Smears and loathing in the NUS and LabourApril 28, 2016
The NUS president-elect, Malia Bouattia, has recently suffered an intense smear campaign accusing her of anti-Semitism. Bouattia is a left-wing activist who unseated the incumbent bureaucrat Megan Dunn in elections held last week, thereby incurring the fury of right-wingers in the student movement and beyond.
The right-wing media had a field day with this story, using it to attack an NUS that has shifted dramatically to the left over the last two years. It is stomach-churning to see newspapers like the the Daily Mail, which supported the Nazis in the 1930s, complaining about alleged anti-Semitism amongst student activists.
These attacks on Bouattia have followed the same pattern as was seen at the Young Labour conference in February. Jasmin Beckett, the right-wing candidate for election as youth representative to the National Executive Committee of the Labour party, organised her supporters to run a smear campaign against her left-wing opponent James Elliott, again using accusations of anti-Semitism.
Most recently Baronness Neuberger and Lord Levy have attacked the Labour party for having a “serious anti-Semitism problem”. Neuberger goes so far as to blame the so-called problem on Jeremy Corbyn and all the new members of the party who have joined since his election. This is the latest attack in a sustained campaign against Corbyn which is trying to smear him (and the Left in general) as anti-Semitic.
Truth or smears?
Is there any truth to these allegations? As far as Corbyn goes, no evidence whatsoever has been presented to back up the accusations. Like so much of what has been written in the media about Corbyn since the Labour leadership election campaign these vicious stories are entirely fabricated. In Bouattia’s case the accusation rests on two statements in which she refers to “mainstream Zionist-led media outlets” and her description in 2011 of the University of Birmingham’s Jewish Society as being led by Zionists. In Elliott’s case the accusation seems to relate to an article he wrote in 2014 in which he wrote that “most accusations of anti-Semitism are just the Zionists crying wolf”.
Even as stand-alone statements, these comments are hardly evidence that either of these people are prejudiced against Jewish people. But in any case, they are not stand-alone statements. Bouattia’s comment about media outlets was not part of some crackpot theory about a conspiracy of Jews in the media, it was in the context of a discussion about media bias against the movement for Palestinian liberation. And her comment about the University of Birmingham’s Jewish Society was not a random outburst – it was in the context of discussing how to promote a campaign for solidarity with Palestine at the University of Birmingham.
Similarly, Elliott’s article was written during a controversy in Oxford during which the president of the Oxford Israel Society had groundlessly accused the entire Palestine Society of anti-Semitism. Elliott was simply pointing out that, rather than engaging in debate about the issues facing Israel and Palestine, the president of the Israel Society was simply smearing his opponents.
As with the allegations against Corbyn himself, such “evidence” of anti-Semitism is not really evidence at all. A pattern of behaviour by right-wingers in the Labour party and the NUS seems to be emerging. Unable to win the political arguments thanks to the resurgence of socialist ideas following Corbyn’s victory, the right are turning instead to smear campaigns – with baseless accusations of anti-Semitism being the current weapon of choice.
For good measure, Bouattia, who is a Muslim, has also been accused of being an extremist and a supporter of ISIS. This has been done in a manner reminiscent of the slander thrown at Sadiq Khan, the Labour candidate for Mayor of London, by the Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith and Prime Minister David Cameron.
In fact Bouattia’s only “crime” was to amend an NUS resolution that condemned ISIS so that it did not demonise all Muslim students, but directed its condemnation towards ISIS and other religious extremists. The groundlessness of these claims demonstrates the depths of distortion to which the right-wing can sink.
Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour party has shattered the Blairite consensus and, in just a few weeks, has put the position of all the careerists and bureaucrats in the party in jeopardy. On top of that this year’s Young Labour conference saw the left-wing Momentum Youth and Students slate take the majority of positions on the National Committee. This indicates a shift to the left within Young Labour, riding high on the back of Corbyn’s victory in the leadership election.
Similarly this year’s NUS conference was the first one since 1968 which voted to kick out the NUS president elected by last year’s conference, denying her a second term in office, in favour of a more left-wing candidate. The conference also voted for the first time to boycott the National Student Survey as part of a campaign against the marketisation of education and to demand a living grant for all students. This builds on the achievements of last year’s conference in which students voted in favour of free education for the first time in ten years. The trend in the NUS is clearly towards the left.
This is why the attacks on Corbyn, Bouattia and Elliott have been conducted with such vitriol and underhand tactics. After years of dominance in the Labour party, Young Labour and the NUS, the bureaucrats of the right-wing can feel the ground shifting underneath them and are being forced to watch as their plans for a career in the Labour party disintegrate. The manipulation of social media accounts, the deliberate spreading of falsehoods and the torrent of abuse emanating from disgruntled Labour MPs, Peers and the media as a whole are the death rattle of the Blairite wing of the Labour party and the NUS.
