Even by its usual standards, it’s been an exhausting few days on the left. Ever since Jeremy Corbyn appeared at a Stand Up to Racism rally on Saturday, his support base has been bitterly divided – between those who think he was right to attend the event, those strongly critical of his decision, and a small number who want nothing to do with Corbyn’s movement anymore whatsoever. And, unlike most of the ridiculous brouhahas that Corbyn so frequently gets caught in the middle of, this is something a leftist should actually give a shit about.
On the surface, appearing at an anti-racist event is a no-brainer for a left-wing politician when an extremely reactionary Conservative government have just spent their annual conference vigorously shovelling coals into a furnace of racial resentment. But there are movements in the UK advocating for racial justice with less conspicuous involvement from the much, and justly, maligned Socialist Workers Party – Britain’s largest Trotskyist organisation – than SUTR. In the days preceding the rally, speakers had been sent a letter by a number of organisations and activists on the radical left asking them not to appear on the grounds that the co-convener of SUTR is Weyman Bennett, an SWP central committee member who was central to the leadership’s sordid attempted cover-up of two female members’ accusations of sexual misconduct in 2013 against his friend and longtime colleague, “leading member” Martin Smith – always referred to as Comrade Delta. Bennett now spends his days seeking to rehabilitate the party’s tarnished public image and replenish its dwindling membership through his organising work for SUTR and Unite Against Fascism, two campaigning organisations that effectively function as SWP fronts. Sometime over the last few days, the SWP removed some literature from their website describing what they’ve elsewhere called their “central” role in SUTR. I can’t think why, but I have screenshots, obviously.
This is a key SWP tactic – attaching themselves to causes more noble, respectable, or just plain mainstream, than themselves – and will be familiar to any Corbyn supporters who’ve had to put up with their infuriating presence outside rallies at which they’re decidedly not welcome, or any activist who’s unwittingly waved an SWP placard about at a protest because they got handed it and agreed with its message, like “End Austerity and Racism” or “Send Blair to the Hague”. The SWP have long been a guiding force in the anti-racist and anti-fascist movements and, since the dissolution of the Anti-Nazi League in the early 2000s, have essentially exploited the delineation between anti-fascism and anti-racism to diversify their brand: to reach more activists who consider themselves first and foremost one or the other. Or even a Corbyn supporter. Seriously, I almost gave them my contact details on a “Send Blair to the Hague” petition at a Corbyn rally over the summer and had to scribble them off when I saw the SWP insignia, it was really embarrassing and I’m a total mug.
In this LabourList piece co-chair Steve Hart – an Owen Smith supporter who claims to have “spent (his) life arguing against the far-left” – disputes that SUTR functions as an SWP front, on the grounds that he is a figure from the political mainstream, as are the numerous Labour MPs, MEPs and trade unionists serving as co-chairs or vice-chairs. Likewise, a host of politicians left and right have worked with UAF, ranging from Ken Livingstone to Peter Hain to David Cameron. SUTR’s current president is Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott (a close Corbyn ally) but, as co-conveners, Bennett and his UAF comrade Sabby Dhalu (who is not, to my knowledge, a member of SWP) do most of the actual organisational work – for which they might, you imagine, rely quite heavily on those who are most willing to help them: activists from the SWP and UAF, some chapters of which consist virtually exclusively of the former’s members. To be a front is not to be entirely and – if there’s such a thing – transparently run by the SWP: that’s literally just called the SWP. The party, whose organisational capacities exceed those of any other group on the far-left, use these campaigns as a way to recruit new members – often from university campuses – and legitimise their ailing reputation by positing themselves as honourable foot-soldiers in the left’s collective fight against anti-racism. And if you don’t wish to show solidarity with a few extra comrades coming along to smash the fash scum, you can’t really be that serious of an anti-racist, can you?
