Monthly Archives: December 2019

Rebutting Tory attack lines: Antisemitism and Labour

Rebutting Tory attack lines: Antisemitism and Labour
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
23 November 2019

“Jeremy Corbyn’s anti‑semite army”, read the Times headline in April. “Labour is riddled with anti-semites”, announced the Sun last year. A Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government would pose an “existential threat to Jewish life in this country”, argued the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News and Jewish Telegraph in a joint editorial.

With the press having waged an intense campaign against Corbyn and the Labour Party since 2015 over antisemitism, it was only natural the Tories and Lib Dems were going to use it as a stick to beat the Labour leader with during the general election campaign. First up was cabinet minister Michael Gove, who earlier this month started trolling leftist figures on Twitter, including Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani and Ash Sarkar, asking them to denounce antisemitic tweets sent by a Labour Party and Momentum member (the person was neither a member of the Labour Party or Momentum).

The coming attacks will be heard by a public already softened up by media coverage “consistent with a disinformation paradigm”, according to a 2018 Media Reform Coalition report into the antisemitism controversy. It seems the media’s reporting has had a big impact on public opinion, with a March 2019 Survation poll commissioned for the new Glasgow Media Group book Bad News For Labour finding “on average people believed that a third of Labour Party members have been reported for anti-semitism”. How can I say media reporting has played a big role? The authors of Bad News For Labour – Professor Greg Philo, Dr Mike Berry, Dr Justin Schlosberg, Antony Lerman and Dr David Miller – commissioned four focus groups, which showed “the media and the extensive coverage that the story has received feature very prominently in the reasons that were given” for higher estimates of levels of antisemitism in the Labour Party.

With attempts to weaponise antisemitism no doubt being cooked up as you read this, it is worth spending some time reminding ourselves of the facts and evidence on the topic.

However, before we do this I think it is worth emphasising that there is a problem with antisemitism in the Labour Party and on the broader Left, that this should not be minimised, and any allegations should be addressed swiftly, effectively and, most of all, fairly. It is clear Labour’s internal process were not fit for purposes, though the party claims to have reformed and streamlined their disciplinary systems. As many people have already said, as Labour identifies as a progressive, socialist and anti-racist party, just one case of antisemitism is one too many.

So how do we counter attacks on the Labour Party over antisemitism? The first task is to correct the general public’s wild estimates: in reality “the actual figure” for Labour members reported for antisemitism “was far less than one per cent”, the authors of Bad News for Labour note. The general public’s estimate is, incredibly, over three hundred times the real total, Philo notes in a recent Q&A with Jacobin.

Moreover, these figures “could have been used for a publicity campaign defending the integrity of the membership [currently just over 500,000] and the Party as a whole, saying that over 99 per cent of the members were not involved in these allegations”, the authors note.

It is also important to interrogate claims of antisemitism – that is, to consider the actual evidence. It is, after all, a very serious accusation to make about someone, with important consequences for how the public perceive Corbyn and the Labour Party. For example, Labour MP Margaret Hodge repeatedly told the media she had submitted a dossier of over 200 examples of antisemitic abuse directed at her to the Labour Party. After reviewing the evidence, Labour General Secretary Jennie Formby confirmed those complaints referred to 111 individuals, of whom only 20 were members. Still a serious issue to be dealt with but ten times less in size than Hodge was implying.

As these examples suggest, much of the relentless hounding of Corbyn and the Labour Party on antisemitism is based on a number of erroneous, evidence-light assumptions: that it is widespread in the party; that it is worse in Labour and on the Left than in other parties and on other parts of the political spectrum; and that the problem has got worse under Corbyn. We’ve already seen the facts do not support the first claim, and there is evidence to suggest the last two allegations are also inaccurate.

Analysing survey data, a September 2017 report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (IJPR) found “the political left, captured by voting intention or actual voting for Labour, appears in these surveys as a more Jewish-friendly, or neutral, segment of the population.” Interestingly, the IJPR went on to note “the absence of clear signs of negativity towards Jews on the political left” was “particularly curious in the current context” as there were “perceptions among some Jews of growing left-wing anti-semitism.”

The October 2016 Home Affairs Committee report on antisemitism also highlighted the mismatch between the media coverage and reality: “Despite significant press and public attention on the Labour Party there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.”

Citing YouGov polling data from 2015 and 2017, in March 2018 Evolve Politics website noted “anti-semitic views amongst Labour party voters have actually reduced substantially” since Corbyn was elected leader. Moreover, the report highlights the Tories and UKIP “have a far bigger problem with their voters agreeing with anti-semitic statements.”

