Debate is more important than optics

By Edward Maltby

Momentum’s “Open Primaries” to select candidates to support in the forthcoming Young Labour elections are a good idea. It’s better for the membership to decide who Momentum backs for Young Labour’s national executive than for head office to announce the line unilaterally.
But the NCG’s decision to exclude Danielle Wright from the running even before the vote got started is wrong.

Wright was booted out of Momentum’s primary as part of a “vetting” process, which unearthed some of her tweets from February, which you can see here.

Wright is a supporter of Socialist Appeal, a left-wing faction in Labour with whom we have some differences. We also don’t agree with the substance of what Wright said in the tweets which have been pulled up, about antisemitism. But we are opposed to her exclusion. Here are three reasons why.

1)“Vetting” is wrong
In general in the labour movement, the membership is sovereign. That’s why conferences or AGMs are generally the highest decision-making bodies; and we regard all-member ballots as the most important kind of ballots. Having someone in head office decide who the membership is allowed to choose between cuts against that principle. The membership should do the “vetting” themselves – by voting against people they disagree with.

This kind of “vetting” comes from an obsession with “optics”, “PR” and with social media. It’s like Peter Mandelson with his “message discipline” – regardless of the rights and wrongs, you use administrative measures to hide anyone who might “look bad”. Our side shouldn’t be doing that. It creates an anxious, panicky and authoritarian organisational culture. This is worse than “cancelling” people: it’s shoving people out of the limelight because you’re worried that they might get cancelled, by someone else. And it means saying that it’s not the members who get to decide on that, but “experts”, who know better. It puts members off engaging in debate: if you might get “vetted” three months or years down the line for reasons you don’t understand, then it’s better not to say anything. Wanting members to speak their minds means wanting them to risk saying the odd wrong thing too!

It is particularly bad that after removing Wright from the race, Momentum declared her opponent to have won “uncontested”. That effectively removes Wright’s ability to appeal. We don’t want the left to internalise the idea that it’s good to stick the boot in to people you disagree with and have power over. Due process has to be for everybody. That is especially important where we disagree with each other strongly.

2) Wright’s tweet expresses views that are very widespread in Momentum
If Wright gets booted for calling Israel an “apartheid state” or saying that the outcry against antisemitism in Labour was a put-up job, then you’re going to have to boot out a very large chunk of Momentum’s membership. Regardless of the political rights and wrongs here, Momentum’s leadership cannot change attitudes such as these by attempting to ban them. Education – such as promoting the reading of That’s Funny You Don’t Look Antisemitic by Steve Cohen – is a better approach.

3) What’s wrong in Wright’s tweet can’t be solved by bans and exclusions.

It is perfectly fair enough to debate whether or not Israel operates a system of “Apartheid”. It is also perfectly fair to say that some of the claims of antisemitism against Labour are overblown, and then argue over where the line is. But if you police those debates too strictly, they stop happening. Wright’s tweet comes down hard on one side of these arguments, and potentially feeds into two bad narratives.

Firstly, that people who are upset about antisemitism in Labour are making it up (or have been fooled by others); and secondly, that if you support Israel’s continued existence, then you’re a racist. The implication of both of these narratives is that the left should be at loggerheads with most Jews (as polling consistently shows that most Jews support the continued existence of Israel, whatever their criticisms of the country’s rulers; and at least a large minority of UK Jews think that Labour has issues with antisemitism). That’s bad. But it is only anti-Jewish indirectly, after several logical progressions.

That’s not to suggest that left antisemitism is less bad because it is often only “indirect” or implied. However, drawing out its logic requires argument, debate, education, etc., necessarily conducted in an atmosphere of free speech; attempting to police such comments as being so beyond the pale as to warrant instantaneous exclusion from elections without no right of appeal cuts against that patient work of political-educational campaigning.

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