Defend black Labour MPs under attack (and a few other thoughts)

By Mohan Sen

The call from organisations including the Board of Deputies of British Jews that Labour MPs Diane Abbott and Bell Ribeiro-Addy be suspended for speaking at an online meeting attended by expelled Labour members Jackie Walker and Tony Greenstein must be opposed.

Black Labour MPs have suffered attack after attack – and Diane Abbott in particular. Even if there was not a problem here of issues being exploited disingenuously for factional reasons – ie to attack the left – it would be extremely disappointing to see those raising concerns about antisemitism attaching this to an attack on black women MPs.

The broader political dynamic into which this feeds can be seen from Keir Starmer’s recent lauding of “patriotism”, which immediately led to calls for him to publicly condemn Diane Abbott and Clive Lewis for criticising nationalism and racism in the campaign for Brexit.

Of course people have a right to criticise any politician for actions they disagree with. But the charges in terms of the meeting are really pretty ridiculous.

Diane Abbott and Bell Ribeiro-Addy spoke from a platform organised by the ‘Don’t Leave – Organise’ group (on which more below). Tony Greenstein and Jackie Walker were in the audience, apparently with over 500 other people, and spoke from the floor, not the platform. I’m sure the leaders of the Board of Deputies and other organisations attacking these MPs have spoken at meetings with all kinds of people in the audience they’d rather not have to defend.

They would never apply this standard consistently: but they don’t need to, since this is a blatantly factional attack.

Again, Walker and Greenstein were in the audience, not on the platform. But even a blanket rule that Labour MPs cannot share actual platforms with people expelled from the party makes no sense. There are clearly cases of people being expelled unjustly, even over antisemitism (Marc Wadsworth is an obvious one). And many more people have been unjustly expelled for other reasons, such as supporting a socialist group or previously backing another left-wing party in elections. At a time when the misconduct of the party’s Governance and Legal Unit has just been exposed so dramatically, this is clearly a problem.

Moreover, such a blanket rule may be disruptive of broader organising to change society. What about if someone expelled from the party is leading a strike or other struggle?

Obviously people should not be exempt from criticism because they are leading a struggle. There could of course be someone leading a strike who it would be wrong to share a platform with because of their stance on an issue like antisemitism. The point is that there are a number of factors to weigh in.

Abbott and Ribeiro-Addy’s response to the controversy was itself problematic, seemingly accepting several wrong assumptions: “The MPs were not aware that any suspended or expelled former members of the Labour Party might contribute as audience members.” So if they had known “expelled former members” would speak from the floor that would automatically have ruled out speaking?

There is also another question of course: did Abbott and Ribeiro-Addy challenge Walker and Greenstein in the meeting after they spoke?

I would argue that ‘Don’t Leave – Organise’ is a pretty doubtful organisation for socialists to support. It is organised in large part by groups, such as Jewish Voice for Labour and the Labour Representation Committee, which have often downplayed the issue of antisemitism on the left. If more sensible comrades who have decided to support DL – O continue to be involved, they need to challenge this problem.

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