This is not borne out by the evidence. Among the signatories to the letter urging Corbyn and the other speakers not to appear at the SUTR rally were Black Lives Matter UK, Southall Black Sisters, Bis of Colour, and the London Campaign Against Police & State Violence, as well as many other solidly anti-racist organisations who reject the SWP on the grounds that it is wrong to have any association with them in light of the 2013 rape scandal, stating,
“We cannot build an anti-racist movement organised by rape apologists and anti-feminists. We must end the bankrupt politics of the past, not rehabilitate some of the worst proponents.”
The individuals who signed the letter included some of Corbyn’s most vocal supporters on the left and in the media. Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani, Ash Sarkar and James Butler, Inventing the Future co-author Alex Williams, and the journalist Dawn Foster all lent their signatures, and there is nobody on the list I would identify as being on the right, or having an anti-Corbyn agenda. Owen Jones, one of the slated speakers at the event, pulled out at the letter’s bequest, and everybody – organisers included – seemed to be under the impression that Corbyn wouldn’t be appearing either, for the same reasons. When he did turn up to speak, much of the left was shocked, and started to assume he’d basically lied to cover his arse.
Then a spokesman for Corbyn did respond to supporters’ concerns, and it was far from a satisfactory explanation;
A spokesman for Corbyn insisted the assurance he gave that Corbyn was not attending the SUTR rally was a misunderstanding. It was not meant to imply that Corbyn had pulled out of the event for political reasons, merely that he was busy.
“I spoke to Jeremy and Jeremy said he was due to be in Scotland on Saturday, therefore he wouldn’t be attending the event; so I said to [the UK Black Lives Matter member], he’s not attending. And they’re the words I used – I’ve got the WhatsApp [messages] – Jeremy’s not attending,” the spokesman said.
“Now what they decided to do with that was obviously make it out as though Jeremy was pulling out. But because his plans changed, and because we did the reshuffle last week, he didn’t go to Scotland in the end. So he was free Saturday, therefore he went to the event.”
This isn’t John McTernan’s Telegraph column: I’m not just going to wilfully assume malicious intent on the part of Corbyn and his team in misleading the activists organising the boycott. There is every likelihood that the events went down exactly as Corbyn’s spokesman has described. But the statement does not address why he did not decide to pull out of the event “for political reasons” in the first place, given the gravity of the SWP’s institutional complicity in sexual assault. To see Corbyn share a stage with a man like Weyman Bennett is a punch in the gut for many of his supporters, especially those who are victims of sexual violence. There are some for whom he has now gone completely beyond the pale, who see him as an “enemy of socialism”. To appear at an event with such close ties to the SWP sends out the wrong message on sexual violence; to appear at an event that will certainly alienate some of your core support is just strategically inept. If you factor in the way that Corbyn’s supporters are routinely (albeit ludicrously) portrayed as a bunch of Trot entryists, so maybe it’s not such a good idea to hang out with actual fucking Trots, it was a poor decision on pretty much every level.
Of course, the level on which it wasn’t a poor decision was that is certainly absolutely crucial to stand up to racism (lowercase) in the present political climate. So far, Corbyn has made a good fist of this, steadfastly refusing to call for lower migrant numbers even as the rhetoric of some in his parliamentary party has begun to resemble that of Enoch Powell. Appointing Abbott – a veteran campaigner against racism and passionate defender of immigration – as Shadow Home Secretary was a step in the right direction, but it is time for Corbyn and Abbott to move beyond their historic connections with the tainted old left exemplified by the SWP; useful organising tools as a left-wing backbencher resisting the rightward drift and waning grassroots influence of their party, but now superfluous and irredeemably tarnished. The Labour leadership have over half a million members to try and organise and mobilise, 20,000 or so of them active in the pro-Corbyn campaigning group Momentum. The SWP has traditionally drawn its strength from deficiencies elsewhere in the left. Labour must use its new organisational muscle to outflank the SWP in the activist sphere, and itself spearhead the fight against racism. Corbyn’s appointment of Dawn Butler as Shadow Minister for Black and Ethnic Minority Communities (a heretofore nonexistent position) indicates a willingness to pursue this agenda, but this whole scenario begs the question; why was Corbyn not speaking at a Labour anti-racism event, or at least a Momentum one? Labour as a whole needs to up its game when it comes to organising, engage positively with more relevant, less unsavoury activist groups, and, however involved Abbott is in the day-to-day workings of SUTR as president, that energy would be better devoted to working with Butler on a comprehensive Labour campaign against racism, shorn of the influence of Weyman Bennett and his ilk.
