Dave Hill: Haringey Labour and Starmer’s challenge

Dave Hill: Haringey Labour and Starmer’s challenge

Turmoil, feuds and complex faction fighting have been constant features of the Labour Party in the London borough of Haringey since an influx of new members accompanied the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, a former Haringey councillor, to the leadership of Labour in 2015.

A successful, Momentum-driven campaign to de-select sitting Haringey councillors deemed insufficiently aligned with Corbyn and his values, resulted in the election in 2018 of Labour run-council of a very different kind to its predecessor. Senior positions in Haringey’s two constituency Labour parties (CLPs) and many of its ward branches were similarly won by Corbyn supporters as the size and entire character of the party’s membership in the borough was transformed.

But with Keir Starmer, a very different Labour leader, taking Corbyn’s place, much energy is now being expended locally on defending the Corbynite insurgency and its particular preoccupations, including over the fraught issue of antisemitism and what constitutes it.

Early last month, Nick Rogers, the chair of Tottenham CLP, was placed under “administrative suspension” by Labour after CLP members defied a ban on discussing Corbyn’s suspension from the party (now lifted) for his response to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s report on antisemitism in Labour and the (continuing) withdrawal of the Labour whip from Corbyn in parliament.

Important facts about the meeting are disputed, but not its key outcome: with Rogers’s blessing, the CLP’s general committee delegates debated motions calling for the parliamentary whip to be restored to Corbyn and expressing “no confidence” in Starmer and Labour’s general secretary David Evans, an Starmer appointee. I’ve seen the latter motion, or perhaps a draft of it, which was circulated prior to the meeting. Among 14 people listed as supporting it was Haringey councillor James Chiriyankandath, an academic with a close interest in Indian politics, Zionism and Islam.

Later in December, members of Haringey’s other CLP, Hornsey & Wood Green, rebelled against the party leader. In an email, Hornsey & Wood Green chair, Celia Dignan, a strong Corbyn supporter, told members Labour’s Region office had been in touch in advance of a general committee meeting saying that a motion tabled for a forthcoming CLP general committee entitled “democracy and free speech within the Labour Party” should not be debated or voted on.

Dignan, an experienced education trade unionist, said she had “decided to explain” the disagreement and, after a vote in favour of debating the motion despite what the London Region had said it was resoundingly carried, the motion itself was carried by 73 votes to none after what Dignan called an “orderly and comradely debate” Her email also records that a number “under 20” declined to take part.

These episodes present obvious challenges to the party’s “new management” under Starmer. How they are dealt with has already excited strong feelings locally and among party members elsewhere and could eventually be of interest to Britain’s voters, as Starmer seeks to build his case that he leads a different kind of Labour Party to that of Corbyn – rejected at two general elections, of course – and personifies a far higher level of decisiveness and competence than has been demonstrated by Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.

Puzzlement has been expressed by some Haringey members who want rid of Corbynism – including some who went along with the pre-2018 councillor deselection drive – that Dignan was not suspended as Rogers was. I’m told that yesterday she announced she is to stand down as Hornsey & Wood Green CLP chair, though this appears not to signal any great shift in the ideological character of those running the CLP.

A ward branch secretary, Anne O’Daly, has been seeking support to be Dignan’s successor. Her nomination statement, which I have seen, pledges that, if elected, she will support MPs in opposing the government “based on democratic socialist principles and Keir Starmer’s 10 pledges”. However, O’Daly is understood to be an ally of Dignan and on Twitter is very supportive of the local council – famously dubbed the nation’s first “Corbyn Council” by a local activist on its formation.

Nick Rogers, who rejoined Labour after Corbyn became its leader, has been a strong defender of Haringey Council leader Joseph Ejiofor in the face of recent, strengthening challenges to his position. He has chaired Haringey’s local campaigns forum – the body responsible for organising Labour activism across the borough since 2018 (though he has had to set that role aside while suspended).

