Lancet editor Richard Horton’s criticisms of the UK government’s response to coronavirus

Lancet editor Richard Horton’s criticisms of the UK government’s response to coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
1 April 2020

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the medical journal The Lancet, appeared on BBC Question Time on 26 March 2020 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000gpnd/question-time-2020-26032020), and made the following comments about the coronavirous outbreak in the UK:

Addressing shortages in the NHS: “It is a national scandal. We shouldn’t be in this position. We knew, from the last week in January [2020] that this was coming. The message from China was absolutely clear: that a new virus, with pandemic potential, was hitting cities, people were being admitted to hospital admitted to intensive care units, and dying. And the mortality was growing. We knew that eleven weeks ago. And then we wasted February when we could have acted. Time when we could have ramped up testing, time when we could have got Personal Protective Equipment ready and disseminated. We didn’t do it.”

Addressing the lack of testing: “This is one of the mysteries of the whole outbreak. When we knew this was coming late January/early February the standard public health approach to an epidemic is you, yes, test, test, test, and then in an infectious outbreak you isolate, you quarantine, you contact trace, you chase down every single contact and test that person too – to see if you can extinguish, stop the lines of transmission. And that’s the way you stop the outbreak. We didn’t do that. We forgot the most fundamental principles of outbreak control.”

Addressing Robert Jenrick MP, secretary of state for Housing, Communities and Local Government, about the government’s strategy: “The strategy we ended up following was that we wanted to get 60 percent of the population infected because we made the mistaken judgement that we thought it was a mild infection and we wanted herd immunity. And then you had the U-turn… that message changed ten days ago. In the early part of the epidemic it was not the case that the message was “Protect the NHS and save lives.” The message was “We are going to manage an epidemic in the population, get to 60 percent, get to herd immunity.” There are many, many examples of people on the record from the Chief Scientific Advisor to statisticians and modellers as part of SAGE [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] advising the government saying that was the objective. And then you stopped it when you realised that the NHS couldn’t cope with the intensive care burden.”

Sanders, not Biden, has the best chance of beating Trump

Sanders, not Biden, has the best chance of beating Trump
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 March 2020

If you have followed the race to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States you’ll have heard the argument a lot: Bernie Sanders, the social democratic senator from Vermont, would never beat sitting US President Donald Trump.

Indeed since Super Tuesday, when Democratic supporters in a slew of states voted on who should face Trump in November 2020, this assertion has become more prevalent – with an additional clause: it is former vice-president Joe Biden, not Sanders, who is best positioned to defeat Trump.

Even commentators who profess to support Sanders’ policies make this argument. After telling Channel 4 News he agrees with Sanders on “an awful lot of political issues”, Eric Alterman, a columnist at the left-leaning Nation magazine, said he fears the example of UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. If Sanders ran against Trump “it would be the end of the American republic”, he said.

Addressing the popular argument that Sanders is “sure to be an electoral disaster” a couple of days later, MSNBC host Chris Hayes was unequivocal: “I am just here to tell you that the evidence we have, to the extent we have evidence about an unknowable future, just doesn’t support that at all.”

Summarising the Real Clear Politics polling averages from February on head to head match ups between Trump and the Democratic presidential candidates, Hayes noted Sanders “is consistently, in poll after poll after poll, at or near the top in all of them” – in beating Trump.

Author Steve Phillips, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, concurs. Writing in the New York Times on 28 February, he explained “most of the available empirical evidence shows Mr. Sanders defeating President Trump in the national popular vote and in the critical Midwestern states that tipped the Electoral College in 2016”.

He continues: “This has been the case for nearly a year now, with Mr. Sanders outpolling the president in 67 of 72 head-to-head polls since March [2019].”

Furthermore, Phillips argues Sanders’ “specific electoral strengths align with changes in the composition of the country’s population in ways that could actually make him a formidable foe for the president.”

In a February Reuters/Ipsos poll Sanders led Trump by 18 percentage points among independent voters in a hypothetical general election match-up – the highest score among all the Democratic candidates.

Famously, the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton claimed “nobody likes” Sanders. In contrast, Peter Beinart, Professor of journalism at the City University of New York notes “polls of Democratic voters show nothing of the sort”. While the Democratic Party elite are deeply sceptical of Sanders, “among ordinary Democrats, Sanders is strikingly popular, even with voters who favor his rivals… on paper, he appears well positioned to unify the party should he win its presidential nomination”, Beinart explains in The Atlantic magazine.

Sanders’ popularity seems to stretch to being relatively personally popular too. Asked for their thoughts on the personal characteristics of several Democratic presidential contenders and of Trump, in a February USA Today/Ipsos poll Americans consistently gave Sanders the highest marks for his values and empathy. 40 percent of respondents said they admired Sanders’ character, well above the 31 percent for Biden and the 26 percent for Trump, while 39 percent of respondents said Sanders “shares my values” compared to 30 percent saying Biden and 31 percent for Trump.