There are several reasons why right wingers have landed on accusations of anti-Semitism as a good weapon with which to try smearing left candidates.
Firstly, the barbaric treatment of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli state is an issue increasingly taken up internationally by the student movement, and is a cause with which many left-wing students and young people associate themselves, Bouattia, Elliott and other Corbyn supporters included. For people who support the Israeli ruling class, and by extension the ruling class in Britain, the USA and elsewhere, this is a dangerous tendency amongst young people which must be undermined. These elements have decided to falsely accuse left activists and campaigners of anti-Semitism because it serves as an attack on both the pro-Palestine individuals concerned and is a smear against the Palestine solidarity movement as a whole.
Secondly, accusations of anti-Semitism, as a recognised form of oppression, fit in neatly with the suffocating dominance that identity politics has conquered in the NUS in particular, but also in Young Labour and even the broader Labour party. There has been a shift away from discussing people’s political ideas, towards discussing the extent to which they are oppressed or privileged as individuals. Class politics, which should be the foundation of a union or a democratic socialist party, is being replaced by individualistic identity politics.
Even so-called ‘Left’ candidates for election in the NUS and Young Labour place more emphasis on the type of oppression they experience as individuals than they do on the exploitation they experience as part of the working class. This tendency was reflected in the Labour party leadership election when both Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper based a significant portion of their campaigns on nothing more than the fact that they are women.
This is partly why groundless accusations of anti-Semitism against left-wing campaigners gain an echo in these organisations. When real political discussion about how to solve the problems of oppression and exploitation is replaced by hand-wringing over what kind of person is the most oppressed, right-wingers who have nothing to say on the former, but plenty to say on the latter are able to cover themselves with a progressive veneer and seize a platform from which to promote conservative ideas.
Thirdly, there are some people on the Left who must bear some of the responsibility for the nature of the attacks on activists like Bouattia and Elliott. For a number of years there has been a tendency on the part of some left-wing organisations to approach the question of Israel and Palestine in a very ham-fisted fashion. Correctly motivated by a desire to see Palestine liberated and the Israeli ruling class overthrown, some of these people bend the stick too far in the other direction.
Arguments from some quarters on the so-called ‘Left’ say, implicitly or explicitly, that there is no distinction between the Israeli ruling class and the Jewish working class; that Israel has to be “pushed into the sea”; and that Islamism offers some solution to the problems. Some have even gone so far as to make the disgusting suggestion that the Holocaust should be “relativised”. None of these ideas are correct, they have nothing in common with Marxism, and all would be justifiably interpreted by many working class Jewish people as anti-Semitic.
It can be thanks to influence from rhetoric of this kind that activists can fall into the trap of expressing themselves bluntly or insensitively on the question of Israel and Palestine. Arguments like those of some on the Left are a crude caricature of the socialist approach to Israel and Palestine, and serve only to provide a straw man for right-wing activists and the media to attack.
The Palestinian masses can only win their struggle for national liberation if they manage to split the Israeli state along class lines. This is possible, as shown in 2011 when hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrated against the government over socio-economic issues at the same time as the Arab spring was taking place.The tactics of indiscriminate terrorist actions against Israeli civilians are a barrier to this and play into the hands of the Israeli Zionist ruling class. For this reason we must be clear that we oppose and condemn the methods used by reactionary Islamic fundamentalist organisations, like Hamas and others. A Marxist approach such as this will naturally still attract the wrath of the right-wing, but it is clearly a class-based approach with no room for ambiguity over the question of anti-Semitism.
Where do the Marxists stand?
We stand firmly with Corbyn, Bouattia and Elliott against the vicious smear campaigns that have everything to do with their left-wing politics, and nothing to do with the false accusations of anti-Semitism against them. We also point out the grotesque hypocrisy of right-wingers in the NUS and Young Labour who insist on a policy of ‘safe spaces’ to muzzle radical young activists, and yet launch dirty, no-holds-barred campaigns to unfairly drag their opponents’ names through the mud whenever their own position is threatened.
Overall, rather than see these attacks as weakening the Left, we see them as a sign of our strength. These smears are an indication of the desperation of right-wingers in the face of rising interest in radical socialist ideas amongst young people. The Right is on the run. Now is the time for radical young people to get organised, go on the offensive and fight to make socialist ideas a reality.
by Ben Gliniecki, MSF Executive