The majority of those most determined to seek some sort of a resolution have long been among Corbyn’s most devoted and, in many cases, most prominent supporters – people who have absolutely no interest in Labour being controlled by anybody other than its left. For all the talk that it is “factionalism” to want no ties with the SWP, a repudiation of rape culture should transcend factional or sectarian divides. Nevertheless, critical supporters have not joined forces with the right in establishing their critique – it is a homegrown one, made on the left’s own terms. The responses of those wilfully blind to this have been quite disheartening.
Particularly dispiriting to witness has been the attempt by some Corbyn supporters, unwilling to accept the criticisms, to claim that they constitute some kind of anti-Corbyn, anti-left plot orchestrated by the Guardian columnist Owen Jones. This is just unbelievable bullshit idiocy, and is best embodied in The Skwawkbox Blog‘s snappily titled ‘SMEAR WE GO AGAIN: ‘SOFT-LEFT’ JOURNOS IGNORE ENOCH OPEN-GOAL FOR FACT-FREE CORBYN ATTACK‘, an utterly oblivious “they’re all out to get us, Tories under the bed” ramble which happened to fall into the hands of the uniquely credulous meme-churning simpleton Dr Eoin Clark PhD, who gave the piece some minor viral notoriety by sharing it with his inordinate amount of Twitter followers as he gormlessly flailed to depict anybody criticising Corbyn as an “Ego Left” traitor to both the Corbynite and anti-racist causes. In the piece, the author completely ignores that the controversy originated from a letter by left-wing activists, and chin-strokingly ponders,
Is it deliberately orchestrated, just unfortunately-timed incompetence or something else? It’s not possible to say definitively, although it’s worthy of note that right-wing Labour MP Jess ‘knife him in the front’ Phillips (who also seems to have missed Tom Watson’s ‘unity memo’) has been prominent among those cheerleading the distraction…
Jess Phillips is not one of my favourite Labour MPs, and I think it’s fair to say we fall down on opposite sides of most issues of internal Labour politics. But to try and pin this on her is palpable nonsense. She was far from one of the first to speak out and, by raising the issue of her leader lending an uncomfortable air of legitimacy to a rape apologist organisation like the SWP, she is doing nothing more than her duty as chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party; as well as – and I’m sure she would identify as such – as a socialist. Her own past links with the party should certainly be called into question, but the Skwawkbox‘s evidence of her “cheerleading” is a screenshot of her saying that three people, at least one of whom I know to be a Corbyn supporter, make her proud to be a member of the Labour Party. Damning stuff. The desire of some to depict a collective moral outrage on the left as the work of string-pulling individuals with a reactionary goal is mind-numbing conspiracy thinking that has as little a place in a left that needs to intellectually flourish as the SWP has in the left in absolutely any conceivable scenario. It’s understandable that Corbyn supporters might feel defensive after a year and a bit of vicious and often spurious attacks from their right – but to refuse to brook any dissent from within our own ranks gives the right an attack line they can turn into headlines like ‘The Slavish Subservience of Corbyn’s Cult’, or something even more insulting to the hundreds of thousands who back his leadership.
Since I posted the above tweet about the Skwawkbox post, my mentions have been RAM-PACKED (i hope u like my topical jokes) with people who don’t follow me, but are apparently Corbyn supporters (the cheek of it), telling me how much they hate Owen Jones, because somebody @’ed him in and started having a go at him; apparently a signal to enough people to fill an SWP meeting (we’re talking at least double digits here) to take a pop. Jones has done nothing wrong and it’s appalling the way some are scapegoating him for taking exactly the line on the SUTR rally Jeremy Corbyn should have done. I’ve had people I haven’t even interacted with block me over this, and seen some of the most loyal Corbyn supporters around accused of purposefully sewing division out of some kind of vendetta against him. And, most troublingly of all, I’ve seen a number of people be extremely dismissive of the women who suffered in the SWP scandal. An average, stultifying conversation on the matter went roughly like this:
CORBYNGREAT1960: What’s so wrong with the SWP, anyway?
