The Young Labour conference in Scarborough this weekend has seen the triumph of the Momentum Youth and Student slate in the elections for the Young Labour national committee. The sweeping victory of the Left for the first time in 30 years presents an opportunity to create a movement capable of attracting not those who want careers in politics but those who were enthused in such large numbers last summer by the prospect of a new kind of politics. Unfortunately it is marred by the dirtiest contest for an internal election I have ever witnessed.
What the Labour Party needs is a generation of activists motivated by idealism and hope with the ambition to make the world a better, greener, more equal place, with communities that care about peoples’ needs, and workplaces that develop skills and offer secure jobs with proper wages. Not another, much smaller generation of people who would provide yet more identikit MPs in suits, of whom the British public have already seen too many.
On the national committee, of thirty three seats (with the NEC representative still in doubt) only six are from the right-wing slate — two seats elected by the conference, three Labour Student reps and one young Fabian. All eleven seats elected by a one-member one-vote ballot of all young members of the party to represent Scotland, Wales and the English regions were left candidates as is Caroline Hill, a primary school teacher, who was elected as chair.
Although the result of the election for Young Labour‘s representative on Labour’s national executive was declared with the Progress/Labour First candidate Jasmin Beckett winning by the narrowest of margins, 49.55% to 49.41% for Momentum‘s James Elliott, with 1.05% declared as spoiled ballots, the result is still hotly disputed. The wafer-thin winning margin could have been overturned by a single student or union delegate. Last night, James Elliott sought a recount but was refused by the returning officer, Stephen Donnelly (until recently Chair of Scottish Labour Students leader and a recruiting serjeant for Progress accused of bullying young students in the process), in a manner described as “rude” and it is expected that the declared result of the election will be challenged, as it already has been by Unite, in a number of formal complaints this week about the way the election and the conference was conducted.
According to a report by Labour Students, allegations relating to the conduct of individual Young Labour party members have already been received by the Labour Party which “is now conducting an investigation. Baroness Jan Royall has been appointed to lead this investigation.” It is thought that investigation will cover at least two main areas of complaint:
- The charges of antisemitism made originally by the resigning co-chair of Oxford University Labour Club (OULC), Alex Chalmers, on 15 February citing the club’s decision to endorse Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) as the immediate cause but also claiming that “a large proportion of both OULC and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews.” This was later actively used against two candidates in Young Labour elections, James Elliott and Max Shanly, though early reports in student newspaper Cherwell, the Mail, Independent, Telegraph and even Guido don’t mention them and later reports which do mention them are remarkably lacking in actual allegations.
- Allegations that Jasmin Beckett seriously violated the candidates’ code of conduct by disparaging James Elliott “labelling him as antisemitic to a large group of young members” and encouraging her supporters to do likewise using Facebook and Twitter labelling him an antisemite. The full complaint, first revealed by the Morning Star on Saturday, lists several statements by Jasmin Beckett doing just this backed up by screenshots (of which the unedited version is here) including such comments as “Just get a few people tweeting saying ‘shocked my union GMB are supporting James Elliot who is antisemitic’ or something??”, “at the end of the day do you actually want an antisemite as NEC rep? Think people need to know” and “Think it’s appalling behaviour and the fact he could become the next NEC rep is scary.”
Now some, like former Young Labour NEC rep Bex Bailey writing in the Murdoch Red Box supplement to the Times argues that this demonstrates that “both sides are claiming foul play“. Party officials have in effect made the same assumption by refusing to disqualify Jasmin Beckett from the election which on examination of the evidence presented in the second complaint alone looks like an open and shut case. This is in my view quite wrong.
I do take charges of antisemitism very seriously but, as I argued this week in the Jewish Chronicle, there are several reasons for not pre-judging as valid the charges of antisemitism and especially as applied to James Elliott (and Max Shanly), not least the fact that they have been deliberately whipped up by people whose primary interest has been to damage them in internal Labour elections – an appalling trivialisation of the serious charge of antisemitism. I confess I am prejudiced in this matter – I know both well and judge them both to be utterly innocent of this charge.
