Silencing Jess Bernard

Karl Posner examines recent events in the Labour Party to ask why the Labour Right are attacking the left on particular issues of solidarity with the oppressed, and how the left should respond.


Being a socialist has been exhausting these past weeks. I do not want to launch into an angry rant so instead I’m going to turn into an insufferable Shoreditch hipster for a while. Recent events are making me want to listen to Angela Davis. I have only been in politics since Corbyn. Angela Davis was on the US most wanted list and did jail time, not because they thought she was going to carry out terrorist attacks with the Black Panthers, but because they knew how powerful she was at speaking to the pain of working people in America. She did not send them her sympathy, she taught them to organise, to challenge and push back against every attack. 

‘Intersectionality’ is a way to describe the discriminations and privileges an individual carries as a function of their different identity groups; for example the Combahee River Collective raised awareness of experiences and challenges faced by African American women that white feminism often overlooked. Some critics say that ‘intersectional’ language can moralize social problems rather than challenging them. Instead of intersecting identities, Angela Davis tells us to think of intersecting struggles. The small town of Ferguson shook after weeks of protests after the police killing of Michael Brown, but through the rage and the flames protesters told reporters that the fight was bigger than they knew and that it was for every Palestinian living under occupation and for every brother and sister living in oppression. It lost them money and media favours, but the Black Lives Matter movement still commits to Palestinian Solidarity. As Davis says, you only find your comrades through struggle and it is only when we recognize common struggles that we find the power to fight and win.

One reason for a socialist to care about the Labour Party is that it remains home to a handful of genuine and exciting socialists. Jess Barnard is the head of Young Labour UK. A talented, innovative, determined working class young woman who sticks to her socialist principles. What an inspiration for young women at a time when the Labour Party seems to be only talking to aging men with properties in the shires. After months of correspondence, suggestions and requests, Barnard made public that the Labour general secretary David Evans told her that Young Labour could not invite a speaker from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign for Conference, although it should have been within the remit of Young Labour as to who they hosted for their members. Several public figures suggested Young Labour should somehow itself be disbanded, then veteran Times columnist Oliver Kamm insinuated that Barnard and Young Labour wanted a ‘second holocaust’. Barnard and her team received no word of support from Starmer or his team. What she did receive, at 1am on the eve of Conference, was notice that the party had been given credible evidence for her to be investigated, with a view to expelling her from the party. A tweet she published in October before she became leader was the extent of her offense.

They had to quickly backpedal and apologize, but we should not lose sight of what happened here. Labour Party apparatchiks, scared of Jess and places like The World Transformed, wanted to take her down. The timing and the screeching U-turn again make Labour’s disciplinary process look like a joke, but it is the issue itself I want to focus on. Barnard speaks her mind on many topics and they could have chosen other tweets, with many a more strident one to possibly select. Why, then, did they pick this obviously inoffensive tweet on solidarity with trans people? Because they are using the tactics of the right by pitting vulnerable groups against each other. They know that the left will not be split on Palestine so they hoped to get her on trans rights, an issue on which the left has been more divided. I hope I am wrong, but I wonder if they calculated that this issue could kick up additional mud and make the left fight itself or at least be half-hearted in our solidarity. Some will see the word “T%RF” written as if it was a swear word and either be offended or feel generally put off. If I am right, it is a disgusting game some higher-ups in the party are playing, but do we have to rise to the bait? 

This is about the struggle of a young working-class woman to be able to say what she wants and to express it without being spied on, threatened and harassed – but this is not just about Barnard and her identity, it is also about the intersecting struggle of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign who have been betrayed by comrades weaker and less righteous than her, but who keep fighting for the voices of Palestinians to be heard when our media and institutions cross any line to silence them. 

Through this global struggle we have made some small steps on Palestine and some in Labour prefer games of power to seeing such a struggle. If they think they can throw trans rights in our path like old meat for wolves, they need to know we are still coming for them. We will not be divided on trans rights vs. Palestinian rights. Who could have thought that these struggles intersect? But here we are. If Labour HQ with the help of Guardian journalists have decided that trans rights are beneath them and best left to us, we can show them up to be moral cowards. Are our trans comrades with us on the picket for Palestine? Of course. Are our Palestinian comrades with us on the picket for LGBTQ+ rights? Of course. Are Keir Starmer, David Evans, Rachel Reeves? Obviously not. We stand with Jess Bernard. We stand with Palestinian people and trans people. We stand against the self-serving reactionaries in the Labour Party, their PR guys and strategists and all of those who think that moral identity trumps real struggle.

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