ME: Blah blah 2013 rape scandal. Here’s a good article in the New Statesman that explains it way better than I can in 140 characters.
CORBYNGREAT1960: New Statesman? Rape? That looks rather like a smear. You’ll forgive me if I’m a little sceptical of the claim that the SWP are sexual abusers.
ME: Mate, this isn’t a smear coming from the right. Here’s an article that should illustrate this by Richard Seymour, a former SWP member who’s definitely sympathetic to Corbyn, a man he’s written a book about.
CORBYNGREAT1960: I really don’t know anything about this – I mean, it’s not as if you’ve just linked me to two articles explaining the thing I’m currently pontificating about or I could just fucking Google it or something. But I can see without clicking it that the article you have shared is from the Guardian, which is well known for its anti-Corbyn stance.
ME: The article was written two years before Corbyn became Labour leader and, as we’ve established, is by a Corbyn supporter.
CORBYNGREAT1960: But why would Corbyn associate with a party of “sexual abusers”?
ME: I don’t know, why would he?
CORBYNGREAT1960: That would involve Corbyn making an error of judgement – frankly a ludicrous scenario. It is certainly news to me that the SWP are known as a party of sexual abusers.
ME: Yeah but you’ve already conceded you don’t know anything about the case and have no interest in learning more. What was your perception of the SWP prior to this?
CORBYNGREAT1960: A bunch of harmless lefty activists. Little did I know they were ALL rapists!
ME: Yeah, because that’s what I’m saying, that literally every member of the SWP is an actual rapist. An organisation can be institutionally complicit in sexual abuse. When the internal SWP tribunal declared Martin Smith innocent, they asked anybody who disagreed to leave the party. Those who didn’t then, and stayed to fight a losing battle with the leadership, trickled away in the following months and years. Those remaining are the hardcore party apparatchiks who are knee-deep in the culture that allowed this all to happen.
CORBYNGREAT1960: Ah, so I assume you hate Diane Abbott, then.
ME: Like 60% of my tweets are about how much I like Diane Abbott.
CORBYNGREAT1960: You know one of SUTR’s chairs is an Owen Smith supporter?
ME: Ah yes, because if an Owen Smith supporter does something, it must be right.
CORBYNGREAT1960: Why do you not care about a united socialist front against racism? What about Cable Street?
ME: I do care about that, I just think we can do this without propping up rape apologists.
CORBYNGREAT1960: This is literally the most ridiculous thing you’ve said so far. I actually find this kind of hysterical, twisted rhetoric very offensive.
ME: You literally suggested earlier that women’s rape accusations were a right-wing smear.
CORBYNGREAT1960: You’ve been found out. You’ve made an idiot of yourself and your reaction is to accuse me of being a “rape apologist”.
ME: Rape apologist.
CORBYNGREAT1960: I am reporting you to the Twitter authorities.
(These are mostly actual replies from one guy that I’ve changed about slightly to make him look worse than he really is, although I’ve retained the shitty substance of what was said. Unfortunately, he’s not been the only one to come out with this sort of guff. One person literally just kept going “Cable Street?”)