As the authors of Bad News For Labour argue, “the arguments about the level of antisemitisim in society and the Labour Party can only be resolved by evidence.” And the evidence is on the side of those who refute that Labour is “riddled” with antisemitism. The authors recommend the Labour leadership should have followed the principles of good public relations. “The priorities should have been to establish the scale of the problem, give clear and accurate information, stop exaggerated claims and, crucially, to show that the whole organisation was committed to resolving the issue.”

This is good advice for Labour members and supporters during the election campaign too.

Further reading: Bad News For Labour: Antisemitism, The Party & Public Belief by Greg Philo et al, published by Pluto Press.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Rebutting Tory attack lines: crime and punishment

Rebutting Tory attack lines: crime and punishment
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
22 November 2019

Earlier this month the Guardian reported the Tories hope to win Labour seats at the general election “with a tough stance on law and order”.

This follows a string of tabloid-friendly announcements by Boris Johnson’s government in October, including extending sentences, creating 10,000 new prison places, increasing police numbers and giving the police more stop and search powers. Polling indicates these proposals may have widespread public support, with an August 2019 YouGov poll finding 75 per cent of people support increasing stop and search powers, including 61% of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters.

While Labour’s policies on this issue may not be as radical or evidence-based as one would like – the party has uncritically echoed the Tories with a pledge to increase police numbers, for example – it is important to rebut right-wing myths about crime and punishment.

First it is important to note the Conservative Party’s whole law and order agenda, including its incoming attack lines on Corbyn’s Labour Party, is based on a myth – that the UK is currently soft on crime and criminals.

In reality, “Scotland and England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe”, the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) note in their authoritative Bromley Briefing. England and Wales have 139 prisoners per 100,000 people, while Germany has 77, and Sweden just 59.

Today the prison population of England and Wales is 82,440, up from around 50,000 in the late 1980s.

As this suggests, today “sentencing is much, much tougher than it used to be”, Peter Dawson, the Director of PRT, wrote in the Metro newspaper last month.

Ministry of Justice statistics show in 2018 more than two and a half times as many people were sentenced to 10 years or more than in 2006. “We have a higher proportion of life sentenced prisoners than any other country in Europe, including Russia and Turkey”, Dawson notes. And, incredibly, England and Wales have more people serving indeterminate sentences – prison sentences which don’t have a fixed length of time – “than Germany, Russia, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia combined”, according to PRT.

The problem is, as Joe Sim, Professor of Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University, and Steve Tombs, Professor Criminology at the Open University, noted in the Guardian in August, “The idea that yet another prison building programme, and tougher sentences, will increase public protection is a fallacy.”

“There is no link between the prison population and levels of crime”, PRT confirms, citing National Audit Office data.

The writer Johann Hari brilliantly clarified the politics around this in 2003: “The choice is not between ‘tough’ and ‘soft’ it is between effective and useless”, he wrote in the Independent. “‘Tough’ policies – put them in an empty cell and leave them to rot and rape each other – just don’t work.  It is not those of us who want rehabilitation who are betraying the mugged grannies and the burgled primary schools – it is the [ex-Home Secretary Michael] Howards and the [ex-Home Secretary David] Blunketts, who choose facile posturing over policies that actually work.”

Ditto police numbers, which have little connection to crime levels according to the Guardian. “Violent crime…. was falling between 2009 and 2014 – at the same time as police officer numbers were being cut”, the newspaper notes. “And in 2008, when police numbers were at a high, knife deaths of teenagers and children were higher than they had been over the previous 10 years.”

The evidence underpinning more stop and search powers is similarly shaky. Citing a study by Marian Fitzgerald, a Visiting Professor of Criminology at the University of Kent, in 2010 the Guardian noted “there is little connection between the use of stop and search powers by the Metropolitan Police and reductions in knife crime.” Analysing the use of Section 60 in London – which allow the police to introduce stop and search without suspicion in a designated area at a specific time – Fitzgerald found “The boroughs which have resisted politically driven pressures to take a gung-ho approach to using Section 60 have been as successful in reducing knife crime, and often more so, than the boroughs where the police have been happy to let Section 60 searches go through the roof.”

