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John McDonnell has crafted an image over the past few years as a sweater-wearing bank manager, chuckling at and charming interviewers who suggested he was a dangerous revolutionary. While Jeremy Corbyn was Magic Grandpa, McDonnell was Uncle John.
But as the pair of them prepare for political retirement from the front bench (though Corbyn hinted he may stay on), it’s clear that on the issue of Julian Assange, they are both keen to champion the kind of backbench causes they have plugged away at for decades.
Today, McDonnell - who don’t forget is the shadow chancellor - decided that the most important issue for him was not the looming Budget but the fate of the Australian Wikileaks founder who is facing extradition to the US on a string of espionage and other charges over his leaks of classified material.
After a two-hour visit with Assange in Belmarsh prison, McDonnell emerged to make the extraordinary claim that this was “the Dreyfus case of our age, the way in which a person is being persecuted for political reasons for simply exposing the truth of what went on in relation to recent wars”.
Given Labour’s controversies over anti-Semitism, that sounded singularly tin-eared to the Jewish community and the CST charity (that provide on-street security for Jews in the UK) was quick to tweet it was “Disgraceful false equivalence to one of the key learning moments of modern Jewish history”.
But McDonnell is not alone among the current Labour leadership. Corbyn himself raised Assange’s case in PMQs only recently, telling Boris Johnson that “this extradition should be opposed” because Assange had exposed “war crimes, including the murder of civilians and large-scale corruption”.
Now, not everyone in the shadow cabinet is a fan of Assange and many women Labour MPs still revile his name because of the way he avoided justice in Sweden over alleged rape and assault in 2010. In fact, I vividly remember after a WaughZone Live event with Emily Thornberry last autumn one pro-Assange campaigner asking the shadow foreign secretary for support. Her response was a very firm message that she felt the priority was getting him extradited to Sweden. In fact, Thornberry has long said of the women involved “they deserve justice”.
But justice never came. Assange avoided extradition by seeking refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy, and last year prosecutors in Sweden dropped the case. Deputy Director of Public Prosecution Eva-Marie Persson said at the time that “I would like to emphasise that the injured party has submitted a credible and reliable version of events. Her statements have been coherent, extensive and detailed.”
Persson added “the reason for this decision is that the evidence has weakened considerably due to the long period of time that has elapsed since the events in question”. Assange’s decision to simply avoid court had paid off, but it left a nasty taste in the mouth of many.
McDonnell today said he discussed with Assange a startling claim made by his lawyer this week that Trump’s allies had offered to pardon him if he said Russia was not behind Wikileaks leaks of Hilary Clinton emails. During a visit to London in August 2017, congressman Dana Rohrabacher is said to have told Assange that “on instructions from the president he was offering a pardon or some other way out if Mr Assange...said Russia had nothing to do with the DNC [Democratic National Committee] leaks”.
A huge problem for Assange here is that there’s plenty of evidence of his close links to Vladmir Putin and the Russian regime, and that the DNC leaks were part of a Russian state-sponsored hack. One of his closest associates was also Israel Shamir, a pro-Putin anti-Semite. Your average voter may ask: is this the kind of company that McDonnell and Corbyn want to keep?
Now, of course it’s possible to oppose Assange’s extradition on grounds of press freedom and protection of whistleblowers, while at the same time loathing him for the way he avoided justice on the rape claims and for his long-standing associations with Russia. But given the way Corbyn’s own response to the Salisbury poisonings was effectively weaponised by the Tories in the last election, there are political costs for Labour in backing Assange.
Which brings us finally to Keir Starmer. When he was Director of Public Prosecutions, the Crown Prosecution Service fought hard for justice for Assange’s victims. When Assange claimed in 2012 that the Swedes were considering dropping the case, one email (leaked naturally) showed a CPS lawyer writing to their Swedish counterpart ‘don’t you get cold feet!’
But although Starmer has long fought hard as a lawyer for various causes, he is also a staunch believer in judicial independence. Leading politicians actually opposing an extradition is very problematic in the UK because our system is now a matter for the courts not politicians. Several Labour MPs were shocked when Corbyn actually opposed extradition in that PMQs.
Theresa May was the last home secretary to have the power to interfere in extradition, blocking Asperger’s sufferer Gary McKinnon’s removal to the US for hacking charges. But she changed the rules so that in future no successor would have such power, and it is now the courts rather than the home secretary who consider any human rights representations.
That fact alone, even without Assange’s track record on those rape allegations and his close links to Putin, will probably be enough for Starmer to avoid joining any ‘stop the extradition’ protests in Parliament Square. And there will be plenty of Labour MPs, both women and men, who breathe a sigh of relief.
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Thursday Cheat Sheet
Tony Blair used a speech to mark the 120th anniversary of the founding of the Labour party to warn that against “a situation where you’re getting rounds of applause from your activists and the public’s out there thinking ‘oh my god, what’s this’.” He added that’s “absolutely the risk of the Democrats in the US now”.
Home secretary Priti Patel faced allegations she tried to oust her permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam and created an “atmosphere of fear” and bullying at the Home Office, the Times revealed.
Robert Halfon led Tory MPs in vowing to oppose any plans to end the fuel duty freeze in the Budget, following reports that No10 adviser Dominic Cummings had suggested a hike next year to align with the UK’s climate change credentials.
Google is planning to move its British users’ accounts out of the control of European Union privacy regulators, placing them under U.S. jurisdiction instead after Brexit, Reuters reported.
Rebecca Long-Bailey vowed to make it Labour policy to scrap the anti-extremism programme Prevent. The plan goes significantly further than the 2019 Labour manifesto, which stated the party wanted to review the programme.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.