There’s nothing new in the liberal media’s apologism for Labour

Legacy media has often been all too forgiving of Labour's reactionary stance on race, immigration, war and genocide. By Tom Sykes / Wednesday July 3, 2024 Read More

Tom Sykes, author and Associate Professor at the University of Portsmouth, gives an historical view on the Labour Party’s complicity in imperial violence.

Just days after the general election campaign began, the Guardian, the BBC and other mainstream liberal outlets made headlines out of the Labour Party’s manoeuvres to stop veteran left-wing MP Diane Abbott from standing. While these Labour leadership-friendly platforms likely covered this story due to disagreements within the party top brass about Abbott – Sadiq Khan and Angela Rayner were apparently more sympathetic to her than Keir Starmer and others – their reporting has also gestured to the racism at the heart of the issue. The “dispute has left many black voters despondent”, writes Lanre Bakare for the Guardian, one of his interviewees comparing the black community’s growing alienation from Labour to the systemic hostility faced in education and policing.

However, the legacy media – whether liberal or not – have otherwise been all too forgiving of Labour’s reactionary stances on matters of race, immigration, war, genocide and imperialism. It has been left mostly to independent journalists and radical scholars to remind us that right-wing Labour apparatchiks bullied Abbott and other colleagues of colour during the Corbyn era and that Starmer’s mass-expulsion of leftist Jewish Labour members has been a somewhat eccentric approach to stamping out anti-Semitism in the party, not to say one that will only fuel genuinely dangerous Jew-hating conspiracy theories, as Israeli historian Ilan Pappé recently argued in an interview on Novara Media. Mainstream coverage of Starmer’s anti-migrant “control our borders” rhetoric has been largely uncritical, although sometimes has included the odd decontextualized quote from a dissenting Momentum activist or trade union leader.

Nobody writing in the ‘journals of record’ has highlighted the sour irony of a former human rights lawyer defending Israel’s “right” to deprive Gaza of water and electricity, a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. Nor has there been any real scrutiny of Starmer’s subsequent – and preposterous – backtracking on the issue beyond Remona Aly’s op-ed in the i. Few working in the UK media and no-one in the upper echelons of Labour want the UK to halt arms sales to Israel, as the body count in Gaza and Rafah reaches 40,000 and over 1 million Palestinians are displaced.

But not everyone believes what they read or see in the media or are told by politicians, since 70,000 members of the public have signed a petition calling for a weapons embargo. In a YouGov poll in May, only 14% of respondents thought Starmer had handled Labour’s response to Gaza well. If you want to understand the reasons for the party’s failure to oppose the genocide – and the influence the Israel lobby has over many Labour MPs – then you’ll have to eschew establishment outlets for the valiant reporting of Middle East Eye and Declassified UK.

Ever since dissembling his way into the Labour leadership in 2020, Starmer has distanced himself from the global peace and justice agenda of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn – whom he actively undermined while serving in his cabinet – by, amongst other reactionary moves, zealously endorsing NATO. Again, the liberal commentariat is almost uniformly on his side, with the odd nonconformist voice like Lindsey German allowed a few hundred words in the Guardian to mention the NATO debacles of Afghanistan (176,000 people directly killed, many hundreds of thousands more lost to starvation, disease and injury) and Libya (which Barack Obama called the “worst mistake” of his presidency).

Labour’s roots in “Empire socialism”

But there is nothing new about Labour’s complicity in Western imperial violence – or the supposedly progressive media’s apologism for it. Radical histories of the party by Robert Clough, Duncan Hallas and Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein show that the popular notion (not least among Labourites) that Labour began life as a rainbow advocate for all working-class and oppressed people in Britain is a myth. Labour was in fact founded to represent the interests of a small and “privileged stratum of skilled workers and craftsmen”, as Clough puts it, whose wages and living standards rose due to profits reaped from “colonial monopoly capitalism” in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Labour thus became a “conservative workers’ party”, to borrow Hallas’ term, that collaborated with elements of the middle class to campaign for self-serving social and economic reforms while never challenging the fundamentals of British capitalism and imperialism. There has always been a Labour left tendency that has opposed this – out of which Corbyn emerged – but it has often been sidelined or purged, as happened lately to Corbyn himself and thousands of other party members and potential candidates. Again, large sections of the liberal media have been all too ready to connive in left-bashing.