And Alterman’s comparison to Corbyn is a red herring, of course. First, because in 2017 Corbyn led the Labour Party to its best electoral performance since 2001 – before the Brexit issue polarised the party and electorate. And second, because Sanders is a much better political communicator than the often reticent Corbyn. In debate performances the 78-year old Brooklynite is laser-focussed, impressively able to summarise his policies in everyday language and soundbites, and is unafraid to attack his rivals.

Johnny Burtka, executive director for The American Conservative magazine, agrees. “Bernie clearly has the pugnacity”, he told The Hill website in December. “He’s the only one that I think could ultimately take on Donald Trump on the debate stage.”

And it is Sanders, not Biden, who has a young, energetic mass movement backing him – an army of small donations giving Sanders a clear lead in campaign funding over Biden, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics until January.

Frustratingly though, politics, and political change, is never this simple and straightforward – since Biden’s strong performance on Super Tuesday the polling results have shifted. Biden is now favoured as the Democratic nominee by 54 percent of Democratic primary voters, compared to 38 percent supporting Sanders, according to a new Morning Consult poll.

However, the polling data is just one reason Biden would be a disastrous candidate.

Many are concerned about Biden’s long record of being on the wrong side of many political issues – from his 2003 vote for the illegal invasion of Iraq, to his support for the Wall Street bailout, the Rust Belt-decimating NAFTA trade agreement, mass incarceration and cutting social security.

“The Trump people are going to fillet Joe Biden, they are going to fillet him in their ads, and Trump is going to mercilessly fillet him in the debate,” journalist Jeremy Scahill recently argued on Democracy Now! Why? “Because a lot of stuff they will say about him will be true! And Biden is lying, or he doesn’t know what room he is in.”

That last bit is a reference to what journalist Glenn Greenwald called Biden’s “serious issues with his cognitive abilities”. Or, as Scahill puts it: “Joe Biden is not a well man… he can barely complete a sentence.” Recent well-publicised examples include Biden forgetting the “all men are created equal” passage from the Declaration of Independence, telling an audience he was running for the US Senate and his statement that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids”.

So why is Biden, and not Sanders, being presented as the safe pair of hands in the race to be the Democratic presidential candidate?

Beyond the party elite and corporate media falling in line behind the very establishment Biden, arguably a simplistic understanding of politics underpins the belief Sanders is an electoral liability.

This view sees a linear left-right political spectrum, with Sanders on the far left and Biden in the centre. Therefore, it seems obvious the so-called centrist Biden who would be able to appeal to a larger section of the American voting public, rather than the ‘extreme’ Sanders, who would likely alienate much of the political spectrum.

However, what this type of analysis misses is the fact around 13 percent of Trump voters in 2016 backed Obama in 2012, according to the American National Election Study. Interviewing more than a dozen Obama supporters who were planning to vote Trump in 2016, the New York Times reported “a common theme: The message of change that inspired them to vote for Mr. Obama is now embodied by Mr. Trump”.

Adam Ramsay, an Editor at Open Democracy, provides some insight into this seemingly contradictory voting behaviour. “While journalists and pundits and academics tend to see politics as a question of policy and ideology” for the broader public “the first thing they go to is the question of trust”, he noted in a video recently. Turning to the Democratic primaries he argues “the question isn’t really whether voters are looking at these candidates on a left-right spectrum… because most voters right across the Western world don’t really see politics like that. What they look at is whether they think they can trust each of these people to stand up for them or whether they think these people are going to be co-opted by the interests of the rich and powerful.”

Of course, Sanders might end up being a terrible presidential candidate, and Biden may defeat Trump. Nothing is certain. But the majority of evidence we have right now doesn’t support the argument Biden is more electable than Sanders. As The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan recently explained on MSNBC about the Democratic Party elite: “They tried to run a pro-Iraq War, pro-Wall Street establishment Democrat with a history of dubious claims, and dodgy dealings, and dodge comments about incarceration and super predators” in 2016. “Where did that end up? What’s the old saying? Insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

US sanctions, Iran and coronavirus

US sanctions, Iran and coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21-22 March 2020

As Morning Star readers know, the BBC largely reflects the interests and opinions of the British establishment. Nevertheless, occasionally discerning consumers can find important, critical information on one of the corporation’s many platforms.

For example, at the end of February BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight programme broadcast a brief interview about the UK’s response to coronavirus with Dr Bharat Pankhania, a Senior Clinical Lecturer at the College of Medicine and Health, University of Exeter.

