but yes, very largely. But the important point here is that the total number of cases that had been brought to the Labour Party alleging anti-Semitism comes to less than two thousand, which at most is 0.3% — that is, a third of one percent of the party membership.

Right? That’s what’s really significant. So, one needs to put this in the context of what has been a scare campaign directed at Jeremy Corbyn, used by the Labour center and Labour right against him, because he always has always stood for Palestinian rights. And they have used this as the battering ram. Most of them are not Jews. But they’ve used this as the battering ram to tarnish him and it relates to his anti-imperialist stand throughout his whole career since joining the Labour Party.

Paul Jay

Is there any analysis of the whatever-few-hundred complaints? How many of those complaints were actually based on defining criticism of Zionism as racist? And were there complaints about antisemitism that weren’t connected to criticism of Israel?

Leo Panitch

Yes. I can’t give you the exact figures, but yes. A good many of them, however, were that someone said — and would be hauled up for saying it — that this [i.e., Labour antisemitism] isn’t as big of a problem as you think it is. They were hauled up for saying that this is being blown out of proportion.

Paul Jay

Well, that’s what Corbyn was suspended for!

Leo Panitch

That’s what Corbyn was suspended for.

Paul Jay

For just saying it’s exaggerated.

Leo Panitch

They were accused of being racist for saying that antisemitism was not as big of a problem in the Labour Party. That was a very common accusation.

Now, I think it’s very important that people understand that Jeremy Corbyn has been… Someone who went through his whole career listed this: he led 130 campaigns, protests, motions in parliament, demonstrations against antisemitism in Britain. Even before he was a Labour MP. In fact, I remember him leading one in the north of London against Nazis who went into a Jewish community in north London. Corbyn led the campaign against them.

What they were getting him on was that his position has always been a two-state solution: Israel has a right to exist, but the Palestinians have a right to a state. And at the 2018 party conference, he made a brilliant speech, the leader’s speech to the conference, in the front end of which, he said, I want to say to the Jewish community, I stood in defense of you and your rights and your protections all my life, and I will continue to do so; I give you my utter word. Later in the speech, we he got to foreign policy, he said, I support Israel’s right to exist, I support a two-state solution, and one of the first things I will do is to recognize a Palestinian state when I become prime minister.

This is a red bull to these people. [I.e., a red flag.] And he was seen as a security threat for his criticism of NATO, for his defense of Venezuela, for his lifelong criticism of American imperialism, etc. The battering ram that they could use against him was this, with it being presented as this vile act.

Now, the Equality Human Rights Commission has not investigated the Tory Party for Islamophobia and racism.

Paul Jay

And antisemitism. I’m quite sure if they look…

Leo Panitch

Of course. Boris Johnson, in the middle of all of this, back in 2018, derided women who wear burqas. Never would have heard anything from any of these people deriding an old Jew in a tallis [i.e., prayer shawl] or for wearing a kippah [i.e., skull cap]. It’s inconceivable.

And the really sickening aspect of this is that if anybody would be out there defending against racism in Britain, including antisemitism, it would be the left. It would be this left that always has been [there]. And it would be [there]. What can one say about the irony of what’s going on here?

Paul Jay

The new leader of the Labour Party, why would he take such action now? Corbyn’s already not the leader anymore. But by this extra step of suspending Corbyn from both the caucus and the party, it inflames a war within the Labour Party because much or even most of the Labour Party aren’t going to like this. It’s going to weaken the party. And it’s not like it’s going to win them a lot of votes, because I’m quite sure most people in Britain honestly couldn’t give a shit.

Leo Panitch

Certainly, most people in the north, where Labour lost a lot of its seats — its traditional working-class constituency — couldn’t. That’s true.

Although, you know, people have been giving their marching orders by the media for four or five years over this. So, when you ask now in opinion polls, yeah, over half of the British population thinks the Labour Party is antisemitic. He [i.e., Kier Starmer, the current leader of Labour] has made it his policy to prove to the British establishment and to the British media — the BBC, not least, and the Guardian, not least — that he, the leader of the Labour Party, is loyal to the British state.

Paul Jay

So, tell us a little bit about Keir Starmer. He’s Sir Kier Starmer. So, what’s his story, the new leader of the Labour Party?

