Guest post: Tim Wilkinson analyses how Warren Morgan’s “anti-semitism” smears brought the Labour Party into disrepute

In this article, Tim Wilkinson, a Brighton Pavilion delegate to last month’s Labour Party conference in Brighton, takes a forensic look at what lay behind the “anti-semitism” smears published by Councillor Warren Morgan, leader of the Labour Group on Brighton & Hove City Council.

His article first appeared on Facebook:

I understand Warren Morgan has suggested that his ‘open letter’ — which was used as the public basis for press stories and Prime Ministerial speeches — only reiterated comments made by Tom Watson, Jon Ashworth and Emily Thornberry.

So just to clear that issue up, here’s a summary of those MPs’ comments relating to the facts about alleged antisemitism at Conference, and to the question of what action should be taken, compared with Morgan’s.

Note that Ashworth and Watson, even though speaking live and with little preparation, in a situation in which they have no option but to comment, correctly approach the claim of antisemitism as an allegation to be tested, and state only that if Labour members are making holocaust denial statements or expressing antisemitism, then they should be expelled.

Watson also was at pains to point out that a Fringe event is not a part of the Labour Conference.

Warren Morgan by contrast chose entirely of his own volition to publish a communication — written by him as head of the council to the Labour party as one of the Council’s customers, which one might suppose would normally be confidential. The letter appeared carefully-worded and considered, and readers would naturally take it much more seriously than an ad hoc oral interview (or indeed speech), in which one might well expect and discount mistakes of phrasing or ill-considered remarks.

The letter was published at about 2pm, over seven hours after Jon Ashworth’s interview on Good Morning Britain. Morgan thus evidently allowed himself ample time to consider — and take advice on — the exact wording, which only makes his decision to publish the words he did even more shocking.

In this letter, he refers to antisemitism in fringe ‘meetings’ and on the floor of conference — not to the event widely reported which appears to have been a passing reference by a non-labour speaker at a non Labour event to allowing debate of ‘the Holocaust yes or no’ (whatever that means).

Furthermore as well as having apparently inflated the alleged events to encompass more than one fringe meeting and the Conference floor, he referred to them as categorical fact, not as an allegation or possibility.

He then singles out a particular party member whose case is supposedly under investigation and calls for his immediate expulsion.

Finally, Morgan makes the further prejudicial remarks

1. that he expects the investigation to ‘take firm action’ — presupposing that it will find reason to act

and

2. that ‘behaviour and actions’, presumably of an antisemitic nature did indeed occur and were sufficiently serious to warrant refusing to take further bookings unless assurances can be given to prevent a ‘repeat’ of them.

It was entirely predictable that Morgan’s unnecessary and perversely-timed publication of these scurrilous remarks would be seized on by a hostile press to attack the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn. In the event they were cited by the Daily Mail (on its front page, which is displayed on newsstands so that even non-Mail readers read it, often in a casual and uncritical or even subliminal fashion while queuing at the supermarket etc), and other newspapers, on the final day of the Labour Conference, overshadowing the leader’s speech and the finale of an otherwise highly successful conference.

More recently, it was useful to Theresa May in smearing the Labour party during a key speech to the Conservative Conference:

“This [Corbyn] is a politician who lets anti-Semitism, misogyny and hatred run free, while he doesn’t do a thing to stop it.”

May even mentioned Morgan’s intervention explicitly at PMQs:

“the Labour leader of Brighton Council threatened to ban Labour conferences because of freely expressed anti-Semitism.”

It is hard to imagine a clearer case of avoidably and voluntarily bringing the party into disrepute.

There is, to be clear, no question that these remarks could be regarded as the ‘mere expression of beliefs and opinions’. They were allegations of specific and damaging fact, made categorically, and calls for action against party members. If such comments can be regarded as ‘mere expressions of beliefs and opinions’ then so can a libel. If a party member were to publish an official letter which referred to Warren Morgan accepting bribes, for example, I do not think that we would regard that as ‘mere expression of beliefs and opinions”.

Emily Thornberry:

25 Sep, evening, speech

Thornberry is reported as remarking that it was “completely inappropriate for those on the fringes to stifle debate” (It’s entirely unclear what this is meant to refer to but if she’d said anything damaging about antisemitism the JC would undoubtedly have reported it, rather than just relying on an apparently misleading and unsubstantiated headline. So this seems to have no bearing on the issue.)

Jon Ashworth:

26 Sep, 6:40 am, live interview

“…we should have absolute zero tolerance when it comes to the quite disgusting and despicable anti-Semitism that sadly we’re sometimes seeing on social media these days, and indeed, as I believe from my looking at the newspapers, I wasn’t there, but looking at the newspapers, I believe, was at a, sadly at an event in Brighton last night…”

“…I think party members who make anti-Semitic remarks, who make some of these disgusting Holocaust denial statements, they shouldn’t be in the party, they should be expelled. So — I wasn’t at this event last night, I’ve only read about it in the papers this morning, which I’m sure you’ll appreciate — but if any of those people who are named, are making these statements, they shouldn’t be in the Labour Party.”

Tom Watson:

26 Sep, 7:17am, live interview

“Look, I’ve only read the reports of that fringe meeting. It is nothing to do with the official Labour party conference. And if there was Holocaust denial there, these people have no right to be in the Labour party, and if they are they should be expelled…”

“If there’s any evidence that Labour Party members are denying the Holocaust or behaving — or are using antisemitism, then there’s no role for them.”

Warren Morgan:

26 Sep, 1:59 pm, letter to Labour Party official published on Facebook

“I am however very concerned at the anti-semitism being aired publicly in fringe meetings and on the floor of Conference.”

“We have the prominent activist and suspended Labour Party member Tony Greenstein here, who indeed was present at the fringe meeting where it was suggested that Holocaust denial should be allowed. His expulsion, in my view, is long overdue.”

“As a Labour Party member I expect the enquiry announced today to take firm action; as Leader I will need reassurances that there will be no repeat of the behaviour and actions we have seen this week before any further bookings from the Party are taken.”

The 25 September Fringe Meeting that is seemingly the only basis for any of Warren Morgan’s allegations:

The clip that has been posted to the web doesn’t give much context. It seems the speaker, Miko Peled, was jumping about a bit in what he said, and referred back to earlier remarks about free speech at this point. A Voltairean position on free speech is of course entirely different from any kind of Holocaust denial. More detail about the meeting (not a Labour meeting) and Peled (not a Labour member) can of course be Googled.

Pro-Corbyn. Elected secretary of Brighton, Hove and District Labour Party; votes annulled by NEC; suspended Oct 2016; re-instated Feb 2019. Ex-Fleet Street.