Though he wasn’t asked about Iran, Pankhania, who has over 20 years’ experience working as a consultant in communicable diseases, snuck in an inconvenient truth: “What happens in other countries can come to bite us too”, he said. “I am very concerned about Iran and the health sanctions by America against Iran. Because when you have uncontrolled transmission of infection in Iran it will affect the Middle East and it will affect us too.”

As those following the outbreak will know, Iran has been hit particular hard by the virus. Before the Italian outbreak fully took hold, Iran had the highest number of deaths from coronavirus outside China. “Iran has the highest mortality rate in the world”, ITV News Correspondent John Irvine noted on 13 March. “On a daily basis it fluctuates between eight and eighteen per cent.” As of 19 March the statistics website Worldometer had recorded 18,407 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Iran, with 1,284 deaths.

So what is the connection between US sanctions and Iran’s response to coronavirus?

The US began sanctioning Iran in 1979, following the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran and the subsequent hostage crisis. More recently, President Obama – along with the European Union – implemented a tough sanctions regime from 2012 to 2015, which was largely suspended when the US and Iran agreed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to limit Iran’s nuclear programme.

The Obama Administration’s sanctions caused mass suffering for ordinary Iranians. “Among those bearing the brunt of the crisis are patients and hospitals reliant on currency for imported medicines and foreign-based services”, the Guardian noted in October 2012. “Iran’s Haemophilia Society, for example, has blamed the sanctions for risking thousands of children’s lives due to a lack of proper drugs.”

Following the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from JCPOA in 2018, the US implemented an even harsher set of sanctions on Iran.

“The sanctions we have imposed are the toughest ever… the Iranian economy this year could contract by as much as 14 percent”, US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook stated in January.

“More than 700 individuals, entities, aircraft and vessels” including 50 Iranian banks and their foreign subsidiaries are sanctioned, according to a July 2019 report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman. “The sanctions have hit oil sales, imposed wide ranging restrictions on traders and businesses and significantly contributed to a devaluation of the currency and inflation.” Importantly, the US sanctions regime effectively applies to nations and organisations without any ties to the US doing business with Iran. The effect of these “secondary sanctions” has been “to deter international banks, pharmaceutical companies, NGOs and charities from facilitating the flow of goods and services and money to Iran”, Salil Patel, a junior doctor at Imperial College, explained in the Independent in January.

In his report, the UN Special Rapporteur said he was concerned that the sanctions “will unduly affect food security and the availability and distribution of medicines, pharmaceutical equipment and supplies.”

Similarly, Human Rights Watch raised the alarm in an October 2019 report: “The consequences of redoubled US sanctions, whether intentional or not, pose a serious threat to Iranians’ right to health and access to essential medicines – and has almost certainly contributed to documented shortages – ranging from a lack of critical drugs for epilepsy patients to limited chemotherapy medications for Iranians with cancer.”

In an attempt to understand the link between US sanctions and coronavirus in Iran I spoke to Dr Pankhania. “When you have a completely super-stretched and almost bare-boned healthcare system as a result of sanctions you do not have any reserves for dealing with a surge in the number of patients”, he told me. “Furthermore, you wouldn’t have extensive laboratory facilities”, which are essential in the early stages of an outbreak to “recognise that you had the presence of the coronavirus in your midst – because you only know if you look for it.”

Indeed, earlier his month the BBC reported Ramin Fallah, a board member of Iran’s Association of Medical Equipment, saying he is unable to purchase testing kits for coronavirus due to US-imposed sanctions.

The sanctions have had a broader influence on the Iranian government’s response to the virus, according to Amir Afkhami, an Associate Professor of psychiatry, global health and history at George Washington University, writing for Politico earlier this month: they “have made matters worse by making the Iranian regime more skittish about taking any public health measures – such as reducing contacts with its main trading partners or declaring a public health emergency – that could further damage its already ailing economy.”

The evidence, then, strongly suggests that the US’s barbaric, isolating sanctions regime has caused widespread pain and misery in Iran – and endangered the rest of the world. Many of the first cases of coronavirus registered in other locations, including Iraq, Lebanon, Qatar, New Zealand and New York, have been attributed to individuals who travelled from Iran, a recent Foreign Policy article explained.

As Open Democracy editor Adam Ramsay recently tweeted: “The coronavirus is an important reminder that health isn’t private. As a species we live in herds. Everyone’s health relies to some extent on everyone else’s.”

In addition, to helping to trigger an economic crisis and having deleterious impacts on the Iranian health system during this health emergency, the US sanctions have had a number of other specific impacts on Iran.

First, air safety: “There have been scores of plane crashes in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, mainly because western sanctions for decades limited its ability to purchase spare parts or buy new planes”,  the Guardian reported in February 2018. This was a welcome acknowledgement in the mainstream press of the West’s culpability for hundreds of needless deaths, though, to be clear, this information appeared in paragraph 19 of 21 of the article, so will likely have been missed by many readers.