Rogers has a sizeable history of academic exploration of revolutionary socialism. Papers and articles he has authored include The Soviet Economic Debates in the 1920s (2017), Key Debates At CPGB [Communist Party of Great Britain] conference (2011) and Lenin’s Misreading of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme (2018).

He has also also authored The Corbyn Phenomenon (2015), analysing “the likely transformative impact of Jeremy Corbyn’s impending election as Labour Party leader”; Corbynomics and Socialist Strategy (2016); and Marxists and the Labour Party (2015), which considers that relationship in the light of Corbyn’s rise.

Some of Rogers’s output has been published by the Weekly Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The most recent, according this archive, appeared in August 2019 – an exploration of the relationship between writings of Lenin and Marx.

Rogers says he sees “no political inconsistency in taking up offers to write for a range of publications”, pointing out that Keir Starmer has recently written for the Telegraph, which isn’t noted for its Labour sympathies. “I have no problem with him doing that, so long as he doesn’t adjust his political principles to his audience,” he says.

Haringey members hoping that Rogers and others in the same political territory will eventually be expelled from Labour are also exercised about the emergence of screen grabs of posts from a private Facebook group, in which a number of very active Haringey Labour members, including three Haringey councillors, express, applaud and “like” views about Middle East politics and antisemitism. All are from recent years, prior to Starmer becoming leader.

I have seen the screen grabs in question. I’ve decided against reproducing them or identifying those involved. One of the Facebook group’s members expressed readiness to take legal advice and to complain to the Information Commissioner if I did. I doubt such courses of action would make much progress, but On London has neither the human nor the financial resources that might be needed to deal with them. In any case, the words of some of the Facebook posts and the nature of the responses to them convey the sentiments shared well enough.

These won’t surprise anyone who has been following the often bitter arguments about Labour and antisemitism during Corbyn’s time as party leader. One, “liked’ by 16 people, describes as “either the worst kind of political opportunist or fools” those alleged to regard criticism of Israel as inherently antisemitic. In another, responding to media coverage of Labour eventually adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism after much fraught internal debate, a poster wrote: “I’ll not be rendered speechless on Palestine and on the oppressive and discriminatory aspects of an Israeli state that stem from its colonial and exclusivist ethnoreligious character.” This too was enthusiastically “liked” by prominent Haringey Labourites.

A member of the Facebook group took issue with a 2018 analysis of antisemitism in Corbyn’s Labour by journalist Tom Peck of The Independent. Peck was pretty sympathetic to Corbyn himself, agreeing with him that the problem was confined to a small number of Labour members. However, Peck was upbraided in the Facebook group for observing, “At every mass rally he has gathered over the last few tumultuous years, there will always be at least one Palestinian flag in the crowd, with an ‘anti-Zionist’ message”. A member of the group observed that: “What some of those who say they want to address anti-Semitism in the Labour Party are doing is making sympathy and solidarity with the Palestinian people a ‘hate crime’ in British public life.”

Some students of these matters regard such observations as unpleasantly typical examples of antisemitic discourse within certain Labour Party circles of late. Those responsible for them self-evidently do not.

They, and a number of other observations about Israel, antisemitism and Labour made in the privacy of the Facebook group were brought to the attention of Labour’s London Region and national officials a while ago. The party will reach its own view about what to do about them, just as it will about Nick Rogers and others involved in the defying of instructions against debating certain motions last month.

At the heart of all this lie large questions about members’ acceptance of Keir Starmer’s authority and compliance with party rules. Loyalty to Corbyn when he was leader and stern punishment of any deviation from it have been hallmarks of Corbynism in Haringey. In 2019, for example, Rogers and Dignan produced a joint statement in support of the expulsion from Labour of a councillor judged to have “repeatedly expressed her support” for the ill-fated Change UK Party by re-tweeting things on Twitter.

“What’s the point of Starmer?’ tweeted Haringey councillor and ardent Corbyn loyalist Seema Chandwani earlier this month. Some Labour members in the borough may have a clearer idea about that before too long.

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