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Niki Ashton Has No Reason to Apologize for Meeting With Jeremy Corbyn

Canadian NDP MP Niki Ashton has faced absurd attacks for agreeing to join an event with British Labour politician Jeremy Corbyn. Canada’s Left should see the absurd charges of antisemitism against Ashton and Corbyn for what they are: an attempt to delegitimize socialist ideas.

New Democratic Party (NDP) MP Niki Ashton. (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

New Democratic Party (NDP) MP Niki Ashton has come under fire from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) for her intention to participate in an upcoming virtual event — “Building Solidarity” — with former UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

“Corbyn’s brand of politics creates space for antisemitism and hate to take root,” reads the joint statement with the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BOD), which cites the allegations about the Labour Party’s “antisemitism problem” under Corbyn’s leadership.

The CIJA-BOD statement denounced the invitation to the man it called a “disgraced” former leader “to spread toxicity in Canada.” It accused Ashton and fellow progressives in the NDP of pulling the party in a direction that is “antithetical to basic Canadian values.”

Ashton told Jacobin that she considers it “very evident” that many people — including so-called progressives — are “eager to demonize the Left and people like Corbyn.” She rejected the allegations of antisemitism against the former Labour leader, noting Corbyn’s long history of “standing up against racism and in solidarity with oppressed peoples.”

The importation of smear tactics from the UK to muzzle left-wing political currents is not entirely novel in the Canadian political landscape. But the furious reaction that followed the announcement makes this an important moment for the Canadian left. It’s vital that we recognize bad-faith attacks like this for what they are: an attempt to delegitimize the entire socialist left.

Smears and Solidarity

Progressive International (PI), a group whose stated mission is to “unite, organize, and mobilize progressive forces behind a shared vision of a world transformed,” is hosting the talk on March 20th. PI stresses the need for the political left to “put forward an unapologetically bold vision for our collective future”:

Around the world, people are faced with crises in common: growing inequality, the rise of the far right and the threat of climate change. The system is broken, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Niki Ashton explains that PI wants to focus on the importance of international solidarity, particularly when it comes to Latin America, where “our government is complicit in pushing down popular movements.”

PI itself responded to the CIJA-BOD criticism in a robust statement, declaring that it “abhors the weaponization of Jewish pain against the project of socialism and the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the United Kingdom.” Ashton, too, deplores the accusations. She worries that “we are witnessing the weaponization of antisemitism”:

We saw it in full force. And I was very disappointed to see people who identify as “progressive” using lies and smears to attack Jeremy Corbyn and seek to dismiss an event whose main goal is building solidarity.

Defaming Corbyn

What is the substance of the case against Corbyn, to which the CIJA and the BOD referred? From 2018 onward, there were repeated claims that antisemitism had become an “institutionalized” feature of the Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership. However, these claims relied upon the routine conflation of support for Palestinian rights with hostility to Jewish people — with particular reference to the highly controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism — and on a pattern of false or grossly misleading media reports that wrongly gave people the impression that antisemitic incidents were rife in the party.

Time after time, the British media presented accusations as proven facts while dismissing proven facts as conspiracy theories. The CIJA-BOD’s claim that Corbyn is now a “disgraced” figure hinges on his suspension from the Labour Party by its current leader Keir Starmer. But this was a crude factional move by Starmer that had nothing to do with ethics or legality.

Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published a report last October on antisemitism in the Labour Party. The EHRC is a state-funded body whose chair is appointed by the British government, and it has consistently refused to investigate the Conservative Party for racism, despite multiple requests. Its report was questionable and tendentious in many respects. But it implicitly contradicted a high-profile BBC documentary that had accused Corbyn of protecting antisemites among the party membership and offered no support to the media narrative that presented Labour as being riddled with antisemitism under his watch.

Corbyn’s statement in response was mildly critical of the EHRC — “I do not accept all of its findings” — but concentrated on the bigger picture:

Anyone claiming there is no antisemitism in the Labour Party is wrong. Of course there is, as there is throughout society, and sometimes it is voiced by people who think of themselves as on the left. Jewish members of our party and the wider community were right to expect us to deal with it, and I regret that it took longer to deliver that change than it should. One antisemite is one too many, but the scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media. That combination hurt Jewish people and must never be repeated.