Second, US sanctions have likely strengthened the hand of hardliners in Iran. In 2013 several hundred Iranian political and human rights activists, academics, and students wrote an open letter to President Obama warning of exactly this. Referring to the deadly US sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, they noted “We are deeply concerned about the recurrence of the Iraqi experience for Iran, which would eliminate the only opportunity for peaceful and democratic change in our country. We are certain that economic sanctions will continue to weaken Iran’s civil society and strengthen the hands of extremists.”

Incredibly, on 17 March Reuters reported the US had imposed fresh sanctions on Iran, targetting a number of entities and individuals, “keeping up its economic pressure campaign even as it offered to help Tehran cope with the coronavirus pandemic”.

“The US government is run by sociopaths”, was journalist Mehdi Hasan’s response to the US doubling down on its crippling sanctions regime.

Close observers of Western-Iran relations will be aware historical facts that undermine the official Western narrative, such as the 1953 US-UK led coup against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, are, conveniently, rarely mentioned in the Western mainstream media (though they are not forgotten in Iran, of course).

With this in mind, it is essential we do not let the key role of US sanctions in the ongoing coronavirus crisis in Iran to be pushed down the memory hole too.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Rosa Parks: The Real Story

Rosa Parks: The Real Story
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 February 2020

In December an exhibition about the life of Rosa Parks opened at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The same month a new statue honouring the civil rights icon was unveiled in Alabama’s state capital, Montgomery.

Taught in schools in the US and UK, mythologised on the left and celebrated across popular culture, from Outkast’s 1998 hip hop single Rosa Parks to the 2018 Doctor Who episode titled Rosa, her story will be very familiar to Morning Star readers.

But do we really know Parks’s story?

Here is US news organisation CNN’s crude take on 1 December 2018: “It was on this day in 1955 when a simple act of defiance elevated a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, into a pivotal symbol in America’s civil rights movement. Parks refused to move to the back of a city bus. Little did the 42-year old know that her act would help end segregation laws in the South.”

This popular understanding of Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott she triggered is only “half true”, Noam Chomsky argues in the 2002 book Understanding Power. “What’s in history is one person had the courage to do something – which she did”. But, the US dissident notes, “nobody does anything on their own. Rosa Parks came out of an organised community of committed people.”

Indeed, if you read up on the boycott you find “a network of intrepid organizers, situated in overlapping black institutions” in early 50s Montgomery, as Stewart Burns explains in his 1997 book Daybreak Of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott.

These included the Women’s Political Council (led by English professor Jo Ann Robinson), the Citizen’s Coordinating Committee and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A key figure was E. D. Nixon, the head of the Alabama region of the African American labour organisation the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He had also been the president of Montgomery’s NAACP branch from 1946-50.

Parks herself was not just a seamstress, but “a civil rights activist of long standing”, according to Burns. She was the secretary of the Montgomery and Alabama chapter of the NAACP. In 1944 the NAACP had sent Parks to Abbeville, Alabama to investigate the gang rape of 24-year-old African American woman Recy Taylor. And a few months before she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, Parks had attended a school desegregation workshop at the influential Highlander folk school in Tennessee.

Though Parks had not planned her famous act of resistance on 1 December, some of the local black leaders were primed for action. “We had planned the boycott long before Mrs. Parks was arrested”, Robinson admitted later, according to David Garrow’s 1986 Bearing The Cross, his majestic history of Martin Luther King, Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Garrow notes Robinson had written to the mayor of Montgomery in May 1954, explaining that three quarters of the riders on the city buses were black and threatening a boycott.

Like many of the leaders and organisers in the wider civil rights movement that transformed the American South over the next decade, the activists in Montgomery were incredibly smart strategists and tacticians. This is well highlighted by the fact another member of the black community had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus nine months before Parks – 15-year old Claudette Colvin.

This arrest “galvanised Montgomery’s African American community”, Burns notes. Robinson and Nixon thought they might have an ideal test case to challenge segregation. However, problems soon developed. First, Colvin’s had resisted arrest, resulting in her being charged with assault and battery. Second, and likely more important, Robinson and Nixon learned that the young, unmarried Colvin was several months pregnant.

“Both leaders concluded that Colvin would be neither an ideal candidate for symbolizing the abuse heaped upon black passengers nor a good litigant for a test suit certain to generate great pressures and publicity”, Garrow explains. “The black leadership chose not to pursue the case.”

In contrast, Robinson noted “Mrs Parks had the calibre of character we needed to get the city to rally behind us.”

