Where does Labour go next? Morning Star 25 September 2016

After a deeply unpleasant election campaign, a careful analysis is needed for the party to move forward, argues LIZ DAVIES


AS the dust settles over this bruising, unnecessary leadership contest, we can get on with what the Labour Party should have been doing over the last few months: opposing the Tories.
Grammar schools, the decimation of social housing, the future of the NHS, punitive welfare provisions and the appalling rise in racism and racist attacks are all issues where Labour has a political and moral obligation to speak up for ordinary people.
When Labour has united against austerity, we have inflicted defeats, most famously over tax credits.
As we unite behind Jeremy Corbyn as our leader, we need to think through three issues: politics, how to manage debate and party democracy.
Politics: after 172 MPs voted for no confidence in Corbyn, Owen Smith during his campaign claimed that — at least on domestic policy — they were not politically opposed to Corbyn. It was his lack of capability as a leader, they said, that had led them to this situation.
Those were weasel words. From the moment that Corbyn announced his candidacy for leader in June 2015, it was obvious that this was a political battle.
It was an ideological contest between the old forces of New Labour (privatisation of public support, welfare cuts, bringing down the deficit) and the new response that 35 years of neoliberalism has only worked for the super-rich and the rest of us — the 99 per cent — benefit from redistribution of wealth, and defending and extending public services and the role of the state.
It was that political divide, along with the obvious foreign policy divisions, that led so many MPs to greet the prospect of a Corbyn-led party with horror.
For a while they seemed to come on board, at least around anti-austerity. At last year’s conference, senior Labour figures started to refer to the Labour Party as the anti-austerity party.
The divisions over foreign policy remained and emerged most notably over Syria and Trident.
This time round, the Smith campaign knew that party members wouldn’t support the last Labour government’s economic policies.
He said he stood for anti-austerity policies; the problem is that party members didn’t believe him.
Corbyn now has a second mandate for his economic policies and for a foreign policy based on conflict resolution, international justice and human rights.
There can be no doubt that party members want the Labour Party to advocate those policies.
A majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) may not agree with some, or all, of those policies but they must respect the democratically expressed views of party members.
Of course MPs have the right to vote according to their consciences (if their consciences tell them to vote in favour of bombing, that’s a matter for them).
But they should take account of the fact that a majority of party members broadly support Corbyn’s policies, and they should be pulling together to articulate those policies in Parliament, on the doorstep and in the media.
Robust and appropriate debate: it’s hard to think of a more unpleasant election campaign. A very careful analysis is needed to move forward.
First, personal abuse is utterly unacceptable. It is a feature of our internet age. For some years now, anyone in public life — MPs, journalists, actors, campaigners — has been subject to profoundly unpleasant personal abuse.
And those who are not the norm — women, black and ethnic minorities, disabled people — experience extra hatred, with misogynistic, racist, prejudiced, hate-filled language.
Pre-internet, those sentiments would only have been expressed in private, or in a pub; equally hateful sentiments but not broadcast to the world.
This summer, all sorts of people have been subject to abuse. Certainly some MPs have received unacceptable abuse for their role in the failed coup. They have also received emails simply expressing disagreement or disappointment.
People in public life must distinguish between hate speech and free speech. Corbyn and John McDonnell have been on the receiving end of personal abuse: from the disingenuous line that the PLP wasn’t voting against Corbyn’s politics but his character, to the Tory MP calling McDonnell “nasty” on Question Time.
Corbyn’s supporters have been subject to the innuendo that we are anti-semitic, violent, foaming at the mouth obsessives.
We’ve been accused of being homophobic, or of tolerating it. I don’t recognise those caricatures. Abuse has been meted out on both sides: sometimes in unacceptable forms and sometimes in robust but tolerable language.
The Labour Party, through the NEC, is going to have to grapple with how debate can be appropriately expressed and that will not be easy.
The extremes of the lines between hate speech and polite disagreement are fairly straightforward. The difficulty is the territory in between.
The NEC must be wary of assuming that, just because someone complains, the comments complained of are really beyond the pale.
Finally, party democracy. When Corbyn was elected last year, he was stuck with Tony Blair’s structures for party policy-making: the hideously opaque National Policy Forum, local parties unable to put motions to conference except on rules or “contemporary” issues, an NEC where only six members are directly elected by party members.
As I write, Corbyn has announced a plan to have the shadow cabinet elected in blocks by the PLP and by the party membership, with another third appointed by the leader.
This could be the beginning of a conversation in the party about how to make policy-making more democratic and transparent in the future.
How can grassroots members be involved in deciding both the broad strands and the detail of policy?
This is the chance for serious change, based on the principles of bottom-up, accountable, transparent and democratic decision-making.
As the new NEC considers a new form of party democracy, it must also refine procedures on suspensions, or refusal to admit into membership.
Of the suspensions that I have seen, the accusation of “support for other political parties” generally refers to previous support for the Green Party.
Surely we want to attract former Green Party supporters? No-one is suggesting that existing Green Party members should be permitted to join, but why not welcome someone who previously voted Green and now wants to join a Corbyn-led Labour Party?
I’ve seen, in my work helping members who have been suspended, how suspension is used as a blunt instrument, a “suspend now and ask questions later” tool.
The Chakrabarti report recommended that there should be due process to any decision to suspend and the NEC needs to consider that carefully.
I hope that the vast majority of suspended members (or those refused admission) will be reinstated and receive an apology.
Finally, parliamentary reselection: MPs who voted for the motion of no confidence knew what they were doing.
Where their local parties disagree, the MPs will have to answer for their actions.
Just as they also answer for their performance in Parliament, their views on welfare, foreign policy, social housing and their professional and ethical standards.
There is neither an automatic right to be a Labour Party candidate, nor an automatic right to deselect an MP (the trigger ballot is the gateway).
Every MP will put the whole of their record before the local CLP and party members will decide.
The one cheerful sight in this otherwise dreadful summer has been the performance of the new shadow cabinet members in Parliament.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, Angela Rayner, Richard Burgon, Clive Lewis and their colleagues have done a fantastic job taking on the Tories from the front benches, something that they cannot have anticipated when they were elected just 18 months ago.
They, with a re-elected Corbyn as leader and John McDonnell as shadow chancellor, and hundreds of thousands of invigorated, enthusiastic and campaigning party members, are the hope for the future.
Liz Davies is a member of Hackney North and Stoke Newington Labour Party. She was an elected member of Labour’s national executive committee 1998-2000. She is an honorary vice-president of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers.

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Beware the media consensus on Corbyn: Morning Star 21 July 2016

As Labour has become embroiled in allegations of anti-semitism, intimidation and more, we should ask ourselves whose interests do these smears serve, writes LIZ DAVIES


THE majority of Tory MPs and the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party share a distrust of their own party members.

The most likely explanation for Andrea Leadsom’s sudden withdrawal from the Tory leadership contest is that Tory MPs realised that she might not be competent to be prime minister, but that, as the only Leave candidate on the ballot paper, the bulk of Tory Party members would probably vote for her.

Result: the classic Tory manoeuvre of quietly explaining to their own candidate why she should withdraw.

It’s a cliche that Tory MPs are far more ruthless than their Labour counterparts. We’ve seen the majority of the PLP show that they can be ruthless and simultaneously incompetent. Underpinning everything is their fear of the members.

