Monday, 12 March 2018

Three reasons why Jennie Formby should not become General Secretary of the Labour Party

By Rwendland (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
Following the abrupt resignation of Iain McNicol – apparently not fallen on his sword but pushed under a bus by the party leadership (£) – there are currently two candidates to be Labour’s General Secretary: Unite’s Jennie Formby and Momentum’s Jon Lansman.

While this might be reasonably likened to choosing for your leader between Ghengis Khan and Pol Pot, there is always a least worst option and, in these difficult times, it is important to take note which it is.

Here’s why Formby should not be General Secretary.

One. Jennie Formby is not so much a supporter of the Palestinian cause, as a fully-fledged anti-Israel campaigner who has been demonstrated to have, let’s say, controversial views.

To explain: two years ago, she “outraged” an NEC meeting by questioning Baroness Royall’s suitability to lead the party’s investigation into anti-Semitism at Oxford University Labour Club (later suppressed from publication), on the grounds that she had previously visited Israel. It seems remarkably close to the 2011 questioning by Paul Flynn MP whether it was right for a British Ambassador to Israel to be Jewish, for which he was rightly vilified.

The logic of the first is a mirror image of the second: if you are Jewish, you cannot be trusted to be objective with subjects involving Israel. If you are pro-Israel, you cannot be trusted with to be objective with subjects involving Jewishness. In either case, it plays to the old trope about Jews and untrustworthiness.

Given that the usual criticism from the anti-Israel lobby is that of conflating Jewishness with Zionism, it seems strangely ironic that Formby should here be doing precisely that. Anti-Semitism, quite obviously, is a wholly separate phenomenon from whether or not a person supports Israel.

Then there was the 2015 NEC meeting where, the Times of Israel reported, she promoted the idea that G4S should be boycotted for conference security on account of its Israel links, a vote which was passed with only around half the NEC present. She then stated that it was not a boycott of Israel, which the minutes later showed it clearly was, according to the newspaper.

Finally, we might note that, although Momentum has been extremely slow to take action against anti-Semites in its own ranks, Lansman is, after all, Jewish himself and has acknowledged there is a problem to be solved within Labour. Rather cleverly, Formby has of course recently condemned anti-Semitic attacks on Lansman, thereby conveniently diverting attention away from any criticism of her in that respect.

Two. Nepotism, bullying and stitch-ups. Not only is Formby from the Unite tradition which gave us the Falkirk selection debacle and the intimidation of the Grangemouth refinery management team by sending mobs round to their houses. Not only does she work for Len McCluskey, she is the mother of his child (we might note that Karie Murphy, disbarred Falkirk candidate and now head of the Leader’s Office is also usually euphemistically described as “a close friend” of McCluskey). We note this, obviously, not for reasons of prurience: simply that old-fashioned politics rules here, people seem to be appointed for being part of the Unite leader’s personal coterie, rather than for their ability. And one more: Andrew Murray, Corbyn’s old mucker from Stop the War, was also last week appointed to his office on a permanent basis. It’s Don Corleone for a new political generation.

All this is before even mentioning that Formby announced her candidacy almost immediately the resignation took place; that pressure was applied far and wide to secure endorsements for her; that Lansman was pressured not to stand; or that the timetable set for the appointment is the shortest on record. No, no stitch-ups there. No siree.

Three. Delivering the direction of the party machine into the hands of one person.

Although the party has a long history of union leaders becoming party General Secretaries, this would be an entirely unprecedented delivery of political power into the hands of a single person: Len McCluskey.

And, if you think that sounds exaggerated, you merely have to ask yourself one question: do you trust such people as Formby and Murphy, so closely linked to the Unite leader, to put the interests of the party membership, or even its leadership, before the interests of Len McCluskey? Well, not really, no. We have yet to see what arrangement might be made with Formby but any Unite employees such as Murphy and Murray on secondment, as Dan Hodges notes, will still have their pensions paid by Unite and will, one presumes, one day go back there.

And that is before we even talk about the leverage which Unite has always had: the money which can be made to pour in (or not) from its coffers if the politicians do as they are asked.

So there are at least three good reasons why Formby should not be selected.

There is of course another way of looking at this – as elaborated here by my fine former colleague Adrian McMenamin – which is to let Formby, her union backers and Corbyn himself own the horrific stitch-up as something which will backfire on them. While Adrian makes a good case, I think his argument neglects the immediate impact on (a) the slowly-declining good name of the party with regards to fighting anti-Semitism, and (b) party staff.

First, one likely significant impact of a Formby leadership on the party staff would be on the Compliance Unit. Given that the vast majority of disciplinary cases now facing the party appear to be anti-Semitic in nature – or, at least, to do with the line between so-called “anti-Zionism” and anti-Semitism – it seems highly unlikely that the current backlog would be cleared any time soon; or most of it even referred to the NEC for judgement in the first place, thus reducing the number of cases which make it to being negative press stories.

Second, it seems likely that there would be some kind of a purge under Formby, starting with those who, like McNicol, ensured that anti-Semitic disciplinary cases were robustly dealt with at least at the party level, if not the NEC. That is not to say there would not be some kind of purging under Lansman, of course.

There is, of course, still the outside chance that some moderate might be convinced to stand and win. One hopes so. But the momentum, if you’ll pardon the pun, is with the Jon-and-Jen show.

Rarely has the phrase “lesser of two evils” been more appropriate. But certainly, were Formby to win, it would result in a party organisation like none ever seen before: one in which Unite’s leadership had a direct say in any issues of day-to-day management. And, very likely, one soft on party discipline. An unpleasant and uncertain future, especially if you are on the party staff.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

UPDATE 12MAR: Since the original piece was written, Jon Lansman has now pulled out and two additional candidates have been announced, Paul Hilder, a grassroots/community organiser seemingly on the Obama model, and Gary Spedding. 

The latter appears to have as recently as 2014 been a member of Northern Ireland's Alliance party, and is a Palestinian lobbyist/activist. I would be interested to know more about his history, although I found this, by decent pro-Israel blogger Elder of Ziyon, and suspect his background is somewhat dubious.

In any event, one imagines that these candidates have scant chance of beating Formby, given the advantages (including "first mover" advantage) which she enjoys. But you never know.


  1. Practically all the claims of anti-semitism (in the LP) are false claims. Ken Livingstone is the perfect example, and anyone who has researched what he said will know that it was an historical fact.

    Anyone interested to know the truth about this dispicable smear should check out an article entitled: In Defence of Ken Livingstone.

  2. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Good one.

    Any other stuff about Hitler you'd care to share?

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