John Stewart, Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP, looks at the leadership’s abuse of the party’s disciplinary system.
Labour approaches its Annual Conference in a state of some distress. The party is faced with a consistent Tory poll lead, discontent and disillusionment among a steadily falling membership and a quarter of staff about to lose their jobs. At the same time the party is advertising for contactors to take on the work of investigating complaints against members.
With a witch hunt of left wing members apparently the priority, the mood in the party is grim and downbeat, even among many who initially supported Starmer’s leadership.
The proscribing of four fringe groups in July has been used as cover to attack a wider range of left wing activists. Socialists are facing suspension and expulsion from the party with the ‘auto-exclusion’ process being used to circumvent any sort of due process and serious evaluation of what the accused is actually supposed to have done. There have also been calls from the party’s right wing for more organisations to be proscribed and for prominent left wing MPs to be excluded alongside Jeremy Corbyn.
The leadership will bring in new disciplinary procedures at Conference to dilute or even abolish the National Constitutional Committee and allow the General Secretary to appoint panels of NEC members to oversee expulsions. The NCC was established in the 1980s to separate the prosecutor function from the judge function in serious disciplinary cases and allow some semblance of due process before an elected body. Now Starmer and Evans want to abolish it and describe its replacement as ‘independent’. Labour’s current disciplinary system is a poor model which is already subject to factional abuse but the proposed replacement is far worse and contrary to the recommendations of the Equalities & Human Rights Commission.
People with decades of party membership are now facing expulsion for something as trivial as signing a letter organised by a proscribed group – 18 months before the group in question was proscribed. Others are being investigated for agreeing to be interviewed about their views a year before the interviewing organisation was proscribed. And still others have been suspended for months after chairing meetings that discussed the disciplinary action against Jeremy Corbyn and issued calls of solidarity with the suspended former party leader. We have also seen senior trade unionists suspended or threatened with exclusion, like Unite’s Howard Beckett and Bakers Union President Ian Hodson and the attempt to intimidate the national Chair of Young Labour by threatening her with Investigation. The curtailing of free speech in the party goes far beyond anything done in the Blair years.
There are often crackdowns on the rank and file after Labour has seen a left wing upsurge as the party establishment move to consolidate its control. In the 1930s, after the fall of the Lansbury leadership, the party proscribed the Socialist League and various campaigns offering support for the USSR and for Republican Spain. But when the Socialist League was proscribed in March 1937, its supporters were given two months to resign their membership and in the event the League voted to dissolve itself in May 1937.
When Aneurin Bevan was expelled from the party in March 1939 for continuing to call for a Popular Front against fascism, he was re-admitted to membership nine months later. Contrast that with Jeremy Corbyn’s exclusion from the PLP for almost a year and the calls for his exclusion to be made permanent.
When the Gaitskellites pushed for Bevan’s expulsion in 1955, it was party leader, Clement Attlee, who put a compromise whereby Bevan would apologise and be re-admitted. (Attlee’s proposal was agreed by a majority of one at Labour’s NEC.) Contrast that with the behaviour of the current party leader who intervened in Labour’s disciplinary processes – in defiance of the EHRC recommendations – to suspend Corbyn and the behaviour of Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, who told the BBC that what Corbyn had said was ‘true’ but ‘unacceptable’.
In the 1980s, after the Bennite insurgency and the democracy reforms were pushed through the party, the Kinnock leadership launched a purge of the left starting with the Militant Tendency. But only something like 220 Militants were expelled. Already we are seeing more than that threatened with auto-exclusion and Rayner threatens to expel ‘thousands and thousands’.
The current wave of suspensions and expulsions build on the way the right wing blocked thousands from participating in the 2016 Leadership election. And the suspensions of CLP Officers at the end of 2020 when they allowed their CLPs to discuss the assaults on party democracy can now be seen as a harbinger of what is planned in Starmer’s new model party.
Suspensions in the Labour Party are not like a suspension in the workplace. In the Labour Party an individual has fewer rights and there is no timescale with individuals often left in limbo for months, if not years. And it is unusual for an employer to leak details of an employee’s case to the media, while that has become quite routine in the Labour Party over the past few years.
The party leadership now openly intervene into CLPs to support their favoured candidates and too many left wingers are starting to lose heart and drop out. This, of course, just makes the right wing’s job easier for them. The wins for the left at Labour Women’s Conference and in the NEC, CAC and Young Labour elections shows the left can still win. And radical policy positions pushed by left wingers are still popular with party members. This, perhaps, explains why the leadership feels the need to use the party’s disciplinary processes in a factional way to attack its opponents – it knows that most party members do not support Starmer and his team’s path to the right.
Annual Conference will give a better indication of how strong Starmer and Evans are entrenched and what level of fight remains within the CLPs and affiliated unions. But the road ahead looks difficult and full of pitfalls.