Labour MPs started with the most personal assault on their leader ever seen in British politics, in the hope that Jeremy Corbyn would resign. A lesser person would have done but Corbyn really does have nerves of steel.

Had he resigned, my guess is that we wouldn’t have had a leadership contest. The PLP would have ensured that only one candidate obtained the requisite number of nominations. There would have been a coronation.

Since Corbyn didn’t buckle, we moved on to the next stage. Which was to try and keep him off the ballot paper. Lawyers flocked to advise. The rules looked pretty obvious to me: since they referred to a threshold required for a “challenger” and not at all to an incumbent, the correct interpretation is that the incumbent doesn’t need nominations.

But the decision was for the NEC and was always going to be political. The decision that Corbyn was automatically on the ballot put the choice of leader back into the hands of party members.

Had the decision gone the other way, there might have been only be one candidate coming forward with nominations and again, we might have seen a coronation, not an election.

We now face a wealthy donor threatening court proceedings against the NEC. All to take away the opportunity for party members to vote for Corbyn.

Meanwhile, the party engages in gerrymandering that Chicago mayor Richard Daley would have been proud of.

Labour has grown hugely under Corbyn — 292,000 members in August 2015, 515,000 in July 2016 — and the guess is that most of those new members are Corbyn supporters.

So the NEC picked an arbitrary cut-off point of membership by January 12 2016 in order to qualify to vote for the leader.

New members disqualified from voting for leader can still vote for NEC candidates. The Centre Left Grassroots Alliance is standing a slate of six and they should all be supported.

The previous arrangement of £3 supporters has turned into £25 supporters, so long as they registered in a 48-hour window this week. And local parties can’t meet, presumably for fear that party members might talk to each other.

All of these insults to the membership are likely to incense party members, so that even more of those permitted will vote for Corbyn.

Forty-nine per cent of existing members voted for him as their first preference last year. If he gets the same vote this time round, he’s almost certain to win.

Not only are party members not trusted with decision-making, they are smeared as well. Just two months ago, the media consensus, whipped up by anti-Corbyn propagandists, was that the Labour Party had a major problem with anti-semitism.

Labour Party members said “of course the party has a problem” while admitting that they had never witnessed anti-semitic comments themselves.

It became a self-evident truth, now debunked by Shami Chakrabarti, who found “the Labour Party is not overrun by anti-semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism … However, as with wider society, there is too much clear evidence (going back some years) of minority hateful or ignorant attitudes and behaviours.” Such offensive words or behaviour are occasional.

Now, the media consensus is that public representatives, particularly women, who do not support Corbyn are subject to intimidation.

Obviously we all live in the shadows of Jo Cox MP’s horrific murder, by a far-right activist. The brick through Angela Eagle’s constituency office building window was a dramatic recent example, although nobody knows who was responsible or whether they were targeting her in particular.

Some of the allegations are exaggerated. Some are untrue (the Luton hotel booked by Eagle for a leadership event cancelled the booking because it had been “unaware of the nature of the meeting,” not as a result of intimidation, as claimed).

And in today’s world of social media, some are undoubtedly true and completely unacceptable. All public representatives face dreadful abuse and threats on social media, and the tone of that abuse is much worse if the recipient is female or from an ethnic minority or disabled.

But the idea that the left is systematically engaging in this behaviour is just nonsense, and a smear intended to deprive Corbyn and his supporters of legitimacy.

If a smear is repeated often enough, as we saw in the referendum campaign, it rapidly becomes a self-evident truth.

Just as the accusation of anti-semitism rapidly turned into a witch-hunt of the left and arbitrary suspensions from membership, so accusations of intimidation have been levelled out of the blue.

Brighton and Hove Labour Party is suspended having elected a slate of left-wing officers. There are vague accusations of “abusive behaviour,” denied by those who were at the meeting.

South Shields members have been told that they could be disciplined for rolling their eyes and the local party is suspended. And Constituency Labour Parties generally are forbidden from meeting until after the leadership election is concluded.

Why? There is no clear answer. But socials, fundraising events and leadership hustings are permitted. It is hard to understand why, if there is such a pernicious culture of intimidation, those events would be free of abuse.

None of these arbitrary actions make any rational sense. They are legally offensive: the Labour Party took £45 from each new member who joined after January 12 2016 and didn’t tell them that they would not receive a benefit of membership: ie the opportunity to vote.

They offend against principles of retrospective legislation and attempts by one party to a contract to vary the terms unilaterally.

Preventing existing members from voting while simultaneously allowing people to pay £25 for a vote makes no sense (unless you calculate that Corbynistas will be less able to afford £25).

The only sense to be made of it is political. Each arbitrary measure reduces Corbyn’s potential voters.

The PLP majority never wanted the decision to be made by Labour Party members. Now they want to select which members can be trusted to make the decision.

Meanwhile Corbyn remains hugely popular. The attacks on him — that he has lost the confidence of colleagues, that he was lacklustre during the referendum campaign, that he is not electable — don’t stand up and aren’t believed.

Under Corbyn, the Labour Party has retained four parliamentary seats, won four mayors in England and exceeded expectations in England and Wales.

Scotland, of course, involves a long-term struggle to rebuild the Labour vote.

And his stance on the referendum — that the EU needed reform — was the one most likely to appeal to wavering Leave-Remain voters. They were not going to be swayed by a passionate defence of the EU in its current form.

Even more extraordinarily, despite the last weeks of receiving some of the most personal and vicious abuse ever seen directed against a politician, Corbyn remains relaxed.

On July 15, he was in conversation with Ben Okri at the Royal Festival Hall. He displayed a passion for books, art and music. He is widely read and reads for pleasure (unlike most politicians).

He had charm, grace and humour. He praised Joseph Conrad, Mike Marqusee (my late partner), Robert Tressell, Oscar Wilde and Ama Ata Aidoo.

One of the qualities of leadership is the ability to remain calm, and think strategically, at times of crisis.

Corbyn’s nerves of steel in these last weeks have proved his qualities as a leader. We were right to elect him last year; and we will be right to re-elect him this time round.

  • Liz Davies is a barrister specialising in housing and homelessness law. She is a member of the Labour Party, having rejoined in 2015. She was an elected member of the party’s national executive committee between 1998 and 2000. This article was written before Angela Eagle withdrew from the leadership contest.

Submission to the Chakrabarti Inquiry, with Sue Lukes

SUBMISSION BY LIZ DAVIES AND SUE LUKES

 

About the authors

 

We are Labour Party members. Liz was an active member between 1979 and 2001, serving eight years as an elected Labour councilor in the London Borough of Islington, and two years as an elected constituency representative on the Party’s National Executive Committee. She left the Labour Party in 2001 but rejoined in 2015 following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader. She is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP. Sue has been a member of Islington North CLP since 1982 and has held many offices in her ward, Highbury East: she is currently vice chair and GC delegate.

 

Sue is Jewish and on the board of trustees of her local synagogue, Kehillah North London.  She has campaigned and worked against anti semitism and other forms of racism for many years, partly inspired by her family story: her father was the sole survivor of his family, most of the rest of whom were murdered in Auschwitz.  He arrived on the Kindertransport organized by Sir Nicholas Winton. Like Sue, he was a signatory to the Jews for Justice for Palestinians declaration.

