Dear Fiona

For some time now, Christopher Prendergast has been in occasional contact with Fiona Millar in her capacity as a journalist (on the Guardian) and campaigner for state education. This led to her being interviewed by KR in 2016. She is also a life-long member of the Labour Party (married to Alastair Campbell, whom we also interviewed, and a former aide to Cherie Blair). In the August 4 issue of the Guardian, Fiona published an article explaining why she is now close to leaving the Labour Party. The following article (in the form of an ‘open letter’) is Chris’s response, in which he highlights two themes in particular: the divisions around Brexit and the row over antisemitism. The letter is also ‘open’ in another sense: extendable and revisable in the light of unfolding developments.




Forgive my dropping in out of the blue, but, as a warm admirer of your untiring efforts for the cause of education in this country, I wanted to say a few words about your Guardian piece on why you are close to leaving the Labour Party. I entirely agree with what you say on the issue of Corbyn’s (non)leadership over Brexit. Indeed I would add something that, as far as I know, has not yet been fully addressed. Corbyn has said not only that he voted Remain, but that if the vote were held again he would vote Remain again (unlike the opportunist Tory Remainers who now declare themselves Leave converts). But Corbyn also says he objects to the Single Market because its competition rules would block implementation of his economic policies. Put to one side whether this is true or not, one thing is clear: this is inconsistent with having voted Remain, which by its very nature commits you to the Single Market. Corbyn’s position is incoherent. Until he squares that circle, he forfeits my support. And, if he can’t square it, at the very least he should come out in support of the second referendum for which many in his party, and crucially among his supporters, have been campaigning. His reported attempts to block a vote on this proposal at the forthcoming Labour Party conference do not augur well.

However, on the other principal reason you give for deserting Labour, I couldn’t disagree more. Corbyn has not handled the ‘antisemitism’ row well. But most of those who criticize him are, in my view, infinitely more deplorable. Margaret Hodge keeps telling us that she lost family in the Holocaust. So did I, but I do not see that as a ticket to surfing on the wave of a hysterically abusive form of induced indignation, screaming in the face of the leader of the Labour Party that he’s a racist and an antisemite. Yvette Cooper et al — including a gaggle of trade union leaders (“Jeremy must take one for the team”) along with a ladleful of gobbledygook from former PM, Gordon Brown — go on and on about adopting the IHRA definition ‘in full’. In your article you appear to echo that demand. It is a red herring; the LP has already adopted the definition in full. The argument is about the illustrative examples, and one in particular: the association of Israeli statehood and the right to national self-determination with ‘racism’.  The distinguished lawyer, Stephen Sedley, has lucidly explained how adoption of this ‘’example’ can be used to close down legitimate criticism. I note in that connection that none of the grand-standing Labour Party moralizers banging on about the necessity of including the example have had a single word to say about the recent vote in the Knesset, lauded by the truly dreadful Netanyahu, which expressly restricts the ‘right’ to ‘national self-determination’ to the Jews of Israel, while at the same time removing from Arabic its status as an official language.

It was thus with a sickening feeling in my stomach that I turned back to the 2016 speech given by deputy leader Watson in Israel as a member of LFI, in which he praises Israel for its commitment to the ‘equality’ of Jew and Arab. As far as I know, he has issued no public statement on the Knesset law. Daniel Barenboim has called it ‘racist’ and rightly so, if in the peculiar form of reserving the ‘right’ to one category of ‘Semites’ while withholding it from another, thus adding something to the special class of the ‘antisemitic Semite’. Hitherto the only version of that I am familiar with is that of the so-called ‘self-hating Jew’. I wonder if Sedley has been subjected to that abuse. It was regularly thrown at my late friend, Tony Judt, for having quietly and wisely reminded us that ‘we should beware the excessive invocation of “anti-Semitism”’ and his more provocative but equally wise rejection of the questions both begged and excluded by Yossi Kupwasser’s notorious equation: ‘Anti-Zionism and antisemitism are the same lady in a different cloak‘. There are anti-Zionists who are also antisemites, and there are those who are anti-Zionists because they are antisemites, but also all those who fall into neither of those two groups. Kupwasser’s lady is dressed so as to exclude them.

Alistair Campbell and partner Fiona Millar attend the funeral of former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy in 2015. Source: Zimbio.

