Category Archives: UK Politics

Clinching in the Breach: Matt Hancock Resigns

From his secure fortress of contented spite, Dominic Cummings, exiled from the power he once wielded at Number 10 as one of the chosen, must have felt a sense of satisfaction.  Biliously, the former top aide to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had scorned the now former UK Health Secretary in a performance before MPs lasting hours.  Matt Hancock, Cummings explained last month, could have been sacked for any number of things he did in responding to the pandemic.

With history moving from its tragic gear into a farcical one, Hancock has resigned.  It had all the makings of a tabloid fix: the minister’s name (Hancock), an aide, kissing, a leaking mole and CCTV.  But the departure was not for mendacity or want of competence so much as an ill-considered moment in breach of COVID-19 regulations.  With the country still continuing a lockdown that was meant to dramatically ease on June 21, a camera recording the Health Secretary snogging his aide, Gina Coladangelo, was leaked.  The camera footage of the office incident was recorded on May 6.

Johnson was never going to sack his minister on grounds of incompetence.  The leader has set the precedent others must follow.  According to the vengeful Cummings, it took a hail of 89 texts from Johnson’s wife Carrie to lessen the support.  It was left to Hancock to fall upon his sword, which he took some time to do.

In his resignation letter, priorities are reversed.  “The last thing I would want is for my private life to distract attention from the single-minded focus that is leading us out of this crisis.”  The actual reason comes afterwards.  “I want to reiterate my apology for breaking the guidance, and apologise to my family and loved ones for putting them through this.”  People who had “sacrificed so much in this pandemic” were owed a sense of honesty “when we have let them down as I have done by breaching this guidance.”  The Times tersely opined that such conduct suggested that “the government tolerates breaches of lockdown rules for themselves, while insisting the public adhere to higher standards.”

With the bigger picture of Hancock’s conduct miniaturised (the breach of social distancing rules, various questionable staff appointments – the list is long), Brandon Lewis, Northern Ireland Secretary, could now focus on the important matters: finding out how CCTV footage found its way into the pages of that undyingly malicious paper of poor record, The Sun.  The culprit is said to be lurking in the corridors of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

British press outlets suggested that the leaker had made contact via Instagram to an unnamed anti-lockdown activist.  “I have some very damning CCTV footage of someone that has been classed as completely f***ing hopeless. If you would like some more information please contact me.”  The same paper supplied readers with all the details, leaving little to the imagination.  Included was a crude outlay of Hancock’s office, including the positioning of the Union Jack, painting of the Queen, bookshelf, coat rack and, it transpires, the “kiss door”.

On Sky News, Lewis made the government’s priorities clear.  “I have seen some of the reports this morning outlining how different journalists think the tape might have got out there.  That is certainly a matter I know the Department of Health will be looking into to understand exactly how that was recorded, how it got out of the system.  It’s something we need to get to the bottom of.”

In comments that can only induce smirks of derision, Lewis preferred to focus on the principle that what took place in “government departments can be sensitive, important and people need to have confidence that what is happening in a government department is something that allows the government to be focused on these core issues, and the sensitivity sometimes in the security sense of those issues.”

Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was also busy directing attention to the things that counted – at least from a government perspective.  By leaking footage of Hancock’s intimate moment, the leaker may well have sailed close to breaching the Official Secrets Act.  Paying lip service to the “open society” and protections “for whistleblowers who find things out and release them in the public interest”, Hunt told the Andrew Marr Show what really bothered him.  “[W]e need to understand how this happened, and to make sure that ministers are secure in their offices, to be able to have conversations that they know aren’t going to be leaked to hostile powers.”

A fevered panic swept through Johnson’s cabinet, with ministers fearing they might be the next one to be Hancocked.  Justice Minister Robert Buckland revealed that sweeps were being organised to identify any filming or listening devices that had escaped detection.  “I think there is an important principle here about need for ministers and civil servants who often are handling very sensitive material and information to have a safe space within which to work.”

The calls for investigation did not stop at the issue of a breach of ministerial confidence.  The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, wished to guide the debate back to the breach of those very regulations government ministers had insisted Britons follow. “What’s important now is for there to be proper investigations into which rules were broken in relation to use of private email, in relation to the appointment of senior staff and also in relation to the social distancing rules.”

Hancock had certainly built himself a fortress of impropriety during the course of the pandemic.  The Sunday Times, having seen minutes of various meetings, noted that the minister had been using a private email address from March 2020 to conduct departmental correspondence, making accountability for decisions regarding the novel coronavirus slippery at best.

The deflectors were also tapping away.  Those sympathising with Hancock within the government were aghast at the very existence of a camera in the office.  Had he been the victim of an orchestrated sting by enemies in Number 10?  Or did some meddlesome power such as China wish to cause ripples by installing a clinch catching “love bug”?

The smug Mail on Sunday poured water on suggestions of foul play. “In fact, pictures taken in September 2017, just before Hancock moved in, show that the camera which caught the clinch is clearly visible on the ceiling of his office.”  But the Tories were also searching for another alibi that would, if not exonerate Hancock then at least provide a distraction from his conduct.

To that end, suspicion started growing legs with commentary on the camera’s make.  While rented from a Singaporean firm, it stems from Chinese manufacturer Hikvision, a company under contract to supply surveillance equipment to the authorities in China’s Xinjiang region.  Despite being blacklisted by Washington in October 2019 for its role in conducting surveillance of Uighurs in the region’s network of “re-education camps”, US cities, counties and schools have made good use of them during the pandemic.  In Britain, city councils employ them in public spaces.

The China Research Group, run by Tory MPs keen to drum up fears about China, fastened on Hikvision’s role in the Hancock affair in a statement.  “There are questions over whether [Hikvision cameras] are currently used in Portcullis House (where MPs have their offices) and the Palace of Westminster (where the House of Lords and the House of Commons is located).”  The group feared “the potential for Chinese intelligence agencies to tap into camera feeds in sensitive locations”.

The nature and scope of the forthcoming inquiry is uncertain.  A full-blooded investigation, no holds barred, might well reveal a bit more than the Department of Health might want to reveal.  Investigators run the risk of lionising a potential whistleblower while uncovering a good deal of rot at the centre of the Johnson government.  And few civil servants, and certainly no government politician, would like to see that.

The post Clinching in the Breach: Matt Hancock Resigns first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Laying the Bear Trap: Orbán visits No 10 Downing Street

His comments would not have fallen on deaf ears.  While metropolitan London would have been aghast at his pedigree and remarks, a Brexit-audience in the rustbelts and areas of deprivation, would have felt a twang of appreciation.  For them, migration has not been a boon and glory.  For Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, it has been an opportunity to make valuable enemies and court new friends.

The meeting between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Orbán on May 28 did more than raise eyebrows and prompt head scratching.  The statement released by No 10 was anodyne enough, filling space and not much else.  “The leaders discussed the importance of the UK and Hungary working together bilaterally to increase security and prosperity in our countries and to address global challenges such as climate change.”

Johnson is also said to have “raised his significant concerns about human rights in Hungary, including gender equality, LGBT rights and media freedom.”  In terms of foreign policy, Johnson saw his Hungarian counterpart as a man of influence.  “The Prime Minister encouraged Hungary to use their influence to promote democracy and stability.”

The critics, notably those drenched in the juice of Britannic values, were bemused and baffled.  Labour MP Alex Sobel outlined Orbán’s resume ahead of the visit: “a renowned anti-Semite, fuelled violence against the Romany, clamps down on the LGBT and Muslim communities.”  He had also “suppressed democratic norms and press freedom”.  Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy took issue with the visit given Orbán’s record on attacking “press freedom and democracy”, refugees as “Muslim invaders” and was “a cheerleader for Putin and Lukashenko.”

Nandy then turned on that resource so commonly drawn upon when faced with discomforting leaders. Orbán, being one of Europe’s “most regressive leaders” was effectively undermining “the values the UK government says it wants to defend”.

The government of Boris Johnson may well spout the values argument, but Brexit has meant courting and entertaining widely.  The world is less its opportune oyster than a pressing necessity.  Friends need to be won over, agreements inked and secured.  As a No 10 spokesman put it, “As president of the Visegrád group of Central European nations later this year, cooperation with Hungary is vital to the UK’s prosperity and security.”  UK Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was even more explicit: the UK had to, at times, speak to the unsavoury and approach the unlikeable. “I think Viktor Orbán’s views on migrants are things I would not endorse in any way.”

Kwarteng distils the amoral British position with accuracy, though it also says much about what Timothy Garton Ash described as “the dilemma of self-inflicted weakness” that burdens post-Brexit Britain.  Arms contracts with Saudi Arabia while a theocracy maims and molests remain a matter of course.  The relationship with China privileges the business imperative, despite claims about holding a liberal international order together.  Deals are to be made, even with authoritarian regimes and those with a sketchy record on human rights.

Orbán, by comparison to some of the UK’s trading partners, is almost civil.  And more to the point, he never disappoints as one of the great critics of the EU, even as he remains in its tent.  The abundant admiration for Brexit, described as the opening of a “fantastic door, a fantastic opportunity”, has not gone unnoticed.

Then there is that niggling issue that Johnson and his party members might not be entirely at odds with the Hungarian PM.  While the official statement on the No 10 meeting mentions a concern for rights and liberties, Johnson could hardly have disagreed with some of his counterpart’s views, notably on Islam.  The recent Singh report into claims of Islamophobia within the Conservative Party found degrees of discrimination from the Prime Minister to grass roots organisations, though it rejected claims of “institutional racism” made by such prominent Tory members as Baroness Warsi.  The Prime Minister’s previous remarks, mocking those wearing burqas as “looking like letterboxes” were also picked up in the report.  “I am obviously sorry for any offence taken,” Johnson said in response, though he also added a rounding qualifier: “My writings are often parodic, satirical”.

Orbán’s views on immigration and Islam are far from satirical, though they do not resist unintentional parody and farce.  Reprising himself as a nationalist warrior fending off a modern Ottoman surge, the grave Hungarian leader wears the habitual costume of a defender of European civilisation.

And what of anti-Semitism? Specifically referring to his troubled relationship with George Soros, the billionaire was described as “a talented Hungarian businessman… he is very much in favour of migration, financing and helping the NGOs who are doing that.  We don’t like it but it has nothing to do with ethnic identity.”

The shambolic rollout of the EU vaccination program has also gifted much room to Orbán to mock opponents and stifle detractors.  Vacillation in Europe on how best to approach COVID-19 and poor planning has meant the courting of other countries for vaccines.  The EU is not working, he can say, and this is how we respond.  The result is a range of options for Hungarians, sourced from Russia and China.  As he has done so, Orbán has pursued an aggressive campaign against contrarians within his country.  The pro-government media mobbing of political scientist Peter Kreko, who cautioned against the speed the Orbán government was seeking the Sputnik V vaccine, was typically sinister.

In the indignant storm surrounding the visit, a White Hall source may have provided the most accurate summary that reflects the British PM’s approach to policy in general: “Number 10 has walked into a bear trap.”

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The Dominic Cummings Show

The former chief strategist for Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in a stroppy mood before the UK parliamentary Health and Science committee.  For seven hours, Cummings unleashed salvo after salvo against his former boss and the government coronavirus response.

Boiling down some points of the Cummings show: there was a failure on the part of the Johnson government to respond to the pandemic.  Johnson was unfit for office.  The Health Secretary Matt Hancock should have been sacked for any number of decisions.  Lockdown measures were imposed too late to prevent the surge of infections.  There was simply no overall master plan to cope with a pandemic.

The political strategist apologised for the various tiers of decision makers and advisers, including himself, for falling calamitously “short of the standards that the public has a right to expect”.  He apologised to those families who “unnecessarily” lost loved ones and confessed that “lots of key people were literally skiing” instead of moving to a “war footing” in January and February last year.