 

Liz is not Jewish, but her late partner, Mike Marqusee, was Jewish and wrote extensively on his identity as a Jew, his anti-zionist politics and anti-semitism: If I am Not for Myself (Verso, 2008). Liz and Mike travelled to East Jerusalem in 2010 to investigate and report on Palestinian housing rights for Advocates Sans Frontiers (Lawyers without borders).[1]

 

Both of us are also involved with law and justice issues.  Liz is a barrister specializing in housing law. She is an Honorary Vice-President of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and was Chair of the Haldane Society between 2006 and 2014.  Sue provides policy advice to the Strategic Legal Fund for Vulnerable Young Migrants and teaches and writes about housing law in relation to migration.

 

We address the following issues:

  • Is there a problem with anti-semitism in the Labour Party?
  • The importance of free speech, robust and vigorous debate, particularly regarding Israel-Palestine;
  • How can the Labour Party recognize anti-semitism and respond to it appropriately?
  • Comments on four individual cases: Vicky Kirby, Naz Shah MP, Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker;
  • The disciplinary procedure;
  • Lack of due process in the suspension process, and its consequences;
  • Lessons to be learnt in respect of other forms of hate speech or actions;
  • Jewish representation within the Labour Party.

 

 

This submission is partly based on an article we wrote for the Morning Star newspaper which commented on some of these issues.[2]

 

Is there a problem with anti-semitism in the Labour Party?

 

The question “Is there anti-semitism in the Labour Party?” has been endlessly discussed in recent weeks by media commentators, many of them hostile to the Labour Party, some of them not particularly friendly to Jews: step forward the Daily Mail who hounded the Labour Party’s previous leader. Our answer is “Of course there is”. Like other manifestations of racism, anti-semitism is deeply engrained in Britain, and the Labour Party is not immune. Our view, as people who have spent hundreds of hours in Labour Party meetings and campaigning on the doorstep, is that there is no more anti-semitism in the Labour Party than there is in society in general and, because the Labour Party is a progressive movement, probably rather less.

With our combined membership of over 46 years in the Labour Party, and each of us having attended literally thousands of Labour Party meetings, we can honestly say that we have never personally experienced overt anti-semitic actions. Each of us can remember only one or two incidents when people might have used inappropriate language.  Such incidents are far more common in society in general than in the Labour Party. When they arise in the Labour Party, of course, they have to be dealt with appropriately.

Have incidents of anti-semitism increased since Jeremy Corbyn became leader? This is the charge levelled by right-wing commentators and people in the Labour Party who are hostile to Corbyn’s politics. They insinuate that, because Corbyn is a longstanding supporter of Palestinian rights, then those of his supporters who share that commitment are more likely to be anti-semitic than others.  That is a slur on a number of levels: against Corbyn personally (whom even his harshest critics have accepted is not anti-semitic), against the new membership of the Party identifying as supporters of Corbyn, against the Palestinian solidarity movement and, by Islamophobic innuendo, particularly against Muslim members.

Our answer is an emphatic “No”. Most of the incidents of undeniably anti-semitic comments date from before last year, well before Corbyn became leader and the massive increase in Labour Party membership took place. However, those comments are now being dug out to feed a completely false story that associates a move to the left with anti-semitism.  The crescendo of allegations in the-recent past is, in our view, not evidence of a rise in anti-semitism, but of a concerted effort to find incidents that can be used to feed that narrative.

What are these incidents of anti-semitism? And how worried should we be about them?  All of the reported incidents are comments: some of them we do not believe to be anti-semitic, others are offensive and/or anti-semitic comments, which have no place in a progressive Labour Party, but they are words rather than actions. The Royall enquiry into allegations made about the Oxford University Labour Club has not been published, but Jan Royall has gone on the record saying that she found no evidence of institutional anti-semitism.  No Labour MP has organized Nazi uniforms for the guests at a themed stag party for which the groom was prosecuted under hate legislation in France: step forward Aidan Burley, happy recipient, while a Tory MP between 2010 and 2015, of funding from Conservative Friends of Israel.

 

The fact that the allegations of antisemitism within the Party have been so toxic proves the point, in a perverse way.  A Party where such comments were routine and accepted at some levels would not have reacted with such horror.

 

The importance of free speech, especially on Israel/Palestine

 

Freedom of speech, inside and outside the Labour Party, on political issues is obviously essential. And freedom of speech must include the freedom to criticize, to take positions that others might disagree with or even find offensive.[3] What it should not include is hate speech.

 

It is critical that the current controversy around anti-semitism, and this inquiry, does not result in Labour Party members being prevented from discussing issues arising out of Israel-Palestine. That could happen in two ways. The inquiry could expressly rule that certain expressions, used in relation to Israel-Palestine, are anti-semitic. Or members might feel inhibited from expressing certain views. Each of those would be wholly an undesirable outcome.

 

The conflict in Israel-Palestine is a global issue. Millions of people all over the world hold passionate opinions about it. It has elements of analogy with other conflicts, which is why criticizing Israel for its actions in taking over Palestinians’ land, denying Palestinians their rights, mistreating refugees, turning a blind eye to appalling racism against African refugees and migrants, and engaging in military assaults against Gaza or military incursions against Palestinians living in the West Bank, or in Israel, is not “singling out” Israel. The conflict is also unique. Israel declares itself an explicitly Jewish state and claims to speak for not just its citizens but for Jews anywhere in the world.   For this reason, supporters of Israel can conflate the interests of Israel with those of the Jewish people. And they sometimes accuse critics of Israel, and of the actions of the Israeli government, of being critics of Jews, generally, ie anti-semitic.

 

As longstanding activists in solidarity with Palestine, we acknowledge that anti-semitism can sometimes be seen in that movement as elsewhere. It is, however, important to distinguish between anti-semitic discourse or threats, which blame all Jews for the actions of the Israeli government or target them, and offensive language.  It is offensive to equate the Israeli government’s actions with those of Nazi Germany for obvious reasons.  We have only occasionally encountered such lazy, offensive slogans, but it is our view that such slogans need to be challenged, but not banned.

 

There is nothing anti-semitic about criticizing the Israeli government’s actions and their effect on Palestinians. Nor is it anti-semitic to call for recognition of an effective Palestinian state.  It is not anti-semitic to support the right of the Palestinians to defend themselves from military assault. Indeed, it is not anti-semitic to argue that it is not in the interests of Israeli citizens to continue to live in a state that privileges Jewishness (and some specific denominations of Judaism) over other faiths and denominations or ethnicities. While we have some sympathy with those who argue that use of the word “Zionism” in discussions about the way forward in Israel/Palestine has become lazy and not helpful to proper understanding, it is not anti-semitic to argue that Zionism as expressed in the Jerusalem programme is an exclusive doctrine, privileging Jews over others, and should be opposed.

 

We are not here arguing for a way forward in the Middle East. We have our own views and this inquiry, obviously, is not the place to determine that hugely difficult issue. Our point is about freedom of speech. So long as criticism of Israel does not include hate speech against Jews, and criticism of Palestinian action does not include hate speech against Muslims or Arabs, then Party members should feel free to express themselves.

