Another Jew suspended for antisemitism – why is the UK Labour Party making such an unedifying spectacle of itself?

What, for example, has happened to the “fair and transparent " disciplinary procedures recommended by Shadow Attorney General, Shami Chakrabarti?

Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi
14 March 2018
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Sheila Scoular (centre) with Helen Watson, Chair of Church End & Monkhams ward, and fellow Labour Party campaigners in Ilford North constituency. Trainee NHS radiographer Syed Siddiqi, aged 30, is an east London lad with Bengali parents. 62 year old Sheila Scoular, a former computer professional, suffers from multiple sclerosis along with cognitive and other impairments. Glyn Secker is a white-bearded Jew in his seventies who captained the Jewish Boat to Gaza in 2010. Three very different people with two things in common – they have fallen foul of the Labour Party's bureaucratic discipline machine and they are leftwing supporters of party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Labour Party members are currently either suspended or under investigation for what seem to be largely concocted misdemeanours. There is no audit of the work of the Governance Unit which prosecutes cases. Activists suspect allegations originate from a small pool of anonymous accusers. Since no accusers are named and no charges published or even made known to those complained about at the time of their suspensions, it is difficult to be sure of anything. It’s an unedifying spectacle.

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Syed Siddiqi (right) with fellow NHS campaigners in the London Borough of Redbridge.What is it that makes a popular young Muslim trade unionist and party activist like Syed Siddiqi so great a threat that he has to be referred to the National Constitutional Committee for possible expulsion?  A host of breaches of party rules, according to the dossier presented to National Executive Committee members by party staff on Tuesday (March 6), including “intimidating, threatening and disrespectful” behaviour. Daring to be chosen to stand as a candidate in local council elections in May, according to his fellow party activists.

“Syed won nearly three times more votes from branch members than the next candidate, who happens to be an ally of MP Wes Streeting,” said Helen Watson, Chair of Church End & Monkhams ward Labour Party and women’s officer in the Chingford and Woodford Green constituency.  Having given evidence for Siddiqi in a hearing with party bureaucrats, she said the questions she was asked “were based on fabrication, tittle tattle and politically motivated spite.”

Siddiqi, Ilford South constituency secretary since 2016, denies all the allegations against him. These began with an accusation on October 6, 2017 of his having made “threatening intimidatory comments” to another party member in a phone conversation the previous month. Siddiqi had recorded part of this call because he claims he was subjected to anti-Muslim abuse in the course of it. He lodged a complaint against the caller, but it is that member's counter-claim against him that is being pursued.

On October 11, a second Notice of Investigation arrived from Sam Matthews, Head of Disputes. It said, without giving any detail, “You are alleged to have neglected your responsibilities as Secretary of Ilford South CLP thus having a detrimental effect upon the CLP, and to have treated members and office-holders in Ilford South CLP in an intimidating, threatening and disrespectful manner.”

On December 7, Siddiqi received a Notice of Administrative Suspension, throwing the CLP council election campaign in Churchfield Ward into disarray by removing him as one of the candidates.

The notice said: “Multiple additional allegations that you may have been involved in further breaches of Labour Party rules have now also come to the attention of national officers of the Party.” Again, there were no specific charges for him to refute.

Siddiqi started a petition in his defence, saying: “The allegations, who made them and the evidence against me have not been disclosed to me nor have I had the opportunity to defend myself.” The petition quickly gained more than 1000 signatures.

In Mid-February he was encouraged by being given an interview date. At last, he would be able to defend himself against specific charges and a report would go to the NEC Disputes Panel on March 6. The hearing at Labour Party headquarters on February 22 turned out to be a six hour inquisition which one of two people who accompanied Siddiqi described afterwards as resembling an interrogation. He was only allowed to have one of them in the room at a time.

The file prepared by full-time party officers and placed before NEC members on March 6 gave only the case for the prosecution – no statements from Siddiqi or his supporters, no reference to the anti-Muslim bullying he had faced, nothing about the hundreds of supportive signatures gathered from his fellow party members; or the endorsement he’d received from an eminent Human Rights barrister with a lifetime in the Labour Party. Protests about the proceedings from a few left NEC members were brushed aside and Siddiqi’s bid to represent Labour in local council elections was history.

Sheila Scoular isn’t up to standing in elections, but she appreciates going to the occasional meeting if someone can give her a lift, taking part in discussions and exercising her right to cast a vote on party issues. She usually votes for the left.

Scoular was totally unprepared for the letter from Sam Matthews, Head of Disputes, which landed in her inbox on March 5. Passive aggressive paragraphs warned that she was under investigation because of (anonymous) charges that “have been brought to the attention of national officers of the Labour Party.”

The letter, from Sam Matthews, Head of Disputes, refers to but does not cite a “definition of antisemitism adopted by the Labour party” and suggests that she has infringed it.

