Alan Johnson, writing in a personal capacity, asks if the UK Labour Party has misapplied the principle of zero tolerance of antisemitism in its treatment of Jamie Driscoll.
The Labour Party National Executive Committee has excluded Jamie Driscoll, the elected and incumbent Labour Mayor of North Tyne, from the long list of prospective Labour candidates for next year’s election of the Mayor of the new expanded North East Authority, which will absorb North Tyne. No explanation of the decision has been given to Driscoll by the committee but the media have been briefed that the reason was Driscoll’s decision to agree to a request from a local cultural organisation to be in conversation with the film director Ken Loach in March 2023. Loach was expelled from the Labour Party in 2021 as ‘ineligible’ because of his support for the proscribed organisation Labour Against the Witch Hunt, which had claimed that allegations of Labour antisemitism were ‘politically motivated’. I think the decision to exclude Driscoll was a misapplication of the principle of zero tolerance and should be revisited.
Before I make the case for rethinking the decision, I should say a word about my credentials as a non-Jew and non-Labour Party member for having an opinion at all. In the mid-1980s I helped that small part of the left allied with the Union of Jewish Students to push back efforts by the far left to ban Jewish student societies. 30 years later in June 2015, just as Corbyn began his leadership campaign, I wrote one of the first critiques of Corbyn’s awful record of support for antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism, including his fawning over the vicious little antisemite Raed Salah, in Left Foot Forward, imploring him to think again. Over the next four years I wrote a series of pieces about Labour’s antisemitism crisis, Corbyn’s mishandling of it (see note one), and the appalling degree of denialism and antisemitic conspiracism on the left. I spoke at conferences and authored several academic chapters on left antisemitism, Holocaust Inversion and antisemitism denial. (I even wrote a 10,000 word essay in Fathom on ‘Leon Trotsky’s Long War Against Antisemitism’ in an effort to encourage some of the comrades to rethink their stance.) I toured campuses to debate Ilan Pappe, Norman Finkelstein, and others. In 2019 I authored a 30,000 word Fathom report on the crisis, complete with 300 footnotes. I gave over 100 illustrative examples of Labour antisemitism and denialism and explaining why they were examples of one kind of left antisemitism or another. That report, titled Institutionally Antisemitic: The Crisis in the British Labour Party and Contemporary Left Antisemitism, was cited in the damning Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report on Labour published in 2020. And I was a talking head on John Ware’s BBC Panorama documentary ‘Is Labour Antisemitic?’ I am extremely proud that in my decade as editor of this journal we have made it a leading international platform for the critical analysis of left antisemitism, past and present, theory and practice. Over 30 essays will be published later this year by Routledge as Mapping the New Left Antisemitism: The Fathom Essays.
I believe left antisemitism is an evolving tradition of long-standing. In the nineteenth century it was the ‘socialism of fools’, in the twentieth century ‘the anti-imperialism of idiots’, and is today probably best described as antisemitic anti-Zionism – antisemitism ‘dressed up’ as anti-Zionism, as Eric Hobsbawm the Marxist historian, and no friend of Israel, put it. Parts of the left now demonise (not ‘criticise’) the Jewish state. They call not for Palestine alongside Israel under peace and security for both peoples but for the destruction of Israel and the dehumanisation and exclusion from the common life of humanity of Israelis and all those who defend Israel’s right to exist, to defend itself and to thrive as the homeland of the Jewish people.
That said, I think there are some good reasons for Labour to revisit its decision to exclude Jamie Driscoll from the long list.
1.Driscoll has no complaints against him about antisemitism or anything else. He says has been assured by the party that this is the case. Driscoll heard nothing from the party from March to June about the Loach event. As I understand it, the Jewish Labour Movement, which supports his exclusion, did not make a formal complaint about Driscoll’s participation in that event nor, he says, get in touch with him to talk about it.
2. Driscoll is already the elected and incumbent North Tyne Mayor, selected by Labour members and then elected by North Tyne voters in May 2019 on a higher turn-out than that seen in the Mayoral elections in Manchester, Liverpool, Tees Valley or Sheffield. (Full Disclosure: I was born and raised in North Shields in North Tyneside and Mam’s heroine was Ellen Wilkinson the left-wing Labour MP for Jarrow.)