 

How can the Labour Party recognize anti-semitism and challenge it appropriately?

 

Part of the problem is that there is no universally recognized definition of anti-semitism.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance has adopted the following formulation:

 

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”[4].

 

We strongly recommend that the Party consider adopting this rather than the working definition promoted by some people and organisations and adopted by the now defunct

European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia  (and dropped by its successor agency) because the latter conflates criticism of Israel with hate speech towards Jews.

 

There should obviously be zero tolerance of any anti-semitic words or actions by Labour Party members. However that does not mean that the response to anti-semitic words or actions (or other racist words or actions) should always be identical. We do not believe that all anti-semitic comments should always and necessarily result in disciplinary action. The appropriate response should depend on various factors.

 

We believe that the Labour Party’s response to any complaint alleging anti-semitism should take into account:

  • The context of the remark, including whether it was made in public, in private or semi-privately (for example, on social media or in a private meeting);
  • The speaker, and whether or not he or she is a public representative of the Labour Party; and
  • The speaker’s intentions and whether or not he or she subsequently apologis

 

We commend the approach taken by the University and Colleges Union (UCU), which has experienced some heated debate on the issue in recent years[5], and now promotes the following guidelines:

 

“To help challenge and eradicate antisemitism, UCU members should:

 

  • avoid language that might be well meaning but could actually be patronising; respect a person’s religious ,non religious or belief structure but do not treat people as ambassadors for their religion or ethnic group
  • not make assumptions about an individual’s beliefs, religious practices or belonging based purely on their nationality or background
  • make sure you think about the balance between the right to freedom of expression and sensitivity to individuals’ religion or belief
  • acknowledge the diversity among people who identify as Jewish – a wide range of cultures, experiences, religious (and non-religious) beliefs and practices, traditions and lifestyles
  • be sensitive to the needs of religiously observant Jewish colleagues, for example, by avoiding calling meetings on Friday afternoons and Saturdays, where possible, and by checking that meetings do not clash with Jewish religious festivals
  • support all UCU’s work around combating racism and Antisemitism is central to fascist ideology.
  • Encourage members to sign up to the UCU equality networks……
  • organise events at work including around National Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January.”[6]

 

We encourage the Party to

  • develop and issue a similar statement;
  • develop training resources for use by all Party members (e.g. online training packs) on the role of Jews in the British labour movement, the history and practice of anti semitism in the UK, its relationship to far right and fascist movements and the need to combat it;
  • develop appropriate requirements for those holding public office at all levels to be trained on anti racism, (including combating anti Semitism and islamophobia);
  • challenge other Parties to do the same ;
  • develop similar resources to deal with racism, islamophobia and other forms of hate speech or actions.

 

Comments on specific incidents

 

We wish to comment on the suspensions of four Labour Party members: Vicky Kirby, Naz Shah MP, Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker.  Each of these cases illustrates a different point. Overall, these four cases show the complexity of these issues.

 

  • Vicky Kirby: as we understand it, she was suspended following several tweets made some time ago which appear to be overtly anti-semitic and/or offensive (we note that at least one was quoting from a mainstream film[7]). We do not wish to comment on any subsequent disciplinary action but merely observe that the comments as reported were overtly anti-semitic and made in public by someone who was briefly a prospective parliamentary candidate.

 

  • Naz Shah MP: the comments were made in a semi-private forum (facebook) and in the context of Operation Protective Edge, the assault on Gaza which was greeted with horror and protest around the world. She was not at the time a representative of the Labour Party and has apologized.  She has been supported by her local synagogue who have highlighted good work done by her with them.  We believe that her apology shows appropriate understanding of the offence caused.  She does, however, illustrate how easy it is for those angered by illegal or inhumane Israeli actions to slip into making statements that may cause offence.

 

  • Ken Livingstone was speaking in public (on a radio broadcast) and is an elected member of the Party’s NEC. His comments were clumsy and offensive, with an implication that some Jews were complicit in Nazi anti-semitic persecution. Again we would not wish to comment on any subsequent disciplinary action but we observe that Livingstone is a very experienced politician who has been known for his media savviness.

 

  • Jackie Walker: is a Labour Party local elected officer and her comments were made in a semi-private arena (a conversation on facebook). The comments as reported were taken out of context. We are pleased that she has subsequently been reinstated but believe that her suspension was wholly unjustified. The widespread press coverage of her suspension, including the fact that the Jewish Chronicle ran the story before she had been informed, has led to her receiving death threats and racist abuse and wholly unjustified accusations of being a racist herself. We believe that her case exemplifies the need for due process at the point of suspension and that Jackie Walker has been treated very unfairly.[8]

 

We emphasise that anti-semitism is unacceptable, whatever the context or the intention of the speaker. It should always be challenged. We also repeat that we have encountered very little of it within the Labour Party or within the Palestinian solidarity movement.

 

However, once an anti-semitic remark has been alleged, then consideration should be given to the context and to the speaker. We need to recognize that in the Labour Party there are many people, particularly those who come into politics fired up by injustices against Palestinians, many of them young, who do not understand the distinction between legitimate criticism of the state of Israel and blaming Jews for Israel’s actions. Most of them are willing and able to learn. Any response to an anti-semitic remark should take into account any apology and the speaker’s intentions in the future.

 

The disciplinary process

 

Once disciplinary proceedings have been brought before the National Constitutional Committee, Appendix 6 of the Rules provide for appropriate due process. There is advance notice of the charge, particulars, summary of the relevant facts and disclosure of documents and names of witnesses, and appropriate time limits are built in.

 

However, the disciplinary rules at Chapter 6 of the Rules do not provide for due process. In relation to any alleged breach of the constitution, rules or standing orders of the Party, the NEC may suspend an individual from office or representation of the Party and the General Secretary or other Party official shall investigate. Once the General Secretary has reported to the NEC, then the NEC may decide whether to bring charges, at which point Appendix 6 applies.

 

In practice, suspension is not, as used currently in the Party, a neutral act. Jackie Walker’s case illustrates this perfectly. The media, specifically the Jewish Chronicle, was aware of her suspension before she was. She was not told the reasons for her suspension. She first read about her comments in the Jewish Chronicle and was later told that there may be other matters. She was asked to come to an interview, initially at very short notice, without any knowledge, save for what she had read in the press, of what she was accused of.

 

There was substantial press coverage leading to her being accused in public of being anti-semitic. She has received death threats and racist abuse and was the target of an astonishingly misogynistic and racist attack by Rod Liddle in the Spectator. This is despite the fact that, once she had attended the interview, she was reinstated. It is well known that once an individual has been subjected to smears in public, mud sticks.

 

For those reasons, we believe that the Party has been too quick to suspend individuals from membership. We understand that where comments have been made in public, by a public representative, then immediate suspension can be the appropriate response, pending further investigation. However, in the case of individual members who are not representatives, and particularly where the alleged comments are not made in a public forum, the damage caused by suspension outweighs the possible benefits. Once an investigation has concluded, and the disciplinary process before the NCC commenced, then it may be appropriate to suspend.

 

In addition, unless the person being investigated is a public representative of the Party, then we believe that they should be entitled to anonymity during the investigation process.  They are entitled to know the content of any complaints made about them and to privacy. Party staff must be told that breaches of confidentiality in this respect constitute misconduct and will be dealt with accordingly.

