Torture the Evidence

In his 1973 essay ‘The Coup in Chile,’ Ralph Miliband warned that left-wing movements which did not draw the right lessons from the overthrow of Salvador Allende ‘may well be preparing new Chiles for themselves’. The Tory journalist Peregrine Worsthorne was happy to recommend Chile as a positive model when he enjoyed Pinochet’s hospitality on a tour of the country the following year: if a British equivalent of the Allende government ever came to power, Worsthorne informed his readers, ‘I hope and pray our armed forces would intervene to prevent such a calamity as efficiently as the armed forces did in Chile’. The arch-conspirator in Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel A Very British Coup was called ‘Sir Peregrine’ in his honour.

During Jeremy Corbyn’s stint as leader of the Labour Party, there was some nervous speculation on the left about the possibility of military intervention if he became Britain’s prime minister. One could find enough raw material to inflame such anxieties, from public criticism of the Labour leader by senior military and intelligence officials to the notorious episode when members of the Parachute Regiment based in Kabul used Corbyn’s image for target practice on a shooting range. But talk of a latter-day coup ultimately served as a distraction from the more pressing danger: the deployment of a lawfare strategy against the left-wing upsurge of 2015–19.

Lawfare has been the main weapon utilized against the Latin American left in recent years. From the frame-up of Lula by Sergio Moro to the false charges of electoral fraud with which the violent overthrow of Evo Morales was justified, conservative forces in the region prefer to operate under a pseudo-legal banner instead of launching a frontal assault on democratic rule. They have received support in these efforts from bodies like the OAS that possess no legal authority as such but can bestow the appearance of moral legitimacy upon spurious claims that rules were broken or elections stolen.

Britain has ample experience of these methods, though they have more commonly been employed to defend those already in power from scrutiny than to remove left-wing challengers who pose a threat to the status quo. From John Widgery to Brian Hutton, there is a long list of senior judicial figures who refused to draw conclusions that the evidence obliged them to draw when vital interests of Britain’s power elite were at stake. After Hutton read out the findings of his 2004 report on the death of nuclear scientist David Kelly, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland noted the audible gasps of disbelief from Hutton’s audience and posed an obvious question:

If an argument rages on long enough, we soon call for a judge to investigate it for us in the form of a public inquiry. We see and hear the same evidence he does, but still we invest in him some mystical power to reach a conclusive truth we have not seen. And eventually he comes down from the mountain, like the high priest of yore, and delivers his judgment. Yesterday’s show shattered that illusion. Suddenly you found yourself seeing through the grandeur and mystique and wondering, who exactly is this man? Why was he chosen for this task?

Freedland’s brief dalliance with scepticism did not survive contact with the Great Recession. As one of the Guardian’s leading sharpshooters against the left over the past decade, he has leaned heavily upon the ‘grandeur and mystique’ of official bodies. However, his point here is obviously sound, whether or not he chooses to recall it. Widgery did not receive his judicial appointment on the understanding that he would whitewash a massacre of civilians by British soldiers in Derry. Nor did Hutton receive his on the understanding that he would wilfully obfuscate the decision-making process leading up to the invasion of Iraq. But neither man would have ascended the career ladder without a finely honed sense of what they would be expected to do in a situation like that, should it ever arise.

This historical context is helpful for understanding the highly successful campaign against the Labour left. Labour’s right-wing tendency took the lead in that campaign, but they received invaluable support from state and para-state institutions as they sought to delegitimize Corbyn’s leadership and present it as a moral abomination. The BBC and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) supplied the most important weapons in their arsenal, which are still being wielded today.

Although the British state broadcaster has no judicial powers, it enjoys a unique reputation as a trusted source of news reporting. As Britain experienced its deepest political crisis since the Second World War, the BBC put that reputation at the service of Corbyn’s opponents with its documentary ‘Is Labour Antisemitic?’, which purported to show that Corbyn and his allies had done everything in their power to encourage and protect antisemitism in the Labour Party. The documentary set out a narrative of events that was ‘wholly misleading’, in the words of Martin Forde, a lawyer who was commissioned by Corbyn’s successor Keir Starmer to produce a report on the party’s organizational culture. Starmer accepted the conclusions of Forde’s report in full, passing up the opportunity to express any criticisms when it was published. In the annals of journalism, ‘Is Labour Antisemitic?’ belongs in the same company as Judith Miller’s reporting for the New York Times on weapons of mass destruction.

While nobody who relied on the documentary as a cudgel against Corbyn has acknowledged Forde’s damning verdict, the Starmer leadership and its media outriders now tend to refer much more frequently to the EHRC’s report on antisemitism in the Labour Party – in particular its claim to have detected clear breaches of equality law under Corbyn. This would certainly be a powerful argument if the EHRC was a credible body that had produced a serious report. Alas, it was unable to satisfy either condition.