The portrait of Johnson is superbly unsympathetic.  The prime minister’s clownish credentials come blundering through.  The novel coronavirus was dismissed as “the new swine flu”, a mere “scare story”.   He even suggested receiving an injection of the virus live on television “so everyone realises it’s nothing to be frightened of”.  Bodies piled up high was a preferable outcome to imposing a third lockdown in the autumn of 2020.  And as for information, the PM could not take himself away from the Daily Telegraph’s view of events.

The Cummings-Johnson relationship duly atrophied. “The heart of the problem was, fundamentally, I regarded him as unfit for the job.  And I was trying to create a structure around him to try and stop what I thought would have been bad decisions, and push things through against his wishes.”

Some of the choicest blows are reserved for the Health Secretary, who “should have been fired for at least 15 to 20 things”.  Hancock held back the testing regime and interfered in the development of a mass testing system, conduct Cummings found “criminal” and “disgraceful”.  Hancock was mendacious in meetings held in the cabinet room of Downing Street, assuring those in attendance that people “were going to be tested [for COVID-19] before they went back to care homes [from hospitals].”  He also used health experts such as the chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical adviser Chris Witty as shields for government incompetence.

Cummings delighted the political science fraternity with his display in the Attlee suite in Portcullis House.  He was, Matthew Flinders of the University of Sheffield, asserted, “at his most magnificent and Machiavellian: a quite beautiful case study in the art of planting seeds and laying traps.”  The Spectator, a magazine once edited by Johnson, was blind to the retributive nature of the testimony.  “His decision to identify the many mistakes made at the start of the pandemic is not about seeking vengeance; it is a vital process to ensure that errors are identified and not repeated.”  How noble.

To a degree, the Cummings account is useful in pointing out administrative failings.  The pandemic blueprint was inadequate, developed to fight influenza rather than respiratory variants in the form of coronavirus.  Dissenting views were not countenanced.  “It was a classic historical example of groupthink in action,” assessed Cummings. “The more people from outside attacked, the more internally said, ‘They don’t understand, they haven’t got access to our information.’”

The response from Johnson to such accounts and depictions is crudely simple: remind voters that Britain’s vaccination effort has been stellar.  The UK is one of the leading countries in the mass vaccination programme.  Specifically regarding Cummings’s testimony, the “commentary”, claimed Johnson, did not “bear relation to reality”.

Hancock’s approach was much the same: stay focused on the vaccination drive.  Forget past crimes and misdemeanours.  He also denied that he lied about patients being sent from hospital to care homes without being tested first.  “My recollection of events is that I committed to delivering that testing for people going from hospital into care homes when we could do it.”  The relevant factor was the timing of it; the capacity for testing had to be built up.

And there is the obvious point that Cummings, despite blaming Johnson and seeking his own restoration, remains chipped and damaged.  The display by the senior strategist in the rose garden of No 10 last year featuring an apologia for his infamous trip to County Durham in breach of lockdown laws was a hard one to efface.  He did concede that doing so had “undermined public confidence”.  But he was ready with an explanation.  Moving his family out of London took place after his wife received death threats from people gathered outside the home.  “The whole thing was a complete disaster and the truth is… if I just basically sent my family back out of London and said here’s the truth to the public, I think people would have understood the situation.”

When asked whether the additional trip by Cummings to Barnard Castle from the family home in County Durham was actually for reasons of testing his eyesight, the dark eminence returned to form.  “If you’re going to drive 300 miles to go back to work, popping down the road for 30 miles and back to see how you feel… it didn’t seem crazy.”  It was not, as committee chair Jeremy Hunt suggested, a birthday celebration for his wife.  “If I was going to make up a story I would come up with a better one than that.”

Patrick Diamond of Queen Mary, University of London, identifies the central paradox of British government that proved so detrimental to the pandemic response.  The British state might be highly centralised but “the centre of government lacks capacity.”  Policymaking by the core executive has also been undermined by the altering of relations between the ministerial group and the civil service. Then comes the “growth of territorial conflict with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”  The result of this: a failure of coordination of governments across the UK in responding to COVID-19.  What Cummings did was render such dysfunctions flesh and folly.

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Dominic Cummings is our Machiavelli: with Brexit, lies served him, now the truth does

Remember how Dominic Cummings played a blinder over Brexit, spinning a web of deceptions, funnelled through politicians and the media, to persuade the public that Britain needed to quit the European Union so urgently it should do so on any terms, even ones that would sabotage the country’s interests. Well, he just did a Brexit on Boris Johnson, though this time he didn’t need to use lies. The facts were quite enough.

It would be foolish, however, to imagine that in appearing before a House of Commons select committee yesterday Cummings was serving simply as a conduit for the truth about Johnson’s catastrophically inept government – a kind of inversion of the role the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg has played serving as a conduit for Cummings and Johnson’s misinformation.

Cummings was once again proving he is the master of cynical power politics. He is the Machiavelli of our times. His self-serving honesty and self-criticism were perfectly calibrated to rehabilitate his image, win over doubters and stick the knife more deeply into Johnson.

It may be too uncharitable to exclude the possibility that Cummings is offering his revelations, in part, to benefit the British public. But his larger purpose is clearer. He is doing his best to damage and destroy the incompetently corrupt, like Johnson and Health Secretary Mike Hancock, so that they can be replaced by the more competently corrupt, like Michael Gove and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

Better frontman

Cummings is a brigade commander on the frontlines of a war within the establishment class. He wants a better frontman for his brand of US-inspired, super-predatory capitalism. And for that reason alone, the left should avoid getting so deeply immersed in these intrigues that we start cheerleading one side over the other.

Yes, Johnson made disastrous decisions over Covid that killed many thousands unnecessarily: the “herd immunity” plan, the abandonment of care homes, the delays in procuring PPE, the lax border policy, the extravagant contracts for cronies, and much more. We didn’t need Cummings to tell us that, though his insider account puts more flesh on the bones.

But there were plenty of other reasons why so many died, reasons that long predate Johnson becoming prime minister – not least the calamitous failure to maintain PPE supplies, the dismantlement of the institutions needed to prepare for and deal with a pandemic effectively, and the death by a thousand cuts to the NHS.

None of that would have been different had Sunak or Gove been in Johnson’s shoes, even assuming either would actually have been capable of devising and implementing better policies, from lockdowns to care homes. That is the greater scandal and it is not one Cummings – or Kuenssberg – will talk about.

Grudge match

What Cummings did do yesterday – inadvertently – was draw back a little the curtain designed to conceal the charade that is “representative democracy”. If we can avoid being overly invested in the drama of the Cummings-Johnson grudge match, we have a chance to understand that the whole system is rotten from top to bottom.

It is precisely this corrupted and corrupting system of power – run by, and in the interests of, a tiny political and media elite – that spent five years ensuring Jeremy Corbyn would never reach 10 Downing Street, and is now weighing whether Sir Keir Starmer is a credible “alternative” should the Tories’ fortunes sink.

Johnson has good reason to be obsessed with the media, making U-turns “like a shopping trolley smashing from one side of the aisle to the other”. As with one of his predecessors, Tony Blair, Johnson understands that it is chiefly the Murdoch empire and the BBC that decide his fate.

In the Corbyn era, Johnson faced no threat at all – he knew the BBC and Murdoch press had his back. They would never have supported Corbyn against him, however unsuitable and incompetent Johnson proved to be as prime minister. That was the real problem with Corbyn. It was not his supposed character or political flaws; it was that Britain became even more of a one-party state so long he led the opposition – with the media, the political system, even the Labour party bureaucracy itself determined at all costs to keep in power the leader of the Conservative party, whoever it was.

Cummings’ sudden candour is a sign that the establishment is now in a position to replace Johnson, and willing to groom whoever from its short-list is best placed to win over the British public – be it, Sunak, Gove or Starmer.

BBC on the back foot

It is perhaps not surprising that Cummings sought to embarrass the BBC’s Kuenssberg by singling her out among his media contacts, pretending that he rarely dealt with other reporters. Kuenssberg is probably the single most powerful journalist shaping the public’s perception of this government. And she has done a sterling job of veiling and excusing Johnson’s incompetence at every turn. Without her, Johnson would have been a great deal more vulnerable much earlier.

What Cummings has subtly achieved is to force Kuenssberg on to the back foot. She is now prey to the charge – an entirely accurate one – that she has been riding shotgun for Johnson. She will need to distance herself more from him, to deal with No 10 “sources” more critically, in an attempt to prove Cummings wrong. And the new pressure on her to look less like what she is and what the BBC want her to be – a journalist hungry for access – will mean that, as a result, Johnson is more politically exposed, more vulnerable to challenge, than ever before.

For Cummings, it is a master-stroke.

One-party state

What Cummings revealed – again not entirely intentionally – was that we are ruled by narcissists and charlatans, the “donkeys”: precisely the kind of people who crave power for power’s sake and are least equipped to run government wisely and compassionately.

The policy failings, the lies, the chaos, the inflated personality clashes – the scenes of pandemonium Cummings set out – are inevitable when a country has long been run as a one-party state, even if that party comes in two flavours, red and blue, that sometimes take turns in government.

The pandemic exposed the weaknesses of Britain’s one-party system particularly starkly only because of the scale of the threat and the suddenness of its arrival. The cost of the establishment’s corruption and incompetence was measured this time in tens of thousands of lives – lives that can no more be hidden from view than the Covid “Wall of Hearts”.

But in normal times, donkeys like Johnson, Hancock, Sunak and Gove are ideally equipped to achieve the power elite’s goals, shunting capitalism’s costs out of view: on to the shoulders of the weak and vulnerable, those unheard on the margins of western society; to far-off lands, where the effects will be felt only by irrelevant black and brown people; and into the future, for our children to suffer the consequences.

Crackers by design

Even Cummings’ moments of apparent self-awareness were not quite what they seemed. He told MPs:

It’s just completely crackers that someone like me should have been in there [in a senior government position], just the same as it’s crackers that Boris Johnson was in there – and that the choice at the last election was Jeremy Corbyn.

But it isn’t crackers at all. It is by design. It is the way the system has evolved to keep a tiny wealth-elite in power. We have a narcissistic joker like Johnson in No 10 – just as Americans ended up with Donald Trump in the White House – because the public’s ability to think critically has been intentionally degraded over decades by a billionaire-owned press and a craven BBC that turned politics into the most cynical kind of entertainment.

When an opposition leader appeared, as if by accident, who actually wanted to use politics to transform the lives of ordinary people – rather than preserve the current predatory system of elite power – the corporate media lost no time turning him into a national security threat, a terrorist and an antisemite.

It is no accident that the one in power, Johnson, is the real clown. And it is no accident that the one out of power and in disgrace, Corbyn, was so easily made to look like a clown. The creation of an equivalence between them is more of the lies Cummings claims to be busting.

Cummings understands our weaknesses. We struggle to see how we are being manipulated. We listen credulously to flesh-and-blood journalists like Kuenssberg even as, in the abstract, we lose ever more trust in the media. We forget that by natural selection those drawn to the highest level of politics are invariably narcissists and master manipulators.

The result: we fall for their lies time and again. We listen to them uncritically, absorbing their cynicism and selfishness as truth, as honesty.

As Dominic Cummings knew we would.

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Crashing Out in Hartlepool: Labour Ills and Teflon Boris

By-election results make poor predictors.  The government of the day can often count on a swing against it by irritated voters keen to remind it they exist.  It’s an opportunity to mete out mild punishment.  But the loss of the seat in Hartlepool by the British Labour party is ominous for party apparatchiks.  For the first time in 62 years, the Conservatives won the traditional heartland Labour seat, netting 15,529 votes.  Labour’s tally: 8,589.  The swing against Labour had been a devastating 16%.