 

Lessons to be learned in respect of other forms of hate speech and racism

 

The Labour Party developed an excellent reputation in the 1980s for its commitment to combatting racism and promoting equal opportunities.  We see the furore over anti semitism as presenting an opportunity to renew that and develop it further. We are concerned that an exclusive focus on anti semitism will actually be counter productive because it is undeniable that other forms of racism, homophobia, islamophobia, sexism are at least as prevalent.  Privileging one may serve to alienate others, and weaken us all.  And a fluent, pragmatic and forward looking approach will also acknowledge intersectionality.  Jews after all may also face racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia, and we live in families and communities affected by all forms of oppression. We hope that the recommendations in this inquiry can then be developed to address all forms of hate speech or actions.

 

Jewish representation within the Labour Party

 

There is currently no Jewish section in the Labour Party and we believe there should be.  One of us helped develop the submission from 97 Jewish members about this need and we both agree wholeheartedly with the arguments in it.  The Jewish Labour Movement is a legitimate affiliated organization but essentially exists to promote a particular political position rather than to represent Jews (indeed it welcomes non Jewish members). It is affiliated to the World Labour Zionist Movement and states on its website’s home page: “We view Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Its aim is to promote “a secure, progressive, just and successful State of Israel” and believe in a two state solution.”[9]

 

The JLM therefore excludes from membership Jews who disagree with its politics on the state of Israel, and it cannot claim to represent Jews within the Party.  The focus on anti-semitism has created a demand for people able to advise or train on the issue, and we have seen several suggestions that the JLM should do this.  That would be utterly inappropriate.  It would create a real risk that Party members who oppose the JLM’s strong pro Israel stance (and many Jewish party members, like one of us, are in this group) would not be involved.  It would conflate the fight against anti-semitism with promotion of Israel.  That would not be of benefit to the Party or to those who want to fight anti semitism.  We therefore support the call from the 97 to set up a Jewish section with the aims outlined in their submission.

 

We have both taken considerable time out over the last couple of months to respond to enquiries from party members at all levels, many of whom find themselves struggling for the first time to understand and act on some of the complex issues raised.  There is a real hunger in the Party for authoritative material, speakers who can facilitate honest, inclusive discussion and reflection and other resources.   We hope that the inquiry can respond to this. We wish you all the best.

 

Liz Davies & Sue Lukes

10 June 2016

 

[1] Enforcing Housing Rights: the case of Sheikh Jarrah (Advocates San Frontiers 2011).

[2] 27 May 2016: https://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/t1cfe04-sue-lukes

[3] Court of Appeal Judge Sedley LJ, now Sir Stephen Sedley, said in Redmond-Bate v DPP [2000] HRLR 249, CA: “Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having. What Speaker”s Corner (where the law applies as fully as anywhere else) demonstrates is the tolerance which is both extended by the law to opinion of every kind and expected by the law in the conduct of those who disagree, even strongly, with what they hear. From the condemnation of Socrates to the persecution of modern writers and journalists, our world has seen too many examples of State control of unofficial ideas. A central purpose of the European Convention on Human Rights has been to set close limits to any such assumed power. We in this country continue to owe a debt to the jury which in 1670 refused to convict the Quakers William Penn and William Mead for preaching ideas which offended against State orthodoxy.” [20].

[4] Press release, 26 May 2016, https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/sites/default/files/press_release_document_antisemitism.pdf

[5] We note also that some of those most active in making statements on anti semitism in the Labour Party were also called as witnesses in an important employment tribunal case in 2012/3 in which the UCU was accused of anti-semitism by a member. No such finding was made by the tribunal and its judgment includes some trenchant criticisms of both John Mann MP and Jeremy Newmark, now chair of the Jewish Labour Movement.

[6] https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/5122/UCU—challenging-anti-semitism-leaflet/pdf/ucu_challengingantisemitism_leaflet_2015.pdf

[7] The Infidel, whose writer, David Baddiel, pointed out the origins of the tweet. The film is described by one critic as “An admirably cagey effort to mine humor from the thorny cultural and racial divide that is Muslim-Jewish relations.” And by another as “a wish to offend without being offensive”.

[8] We should declare that Jackie Walker is a friend of ours. She is also of mixed Jewish and Black descent and the comments publicised were reflections on the difficulties and dilemmas that poses.

[9] http://www.jlm.org.uk/

Discussing impact on social housing tenants if Human Rights Act abolished

The Queen’s Speech announced the government’s intention to consult on repealing the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. But implementing this manifesto commitment has proved trickier than ministers imagined.

“If Article 8 is to be abolished some tenants will have lost valuable protection.”

The fundamental problem with their plan is that no one knows which of the rights in the Human Rights Act – derived from the European Convention on Human Rights – would be lost. Would a British Bill of Rights not contain protection of a person’s right to life? Would Britain no longer prohibit torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment? Do we want to repeal the prohibition of slavery or forced Labour? And so on.

Inside Housing readers will want to know what impact abolition of the Human Rights Act might have on social housing tenants. It is, of course, difficult to answer that question without knowing what such a bill might contain.

Housing association evictions increase

The Human Rights Act gives some tenants extra protections.

However, we know some social housing tenants have gained some additional protection as a result of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It requires any public authority – government, local authority and generally housing associations – to have regard to a person’s right to respect for his or her home, private and family life.

What does that mean in practical terms? It does not mean that someone has a right to a home. It means that where someone is facing eviction, both the public sector landlord and the courts should consider whether the eviction would be proportionate, for a legitimate aim, lawful and necessary.

For secure (council) and most assured (housing association) tenants, then any possession proceedings brought against them require their landlords to prove that there is a factual ground for possession (usually rent arrears or anti-social behaviour) and that it is reasonable to make an order for possession. The courts only need to consider whether or not it is reasonable means.

However, where social housing tenants face eviction based on mandatory grounds for possession, where there is no provision in any of the housing acts for the courts to consider a tenant’s personal circumstances, Article 8 can make a difference. Those mandatory grounds for possession are used against non-secure tenants (usually homelesshouseholds housed under homelessness duties), introductory tenants, demoted tenants, the new category of flexible tenants, or, against assured tenants if there are eight weeks’ rent arrears. They are also used against people who lived with council or housing association tenants, but were not entitled to succeed to the tenancy after the tenant had died.

In a landmark case called Pinnock v Manchester City Council, the Supreme Court decided that, in exceptional cases, Article 8 could allow a social housing tenant or occupier facing eviction to raise his or her personal circumstances in court, where otherwise, those circumstances could not be considered. The Supreme Court did not define what exceptional cases might be, and most of the cases in the higher courts have found that Article 8 did not prevent a social housing landlord from obtaining possession. But each case rests on its own facts.

Article 8 is a useful long-stop where there are compelling personal circumstances why someone should not be evicted and would not otherwise be entitled to have his or her circumstances considered by the court. If – which is not at all clear – Article 8 is to be abolished some social housing tenants or occupiers will have lost valuable protection.