The Blair–Brown government established the EHRC in 2007, and obviously never intended it to be a fearless opponent of structural inequality. After all, the Commission’s first chair was Trevor Phillips, who has carved out a lucrative niche in the Tory press as an indefatigable apologist for political racism. On the off chance that the statutory body might nonetheless prove troublesome, the Conservative Party set about bending the EHRC to its will after returning to office in 2010. This strategy proceeded along two tracks: on the one hand, the Tories slashed the EHRC’s operating budget to less than a third of its previous level by 2020; on the other hand, they appointed ideological allies to serve as commissioners.

At this point, we might expect members of the British commentariat to harumph about ‘conspiracy theories’ – the standard retort to any form of structural analysis. If the term ‘conspiracy’ is to have any meaning, there must at the very least be an attempt by those involved to conceal what they are doing, even if they do not succeed. However, there was nothing remotely discreet about the Conservative plan to reshape the EHRC. One of those involved, Ian Acheson, boasted about it in an article for the Spectator.

The EHRC decided to investigate allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party for the same reason it categorically refused to investigate allegations of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, despite receiving multiple requests to do so with ample supporting documentation. It is a partisan body to its very marrow, and the report it produced on Labour under Corbyn reflected its institutional character.

The Commission clearly reached the same conclusion as Martin Forde about the credibility of ‘Is Labour Antisemitic?’, but it chose to ignore the documentary altogether – one could read the report from cover to cover without even knowing it existed. This was the only way to avoid explicitly refuting the claims that the BBC had made without taking responsibility for those claims in a document that might be subject to legal challenge if it made specific, falsifiable assertions about named individuals. The EHRC found no evidence to support the standard media narrative about ‘Labour antisemitism,’ but strained mightily to produce something, anything, that might be used to denounce Corbyn.

Its finding of ‘unlawful harassment’ could serve as a case study of legal chicanery. The report’s authors simply invented a law governing the boundaries of legitimate speech about Israel – one that cannot be found anywhere in the statute books – and applied it retrospectively to comments that the Labour MP Naz Shah had made on social media before she was elected to Westminster. Having given itself the authority to deem certain forms of speech unlawful, the Commission went on to construct a tortuous chain of logic, whereby the former London mayor Ken Livingstone had also broken the law merely by defending Shah. It went on to conclude that the Labour Party itself was collectively responsible for Livingstone’s alleged transgression.

Anyone who has read Widgery’s report on Bloody Sunday or Hutton’s report on David Kelly will recognize the methodology at work. Instead of beginning with the evidence and proceeding step by step until you reach a set of conclusions, you begin with the conclusions you want to reach and torture the evidence until it signs a full confession. This methodology can be used to condemn the innocent just as easily as it can be used to absolve the guilty.

The EHRC has since moved on to fresh pastures, offering its services to the Conservatives in their battle against trans rights – most notably by providing Rishi Sunak’s government with valuable cover as it moved to veto a new gender recognition law that the Scottish Parliament had enacted. Tory ministers like Kemi Badenoch continue to appoint political bedfellows to the Commission, which now possesses the same claim to authority as the US Supreme Court and other sock-puppet institutions of that nature. The liberal press has belatedly discovered that there may be a problem of some kind with the EHRC, although its columnists still draw upon the half-baked indictment of Corbyn’s leadership as if it were holy writ.

If the British left is going to move on from the defeat of Corbynism, it needs to recognize how that defeat came about, and identify the vital role of state institutions which intervened directly in the affairs of the Labour Party. The Starmer leadership is a project of the British state, in a very tangible sense.

One should not see this in terms of Labour having been infiltrated and sabotaged from the outside. The party itself is an integral part of the state system – it was the leadership of Corbyn, a man who could not be trusted to cover up torture flights and war crimes, that was the exception to the rule. But Starmer himself is unusually attuned to the culture of the state, having served as public prosecutor before he became an MP. With every action he has taken since becoming Labour leader, he conveys the impression of a man who has the state deep in his bones. It suggests a damaging naivety on the part of Corbyn and his allies that they appointed such a figure to superintend Labour’s Brexit policy during the crisis of 2018–19.

The most plausible routes to a left-wing recovery in Britain all lie outside the Labour Party, and it is notable that one such opening, the Tower Hamlets administration of Lutfur Rahman, came after a previous exercise in lawfare that was used to remove Rahman from office in 2015. Richard Mawrey, the judge who ruled against Rahman, relied upon a piece of legislation originally designed to suppress the movement for Irish self-rule, washed down with a prejudicial view of the local community in Tower Hamlets that brought to mind an official of the Raj in nineteenth-century Bengal. Rahman did not bow his head in the face of this neo-colonial arrogance, and the refusal of his supporters to be intimidated has made it possible to carry out some modest but welcome reforms at municipal level. There are some obvious lessons here that can be applied outside east London, for those who are willing to draw them.

Read on: Daniel Finn, ‘Crosscurrents’, NLR 118.