The scene of Hartlepool is one of profound, social decay.  Its decline, wrote Tanya Gold on the eve of the by-election, “meets you like a wall of heat.”  She noted an era lost, the trace of lingering memories.  Hartlepool was once known for making ships.  “Now it makes ennui.”  Male unemployment is a touch under 10%. Rates of child poverty are some of the highest in the country.  Services have been withdrawn; the once fine Georgian and Victorian houses are mouldering.

The seat presented the Conservatives an opportunity to take yet another brick out of Labour’s crumbling red wall.  Prime Minister Boris Johnson made visits to back his candidate, Jill Mortimer, hardly a stellar recruit.  Labour was suffering establishment blues.  They struggled to find a pro-Brexit candidate.  Their choice – Paul Williams – was a Remainer who formerly represented the seat of Stockton, which returned a leave vote of 69.6%.  It was a statement of London-centric politics, the Labour of the city rather than the locality; the Labour of university education rather than the labour of regional working class.

Birmingham Labour MP Khalid Mahmood, formerly shadow defence secretary, is bitter about the estrangement and emergence of what are effectively two parties.  “A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of the brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party,” he lamented in an article for the conservative think tank Policy Exchange.  “They mean well, of course, but their politics – obsessed with identity, division and even tech utopianism – have more in common with those of Californian high society than the kind of people who voted in Hartlepool yesterday.”

Energy had been expended on such causes as trying to pull down Churchill’s statue rather than “helping people pull themselves up in the world.”  The patriotism of the voters had not been taken seriously enough.  “They are more alert to rebranding exercises than spin doctors give them credit for.”

Labour’s campaign in Hartlepool was not so much off-message as lacking one.  “Today,” penned progressive columnist and Labour Party supporter Owen Jones, “we saw the fruits of a truly fascinating experiment”.  It was one featuring a political party going to an election “without a vision or a coherent message against a government that has both in spades.”

The tendency was repeated in local elections, with ballots being conducted across Wales, England and Scotland in what was called “Super Thursday”.  The Teesside mayoralty was regained by Ben Houchen for the Conservatives by a convincingly crushing 72.7%, three times that of Labour, prompting Will Hutton to see a new ideology of interventionist conservatism.  Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer could do little other than call the results “bitterly disappointing” and sack the party’s chair and national campaign coordinator, Angela Rayner.  He is chewing over the idea of moving his party’s headquarters out of London. The feeling of panic is unmistakable.

What is even more startling is the enormous latitude that has been given to Johnson.  Despite bungling the response to the initial phases of the pandemic, an insatiable appetite for scandals and a seedy, authoritarian approach to power, Labor voters have not turned away, let alone had second thoughts about this Tory.  His mendacity and pure fibbing is not something that turns people off him; the stream of Daily Telegraph confections from the 1990s on what those supposedly nasty bureaucrats in Brussels were up to had a lasting effect on Britain’s relations with Europe.  Mendacity can work.

Last April, Jonathan Freedland examined the prime minister’s resume of scandals and found it heaving.  He shifted the cost of removing dangerous cladding in the wake of the Grenfell fire, along with other hazards, to ordinary leaseholders.  He slashed the UK aid budget and reduced contributions to the UN family planning program.  He delayed lockdowns in March, September and the winter in 2020, moves that aided Britain lead Europe’s coronavirus death toll.  There were the contracts to supply personal protective equipment to Tory donors and the frittering away of £37 billion on a test-and-trace programme “that never really worked.”  And that was just a modest sampling.

The refurbishment scandal is particularly rich, given the bundle Johnson and his fiancée Carrie Symonds have spent on their private residence.  The public purse will foot the bill to the value of £30,000, but the amount spent was more in the order of £200,000.  With a very heavy axe to grind, Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former advisor and confidant turned blogging snitch, suggested that the PM’s grand plan was to have that inflated amount covered by donors.   “The PM stopped speaking to me about this matter in 2020 as I told him I thought his plans to have donors secretly pay for the renovation were unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations if conducted in the way he intended.”

Johnson, for his part, claims that he covered the costs himself, though he refuses to answer questions put to him on whether Lord David Brownlow initially covered it, and was then repaid.  Not declaring this transaction would have broken electoral law.  The Electoral Commission has not found the affair particularly amusing, and is investigating the refurbishment transactions.

The disaster that befell Labour in the 2019 general election sees little prospect of being reversed.  Starmer, generally seen as the more decent chap, is rapidly diminishing as a chance for Downing Street honours.  As for Johnson, Freedland suggests that the good fortune of the scandal ridden PM reveals an electorate “still seduced by a tousled-hair rebel shtick and faux bonhomie that should have palled years ago.”

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Boris Johnson’s lies don’t harm him because the political system is more corrupt than he is

Britain’s corporate media are suddenly awash with stories wondering whether, or to what extent, the UK’s prime minister is dishonest. Predictably in the midst of this, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg is still doing her determined best to act as media bodyguard to Boris Johnson.

In a lengthy article on the BBC’s website over the weekend, she presents a series of soothing alternatives to avoid conceding the self-evident: that Johnson is a serial liar. According to Kuenssberg, or at least those she chooses to quote (those, let us remember, who give her unfettered “access” to the corridors of power), he is a well-intentioned, unpredictable, sometimes hapless, “untamed political animal”. A rough diamond.

In Kuenssberg’s telling, Johnson’s increasingly obvious flaws are actually his strengths:

Yet what’s suggested time and again is that the prime minister’s attitude to the truth and facts is not based on what is real and what is not, but is driven by what he wants to achieve in that moment – what he desires, rather than what he believes. And there is no question, that approach, coupled with an intense force of personality can be enormously effective.

In his political career, Boris Johnson has time and again overturned the odds, and that’s a huge part of the reason why.

The way Kuenssberg tells it, Johnson sounds exactly like someone you would want in your corner in a time of crisis. Not the narcissist creator of those crises, but the Nietzschean “Superman” who can solve them for you through sheer force of will and personality.

Lies piling up

Slightly less enamoured with Johnson than the BBC has been the liberal Guardian, Britain’s supposedly chief “opposition” newspaper to the ruling Conservative government. But the Guardian has been surprisingly late to this party too. Typical of its newly aggressive approach to Johnson was a piece published on Saturday by its columnist Jonathan Freedland, titled “Scandal upon scandal: the charge sheet that should have felled Johnson years ago”.

As this article rightly documents, Johnson is an inveterate dissembler, and one whose lies have been visibly piling up since he entered 10 Downing Street. His propensity to lie is not new. It was well-know to anyone who worked with him in his earlier career in journalism or when he was an aspiring politician. It is not the “scandals” that are new, it’s the media’s interest in documenting them that is.

And when the liar-in-chef is also the prime minister, those lies invariably end up masking high-level corruption, the kind of corruption that has the capacity to destroy lives – many lives.

So why are Johnson’s well-known deceptions only becoming a “mainstream” issue now – and why, in particular, is a liberal outlet like the Guardian picking up the baton on this matter so late in the day? As Freedland rightly observes, these scandals have been around for many years, so why wasn’t the Guardian on Johnson’s case from the outset, setting the agenda?

Or put another way, why has the drive to expose Johnson been led not by liberal journalists like Freedland but chiefly by a disillusioned old-school conservative worried about the damage Johnson is doing to his political tradition? Freedland is riding on the coat-tails of former Telegraph journalist Peter Oborne, who wrote a recent book on Johnson’s fabrications, The Assault on Truth.  Further, Johnson’s deceptions have gone viral not because of the efforts of the Guardian but because of a video compilation on social media of some of Johnson’s biggest whoppers by lawyer and independent journalist Peter Stefanovic.

Politics rigged

Part of the answer, of course, is that until recently the Guardian, along with the rest of the corporate media, had a much more pressing task than holding Britain’s prime minister to account for lies – and the corruption they obscure – that have drained the Treasury of the nation’s wealth, redirecting it towards a bunch of Tory donors, and subsequently contributed to at least a proportion of Covid-19 deaths.

The Guardian was preoccupied with making sure that Johnson was not replaced by an opposition leader who spoke, for the first time in more than a generation, about the need for wealth redistribution and a fairer society.

On the political scales weighing what was most beneficial for the country, it was far more important to the Guardian to keep then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his democratic socialist agenda out of Downing Street than make sure Britain was run in accordance with the rule of law, let alone according to the principles of fairness and decency.

Now with Corbyn long gone, the political conditions to take on Johnson are more favourable. Covid-19 cases in the UK have plummeted, freeing up a little space on front pages for other matters. And Corbyn’s successor, Keir Starmer, has used the past year to prove over and over again to the media that he has been scrupulous about purging socialism from the Labour party.

We are back to the familiar and reassuring days of having two main parties that will not threaten the establishment. One, the Labour party, will leave the establishment’s power and wealth untouched, but do so in a way that makes Britain once again look like a properly run country, conferring greater legitimacy on UK Plc. The other, the Conservative party, will do even better by the establishment, further enriching it with an unapologetic crony capitalism, even if that risks over the longer term provoking a popular backlash that may prove harder to defuse than the Corbyn one did.

For the time being at least, the elite prospers either way. The bottom line, for the establishment, is that the political system is once again rigged in its favour, whoever wins the next election. The establishment can risk making Johnson vulnerable only because the establishment interests he represents are no longer vulnerable.

Blame the voters

But for liberal media like the Guardian, the campaign to hold Johnson to account is potentially treacherous. Once the prime minister’s serial lying is exposed and the people informed of what is going on, according to traditional liberal thinking, his popularity should wane. Once the people understand he is a conman, they will want to be rid of him. That should be all the more inevitable, if, as the Guardian contends, Starmer is an obviously safer and more honest pair of hands.

But the problem for the Guardian is that Johnson’s polling figures are remarkably buoyant, despite the growing media criticism of him. He continues to outpoll Starmer. His Midas touch needs explaining. And the Guardian is growing ever more explicit about where the fault is to be found. With us.

Or as Freedland observes:

Maybe the real scandal lies with us, the electorate, still seduced by a tousled-hair rebel shtick and faux bonhomie that should have palled years ago… For allowing this shameless man to keep riding high, some of the shame is on us.

Freedland is far from alone in peddling this line. Kuenssberg, in her BBC piece, offers a variant:

An insider told me: “He frequently leaves people with the belief that he has told them one thing, but he has given himself room for manoeuvre,” believing that, “the fewer cast iron positions you hold the better, because you can always change political direction.”

The verbal flourishes and rhetorical tricks are part of the reason why he has prospered. “A lot of his magic has been those off-the-cuff comments, that’s why a lot of the public like him,” says an ally.

In other words, we see what we want to see. Johnson is the vessel into which we pour our hopes and dreams, while he has the tough challenge of making our melange of hopes and dreams a tangible, workable reality.

Liberal journalists have been on this “blame the voters” path for a while. When it was Corbyn and his “dangerous” socialism being pitted against the Tories’ crony capitalism, the Guardian enthusiastically joined the smear campaign against Labour. That included evidence-free claims of an “institutional antisemitism” crisis under Corbyn’s leadership.

And yet despite the media’s best endeavours, Corbyn appalled journalists like Freedland at the 2017 general election by winning Labour’s biggest rise in vote share since 1945. Corbyn denied the Conservatives a majority and was a few thousand votes from winning outright – something Starmer can only dream of at the moment, despite Johnson’s exposure as an inveterate liar and conman. And Corbyn achieved this while the Labour party machine, and the entire corporate media, were vehemently against him.

Dangerous populism

It was in the wake of Corbyn’s unexpected success at the polls in 2017 that the Guardian unleashed its “New Populism” series, seeking to warn of a supposedly dangerous new political phenomenon that lumped the then-Labour leader in with right wing populists such as Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. They were all part of a new wave of authoritarian, cult-like leaders who barely concealed their sinister, racist agendas, gulled supporters with promises divorced from reality, and most likely had secret ties to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

In short, the Guardian’s thesis was that “the people” kept voting for these leaders because they were stupid and easily duped by a smooth-tongued charlatan.

