Jacobin / June 29, 2020
Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader in 2015 as a veteran anti-war activist, only to have to spend the next five years apologizing for his supposed “racist allies” and “terrorist links.” The sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey shows how the space to criticize Israel has narrowed — but also how the Left has failed to defend its own right to call out injustice.
Rebecca Long-Bailey’s sacking from Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet underlines just how comprehensive Corbynism’s defeat has been — first in the country, now in the party. With the Labour left disoriented and largely focused on its own internal factionalism, Starmer appears to be in commanding control. While he promised “unity” in Labour ranks, the London Times notes approvingly that for his strategists this is “not about singing Kumbaya with your internal enemies, but marginalising them.” After Starmer’s dominant victory in the leadership election this spring — taking double the vote of left-wing challenger Long-Bailey — it was never going to be otherwise.
So, it’s likely that ever since appointing Long-Bailey as shadow education minister, Starmer had been looking for a pretext to remove her. For many on the Right of the Labour Party, any fodder to attack the Left will do, and Long-Bailey’s resistance to the government’s attempts to reopen schools early — and, in particular, her determination to stand up for the demands of the teachers’ union — had supposedly riled Starmer’s aides and senior front-benchers.
This episode has served as a sharp reminder of the Left’s impotence and confirmed — if it wasn’t already clear — the emptiness of Starmer’s promises of an end to factionalism. But the specific way it played out was telling. Long-Bailey was sacked for tweeting a link to a long interview in which the actress Maxine Peake said, in passing: “Systemic racism is a global issue . . . The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.”
Israel’s regular, well-documented training of US police forces may not be a direct causal factor in cases of murderous anti-black police violence in American cities, but Starmer promptly declared the very comparison an “antisemitic conspiracy theory.” To put such a spin on the mild imprecision of Peake’s statement is absurd, cynical, and deeply offensive. Indeed, Starmer’s formulation itself carries a racializing implication, wrongly associating Jewish people with Israel’s proud export of its technics of colonial violence. How did the British left reach this grim impasse? The lack of clear answers to that question is due in part to the incompleteness of attempts to reckon with the past five years.
In particular, the centrality of coordinated attacks on anti-imperialism and the Palestine solidarity movement to Corbynism’s defeat has (with some honourable exceptions) barely registered in the many post-mortems appearing since December. Yet this offensive began from the moment Jeremy Corbyn became a serious contender in the 2015 leadership contest. Almost invariably, the attacks have aimed at disciplining and silencing anti-imperialist speech and activism. They sought, with disturbing success, to associate the mere articulation of basic facts about Israeli settler-colonialism and the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people with extremism and bigotry. And crucially, the response of Corbyn’s leadership and some of its prominent supporters compounded the problem.
Corbyn Before “Corbynism”
Before the backbencher’s surprise 2015 breakthrough, Corbyn had been a ubiquitous presence at Palestine solidarity meetings and demonstrations. Indeed, the period immediately preceding his leadership was in many ways a moment of historic strength for the solidarity movement. Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) had gained huge ground on university campuses across the UK, culminating in the adoption of BDS as the official policy of the National Union of Students (NUS). And during Israel’s criminal bombardment of Gaza in summer 2014 — murdering more than 1,400 Palestinians — tens of thousands of people marched in London on successive weekends. One demonstration was attended by some 150,000.
After the lull of anti-war mobilization following the historic protests against the Iraq War, this strengthening of Palestine solidarity from 2008 represented the second major wave of anti-imperialist social movements in recent decades. Contrary to the insistent portrayal of Palestine solidarity as a marginal cause célèbre of the radical left, determined campaigning helped spur significant shifts in public opinion. A 2014 poll for the BBC’s World Service found that 72 percent of people in the UK held “mostly negative” views of Israel.
In this context of growing popular support for and understanding of the Palestinian cause, the Israeli state (rightly) perceived itself to be facing a major crisis of legitimacy. It turned to a counteroffensive — spearheaded by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs — designed to disorient and marginalize solidarity activism in international civil society. In the UK, these attempts to repress Palestine solidarity activism seamlessly complemented Prevent, one stream of the British government’s “counter-extremism” program, which has functioned — by design — to surveil and silence even tentative criticism of Britain’s wars. Crucially, the coordinated smears that would later help sink Corbyn’s leadership first landed in universities.
Accompanied by vicious Islamophobic campaigns in the national press, Palestine solidarity student groups across the country and the NUS leadership were bombarded with accusations that their principled internationalism was racist and extreme. Such attacks served an “outriding,” disciplinary function for the British state, helping to discredit critics of the foreign policy consensus.
The Fallacy of Consensus
Among the greatest threats Corbyn’s leadership posed to the British state was the possibility that he would appeal to common anti-war and pro-Palestine sentiments, and cohere them by articulating a kind of popular anti-imperialism. This was a tantalizingly real possibility: we glimpsed it during the 2017 general election, when Corbyn responded to a terrorist attack in Manchester with a speech arguing that Britain’s illegal wars fed insecurity at home. Polling showed that a majority of the public agreed.