And rally they did. With Parks arrested on a Thursday, Robinson organised the printing of a reported 40,000 leaflets calling for a one-day bus boycott on the following Monday. Aware they needed the help of the black church leaders, Nixon called a 26-year old minister who had arrived in the city just over a year before – Martin Luther King, Jr. “Hesitating at first, King offered his support”, Burns notes. At a mass meeting that evening it was agreed to continue the boycott, with King heading the coordinating organisation, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). It seems King was chosen, in part, because he was new to Montgomery. “He had not been here long enough for the city fathers to put their hand on him”, Dixon relates in the 1987 PBS documentary series Eyes On The Prize.

The boycott “mobilised the entire black population” of Montgomery, Adam Fairclough notes in his 2001 history Better Day Coming: Black and Equality, 1890-2000. “50,000 men, women and children walked to work, gave each other lifts, and even on the coldest, wettest days refused to ride the buses.”

A complex car pool system was put in place by the MIA, with hundreds of volunteers driving private cars to move people around the city, complete with ad hoc pick-up stations and taxi-style dispatchers coordinating the operation.

In parallel with the street mobilisation a legal challenge was also mounted, with local black attorney Fred Gray – representing the MIA and supported by the NAACP – filing a federal lawsuit in February 1956 against segregation on Montgomery’s buses.

Despite strong opposition from city officials the boycott continued, with participants and the movement leadership enduring intimidation, threats, police harassment, legal challenges, trials, prison time and even the bombing of King’s and Nixon’s homes.

Finally, after a series of rulings and appeals, the Supreme Court affirmed its support of integration on Montgomery buses in November 1956. The boycott came to end on 20 December 1956 – an incredible 381 days after it started. Keen to make the transformation as trouble-free as possible the MIA provided advice to black people riding on the newly integrated buses: “be quiet and friendly, proud but not arrogant” and “do not deliberately sit by a white person, unless there is no other seat.”

Placing the boycott in historical context, Burns argues it was “a formative turning point of the twentieth century”.

“Harbinger of the African American freedom movement… springboard for the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr” and the “launching pad for the worldwide era of upheaval known as ‘the sixties’”.

The boycott also provides a number of valuable lessons for those working for progressive change today. First, it shows mass nonviolent direct action – combined with a successful legal challenge, in this instance – can be very effective against established power.

Second, it illuminates the nature of the relationship between leaders and the wider movement. “Martin Luther King was an important person, but I do not think that he was a big agent of change”, Chomsky argues. “In fact, I think Martin Luther King was able to play a role in bringing about change only because the real agents of change were doing a lot of the work.”

Robinson concurs, telling a reporter at the time: “The amazing thing about our movement is that it is a protest of the people. It is not a one man show. It is not the preacher’s show… the leaders couldn’t stop it if they wanted to.”

So, yes, we should celebrate Parks. And the role played by King. But we shouldn’t settle for this simple story. We also need to remember the deep organisational roots of the movement and the crucial role played by what Burns calls “ordinary people acting in extraordinary ways” – people like Robinson, Nixon, Colvin, Gray, and, most importantly, the 50,000 strong black community of Montgomery.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

The myth of Labour’s antisemitism crisis: interview with Jamie Stern-Weiner

The myth of Labour’s antisemitism crisis: interview with Jamie Stern-Weiner
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
10 February 2020

In November 2019 Verso Books published the free e-book Antisemitism and the Labour Party, edited by Jamie Stern-Weiner, an Israeli-born, London-raised DPhil candidate in Area Studies at the University of Oxford.

With antisemitism cited by many as a factor in Labour’s defeat in the general election, Ian Sinclair asked Stern-Weiner about the controversy.

Ian Sinclair: What is your assessment of the antisemitism controversy that has engulfed Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party since 2015?

Jamie Stern-Weiner: Over the past two decades, whenever Israel’s grotesque human rights violations aroused popular indignation in the UK, Israel’s supporters depicted this reaction as a ‘new antisemitism’. The propaganda offensive against Labour that began in 2016 formed a novel variant of this strategy—a new ‘new antisemitism’. Whereas previous such controversies saw Jewish and pro-Israel networks mobilise against Palestine solidarity activists, the post-2015 campaign saw allegations of antisemitism instrumentalised by the full breadth of the British elite in order to delegitimise, demoralise and ultimately demobilise the Corbyn movement.

The smear campaign was pushed by three distinct but overlapping networks: the Conservative Party, the Labour Right and the pro-Israel Jewish establishment in Britain. Each played an indispensable role. Tory and Labour Right antisemitism allegations would have lacked plausibility without the validation of Jewish leadership groups, which also mobilised their considerable organisational resources behind the campaign. Conversely, the Jewish establishment’s vendetta against the Left would have gained little traction had it not been amplified by other political and media elites.