This narrative was aggressively promoted by the Guardian, even though Corbyn had nothing in common with the right wing authoritarians with whom he was forced to share star billing. He had spent his long political career on the backbenches, cultivating a self-effacing politics of communal solidarity and “standing up for the little guy” rather than pursuing power. And far from being a nationalist or nativist, Corbyn had dedicated decades to internationalism and fighting racism – though admittedly, in challenging the anti-Palestinian racism of Israel and its Zionist supporters he had left himself prey to disingenuous claims of antisemitism.

But after several years of emotional and ideological investment in “the people are dumb” approach, the Guardian seems in no hurry to drop it – until, or unless, the people can be persuaded to vote for an eminently safe, status-quo candidate like Starmer. The paper’s target has simply switched from Corbyn to the more plausible figure of Boris Johnson.

The Guardian dares not contemplate any alternative explanation for why voters continue to prefer the narcissist, corrupt, lying Johnson over Labour’s “Clean Up Westminster” Keir Starmer. But its reluctance to consider other explanations does not mean they cannot be found.

A corrupt system

The problem is not that most voters have failed to understand that Johnson is corrupt, though given the corrupt nature of the British corporate media – the Guardian very much included – they are hardly well positioned to appreciate the extent of Johnson’s corruption.

It is not even that they know that he is corrupt but do not care.

Rather, the real problem is that significant sections of the electorate have rightly come to the realisation that the wider political system within which Johnson operates is corrupt too. So corrupt, in fact, that it may be impossible to fix. Johnson is simply more open, and honest, about how he exploits the corrupt system.

Over the past two decades, there have been several way-stations exposing the extent of the corruption of the UK’s political system, whichever party was in power.

Labour under Tony Blair overrode popular dissent, expressed in the largest marches ever seen in the UK, and lied his way to a war on Iraq in 2003 that led to the killing and ethnic cleansing of millions of Iraqis. UK soldiers were dragged into a war that, it quickly became clear, was really about securing western control over the Middle East’s oil. And the invasion and occupation of Iraq spawned a new nihilistic Islamic cult that rampaged across the region and whose embers have yet to be snuffed out.

Five years later, Gordon Brown oversaw the near-implosion of the British economy after Labour had spent more than a decade intensifying the financial deregulation begun under Margaret Thatcher. That process had turned the financial sector into the true power behind No 10. Both Brown and his Tory successor, David Cameron, not only refused to hold to account any of the white-collar criminals responsible for the collapse of the financial system, but instead rewarded them with massive bailouts. Ordinary people, meanwhile, were forced to tighten their belts through years of austerity to pay off the debts.

And in the background throughout this period, a global and local environmental catastrophe has been gradually unfolding that the political system has shown no capacity to address because it has been captured by corporations who benefit most from continuing the environmental degradation. The system has instead dissembled on the threats we face to justify inaction.

No price to pay

The truly astonishing thing is that those who lied us into the Iraq war, destabilising the Middle East and provoking an exodus from the region that has fuelled a surge in xenophobic politics across Europe; those who broke the financial system through their greed and incompetence and lied their way out of the consequences, forcing the rest of us to foot the bill; and those who lied about the ecological catastrophes unfolding over the past half century so that they could go on lining their own pockets; none of them paid any price at all for their mendacity, for their deceptions, for their corruption. Not only that, but they have grown richer, more powerful, more respected because of the lies.

One only needs to look at the fate of that unapologetic pair of war criminals, Tony Blair and George W Bush. The former has amassed wealth like a black hole sucks in light, and preposterously is still regularly called on by the media to pontificate on ethical issues in British politics. And the latter has been rehabilitated as a once-wayward, now beloved, irreverent uncle to the nation, one whose humanity has supposedly been underscored simply by making sure he was filmed “sneaking” a sweet to his presidential successor’s wife.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, a remedy to Britain’s self-evidently flawed political system was thrown up – in the form of Corbyn. He was a throwback, the very antithesis of the modern politicians who had brought us to the brink of ruin on multiple fronts. He was not venal, nor a narcissist. His concern was improving the lives of ordinary people, not the bank balances of corporate donors. He was against colonial-style wars to grab other countries’ resources. The things that made him a laughing stock with the political elite – his cheap clothes, his simple life, his allotment – made him appealing to large sections of the electorate.

For many, Corbyn was the last gasp for a system they had given up on. He might prove their growing cynicism about politics wrong. His success might demonstrate that the system could be fixed, and that all was not lost.

Except that is not how it played out. The entire political and media class – even the military – turned on Corbyn. They played the man, not the ball – and when it came to the man, any and all character assassination was justified. He had been a Soviet agent. He was a threat to Britain’s security. His IQ was too low to be prime minister. He was a secret antisemite.

Lying, cheating and stealing

In the United States, then-Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer warned Donald Trump back in 2017 that the US intelligence services would “have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you” should the president try to go up against them. Maybe Trump hoped that his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, would offer some protection. Pompeo, a former head of the CIA, understood the dishonest ways of the intelligence services only too well. He explained his agency’s modus operandi to a group of students in Texas in an unusually frank manner in late 2019: “I was the CIA director. We lied, we cheated, we stole. That’s, it was like, we had entire training courses!”

With the campaign to destroy Corbyn, many saw how the British system was just as skilled and experienced as the US one in its capacity to lie, cheat and steal. Corbyn’s treatment offered an undeniable confirmation of what they already suspected.

Over the past two decades, in an era when social media has emerged as an alternative information universe challenging that of the traditional corporate media, all these episodes – Iraq, the financial crash, ecological catastrophe, Corbyn’s political assassination – have had deeply damaging political ramifications. Because once people sensed that the system was corrupt, they became cynical. And once they were cynical, once they believed the system was rigged whoever won, they began voting cynically too.

This should be the main context for understanding Johnson’s continuing success and his invulnerability to criticism. In a rigged system, voters prefer an honestly dishonest politician – one who revels in the cynicism of the system and is open about exploiting it – over one who pretends he is playing fair, one who feigns a belief in the system’s ultimate decency, one who lies by claiming he can pursue the common good.

If the system is rigged, who is really more mendacious: Johnson, who plays dirty in a dirty system, or Starmer, who pretends he can clean up the Westminster cesspit when all he will really do is push the ordure out of view.

Johnson is transparently looking out for his mates and donors. Starmer is looking out for a rotten system, one that he intends to makeover so its corruption is less visible, less open to scrutiny.

Liberals are mystified by this reading of politics. They, after all, are emotionally invested in a supposedly meritocratic system from which they personally benefited for so long. They would rather believe the lie that a good political system is being corrupted by rotten politicians and a stupid electorate than the reality that a corrupt political system is being exploited by those best placed to navigate its corrupt ways.

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Labour disclosure “shows antisemitism was weaponised against Corbyn”, activists say

A group of Labour activists fighting through the courts to discover why they and others were investigated or expelled from the UK’s Labour Party for antisemitism say they have flushed out proof of bad faith from their accusers.

The group, who call themselves Labour Activists for Justice (LA4J), say the new disclosure confirms their claim that leading Jewish organisations intentionally politicised the meaning of antisemitism to entrap left-wing critics of Israel and undermine Labour’s former leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

As a result, the number of cases of antisemitism in Labour was inflated, falsely feeding the public impression that the political party under Corbyn had attracted Jew haters, say the Labour activists.

The suggestion that groups like the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Labour Movement “weaponised” antisemitism against Corbyn is currently seen as grounds by Labour to suspend or expel members.

But according to LA4J, evidence revealed in their legal case has now vindicated that claim.

The activists note that Jewish groups that waged a campaign of attacks on Corbyn over an antisemitism code of conduct drafted by the party in 2018 are now “deafeningly silent” on discovering that Keir Starmer, Labour’s new leader, has been secretly using exactly the same code.

When it was first published, the Board of Deputies and other Jewish organisations erupted in outrage, alleging that the 16-point code was proof of “institutional antisemitism” in the Labour party – and even that Corbyn posed a threat to Jewish life in Britain.

But the admission by Starmer’s officials that they are using the same code of conduct to investigate members has gone entirely unremarked three years later.

That is despite a submission to the courts from Labour’s own lawyers that the code had been kept secret because its publication might prove “politically incendiary”.

LA4J points out that back in 2018 the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement and other groups insisted that Corbyn replace the code with an alternative, controversial definition of antisemitism produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

According to the activists, the current silence of these Jewish groups, after Starmer’s officials have conceded that they are using Corbyn’s code rather than the IHRA definition, further indicates bad faith.

Despite public statements to the contrary, the organisations knew that the IHRA definition was unworkable for Labour’s disciplinary procedures back in 2018, LA4J say.

“If Labour believes that the code issued by Corbyn was ‘incendiary’, the question is where is the bushfire now, when Starmer’s team admit they are using the very same code,” Chris Wallis, a spokesman for LA4J, told Middle East Eye.

“One of the things this case suggests is that groups like the Board of Deputies hoped to weaponise antisemitism as a way to attack Corbyn.”

Disciplinary process ‘back to front’

The group’s legal action is due to reach the High Court in June. It will be the first wide-ranging legal examination of Labour’s disciplinary procedures relating to antisemitism. In October 2019, the High Court ruled that the suspension of then-Labour MP Chris Williamson for “bringing the party into disrepute” over antisemitism allegations was illegal, though the judge did not overturn a second suspension that ousted him from the party.

Eight party members, including three Jews, are pursuing the case after they were investigated for alleged antisemitism. LA4J estimates that at least 30 Jewish members of the party have been accused of antisemitism, some repeatedly.

Late last year the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the UK’s equalities watchdog, issued a report critical of Labour’s handling of antisemitism cases, especially over what it termed “political interference” by Corbyn’s office, which it said had resulted in “a lack of transparency and consistency in the complaints process”.

However, the EHRC found that in practice such interference chiefly harmed the interests of those accused of antisemitism rather than their accusers. Corbyn’s officials often tried to speed up investigations in the hope of ending the barrage of criticism from Jewish organisations.

LA4J argue that hundreds of members have been drummed out of the party in a process that has lacked the transparency and fairness demanded by the EHRC. The procedure, they say, has failed to provide those under investigation with an opportunity to challenge the allegations.

Most members receive a “notice of investigation” that typically cites social media posts as evidence of antisemitism. In some cases, members have been accused of sharing articles from prominent websites, such as Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss, known to be harshly critical of Israel for its repeated violations of Palestinian rights.

No explanation is made in the notice of why party officials believe the posts to be antisemitic. Instead, it is required of those under investigation to demonstrate why their posts should not be considered antisemitic.

The notices also demand that members under investigation not publicise their case or the information that is being used against them. It is unclear whether they are even allowed to seek legal advice. Instead, they are encouraged to get help from a GP or the Samaritans to aid their “wellbeing”.

Wallis, a former BBC radio drama producer who has been under investigation since last year, is one of the eight members taking the party to court.

“The disciplinary process has been entirely back to front,” he said. “We were never told about the secret code being used to judge our cases and it was never explained how what we did was antisemitic. The assumption was that we were guilty unless we could prove otherwise, and we were expected to incriminate ourselves.”

‘Sickness’ in Labour

At a preliminary hearing in February, the Labour Party argued that the courts had no place adjudicating on its handling of antisemitism cases. However, the judge approved the High Court hearing for June and awarded costs against Labour.

In what appears to be an attempt to avoid a second adverse ruling, Labour officials made the disciplinary process more transparent last month by divulging how it assessed antisemitism cases.

Starmer’s officials published on the party’s website the same antisemitism code of conduct that had been drafted during Corbyn’s time as leader. They did so despite a submission from one of Labour’s senior lawyers during February’s court hearing that such an admission could prove “politically incendiary”.