One can debate whether the disputed ‘example’ inevitably has the effect highlighted by Sedley, although, if the jury is still out on this, I do not myself see how, in terms of logic and fairness, it could do anything other than declare for Sedley. The calibre of debate is certainly not enhanced by the Guardian’s deputy editor, Jonathan Freedland, playing metaphysical tunes on his journalistic fiddle while Rome burns, parsing the ontology of definite and indefinite articles in relation to what it means to speak of the ‘existence’ of the state of Israel (‘the’ state of Israel is an enduring transcendent essence floating in an ideological safe space above all the contingent manifestations of ‘a’ state of Israel at any given historical moment). This is pitiful nonsense; the state is only and always its historical manifestations; its ‘existence’ consists in how it actually exists. A nice further touch is Freedland’s chutzpah in subsequently lecturing Corbyn on the importance of ‘precision’. It’s a good point as such, but its maker fails to acknowledge that, in the department of imprecision, it takes one to know one. But perhaps top of the pops for the flagrantly disingenuous are loyal Lisa Nandy’s contributions to discussion (in an interview with the Financial Times), especially her peculiar conjoining of adjectives and adverbs (the leadership’s attitude is ‘fairly inexplicable’ and the corresponding threat to the party’s future ‘quite existential’). I suppose the clunky grammar reflects a clunky hedging of political bets, inexplicable but not altogether, existential but not entirely. Here’s another, and not unrelated, hedge, the wink- wink riff by the lass from Wigan, presumably for her constituents, on the current Great Divide in the Labour Party, which according to Nandy is ‘between those who are advocating for an agenda that is very liberal, feels quite cosmopolitan, very global in outlook — and those who are speaking much more for security, social conservatism, the sort of things I hear all the time in Wigan’. The ironies just don’t stop accumulating. What in earlier times was the group most closely identified with the rootless ‘cosmopolitan’, or citizen of the world, aka from nowhere? The Jews of course, the sort of thing Hilaire Belloc had in mind when he wrote: ‘I do object most strongly to Jewish cosmopolitan influence’. However there is no hedging at all when it comes to the crunch: the failures of the ‘leadership’ in connection with the anti-Semitism row, according to Nandy have produced ‘a complete breakdown of trust’. No equivocations there from someone billed, incredibly, as potential future leader, but a question remains: whose trust in whom?

And then there are the moments when one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Your piece appeared in a Saturday issue of the Guardian. How on earth, Fiona, could you even have considered disrespecting the Sabbath? I ask because in precisely the same issue we read of the following response to a piece by Corbyn: ’The Board of Deputies of British Jews criticised the Labour leader’s “ill-timed and ill-conceived” article for the Guardian on Saturday, the sabbath and therefore traditionally a day of rest’. So Corbyn’s timing is an insult, further ‘proof’ of his tolerance of the anti-Semite. I thought at first glance that this was a (rather good) Jewish joke. It wasn’t. For me, it was the moment the game was up. The clincher came with a later article (also in the Guardian of course, indeed where else these days?) with the stunning proposition that unless Labour adopts ‘full’ IHRA, examples and all, it cannot be a ‘credible critic of Israel’. And so we see what the aim has been all along: locking the door and throwing away the key. Either talk on our terms or lose your right to be heard.

My apologies for going on about this. It is to explain why, as someone who has always voted Labour in both local and general elections, I too would be inclined to desert Labour over this row, but for the exact opposite reasons from yours. If the Labour leadership finally capitulates by including this contentious IHRA example, that will be the moment I walk out the door. There has been much talk of ‘shame’ in this furore (Watson’s ‘vortex of shame’, Ian Austin’s shame at being ‘a member of the Labour Party’). If that’s what Austin really feels, why doesn’t he do the honourable thing and quit. To my eye this looks like the shame of the shameless.The real thing is to be found in the statement from Gila Zamir, the 58 year-old Jewish Israeli woman from the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Haifa, protesting against the new law on the streets of Tel Aviv: ‘I feel ashamed that after 70 years I have to accentuate my nationalism instead of being generous toward all who live here’. Or, since he just passed away, we might want to recall that great Israeli socialist, Uri Avnery, a 1948 war veteran, once a Knesset member, and implacable opponent of Netanyahu and his ilk. Six years ago Avnery spoke to author and Independent journalist Robert Fisk of the settlements policy in the West Bank: ‘the real question is: if this policy goes on, what kind of state will it be? As it is today, it is an apartheid state, a full apartheid in the occupied territories and a growing apartheid in Israel – and if this goes on, it will be full apartheid throughout the country, incontestably’ Barenboim’s sense of shame echoes Avnery’s brisk indignation, a million miles from the fake forms of saeve indignatio circulating inside the Labour Party, and the base dishonour of Watson’s saccharine drivel.For myself, I would be ashamed to vote for a party that had yielded to demands to identify what Avnery and Barenboim have said as complicit in or indistinguishable from ‘antisemitism’, and intend to act accordingly should that turn out to be the case. I salute Corbyn for his refusal to bend to this relentless pressure. On the other hand, it now looks – notwithstanding Sedley having been invited to make a submission to the NEC – as if a fudge is being cooked up whereby the contested ‘example’ will be incorporated provided that a way is found to protect ‘legitimate’ criticism of Israel. Good luck with that. It’s hard to see how the fudge would end up as anything other than a capitulatory cop-out. In which eventuality, I’m headed for the exit.

