By Maia Kirby
It should not have been a surprise, given our experience as activists in Labour over the last five years, how quickly and ruthlessly the Labour right moved against the left of the Party – but it was. Jeremy Corbyn, former leader of the Party, and figurehead of the resurgence of a mainstream socialist presence, was suspended from the party on 29th October.
On 5th November David Evans emailed CLP and branch secretaries and chairs instructing them that individual disciplinary cases were not ‘competent business’ for discussion at Labour Party meetings. This ruling makes sense perhaps when considering the privacy of Labour members without a public profile, but ludicrous in relation to the former leader of the party – not least because the current leader was touring the TV studios to discuss the matter.
On 14th November a National Executive Committee (NEC) panel re-admitted Corbyn into the party, but Keir Starmer refused to restore the whip. On 26th November David Evans updated his guidance to include the diktat that all motions of solidarity and questions relating to the internal processes of the PLP were also to be ruled out of order.
It seemed to be a win-win situation for them – either the left was going to comply with these rules and in doing so lose the thing that had kept them a strong and cohesive unit of ‘Corbynistas’, or not comply, and in so doing introduce a procedural route to suspending them from the Party. They did not have the capacity to initiate disciplinary action against 50%+ of the membership, nor would it have been advisable. Better to remove the left from leadership positions in the Party, so that the right could take their place, either through manipulation of the AGMs or through demoralisation of members. Many left caucuses sat and discussed their options that month. In the end 90 CLPs passed motions in support of Corbyn, or votes of no confidence in Starmer, Evans or the guidance.
Was Evans surprised at the number of CLPs that defied his ban? It is hard to know whether the subsequent suspension of officers from the Party was an intended consequence of the guidance, or whether right wing members and regional officers had seized the opportunity to denounce left officers and provoke disciplinary action. Somewhere in between is most likely, given the uneven spread across the country (see graph below). Either way, even some of his own supporters were concerned when officers began to be suspended from membership of the party on such a big scale. Around 70 CLP and branch officers were suspended in total. But no doubt all suspensions were signed off and approved by the General Secretary, if not Keir Starmer himself.
One of the unintended outcomes of the attack on the left by Keir Starmer, David Evans and the leadership of the Labour Party, has been the rapid expansion of cross- CLP organising of the left. The tactics of the leadership were effective in preventing many from expressing their solidarity with Corbyn, but it seems they underestimated the strength of left communities in the party. They also underestimated the strength of the wider left network.
News spreads fast and effectively on the left and having a great number of committed and talented activists as we do, information on which CLPs were passing motions quickly came together. An unprecedented 284 CLP chairs and secretaries across almost 200 constituencies signed a letter to Evans against the clampdown on freedom of speech and the subsequent suspensions of officers in December. When no response to this letter was forthcoming, a group of CLP Secretaries came together to build the Save our Socialists campaign.
This campaign was inspired in large part by a desire for the officers who had been suspended not to just simply join the shamefully long list of suspendees from the Labour party and be simply forgotten by the vast majority of members. These were CLP Officers doing the roles that we ourselves did and suspended for doing so.
While some on the Labour right are happy to see themselves as an extension of the Labour party bureaucracy, gleefully blocking and imposing restrictions on local members, the left have always seen themselves as the representatives of the members who have elected them. Thus the suspension from membership of the Party of a secretary or chair for the simple act of facilitating debate in the party, for following the rule book and the standing orders of their CLPs, which rightly form the basis of members’ rights, was too outrageous for us not to act in solidarity.
Restrictions on talking about one’s suspension meant that we had to be more creative about how we brought these suspensions to light. We focused on who these officers were, not their suspensions alone. We wanted people to see that these members of the Party were dedicated socialists, often with contributions to the left that went back decades. Within 24 hours we had set up a website and accompanying social media and began to publish the names and short biographies of the officers who had been suspended.
It quickly became apparent that what was needed was not just a campaign of awareness, but a campaign of support and solidarity. It is incredibly isolating being suspended. Although we all know these are suspensions that were part of a political attack on the wider left, they were ‘individualised’ and inevitably internalised by those affected. In providing legal advice and support in answering disciplinary questions, Save Our Socialists has been important in providing a collective response to what is an attack on the collective left.
The fight for the reinstatement of these officers is not over. Please sign our petition and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Share and like our posts. We must stand up for all those unjustly suspended, and for the rights of members to participate in political discussion. We have reason to be hopeful, because despite their best efforts, we are still here and building solidarity across constituency boundaries and beyond.
Our petition: https://www.saveoursocialists.co.uk/index.php/petition/
Maia Kirby is CLP Secretary for Hackney North CLP.
To receive regular updates about Labour Hub articles, sign up here.