Missing the mark on Willsman
Sean Matgamna’s piece in Solidarity 509 “A victim of panic” appears to miss the mark. Sean says that Pete Willsman “Possibly he gives credence to some form of ‘Jewish Conspiracy’ theory”. This underplays what Willsman said and in doing so seems to excuse him as a fool rather than someone who knows what they think. I would give Willsman more respect than that.
I think he genuinely believes what he says and he does so from a position of influence with the votes of 70,000 Labour members (including my own) behind him. Sean asks if expulsion should only be reserved for those who make “clear-cut” “persistent” and “public” violations. Well this may well be such a case. Sean ends by asking if Willsman is being unfairly singled out?
Well it’s true that his colleagues on the NEC include Darren Williams and Yasmin Dar, defenders of Ken Livingstone (when Sean, in the same issue rightly accuses of promoting antisemitism) and the Iranian regime respectively. Like Sean and the AWL I want to see proper education and full discussion on the roots, history and expression of left antisemitism as well as a greater understanding of what meaningful Palestinian solidarity means. We urgently need a labour movement campaign for two states; that says explicitly that there must be an independent Palestine alongside Israel. To defend Pete Willsman, in the midst of the EHRC investigation and a deepening crisis on the left on antisemitism, is actively harmful in achieving both.
Stephen Wood, Haringey
Time was that halfway healthy labour movements and socialist organisations expelled members only to save the integrity of the organisation. And not often. The “soft” Labour left used to condemn the “democratic centralist” ways of the Marxist left as meaning excessively tight discipline; but the groups that could be called “democratic centralist” only ever expelled small numbers. Now the labour movement and the left have picked up a different culture, mostly I think from US academia.
The standard response to the badly wrong or the offensive becomes not to dispute, criticise, or lambast, but to seek an Authority to whom to make a Complaint. Scarce any argument about why something is badly wrong is required, only a demand for banning or exclusion.
Oddly, the Labour Party in its new left-wing period has expelled and suspended more people (mostly without precise charges, and without hearings) than even in the most vindictive times of previous right-wing leaderships. That the Labour Party should declare racism, antisemitism, sexism, and homophobia to be off-limits is good. Sometimes demonstrative exclusions can have an educational effect. A routine of summary exclusions without explanation will not educate. The first response should be criticism, loud and angry criticism if necessary. Actual expulsion should be reserved for clear-cut, heavyweight cases, and after due criticism.
I agree with the analysis of Labour NEC member Pete Willsman’s comments to journalist Tuvia Tenenbom made by Sean Matgamna and Simon Nelson in their articles in Solidarity 509, showing antisemitism in those comments. Maybe also his comments now dug out from 2017 were sexist. But Willsman’s divagations are not a serious factor in the integrity — or otherwise! — of the Labour Party as a Jew-friendly, woman-friendly organisation.
The drive to exclude Willsman is a matter, for some, of picking on garrulous follies in order to settle other scores, and for others, of cynically diverting attention from bigger problems by offering a victim.
Martin Thomas, Islington
Avoid knee-jerk responses
Sean Matgamna and Simon Nelson, presenting alternative perspectives on “The Willsman Affair” in Solidarity 509, are, in part, both right, but also both limited. Simon correctly points to a history of left antisemitic remarks and affiliations by Pete Willsman. Sean’s apologism, or at best extreme caution, in his characterisation of Willsman and his behaviour, is untenable and unnecessary.
Strong distinctions between repeated “off-hand, casual remark[s]” and “clear-cut, public, persistent violations” cannot be preserved. We advocate that people take and apply political ideas seriously, and excusing “casual” promotion of ideas cuts against this. At an extreme, the “alt-right” — trendy far-right – and their imitators on the left, “alt-Stalinists” such as those in the “Red London” orbit, publicly promote their politics predominantly “casually”, in “jokes” or “memes”, and “off-hand”.
Such unserious political cultures are incubators and transmitters of toxic politics, inconsistent and incoherent in a way that would crumble in the clear light of reasoned debate. We aim to shine high-energy germicidal light on such cultures, through responding to them with political seriousness, holding ideas within them – and their promoters – to account as we would if they were advocated seriously and clearly. Willsman is not of or within such cultures, but we must be consistent.
Sean rightly points out that Labour’s leadership “identify with a daily paper which actively foments antisemitism, the Morning Star… [and] do not intend to fight the serious antisemitism in the labour movement.” They are, as noted, scapegoating Willsman. But does that acquit him as “a victim of panic”?
Suppose a group of armed and masked bank-robbers carry out a heist. On their exit route, they realise they are being chased down. Most of them effectively hide their loot, then point the finger at one, to the wad of cash peaking out of the accused’s sock. That individual is dutifully hauled away by the police, guilty as charged, a victim of panic; the accomplices let off the hook. Should we pity and defend this poor victim, “unfairly singled out”?
For all this, Sean’s indictment of the Labour and left’s “off with his head” culture hits the mark. This scandal-mongering culture impedes and substitutes serious discussion and debate, obscures the bigger pictures and leaving them untouched. It is hard not to suspect that fear of scandals being mongered by those around him drove Ken Livingstone into bottling on the debate with Sean. I, too, was “looking forward to [Sean] kicking [Livingstone’s] butt” (Solidarity 509). We have and should continue to be sharply critical of ideas masquerading as left-wing and influenced by antisemitism, and simultaneously of bureaucratic disciplinary responses and cultures, of expulsions and suspensions as the knee-jerk response to endemic left antisemitism, and of inadequacies of wider responses.
Our firm denunciation of one should not facilitate softening on the other, as Sean and Simon seem to do with Willsman, in converse ways.
Mike Zubrowski, Bristol