Above Photo: Jeremy Corbyn MP addresses members of the National Education Union (NEU) on their picket line at City Islington College during a national strike of sixth form teachers on November 30, 2022 in London, England. Guy Smallman/Getty Images.
The campaign to oust Jeremy Corbyn from the UK Labour Party was accompanied by a purge of his supporters.
What does this say about the capacity to change the system from within?
Jeremy Corbyn’s ascendance to the leadership of the UK Labour Party in 2015 offered hope for a revival of the British left. With decades of experience and principled opposition to war and privatization under his belt, Corbyn was uniquely positioned to bring the Labour Party back from its neoliberal turn. But this was not to be—just five years later, Corbyn was ousted from the Labour Party and his supporters were purged. The political opposition to Corbyn was accompanied by a media villification campaign that conflated support for Palestinian rights with anti-Semitism. Ultimately, the question of Labour’s support for Israeli Apartheid was successfully wielded to isolate and expel Corbyn and his supporters. Asa Winstanley joins The Chris Hedges Report for an autopsy of Corbyn’s leadership.
Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist living in London who writes about Palestine and the Middle East. He has been visiting Palestine since 2004 and is originally from south Wales. He writes for the award-winning Palestinian news site The Electronic Intifada where he is an associate editor and also a weekly column for the Middle East Monitor. He is the author of Weaponising Anti-Semitism: How the Israel Lobby Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Chris Hedges: When the socialist Jeremy Corbyn became the leader of the Labour Party in Britain in 2015 and mounted a grassroots campaign in 2017 to become the British Prime Minister, the ruling corporate elites along with the war industry panicked. They conspired with the Israel lobby to mount a vicious campaign of character assassination against Corbyn and his supporters accusing them even if they were Jewish of antisemitism. Corbyn has long been a champion of Palestinian rights.
The media did its part to crucify Corbyn as a bigot while Labour Party officials ruthlessly purged the party of Corbyn’s supporters. Corbyn was eventually driven out of the party in 2020 after the snap election loss against Boris Johnson. The neutralization of Corbyn is an ominous precedent. The purging of Corbyn and his supporters effectively emasculated the left within the Labour Party. This was its goal. The unholy alliance between Israel, the war industry, and the Corporatist raised the question of whether it is possible in Britain or the United States to reform the system from within.
Joining me to discuss these issues is Asa Winstanley, an associate editor and reporter with a website, Electronic Intifada and the author of Weaponizing Antisemitism, how the Israel Lobby brought down Jeremy Corbyn. Let’s begin with who Corbyn was and how he gained such support within the Labour Party. Because there’s a democratic process within the Labour Party whereby the members actually have the capacity to have their voices heard in a way that is not true in either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party in the United States.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, great to be with you, Chris. Yes, that’s right, there were changes to the Labour Party’s rules in 2015. The Labour Party was previously quite undemocratic, but the rule changes made it more democratic. It made it easier for anyone really to vote in parties internal elections. Wasn’t quite as open as the Democratic and Republican primaries in the US where anyone can essentially register to vote as a Democrat or a Republican and then vote in the primaries.
But it made it easier. It meant that not only were there Labour Party members could vote in the elections, but also anyone who was, you just had to pay three pounds basically to become a registered supporter of the Labour Party. It just made it a lot easier and it gave the members a lot more say. The percentage of the electoral college as it were within the Labour Party that went towards members and supporters as opposed to the MPs who would choose the leader, was increased. It meant that the left wing candidate won, which had never happened before.
Chris Hedges: We should be clear that the Labour Party under Tony Blair transformed itself into a neoliberal version. Much like Clinton did to the Democratic Party. Labour, which traditionally had been a political bulwark for the working class, no longer was. It was a very different party from what it was at its inception.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, it was ostensibly still a socialist party on paper. But in reality it was the party of Tony Blair, which meant it was the party of privatization. It was the party of war. I first got my political education during the early ’90s after the 911 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan being involved in the anti-war movement. To me at that time and to so many other people, the Labour Party was the war party. It was the party that was helping George W. Bush to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.
