By Mike Phipps
First, the takeaways:
- Until spring 2018, when a new General Secretary was appointed, the Party’s Governance and legal Unit failed to develop any consistent system of logging, tracking the progress of, and decision-making on complaints, including those on racism and antisemitism. The inbox for complaints would apparently go for months at a time without being monitored. In the 15 months to February 2018, only ten individuals were suspended for antisemitism, despite scores of complaints requiring action. Yet the Party’s then General Secretary allegedly insisted that complaints were dealt with promptly and falsely claimed to have processed all antisemitism complaints. Worse, the approach to complaints generally was influenced by personal allegiances. Even members of Corbyn’s own team were targeted, while staff openly discussed pretexts for not investigating political allies.
- A possible motivation for the alleged drift and inertia was hostility to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader from 2015 on, including a deliberate approach by some to let problems accumulate and create an appearance of inaction, in order to make it easier to remove him. There is no evidence that the Leader’s Office had any influence over the complaints procedures at this time – indeed most proposals emanating from the Leader’s Office on any topic were invariably rebuffed by Party HQ.
- Alleged evidence for factionalism among staff includes persistent hostility not only to Jeremy Corbyn, but also Ed Miliband, Sadiq Khan, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler. Party and PLP members were frequently referred to as ‘Trots’ or ’useless’. Inappropriate language, swearing and abuse was common, with talk of “hanging and burning” the leader and worse. Mental health slurs and lewd sexist remarks were made against some of Corbyn’s team and supporters.
- Staff allegedly adopted a “go slow” attitude towards work, following Corbyn’s election. Some were obstructive, some gave negative briefings to the press about the Party, others hoped for electoral decline. One implied they would rather vote Tory.
- Party resources were used for factional purposes, with one staffer describing overturning CLP AGM results to help the right of the Party. Regional staff also operated in this way. Officials allegedly discussed purging members who had ‘liked’ certain Facebook pages and would-be members were rejected for single retweets. When Brighton Party’s AGM swung decisively to the left, a full time official characterised it as a SWP members stuffing the ballot boxes and worked to bureaucratically overturn the outcome.
- Factional loyalty also seems to have determined recruitment decisions, with people appointed to senior roles with few apparent relevant qualifications and those more qualified passed over. Labour Students seems to have been a prominent source of staff, where the culture was long-established of referring to opponents to one’s left as ‘Trots’.
- The relationship between the Leader’s Office and Labour HQ was beyond bad. Leading HQ figures opposed the Chakrabarti Report, which made some ground-breaking and sensible proposals to tackle antisemitism and other forms of racism in the Party, going on the Party’s website. During the 2017 general election, party staff were hugely obstructive. Diane Abbott, who fell ill towards the end of the campaign, was mocked by staff, many of whom were appalled by the electoral gains Labour had made.
- Despite the high levels of abuse personally targeting Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott and other BAME MPs, party staff monitored abuse directed only against right wing MPs. No MP who supported Corbyn’s 2016 leadership campaign and no black MP was included in this monitoring. Highly abusive anti-Corbyn messages were ignored, while members who dared to call Shadow Cabinet plotters against Corbyn “traitors” were targeted.
- Labour Against Antisemitism, who threatened to pursue the leakers of the report with “the full force of the law”, does not come out of this at all well. The report says their claims were wildly inaccurate, and that the campaign had referred the cases of only about 100 Labour members, rather than the hundreds of thousands they had allegedly claimed.
- With a new General Secretary from spring 2018 on, there was a huge increase in the number of cases of antisemitism being logged, investigated and acted on. Suspensions and other disciplinary actions increased massively. So nobody can read this report and legitimately draw the conclusion that antisemitism in the Party was a fiction invented by Corbyn’s opponents, even if it was exaggerated and manipulated for factional purposes.
A bit of an assessment
A lot of the material here is unsurprising. We knew about the obstructiveness of the Party apparatus from the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015 onwards. Alex Nunns updated his book The Candidate to cover some of the tense relations between the Leader’s Office and the Party HQ during the 2017 general election.