The allegations against Labour are groundless. Jeremy Corbyn is not an antisemite but among our most dedicated anti-racist politicians, while no persuasive evidence has been presented to show that antisemitism in Labour increased or became widespread under his leadership. Surveys indicate that anti-Jewish prejudices are less prevalent on the Left than on the Right of British politics, while a recent study commissioned (and then misrepresented) by the Campaign Against Antisemitism found traditional ‘anti-Jewish’ stereotypes to be disproportionately concentrated among Conservative voters and supporters of Boris Johnson. Even as the ‘Labour antisemitism’ inquisitors spent years combing through party members’ social media histories for incriminating material, the proportion of Labour members accused of expressing anti-Jewish prejudice rounds to literally zero.

The direct electoral impact of the ‘antisemitism’ smear campaign appears to have been slight. Its indirect contribution to Labour’s defeat was likely more significant: the leadership’s vacillating and defensive response to antisemitism allegations made it look weak—a perception that ranked among the most widely cited reasons for Corbyn’s unpopularity; scarce Leadership Office resources were expended on constant media firefighting; and grassroots enthusiasm was enervated by the failure of any senior party or media figure to defend activists from the sweeping accusations against them.

IS: What has been the media’s role in all of this?

JS-W: The British press is disproportionately sensitive to elite opinion and is itself part of the political establishment. Intense media hostility to the Corbyn project was therefore inevitable. Already in 2015, the Media Reform Coalition described how ‘the press set out to systematically undermine Jeremy Corbyn… with a barrage of overwhelmingly negative coverage’. A London School of Economics study the following year found ‘most newspapers systematically vilifying the leader of the biggest opposition party’. And during the 2019 election campaign, research from Loughborough University indicated that newspaper coverage was overwhelmingly biased against Labour.

The ‘Labour antisemitism’ controversy was the most extreme and protracted manifestation of this vilification campaign. Reporting was replete with factual errors. Rational criteria for assessing newsworthiness were abandoned, to the extent that random Facebook posts by ordinary Labour Party members and factional wranglings over the efficiency of internal Labour Party complaints procedures became headline material. No effort was made to set the allegations against Labour within a broader context, either politically or in terms of what is known about the distribution of racism and prejudice in contemporary Britain. And information which undermined the claims against Labour was effectively suppressed.

More fundamentally, no mainstream reporter ever investigated whether the allegations against Labour were true. Where journalists did not reflexively endorse the accusations against Labour, they were content to uncritically relay them alongside the party’s response. Accusations by Jewish communal figures or anti-Corbyn MPs were considered inherently significant, whether or not they were accompanied by supporting evidence. At the same time, individuals and entities that led the charge against Labour were not themselves scrutinised as political actors, despite the manifestly partisan aspect of the campaign.

The result was to grossly misrepresent the reality of antisemitism in Labour and the UK as a whole. For example, whereas it was widely reported that the 2017 Labour Party conference played host to numerous instances of antisemitism, none of the concrete allegations withstood investigation, while nearly all turned out to implicate people who were themselves Jewish. Perhaps more importantly, the disproportionate attention given the ‘Labour antisemitism’ story, combined with the failure to situate it within any broader statistical or political context, wildly distorted the scale of the phenomenon. Respondents to a 2019 survey estimated that over a third of Labour members had been subject to an antisemitism-related complaint; the real figure was less than one-tenth of one percent. It is difficult to conceive a more damning indictment of British journalism.

IS: There seems to be a broad consensus that the Labour leadership and the Labour Party handled the antisemitism controversy badly. Do you think they should have responded differently?

JS-W: ‘Labour antisemitism’ was never a grievance amenable to resolution through reasonable compromise, but rather the pretext for a campaign to overthrow Corbyn’s leadership and demobilise his base. It follows that nothing Labour might have done, short of total capitulation, could have prevented or moderated the media campaign against it.

It also follows that the strategy of compromise and appeasement was a mistake. None of Labour’s many concessions silenced its critics for even a millisecond. But they did divide supporters, strengthen the other side’s position and make the leadership appear feeble. Every time a senior Labour figure apologised for the party’s antisemitism problem, they merely validated wholly unsupported claims that such a problem existed. The party’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism did not win the leadership any support but did hand its enemies an additional weapon with which to smear and drive out Corbyn’s supporters.

In the course of its misguided attempt to appease unappeasable critics, the party betrayed its libertarian heritage and instituted a regime of censorship. The provision in the Code of Conduct which provided that the party’s disciplinary body ‘shall not have regard to the mere holding or expression of beliefs and opinions’ was nullified. And whereas the Chakrabarti Report of June 2016 urged a moratorium on trawling members’ social media archives for offensive posts, December 2019 found Labour’s general secretary boasting about the party’s use of algorithms to sift the online histories of not just members but potential members to ‘detect patterns of behaviour’.