Jeremy Corbyn becoming the leader of the Labour Party, was the last possible thing you could imagine. Because he was in the Labour Party, he was a Labour MP at that time. But he was on the back benches. He was basically rebelling against his party leader. He was voting against the Iraq war. He was voting against privatization. He was voting against dismantling of the welfare state and things like that. He would be on our demonstrations, he’d be leading our demonstrations. He’d be doing the speeches against the Iraq war and crucially, he was part of the Palestine solidarity movement as well.
Chris Hedges: The attacks against him began almost immediately. You write that Corbyn had barely arrived as Labour leader in September 2015 before a senior serving general in the British Armed Forces warned The Sunday Times that there would be a mutiny of Corbyn were elected Prime Minister. I’m quoting. “There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny, the general said. Feelings are running very high within the armed forces.” You would see a major break in convention with some generals directly and publicly challenging Corbyn. He said the army just wouldn’t stand for it. I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. That’s just unbelievable. Was that the first real savo against Corbyn?
Asa Winstanley: It was one of the early ones, absolutely. I think that took place before even he became… Wait, I could see the footnote now in my book. It was just after he became leader. It was one of the very early mutiny’s. What makes Corbyn different from even someone like Bernie Sanders, who he has a lot in common with, is that he was, and he is very much an anti-imperialist in a lot of ways. He’s very strong on foreign policy. He was sometimes known and described as the foreign minister of the left.
He voted against every war including the war in Libya. He was somebody who was very critical even of the British security services. He was involved in trying to campaign against apartheid South Africa at a time when the British government was supporting apartheid South Africa. He was involved in trying to overturn miscarriages of justice in campaigns like the Birmingham six, and which involved the collusion of security services. He was somebody who was in the North Ireland. He was campaigning for the end of the British occupation of the North of Ireland and he brought Jerry Adams to parliament at a time when-
Chris Hedges: We should just for our American viewers, this is the political wing of the IRA.
Asa Winstanley: Right. At a time when the IRA was involved in a armed struggle against British Armed Forces. Jeremy Corbyn was trying to negotiate an end to that armed conflict by bringing the political wing of the IRA into parliament. I suppose what you could call the British deep State had a long account against Jeremy Corbyn. There’s a long record of British Intelligence Services trying to spy on and infiltrate, not only left wing groups, but even left wing MPs including Jeremy Corbyn and his allies.
This was quite a very early and very open signal by a serving British senior, serving British general. He wasn’t named by The Sunday Times, but there’s no doubt about the credibility of the source because that’s exactly the sort of source that The Sunday Times has in military intelligence sources like this and that they base most of their reporting on. It was a very clear signal that if he became Prime Minister, there’d be steps taken against him.
Chris Hedges: 2008, a snap election is expected and two newspapers report that Corbyn has been quote, unquote “summoned” for a quote, unquote, “facts of life talk with the head of MI 15” and a quote, unquote, “acquaintance meeting with the head of MI-16.” These are domestic and foreign intelligence agencies. But that also was a fascinating moment when the deep state again sent signals that Corbyn was unacceptable. Can you talk about that?
Asa Winstanley: Yeah. This was at a time when, as you said, it was a time of great political instability in the country and it was a period when there was a snap election expected at any time. Corbyn was the leader of the opposition. He was brought in for a meeting with MI-5 and MI-6 and it was supposed to be a secret meeting. It’s supposed to be a top secret meeting. Corbyn has talked about this. He later talked about it. He later talked about how it was very clear and it was made very clear to him and his staff that they were not to talk about the meeting at all.
That it was top secret, as you would expect with the heads of the intelligence services. Well then they proceeded to leak those meetings, They leaked them in the way that you described. That he was summoned for a quote, unquote “facts of life meeting.” That essentially they’re trying to put their foot down and trying to say, just in case you did become Prime Minister, you’re going to have to change all your anti-war ways and you’re going to have to go along with what we say.
