Editorial: Chris Williamson

The decision not to readmit Williamson offers a sliver of hope that the left of the Party, and its apparatus, may yet be able to tackle antisemitism.

Jennie Formby’s decision to reverse the lifting of Chris Williamson’s suspension was both right and inevitable. After Keith Vaz shared his concerns about the NEC processes that led to Williamson being readmitted, she could not have done anything else. It is a mistake to interpret Formby’s decision as a capitulation to the Labour Party’s right wing, particularly within the PLP. As well as correcting for a set of procedural errors, the decision not to readmit Williamson at this stage was ethically correct. It offers a sliver of hope that the left of the Party, and its apparatus, may yet be able to tackle antisemitism. To suggest that this was a victory for the right enables them to overstate their power, and shores up their belief that they are the only people capable of addressing antisemitism within the Party.

Williamson should not be readmitted to the Party, and it would be a particular disaster— ethically and strategically—for him to be permitted to stand at the next election. The decision to suspend him was prompted by his claim that “[Labour] have backed off far too much, we have given too much ground, we have been too apologetic” over antisemitism. It is intolerable to argue that anybody, or any institution, could ever be “too apologetic” about any sort of racism. To treat claims like this as though they are acceptable undermines all antiracist struggle. Williamson’s apology compounded this problem, firstly by apologising only for the form (“how I chose to express myself”) rather than the content of what he said; and secondly by asserting that both he and the Labour Party have always been antiracist. This claim, as well as being inaccurate about the Party’s history, reproduces a dangerous attitude towards racism, in which complacent assertions of antiracist commitments are supposed to exempt people from the important task of listening to—and learning from—criticism. This attitude is corrosive, and is common amongst those defending Williamson.

The comments that led to his suspension did not come out of the blue. They form part of a pattern of behaviour that includes (content note for antisemitism in the links provided):

Two things are particularly notable in this pattern of behaviour. Firstly, it is deliberately provocative and hurtful, and Williamson persists in this despite having been repeatedly asked by Jewish comrades to stop it. Secondly, none of these comments have anything to do—even in a distorted way—with Palestine. It is concerning that Williamson’s supporters seem to confuse aggressively-expressed antisemitism with Palestinian solidarity. This is absolutely not the case, and is a confusion that must be resisted. As we wrote in our previous editorial on antisemitism:

at least anecdotally, antisemitism seems significantly more prevalent within the Labour left than within directly pro-Palestinian campaigns and organisations. It is necessary to insist on an absolute, unconditional rejection of antisemitism and simultaneously an absolute, unconditional solidarity with Palestine. Both these positions are foundational for a meaningful and useful left politics.

Moreover, Williamson’s claim to a long history of antiracist action sits uncomfortably with his Parliamentary support for the destruction of Libya and Iraq, as well as his abstention on the immigration bill that led to the hostile environment and Windrush. He has, since becoming famous, apologised for this—but apologising for something is not the same as never having done it in the first place.

From PFI to military adventurism and racist bordering, Williamson seems flexible and persuadable against every principle connected to actual socialism, but stubbornly committed to his right to insult Jewish people without consequence. The overall picture is not of a great hero of socialism, but rather somebody who has found an audience and is milking it. We should not mistake his hammed-up invective for actual conviction or genuine commitment to the movement which he seems determined to undermine through repeated antisemitic behaviour.

If the process re-initiated by Jennie Formby ends with Williamson being readmitted to the Party, he must be prevented from representing Labour by other means. This could mean that the whip is not restored to him, or that his CLP move to deselect him—a process that may well already be underway. Given his pattern of behaviour, neither option should be off the table.