Liz Davies is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers specialising in housing and homelessness law

http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/debate/expert-opinion/long-stop/7015368.article

 

Unravelling the charge of Labour Party anti-semitism

By myself and Sue Lukes, Morning Star Friday 27 May 2016

The Chakrabarti inquiry into anti-semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party is an effective response to the chorus of outrage, much of it manufactured, from press and politicians about an issue that has become toxic, write Liz Davies and Sue Lukes


A s Labour Party members, we welcome the Chakrabarti inquiry into anti-semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party.

Its chair, Shami Chakrabarti, and vice-chair, David Feldman, are both internationally known as expert, fair and able.

The inquiry is an effective response to the chorus of outrage, much of it manufactured, from press and politicians about an issue that has become toxic.

We encourage Labour Party members to send submissions in. The question:- “Is there anti-semitism in the Labour Party?” has been endlessly discussed in recent weeks by media commentators, many of them hostile to the Labour Party, some of them not particularly friendly to Jews: step forward the Daily Mail which hounded the Labour Party’s previous leader.

Our answer is “Of course there is.” Like other manifestations of racism, anti-semitism is deeply engrained in Britain and the Labour Party is not immune.

Our view, as people who have spent hundreds of hours in Labour Party meetings and campaigning on the doorstep, is that there is no more antisemitism in the Labour Party than there is in society in general and, because the Labour Party is a progressive movement, probably rather less.

Have incidents of anti-semitism increased since Jeremy Corbyn became leader? This is the charge levelled by right-wing commentators and people in the Labour Party who are hostile to Corbyn’s politics. They insinuate that, because Corbyn is a longstanding supporter of Palestinian rights, then those of his supporters who share that commitment are more likely to be antisemitic than others.

That is a slur on a number of levels: against Corbyn personally (whom even his harshest critics have accepted is not anti-semitic), against the new membership of the party identifying as corbynistas, against the Palestinian solidarity movement and, by Islamophobic innuendo, particularly against Muslim members. Our answer is an emphatic “No.”

Most of the incidents of undeniably antisemitic comments date from before last year, well before Corbyn became leader and the massive increase in Labour Party membership took place.

However, those comments are now being dug out to feed a completely false story that associates a move to the left with antisemitism.

What are these incidents of antisemitism? And how worried should we be about them? All of the reported incidents are comments — some of them we do not believe to be anti-semitic, others are offensive, anti-semitic comments, which have no place in a progressive Labour Party, but they are words rather than actions.

The Royall inquiry into allegations made about the Oxford University Labour Club has not yet been published, but Jan Royall has gone on the record saying that she found no evidence of institutional anti-semitism.

No Labour MP has organised nazi uniforms for the guests at a themed stag party for which the groom was prosecuted under hate legislation in France — step forward Aidan Burley, happy recipient, while a Tory MP between 2010 and 2015, of funding from Conservative Friends of Israel.

This is why this issue has been difficult to disentangle and also why the Chakrabarti inquiry has taken on a difficult task. We know what pogroms are, we know that spreading lies about Jewish conspiracies was an essential precursor to the Holocaust. And we know that blaming victims for their fate is another form of racism.

Step forward Ken Livingstone, former and much-loved London mayor, previously respected for his courageous and consistent support for so many oppressed groups.

He chose to make public, crass and grossly offensive comments impliedly blaming victims, and then he refused to put matters right by withdrawing and apologising. The party is right to suspend and investigate. The row has been a gift to those who would rather see the Labour Party and Corbyn labelled as anti-semitic than actually work to eliminate anti-semitism in the party.

We are more concerned about some of the other suspensions. Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, reposted anti-Israel posts on social media in 2014 — at the height of the Gaza bombardment by Israel — a year before she stood for office.

As reported, those postings are unacceptable, but it is not an easy issue to unpick. Criticisms of Israel’s actions as a state are quite legitimate and utterly necessary given its record of human rights abuses, tolerance of genocidal actions and statements against Palestinians, comprehensive refusal of refugee rights (urged on by racism from many Israeli politicians) and support for illegal land occupations.

But demanding the removal of all Jews from any territory is racist. Blaming all Jews for Israel’s actions is racist. Shah has apologised, has a good record of working with Bradford Jewish communities, has met Jewish groups and has pledged to work further on this.

We need to recognise that in the Labour Party there are many people, particularly those who come into politics fired up by injustices against Palestinians, many of them young, who do not understand the distinction between legitimate criticism of the state of Israel and blaming Jews for Israel’s actions, but who are willing and able to learn.

We expect the inquiry to tackle these complex issues. We hope it will produce good and effective guidance on use of language and on actions.

The UCU, for example, has issued comprehensive and clear guidance on anti-semitism which states that: “Freedom of expression is crucial for a civilised society but must be in the context of tolerance, good relations and respect for the rights and dignity of others.” UCU guidance may serve as a model for the Labour Party.

There are other cases where the context makes clear that the person was making a legitimate political point, rather than expressing anti-semitism.

The most high-profile case is that of Jackie Walker, vice-chair of Thanet South Labour Party until her suspension on May 4. We should say that she is a friend of each of us. Her case is utterly different from that of Livingstone and shows how cynically the right wing in the Labour Party is prepared to use allegations of antisemitism in order to de-stablise Corbyn.

Walker is a well-known left and antiracist activist, and vice-chair of Momentum. She played a vital role in ensuring that Nigel Farage did not become Ukip MP for Thanet South at the last general election.

She was suspended for comments made in a semi-private discussion on Facebook, several months ago, when she and others were discussing her family history and what it said about the argument that Holocaust might legitimate the actions of the Israeli government.

That is a legitimate topic of conversation. Once the context of those comments is considered, it is clear that the comments are not antisemitic. One of the many shocking features of her case is the lack of due process. She was told by another party member (who had read it on social media) that she had been suspended. She only learnt of the reasons, and of the allegations against her, when she read an account in the Jewish Chronicle.

It seems that an organisation called the Israel Advocacy Movement had dredged social media, looking for remarks that could be interpreted as anti-semitic and then passed those comments straight on to both the Jewish Chronicle and the Labour Party.

The party, specifically as we understand it the Compliance Unit, suspended Walker without knowing the full context of her remarks or asking for her side of the story.

Three weeks later, she was told some of the case against her. If suspension eventually results in disciplinary action, there might be some due process.

However, the suspension itself had no due process to it; it simply took the word of either the Israel Advocacy Movement or Jewish Chronicle without ever asking Walker for her response.

One wonders whether the Compliance Unit is equally compliant on receipt of all complaints — does it always suspend first and ask questions afterwards?

Within all the frenzy about antisemitism, it is worth remembering that offensive remarks, which bring the Labour Party into disrepute, are not confined to remarks that may, or may not, be anti-semitic, racist or Islamophobic.

John Mann MP, who seized on Livingstone’s public comments to castigate him in front of television cameras, has form in wanting to destabilise Corbyn. The Compliance Unit remains untroubled by his presence.

It is right that individual cases are investigated, although in the case of Walker the allegations are so clearly spurious that she should be reinstated immediately and apologised to for the slur on her reputation.

In other cases, individuals have apologised (as Shah did) and that should count to their credit. However, the myth that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is particularly anti-semitic needs firmly knocking on the head.

The Chakrabarti inquiry has a vital and difficult task. On the one hand, the Labour Party cannot tolerate hate speech. On the other, the party must encourage freedom of expression, including robust debate.