The definition of antisemitism adopted by the party in December 2016 and sent by outgoing general secretary Iain McNicol to members who have asked for it, reads as follows:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

This may not be the most useful definition of antisemitism ever, but it has the virtue of not mixing up attitudes to Jews with attitudes to Israel or Zionism.

The tweets for which she is being investigated on the other hand, one of them more than three years old, all express Scoular’s disapproval of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians and the failure of media and politicians to challenge them. Is Sam Matthews suggesting that such views are beyond the pale of political discourse? She might be better advised to avoid a potentially upsetting reference to Nazis. She should also avoid sharing posts from David Icke’s bizarre website. But there is no hint of “hatred towards Jews” in Scoular’s tweets.

It is hard to see them as justification for giving her just 14 days to answer “a series of questions which require your response.” Scoular has requested a four week extension “in light of my physical health and also pursuant to The Equality Act 2010.”

Murray Glickman, a support coordinator for Jewish Voice for Labour, was with Syed Siddiqi when he faced his inquisitors from Labour’s Governance Unit. Now he’s supporting Sheila Scoular and will be writing to the author of the letter she received, charging him with denying her right to freedom of conscience; misapplying the concept of antisemitism; questioning her in a biased and implicitly racist manner; and ignoring the stipulations of the Chakrabarti Report, released on 30 June 2016.

This report, headed by the former head of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, now Shadow Attorney General, looked into antisemitism and other forms of racism in the Labour party and reviewed the way members’ behaviour towards one another was regulated.

Chakrabarti concluded that “The Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism.” She said there were cases where language used in political discussion fell below acceptable standards of civility, but she was clear that “Labour members should be free and positively encouraged to criticise injustice and abuse wherever they find it, including in the Middle East.”

She stressed the need for “fair and transparent " disciplinary procedures. The party “should seek to uphold the strongest principles of natural justice, however difficult the circumstances.”

People complained against should be “clearly informed of the allegation(s) made against them, their factual basis and the identity of the complainant – unless there are good reasons not to do so.”

Not every concern needed to be addressed by setting in train a formal investigation, Chakrabarti said. “Some members may e.g. have used inappropriate language in complete ignorance of its potential harm. An informal discussion may create an opportunity for resolution and learning in such circumstances.”  

On every one of these counts, Glickman said, both Scoular and Siddiqi had been poorly treated.

We come to the last of our three cases. Glyn Secker is a Unite trade union delegate to Dulwich and West Norwood (DAWN) constituency general committee and political officer for Herne Hill branch. He is one of those members of the Momentum grassroots movement backing Jeremy Corbyn who have only recently managed to break the stranglehold of the Blairite “Progress” faction which had dominated DAWN for years.

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Glyn Secker in 2012. Screenshot: inminds/YouTube“The media depiction of Momentum as an unstoppable Bolshevik juggernaut riding roughshod over a meek and defenceless moderate membership is laughably far from the truth,” Secker said.

“What we’ve faced in DAWN, as in hundreds of CLPs around the country, is a remorseless battle from the incumbent party officials to obstruct new, enthusiastic party members from working to get Corbyn into Downing Street. At our AGM on March 1, we managed to win some semblance of democratic accountability. Then a trapdoor opened under me – an email from the Governance Unit on March 7 telling me that I was the subject of an ‘administrative suspension’ for ‘comments made on social media that may be in (sic) antisemitic’.”

Under party rules, administrative suspension is an urgent action designed to address real threats to public order or disruption of party business. Secker sees this is an outrageous slur: “It is designed to silence me. The tactic is clear – if they cannot win the argument they simply remove their adversary.”

Secker believes his suspension, and readmission five days later, prove what many activists have long suspected – that the Labour party’s governance unit is working in a concerted attempt to take down Jeremy Corbyn supporters. They were trying to pin Secker’s removal to a dirty dossier about a pro-Palestinian Facebook group, which was released on the day of Secker’s suspension, and is being used to smear the Labour leader, generating headlines like this in The Sun:  “ANTI-JEW SHAME – Jeremy Corbyn exposed for being a member of a Facebook group containing anti-Semitic posts.”

Secker’s suspension was dropped when the Governance Unit realised they couldn’t make their allegations stick because the dossier didn’t provide the ammunition they’d been hoping for. In Matthews’s second letter he said as much: “The action was taken in light of the publication of the report into the ‘Palestine Live’ Facebook group.”

The dossier came with an accompanying blog, by self-declared anti-Palestinian activist David Collier, containing the words: “Jewish Voice for Labour need to be thrown out of the Labour Party.”