I repeat, Fiona, that I write to you about these difficult matters from a position of immense respect, indeed because of that respect. It is a rare experience these days, as well as a huge relief, to find oneself in a world of differences that can be inhabited sanely.

PS There have been many further developments since I signed off. Several Labour MPs have, it seems, been visited by feelings of ‘homelessness’, Mike Gapes ‘agonizes’ over his membership, though only Frank Field has actually resigned (and even there solely the party whip, claiming he’s still a party member or thinks he is). But if that looks like logic stood on its head, what to make of former chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, weighing in with a take on the logic of meaning and reference that makes Freedland’s riff on definite and indefinite articles look philosophically compelling. Sacks has said that when Jeremy Corbyn used the word Zionist it was code and meant Jews. How so? Not, as it turns out, because antisemite Corbyn equates Zionist and Jew, but because Sacks does. Zionist had to mean Jew, and both terms have refer to the same thing, by virtue of the fact that the ‘majority’ of British Jews are Zionists. If these are the determining equations, where, one might ask, do they leave the minority of non-Zionist British Jews? Are they Jews too?  Meanwhile, the fudge I anticipated has arrived, with a further contribution to inside-out logic. Notwithstanding the arguments of the lawyers (Sedley, Robertson, Gould), the contested ‘example’ which prohibits descriptions of the state of Israel as racist has now been adopted by the Labour Party NEC, but with an accompanying ‘clarification’ that protects the right to freedom of speech in criticizing the state of Israel (Corbyn’s own draft having been rejected). Opponents of the ‘clarification’ have, quite rightly, objected that this ‘drives a coach and horses’ through the vote to accept ‘full’ IHRA, since under freedom of speech we can echo Daniel Barenboim in, also quite rightly, describing the new Basic Law on statehood and national self-determination as ‘racist’. In short, it seems the Labour Party has entered an Alice in Wonderland world where the logic of either/or has been suspended, a world in which characterizing the Israeli state as discriminatory is both antisemitic and not antisemitic. When farce takes over, all that is left is satire.

One thing is for sure: Mr Netanyahu, lately seen shaking hands with that lovely man, Rodrigo Duterte, and good friend of well-known Judeophile, Viktor Orbán, must be laughing all the way to the political bank. In the meantime, we are left to ponder this principle, enunciated by Labour MP Luciana Berger with a vehemence that suggests unusually secure access to the higher moral truths: ‘It is a fundamental anti-racist principle that oppressed groups define their own oppression, not anyone else. The Jewish community must be allowed to define the anti-Semitic hate that is directed towards it, not some members of a Labour party working group’. Leave on one side the question-begging circularity of this argument (if the oppressed group is to define the oppression, who decides what is to count as an oppressed group?). But, for argument’s sake, let’s hold Berger’s assertion to be true, even if that were to mean white supremacists self-defining as oppressed and in charge of describing the nature of that oppression. But, less caricaturally, if what Berger says is true, we should surely be asking whether she will extend the same courtesy to Palestinians’s ‘perceptions’ of how they are treated by Israel, and, if so, what in her view is likely to follow? Might what follow be that, if the Palestinians define the Basic Law and its state supports as discriminatory after the fashion of ‘racism’ or ‘apartheid’, we must not only accept that, but also be free to speak out against it without fear of being branded antisemites?

Christopher Prendergast is a life fellow at King's College, Cambridge and on the editorial team of King's review. He contributes regularly for the London Review of Books and New Left Review.