Leo Panitch

Well, his first name is the name of Keir Hardy, the first leader of the Labour Party in Britain. He’s a lawyer, a human rights lawyer, who became the leading prosecutor for the British state. And worked closely with the British state in prosecuting the IRA. He took the lead. And he’s been a middle-of-the-road kind of guy, you know, not socialist, but “Labour-ist.” He only got elected in 2015 when Gordon [Brown] became leader, just before Corbyn became leader.

And he wasn’t, you know, bothered being in Corbyn’s cabinet, and, if anything, he would have been seen as providing it with some cover. He was given the Brexit portfolio. And he managed to walk the tightrope between the side of the Labour Party that thought — you know, they did very well in the 2017 election. In fact, they increased Labor’s vote the most that any party had increased its vote since 1945, in that election, when Labour said, We accept Brexit: a referendum was held and we accept that as a democratic decision. And they did extremely well in that election. Most people thought he was going to want to be prime minister.

After that, he went along with the attempt by the Labour right and most of the media to revive the notion of the need for a second referendum. And this split the Labour Party. And Corbyn decided to accommodate this. A number of MPs resigned and said they were going to form a new party unless Labour clearly came out in favor of a second referendum, and [promised] to abide by it, etc.

Starmer played both sides of this, but he played a crucial role in the disastrous campaign that Labour ran on Brexit, especially for its working-class voters, which was, “If we get elected, we will call a second referendum.” And Corbyn would not commit to saying that he would abide by that referendum because he was trying to hold on to working-class voters. It made him look tongue-tied — and he wastongue tied. So, Starmer was responsible in good part for this, although the pressure was coming from those further to the right. But he’s not a Blairite.

Paul Jay

What do you mean by that?

Leo Panitch

Well, the Blairite — the Blair-Clinton type of ideology: let’s fully embrace neoliberalism and global capitalism. You know, let’s not present ourselves as a class party. Even though what is the Labour Party, with its trade union base, but a class party? But Clinton was also doing that — not passing the labor legislation that they promised the AFL-CIO, etc. It’s much easier for the Democratic Party, of course, because there’s no organic link with the unions. There’s a financial link. But it’s constitutional on the British part [i.e., side].

Anyway, so he’s not that. But what’s most important about him having become leader, despite the fact that when he ran he pledged to keep Corbyn’s policies, is that his top strategy has been to accommodate the British media. To prove that the Labor Party is a responsible opposition and would form a mainstream government. You may see this with Biden. But certainly, in the Labor Party case, this is what is happening. And therefore, the policy was, since the media was constantly saying, if anyone says this is overblown, this is itself a proof of antisemitism — and the commission takes that position — he laid down the law that no one is allowed to say it’s overblown.

So Corbyn made a statement yesterday in which he said, if we have one antisemite in the Labour Party, it’s one too many. I agree we didn’t do a good enough job on education; we should have done much more. Right? I accept this is a problem in the party. I want to say I think people have the impression that this is a much more general thing in the Labour Party than it really is. That’s what they got him on.

But behind all of this is to vomit out the fact that for the first time in its history, except for four years in the ’30s, the Labour Party was actually led by committed socialists. And committed anti-imperialists, which is maybe even more important for them, because really what the test for these guys is, is the American alliance. That’s their definition of respectable politics.

Paul Jay

And that’s what this is fundamentally a message about. 

Leo Panitch

That’s right.

Paul Jay

With Israel as the litmus test, a Labour government will not break with the traditional, fundamental, global strategy of the Anglo-American alliance, even if they’ll try to do some domestic reforms that are more social-democrat than certainly the conservatives will bring in.

Leo Panitch

That’s absolutely right.

Paul Jay

So, does this lead to more of — a more massive split within the Labour Party? What happens to forces like Momentum and these kinds of people? I mean, it wasn’t all about Corbyn. It was about a whole movement.

Leo Panitch

Very good question, Paul. You know, my position in all my work on the Labour Party has been that you can’t change an elephant into a gazelle. That there always have been socialists in the Labour Party and there always will be. But the nature of that party is such that the attempt to turn it into a socialist party would split it. And that those who define themselves as not being socialists and think socialism is a stupid illusion — they are the majority and always have been in the Parliamentary Labour Party, which is made up of career politicians. Even if they start as socialists, they end up in that position, most of them. It would split the Labour Party and a divided party can’t win elections.