That was because a wide range of Jewish leadership groups rounded on Corbyn and Labour over the code when it was first published in July 2018.

Dave Rich, head of policy at the Community Security Trust, set up to protect Jewish communities from antisemitic attacks, lambasted Corbyn in an article in the Guardian headlined “Labour’s antisemitism code exposes a sickness in Jeremy Corbyn’s party”.

A blog on the Trust’s website added that the code “brazenly contravenes basic anti-racist principles”.

The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council, both claiming to represent Britain’s Jewish community, stated that the adoption by Corbyn’s officials of the code would “further erode the existing lack of confidence that British Jews have in their sincerity to tackle antisemitism within the Labour movement”.

The Jewish Labour Movement, a Labour party affiliate connected to the Israeli Labor party, argued that the code was “a get out of jail free card” for antisemites, and claimed it breached equalities legislation.

Ephraim Mirvis, the UK’s chief rabbi, called the code “a watershed moment” for Labour and warned that it sent “an unprecedented message of contempt to the Jewish community”.

Dozens of rabbis backed him, accusing the Labour leadership of having “chosen to ignore the Jewish community”.

And the Campaign Against Antisemitism, a pro-Israel lobby group, argued that “the code seems to be designed to give free rein to certain forms of antisemitic discourse”.

‘It was about who was in charge’

But despite the outpouring of concern back in 2018, note LA4J, Jewish organisations have remained silent since Labour revealed that the same antisemitism code of conduct introduced under Corbyn is being used by Starmer’s officials in disciplinary cases.

“This was never about what was going on inside Labour, as was claimed,” said Wallis. “It was about who was in charge. The aim was to remove Corbyn at all costs.”

Labour’s stated goal in drafting the code in 2018 was to assist with ironing out problems in the IHRA definition, which was being aggressively lobbied for by leading Jewish groups.

In particular, Corbyn’s code provided additional context to help judge aspects of the IHRA’s 11 potential examples of antisemitism, seven of which relate to Israel.

The code warns that the IHRA text “is not a legal definition, and on its own does not provide clear guidance about the circumstances in which particular conduct should or should not be regarded as antisemitic”.

The Labour antisemitism code also emphasises a need for “respectful debate” between party members when talking about contentious political matters around Israel and warns that the party “will not tolerate name-calling and abuse”.

The concern among Corbyn’s team was that the definition would shift the focus of antisemitism away from hatred of Jews to criticism of Israel, and expose activists supportive of Palestinian rights to investigation.

The imprecision of the IHRA definition, and its politicisation of antisemitism, had already been widely criticised, including by a former Court of Appeal judge and the British parliament’s home affairs select committee.

Kenneth Stern, the chief architect of the IHRA definition, had also weighed in to note that it was unsuitable for use in disciplinary procedures and was being “weaponised” by elements of the Jewish community to stifle criticism of Israel.

Jewish organisations, on the other hand, argued that Corbyn was using the Labour code to avoid adopting the IHRA definition in full with all its examples, and implied that his motivation was to make Labour hostile to British Jews.

Facing the backlash, and concerted criticism in the media, Corbyn’s officials appeared to discard the code and instead adopted the IHRA definition in full a few weeks later, in September 2018.

Definition ‘not fit for purpose’

It is unclear whether Corbyn’s officials ever used the 2018 code to adjudicate in disciplinary cases. But LA4J say its adoption by Starmer’s officials – and their efforts to hide the fact that they were using the code – confirm that the IHRA’s definition was indeed unworkable.

Jenny Manson, a co-chair of Jewish Voice for Labour, which was set up in 2017 to show support for Corbyn among Jewish party members and is now supporting LA4J, said that the weaknesses of the IHRA definition must have been clear to organisations like the Jewish Labour Movement and Board of Deputies.

“Their current silence shows that they must have known the IHRA definition wasn’t fit for purpose as it was,” she said. “The additional code of conduct was needed. They opposed it in 2018, it seems clear, only because they were looking to damage Jeremy [Corbyn].”

Although LA4J argue that the code is fairer than the IHRA definition, they also say it has been widely misused against members as officials have sought to placate Jewish groups accusing Labour of being institutionally antisemitic.

Diana Neslen, an 82-year-old Orthodox Jew who has been investigated for antisemitism and sanctioned by the party, said: “Even a quick look at [the code] suggests that all of us have been wrongfully accused. Indeed, we should never have been investigated in the first place.”

LA4J hopes that, with the code no longer secret, Labour members will have a better chance to challenge current and future investigations conducted against them by party officials.

Neslen warned, however, that existing injustices needed to be addressed too: “What are they going to do about the hundreds of people already judged under the secret code, including me?”

She and LA4J have called for those suspended or expelled to have their cases reopened and the evidence reassessed in a transparent manner.

The Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement, the Community Security Trust and the Jewish Leadership Council were all approached by Middle East Eye for comment. None had responded by the time of publication.

According to LA4J, their court case highlights how little evidence there was for the claim that antisemitism within the Labour party had been an especial problem under Corbyn’s leadership.

Levels of antisemitism in Labour appear to be lower than in the wider British public, within which about five percent of people could “justifiably be described as antisemites”, according to research published by the Community Security Trust in 2017.

Corbyn’s general secretary, Jennie Formby, issued figures in April 2019 that showed disciplinary action had been taken against just 0.08 percent of Labour’s 540,000 members, even after the strict application of the antisemitism code and “political interference” by Corbyn’s officials in speeding up disciplinary proceedings.

During the latest legal proceedings, Labour has revealed equivalent figures for Starmer, relating to the period between May last year and last month. Although details about the investigations are not precise, in the worst-case scenario an even smaller percentage of Labour members were found to be antisemitic.

These figures, the LA4J argue, suggest that Labour has not had an “antisemitism problem” under either Corbyn or Starmer.

That impression is shared by most Labour members. According to a YouGov poll commissioned last month by the Jewish Chronicle newspaper, a significant majority – 70 percent – believe that Labour does not have a serious problem with antisemitism.

Most appear to agree with Corbyn’s reaction to the Equalities Commission report that the claims against Labour were “dramatically overstated for political reasons”. That statement led to Starmer expelling Corbyn from the Labour parliamentary party.

• First published in Middle East Eye

The post Labour disclosure “shows antisemitism was weaponised against Corbyn”, activists say first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Starmer isn’t “too cautious”: he is ruthlessly tearing Labour apart

The completion of Keir Starmer’s first year as Labour leader might have passed without note, had it not been the occasion for senior party figures to express mounting concern at Labour’s dismal performance in opposition to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government.

At a time when Labour ought to be landing regular punches on the ruling party over its gross incompetence in handling the Covid-19 pandemic, and cronyism in its awarding of multimillion-pound coronavirus-related contracts, Starmer has preferred to avoid confrontation. Critics have accused him of being “too cautious” and showing a “lack of direction”.

Dissatisfaction with Starmer among Labour voters has quadrupled over the past 10 months, from 10 percent last May to 39 percent in March. His approach does not even appear to be winning over the wider public: a recent poll on who would make a better prime minister gave incumbent Johnson a 12 percentage-point lead.

Increasingly anxious senior Labour MPs called late last month for a “big figure” to help Starmer set aside his supposed political diffidence and offer voters a clearer idea of “what Keir is for”.

That followed a move in February by Starmer’s team to reach out to Peter Mandelson, who helped Tony Blair rebrand the party as “New Labour” in the 1990s and move it sharply away from any association with
socialism.

‘Cynically’ evasive

But there is a twofold problem with this assessment of Starmer’s first year.

It assumes Labour’s dire polling is evidence that voters might warm to Starmer if they knew more about what he stands for. That conclusion seems unwarranted. A Labour internal review leaked in February showed that the British public viewed Starmer’s party as “deliberate and cynical” in its evasiveness on policy matters.

In other words, British voters’ aversion to Starmer is not that he is “too cautious” or lacklustre. Rather, they suspect that Starmer and his team are politically not being honest. Either he is covering up the fact that Labour under his leadership is an ideological empty vessel, or his party has clear policies but conceals them because it believes they would be unpopular.

In response, and indeed underscoring the increasingly cynical approach from Starmer’s camp, the review proposed reinventing Labour as a patriotic, Tory-lite party, emphasising “the flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly”.

However, the deeper flaw in this assessment of Starmer’s first 12 months is that it assumes his caution in taking on the Tory government is evidence of some natural restraint or reticence on his part. This was the view promoted by a recent commentator in the Guardian, who observed: “‘Starmerism’ has not defined itself in any sense beyond sitting on the fence.”

But Starmer has proved to be remarkably unrestrained and intemperate when he chooses to be. If he is reticent, it appears to be only when it serves his larger political purposes.

All-out war

If there is one consistent thread in his first year, it has been a determined purging from the party of any trace of the leftwing politics of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, as well as a concerted effort to drive out many tens of thousands of new members who joined because of Corbynism.

The paradox is that when Starmer stood in the leadership election last spring, he promised to unify a party deeply divided between a largely leftwing membership committed to Corbyn’s programme, on the one hand, and a largely rightwing parliamentary faction and party bureaucracy, on the other.

As an internal review leaked last April revealed, party officials were determined to destroy Corbyn even while he was leader, using highly undemocratic means.

Even if Starmer had chosen to be cautious or diffident, there looked to be no realistic way to square that circle. But far from sitting on the fence, he has been busy waging an all-out war on one side only: those sympathetic to Corbyn. And that campaign has involved smashing apart the party’s already fragile democratic procedures.

The prelude was the sacking last June of Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow education secretary – and the most visible ally of Corbyn in Starmer’s shadow cabinet – on the flimsiest of pretexts. She had retweeted an article in the Independent newspaper that included a brief mention of Israel’s involvement in training western police forces in brutal restraint techniques.

Real target

A few months later, Starmer got his chance to go after his real target, when the Equalities and Human Rights Commission published its highly flawed report into the claims of an antisemitism problem in Labour under Corbyn’s leadership.

This provided the grounds Starmer needed to take the unprecedented step of excluding Corbyn from the parliamentary party he had been leader of only months earlier. It was a remarkably provocative and incautious move that infuriated large sections of the membership, some of whom abandoned the party as a result.

Having dispatched Corbyn and issued a stark ultimatum to any MP who might still harbour sympathies for the former leader, Starmer turned his attention to the party membership. David Evans, his new general secretary and a retread from the Blair years, issued directives banning constituency parties from protesting Corbyn’s exclusion or advocating for Corbynism.

Corbyn was overnight turned into a political “unperson”, in an echo of the authoritarian purges of the Soviet-era Communist party. No mention was to be made of him or his policies, on pain of suspension from the party.

Even this did not suffice. To help bolster the hostile environment towards left wing members, Starmer made Labour hostage to special interest groups that had openly waged war – from inside and outside the party – against his predecessor.

During the leadership campaign, Starmer signed on to a “10 Pledges” document from the deeply conservative and pro-Israel Board of Deputies of British Jews. The board was one of the cheerleaders for the evidence-free antisemitism allegations that had beset Labour during Corbyn’s time as leader – even though all metrics suggested the party had less of an antisemitism problem than the Conservatives, and less of a problem under Corbyn than previous leaders.

Alienating the left

The Pledges required Starmer to effectively hand over control to the Board of Deputies and another pro-Israel group, the Jewish Labour Movement, on what kind of criticisms Labour members were allowed to make of Israel.

Opposition to a century of British-sponsored oppression of the Palestinian people had long been a rallying point for the UK’s left, as opposition to the treatment of black South Africans under the apartheid regime once was. Israel’s centrality to continuing western colonialism in the Middle East and its key role in a global military-industrial complex made it a natural target for leftwing activism.

But according to the Pledges – in a barely concealed effort to hound, alienate and silence the party’s left – it was for pro-Israel lobby groups to decide who should be be declared an antisemite, while “fringe” Jewish groups, or those supportive of Corbyn and critical of Israel, should be ignored.