But what is new is firstly, the sheer volume of evidence. Although it would not be appropriate to go into individual disciplinary cases, all the generalised conclusions above are well supported by factual cases. Secondly, the tone – the racism, the abusive language, the sense of entitlement and privilege, the contempt for the work of the grassroots membership – reveals a thoroughly rotten culture within the party.
Sienna Rogers, one of the few mainstream media columnists to engage with this, puts it well: “It paints a truly horrible picture of an atmosphere dominated by politically motivated cruelty. There will be party members who recognise the nastiness of comments from the heated debates in their own local parties. But the report is shocking because the messages are alleged to come from senior staffers. It says the comments made about colleagues include ‘total mentalist’, ‘bitch face cow’ and ‘pube head’, while Diane Abbott is mocked for crying in a toilet. There is also evidence that purports to show a staffer hoping that a named young member with mental health issues ‘dies in a fire’.”
Equally, Ash Sarkar is forensic about the racism. The question is: where did these behaviours come from? Student politics is one source.
Over and over, three are references to “Trot spotting”, “Trot hunting” or “Trot bashing”. It’s a blanket form of denigration of anyone who disagrees with their world view. Worse, some of the functionaries involved seem to see themselves as a latter-day Ramón Mercader, wielding the ice pick against their enemies, even boasting of re-activating the old East German secret police. Once this mantle is assumed, the open sexism and racism are less surprising – after, all don’t all would-be assassins seek to dehumanise their prey?
Secondly, an arrogant mentality developed during the Blair years. The blatant ignoring of the Party’s rule book took off at that time. Check out Liz Davies’ book Through the Looking Glass: A Dissenter Inside New Labour, in which she recounts querying a procedure at the NEC only to be told: “It is a rule, but it is not written down”. Years of this kind of behaviour went on.
In a recent piece for Novara Media, entitled “‘I feel both furious and vindicated’: the Leaked Report Explains Why Labour Didn’t Help Me After Grenfell”, Emma Dent Coad, MP for Kensington from 2017 to 2019, asks, “ How dare these senior Labour figures live off membership fees – which many people struggle to pay – yet treat elected politicians with utter contempt?”
Where do we go with all this? What steps should the Starmer leadership to take to make sure this culture doesn’t regenerate itself? In a tribune piece entitled “The Leaked Labour Report Is Shameful – It’s Time for an Urgent Investigation”, Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery make the following demands: “First, the report needs to be published officially by the Labour Party… Second, we need an emergency National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting to discuss its contents. Third, that meeting must establish a transparent process to investigate the conduct alleged in the leaked document, with the terms of reference set by the NEC officers. Fourth, this process must produce a report, available to the public and not tucked away in a drawer, which restores faith among Labour members in the practices of our party. This report must be presented to both the NEC and to party conference itself.”
This would seem to be the immediate minimum. Longer term, a much wider pool of recruitment for officials is needed, getting away from student politics and union full time officials, and drawing on people with a background in community grassroots activism and other relevant skills, with proper oversight by the elected bodies of the Party over the work of functionaries, including recruitment processes.
Trickett and Lavery conclude: “For all those socialists in the Labour Party, there is one final lesson: don’t let this demoralise you. Stay in the party and seek justice. As this document makes clear, the very worst elements of our party would be only too happy for you to leave.”
This is important advice. There are some in the Party –Tony Blair has said as much – who would like the mass membership that has been built up over the last four years to disappear, so the Party can return to being a vehicle for professional politicians linked to the British establishment. Our job, on the other hand, is to ensure that the policy and organisational gains made over the last five years are not lost by default as disillusioned members drift away and the Party falls back into the hands of bureaucrats and people hostile to socialism.
Keir Starmer needs to act quickly to restore trust in the Party’s apparatus, so that all members feel the movement is pulling in the same direction, organised around a common purpose and a belief that a fundamentally better world is both possible and achievable.