Under investigation

By Heather Mendick

Two weeks ago I received a Notice of Investigation from the Labour Party. It told me that I’m being investigated for action that “undermines the Party’s ability to campaign against racism” and “may reasonably be seen to involve antisemitic actions, stereotypes and sentiments”. Summary charges and the 14 items of evidence listed, all things that I have shared online, can be viewed in this Twitter thread.

Apart from one comment on the Party’s toxicity, they all relate to the weaponisation of antisemitism against the left. Thus, my Notice of Investigation offers another example of how stating this has become redefined as antisemitic so that the zero-tolerance fast-track complaints procedures created under Jennie Formby’s leadership can now be mobilised in an unprecedented assault on the Labour left and particularly on those of us who are Jewish and so are more likely to have spoken out publicly.

The idea that antisemitism has been weaponised against Jeremy Corbyn and the movement that emerged through his leadership of the Labour Party is a mainstream one on the left. Momentum summarised its response to the antisemitism row as ‘walking and chewing gum’. In this analogy, walking is tackling antisemitism in the Labour Party and chewing gum is tackling its weaponisation (or perhaps it’s the other way around). In Momentum’s first video on the issue, Michael Segalov says “There are some people … who are using this for their own political gains.”

In a Novara Media deep dive into this issue, Michael Walker, who fronted an acclaimed Momentum video on antisemitism, explains that within the party, “at times it has been exaggerated, at times it has been fabricated and most of the time it’s been weaponised to damage Jeremy Corbyn, his leadership, to try and delegitimise his supporters.”

The treatment of Jeremy Corbyn along with the investigation of me and other socialists makes it clear that this widespread view is now being treated by Labour as de facto antisemitic. In the words of one of my tweets that now has the status of evidence against me, “anyone who says antisemitism in Labour has been weaponised against the left and the media have distorted the issue is part of the problem. Everyone on the left has said this. Therefore everyone on the left is part of the problem.”

When you receive a Notice of Investigation, you have to make personal choices about how to respond to it. In this context, these are highly-political choices with implications for democracy and freedom of speech far beyond the Labour left. There’s a cottage industry of support and advice on how to respond. I have received copious quantities of this, including guidance on where to focus my response and how to structure it, examples of ‘model’ responses and suggestions of documents to reference in order to construct a case.

The sheer level of knowledge needed to engage with this process is terrifying. Even as a professional researcher who is used to reading and synthesising material into an argument, I find it daunting. Although this support helps embed your experience in a wider context, it can draw you away from the collective towards defending yourself as an individual.

Adding to this, the process feels designed to intimidate, with a scary letter explaining that confidentiality is vital for your own protection and detailing what might happen if you go public. You are required to answer a series of ten questions, including: “Taking each item in turn, please explain your reasons for posting, sharing or endorsing each numbered item of evidence included in this pack.” Screen grabs of just a few of my thousands of tweets, tweets I never expected to last beyond a day, have been elevated to the status of “numbered items of evidence”.

This judicial language continues. A lengthy and technical passage from the Labour Party rule book on prejudice is followed by the question: “What is your response to the allegation that your conduct may be or have been in breach of this rule?” A passage from the Code of Conduct on antisemitism is followed by the question: “What is your response to the allegation that your conduct online may be or have been in breach of this policy?”

Bizarrely, these questions do not tell me whether I have breached the party’s rules and policies. They want to know my reaction to the idea that I may have done so. This is presumably so that I can incriminate myself in a way that the ‘evidence’ they have professionally collated (or perhaps that an enthusiastic amateur has collated for them) does not. The series of questions ends with: “Is there any evidence you wish to submit in your defence?” This question recalls countless courtroom dramas depicting criminal trials. It seems, to say the least, out of place applied to some tweets putting forward a mainstream position in the Party, albeit one that many are now scared to admit that they hold.

My choices of how and whether to reply to this Notice of Investigation are just the latest in a series of choices I have made in response to the Labour Party’s out-of-control disciplinary apparatus. There are many tweets that I’ve written over the years and not posted. There are other tweets that I have intricately edited in order to stay just on the right side of a line that is constantly moving. In April I received a phone call from a comrade when she saw one of my tweets that she thought made me vulnerable (I didn’t delete that tweet and it does not appear in the catalogue of evidence in my Notice of Investigation).

All of the care that I invested in my online voice has not enabled me to avoid investigation but it has conferred on me the dubious privilege of being investigated for what appear to most people to be moderate and reasonable assertions. This gives me scope to expose and satirise the system. My decision to post the ‘charges’ against me on Twitter was driven by a desire to do this and by the hope that going public will be a more effective defence than a carefully-crafted but confidential response ever could.

If instead I’d sought to elaborate my defence, to explain my reasons for taking these positions, to state my protected right to freedom of speech and to evidence my years of party activism, I would suggest that there’s something that needs defending and risk legitimating this charade. By reposting the ‘may-be-racist’ tweets without comment, I can make more people aware of what’s happening and encourage people in similar situations to share their ‘crimes’.

Heather Mendick is a Hackney South and Shoreditch Labour Party activist, Secretary of Morning Lane People’s Space and Co-Secretary of Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign. She works as an independent research consultant focusing on education and social justice. You can follow her on Twitter @helensclegel

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