Starmer readily agreed both to adopt the board’s conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism, and to disregard prominent Jews within his own party opposed to pro-Israel lobbying. His office was soon picking off prominent Jewish supporters of Corbyn, including leaders of Jewish Voice for Labour.

One of the most troubling cases was Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, who was suspended shortly after she appeared in a moving video in which she explained how antisemitism had been weaponised by the pro-Israel lobby against left wing Jews like herself.

She noted the pain caused when Jews were smeared as “traitors” and “kapos” – an incendiary term of abuse, as Wimborne-Idrissi pointed out, that refers to “a Jewish inmate of a concentration camp who collaborated with the [Nazi] authorities, people who collaborated in the annihilation of their own people”.

In suspending her, Starmer’s Labour effectively endorsed that type of ugly demonisation campaign.

Israeli spy recruited

But the war on the Labour left did not end there. In his first days as leader, Starmer was reluctantly forced to set up an inquiry into the leaked internal report that had exposed the party bureaucracy as profoundly hostile to Corbyn personally, and more generally to his socialist policies. Senior staff had even been shown trying to sabotage Labour’s 2017 general election campaign.

But once the Forde Inquiry had been appointed, Starmer worked strenuously to kick it into the long grass, even bringing back into the party Emilie Oldknow, a central figure in the Corbyn-era bureaucracy who had been cast in a damning light by the leaked report’s revelations.

A separate chance to lay bare what had happened inside Labour head office during Corbyn’s term was similarly spurned by Starmer. He decided not to  defend a defamation case against Labour brought by John Ware, a BBC reporter, and seven former staff in Labour’s disciplinary unit. They had worked together on a Panorama special on the antisemitism claims against Corbyn that did much to damage him in the public eye.

These former officials had sued the party, arguing that Labour’s response to the BBC programme suggested they had acted in bad faith and sought to undermine Corbyn.

In fact, a similar conclusion had been reached in the damning internal leaked report on the behaviour of head office staff. It quoted extensively from emails and WhatsApp chats that showed a deep-seated antipathy to Corbyn in the party bureaucracy.

Nonetheless, Starmer’s office abandoned its legal defence last July, apologising “unreservedly” to the former staff members and paying “substantial damages”. Labour did so despite “clear advice” from lawyers, a former senior official said, that it would have won in court.

When Martin Forde, chair of the Forde inquiry, announced in February that his report had been delayed “indefinitely”, it seemed that the truth about the efforts of Labour staff to undermine Corbyn as leader were being permanently buried.

The final straw for many on the party’s left, however, was the revelation in January that Starmer had recruited to his team a former Israeli military spy, Assaf Kaplan, to monitor the use of social media by members.

Much of the supposed “antisemitism problem” under Corbyn had depended on the Israel lobby’s efforts to scour through old social media posts of left wing members, looking for criticism of Israel and then presenting it as evidence of antisemitism. As leader, Corbyn was pushed by these same lobby groups to adopt a new, highly controversial definition of antisemitism produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. It shifted attention away from hatred of Jews to criticism of Israel.

A former Israeli spy trained in the dark arts of surveilling Palestinians would be overseeing the monitoring of party members’ online activity.

Tory party of old

Far from sitting on the fence, as his critics claim, Starmer has been ruthless in purging socialism from the Labour party – under cover of claims that he is rooting out an “antisemitism problem” he supposedly inherited from Corbyn.

In a speech last month, Mandelson – the former Blair strategist who Starmer’s team has been consulting – called on the Labour leader to show “courage and determination” in tackling the supposedly “corrupt far left”. He suggested “large numbers” of members would still need to be expunged from the party in the supposed fight against antisemitism.

Starmer is investing huge energy and political capital in ridding the party of its leftwing members, while exhibiting little appetite for taking on Johnson’s right wing government.

These are not necessarily separate projects. There is a discernible theme here. Starmer is recrafting Labour not as a real opposition to the Conservative party’s increasingly extreme, crony capitalism, but as a responsible, more moderate alternative to it. He is offering voters a Labour party that feels more like the Tory party of old, which prioritised tradition, patriotism and family values.

None of this should surprise. Despite his campaign claims, Starmer’s history – predating his rapid rise through the Labour party – never suggested he was likely to clash with the establishment. After all, few public servants have been knighted by the Queen at the relatively tender age of 51 for their radicalism.

In safe hands

While head of the Crown Prosecution Service, Starmer rejected indicting the police officers who killed Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson, and his department effectively cleared MI5 and MI6 officers of torture related to the “War on Terror”.

His team not only sought to fast-track the extradition to Sweden of Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who exposed western war crimes, but it also put strong pressure on its Swedish counterpart not to waver in pursuing Assange. One lawyer told the Swedes in 2012: “Don’t you dare get cold feet!”

Starmer’s actions since becoming Labour leader are very much in line with his earlier career. He wants to prove he is a safe pair of hands to the British establishment, in hopes that he can avert the kind of relentless vilification Corbyn endured. Then, Starmer can bide his time until the British public tires of Johnson.

Starmer seems to believe that playing softball with the right wing government and hardball with the left in his own party will prove a winning formula. So far, voters beg to differ.

• First published in Middle East Eye

The post Starmer isn’t “too cautious”: he is ruthlessly tearing Labour apart first appeared on Dissident Voice.

The Impossible Peter Oborne

On the face of it, Peter Oborne is impossible.

It’s not possible to be educated at Sherborne independent school, at Cambridge University, to work as political editor of the Spectator, as chief political commentator of The Daily Telegraph, as a journalist at the Evening Standard, as a commentator at the Express, to make nearly 30 documentaries for Channel 4, BBC World and BBC Radio 4, to appear endlessly on high-profile radio and TV programmes, to be made Society of Editors Press Awards Columnist of the Year twice, and still speak out honestly on systemic corporate media corruption.

US author and ethical logician Upton Sinclair explained why it just doesn’t happen:

‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’1

Oborne is different. In February 2015, he resigned as chief political commentator at the Telegraph, warning:

‘If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril.’

More to the point:

‘The Telegraph’s recent coverage of HSBC amounts to a form of fraud on its readers.’

In 2019, Oborne was interviewed on BBC Radio 2 by the BBC’s media editor and (now) Today programme presenter, Amol Rajan, formerly editor of the Independent. In the interview, Oborne named and shamed ‘client journalists’ cosying up to power, before tearing up all the unwritten ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ on ‘mainstream’ interviewing and inclusion by savaging Rajan himself:

‘You, yourself, when you were Independent editor, notoriously sucked up to power. You are a client journalist yourself… you were a crony journalist yourself. It’s time this system was exploded… Your record was and is shameful. Where to start?’.

Rajan responded like a Club Secretary ruling on a breach of Club etiquette:

‘It’s unbecoming of you, Peter, it’s unbecoming.’

Or consider this comment from Oborne on the arch-propagandist Daniel Finkelstein, former executive editor of The Times (also known as Baron Finkelstein of Pinner in the London Borough of Harrow, OBE):

‘As any newspaperman will recognise, Daniel Finkelstein has never in truth been a journalist at all. At the Times he was an ebullient and cheerful manifestation of what all of us can now recognise as a disastrous collaboration between Britain’s most powerful media empire and a morally bankrupt political class.’

In his searingly honest new book, The Assault on Truth, Oborne directs his fire at a very specific, crucial target:

‘I have never encountered a senior British politician who lies and fabricates so regularly, so shamelessly and so systematically as Boris Johnson. Or gets away with his deceit with such ease.’2

Oborne is well qualified to comment, having been hired by Johnson as his political editor at the Spectator in 2001. Oborne adds:

‘It has become all but impossible for an honest politician to survive, let alone flourish, in Boris Johnson’s government.’ (p. 6)

With every example fortified by meticulous footnotes and references, Oborne nails Johnson’s lies again and again:

‘Johnson went on the Andrew Marr show to claim the Labour leader had “said he would disband MI5”. Marr did not demur, but to be sure I looked at the Labour manifesto. It contained no mention of MI5 but did pledge to “ensure closer counter terrorism co-ordination between the police and the security services, combining neighbourhood expertise with international intelligence”.’ (p. 22)

And:

‘Boris Johnson said that Corbyn “would whack corporation tax up to the highest in Europe”. Not true. Labour had said it would raise the main rate of corporation tax to 26 per cent. This would not be anything like the highest in Europe. At the time of Johnson’s claim, the rate of corporation tax in France was 31 per cent, and in Belgium the rate was 29 per cent.’ (p. 23)

Oborne highlights this particularly cynical example of lie-based electioneering from Johnson:

‘During a ten-minute speech, viewers learn that he is building forty new hospitals. It sounds a hugely impressive election pledge.

‘Actually it’s a lie which the prime minister has already repeated often during the campaign, and would go on to repeat on many more occasions. At best the government has only allocated money for six hospitals.’ (pp. 15-16)

The devil is in the footnoted details at the bottom of the page:

‘Under Tory plans, six hospitals were allocated funding for rebuilding programmes between 2020 and 2025. Up to thirty-eight other hospitals would receive money to develop plans for upgrades between 2025 and 2030, but not to undertake any building work.’ (p. 16)

Oborne’s conclusion:

‘There is irrefutable evidence that Conservative Party lies and distortions in the 2019 election were cynical, systematic and prepared in advance. Johnson’s Conservatives deliberately set out to lie and to cheat their way to victory. The strategy triumphed.’ (p. 37)

So how on earth did Johnson get away with it?

‘Britain’s mainstream reporters and editors collectively turned a blind eye to the lies, misrepresentations and falsehoods promoted by Johnson and his ministers.’ (p. 7)

But this was only part of the problem:

‘Many senior journalists went a step further. They actively collaborated with Downing Street in order to distribute false information helpful to Johnson’s cause.’ (p. 121)

This democracy-killing media bias was pushed yet further by the relentless media campaign smearing Corbyn:

‘the mainstream press paid almost no attention to Johnson’s habitual lying, in sharp contrast to their treatment of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was subject to constant attack’. (p. 119)

The difference being that Corbyn didn’t lie – he was attacked for everything and anything he said, or did, or didn’t do.

The particular problem, as Oborne observes, is that ‘Johnson’s government was a media class government.’ (p. 115) Johnson and Michael Gove are both journalists massively supported by former colleagues and allies:

‘The truth was that press barons were determined to install the troika of Johnson, Gove and [Johnson’s adviser] Cummings in Downing Street.’ (p. 117)

Michael Gove, after all, was the protégé of Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Sun, The Times and Fox News:

‘When Murdoch’s News International group was on its knees following revelations of criminal phone hacking, Gove came eloquently to the defence of press freedom at the Leveson inquiry. Murdoch did not forget: Gove and his wife Sarah Vine were invited to his wedding to the former model Jerry Hall.

‘Murdoch also supported Johnson, but his principal sponsors were the Barclay brothers, shadowy owners of the Daily Telegraph, house journal for the Conservative Party. “Many congratulations to Boris Johnson who has of course just been appointed Prime Minister,” enthused the paper when he entered 10 Downing Street. “Boris is the first Telegraph journalist since Sir Winston Churchill to lead the country.”

