General Secretary’s response on suspensions fails to reassure

Three months after 284 CLP Secretaries and Chairs signed a letter calling on David Evans to withdraw his guidance and halt disciplinary action against CLP Officers, the General Secretary finally responded – the day before the NEC disputes panel met. But many have been left disappointed, Labour Hub has been told.

Signatories of the letter to David Evans, which raised concerns about instructions he had issued forbidding discussion of solidarity and Jeremy Corbyn, among other issues, were given the opportunity to respond to his latest email. Every response expressed dissatisfaction with his lack of answers.

Several respondents noted that David Evans failed to mention the seventy or so CLP and branch officers suspended for permitting the tabling of solidarity motions, despite the fact that these officers have not yet had their suspensions resolved, and that this was a key issue raised in our original letter.

“Where does this leave comrades who remain suspended?” asked one CLP Chair. 

Another Chair noted the lack of explanation for how they had come to be suspended, saying, “The motion had nothing to do with antisemitism or Jeremy Corbyn. The motion did not breach any of Evans’ guidance/ instructions. It was simply a motion deprecating Evans’ guidance/instructions and their effect within our meetings.”

 A CLP Secretary commented: “In our letter we asked that the disciplinary action be halted. What is his response? When will those suspended be given a fair hearing?”

Not only were the points we raised about these suspensions not answered, but respondents criticised Evans’ focus, which was almost exclusively upon the EHRC report, with little or no mention of Jeremy Corbyn and the solidarity motions that most officers were suspended over.

Evans made vague allusions to taking a “firmer stance” and expanding “the number of issues that were not appropriate for discussion”, but failed to answer the content of the letter to him.

“The GS gives no explanation as to why motions of solidarity which made no reference to the EHRC report, should be ruled by him to be impermissible as a motion for debate by members,” one CLP chair wrote, adding that “the General Secretary’s reply does not in any way address the issue of free speech and the rights of members and CLP officers.”

Another CLP Secretary noted that “many of the suspensions including those in my own CLP… had absolutely nothing to do with the EHRC report, but to do with motions of solidarity.”

 There was also a sense that David Evans is playing down the impact of his guidance and the subsequent suspensions of so many officers.

“We are as CLP Chairs and CLP Secretaries all volunteers who have been subjected to enormous stress and pressure not only from direct orders/instructions from David Evans but also from Regional Directors,” one CLP Secretary wrote.

“Local Chairs and Secs were hung out to dry,” was the feeling of one respondent and a suspended Chair similarly felt that, “The way that I have been treated seems discriminatory and grossly unfair.”

The feeling of injustice of the last few months is clear to see, with one signatory writing that “Staff should not be blaming ordinary members who have done no wrong… It was the staff of the Labour Party that failed to deal with antisemitism, not the members.”

There was little sense from the responses that these CLP Secretaries and Chairs believed David Evans was acting in good faith, with one calling the email “disingenuous”.

 Another wrote: “The authoritarian interventions of the General Secretary have caused needless division. With clear indications that a majority of the party have no faith in the disciplinary process, David Evans must turn his attention to fixing the system, not exploiting it for factional gain.”

 Disappointed with the response to their letter, CLP Secretaries and Chairs were looking to the NEC disputes panel for a resolution to officer suspensions. n fact, the NEC disputes panel failed to reinstate the suspended officers in their meeting this week. Reports that the cases will be resolved by the end of March will no doubt be met with scepticism.

 The text of both letters can be found below:

 Dear David Evans,

We are writing to you, as Constituency Labour Party Secretaries and Chairs, to raise our concerns about recent emails you have sent us that instruct secretaries and chairs to prohibit discussion on certain topics. Our party membership and its collective discussion in local branch and CLP meetings are vital to building an effective local political party. Unfortunately, the recent emails from you, placing restrictions on items of party business that can be discussed in meetings, accompanied by threats and suspensions, are undermining our efforts to build up our local parties. Democratically discussing the issues of party business that concern our members helps us develop and motivate our local party. Treating our members’ rights with respect is also important for morale and increases the capacity of local parties to turn outwards and campaign in elections. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that was long fought for and has been traditionally upheld by the Labour Party, including in our party meetings. The right to freedom of expression is not only about the right to speak but it is also about the right to listen to others and for different views to be heard. Party members should have the right to express their views, including on whether the whip should or should not be restored to Jeremy Corbyn.