Corbyn then later talked about that and about how it had been leaked deliberately by them as a way to undermine him. That they were putting out this idea that he was not fit for office. Not fit for high office. That he was some sort of danger to national security. The British press went along with this all along. Matt Kennard, a friend of mine, investigative journalist for Declassified UK. He put out a really good article studying this.
That he found 34 articles, I believe he put out his article in, I believe it was 2019, towards the end of 2019, and he looked at all of the reporting against Corbyn. He found 34 articles that had been openly sourced by MI-5 and MI-6. The domestic and international, effectively Britain’s FBI and CIA. That 34 of these articles had been sourced openly by MI-5, MI-6, and the military. In these articles, they’re openly stating according to military sources or according to intelligence sources, and these articles all portrayed Corbyn as a threat to quote, unquote, “national security.” That’s what they were doing openly. Very clearly within the national media, sending out these very clear signals against Corbyn. We can only imagine what they were doing secretly.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about the US because this is from a leaked audio recording obtained by the Washington Post. Then CIA director Mike Pompeo in a private meeting with the Israel lobby, said that the US government could stage its own intervention to stop Corbyn from becoming Prime Minister. This is the quote from Pompeo. “It could be that Mr. Corbyn manages to run the gauntlet and get elected.” Pompeo said, “It’s possible. You should know we won’t wait for him to do those things to begin to push back. We will do our level best. It’s too risky and too important and too hard once it’s already happened.” You even have the US government making in private, threats that they will prevent Corbyn from becoming Prime Minister.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah. It’s pretty crazy. It’s so reminiscent of things like Operation Gladio and the CIA intervention in the Italian elections after the Second World War. It’s pretty crazy stuff. Again, this is what they were doing fairly openly. Yes, this meeting was in private, but it made its way into the Washington Post.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about the weaponization of antisemitism. Which they used very effectively to destroy Corbyn and also to purge the party. What they went after were leftists within the party. The irony is that people they purged were in many cases or several cases, actually Jewish. 2018, three Pro-Israel, British Jewish newspapers publish identical front page editorials claiming that a Corbyn led government posed quote, “an existential threat to Jewish life in this country” due to the quote, “carbonite contempt for Jews and Israel.” You had clearly the forces, the intelligent forces, the military, the corporatist opposed to Corbyn. But the public truncheon that was used to bring him down was antisemitism. That’s what you do such a good job of chronicling in your book. Explain how the process worked.
Asa Winstanley: It was really devastating. It was a really effective campaign. You have to hand it to the Israel lobby. They did it. They did it quite successfully. The main way they did it was to target Corby’s movement. His secret of his success was that he was an insurgent candidate for Prime Minister. That was his superpower, was that he had hundreds of thousands of people joining the Labour Party or rejoining the Labour Party. Probably many people had previously left during the Tony Blair years.
Who again, as you mentioned, was someone who was very much of the same sort of tendency as Bill Clinton. This so-called third way where we’re not conservatives, but we’re not socialists either. We’re a third way. A lot of these grassroots activists have left the party. In that period, because they were opposed to his policies of privatization, his policies of war, but also just because of the lack of democracy within the party, within the Labour Party. It was really hollowed out during the Tony Blair years.
It was really centralized in many ways. The Jeremy Corbyn era led to renewed hope that there could be democratization of the party. That there would be a new mass movement bringing hope really to the country. Bringing hope to working class. Bringing hope to these popular movements against racism, against war and so forth. The Labour Party membership had decreased so much over the years, and now it’s decreasing again. But in the Corbyn years, it went up to over half a million people.
It became the largest political party in Western Europe. It was absolutely huge. It was approaching 600,000 at one point. Then what happened was, this weapon of antisemitism became such a useful tool for the right. As you state, I think it’s important to note that it wasn’t only the Israel lobby, it was all these forces working together. The whole of the British establishment press, the whole of the corporate press and the British establishment in general was united against Corbyn.