‘Associated Newspapers, owners of the Mail on Sunday and the Daily Mail, which employed Sarah Vine, also backed Johnson. Together these three groups accounted for more than 30 per cent of British newspaper readers. All their titles backed Johnson. The same applied to the Evening Standard, which serves London, an area of predominantly Labour and Remain voters. Under the ownership of Evgeny Lebedev it became an unlikely ally of the Tories, backing Johnson for both Conservative leader and prime minister.’ (pp. 117-118)

This is seriously damning and courageous stuff (there have been no reviews of The Assault on Truth in the Murdoch Press, Associated Newspapers or the Telegraph group – see below), but Oborne goes much further:

‘A great deal of political journalism has become the putrid public face of a corrupt government. There is only one good reason to be a journalist: to tell the truth. We should not go into our trade to become passive mouthpieces of politicians and instruments of their power. Too much of the media and political class have merged. The unnatural amalgamation has converted truth into falsehood, while lies have become truth.’ (p. 7)

Chomsky’s ‘Basic Principle’

Oborne’s book is a wonderful test for Noam Chomsky’s ‘basic principle’ determining ‘mainstream’ inclusion:

‘The basic principle, rarely violated, is that what conflicts with the requirements of power and privilege does not exist.’3

An idea of the extent to which The Assault on Truth would be allowed to exist could already be gleaned from the reaction to an article written by Oborne in October 2019 on ‘the way Boris Johnson was debauching Downing Street by using the power of his office to spread propaganda and fake news’. (p. 130) Oborne submitted the piece for his weekly Saturday column for the Daily Mail:

‘I received a call from the editor, who indicated, with his customary exquisite good manners, that he would prefer I wrote about another subject’. (p. 131)

Oborne then offered the piece to The Spectator, ‘but the editor explained his refusal to publish on the reasonable grounds that the newspaper’s political team had cultivated excellent insider sources and publishing my piece would invite charges of hypocrisy’. (p. 131)

Channel Four’s Dispatches showed strong interest before also withdrawing. Oborne finally resorted to publishing his article on the website openDemocracy. He wrote:

‘Papers and media organisations yearn for privileged access and favourable treatment. And they are prepared to pay a price to get it.

‘This price involves becoming a subsidiary part of the government machine. It means turning their readers and viewers into dupes.

‘This client journalism allows Downing Street to frame the story as it wants. Some allow themselves to be used as tools to smear the government’s opponents. They say goodbye to the truth.’

The dramatic response:

‘This article marked the end of my thirty-year-long career as a writer and broadcaster in the mainstream British press and media. I had been a regular presenter on Radio 4’s The Week in Westminster for more than two decades. It ceased to use me, without explanation. I parted company on reasonably friendly terms with the Daily Mail after our disagreement.’ (p. 132)

These are huge losses for a professional journalist:

‘The mainstream British press and media is to all intents and purposes barred to me. I continue to write for the website Middle East Eye, for openDemocracy and from time to time for the British Journalism Review.’ (p. 133)

Oborne’s comments inevitably recall the fate that befell US journalist Gary Webb, an investigative reporter for nineteen years, focusing on government and private sector corruption, winning more than thirty awards for his journalism. In 1990, Webb was one of six reporters at the San Jose Mercury News to win a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories on California’s 1989 earthquake. Webb described his experience of mainstream journalism:

‘In seventeen years of doing this, nothing bad had happened to me. I was never fired or threatened with dismissal if I kept looking under rocks. I didn’t get any death threats that worried me. I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests. So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn’t work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite? Hell, the system worked just fine, as I could tell. It encouraged enterprise. It rewarded muckraking.’4

But Webb was in for a terrible surprise:

‘And then I wrote some stories that made me realise how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. It turned out to have nothing to do with it. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress.’

In 1996, Webb had written a series of stories on how a US-backed terrorist army, the Nicaraguan Contras, had financed their activities by selling crack cocaine in the ghettos of Los Angeles. Webb documented direct contact between drug traffickers bringing drugs into Los Angeles and Nicaraguan CIA agents who were administering the Contras. Moreover, he revealed that the US government knew about these activities and did little or nothing to stop them. The country’s three biggest newspapers, The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, turned on Webb, declaring the story ‘flawed’ and not worth pursuing. Webb commented:

‘Never before had the three biggest papers devoted such energy to kicking the hell out of a story by another newspaper.’ (p. 306)

Webb’s career had been cynically and brutally terminated.

The Reviews

To recap, The Assault on Truth makes two key claims: 1) Boris Johnson regularly, systematically and shamefully lies and fabricates, and 2) ‘A great deal of political journalism has become the putrid public face of a corrupt government.’ (p. 7) One of the book’s nine chapters, ‘The failure of the British press’, is entirely devoted to this second issue.

How have these claims, in particular the media analysis, been received?

In the Observer, Tim Adams’ 817-word review devoted around two-thirds of its analysis to the case against Oborne’s supposed hypocrisy and U-turns, and 100 words to the case against the British press.

This is already curious. As discussed, Oborne is a highly respected, very high-profile journalist. It is essentially unknown for someone of his stature to turn so forcefully on political lying, particularly systemic press lying. Why would a journalist commenting in the liberal Observer deem it important to devote so much space to Oborne’s alleged U-turns, and just two or three sentences to damning media criticism that is as rare as hens’ teeth? Shouldn’t the liberal press be celebrating such an unusual exposure of press lying? Adams wrote:

‘There have been some spectacular U-turns from political observers in the past five years – Piers Morgan’s desperate and tragically belated efforts to distance himself from Donald Trump, for example – but no reverse-ferret has been quite so vehemently trumpeted as that of Peter Oborne. Back in 2016, in his Daily Mail column, Oborne was proclaiming a new dawn of Conservatism, with Labour in collapse and David Cameron a busted flush. A “glittering prospect of 12 uninterrupted years as prime minister” awaited the winner of any leadership campaign, he suggested, and Boris Johnson’s years as mayor gave him “huge credibility” for the role.’

Adams portrayed Oborne as an enthusiastic dupe of Johnson:

‘Up until about spring 2019, it seems, Oborne continued to be cheerfully taken in by this music hall act.’

Anyone who reads Oborne knows that he is very generous in giving credit where credit’s due, even when he strongly disagrees on deeper issues of policy and political philosophy. For example, despite self-identifying as a Tory, he has repeatedly and strongly praised Labour’s foreign policy and ethical stance under Jeremy Corbyn.

In fact, the claim that Oborne was ‘duped’ by Johnson is nonsense. To take only two examples, in September 2018, Oborne described Johnson’s foreign policy as ‘morally abhorrent’ and his officials ‘shoddy’. In November 2017, Oborne noted of the catastrophe in Yemen that Johnson ‘scarcely lifted a finger on this calamity’ and did ‘virtually nothing of any significance to help’.

Adams similarly claimed Oborne ‘celebrated’ Trump’s election triumph in the Mail with a piece headlined: ‘At last! He may be a bigot, racist and misogynist but Donald Trump’s revolution could finally bring back family values’.

As Adams is well aware, commentators do not choose the headlines (Oborne did not choose this one). In the piece supposedly celebrating Trump, Oborne wrote:

‘The majority of commentators have issued angry cries of condemnation in response to Donald Trump’s surprise victory.

‘That is understandable. For he is beyond doubt a bigot, a racist and a misogynist.’

He added:

‘As a tax-avoiding billionaire, he will never be a genuine champion of the poor. He has no serious programme for government. He will fail.’

Trump was, Oborne wrote, an ‘odious man’.

Adams’ few words on the press simply ignored the most damning claims. In answer to the question, ‘What led the British people to put a liar into Downing Street?’, Adams commented:

‘A large part of the answer to that question Oborne lays at the door of “mainstream newspaper reporters and editors” who “collectively turned a blind eye to the lies, misrepresentations and falsehoods promoted by Johnson and his ministers” in order for him to bluster his way to power.’

As we have seen, Oborne’s whole point is that ‘mainstream’ media did not just turn a blind eye; they functioned as fully-supportive parts of Johnson’s lie machine.

The ‘blind eye’ comment cited by Adams is from page 7 of the book. He then quoted Oborne from page 137. In between, he wrote:

‘Certain political correspondents are identified as having given Johnson an easy ride – Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC and Robert Peston of ITV among them.’

But Kuenssberg and Peston are not mentioned at all. Did Adams actually read the book?

The Independent (online) devoted 491 words to Oborne’s book. In his review, Martin Chilton spent 431 words on Johnson and 60 words in two sentences on Oborne’s media analysis:

‘Part of the problem is that Johnson’s “claims” are simply not held up to inspection by most of the popular press.’5

Again, as with Adams, this conveniently ignored Oborne’s most damning assertion – that the press contribution to the lying was highly active, not passive. Chilton continued:

‘Oborne, who formerly worked for the Daily Mail and The Telegraph, says his new book will “make me enemies”, especially for statements such as “a great deal of political journalism has become the putrid face of a corrupt government”.’

Chilton was clearly keen to keep his head down, gesturing vaguely in the direction of harsh truths that Oborne spelled out with great clarity.

In the Guardian, William Davies’ review totalled 1,261 words. Of these, 109 words discuss Oborne’s media analysis:

‘It’s not just the contemporary Conservative party that appals Oborne, but developments in his own profession. Newspapers, their owners and their staff have colluded with politicians to smear and fabricate without fear. Oborne’s efforts to expose these practices have not been without personal cost. Finding no mainstream media outlet that was willing to publish him on the topic of journalistic malpractice around Johnson, he took his evidence to openDemocracy, who published his article “British journalists have become part of Johnson’s fake news machine” in October 2019. Sombrely he reports that, since the piece appeared, “the mainstream British press and media is to all intents and purposes barred to me”.’

This was something, but Davies preferred to focus on Oborne’s personal plight, rather than highlighting particular examples of journalistic corruption, or delving deeper into the significance of the chapter Oborne devotes to the issue – one of the most important chapters ever written on the UK press.

Thus, national UK newspaper reviews of Oborne’s important and damning claims about the UK press received some 269 words in coverage in the middle of a grand total of three UK national newspaper reviews. We asked Oborne for his reaction on how his book has been received:

‘I haven’t been able to find any review of my book anywhere in the Murdoch press, Associated Newspapers or Telegraph group. They reviewed my earlier books. However this book (which has also been ignored by mainstream broadcasters) demonstrates that the British print and broadcast media have been complicit in Johnson’s serial dishonesty. It’s not just that they turn a blind eye to Johnson’s habitual and systematic dishonesty. I show in the book that the British media class collaborate with Downing Street in pumping out Johnson’s smears, deceptions and falsehoods. They have been an essential part of his machinery of deception. So maybe that’s why they have ignored the book.’ 6

Conclusion

In reality, of course, Peter Oborne is not impossible. The corporate media is not monolithic, not run by conspiracy. Honourable, rational human beings can make it past the corporate political and media gatekeepers. And when they do, they’re dealt with.

Jeremy Corbyn got through and was unethically cleansed by a spectacularly dishonest, cross-spectrum smear campaign that rendered him unelectable. Comedian Russell Brand got through, appeared in a powerful BBC interview on Newsnight watched by 12 million people, and was unethically cleansed by Guardian liberals smearing him as a ‘Jesus clown’, ‘misogynist’ and ‘religious narcissist’. Brand was so badly beaten up he retired from political commentary and became a self-help guru.

Oborne also got through. His meticulous book – superbly written by a high-profile journalist with impeccable credibility and experience – has simply been ignored by the vast majority of newspapers and magazines that have been, as Oborne says, ‘an essential part’ of Johnson’s ‘machinery of deception’. The rest have blown past his media criticism in a couple of anodyne sentences. Blink and a casual reader would have missed even these mostly oblique, soft-pedalled references.

Oborne received this treatment despite major omissions that made his message far more palatable than it might otherwise have been. Remarkably, for example, his book contains no criticism at all of the BBC or ITV. As discussed, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg’s infamously biased reporting in favour of Johnson and against Corbyn is not even mentioned.

More importantly, while Oborne does expose active media lying, he perceives it as a ‘failure’ of the British press. By contrast, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s ‘propaganda model of media control’ – the model on which our own analysis is based – views this media bias as a success – the corporate media arm of the larger, profit-maximising state-corporate system is simply doing what it has evolved and been designed to do! Oborne does not venture into an analysis of the fundamental nature of corporate capitalist media that would locate him even more firmly among the ‘wild men [and women] on the wings’, casting him even further adrift from the ‘putrid’, stagnant ‘mainstream’.