I do believe that James Elliott should not two years ago have said in his article on an Oxford student website “Antisemitism is a tired old accusation from Zionists, retreating behind mendacious slurs when losing the arguments“. This seems to be the basis of Alex Chalmers claim that a former Co-Chair of OULC claimed that “most accusations of antisemitism are just the Zionists crying wolf“. When taken out of context, James’s statement can be seen as dismissive of charges of antisemitism in general and is unacceptably generalised in relation to “Zionists”. I think James recognises this and demonstrates that in the statement he made on 19 February:
In January 2014, then-President of Oxford’s Israel Society, Richard Black, accused the entire Palestine Society of antisemitism, based on one rogue post in a Facebook group by a non-Society member. I saw the post, immediately told the Society President that I found it offensive and wanted it deleted, and she happily complied. Black was later condemned for his behaviour by a majority of Israeli Oxford students in a letter arguing that “Black’s actions do not reflect the opinions of Israelis in this town.” I wrote my article to insist that Black’s allegations were misleading.
Opposing anti-Semitism and supporting Palestinian human rights are for me inseparable. As I commented to Jewish News earlier this week: “I was very concerned to hear allegations of anti-Semitism within OULC and I am glad the Club is taking these claims very seriously and investigating them.” Anti-Semitism is always reprehensible, and let me say this clearly: it is abhorrent whether it comes from the far-right or from people proclaiming their solidarity with the Palestinians.
I am deeply distressed at the thought that anything I wrote could ever give succour to antisemites. When I complained that Richard Black was using allegations of racism dishonestly, I should of course have made crystal clear my view that antisemitism is no political football: it exists across society, and it’s a vile poison. I really regret not saying that in the article and I was wrong to say what I did and apologise fully for that.
Learning from these experiences, I am proud of my record in fighting antisemitism.
Furthermore, as Rhea Wolfson, former president of both the Jewish Society and the Israel Society at Oxford and newly elected member of the Young Labour national committee put it: “James has gone out of his way to educate himself about antisemitism”. She disagreed with his two-year old article, but she has “full faith” in his opposition to antisemitism.
The evidence supplied in support of the complaint against Jasmin Beckett makes very clear that there was an organised attempt to smear James Elliott (and Max Shanly against whom the only claim is based on a report on a scurrilous Oxford student website that he had been disciplined by Ruskin College for an incident which Shanly and also the principal of Ruskin deny ever took place).
The evidence demonstrates that those who organised the smear were aware that they needed to take steps to ensure that they needed to be careful. As the Morning Star reported, Jasmin Beckett cautioned: “If you’ve got my twibbon on and you want to go hard please take the twibbon off.” And Josh Woolas — whose mother, Tracey Allen, is Office Manager of Labour general secretary Iain McNicol’s office and whose father, ex-MP Phil Woolas, ironically lost his Westminster seat for smearing a candidate who lost by a tiny margin — is featured in the screenshot as saying: “Needs to look like a genuine complaint about racism and not a smear campaign!”
Unless there is some genuine evidence rather than the rumours and smears presented to date against James Elliott, it appears that there is no case for him to answer.
If there are grounds for deep suspicion of charges against James Elliott, there are even greater grounds for suspicion of the independence and reliability of the “enquiry” into antisemitism in Oxford and the as yet unpublished report by Progress member and former chair of Labour Students, Michael Rubin. Though I have not had sight of his report, his girlfriend, Rachel Hollland, is one of those in the screenshots of “Team Beckett” who encourages the collective intention of disparaging the candidacy of James Elliott (on page 6) by saying “He basically says that he doesn’t care if he gets accused of being antisemitic, right?” No report into antisemitism at Oxford University is going to have sufficient credibility unless it is written by someone further removed from the partiality of Young Labour and Labour Student politics.
These two lines of enquiry for the Royall investigation (assuming that it is confirmed by Labour’s NEC Organisation committee which meets tomorrow) are not into two equal and opposing cases as Bex Bailey claims. The complaint against Jasmin Beckett,in respect of James Elliott, in effect negates the other. It is difficult to see why the Organisation Committee should not simply disqualify Jasmin Beckett and therefore declare James Elliott elected.