Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Antisemitism in Labour: symbolism is not a solution

Momentum and the CLPD are cut from the same cloth – scapegoating one does not absolve the other in Labour’s antisemitism debacle

Symbolic gestures can be important. While achieving nothing or little in themselves, they are a statement of intent, representing larger aim – of which the nitty-gritty may be insufficiently interesting. New Labour’s revision to Clause IV is the obvious example, telling us a bit more about the way in which the party was changing than any single one of Gordon Brown’s mid-1990s economic policies, while in itself not doing very much.

The problem is when symbolism gets in the way of the rest of it. Without the hard work that makes the symbolic gesture accurate, it is representative of nothing.

This could cause an issue when dealing with antisemitism in the Labour party. There is a danger that in the desire to show that antisemitism is being dealt with – and that is important – the task of actually doing it may be lost.

Frustrations on the left of the party about antisemitic behaviour are genuine, but out of that a narrative appears to be emerging around Momentum’s relationship with the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. There are suggestions Peter Willsman has his place on the #JC9 slate, and as such Labour’s National Executive Committee, almost solely because of his place on the CLPD’s executive.

The CLPD has been around for decades, but has never matched the success, in either campaigning or support, of Momentum – which effectively supplanted CLPD as the organisation of the Labour left when it was founded in 2015. Now, the narrative goes, the CLPD has become a repository for people on the left who do not quite fit the idea of Momentum’s make-up as young, vibrant and forward-looking. The former, it is implied, is leeching off the success of the latter. ‘Cranks’ is the word many on the party’s left have used about their fellow-travellers. It is these cantankerous ‘cranks’ who give Corbynism a bad name, with ill-advised outbursts at meetings and passing motions in support of Ken Livingstone and Marc Wadsworth.

If this narrative gains traction, then a course of action could be decided upon whereby Momentum loosens its ties with CLPD. This would be a symbolic break from the leftism of the past, casting aside the unpleasant old grumblers who have ruined countless branch meetings and who, possibly, are the root of the antisemitism in the party.

Yet, not only would that fail to actually solve anything, the thinking that leads to it does not quite make sense either.

Willsman was not simply granted a place on the #JC9 slate as the CLPD representative. It is not a case of Momentum allowing CLPD to join in the running of the Labour party out of politeness. If you want to see a measure of how much mere politeness plays a role in these things, look at the treatment of Ann Black, unceremoniously dumped from the slate – a move that was always going to cause disgruntlement among the soft left. Momentum did not become successful by being polite.

There is not a gap on the slate marked ‘reserved for the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy’. Willsman is not the only CLPD candidate running: Rachel Garnham, Ann Henderson, Claudia Webbe and Darren Williams all hold positions within CLPD. That is five of the nine candidates.

The two organisations cannot be pulled apart so easily. One group’s membership may be considerably higher than the other, but a Venn diagram of supporters of the two organisations would simply see one circle consuming the other. What some may now see as a repository for ‘cranks’ was actually a repository for their ideology within the party for decades, with deep involvement from Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Jon Lansman. Without CLPD, there would not really be a Corbynism, and while creating a distinction may prove helpful for some within intra-factional infighting, it will not help solve any problems.

Read now: What the responses to Willsman tell us about antisemitism in the Labour party

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Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress

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Conor Pope

is deputy editor at Progress

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