What went wrong? Under siege from the beginning, a major strategic error seemed to govern the response of the Corbyn leadership and many of its outriders: foreign policy and issues relating to imperialism were, in effect, treated as inconvenient sources of controversy and (increasingly after the 2017 election) as distractions from Labour’s path to power. Such controversies were thought to detract from the elevation of domestic policy, which was conceived as a terrain on which consensus could be built. In some ways, this tendency dovetailed with the push toward abandoning the Brexit referendum result and supporting a “People’s Vote.” Thus could John McDonnell tell New Labour’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell in a cordial interview just before the 2019 election that he hoped Tony Blair would go down in history for the Good Friday Agreement rather than for the Iraq War.
Of course, many elements of Labour’s economic program were internationalist in orientation: take the commitment to a free transfer of green technologies to the Global South. But a fallacious distinction between domestic and foreign policy appeared to drive political strategy, often reactively. Nor can this disastrous category error be considered apart from the structural pressures of Labourism and the failure to cut through them by democratizing the party. Calls to quit NATO and scrap Trident were among the first of Corbyn’s long-standing commitments to be dropped, as part of a hopeless attempt to appease the hostile Parliamentary Labour Party.
By the time attacks on Palestine solidarity peaked in the summer of 2018, the leadership and parts of the movement were locked into a spiralling concessionary logic. The notion spread that the smear campaign against Corbyn — and the broader onslaught against anti-imperialist politics with which it was bound up — could be quelled through retreat and evasion. One consequence was that the nationalistic, racialized smears against Corbyn (charging him with being a “terrorist sympathizer,” a “traitor,” and so on) were never confronted head-on. They landed hard in December 2019, toxifying the leadership and contributing significantly to Labour’s defeat. His long record of solidarity with the Palestinian freedom struggle, for instance, should have been proudly defended and clearly explained. Instead, we got mumbling and obfuscation: as leader, Corbyn rarely spoke of the Palestinian people and their struggle, never mind firmly in their defense. This fudge was — as with the initial reliance on a hostile party bureaucracy to deal with antisemitism complaints — centrally a failure of politics.
Attacks on Palestine solidarity in Labour have thrown into question the legitimacy of the very language of anti-colonial politics, denying Palestinians and their supporters the right to articulate basic facts of history. This has produced profound disorientation. As with the insidious effects of Prevent in the education system, placing the politics of solidarity in a register of suspicion puts activists on the defensive, either encouraging silence or embroiling them in attritional battles to defend their right to speak. Palestine quickly disappears.
As Karma Nabulsi has suggested, these attacks have succeeded, and the “debates” they drove have been sustained, through their discursive and political reproduction of settler-colonialism’s “active ingredient . . . its silencing of those being erased, along with the invisibility of its practices of continued violent erasure.”
This invisibility of the Palestinian people was apparent when the party’s National Executive Committee’s (NEC) adopted the IHRA “working document,” which counts as an example of antisemitism “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” Subsequently, all candidates in the 2020 Labour leadership race unquestioningly agreed to the Board of Deputies’ demand to use this example as part of the basis of the party’s disciplinary procedure. Shamefully, this silencing and invisibility was worsened when prominent pro-Corbyn activists and commentators argued that the Left should not speak of Zionism — claiming that it is “too much of a catch all term” and risks “offence.”
In both cases, Palestinians were not only absent from the discussion, but the past and present of their dispossession was erased. This was enabled in part by the insistent treatment of Zionism and Israel as abstractions. Edward Said wrote of this phenomenon in 1978, observing that Zionism is often talked about in a register of “self-serving idealism,” as though it were an unchanging ideal rather than a settler-colonial project with a material history. Think of the IHRA clause: “a” state of Israel. It must be the task of the Left to negate this colonial erasure by unwaveringly foregrounding the Palestinian people’s struggle, while clearly portraying their lived reality and the facts of colonial history in the public realm.
Losing – and Not Having – the Argument
If Starmer booting the last Corbynite out of his shadow cabinet might seem like the end of the saga, this experience has crucial lessons for the Left. Compromise on the first principles of socialist internationalism, and fudging in the face of coordinated attacks, is likely to end up in a death spiral. Practicing politics in an old imperialist metropole, there can be no separation of socialism at home from freedom abroad. The British left has not simply failed to “win the argument” on Palestine, anti-imperialism, and universal anti-racism: it has in many ways lost the confidence to even make it.
But as Israel prepares to annex the West Bank, the question of what Palestine solidarity means is urgently posed. Annexation is the latest step in Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump’s plan to further disperse the Palestinian people, aiming to liquidate their collective rights and make dispossession permanent. Central to this agenda is denying millions of Palestinian refugees the right to return to the homes and land from which they have been violently expelled since 1948.
So, shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy’s recent call for a ban on goods from illegal settlements, while welcome, highlights a disturbing inconsistency in Labour’s position. For in this framing, to challenge the post-1967 occupation and “policies” of the Netanyahu government constitutes “legitimate criticism,” but to even speak of the foundations of injustice — the structure of settler-colonialism and Israel’s constitutive racism — is anathema and itself racist.
Israel’s success in imposing another Nakba relies on silence and historical erasure. The Left must respond with confident, concrete international solidarity, bringing protest and political pressure to bear. We must begin by urgently recentering the whole of the Palestinian people’s struggle — for freedom, self-determination, and return — not just one part of it.
It is a strange and sad historical irony that the internationalist movements from which Corbyn emerged have been left at such a low ebb in the wake of his leadership. We need to rapidly learn from the failings that led us here, regroup, and organize.
Ed McNally is a Labour activist and graduate student at Cambridge University researching the intellectual history of anti-colonialism