Labour Party

Martin Bright, Livingstone and Chakrabarti

In the light of news that Shami Chakrabarti joined the Labour Party the day she was appointed to head an inquiry into antisemitism, it is worth revisiting a somewhat weird article written by Martin Bright for the Jewish Chronicle a week or two ago.

Bright kicks off with a story of an interview he conducted with Ken Livingstone shortly after it was announced Livingstone would be the Labour candidate for mayor in 2012. Bright reports that their conversation went something like this:

“You are one of those writers who began on the left and then drifted to the right,” [Livingstone] said. I told him I didn’t accept his sweeping categorisation of writers who challenged his stance on extremism as Islamophobic. This was not just insulting and inaccurate, but potentially dangerous.

He dismissed my concerns and embarked on a rant about how he knew I had made the journey from left to right when I ended up at the JC. I was open-mouthed when he linked the paper in a circuitous and incoherent argument to “CIA money”. Thinking back, I guess he meant that the JC’s commitment to Zionism made it, by its very nature, part of the propaganda arm of American imperialism.

It was then that he launched into a discussion of Zionism itself. He mentioned Lenni Brenner, an obscure American Trotskyist I confessed I hadn’t read, and his work on the historical links between Zionism and Hitler. “What you have to realise is that there were close links between the founders of the state of Israel and the Third Reich,” he said.

I remember looking around me and hoping no one was listening. The CIA, Zionism, Hitler: I was being cornered by every conspiracy theorist I had ever met in the form of one of the most recognisable figures in political life.

I had once been impressed by Livingstone’s maverick “rainbow coalition” politics but the final scales dropped from my eyes. His hostility to Israel and Zionism was, I felt, visceral. He was dripping with hatred and rancour that went beyond a concern about Israeli human rights abuses (in fact he didn’t once mention the suffering of the Palestinian people).

All very interesting, don’t you think? But, from what I can tell, this was not reported at the time. Bright’s article certainly gives the impression that he is disclosing hitherto unknown information and he does not link to a previous article in which he reported and exposed Livingstone’s stated views.

We have just seen large sections of the centre-Left dismiss questions about Sadiq Khan’s support for extremists and – worse still – declare the asking of such questions to be ipso facto evidence of bigotry and racism. The nasty business of tackling the Left’s relationship with the Islamic far-right was suddenly subordinated to the pursuit of political advantage. It would be dismaying if Bright likewise suppressed what he knew about Livingstone’s views because he wished to spare the Labour Party political embarrassment.

Bright then goes on the advertise his own role in the recent appointment of Chakrabarti as head of an inquiry into antisemitism (“and other forms of racism”, of course) in the Labour Party. He recommended her because she had once made encouraging noises about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism during a 2011 interview with the Chronicle. Bright writes:

Last Thursday evening I was told that Mr McDonnell was in favour of an inquiry, although there was still resistance from some in Mr Corbyn’s office. The only difficulty was finding someone who would be trusted by all sides. I suggested Shami Chakrabarti as I remembered from an interview with the JC that she was tough on antisemitism disguised as anti-Zionism. I passed her number on to my contact on Mr McDonnell’s team and I know it was given to Seb Corbyn, who was working hard to get the inquiry off the ground.

I know there is a considerable degree of skepticism about the inquiry, particularly as there is a view that Labour’s Jewish problem starts at the top, but I happen to believe Shami Chakrabarti is an honest broker, whose reputation has too much to lose from a whitewash.

I take some satisfaction from my small contribution, and I sincerely hope that the involvement of the former JC Political Editor in the choice of inquiry chair will not lead to the inevitable slurs. This is not a Zionist conspiracy; it is the right thing to do.

But here is what Chakrabarti had to say at yesterday’s press conference:

“There is no hiding from the fact the trigger for this inquiry was concerns about antisemitism. But antisemitism being a form of racism, it would seem odd to me to say the least not to look at all forms of racism, including Islamophobia.”

Chakrabarti does not appear to understand that antisemitism is a peculiar form of conspiracist racism that requires its own analysis, and that it is one to which those hostage to left-wing axioms about power, control, wealth, neocolonialism, systems of oppression and all the rest of it are particularly vulnerable. That is the whole reason for the fucking inquiry in the first place. Furthermore, she does not seem to understand, still less acknowledge, that in radical Left and Islamic Right circles, antisemitism is considered evidence of a commitment to other forms of anti-racism.

Bright’s declared satisfaction with his own role in her appointment already seems badly misplaced. Chakrabarti’s decision to join the Labour Party the day she was appointed to investigate it strikes me as monumentally stupid – presentationally stupid, politically stupid, and ethically stupid. Furthermore, her brief remarks to Bright in 2011 notwithstanding, she does not appear to understand the terrain she has been asked to map, and her expressed sympathies for extremists go far beyond what ought to be acceptable or morally and politically hygienic. If remarks like those she made about Moazzam Begg have not damaged her reputation, it is hard to imagine that it will suffer from a report which will, more likely than not, simply be a collection of platitudes and false equivalences.

Amazingly, Bright worries that his involvement in Chakrabarti’s appointment and his subsequent endorsement may be misconstrued as Zionist interference. On the contrary, his preemptive endorsement, generously bestowed from the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, will be a perfect fig-leaf for Labour should the report turn out to be rather less rigorous than Bright presently supposes.