When is left-wing not left-wing enough? Veteran Labour organiser Ann Black is finding out the hard way. Yesterday morning, she was the respected chair of the disputes panel, the party’s internal disciplinary committee, and responsible for investigating anti-Semitism and other accusations against members. Now, she is the respected former chair, ousted in a Momentum-led coup as the far-left celebrates its majority on the National Executive Committee with a bit of muscle-flexing.
Black is not some Blairite ultra. She was elected on the leftist Grassroots Alliance slate. What changed? Well, some comrades have not been impressed by her handling of suspensions. As Paul Waugh notes, Black wrote last year:
'Anyone who thinks these cases are trivial should read the obscene, racist, misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic sewage which we have to wade through.'
Perhaps her replacement Christine Shawcroft will be more to their liking. A fixture on the NEC for the past two decades, she was suspended in 2015 for publicly backing former Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman. Rahman, who was expelled from the party in 2010, was found guilty of electoral fraud and removed from office five years later. Shawcroft backed Rahman before and after the verdict and, as the Guardian noted at the time, 'gave evidence to the election court...during which she accused [Rahman’s Labour rival John Biggs] of making racially insensitive remarks about the Bengali community – a claim that was dismissed by the judge.’
According to the Guardian, she then appeared at a rally describing herself as trustee of Rahman’s defence fund and denounced Richard Mawrey QC’s judgment, saying: 'The lack of a sound evidence base, the factual inaccuracies, the dangerous claims made about British Muslims and the powers given to the state to intervene in elections set a disturbing precedent.'
For Labour’s beleaguered moderates, Black’s replacement with Shawcroft is another step in the far-left’s purge of Labour. Richard Angell, director of centrist group Progress, tells me:
‘This has to be a wake-up call for the soft-left. If Ann Black -- the only person ever to get more than 100,000 members’ votes in an NEC poll, someone elected on the Grassroots Alliance slate — can be ousted, anyone can. If the Momentum leadership carries on like this and purges MPs, the membership of Momentum that want a Labour government will be horrified and realise Jon Lansman and his gang are more interested in running the party than the country.’
Two questions follow from yesterday’s intrigues. What will become of Labour’s disciplinary process? We shall see how the Corbynistas handle complaints of anti-Semitism but their record to date does not bode well. Some on the far-left have challenged Jew-hatred, albeit slowly and only occasionally, but the louder clamour has been the cry of ‘smear', accusations of Zionist machinations, and an attempt to move on without resolving the problem. Now that the Corbynistas are in charge on the NEC and its disputes panel, will the temptation to turn a blind eye to the bigotry of some of their fellow-travellers prove too great?
The second question isn’t about the hardliners but the moderates. Angell says:
'They want us out and we shouldn’t reward them by giving them what they want.’
There is a commendable bloodymindedness to this. There has to be a pragmatic progressive party in British politics and perhaps Labour can be that party again. If so, compromise with ugly elements is a necessary evil. But how much compromise and how ugly should things be allowed to get before Labour centrists draw a red line? How much, in the end, are they willing to put up with?
The price will only get higher and higher. Tolerate Corbyn and you’ll get a Labour government and an end to Tory austerity. Tolerate Momentum and you’ll get to invest in health, education and SureStart. Tolerate hard Brexit and you’ll get to redistribute and reduce inequality. If the far-left uses its control of the disputes panel to ignore, minimise, ‘manage', or selectively pursue party anti-Semitism, will moderates be able to tolerate that? Will it be worth it? Would anything ever be worth that?
It’s not easy to resist the takeover of your party by a hostile force. The NeverTrump movement stood firm against Donald Trump until his victory in the GOP primaries peeled off MaybeTrumpers, SometimesTrumpers and ThinkAboutTheSupremeCourtTrumpers. Those who refused to budge, and still refuse, may sound monotonous but at least they bear no responsibility for the cavalcade of horrors that has ensued. The lapsed moderates, who went along in the end out of party loyalty or partisan Hillary hatred, may recoil from Charlottesville, ‘shithole countries’, and attacks on the FBI but they are co-authors of these outrages and all the others.
Labour MPs will look on yesterday’s events with dread. If the Corbynistas will do in a fellow left-winger, they are hardly going to be sentimental about deselecting the backbench MPs they so despise. A wholesale purge may be beyond their abilities for now — too many of their bêtes noires are well-liked in their constituency parties — but a series of targeted deselections would be perfectly possible. Once they realise this, MPs might gather the nerve to launch a serious fightback.
They can’t topple Corbyn but they can learn from him. For 30 years, he and a coterie of Bennite flame-keepers caused regular headaches for the leadership with extremist pronouncements and immature behaviour. Moderate MPs are more numerous and can copy Corbyn’s methods to more worthwhile ends. Organise, vote in blocs, rebel with conscience, defy without apology, refuse to be intimidated, expect the leadership to reflect the breadth of opinion in the PLP, and, when it doesn’t, make trouble until it does. To adapt David Ben Gurion, centrist MPs should fight the Tories as if there were no Corbyn and fight Corbyn as if there were no Tories.
The alternative is acquiescing, shutting up, and telling themselves the purgers who came for Ann Black will never come for them.