But the unique weapon, the most powerful weapon against Corbyn was this weaponized antisemitism where essentially manufactured and fabricated forms of, or exaggerated forms of antisemitism were brought up and misportrayed in this way. Where first of all, they tried attacking Corbyn himself. That didn’t work so much at first because Corbyn has this long record of being an anti-racist. That record includes acting against antisemitism, against real antisemitism, which does exist from the right.
That wasn’t so effective at first. It later on became effective. But what then became really devastating was it was a really useful tool to divide the movement. These 200,000 people or more that joined the party just essentially to vote for Corbyn and to bring in something to change to the Labour Party, they were picked off one by one. His most prominent supporters within the party were attacked as anti-Semites falsely. Ken Livingston, for example, the former mayor of London, a Labour left-winger and rebel in his own right.
Who had ended up having to run against Labour. He did so successfully in the Tony Blair era because like Corbyn, he was very much a gad flight to Tony Blair. He achieved many things in power as mayor in London. He brought in all these left-wing policies. He was somebody who was in the ’80s, was involved in local government in London and supporting anti-racist causes and a supporter of the gay community at a time when it was quite unpopular in the country. When things that are now considered very mainstream.
Despite his long record, he was attacked as an antisemite because he was saying there was all these headlines about how Corbyn Corbyn’s movement was antisemitic. It was essentially all an attack on his record of solidarity with Palestinians, which was always misportrayed and smeared as antisemitism. Which is done all the time by Israel and it’s supporters. As we’re filming this, it’s going on against Roger Waters, the founder of Pink Floyd. They’re smearing his show as if it’s antisemitic. Corbyn’s supporters were essentially one by one picked off in this way, and eventually in the end they got him.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about the role of Israel. Because as you point out in the book, you have these front groups in Britain purporting to represent British Jews with extremely close ties to the embassy. Some of those individuals actually came out of the embassy itself. Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, becomes involved also in the smears against Corbyn. Let’s talk about Israel’s role in this.
Asa Winstanley: This is really important because there was actual involvement of the state of Israel itself. We saw, for example, when we talk about the Israel lobby, what do we mean? Well, it’s not one monolithic entity, as you know very well, Chris. It’s a a network, a diffused network of different organizations which work together. They work in coordination with each other for the most part. Occasionally they fall out with each other. You get 10 things like J Street, which it was supposed to be a more liberal Zionist organization, but is ultimately a Israel lobbying group.
Then you get APAC, which is nowadays very openly sort of Trumpist. Occasionally they will have falling out and they will be competing against each other. But by and large, these organizations work together and crucially most of them coordinate their activities with the state of Israel itself. With the Israeli embassy or with entities within the Israeli government itself, ministries within the Israeli government itself. There was one particular ministry which is now been folded.
Supposedly disbanded, but in reality folded into other Israeli ministries called the Minister of Strategic Affairs. Which was essentially another spy agency, really was what it was. It was a semi covert entity stacked with former military intelligence and other forms of Israeli spies. This was the entity which was really involved in attacking Corbyn. Several of these Israel lobby groups are in Britain, are Israel lobby groups that consider themselves to be liberal Zionist or even supposedly left-wing Zionists.
Several of them are actually within the Labour Party itself. Most notably, and obviously you’ve got Labour Friends. The way that Israel lobby works in the UK is a little bit different from the US. There’s no exact equivalent of APAC. There are some groups that want to be the equivalent of APAC, but they’re not as big. But the main way the lobbying is done is through groups within the two or three main political parties.
There’s a conservative friends of Israel, which obviously is the ruling party. There’s a Labour Friends, and there’s even liberal Democrat friends of Israel. Liberal Democrat being the third party, which is sometimes in coalition government. These groups are incredibly close to the Israeli embassy. The Al Jazeera, the Arab, the Qatari satellite channel did a really important, and I cover this in a chapter of the book, and I know you are very familiar with it as well in your reporting, Chris.