I don’t want to devote too much of this piece to self-justification, but it honestly feels pretty weird to be writing a piece critical of Corbyn. I’m extremely aware that there are more than enough of those going around, and it’s true that his supporters should be extremely cautious about contributing to a thriving anti-Corbyn discourse. It’s become a familiar rite of passage for any budding young opinion writer on the left to score some valuable column inches with a scorching hot “I supported Corbyn, but now I think he is a bad man and a bit shit” take, as the writer Tristan Cross has illustrated. But I still support Corbyn, I don’t think he’s a bad person, and I think he’s done a fairly decent job of his leadership in many ways, considering the incredible obstacles he’s up against. I do think there is room for improvement, however. And now, after he has secured a huge mandate for the second year in a row – and another attempted change of leadership would be so colossally disruptive it could see off the Labour Party for good – is the time to think about what we want our movement to be. I question his judgement regarding how close he should remain to the poisonous organisation that is the SWP, and I think it is important that the movement surrounding him should be an environment in which left critiques of his leadership can be made without the worst intentions assumed. If Corbynism is to thrive as a social movement, it cannot afford to just presume support from large parts of the radical left. As Nick Srnicek writes in his excellent piece for Verso Books, ‘After the Party‘,:
The significance of losing the activist and radical left is perhaps marginal in electoral terms. But this is the group which could actually enable Corbynism to become the social movement it desires to be. This group of people will be the ones organising housing activists, protesting racism and police brutality, providing support to the worst-off in society, and introducing a constant influx of new ideas. If Corbyn’s Labour is to be more than a re-hash of old trade union elite allying with the political elite, it must be receptive to these critiques from the grassroots left. Given the rampant media attack on Corbyn, it is understandable that people are defensive against any perceived critics. But Corbyn supporters must accept that some critiques of Corbyn are right, and that Corbyn is simply a figurehead for something much bigger and more powerful. He is not beyond reproach, and the moment he becomes idolised as such, is the moment that the movement dies. If Corbynism is to actually reach into communities that have been left behind; if it is to build up a counterpower against the (small-c) conservative forces of the media and business elite; and if it is to build a counterhegemonic project – it cannot take its left critics for granted. Otherwise Labour will learn there is more than just the party.
It’s been heartening to see some of the most committed Corbyn supporters I know united in saying that, no matter how much we like the man and wish for his socialist movement to succeed, he is not beyond reproach, and when he gives oxygen to a group like the SWP we must make sure that this does not happen again. In reference to most of his supporters, the “cult” stuff is offensive crap: these are independently-minded socialists who want progressive change, and can’t simply stay silent if they feel that is being stymied. The reasons in this case are simple enough, as I hope I have outlined in this piece, and are best summed up in a paragraph from the letter urging Corbyn to pull out of the SUTR event, entitled ‘Stand Up to Racism: Stand Up to Rape Culture‘:
It is vital for women and non-binary people – particularly people of colour who wish to resist the racism they experience – to be able to organise politically without groups that facilitate or cover up sexual assault. The SWP and the campaigns they lead are demonstrably not capable of offering this.
I’m speculating, but based on Twitter profiles I think there’s a bit of a generational divide in Corbyn supporters’ attitudes to the SUTR affair. As well as a few younger supporters relatively unaware of the SWP’s chequered history, most of those defending him seemed older; veteran socialists, more rigidly ideological than most of his younger supporters, but less familiar with ideas like intersectionality. Their profiles seemed utterly sincere; bereft of trendy irony, memes limited to the LabourEoin canon. Their bios read not “scary clown, Harambe fan, Marxist-Leninist, deselect the slug Smith” but “my heart bleeds for each and every one of the victims of austerity.” Their weak grasp of online etiquette betrayed how their poor grammar was not merely an aesthetic choice, like those lowercase millennials, but the work of earnest hands still grappling valiantly with computer technology. How to bridge this generational gap is anyone’s guess, but good socialist policies are a start.
Corbyn’s office – the leader’s office most responsive to the grassroots in living memory – will hopefully respond to supporters’ concerns with an all-out severing of connections with the SWP and, as quickly as such a thing is possible, a far-reaching Labour strategy to tackle racism. It is reasonable to be optimistic about Corbyn’s response – and hope that other politicians who still apparently feel comfortable sharing platforms with the SWP, such as the former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, will cease to do so too – but in the meantime comrades in the movement need to remind those who think this is the latest Blairite conspiracy that there is nothing radical and progressive about enabling rape apologists, which is the consequence of every second the SWP are allowed to operate in a more legitimate political sphere than the squalid swamp of bubbling shit where they belong.