Lawfare is an Attack on Free Speech and a Threat to Democracy

by Keir Milburn

30 July 2020

Journalist John Ware has declared he is suing the former leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, along with several ‘alt-left sites and individuals who lie’.

Ware himself admits that in launching these libel cases he has broken an “unwritten code” that says journalists, who “hold free speech sacrosanct”, shouldn’t sue over criticism. To me, it looks like the most egregious attack on free speech and democratic norms we’ve seen in recent times. The fact that a fund set up to support Corbyn’s libel defence quickly raised over £300,000 shows tens of thousands of others feel the same way.

The announcement in the Jewish Chronicle, which Ware co-owns, followed a decision by the current Labour leader, Keir Starmer, to settle previous libel claims from Ware and a group of former Labour staffers in relation to the controversial 2019 Panorama documentary ‘Is Labour Anti-Semitic?’

Ware seems to have been provoked by a statement from Corbyn in which the Islington MP publicly disagreed with Starmer’s decision, arguing that it was politically motivated and contradicted advice from Labour’s lawyers, who had suggested the party could win the case. 

In the same article, Ware also threatened libel action against undisclosed “alternative media outlets and individuals” which he claims defamed him.

It is understood that Ware and his solicitor Mark Lewis are already taking legal action against Paddy French, a former ITV journalist who runs the Press Gang website, seeking £50,000 in damages. And he is suing Jewish Voice for Labour and two of the organisation’s officers.

Although Ware’s actions are among the most extreme, they fit into a pattern of attacks on the left stretching back to Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership election in 2015. In the last week alone we’ve seen calls for both Corbyn’s expulsion from the Labour party and the ‘rooting out’ of his supporters. At times it’s felt like there’s a unified attempt to delegitimise the left and push it out of public life completely. 

The left must fight back but it needs to do so carefully. The continuation, indeed, acceleration of the right’s, and indeed the Labour right’s, offensive is pernicious not just for the way it affects the general public’s view of the left, but also for how it affects the left’s view of itself and the task before it. The danger is that we start to adopt the right’s framing of Corbyn’s defeat.

Fail Again, Fail Better. 

The Labour right want to understand the current moment as a repeat of the late 1980s. So far much of the left, stuck in melancholic mode, seems tempted to mirror that framing, seeing Starmer as a farcical repetition of the tragic figure of Neil Kinnock. Instead, we need to use Corbyn’s defeat as a moment of heightened learning, in which we come to understand the current conjuncture and how different it is to the one that prevailed thirty years ago. 

The Corbyn project, improvised as it was, had many shortcomings, these need to be examined, but just as valuable is what the events of the last five years have revealed about the way the current order maintains itself. This analysis is necessary, but there are several traps we must avoid.

We firstly have to avoid the fatalism of treating a specific defeat as proof every left project is destined to fail. Corbynism is part of a longer-term, international cycle of left politics which has already gone through two stages, the Occupy wave of 2011 and the electoral turn of the last five years. The left is currently in a process of recomposition, adjusting itself for the next stage of struggle which the emerging economic crisis is hastening towards us.

Secondly, we must avoid the temptation to treat those defending the current state of things as undifferentiated and homogenous, else we risk solidifying the block against us. This is true within the Labour party and outside it.

If we treat the ‘soft left’ and Starmer as synonymous with the Labour right we risk bringing about what we fear most by trapping the more ambiguous actors into an alignment with those who really do seek the elimination of the left.

On the wider front, we have to pick apart the different material interests of those arrayed against us, as well as the political articulation that’s holding that alignment together. Identifying the weak points and contradictions in this articulation will show us how to break it apart. 

In this task, Ware’s libel threats are very useful.

Speech is free if you can afford it.

The most revealing moment in Ware’s libel announcement is his mention of ‘identity politics’ as one of the reasons why the old rules of free speech no longer apply. This linguistic tick locates Ware’s actions within a particular ideology in which the notions of ‘free speech’ and ‘cancel culture’ are key weapons in an ongoing culture war.

The key argument in this ideological framing proposes that the left is so uniquely censorious that the only way free speech can be maintained is to remove free speech from the left. This may seem a curious claim as the left doesn’t hold state power in the UK, nor does it in most of the rest of the world. In addition, the UK left despite reflecting the views of around 30% of the UK population has virtually no representation in the media.

The clear contradiction between the claim of the left’s unique censoriousness and its apparent lack of ability to censor anyone is resolved by a transformation in the definition of free speech so it no longer refers to preventing someone from speaking but becomes enshrined as the right to speak without fear of criticism. 

In a previous article for Novara, I argued that contemporary politics increasingly revolves around two incompatible conceptions of freedom. The right’s hegemony is articulated through an individualised and privatised conception of freedom in which ever more areas of life are removed from the sphere of public deliberation and into the sphere of private morality. It is for this reason that criticism of the opinions and actions of others comes to seem like an attempt to impose one person’s private morality on to another.

On a wider scale, any attempt to use democratic deliberation to change the values animating society also falls into the same category, and so ‘social justice warriors’ become defined as authoritarian hypocrites. The libel law courts, accessible only to the rich or those with the patronage of the rich, are the perfect example of the emptiness of formal freedoms when you lack the resources to exercise them. 

The left, on the other hand, is developing a quite different conception of freedom. One that is collective and solidaristic and sees freedom as meaningful only if it can be exercised by all. It’s an idea of freedom intimately linked to the ultimate task of the left, the radical democratisation of society, which involves overcoming the huge inequalities that currently exist.

If the UK left can regain this perspective, and so escape the constrained horizon of the Labour right, then recent events look very different. Current attempts to silence the left can be positioned within a wider, global trend to roll back democracy. On the other hand, much of what gets called ‘identity politics’, and which so mobilises the right, can be understood as imperfect, stumbling attempts to construct a democracy accessible to all. 

As the left adjusts to its new circumstances and tries to regain a longer-term perspective it must follow the watchword; defend democracy, extend democracy.  

Keir Milburn is the author of the book Generation Left and cohost of the #ACFM podcast. 

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