Nevertheless, this was a vanishingly rare opportunity for the public to witness a media insider making a complete nonsense of the myth promoted by the BBC’s leading client journalist Andrew Marr; namely, that journalism is ‘a crusading craft’ run by ‘disputatious, stroppy, difficult people’ relentlessly challenging power.

This is the deception on which all other deceptions depend. It is too precious to be seriously challenged, and journalists know it.

  1. Sinclair, ‘I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked,’ Oakland Tribune, 11 December 1934.
  2. Peter Oborne, The Assault on Truth – Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism, Simon & Schuster, 2021, p. 18.
  3. Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, Hill and Wang, 1992, p. 79.
  4. Webb, in Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw – Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press,’ Prometheus, 2002, pp. 296-7.
  5. Martin Chilton, ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, The Independent, 31 January 2021.
  6. Peter Oborne, email to Media Lens, 15 March 2021.
The post The Impossible Peter Oborne first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Former Israeli army spy recruited by Labour should feel right at home

The revelation this week that the British Labour Party recently appointed a former Israeli military spy to work in its headquarters, reporting to the office of leader Keir Starmer, is truly extraordinary in many different regards.

It is hard to believe the Labour leadership did not know who Assaf Kaplan was or appreciate the likely backlash to placing someone with his background in charge of the party’s social media work. That may explain the continuing reluctance from the Labour leadership to comment.

In his online CV, Kaplan had drawn attention to his years spent in the notorious Israeli military intelligence unit 8200, which has a long and ugly record of surveilling Palestinians.

One of the unit’s main tasks, highlighted by a group of whistleblowers in 2014 and widely publicised in the British media, is to gain damaging information to blackmail individual Palestinians. They are then threatened into collaborating with Israel’s military authorities against fellow Palestinians.

Unit 8200 is the lynchpin of Israel’s success in maintaining its 54-year occupation, by engineering a policy of divide-and-rule among Palestinians and foiling any efforts they make to liberate themselves from Israeli oppression.

Tone deaf

If Labour officials did not know the significance of Unit 8200, or how the invitation of a former Israeli “military intelligence officer” into Labour headquarters would look to swaths of party members, that in itself is an indictment.

A near-civil war has been raging for some time in Labour over the suspension and expulsion of party members whose social media accounts have been scoured for anti-Israel sentiment by pro-Israel groups. To now put a former Israeli officer trained by a cyberwarfare unit in charge of monitoring social media for Labour is, on the best interpretation, completely tone deaf.

It simply highlights how indifferent Labour under Starmer is to the sensitivities of many of its members – and, of course, Palestinians – in stark contrast to the party’s strenuous and divisive efforts to placate each and every demand from the pro-Israel lobby.

Meddling in politics

If Kaplan’s work in Unit 8200 did not raise a red flag, other details lurking in his social media accounts should have rung alarm bells. Not only was he once an operative for Israel’s military spying machine, but he was also an online “friend” of the disgraced Shai Masot, a far more prominent Israeli spy.

Four years ago, an undercover investigation by Al Jazeera exposed Masot, who worked at the time in the Israeli embassy in London, interfering at the highest levels of British politics. Masot was filmed in clandestine talks with Conservative Party staff about how to “take down” a British foreign minister, Alan Duncan, who was seen by Israel as too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

More damagingly for Starmer, Masot was also exposed working closely with pro-Israel activists inside the Labour Party to bring down his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. That included efforts by Masot to set up “youth movements” intended to operate as a front for the Israeli government.

Transcripts from sections of undercover filming not aired by Al Jazeera reportedly show the then director of the Jewish Labour Movement, Ella Rose, who had previously worked at the Israeli embassy, speaking of the JLM’s close relations with Masot.

The goal of these Israeli-organised groups was to undermine Corbyn from within, because of his public role in the Palestinian solidarity movement and his trenchant criticisms of Israel.

Dirty tricks

After the four-part investigation was aired, Israel had to carry out a damage-limitation operation, quickly returning Masot to Israel and portraying him – unconvincingly – as a rogue operator.

In fact, Masot’s work was entirely in line with the remit of Israel’s strategic affairs ministry to use dirty tricks to sabotage prominent individuals and movements abroad that criticise Israel, including the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

A few months before Masot’s exposure, the Israeli media had reported a feud at the embassy in London. The Israeli foreign ministry had complained that the strategic affairs ministry was carrying out potentially illegal activities in the UK and jeopardising the diplomatic mission.

So why, before he took up his new UK post, was Kaplan moving in the same social or professional circles in Israel as the disgraced Masot? In a sign of just how embarrassing this information is for the Labour Party, Kaplan appears to have hurriedly erased his military intelligence past after it was exposed by the Electronic Intifada website.

The decision to appoint Kaplan is all the more remarkable given that Starmer has been extolling his efforts to move past the legacy of his predecessor, Corbyn. For five years, Labour was mired in endless controversy around Israel, Zionism and Jews.

Corbyn had to endure relentless, evidence-free claims from pro-Israel lobby groups, echoed by the mainstream media, that Labour had become institutionally antisemitic on his watch. These smears were chiefly designed to stop Corbyn from winning power.

Rope to hang Corbyn

Starmer’s own campaign to win the leadership included a pledge that he was a Zionist supporter of Israel “without qualification” and a commitment to those same lobby groups that they would get to oversee, and even dictate, Labour policy on Israel-related matters.

It emerged after his election that Starmer had accepted – and concealed – a large, £50,000 ($68,000) donation to his campaign from Trevor Chinn, a member of a leading Israel lobby group, Bicom. The organisation was founded by Poju Zabludowicz, whose Israeli father made his wealth from the arms trade.

In the past, Chinn has donated to several Labour MPs who worked to undermine Corbyn: Joan Ryan, a former chair of Labour Friends of Israel; Tom Watson, who served as Corbyn’s highly antagonistic deputy; and Owen Smith, who led an early challenge to unseat Corbyn as leader.

Starmer’s campaign to distance the party from Corbyn reached its climax in October, when the UK government’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission issued a report after its investigation into Labour antisemitism claims. The report quietly exonerated Labour of any charge of institutional antisemitism, but the watchdog’s inconsistent findings offered Starmer and the UK media just enough rope to hang Corbyn.

Starmer incensed much of the membership by taking the unprecedented step, in the wake of the report, of stripping Corbyn of his place in the parliamentary Labour Party, forcing him to sit as an independent.

Deliberate provocation

It is hard not to view Kaplan’s appointment as either an astounding and entirely unnecessary self-inflicted wound, or as a deliberate provocation. Most of Starmer’s critics will regard it squarely as the latter.

It fits too neatly with Starmer’s behaviour since he was elected leader last April. Since then, he has been working overtime to cosy up to pro-Israel lobby groups that were not only deeply opposed to Corbyn, but actively worked to oust him.

In addition to expelling Corbyn as a Labour MP, Starmer has purged the party of members critical of Israel, including Jewish members, and silenced by diktat all support for Corbyn in constituency parties.

Why, after what amounts to a mini-reign of terror within Labour to get matters related to Israel off the party’s radar – and out of media headlines – would Starmer now plunge Labour into a new potential row about Israel?

Gagging orders

The answer is that the recruitment of a former Israeli spy into the inner sanctums of Labour headquarters will ultimately prove a minor and temporary controversy for him.

It will antagonise only the swath of members who supported Corbyn, for whom he has shown utter contempt and who have been battered into silence by what are effectively gagging orders from his new general secretary, David Evans.

It will not likely cause controversy with the Jewish Labour Movement, which was reportedly revived by political allies of Israel as a weapon against Corbyn” in 2015. Rather, they will be further enthused by Starmer.

It will raise barely a flicker of interest from most Labour MPs, who were desperate for Corbyn to be gone, and many of whom belong to another pro-Israel lobby, Labour Friends of Israel.

And it will be largely ignored by the British mainstream media, which has been giving the establishment-friendly Starmer a far easier ride than they ever gave Corbyn.

Ugly Labour politics

If anyone doubts this, just recall the hasty hushing up by the media of, and indifference of most Labour MPs towards, Al Jazeera’s expose four years ago.

After brief indignation over Masot’s efforts to oust Duncan, the documentary series was quickly forgotten by the media. It was certainly not brought back into the spotlight in relation to the campaign of antisemitism smears against Corbyn, despite its very obvious and pressing relevance.

The Masot affair, as well as this new one, reveal something very ugly about Labour – and British – politics.

Corbyn was widely criticised, mostly over activities that predated his becoming leader, for bringing the issue of Israel onto Labour’s agenda. His opponents argued that his foreign policy concerns overshadowed Labour’s more important domestic agenda. Could he not just forget about Israel?

Anti-Palestinian stance

But the decision of Starmer’s Labour to now invite a former Israeli spy into party headquarters – after a previous one, Masot, failed to gain a foothold – shows that the problem was never about getting Israel out of Labour politics. It was about getting the issue of Palestinian suffering, one of the most enduring legacies of British imperialism, out of Labour politics.

The antisemitism controversy was never really about supposed anti-Jewish racism from Corbyn’s supporters. It was about fighting anti-Zionists in the Labour Party, and in so doing, making support for the Palestinian cause harder to express – which has indeed been the result.

The current party leadership wants any discussion of the Palestinian issue, and Britain’s continuing colonial role, cleansed from the party.

Skewed values

In Kaplan’s job description, under a category titled “values/behaviours”, it says that applicants must show a “commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion” and “to the Labour Party’s goals, values, policies and codes of conduct”.

What Starmer has made clear is that Labour’s values give no weight at all to the injustices still being suffered by Palestinians because of Britain’s historic meddling in the Middle East.

Labour has also demonstrated that it has no commitment to “equality, diversity and inclusion” when it comes to Palestinian and Jewish members critical of Israel. Indifferent to the optics, Starmer’s Labour sacked its only senior Palestinian party official this month, reportedly over his support for Corbyn.

Imagine the outcry if Labour had sacked its only senior Jewish official. Rather, Labour’s vision of “equality, diversity and inclusion” springs from the same ideological worldview as its sister party in Israel – an Israeli Labor party that decades ago established a single political framework governing the lives of Israelis and Palestinians that B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights group, described this week as “apartheid”.

In the racist context of British politics, including Labour politics, there is no cost to screwing over Palestinians time and again. This is why Starmer will happily ride out the short-lived controversy – one restricted to ordinary party members – over appointing a former Israeli spy to his party headquarters.

Lucrative laboratory

For Palestinians, this decision cannot but be deeply offensive. For many years, scholars have been noting how Israel has turned the occupied Palestinian territories into a giant and lucrative laboratory in which it battle-tests weapons and military equipment for export.

But equally importantly for Israel, it turns ordinary Palestinians into guinea pigs for experiments in how to surveil, control, divide and exploit them. Unit 8200, in which Kaplan worked for many years, is at the heart of that infrastructure of terror that keeps Palestinians afraid and oppressed.

Israeli academics, such as Jeff Halper, have pointed out that Israel parlays this expertise into political and diplomatic power. Other states are queueing up to mine the lessons learned by Israel from surveilling Palestinians so that they can use similar techniques on their own populations back home. The need for these military and intelligence skills – learned from oppressing Palestinians – is reflected in Israel’s wide diplomatic backing by other states.

Starmer’s Labour Party is showing it is no different. It will profit directly from the skills of one of the graduates of Unit 8200, benefiting from the lessons Kaplan learned in a military organisation that spies on and extorts Palestinians.

That should not sit well with anyone in a party that claims to be left-wing, anti-racist and progressive, and to care about social justice. And yet, there are unlikely to be any meaningful repercussions for either Kaplan or Starmer from this ugly alliance.

The post Former Israeli army spy recruited by Labour should feel right at home first appeared on Dissident Voice.