In Labour’s early years, its bosses believed in the oxymoronic creed of “Empire socialism”, as did allies in the media. In a 1917 editorial, then-editor of the Manchester Guardian and former Liberal MP, C.P. Scott, made a clarion call for “Public ownership of our Empire Estate – secure this estate before private ownership steps in!”, the assumption being that the continuation of British imperialism was right and proper. Similarly, in 1921, Philip Snowden, then a leftist writer and later Ramsay MacDonald’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, opined that there “were inexorable limits to the right of self-determination” for colonised peoples. Other Labour supporters and journalists were confirmed biological racists, such as the Fabian Society founders Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who fretted in the pages of New Statesman in 1913, that “…the Western European races may go the way of half a dozen other civilisations … to be succeeded by a new social order developed by one or other of the coloured races…” The rest of the sentence is filled with racist epithets. 

The first Labour government in 1924 showed a certain flair for duplicity over questions of war and imperialism that Keir Starmer is perfecting 100 years later. Although Ramsay MacDonald had condemned the previous Tory administration’s crackdowns on the Indian nationalist movement, in office he refused to grant independence and introduced martial law in certain regions, had Gandhi and another 30-60,000 Indians arrested, and ordered the RAF bombing and police shooting of 103 civilians. In 1927, he sent 20,000 troops to quell uprisings in British-occupied regions of China, claiming to be merely “preventing trouble”. George Lansbury, writing in Lansbury’s Labour Weekly, duly endorsed the efforts of “our comrades in the navy” to defeat “Chinese mobs”. 

Ramsay MacDonald inaugurated a long tradition of Labour support of Zionist violence and land expropriation. In 1929, to break up a Palestinian general strike and wave of protests, British forces under Labour command murdered 200 Palestinians and incarcerated many hundreds more. The putatively leftist Manchester Guardian was firmly on the side of British imperialism and the Zionist settlers, its correspondent Henry W. Nevinson arguing that the “heroic” Jews “stand above the ordinary Arab in what we mean by civilisation”. That relative progressives like Nevinson seldom differed from conservative pundits in their analyses of foreign affairs can be partly ascribed to media consolidation in the interwar years. Newspapers came increasingly to reflect the worldview of the handful of wealthy, often aristocratic men who owned them. The consolidation trend has continued unabated ever since and is one reason why there has so often been a bipartisan consensus on current affairs, within both the UK mainstream media and political class.

Although there was a Labour internal wrangle about what Nevinson called “the tragedy of Palestine” – which often took on an anti-Semitic character – the 1944 Labour Party conference was clear-cut in its declaration: “Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in. Let their settlement elsewhere be carefully organised and generously financed.” Chaim Weizmann, then president of the World Zionist Organisation, was shocked by Labour’s “enthusiasm” for his cause which “went far beyond our intentions.”

Concurrent with this was Labour’s most shameful turn on the world stage. Its major figures, amongst them Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin and Sir Stafford Cripps, were appointed to Churchill’s coalition government, which made them complicit in the forced famine of 3-4 million Bengalis. Indian historian Shashi Tharoor has deemed this one of the twentieth century’s worst genocides. Furthermore, so Cliff and Gluckstein explain, prior to this catastrophe, Cripps, who visited India in 1942, approved both the extra-judicial killing of 1,000 nationalist rebels and the detention of Nehru, Gandhi and other Congress Party leaders – actions that were angrily opposed by Labour left stalwart Aneurin Bevan from the back benches. Bevan should be credited with frequently challenging the more callous of Churchill and his collaborators’ policies. Pro-Labour newspapers such as the Observer were highly critical of British policy in India, but did not apportion any blame to their ideological allies serving in the government responsible.

Imperial exploits

The 1945-51 Attlee administration is often lauded for its radical achievements from constructing the welfare state to nationalising key industries. Less discussed is how it tried rescue British imperialism, dressing up torture, summary execution, invasion and exploitation in, as Clough puts it, “the language of democracy, socialism and the Atlantic charter.” In this period Labour bungled the partition of India, which Nehru and Gandhi warned would result in communal bloodshed – in the end, up to two million died. Attlee sponsored resurgent fascists in Greece who liquidated hundreds and gaoled 50,000, and intervened in Southeast Asia to prevent Vietnam from achieving independence from France. “But for Labour,” writes Clough, “there would have been a revolutionary government in a united Viet Nam in 1945, not 1975.” Backed by supposedly socialist magazines such as Tribune, Labour sent 12,000 troops to assist the US war in the Korean peninsula, that was to cost at least 2.5 million lives.

