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Jeremy Corbyn’s Suspension From the Labour Party Is Part of a Wider Assault on Democracy and Dissent

Keir Starmer’s disgraceful move to suspend Jeremy Corbyn as a member of the Labour Party doesn’t come out of a vacuum. It’s part of a much wider push to stifle political dissent in Britain by coercive means, in which Starmer is now complicit.

Jeremy Corbyn launches Labour's European Election Manifesto at the Drill Hall Library, University of Kent Medway Campus on May 9, 2019 in Chatham, England. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

As Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn inspired millions because he represented the promise of deep freedom and democracy, for people in Britain and around the world. “We stand with Jeremy Corbyn — just as he has always stood with us,” wrote a collective of BAME organizations, activists, and revolutionaries two days before the 2019 general election. And so defeat at the ballot box wasn’t enough — Corbynism had to be buried.

In his place, Keir Starmer, surrounded by cadres of Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair, hopes to show that he is a trusty custodian of Britain’s decaying imperial state apparatus. What better way — having already waved the legalization of torture and state murder through parliament — than to humiliate the man who threatened to topple this fragile order of domination and misery?

So it was that on Thursday, Starmer suspended Corbyn from the British Labour Party, while the war criminals and torturers who burned Baghdad and caged innocent British Muslims without trial shrieked about the “shame” and “moral failure” of the past five years.

Bringing the War on Terror Home

From the beginning of his ascent in 2015, the war on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was, at its heart, an assault on democracy itself. His opponents never respected his massive mandates from the party’s membership, and the aggressive protection of the Parliamentary Labour Party’s (PLP) primacy by the establishment constituted a sort of proxy battle in defense of Britain’s feudal constitution.

Corbyn was endlessly defamed and delegitimized as a political actor by media oligarchs. The treatment he received from the publicly owned BBC was scarcely fairer than dissidents in autocratic states might expect from official propaganda outlets. But the anti-democratic roots of the war on Corbyn run much deeper.

Margaret Thatcher’s attack on the public realm in the 1980s was not confined to the economy. Neoliberal authoritarianism seeped deep into politics and civil society, too, and New Labour eagerly took up and ran with both elements of this anti-democratic offensive. Especially after 9/11, this form of authoritarian governance took an imperial turn.

One result was a newly empowered security state that perpetrated racialized violence at home and abroad, while aiming to close down public space for mainstream discussion and dissent — all in the name of countering extremism.

What could anti-racism possibly mean for a government waging illegal war in Basra and deploying domestic counterinsurgency tactics in Birmingham? As Liz Fekete, the director of the Institute of Race Relations, has written, internationalist and collective anti-racist struggles and social movements were systematically marginalized, with racism redefined as individual hate or bigotry.

According to Fekete, this shift was enforced by a “highly professionalized and well-funded multi-agency counter-extremism and hate-crime” industry, which has championed “a vacuous struggle . . . which ends up treating the Left and Right as equal carriers of extremism.” One node in this archipelago of quasi-state agencies and NGOs was the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), created in 2007.

“Counter-extremism” thus became a guiding strategy of repression for the British state — or the anti-racism of racists. In its name, successive governments have taken aim at the basic human rights and civil liberties of British citizens. Under the “Prevent” counter-terror agenda, teachers, doctors, and academics were trained by their public employers to monitor and report “criticism of British foreign policy” and “vocal support” for the Palestinian cause on the part of schoolchildren and patients as indicators of extremism.

Simultaneously, definitions of antisemitism were rewritten so as to proscribe all but the most tentative criticism of the state of Israel as racist. Anyone who has been near Palestine and Kurdish solidarity activism — or interacted with Muslim student groups — on British university campuses in the past six years can attest to the chilling environment for political speech and action created by this authoritarianism.

Criminalizing Internationalism

This is how mainstream anti-racist internationalism became racist extremism. The onslaught against Jeremy Corbyn should be understood, then, as an extension of the domestic attack on democracy that accompanied the war on terror.

As Labour leader, Corbyn threatened to uphold some public space in which war and state racism could be freely opposed, and even (it seemed at one fleeting moment) to deliver a majority in the country against Britain’s imperial adventures. The “never-ending story” of smears against him was, fundamentally, a rollback of this democratic promise, and a consolidation of the deeply authoritarian and racist status quo.

One central feature of these attacks has been the entrenchment of a precedent whereby simply outlining objective facts of history or articulating dissenting opinions is deemed illegitimate — even racist — speech. This is the function of Prevent, and of the IHRA “examples of antisemitism,” whose effect has been to erase the Nakba and the facts of Israel’s foundation on calculated, mass ethnic cleansing from public debate in Britain.

This precedent seems to have been embedded by one of the key findings of the EHRC report into “antisemitism in the Labour Party,” released on Thursday. The report argues that “suggesting . . . complaints of antisemitism are fake or smears” — or mentioning the Israel lobby in relation to this charge — can constitute unlawful harassment.

Most dangerously, the EHRC insists that this kind of speech, because it is supposedly antisemitic, is not protected by Articles 10 (freedom of expression) and 11 (freedom of assembly) of the 1998 Human Rights Act. Putting to one side the question of whether talk of smears is helpful or appropriate — this is a matter on which people might disagree in good faith — for an agency of the state to declare such speech illegal should ring alarm bells. On this point, there will, no doubt, be dissenting legal opinions.

In the face of all this, it could not be more urgent for the Left to begin the work of rebuilding internationalist, collective, anti-racist solidarities that unite all racialized groups, outside and against the state.

Starmer’s Stitch-up

Yet despite its holes and dangers, the EHRC report (as many have pointed out) did not offer the slightest basis for disciplinary action against Corbyn. Rather, the predictable media hysteria prompted by the report, wildly out of proportion to its findings, served as a pretext for Starmer to further prosecute his “war on the Left.”

Corbyn was summarily suspended from the party for the crime of articulating a well-documented fact: that there was a chasm between public perception and the reality of the scale of antisemitism in Labour, driven by factional opportunism and media exaggeration. So, while the suspension is a particularly egregious episode, it essentially conforms to a pattern — where statements of fact and legitimate, evidence-based political opinions are disciplined and policed out of public life.

Starmer’s stitch-up is therefore not only an attack on the Labour Left, but part and parcel of a serious threat to democracy. Anyone who cares about freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the maintenance of basic democratic public space should oppose the suspension.

Corbyn’s leadership and the movement that sustained it offered the hope of deep democracy at all levels of society. That is a cause we cannot allow the British state or its aspirant knight of the realm to kill.

Socialists, James Connolly once wrote, are those “enthusiastic in the cause of human freedom.” To stand with Jeremy Corbyn is to hold unflinchingly to that cause, whose banner he has long carried.