The policing of discussion, on a decision which has received a lot of media attention, is also demanding a great deal from volunteers who take up the role of administrators to facilitate and encourage dynamic campaigning local parties. Our local members and party officers are all volunteers, many of whom work very hard for the party. We feel that your recent guidance only puts us further into the firing line, and is affecting the mental and physical health of chairs and secretaries, many of whom are standing down from their posts because of the stress. This is expertise the Party can ill afford to lose with important elections coming up in May 2021.

Suspensions of officers who allow discussion on the removal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn to take place also raises serious issues– chairs have in some instances had their membership of the party suspended for allowing discussion to take place when the General Committee or All Member Meeting has voted for them to do so. As CLP Officers, we are elected by General Committees or All Member Meetings, not appointed by the General Secretary and therefore we are being called upon, under threat of membership suspension, to break our own standing orders, and the rules of the party. It is vital for us that the national party acts in a responsible way to help us maintain members’ enthusiasm to campaign for Labour. The attempts to stifle legitimate discussion are harming our local parties and their campaigning capacity, notwithstanding the suppression of members’ rights to speak and be heard.

 We urge you to withdraw the ‘guidance’ you have sent to our CLPs and halt any disciplinary action currently being taken against Party Officers for facilitating democratic discussion of party business.

We look forward to your response.

Dear colleagues,

Thank you for your letter, and apologies for the delay in providing a response.

I first of all want to say that I can fully understand the feelings and emotions that the issue of antisemitism, the EHRC’s report and the actions taken since have engendered within the Party. It is a complex and serious issue and there are a range of perspectives and points of view.

But in October last year, the Labour Party was found guilty of committing unlawful harassment of our members and unlawful acts of indirect discrimination against our Jewish members. The publication of the EHRC report was the most shameful day in our Party’s long history and we cannot lose sight of that fact. The EHRC codified and set out clear expectations on the Party around agency, which required us to give very clear guidance to voluntary officers such as yourselves.

Rest assured that I did not put myself forward to be General Secretary in order to have to issue such guidance about motions to stop CLPs. That’s why my initial guidance asked that members be mindful of how they discussed the EHRC report and, in line with our statutory responsibilities, asked that branches and CLPs did not bring forward motions which sought to repudiate the findings of the report or question the EHRC’s competency to undertake the investigation. I also suggested that the binary nature of motions – forcing members to retreat to ‘for’ or ‘against’ camps – might not be the best mechanism for debating the important issues the EHRC report had brought to light, and I provided some model questions to inform workshop-style discussion at local meetings. There was significant evidence that where more adversarial propositions were allowed, contrary to my guidance, that an exclusory, rather than an inclusive atmosphere, was created.

While the vast majority of members and CLPs accepted this advice, unfortunately it soon became clear in some areas we need to more to improve culture and provide an open and welcoming space for members of all backgrounds. That’s the only reason we needed to take a firmer stance and expand the number of issues that were not appropriate for discussion.

I know that the Labour Party would be nothing without its volunteers and I will once again offer my thanks to the branch and CLP officers who have been implementing the guidance. In hindsight, the guidance I issued originally was not clear that it was I as General Secretary – backed by the NEC – ruling these motions out of order. I was not expecting local chairs to make that decision, and therefore it was not for members to seek to challenge chairs.

It is also not the case that chairs or other officers were being instructed to break any rules or standing orders. I hope that clarifies matters going forward.

With the EHRC having signed off the NEC’s action plan to implement the recommendations contained in the EHRC’s report, the way forward is now clear. I will always keep any guidance I issue under review and will continue to do so in order to foster a more inclusive, open and positive framework for discussion. We must face up to our previous failure to deal with antisemitism and deliver a genuine zero-tolerance approach.

Harold Wilson famously said that the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing. I very much hope that I can count on you – and other officers, members, and elected representatives across the country – to help us to live up to that aspiration.

Thanks,

David

Image: Jeremy Corbyn. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/paulnew/28243001503. Author: paulnew,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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