Secker is secretary of Jewish Voice for Labour, an organisation for progressive Jews in the Labour Party launched at the party conference in September 2017. JVL has been forthright in confronting unjustified and malicious disciplinary actions such as those against Siddiqi and Scoular. Its other main role is to clarify the distinction between Jew, Israeli and Zionist so that people are less likely to fall into antisemitic generalisation when talking about Israel’s role in Palestine.

Secker is far from the first Jew to be accused of antisemitism. This was the original accusation levelled at Tony Greenstein, who was suspended for two years. In Hampstead and Kilburn, Jewish party members have had to resort to letters in the local paper to refute charges of “obsessional Jew-baiting”.  Liverpool Riverside members, including several Jews, face relentless public denunciation. Jackie Walker has been suspended since September 2016.

Most notoriously, Professor Moshe Machover, 81, founder of the Israeli socialist organisation Matzpen, was summarily expelled in October 2017 and then hurriedly but grudgingly reinstated after a storm of protest. He is still demanding retraction of the antisemitism allegations made against him and an apology for his treatment. Glyn Secker will be following suit.

What unites all these Jewish victims of the Labour purge is that they are pro-Palestinian as well as pro-Corbyn. They are critical of the state of Israel and therefore key targets for the pro-Israel advocates who have made common cause with the Labour right. The right fear, and wish to destroy, the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn because he is a socialist; the pro-Israel lobby want the same because he is the first leader of a major western political party to actively support the campaign for justice for Palestine.  On both counts, he is a threat to the political establishment that preceded him and that still controls the Labour party machine – as well as a hate figure for sections of the mainstream media.

David Collier has a history of collaborating with rightwing Zionists with a penchant for disrupting pro-Palestinian gatherings. In December 2016 he and two others were barred from Warwick University campus after they had travelled to the city intent upon denouncing “vile antisemitic slurs” at a lecture advertised by the Palestine Society. It turned out to be an innocuous event about fertility organised by a small group of researchers and students.

His latest dossier appears to reveal some hateful antisemitic material on a private Facebook group, called Palestine Live, set up around 2013. It has no organisational links with any pro-Palestinian bodies and was established by an independent activist as a clearing house for information about Palestine and related activities, most of it anti-racist and human rights related. The majority of those who joined – or simply found that they had had their names added without asking – treated the site as an occasional source of information. As with most sites, few users see more than a tiny proportion of the traffic on it. This is no excuse for the fact that it has carried some clearly unacceptable posts linked to anti-Jewish, Holocaust denial and conspiracy theory websites. Most of those responsible, slightly more than one per cent of the 3,200 group members – have been removed, but not all.

This should not have been allowed to happen. It reminds us of the danger of lax moderation by social media admins and is a warning to casual users to check who else is frequenting seemingly interesting platforms we dip into. But the purpose of Collier’s dossier is not to offer helpful advice to the Labour left. It is to blacken their names – guilt by association – by asserting that they tolerate, or even promote, hatred of Jews. Tellingly, Collier could find nothing to say about Glyn Secker except to suggest guilt by association: he “has had minimal interaction on the site. He posted rarely but was aware of his affiliation with the group.”

Journalist Asa Winstanley, himself one of the dossier’s targets, has described how Collier infiltrated the Labour Party conference in Brighton last year in search of an antisemitic conspiracy. He reports how Collier turned his racism against me, suggesting that having a son with a Muslim father disqualifies me from commenting on Israel and Palestine.

Many mainstream media have picked up Collier’s allegations in the past, reproducing his assertions as if they were gospel truth. The Guardian was one of those to do so this time.

Shouldn’t there have been alarm bells ringing in the Guardian offices where staffer Jessica Elgot penned her article, quoting the dossier without any explanation as to who wrote it or why?

It contains ample warnings of Collier’s highly partisan agenda. This is just one of his snide comments: “We cannot have a modern Labour voter without a little bit of Holocaust denial, can we?” Hardly the words of an independent researcher.

Jackie Walker obliged the Guardian to correct one error in its description of the charges against her. Even so its piece testifies to an alarming media alacrity to accept at face value and without investigation even the most extraordinary antisemitism charges against Corbyn and the left. Doubly alarming, because it’s an obsession that is extending to university campuses and council chambers, threatening free speech and open debate.

It must surely be possible for democratic institutions to recognise an attempted purge when they see one, and to stand against it. That applies to university vice chancellors, to local councilors and to journalists, trade union leaders and members of the Labour Party NEC.

Activists like Helen Watson want an end to the victimisation of Syed Siddiqi, Sheila Scoular, Glyn Secker and all the many others.

“We are abused, called anti-semites, sexists, bullies and bigots – despite many of us fighting for equality and justice all our adult lives,” Watson says. “And for what? For challenging the entitlement of managerialist Blairites whose sole purpose is to use the machine of the party against its members. It really has to stop.”

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