In contrast to the Tory’s narrative, in 2007 Robert Reiner, Professor of Criminology at the London School of Economics, noted “a plethora of research shows that the criminal justice system can have little effect on crime overall, which flows from deeper social and cultural wellsprings.” Reiner’s take is backed up by testimony from Patricia Gallan in 2018, then Assistant Commissioner Specialist Crime and Operations in the Metropolitan Police, who noted “Those that end up in the criminal justice system tend to be the people who have less money and less opportunity in society.” Indeed the government’s own Serious Violence Strategy notes that crime and anti-social behaviour “correlate with… poor life outcomes such as low educational attainment, poor health and unemployment.”

This gets to the heart of the matter, with the authors of the 2007 Centre for Crime and Justice Studies report Knife Crime: A Review of Evidence and Policy arguing “The link between crime and deeper structural causes of inequality, poverty and social disaffection needs to be fully acknowledged and acted upon if the solutions are to be more than cosmetic and short term.”

And this is where a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn comes in – as the best chance we have had for generations to reorder the economy and tax system, to reduce poverty, properly fund public services, introduce a decent living wage, expand adult education and thus create a more equal, cohesive society. It is these structural changes, rather than the tabloid’s evidence-free obsessions of tougher sentencing and more “bobbies on the beat”, that will significantly reduce the level of crime and antisocial behaviour in society.

Further reading: Prison Reform Trust’s summer 2019 Bromley Briefing http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Publications/Factfile.

Tomorrow Ian will look at the evidence behind claims Corbyn’s Labour Party is “riddled” with antisemitism. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Rebutting Tory attack lines: Trident nuclear weapons

Rebutting Tory attack lines: Trident nuclear weapons
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
21 November 2019

During Labour’s game changing 2017 general election campaign it is worth remembering one particularly difficult moment for Jeremy Corbyn – when he was questioned by the audience and presenter David Dimbleby about whether he would press the “nuclear button” during BBC Question Time’s Leader’s Special.

“Jeremy had begun to look uncomfortable,” Steve Howell, then Labour’s deputy director of strategy and communications, noted in his book about the campaign.

This challenging episode won’t have gone unnoticed by the other political parties, of course. Earlier this month the Guardian noted the Conservative’s 2019 general election campaign will target Labour seats “by painting Corbyn as a threat to national security.” Unsurprisingly, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson was quick to mimic the Tories, launching her campaign by arguing the Labour leader “would be a threat to our national security”.

With these predictable attacks only set to get worse as polling day nears, it is worth reminding and arming ourselves with the facts and arguments against the UK’s Trident nuclear weapon system – which Corbyn has rightly opposed all of his political life.

First, it is important to highlight the sheer immorality of retaining and threatening the use of nuclear weapons. “In view of the fact any major nuclear exchange would create a nuclear winter that would kill most of humanity, it’s worth noting that the position that you would launch nuclear weapons is to the right of Thanos”, comedian Frankie Boyle tweeted recently about the fictional Marvel comics supervillain.

Boyle may well be referring to the 2013 report from the US organisation Physicians for Social Responsibility which argued a limited, regional nuclear war would significantly reduce yields of staple crops across the world, putting around two billion people at risk of famine. Which certainly puts Swinson’s assertion on Channel 4 News that should would press the button into perspective.

Second, Trident – often described as our “nuclear deterrent” – does not guarantee our so-called “national security”. Infact it likely makes the UK, and the rest of the world, less safe.

“Even though governments frequently invoke deterrence as a rationale for retaining nuclear weapons, its relevance has sharply diminished if not completely vanished”, concluded the 2006 Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission led by former Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix.

The concept of deterrence has a number of dangerous flaws: it is only a theory, and therefore cannot be proven; it requires effective communications between belligerents – the threat of a retaliatory strike must be relayed, understood and believed; and it requires decision makers to act rationally at times of extreme pressure. Writing in 2013, ex-Defence Secretary Des Browne notes “deterrence only works against those with a known address, it is not a viable strategy for meeting” threats such as cyber attacks or terrorism, including nuclear terrorism.

The ex-head of the UK armed forces Field Marshall Lord Bramall, General Lord Ramsbotham and General Sir Hugh Beach broadly agree, writing in the Times in 2009 that “nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of the violence we currently, or are likely to, face – particularly international terrorism.” Ten years later there is broad consensus the climate crisis is now the greatest threat the nation faces: “investing billions in nuclear weapons diverts funds away from addressing these priorities”, argues the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

Those arguing Trident makes the nation safer would do well to read the 2014 Chatham House report Too Close For Comfort: Cases Of Near Nuclear Use And Options For Policy. “The decades since 1945 have been punctuated by a series of disturbing close calls”, the report’s authors note, highlighting thirteen instances when nuclear weapons were perilously close to being used or accidentally detonated. “The probability of inadvertent nuclear use… is higher than had been widely considered”, they worryingly conclude.