The Al Jazeera’s investigative unit did a really important undercover documentary series in 2017 about this. Their reporters infiltrated the British Israel lobby, especially Labour Friends. What they found was, in public Labour Friends says, “Oh, well, we’re just normal Labour members who we happen to support the state of Israel, the apartheid state of Israel.” Although obviously they deny it’s an apartheid state.
But in reality, what the undercover journalists found was that they actually work very, very closely with the Israeli embassy. The Labour Friends is essentially a front group. One of their staff members whose name is Michael Rubin, who’s now the director, who’s then a junior employee of Labour Friends of Israel, but is now the leader of Labour Friends. He was caught on camera in that investigation saying that they speak to the Israeli embassy quote, unquote “most days.” We like to have Labour Friends as a separate identity to the Israeli embassy. Because it helps us to get into places where we wouldn’t necessarily be able to do as Labour Friends of Israeli embassy was the way he put it.
Chris Hedges: I only have four minutes left, and I want to talk about the role of the media. We should also be clear that Al Jazeera did a similar undercover operation in the United States on the power of the Israel lobby in the United States, which Israel managed to block broadcast. It never was broadcast on Al Jazeera. A pirated copy was up on Electronic Intifada. I hope it still is, because everyone should watch it. It’s quite disturbing. But let’s talk about the role of the media, because they amplified this smear of antisemitism. Every time they interviewed Corbyn, you have examples in the book, they just hammered him and hammered him and hammered him. Even times not even letting him answer. But they were a major part in this character assassination, or they played a major part.
Asa Winstanley: That’s right. Yeah. I opened the book with a really quite good example, early example of that by Channel four News. Now, channel four news is well known in the UK as the Liberal TV channel, as the Liberal News program. It doesn’t have that much advertising on it. It’s subsidized by the state in a similar way to the BBC, although it doesn’t quite have the budget of the BBC. But it’s well known as a liberal news program. But they were really adamantly against Corbyn. They were really quite vociferous against him. The liberal media in general was really his worst enemy.
Chris Hedges: The Guardian was awful.
Asa Winstanley: It was. Even their news reporting was just very, very anti Corbyn. Nevermind the op-eds, the opinion pieces and so forth. The Guardian was really, really strongly opposed to him. It just showed that when it came down to it, they were really more about their advertisers.
Chris Hedges: What happens? He’s essentially his own supporters are purged and right down to the lowest levels. Initially, you’re right, the senior leadership supported him is purged. But local groups are purged from Labour. Really ruthlessly down to the grassroots. He’s bereft of support within the party, in essence Labour, by the time he challenges Boris Johnson. By that time Labour has gutted or destroyed his own campaign on purpose.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah. There was a really blatant form of internal sabotage to the point where there was Labour MPs who were really working against their own campaigns. Some of them did actually lose their seats. But it was so important to them that Corbyn not win, not become Prime Minister, that they’d rather lose their own seats. We saw that. There were several Labour MPs who actually left the party and tried to start a new party, which I forget the name of. It’s in the book. It was such a forgettable project that it was very clear that it was just a sabotage project to try and stop Corbyn winning. To the point where there was money set aside, leaked documents later showed there was money set aside. Labour Party money to work against the Corbyn’s Labour Party. It was an internal sabotage. It was very, very extreme.
Chris Hedges: The same thing happened to George McGovern, the Democratic Party hierarchy. They again, had liberalized the rules by which candidates could get votes or support. The same thing. They joined forces with the Republican Party to destroy McGovern. Corbyn, of course, has now been pushed out of the Labour Party as an independent. When he stands for reelection, he’s still sitting in the House of Commons. When he stands for reelection, he actually will be challenged by a Labour Party candidate. I want to thank the Real News Network and its production team, Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find firstname.lastname@example.org.