3. Driscoll has said ‘My combined authority has adopted the… IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition of antisemitism. I’ve been on Jewish Labour Movement training. I work very closely with the Jewish Leadership Council, visit the synagogues in my region.’ A Jiu Jitsu black belt he has a record of physical confrontations with, and even intelligence gathering about, antisemitic neo-Nazis and fascists. He has said the following about left antisemitism: “What has happened in the Labour Party is that a lot of people have been offensive in the way that they have conflated criticism of the State of Israel with wilfully provocative language blaming Jewish people in general, which is antisemitism. Let’s not say there is no antisemitism here.’ (Now I think left antisemitism is about a lot more than that, and I’d like to have a conversation with him about what that more is, but if having a less than complete understanding of historical and contemporary left antisemitism is now a reason to disbar would-be candidates, the NEC will be very busy indeed.)
4. Crucially, back in March 2023, Driscoll was not a Labour party member sharing an anti-Israel platform with Ken-Loach-the-activist. Rather, Driscoll was responding to an invitation issued to him as the elected Mayor of North Tyne, by an important local cultural organisation, to be in discussion about films with the two-time-Palme-D’or-winning film-maker Ken Loach who, and this matters, had made his last three films – The Old Oak, Sorry We We Missed Youand I Daniel Blake – in the local area. As far as I have been able to establish, they discussed movies, getting a start in films, the value of the North East as a location, their favourite films, and, er, Star Trek. ‘It was a celebration of the arts’, Driscoll has said, and part of his role as regional Mayor to ‘talk to possibly our greatest living film director about his last three films, all set in the North East, creating jobs here’.
5. The NEC demanded to know why Driscoll didn’t challenge Loach on his views on Israel at the March cultural event. One committee member even lectured Driscoll, saying ‘you can’t separate someone’s views from their work’. (You can, actually.) But as people have pointed out, Starmer himself did not challenge Loach’s views on Israel when he appeared alongside him on BBC Question Time on 27 October 2016. Nor did David Lammy MP challenge Loach’s views about Israel when he penned a small hymn of praise to his film-making in The Guardian in 2019.
6. What of Driscoll’s ‘competence’? This is emerging in recent days as the briefers other ‘reason’ to exclude him after, I guess, they began to sense they may have overstepped and got this one wrong. Well, he helped to successfully negotiate the creation of the expanded authority by striking the 4.2 billion devolution deal with the Government – ‘the highest value devolution deal in the country’ he claims. He won the arguments with Michael Gove and Grant Shapps about the transport budget for the expanded authority, saving the region tens of millions. He also claims to have created 5000 jobs, made North Tyne the number one region for inward investment in 2022, built affordable homes on brown field sites, persuaded businesses employing 50,000 workers to pay the Living Wage, set up a public venture capital fund, increased enrolment in Adult Education from 20,000 a year to 33,000 a year, and begun tackling child poverty and implementing a Green New Deal.Astonished at the decision to exclude Driscoll from the long list, the Tory ex-chancellor Nadhim Zahawi has said ‘I worked with Jamie as Vaccine Minister, he was always professional and didn’t play politics, just wanted to protect the people he represents.’ The Labour Metro Mayors of Liverpool and Manchester, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, have expressed in an open letter their commitment to fighting antisemitism in the party and their deep unease at the NEC decision which they described as not democratic, transparent or fair. They praised Driscoll’s ‘constructive non-partisan approach’ and noted his ‘success’ in the job.
7. All this is why many people, including many who have been and remain supportive of the campaign to drive left antisemitism out of the party, are asking if Driscoll’s treatment is connected to the fact that he also stands for the public ownership of the utilities, is against privatisation in the NHS, and supports the right of Labour MPs to join picket lines. They fear the decision is part of a centralist drive from the Leader’s office and the NEC to eliminate left-wing voices and local choices. Those worrying are not just the usual suspects. They are not just reprising Len McCluskey’s crass denialism, dismissing valid claims of antisemitism as ‘mood music’. The soft left journalist John Harris has raised a red flag. So too has the veteran centre-right commentator Simon Jenkins, As has Emma Lewell-Buck the Labour MP for South Shields. She declared herself ‘utterly baffled’. Paul Mason, a strong supporter of Keir Starmer since 2020 has tweeted ‘This is self-destructive factionalism. Jamie has been a brilliant mayor, achieved massively more than many in local government and revitalised the party. I hope the decision can be overturned.’ So do the Fire Brigades Union and the Socialist Educational Association. Nicola Jukes, the Transport and Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) representative on the NEC said: “There’s no doubt that Jamie Driscoll has done a superb job as North of Tyne Mayor since 2019. He has displayed Labour values in everything he does. We are in the bizarre situation where a highly respected sitting mayor has been barred from being a candidate in the region he already represents.’