What else could have been done? Any response should have aimed not at ending the defamation campaign but at minimising the internal divisions it provoked and the resources it consumed. To these ends, the leadership should have forthrightly stated and held to its view that allegations of a Labour antisemitism ‘crisis’ lacked evidence; that Labour’s critics were acting in pursuit of a political agenda; and that Labour did not intend to use party resources to police the thoughts and utterances of its 500,000 members.

As Norman Finkelstein has suggested, Labour might have established a small rebuttal unit to respond to significant allegations. Otherwise, each and every media story about ‘Labour antisemitism’ should have been met with the stock response: ‘The elected leadership of the Labour Party has made its views on this matter clear. Any information concerning individual misconduct should be referred to our disciplinary mechanism, where it will be dealt with according to our standard procedures. We have no further comment’. Mere expression of an unpopular opinion should not have been considered legitimate grounds for disciplinary action. And complaints statistics should have been released on a routine basis with as much transparency as possible.

Whether the party leadership had sufficient internal leeway to implement a response along these lines, I do not know. But had such an approach been pursued from the outset, it would have equipped members with a consistent and defensible line, minimised consequential internal divisions, reduced the time and money wasted on this non-issue, and—at minimum—avoided the leadership appearing unprincipled and indecisive before the wider public.

Antisemitism and the Labour Party is available as a free download from Verso Books https://www.versobooks.com/books/3215-antisemitism-and-the-labour-party

Book review. Don’t Hold My Head Down: In Search Of Some Brilliant Fucking by Lucy-Anne Holmes

Book review. Don’t Hold My Head Down: In Search Of Some Brilliant Fucking by Lucy-Anne Holmes
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
February-March 2020

‘If feels like we’re always talking about it, but never really talking about it’, British author Lucy-Anne Holmes observes about sex.

After reading her very funny and very explicit sex memoir, I can safely say no one will ever accuse Holmes of not discussing sex ever again!

The book starts with Holmes, circa her mid-30s, coming to the realisation her whole sexual history has been full of usually drunken, sometimes painful, ultimately dissatisfying sex – what she calls ‘normal, slightly porny sex’.

She pledges to seek out better, ‘beautiful sex’, centred on her own sexual pleasure and not that of her male partners. This journey takes her to sex festivals and sex parties, workshops on Pussy Worship and Female Erotic Leadership, navigating an open relationship and exploring BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission and sadism and masochism).

Accessible and hugely relatable with many laugh out loud moments, Holmes deftly weaves practical sex tips and serious arguments and concepts around the often Bridget Jones-level farcical situations she gets into, including complex ideas of consent (‘an ongoing conversation, liable to change at any point’) and Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent.

She rarely mentions the word, but feminism – the liberal, ‘sex-positive’ kind – underpins the whole book. Holmes was, after all, the founder of the successful No More Page 3 campaign in the early 2010s. For example, she links her body hatred and low-confidence to growing up in a patriarchal society, and ends with a humorous, though pointed potted Herstory of Women and Sex.

While many feminist activists will love Don’t Hold My Head Down, I think the book is most useful in  introducing feminism and feminist framing about sex, relationships and society to those who might not see themselves as being activists, or even politically active.

She makes her aim clear in her conclusion: ‘If telling this story inspires just one young woman not to feel she has to compare herself to the images she sees in magazine, or take part in sex that she feels uncomfortable with, or it inspires her to start a petition and challenge something that makes her feel small… then I feel it is a story worth telling.’

I would add one thing – men, too, have much to learn from this brilliant book. File alongside the equally vital Girl Up from Everyday Sexism’s Laura Bates.

Don’t Hold My Head Down: In Search Of Some Brilliant Fucking is published by Unbound, priced £14.99.

Witnessing the BBC’s Omissions on Fallujah

Witnessing the BBC’s Omissions on Fallujah
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
3 February 2020

“The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying, it is omission or de-emphasis of important data”, US historian Howard Zinn says in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the 2004 documentary about his life.

A good example of this truism is a recent episode of Witness History on the BBC World Service – with US Colonel Andrew Milburn recounting his time fighting in what BBC presenter Alex Last calls “the Battle for Fallujah” in Iraq.

In the short radio piece – each segment of Witness History is just nine minutes long – Last provides some context for listeners: with the 2003 US-UK invasion and subsequent occupation creating significant opposition, the city of Fallujah, in the western province of Anbar, had become an insurgency stronghold. In an attempt to subdue the resistance, the US undertook a huge assault on Fallujah in November 2004 – involving 20,000 troops backed by tanks and aircraft.

With a population of 250,000, Last notes there was estimated to be around 2,500 fighters in the city at the time of the attack, along with some 20-30,000 civilians.

“Honestly, it was rare that you saw civilians”, Milburn says about the urban warfare he experienced. “There was a kind of feeling ‘Look there aren’t civilians here, we have got tanks, we have got anti-tank weapons, let’s just use these instead of sending guys into buildings.’”