And intelligent debate is particularly important to encourage on dealing with human rights abuses. It would be appalling if members did not feel free to speak their minds on Israel-Palestine.

But given the difficulties already highlighted, party officers, representatives and members will need guidance about how best to do this.

This raises another difficulty for the party: there is no caucus or organisation open to all Jewish Labour Party members. The Jewish Labour Movement is affiliated to the World Zionist Movement and so excludes those who do not sign up to its enthusiastic support of many Israeli government actions. It clearly, therefore, cannot welcome or represent all Jews.

The inquiry has to disentangle genuine concerns from fake outrage. Too many of those expressing outrage about anti-semitism are motivated by hostility to Corbyn’s leadership or the desire to associate anti-semitism with all criticism of Israel. That does not mean that their particular accounts might be untrue, but it does mean that their motivations might be suspect.

Tricky issues, all of them, but we have confidence that the inquiry can navigate its way through them, with the active support of Party members and its leadership.

We wish Chakrabarti, Feldman and all those involved good luck.

  • Liz Davies was a member of the Labour Party from 1979 – 2001 and rejoined in 2015. She is a barrister specialising in housing and homelessness cases.
  • Sue Lukes has been a member of the Labour Party since 1982, works as a specialist in migration and is a trustee of many charities including Kehillah North London.

Theresa May’s foot’s in her mouth: Morning Star 6 May 2016

Theresa May’s politically opportunistic tirade against the European Convention on Human Rights is standard Tory fare and as such full of false insinuation. LIZ DAVIES explains


Theresa May sought to placate the Tory anti-human rights lobby — and win them away from Brexit — by claiming that Britain could withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) while remaining in the EU.

She said: “The ECHR can bind the hands of Parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals.”

Charles Falconer, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, called her speech “so ignorant, so illiberal, so misguided.” Indeed, neither pro-human rights Tories (Dominic Grieve) nor Tory Brexit campaigners (Michael Gove) agreed with her.

She may have been trying to triangulate but has ended up with no allies in any camp.

Quite simply, the ECHR does not bind the hands of Parliament. The Human Rights Act 1998 enshrines parliamentary supremacy. Judges can declare that an Act of Parliament is incompatible with the European Convention — a declaration of incompatibility — but it remains law until Parliament decides to change it.

This is quite different to countries with written constitutions, such as the US or South Africa, where judges can strike down legislation.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg can declare that a parliamentary provision breaches the Convention. Britain’s Treaty obligations require the government to address the breach, but until Parliament has legislated, the breach remains law.

The most obvious example is the argument over whether prisoners should have the right to vote. The European Court has declared several times that Britain’s blanket ban on serving prisoners voting is against human rights. It acknowledges that in some cases, there can be justification for removing the right to vote from prisoners but has ruled that a blanket ban is disproportionate. There should be a more nuanced policy.

However, the ban was reaffirmed by a parliamentary vote in 2011 and David Cameron has proudly proclaimed that prisoners would not get the vote so long as he remains prime minister. Despite Strasbourg’s rulings, prisoners in British jails remain unable to vote and parliamentary sovereignty prevails.

May’s next point — that human rights do nothing for prosperity — is a bit weird. Human rights are not supposed to add to economic prosperity. Not everything should be measured by its ability to generate profit. Even most capitalists acknowledge the existence of values over and above the profit motive: love, respect for each other etc.

Human rights are all about mutual respect. There is also the obvious point that economies thrive when people are secure and human rights add to security.

Unstable dictatorships have difficulty in attracting investment.

If she is going to judge human rights by economic values, she walks straight into an assault on the third obsession of the Tories — after Europe and human rights — maintaining the Union. The governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have compliance with the ECHR built into their constitutional settlements.

Withdrawal from the ECHR places them in an impossible position and would certainly boost the independence campaign in Scotland. Enshrining the rights in the ECHR was an important step in negotiating the Good Friday agreement — it made all parties feel protected. Eighteen years on, the agreement is still crucial to retaining a peaceful Northern Ireland.

The Conservative manifesto for 2015 promised repeal of the Human Rights Act and its replacement with a British Bill of Rights. That manifesto commitment simply brushed over the political and legal problems with a British Bill of Rights. Unless a British Bill of Rights were to contain the same provisions as the Human Rights Act — in which case what would be the point? — there are very real problems indeed.

It is striking that, a year after its election, the government hasn’t yet managed to publish a plan for a British Bill of Rights, let alone an actual draft.

The Tories have never quite answered the key question: which of these rights would you discard? A question asked by the late Lord Bingham, then Britain’s most senior Judge, in 2009. The right to life? The right not to be tortured or subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment? The right not to be enslaved?

The right to liberty and security of the person? The right to a fair trial? The right not to be retrospectively penalised? The right to respect for private and family life? Freedom of thought, conscience and religion? Freedom of expression? Freedom of assembly and association?

I can’t imagine anyone, even Daily Mail readers, wanting to abolish any of those rights.

Or would a British Bill of Rights provide that only fine, upstanding, law-abiding British citizens should enjoy those rights? Judges have made the point over and over again that human rights matter most when applied to those whom public opinion considers less worthy of respect.

Who those people might be varies from time to time. Currently “foreign criminals” are the bogey-men, so are terrorist suspects. In the past, women campaigning for the vote, LGBT activists campaigning for equal rights, anti-apartheid campaigners, football fans, asylum-seekers, striking workers have all been subject to public opprobrium, whipped up by the popular press.

The most careful consideration of the proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, was by the Commission of a Bill of Rights set up by Nick Clegg in 2011. It had an in-built Conservative majority and so, unsurprisingly, it voted to repeal the Human Rights Act.

Helena Kennedy QC and Philippe Sands QC were the lone voices in opposition. But the details of its research hardly supported the majority conclusion.

Fascinatingly, it found that support for the ECHR was much stronger in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and even in English areas away from London and the south east — there was strong support in Birmingham.

Two consultations, the second undertaken after the Commission felt uneasy with the first results, found that on the whole people were broadly supportive of the Human Rights Act. If anything, it was criticised for not containing more rights, rather than for being too generous.

While the majority on the Commission recommended a British Bill of Rights, they absolutely failed to answer how that would be any different from the Human Rights Act.

The Human Rights Act and the ECHR are not perfect. The left has long argued for the inclusion of economic rights: a right to a minimum income, a right to housing, healthcare, free education. But in a week when the Sun’s lies about the Hillsborough victims have been exposed, should we be relying on tabloid journalism or Tory cabinet ministers to decide who is and who is not worthy of human rights protection?

• Liz Davies is a barrister, Labour Party activist and vice-president of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. She is the co-author of Housing Allocation and Homelessness, with Jan Luba QC and Connor Johnston (Jordans, 4th edition, 2016). She writes this column in a personal capacity.

The Budget of homelessness: Morning Star 22 March 2016

Despite Osborne’s spin, the stats show that our housing crisis has grown ever worse since he became Chancellor, writes LIZ DAVIES


“OSBORNE set to ‘eradicate homelessness’,” the Sun screamed on March 7, anticipating the Budget and regurgitating the Chancellor’s spin doctors.