The Labour left always takes unity on its own shoulders. Not the Labour right. They [i.e., the Labour left] see solidarity holding the labour movement together as the top principle. These guys [i.e., the Labour right] — at least enough of them; it doesn’t have to be a majority — are prepared on the night of the election to come out against the Labour left.

So, does this prove that my position was right? That you can’t change the Labour Party because after all, unbelievably, Jeremy Corbyn, the inheritor of Tony Benn’s mantle and the most consistent of the democratic socialists in the back bench of the party, suddenly becomes leader after 2015 and draws in literally hundreds of thousands of young people into the party?

The trouble was the base for that hadn’t been laid. Momentum was only created out of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership. The unions — the left unions — were very important in funding Corbyn’s campaign, but they’re largely depoliticized even if they have a left-wing union leadership. So, you know, normally the way to go on about this would have been to change the base of the party, to change the party apparatus, and then to elect a socialist leader.

Instead, you had Corbyn and, you know, the four leading MPs around him, who had their own limitations and faults as socialist politicians, sitting in a sense over a machine that they couldn’t control. And with people in the party machine who had been appointed by Blair, who were determined to do everything they could to embarrass him, to get rid of him, including, for the first two years, the general secretary of the party.

OK, what happens now? Look, there is no alternative, in a way. What appears to be the case with the attempt by socialists in the twenty-first century to found new socialist parties, is that even where they’ve been successful — and they’ve only been successful in proportional-representation systems where you can get a foothold inside the state with five percent of the vote, ten percent of the vote, or something, which can’t happen in first-past-the-post electoral systems, right? Those parties are now — they got in: Syriza, Podemos, Die Linke in Germany, Bloco in Portugal — they are all in coalition governments with social-democratic parties. A great movement has occurred with the DSA in the Democratic Party behind Sanders, and with Momentum (and much more than Momentum) behind Corbyn in Labour Party.

Both of those have now run their course. And the question will be whether they’re going to continue working inside on the Democratic ticket in the United States and inside the Labour Party, which is a real membership party, which the Democratic Party isn’t. A lot of people will leave — have already left since Starmer became leader. And I hear Momentum’s membership is down significantly as well. This will lead other people to leave.

On the other hand, there’s nowhere really to go. They will be, you know, individuals in the ether. There’s no base, there’s no coherent organization here, and it’s still a first-past-the-post system. Moreover, the left MPs and the left union leaders are, you know, they’re making a bit of a stink about Corbyn’s suspension. But a lot of them are saying, Well, he shouldn’t have said that. In other words, he should have known that this was a setup.

And right now Momentum is running, or was an hour ago, a mass meeting online on this that had four thousand people, where a leading leader of Unite, the largest union in Britain, was speaking, where a leading left Labour MP spoke, himself half-Jewish, etc., where a leading black campaigner spoke — all of them condemning anti-Semitism fully but trying to defend Corbyn.

I think you’re not going to see a split. The ground just has not been laid. I fear because of this the left will regroup, as Momentum, unfortunately, was too much oriented to being a Jeremy Corbyn cheerleading group. And that’s not the way forward.

Corbyn was there, he did what he did, but what is needed is a renewal of the Labour left with a very clear campaigning orientation. It’s an orientation to get into working-class constituencies and begin to remake the working class as a social force, which it’s not, having some class identity and class consciousness of a progressive kind. If it ends up being a defense of Jeremy Corbyn or at least gets turned in that direction for a year or two, that very badly delays that more important initiative.

You know, it may have been the case eventually that Momentum and others who did try to do this [i.e., renew the Labour left as opposed to cheerlead Corbyn] would get expelled from the Labour Party once they were successful at it. Well, you know, that’s better because they’ve already built a base, right? But were they to walk away now, they’d have no, you know, real strength.

Paul Jay

But you’re not suggesting they shouldn’t oppose [what happened to Corbyn] and have this whole campaign now in solidarity with Corbyn. You’re seeing that in the United States to some extent. You’re not suggesting people shouldn’t do that. You’re just saying you don’t build a whole strategy around that in terms of the Labour Party.

Leo Panitch

One has to do this, absolutely, but there’s a cost to it. There’s a political cost to it. I mean, it can’t be avoided. But there’s a political cost to it in terms of long-term strategy — which needs to begin immediately. You don’t leave it for the long term, it needs to begin now. Or you won’t ever get it done.

Paul Jay

What’s the political cost?