Furthermore, the UK’s retention of Trident plays a key role in the proliferation of nuclear weapons – because it “might actively encourage others to believe that nuclear were still, somehow, vital to the secure defence of self-respecting nations”, argue Bramall, Ramsbotham and Beach. Browne agrees, arguing in 2013 that Trident renewal “will destroy any chance of building the broad-based international support required for a stronger non-proliferation and nuclear security regime.”

Third, the UK’s nuclear weapons are incredibly expensive – a 2016 CND study estimated the cost of replacing Trident at a massive £205 billion, while Crispin Blunt MP and Reuters assessed the cost to be £167 billion. Depending on your political priorities this money could be spent on any number of things, including boosting conventional military forces, international aid, peacekeeping or the UK’s stretched public services. As ex-Tory Defence Minister Michael Portillo said in 2015, the UK’s nuclear weapons are “a waste of money”.

Fourth, is the rarely discussed – in the mainstream media anyway – legal aspect. Britain is a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), commonly referred to as a “grand bargain” between the then five nuclear weapon states and the non-nuclear weapon states. States without nuclear weapons promised to not acquire them, and states with nuclear weapons pledged to pursue disarmament. As the treaty text confirmed, “each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”. CND argue this requirement was strengthened at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, which included the commitment by the nuclear weapons states to “an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” According to seven International Law specialists writing to the Guardian in 2006, the replacement of Trident would constitute a material breach of the NPT. This was confirmed by Kofi Annan, when he spoke as the United Nations Secretary-General in 2006: “All of the NPT nuclear-weapon States are modernizing their nuclear arsenals or their delivery systems. They should not imagine that this will be accepted as compatible with the NPT.”

In addition to these four central criticisms, it is worth noting the UK’s nuclear weapons “cannot be seen as independent of the United States in any meaningful sense”, according to Bramall, Ramsbotham and Beach.

“Not only are Britain’s Trident missiles in a common pool shared with the US and maintained in Kings Bay, Georgia, its nuclear warheads are designed and maintained at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston with the help of US know-how”, the Guardian’s Defence correspondent reported in 2014.

The independent all-party Trident Commission – co-chaired by Browne and former Tory Defence and Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind – confirmed as much in 2014: “If the United States were to withdraw their cooperation completely, the UK nuclear capability would probably have a life expectancy measured in months rather than years”.

Finally, it is worth remembering the broader global context: currently just nine nations possess nuclear weapons, which means 186 nations on earth do not. The uncomfortable truth is that by retaining its genocidal nuclear weapons the UK is an extreme outlier making the world more dangerous. It’s time the UK joined the rest of the world and started to work for a more peaceful, safer world. Electing a Labour government with Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister would be the first step on this vital journey.

Further reading: see CND’s Trident Mythbuster leaflet, https://cnduk.org/resources/trident-mythbuster/, and by Timmon Wallis’s book The Truth About Trident: Disarming the Nuclear Armament, published by Luath Press.

Tomorrow Ian will debunk the Tories’ likely attack lines on crime and punishment. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanJSinclair.

Rather than dismissing it, the Left should be intelligent consumers of the mainstream media

Rather than dismissing it the Left should be intelligent consumers of the mainstream media
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
15 November 2019

There seems to be an increasing and dismaying tendency amongst some people who self-identify as left-wing to dismiss mainstream media reporting out of hand.

Anything the Guardian or other corporate newspapers report is ridiculed and ignored. For example, I recently tweeted about a Guardian article which gave an overview of the ongoing protests around the world. I quickly received this sarcastic response: “From the newspaper that supports Assange [the Guardian has repeatedly smeared Julian Assange]… The Sun seems honest in comparison.” What part of the article did my correspondent take issue with? “I’d rather ignore that rags liberal pretensions from here on. They’re just a collection of churnalists and presstitutes” they replied.

I agree, of course, that the Guardian and the rest of the mainstream media are horribly compromised and establishment-friendly in much of their journalism and political positions.

Though most journalists do their best to ignore it, there is copious amounts of academic research which confirm this. In his new book The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis, Dr Mike Berry from Cardiff University shows how the British media played a key role in narrowing the national debate after the 2008 financial crisis in ways that suited elite interests. Similarly, the new Pluto Press book from the Glasgow Media Group, Bad News For Labour, explains how the often erroneous coverage of the antisemitism controversy by the print and broadcast media has led the general public to massively overestimate its incidence within the Labour Party.