The 2019 general election had been preceded by claims that Corbyn’s party posed an “existential threat to Jewish life in Britain” and even that Corbyn himself wanted to “reopen Auschwitz” — with the latter assertion having been made by a respectable media commentator, Simon Heffer, not an obscure crank on the internet — so the idea that there was anything controversial about his statement was absurd.

Nevertheless, Starmer and his ally, the Labour general secretary David Evans, used it as an excuse to force Corbyn out of the party. A panel from Labour’s National Executive Committee soon found the suspension to be groundless, but Starmer refused to readmit Corbyn to the Parliamentary Labour Party as an MP. Corbyn’s reputation as a lifelong progressive activist — activism which has included fighting antisemitism — has suffered. In spite of this character assassination, Corbyn remains a prominent figure for the international left, with support from politicians like Spain’s Pablo Iglesias and Bolivia’s Evo Morales (just as he supported Morales after the right-wing coup of 2019).

According to Niki Ashton, she, “like a lot of people on the Left in Canada,” finds the former Labour leader to have been a vital force in reshaping the Anglo-American political terrain:

I’ve been inspired by the movements that people like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have built in their own countries. Movements that bring struggles for justice together to take on the big challenges of our time. The energy that Corbyn helped create is still there.

An avowed democratic socialist, Ashton has long been on the NDP’s left flank — particularly when it comes to Israel-Palestine, a deeply contentious issue within the party. She has been outspoken about her desire for a more radical politics in Canada, running as a socialist candidate for the NDP leadership race in 2017.

Ashton looks forward to hearing Corbyn’s responses to questions she feels are important for the Left in Canada: “What does it take to put forward a progressive vision here in our own country? And how can we build solidarity in our own communities and around the world?” She explains why she believes his participation at PI’s event will be invaluable:

He’s led a movement for public ownership, for the defense of working people, a movement that is explicitly antifascist — these are all things we would benefit from learning about here, where we have the same kinds of challenges.

All Smoke, No Fire

Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV), an organization focused on “justice and peace for all in Israel-Palestine,” called the CIJA’s press release “a brazen attempt to smear” Ashton:

The fact that the CIJA would attempt to discredit such an event demonstrates the lengths they will go to delegitimize progressives such as Ashton and Corbyn, simply because of their support for Palestinian human rights.

IJV’s response also questioned the findings of the EHRC’s report and insisted that while “antisemitism is a problem in the UK, as it is in Canada,” there is “absolutely no evidence” that the issue was worse under Corbyn than other Labour leaders or, for that matter, than in any other British party. The group linked the attacks on Corbyn to his support for progressive causes:

There was an orchestrated campaign to attack Corbyn’s political platform which unapologetically stood for Palestinian human rights, anti-racism, and fighting corporate power. All this was done under the guise of fighting antisemitism.

Corey Balsam, IJV’s national coordinator, remarked: “We can disagree on his political platform, but Jeremy Corbyn is no antisemite.”

The NDP Response

The NDP has been largely silent on the controversy. Nina Amrov, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s press secretary, put out a statement affirming that Singh and his party are “committed to fighting antisemitism and will continue to push the Liberals to take more concrete actions, like tackling online hate, to combat it.” In the past, Singh’s relationship with Corbyn has been amicable.

A party spokesperson told Postmedia that Ashton hadn’t asked for permission to take part in the event and that the party had learned of it just before the announcement went live on social media. Ashton disputed this on a recent podcast interview, saying organizers had indeed told the party about the event in good time. A few of Ashton’s NDP colleagues, like Svend Robinson, offered her solidarity and criticized the party for not sufficiently defending her against the attacks.

However, Rick Smith of the Broadbent Institute — a social-democratic think tank with long-standing ties to the NDP — actually joined in with the CIJA dog pile. On Twitter, he wrote that Corbyn was “not the sort of person that should headline a progressive fundraiser or occupy the time of Canadian progressive leaders.”

Punching Through

Despite the controversy, the March 20 event is still going ahead. As Ashton explains:

Some of the attacks, even amongst progressive circles, had the intention of silencing us. So we’re keen to punch through that and make sure everybody knows that this is going to be a positive, solidarity-building event.

She says that the talk will cover a range of topics, including “organizing, bold economic policy like nationalizing — and harnessing public power to take on an ownership role in our economy — and international solidarity.”

“We want to hear about Corbyn’s new initiative on peace and justice and building international solidarity,” Ashton concludes. “And I want to bring to Corbyn’s attention some of the struggles we have in our own country, which are a clear reflection of the ways in which the system is broken.”