Leo Panitch

The political cost is that your efforts and energies get oriented into getting Corbyn’s membership reinstated. Where’s that taking you? I mean, it’s good, but it doesn’t change the Labour Party.

Paul Jay

I think one of the things that needs to be done, perhaps more than was done — and this feeds into what you’re talking about: class consciousness. But if there’s going to be a Labour Party that’s going to really be transformative, part of the groundwork is to lay the groundwork of breaking with the Anglo-American alliance, that the UK should not be part of the policies of the American empire.

Leo Panitch

A lot of the pundits who supported Corbyn, Paul Mason and others, take the exact opposite position: that we should leave foreign policy aside. We shouldn’t touch it. What we’re aiming at is the end of austerity, social-democratic policies inside Britain, and we will be killed before we can do that if we raise the foreign policy stuff.

I think they’re wrong. I agree with you. But, you know, that’s the other side of this. You see the difficulty here. You know, it really is tactically very, very difficult.

Paul Jay

Where are things at now? The pandemic is getting worse in the U.K. and ravaging Europe again. Unemployment’s going to get deeper. Depression is going to get deeper. You would think the hold of the Tory party on power is going to get shakier.

Leo Panitch

Yeah, but they have a massive majority. So, you know, we’re talking an election five years from now. People are constantly looking at the polls and Starmer is trying to prove himself electable. But, you know, there’s no reason to think that’s going to happen quickly. You know, maybe Boris will so screw up that there will be a coup in the in the Tory party. But, you know, that won’t lead to an imminent election unless they’re sure they’ll win it.

So, I don’t think that’s an immediate concern. And everybody who’s looking at the tea leaves in the opinion polls around whether Starmer’s rating has gone up or not in the estimation of the population, whether they’ve closed the gap on the Tories or not (they haven’t very much) — you know, I’m not sure that this really tells you very much.

There are going to be a lot of people in the center left, as there is with Biden — and I certainly would and have stressed the importance of socialists voting for Biden, campaigning for him, etc., in a popular-front kind of way, given the alternative. But there will be a lot of people who will say, Look, the important thing is for Labour to get in again, and if the only way we can get in is with this type of mainstream politician, let’s have it. And that leads us nowhere precisely in terms of what you’re talking about.

Paul Jay

It leads back to Blair.

Leo Panitch

Given the nature of capitalism today, these guys can’t manage the contradictions of this irrational system. As Obama couldn’t. So, you’re right. I think this is a losing strategy.

I have to say, on a positive note, and we probably should end on this positive note, that you see when you get on Momentum and watch their, you know, cyber campaign tonight, all these young speakers. When you talk to the people who founded Momentum, all very young people — three of them Jews, by the way; well, two of the three were young; one was very old — you see the remarkable talent, commitment, and intelligence of a new generation of socialists. Really, it’s quite breathtaking. And that is the positive thing.

You know, they’ll be stuck in the Labour Party for the most part for a while, but they can do good things within that framework and have every intention of not getting trapped in internal politics and building outward. You know, forcing Starmer to get rid of all of them, which would be cutting off his nose to spite his face in terms of talent. So, we’ll have to see, but the hope is those remarkable people who came into the party either just before Corbyn or just after.

Paul Jay

All right, thanks for joining us, Leo.

Leo Panitch

Glad to be here, Paul. Keep up the good work.

Paul Jay

Thank you. And thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news podcast. And don’t forget the donate button at the top of the website.

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  • George Galloway has a criticism of Jeremy Corbyn on youtube that I find of signal interest, because it raises questions about politicians like him, and I include Bernie Sanders in that category. Galloway makes especial reference to a member of his former shadow cabinet, a woman who is part of Labour that just suspended him from the Party. Galloway describes with irony a photograph of Corbyn in the act of kissing her hand as part of the former’s habit of holding his enemies close to him and keeping his friends at a distance. He does not like those who are trying within the Party to support him. Instead of punishing his political opposition, he rewarded them and ignored the cuts that have brought him down.
    I can’t help but think of Bernie Sanders who, when he had power and was being undermined by the Clinton-establishment, did not fight them, in 2016 and 2020. He bowed under the unfair treatment he received that deprived him of the nomination. In the most recent episode, he threw his support to Biden immediately and unreservedly, as did Tulsi Gabbard. Very Christian for a Jew to love his enemies, but he should love them with tough love, love that teaches them a lesson. What is it in the mentality of Corbyn and Sanders that would explain their lack of spine?