8. A profound lack of respect is being shown to the voters of the North East. This matters too, and not just because Geordies are the greatest people on earth. The NEC informed the elected Mayor he was out by a short email. Not even a phone call! For a sitting Metro Mayor! Aditya Chakrabortty noticed that in the London-centric media frenzy that followed the decision to exclude Driscoll, ‘Hardly anyone asked what it meant for the north-east, for local democracy, for the people in Newbiggin and anyone else who long ago tuned out all politicians as fraudulent liars only in it for themselves.’ Simon Jenkins, no Corbynite, wrote that ‘Even before he finds himself in Downing Street, Starmer cannot bring himself to respect the local diversity that has long been Labour’s strength. He cannot allow his party to let the people of the north-east choose who it is they want to lead them.’ This too should matter for those of us fighting antisemitism and racism. Why? Because as John Harris notes, it was out of touch centralist machine politics that was ‘the swamp out of which Nigel Farage emerged’.
9. The danger of this decision is that it may discredit the fight against left antisemitism. It may make people more sympathetic to Loach who, as one of the worst deniers of left antisemitism in Labour, deserves no sympathy. I fear the decision will boost those who spread the false narrative that ‘this antisemitism stuff is just the Labour right weaponising antisemitism to exclude the left’. John Harris, not a usual suspect, was blunt: ‘what is going on is also about squashing anything and anyone deemed either too leftwing or in any way disobedient’. If that fear about factionalism gets tangled up with the false narrative about ‘weaponisation’ we risk undermining the work of decades. Some report a groundswell of outrage in the party and unions in the North East, despite the Party’s best efforts to silence discussion. The newspaper Solidarity is reporting that eight Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) in the catchment area for the new “North-East mayor” (Hexham, Wansbeck, Blyth Valley, Blaydon, Newcastle East, Newcastle Central, Easington, and City of Durham) have voted to make no nomination for Labour candidate for mayor to protest against the 2 June decision to exclude Drsicoll. Blyth Valley Constituency Labour Party issued a statement to make clear their ‘objection’ to Driscoll’s exclusion and their members’ ‘deep concern’ about the decision. The statement says Driscoll is ‘widely acknowledged as one of the highest quality Labour representatives for delivering’ for local people. City of Durham CLP has also joined the growing grassroots protest.
10. The party needs to give itself the space to distinguish between a party member endorsing the views of Ken Loach and the elected Mayor of the area in which Loach shot his last three films agreeing to a request by a local cultural organisation to host a conversation with the award-winning film maker as part of his role – as he saw it. The party has misapplied the principle of ‘zero tolerance’ here and should think again. We didn’t fight all these years so that we could exclude a Jamie Driscoll from seeking to be the Mayor of the North East. I didn’t anyway.
 My writings on left antisemitism include the following: ‘An Open Letter to Jeremy Corbyn’, Left Foot Forward, 2015; Jeremy Corbyn is not antisemitic but the left should beware of his friends’, New Statesman, 2015; ‘The Left and the Jews: Time for a Rethink’, Fathom, Autumn 2015; ‘Intellectual Incitement: The Anti-Zionist Ideology and the Anti-Zionist Subject’, in The Case against Academic Boycotts of Israel, eds. Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm, New York, 2015; ‘Antisemitic anti-Zionism: the root of Labour’s crisis. A submission to the Labour Party inquiry into antisemitism and other forms of racism’, BICOM, 2016; ‘From Cable Street to Raed Salah, Labour Must Understand Antisemitism Has Shape Shifted’, The Times of Israel, 15 June 2016; ‘Labour Party’s antisemitism inquiry findings show Labour has failed to learn’, Haaretz, 1 July 2016; ‘Antisemitism in the Guise of Anti-Nazism: Holocaust Inversion in the United Kingdom during Operation Protective Edge’, in Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: The Dynamics of Delegitimization, ed. Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Indiana University Press, 2019; ‘Denial: Norman Finkelstein and the New Antisemitism’ in Jonathan Campbell and Lesley Klaff, eds. Unity and Disunity in Contemporary Antisemitism, Academic Studies Press, Boston, 2019; ‘Leon Trotsky’s Long War Against Antisemitism’, Fathom, Spring 2019; Institutionally Antisemitic: Contemporary Left Antisemitism and the Crisis in the British Labour Party, Fathom, 2019; Mapping the New Left Antisemitism: The Fathom Essays (ed.), Routledge (forthcoming).