The actual detail in the Budget? £115 million for more hostel beds for people who have slept rough. Obviously funding more hostel beds is a good thing, particularly if you are one of those who would otherwise be on the streets. But this is a drop in the ocean in the context of the housing crisis. We are a long way off from eradicating, or even tackling, homelessness.

The structural causes of homelessness need truly radical solutions; solutions which tackle the economic policies behind spiralling house prices, unaffordable private rents, and social housing having been starved of resources.

Homelessness in England (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different and more generous legal structures) has skyrocketed under the Tories. I’m no great fan of the Blair and Brown Labour governments, but they did reduce statutory homelessness (decisions on people applying to local councils as homeless) from a high of 298,000 in 2003-4 to 89,000 in 2009-10. Since then the numbers have been creeping back up to over 112,000 in 2014-15.

The number of families in temporary accommodation was cut by half between 2004 and 2010: from over 101,000 in 2004 to 48,000 in 2010. Now it’s up to over 68,000.

In 2003, the Labour government deemed it unlawful to house families with children in bed and breakfast accommodation. In September 2015, there were 3,000 families with children in bed and breakfast accommodation and 960 of those had been there for more than six weeks.

Those are the lucky households: they apply to the local council and get some sort of roof over their head. The average number of people sleeping rough in England on any one night has more than doubled since 2010, from 1,768 to 3,569. Throughout that period, the Tory government and Tory London Mayor Boris Johnson have trumpeted their “No second night out” scheme which should have reduced the numbers of rough sleepers.

Obviously it didn’t.

In addition, as Shelter points out, there are many more hidden homeless: people who are sofa-surfing, moving around between friends and relatives with no permanent place to live. And there are even more people who are at risk of homelessness: spending more than 50 per cent of their income on rent or living in unsuitable housing.

Councils, especially in London, are screaming. Newham Council’s evidence to the communities and local government parliamentary select committee inquiry into homelessness reads: “Newham and London as a whole is heading towards a disaster scenario” and is “facing a perfect storm of homelessness pressures.”

Private rented accommodation is increasingly unaffordable and cuts to housing benefit mean that low-income households (often working) can only afford low-quality private lets. The government’s proposals to cut social housing rents and its cap on housing benefit levels are likely to lead to closures of homeless hostels (so neatly undoing the good work that the £115m was supposed to provide).

Empty council homes are to be compulsorily sold in order to fund discounts for housing association tenants exercising the new, voluntary right to buy, neatly taking two properties out of social housing stock with every right to buy sale. When the benefit cap is reduced to £20,000 (£23,000 in London), Shelter estimates that families with two children will not be able to afford anywhere to live, even in social housing, in three-quarters of England.

High private rents in London have led to London councils sending families outside London, using a “no choice, one-offer” policy. Children have to leave their schools and friends, adults lose their family support and their mates.

They may have to find new employment. Worst of all, they often have to make a decision whether to move out of London, uprooting themselves for the security of a roof, or stay in London and face sofa-surfing or literal homelessness, at a moment’s notice.

London councils are caught in a cleft stick: they are damned by the government for sending homeless families outside London, and unable to afford to house those families in London. Their response, however, has to been to shirk their responsibilities.

A cross-party alliance of London boroughs, including Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Newham, are calling for the government to legislate to make it easier for councils to insist that homeless households are housed outside London. It might be understandable that Tories take this stance. It is the Tory government’s policy that created this social cleansing. But Labour councils should not be joining in. Instead, they should be calling for caps on private rents and the opportunity to build more social homes.

George Osborne’s spin doctors had the sense to row back from the claim that he might “eradicate” homelessness.

£115m would be much more welcome if it had been accompanied by tackling spiralling private rents, ending punitive welfare benefit cuts and building more social homes.

Legal Aid Cuts leave abused women to fight alone: Morning Star February 2016

 


OPPOSITION to the government’s legal aid cuts claims some victories.

The well-publicised action by criminal lawyers over the last two years finally forced Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Justice, to retreat from his predecessor Chris Grayling’s “dual contracts” proposal.

“Dual contracts” would have restricted the number of solicitors’ firms providing criminal legal aid services, so that clients would have had no or little choice about who might represent them.

Coupled with a cut of 8.75 per cent in legal aid payment rates, solicitors’ firms would be working on rock-
bottom margins. Legal aid cases would have to be conducted by low-paid employees working from templates, and with the real possibility that an important point might be missed.

The cheap labour is dedicated and committed, usually young law graduates desperately waiting for a training qualification, but high-quality legal aid services should not rely on goodwill, or desperation.

Gove has retreated both on dual contracts, and the more recent pay cut. Criminal legal aid services, currently run on a shoestring, will continue on that shoestring, at least for a while.

And last week the government lost in the Court of Appeal over one of its cuts to family legal aid. In 2013, legal aid for family cases was withdrawn completely unless one of the parties had suffered domestic violence in the previous 24 months. There was a lengthy list of how that person could prove that she (it is usually “she”) had experienced domestic violence: her partner’s conviction or caution, a court injunction, detailed letters from social services, doctors or refuges.

The problem, of course, is that many women do not report domestic violence at all. Then they find themselves wanting to tell the court about it, in the context of a dispute over arrangements for the children. Without proof of domestic violence, they don’t get legal aid and end up representing themselves. Family judges have complained bitterly — in submissions to the government and in high-profile judgements — about the unfairness for all concerned when litigants in family cases are not represented.

The Court of Appeal decided that the 24-month period was arbitrary, and that the evidence required made no provision of victims of financial (rather than physical or emotional) abuse. It’s a defeat for the government, which will have to reconsider those regulations, but doesn’t deal with the underlying restriction on legal aid — that it is not generally available in family cases.

Don’t think that the Court of Appeal will always support legal aid. Another Grayling initiative — to restrict legal aid to people who can prove 12 months’ lawful residence in Britain — was held to be unlawful in the High Court, but the Court of Appeal overturned that decision and decided it was lawful.

Essentially the Court of Appeal decided that politicians knew what they were doing when they approved this “residence test” for legal aid. It sounds on a par with all the other anti-migrant steps taken by this government: restricting housing rights, cutting benefits to EU migrants etc. But it equally affects British citizens.

Not everyone has their passport to hand and can prove 12 months’ lawful residence. And why shouldn’t migrants get legal aid if they need to challenge an unlawful decision?

On top of that, civil legal aid cuts that came into force in 2013 will stay, at least until a change in government.

Legal aid is not available for advice on welfare benefits dispute (surely the area of law where clients are least likely to be able to pay for advice), for employment law cases, for areas of housing law and, above all, legal aid is not available for family cases except where someone can prove she has experienced domestic violence. Add in sweeping cuts to legal aid payment rates and even where legal aid might be available for a civil case, finding a legal aid lawyer can be impossible.

Jeremy Corbyn has consistently defended legal aid, both as a backbencher and now as leader of the opposition. He has spoken at Justice Alliance rallies, done the hard technical graft on the justice committee and hosted legal aid events in Parliament. The Labour Party has set up a review, led by Lord Willie Bach, into the impact on access to justice caused by the cuts to legal aid. The best hope for legal aid is a Corbyn socialist Labour government in 2020.

  • Liz Davies is a legal aid barrister specialising in housing and homelessness law. She is an honorary vice-president of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. She writes this column in a personal capacity.