Notwithstanding this strong evidence I would like to make the case for a more nuanced and intelligent engagement with the mainstream media by left-wing and progressive people.

Because while the left should oppose the way the corporate media inevitably sides with elite power, there is nevertheless important information to be gleaned from its reporting through careful and critical monitoring. They are, after all, the news organisations with the biggest budgets, best access to policymakers and largest staff rosters, including journalists reporting on the ground across the world.

Moreover, it is important to understand they are not monolithic structures – radical voices and useful information will often appear. Speaking to Andrew Marr in 1996 for the BBC Big Ideas programme, US dissident Noam Chomsky talked of investigative journalists in the US who “regard the media as a sham” and “consciously talk about how they try to play it like a violin. If they see a little opening, they’ll try to squeeze something in that ordinarily wouldn’t make it through.” Interviewed for the 2016 documentary All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception and the Spirit of I. F. Stone, US filmmaker Michael Moore said something similar: “He [I. F. Stone] said ‘When you pick up the paper you go to page 17 first. Don’t read the front page. Skip the front page. Go to page 17 because that’s where the truth is. And it’s going to be really small. It might be in a little two paragraph story, or it will be buried in paragraph 78. But that’s where they are putting it, and they know what they are doing.’”

Writing in his 2008 book Flat Earth News, Nick Davies provides a fascinating example of this from 2002-3. Davies records how Observer journalist Ed Vulliamy’s story looking at concerns within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) about intelligence on Iraq had been rejected five times by the newspaper, which had taken a strong pro-war position under editor Roger Alton. “At the sixth attempt… Vulliamy had finally managed to slip a small fraction of his story… into the paper – as the final two paragraphs of a 1,200-word story on page 16”, Davies relates.

If you read Chomsky’s work critiquing US foreign policy you will see his arguments are often backed up by mainstream media sources. Likewise UK media watchdog Media Lens often use arguments and information sourced from one part of the mainstream media to criticise the coverage of another part of the mainstream media. Another example is Voices in the Wilderness UK, the grassroots anti-sanctions and anti-war group which produced some of the most well-informed, critical coverage of the US-UK attack and occupation of Iraq. If you take a look at their regular newsletters it’s clear they were buying and reading the Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Guardian and Independent every day – and sometimes tabloids too – to assist in gaining a full understanding of what was going on.

When it comes to ‘defence’ news the Telegraph is well known to be close to the armed forces, and therefore may publish information of interest to those who oppose war. During the occupation of Iraq, for example, it was the Telegraph which published the leaked 2005 internal Ministry of Defence poll which found 45 per cent of Iraqis believed attacks against the US and UK troops were justified (rising to 65 per cent in the British controlled Maysan province).

I myself have collected some of the most damning quotes I’ve heard about UK military aggression abroad from BBC programmes.

It was listening to BBC Radio 4‘s The World Tonight in February 2009 that I caught Colonel Richard Kemp, Commander of British forces in Afghanistan in 2003, saying British forces used White Phosphorus in Afghanistan and Iraq “even in areas that do have a certain amount of civilian population”. Indeed it was in the right-wing Spectator magazine in January 2009 that Daniel Yates, a former British soldier, reported the British military was using White Phosphorus in Afghanistan “almost daily”.

Amidst the colonial-style violence and pro-military propaganda, there was also a hugely telling quote from a British soldier in Our War: Return to Death Valley, the 2012 BBC3 documentary series about Afghanistan. “One of the problems, especially with IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on the route 611 is that the insurgents aren’t trying to blow up the Ancop [Afghan National Civil Order Police], or even the civilians, they are just trying to blow up us”, Lieutenant Jimmy Clark from 2nd Battalion, Mercian Regiment noted about an operation to secure a road in Helmand province. “So we are actually in a position where we are protecting a route which only needs protecting because we use it.”

A similar sentiment was aired about the British occupation of Iraq on The World Tonight in February 2007: “90 per cent of the attacks here, or the violence levels recorded here, are against the British.  If you took the British out of it 90 per cent would drop, and you would be left with a residual bit”, Major General Jonathan Shaw, Commander of the British Forces in Basra, explained.

Of course, we should read and support alternative, non-corporate media outlets – the Morning Star, Peace News, Media Lens, Tribune magazine and Novara Media to name a few – and we should be vocal in our criticism of the corporate media. However, we shouldn’t forget a careful and critical engagement with mainstream news can often uncover important information and arguments that can be used against elite interests.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.