The sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey as Shadow Education Secretary casts a light upon the state of our Party in these times.
For a start, the actual offence for which she was apparently dismissed – tweeting a link to an interview with a prominent actress (about whom she was complimentary), is something for which no one could have been sacked a few decades ago – because there was no Twitter (and the world may not have been improved by its arrival).
Secondly, the assumption that if one publicises a “link” to an article or interview, one is automatically endorsing every opinion or statement expressed therein, which appears to be gaining ground, leads in a ridiculous direction. That would be like suggesting that, because Keir Starmer tweeted birthday greetings to Eleanor Marx on 16 January he therefore agrees wholeheartedly with her that “History teaches us that no great social revolution has ever come about by the use of mere moral force, and history has taught us that no class willingly expropriates itself.”
It appears that Maxine Peake was repeating an inaccurate claim when she told the Independent that US police had learned the technique of kneeling on someone’s neck from Israeli trainers (a moment’s thought does suggest that racists in the USA have been doing that – and much worse – to Black people since long before there was a state of Israel). However, this one misguided remark was very much at a tangent to the main thrust of the interview to which Rebecca Long-Bailey approvingly linked.
Thirdly, and in any case, Peake’s error amounted to a (perhaps unjustified) criticism of Israel, and, as the IHRA definition states “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” Since Peake said what she said in the context of her opinion that “Systemic racism is a global issue,” and her opposition to capitalism globally it is not difficult to agree with John McDonnell that the article in the Independent (for linking to which Long-Bailey was sacked) is not anti-Semitic.
Parenthetically, it is worth adding that I was wrong a couple of years ago to think that there was no significant problem of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, just because I myself had not encountered this. The now infamous “leaked report”, as well as illustrating attempts to undermine Labour from within around the time of the 2017 election (and much else beside), included evidence of conduct by Party members which plainly was anti-Semitic (and of the apparent failure by those charged with the relevant responsibility to deal with this effectively).
It is, however, such a stretch to characterise Rebecca Long-Bailey’s conduct in tweeting approvingly about an actress who, in an interview with a newspaper, makes a mistaken claim about the role of the Israeli state as amounting to “retweeting an antisemitic conspiracy theory”, that I am inclined to agree with my old comrade Mike Phipps that this sacking “reeks of political calculation” and is calculated to encourage some left-leaning members to abandon the Party in anger and despair (particularly if she is not replaced by another member of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs).
As unlikely as it may be that the divided forces of the Labour Left will manage to find a way to create a single slate of socialist candidates for the National Executive Council (NEC), with the current balance of opinion among the membership, were this unlikely eventuality to come to pass the NEC might provide a powerful brake on any attempts to shift the Party rightwards. Those who are determined upon such a (foolish) course of action will therefore be happy to see potential voters for such a slate cutting their membership cards up and posting the pictures on social media.
It goes without saying that socialists within the Labour Party should not respond by rewarding those who made this political calculation with the outcome they desire. Neither should we sit quietly with a view to resuming our historic role described by Miliband and Saville in 1964 – as a “shapeless entity” and rather ineffectual pressure group.
The sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey is best understood as just the latest move in a century-old struggle between those who believe that Labour should be about the fundamental transformation of society and those who believe that such a goal gets in the way of Labour gaining office (in order to achieve the more limited changes that are feasible on the basis of the current social order).
Socialists in the Labour Party should raise our profile determinedly in response to this development. At grassroots level we should organise meetings, to which we should invite Socialist Campaign Group MPs, to campaign in support of the best elements of the Party’s current policy programme – and to change and improve the worse.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, who many of our constituencies nominated to be Leader a few short months ago, now has more time on her hands and would be an ideal member of a panel of Campaign Group speakers reaching out to the Party membership and wider movement. Freed from the constraint of Shadow Cabinet collective responsibility Long-Bailey could, for example, boost the campaign for a Green New Deal in a way that places constructive political pressure on the Party leadership from the left.
As the Party slowly reopens our local policy making machinery we should also reach out and demonstrate solidarity – for example to the workforce of Tower Hamlets Council who are, quite disgracefully, being threatened with dismissal and re-engagement by their (Labour) employer, or to the Palestinian people facing the prospect of the unlawful and unjust annexation of their land.
The best way to respond to injustice within the Labour Party is to redouble our efforts to combat injustice outside the Labour Party, and to strengthen the forces fighting for socialism within our Party and beyond.