When the rubber extracted from Britain’s Malaya colony became essential to the reconstruction of the British economy, the Labour government took a zero tolerance approach to the nascent independence movement, massacring unarmed civilians and herding others into concentration camps. Post-war Britain was also in need of gold and to this end Harold Wilson, then president of the Board of Trade, struck lucrative trade deals with apartheid South Africa, which would continue under future Labour and Conservative governments. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the British press – whether left-leaning titles like the Guardian and Observer or rightist ones such as the Mail and the Telegraph – generally concurred with this cross-party underwriting of apartheid, portraying it as a “white settler problem” rather than one of racism or colonialism, according to Rosalind Coffey.

When Wilson became prime minister in 1964 he was keenly pro-Israel, providing the state with plutonium to aid its nuclear programme. This was kept secret at the time, so no journalist picked up on it. But there was no such excuse for the media’s failure to cover Nigeria’s genocide against the Biafran people in 1967-70, which was backed by the Labour government primarily due to oil interests. A young Frederick Forsyth was banned by his employer the BBC from reporting on either the eventual deaths of up to three million Biafrans or Wilson’s covert arming of the Nigerian military, about which he lied to the public.

Labour passed the notorious 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act, partly in response to racist outrage whipped up by Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Intended to prevent at least 200,000 desperate Kenyan Asian refugees from relocating to the UK, the legislation was so draconian that even future Tory ministers Michael Heseltine and Ian Gilmour voted against it, the latter protesting that it was “designed to keep the blacks out”. The far-from-leftist Times decried it as “probably the most shameful measure that Labour members have ever been asked by their whips to support.” Ironically, the Wilson-friendly press was less damning, with an Observer op-ed claiming that the act created “the problem of learning to adapt to the existence of a million-strong coloured community in Britain.”

While Labour deserves praise for not contributing troops to the Vietnam war effort, Wilson and his senior colleagues repeatedly spoke up for the US’ disastrous intervention, sold weapons to the neo-fascist South Vietnamese regime and authorised the British army to train its soldiers in Malaya. In Northern Ireland in 1969, Labour spun the deployment of troops to Belfast and Derry as a peacekeeping operation to protect both Catholic and Protestant communities, but in practice the decision buttressed the repressive Unionist regime. Under both Wilson’s premierships and James Callaghan’s brief spell as prime minister (1976-9), there were numerous SAS extrajudicial slayings and the widespread torture of IRA prisoners, and the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six were prosecuted for crimes they did not commit.

A penchant for war and oppression

When Tony Blair in 2001 signed up enthusiastically to a brutal new form of imperialism euphemised as “the War on Terror”, he was reverting to type rather than breaking with Labour tradition. Two years later, he and George W Bush ran roughshod over international law to invade Iraq on the basis of the most destructive example of fake news of the twenty-first century: that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that directly threatened the West. Perhaps one million perished in the conflict and its grisly aftermath. New Labour’s ‘forever war’ on Afghanistan ended up slaughtering 241,000. Blair had his fair share of cheerleaders in the media from the Guardian’s Julie Burchill to Christopher Hitchens to Johann Hari (who subsequently changed his mind about Iraq). Belligerence abroad was matched by Islamophobic subjugation at home: the introduction of the Prevent scheme to surveil and harass British Muslims, the 2006 Terrorism Act that was compared to apartheid by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and inflammatory comments made by cabinet minister Hazel Blears about the need to racially profile Muslims.

This history shows that Labour’s penchant for war and the oppression of the Other did not begin under Tony Blair, contra the Old Labour arguments about the neoliberal fall of the party after New Labour. That there’s been little difference on these issues between Labour and Tory governments for the last century should prompt a re-think among those planning to vote for Starmer as the apparently lesser of two evils. These similarities, in addition to both parties intending to further privatise the NHS, commit to more austerity, avoid taxing the wealthy and so forth are seldom critiqued by the state-corporate media.

This should make us ask serious questions about who owns and controls our news outlets – and in whose interests. There will never be a diversity of reporting, opinion and analysis while 90% of daily newspapers continue to be owned by just three corporations, tech giants control the flow of online information with little accountability and the government bends the supposedly independent outlets Channel 4 and the BBC to its political will. The Media Reform Coalition is campaigning for a truly independent and democratic media to genuinely speak truth to power – whether it goes by the often interchangeable label of Labour or Conservative.