“That is when most of the destruction happened”, he remembers. “By the end of the battle [in December 2004]… it looked like the second world war. It looked like Dresden or Stalingrad”.

The US and Iraqi government forces lost around 100 killed and 500 wounded, notes Last, with “conservative estimates” of “hundreds of Iraqi civilians” killed.

“It was a pyrrhic victory”, Milburn concludes. “Even as we won the city and we killed thousands of the insurgents there were many, many more being recruited – largely by pictures of us rubbling a city”.

As these quotes suggest, critical consumers can occasionally gleam some useful information from BBC reporting. However, Witness History’s focus is on the US experience, with all the problems that comes with this.

Last’s assertion that 20-30,000 civilians were left in Fallujah is a very low estimate, with a statement at the time from the top US general in Iraq, George W. Casey, suggesting the US military believed 60-100,000 civilians remained in the city at the beginning of the attack. The essential 2017 book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Newcastle University’s Dr Florian Zollmann also calls into question the BBC’s estimate of civilian deaths. After conducting a detailed analysis of media coverage of Fallujah, Zollmann suggests the total number of civilian dead was likely around 2,000. For example, in January 2005 the director of the main hospital in Fallujah reported there had been 700 bodies recovered from just one third of the city, 550 of them women and children.

Moreover, the programme omitted any mention of arguably the most important aspect of the carnage – that US forces carried out what would be considered war crimes if they were carried out by Official Enemy states like Iran, Syria or Russia. Indeed in the introduction to his 2007 verbatim play Fallujah academic and playwright Jonathan Holmes argues the US contravened 70 individual articles of the Geneva Conventions in Fallujah.

The scene was set for the slaughter by US Lt Col Gary Brandl, who led the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment into the fight with these words: “The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He’s in Falluja. And we’re going to destroy him.”

Media reports at the time noted the US military and their Iraqi allies cut off the electricity and water supplies to the city, and, in an early operation, targeted Fallujah’s General Hospital. “Considered a refuge for insurgents and a center of propaganda”, the New York Times reported US Special forces and Iraqi troops smashed in doors, with patients and medical staff “rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.”

Testifying at the 2008 Winter Solider hearings, US Marine Michael Leduc explained how the rules of engagement changed for Fallujah – “now, we were operating under the assumption that everyone was hostile.” His battalion officer encouraged Marines to kill anyone using a cell phone and anyone they suspected of “manoeuvring against” them. The US implemented “a strict night time shoot-to-kill curfew”, The Times reported, with “anyone spotted in the soldiers’ night vision sights… shot.”

“Every weapon available in our arsenal short of nukes is turned on Fallujah”, US Army Sergeant David Bellavia wrote in his memoir. This included White Phosphorus, with a 2005 edition of the journal Field Artillery confirming its use in Fallujah by publishing testimony from a US officer: “We used it… as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE [high explosive].”

With the bloodbath in full swing, the US military blocked aid from reaching the city, with a convoy of food and medicine brought by the Iraqi Red Crescent refused entry to the city, according to the Guardian.

Furthermore, Associated Press reported that “hundreds of men trying to flee the assault on Fallujah have been turned back by US troops following orders to allow only women, children and the elderly to leave”.

Also unmentioned by Witness History is the key role played by UK forces. The British infantry battalion The Black Watch was redeployed from southern Iraq to the area surrounding Fallujah – to replace US marines sent into the city. “They have been used to block off insurgents running weapons into Baghdad and to plug escape routes for those fleeing the US assault on Fallujah”, a November 2004 BBC News article reported.

BBC World Service journalists may see themselves as part of an “impartial, accurate, trustworthy” news organisation, as a former World Service director once said. However, in reality their reporting, such as this episode of Witness History, often follows a propagandistic framing of Western foreign policy.

As Warwick University’s Professor Susan Carruthers noted in her 2000 book The Media At War, in wartime “the media have generally served the military rather well”.

Zollmann confirms this maxim very much applies to Fallujah, with his study comparing the US offensive in the Iraqi city to human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013).

His analysis shows how Fallujah was “framed in terms of reciprocal war and fighting” – remember the title of the Witness History episode: “The Battle for Fallujah”.  There was some critical media coverage, he notes, but this “was placed in an ideological context, which still assumed that ‘allied’ countries constitute legitimate and positive forces.”

This “politicised discourse” has huge ramifications, he argues, serving “to obscure the well-documented fact” US actions in Fallujah “also shared the properties of massacres and war crimes.”

“If countries designated to be ‘enemy’ states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses”, is Zollmann’s damning conclusion. “If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.”

With the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media downplaying US-UK crimes it falls to those concerned citizens who are aware of the real history of Fallujah to make sure this dark chapter in US-UK foreign policy is never forgotten.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.