As suspended officers are slowly reinstated to the Party – we are left asking: what was the point?

By Maia Kirby, Save our Socialists

Fourteen suspended officers have now been let back into the party, with formal warnings that will remain on their membership records for 12 months. If Ann Black’s report on the NEC disputes panel on 11th March is to be believed, all suspensions for ‘non-competent business’ will be resolved by the end of the month.

For one CLP Officer, who was told she had been reinstated last week, despite the decision having been made three weeks ago, it has been four months of “unimaginable stress and anguish”. She has been issued with a ‘reminder of conduct’, a warning that will remain on her record for 12 months, even though she did not distribute the forbidden motion she is accused of circulating. This would have been evident to those in the Governance and Legal Unit if they had read through the answers to the disciplinary questions put to her.

It appears that the long, arduous, and anxiety-provoking process of answering the Party’s disciplinary questions – some members receiving dozens of questions to be answered – was largely pointless. For the most part, the Party has issued identical letters, regardless of the specific circumstances of each case.

This raises a number of questions: What was the purpose of the painful process of answering the interrogative questions sent by the Party? If they were going to reach identical conclusions in each case, then why did this process take four months? Why was suspension used in the first place? Could they not have issued these ‘reminders of conduct’ without suspending officers and causing such distress and disruption?

Ann Black reports that the NEC disputes panel is bound by suspension criteria accepted by the NEC in March 2019. In these criteria, it is clearly stated that “the presumption should be against interim suspension” and that suspension should only be used in cases where the member might do the Party “immediate damage” if allowed to continue in their membership of the Party.

The criteria recommend using warnings in the first instance and remind staff that suspension should not be used as a punishment. It asserts definitively that “suspension should therefore only be imposed where necessary for a clear and legitimate purpose”. These criteria, adopted by the NEC “must be followed” according to Ann Black’s recent report; however they clearly have not been. Given the apparent total disregard for these criteria and the evident indifference shown to the answers to the disciplinary questions, the only conclusion we can really draw is that this whole episode was designed to harass and intimidate members and influence the outcome of AGMs.

This use of suspension to interfere in AGMs has sadly been effective in some cases. Several suspended officers have now been replaced in their roles, as their CLPs have had AGMs, and they were not eligible to stand. In one case a chair was reinstated just three days after their CLP AGM, which had been taken over by regional organisers who did not allow members to stand against the right wing candidate for chair.

Fortunately, it has not worked in all CLPs. Many comrades have stepped forward to carry the mantle for suspended officers, supporting these officers to remain in the loop and keeping morale up. Indeed, this whole sorry episode has backfired for the right in lots of ways – resulting in the formation of networks of solidarity that did not exist before.

But the toll on individual suspended officers has been very high. For one officer, her suspension emboldened right wing members of the CLP to bully and threaten her. Another reinstated officer reported the whole episode has triggered her severe depression.

When an institution itself engages in intimidation, with scant regard to the mental health or protected characteristics of the victims of its actions, it is catastrophic for the individuals at the receiving end, and affects every member in a negative way. It is clear the Party is aware of the effects of arbitrary suspension on members – it includes in its suspension letter the number to call for the Samaritans! In choosing to continue this practice, any commitments to promoting better mental health ring hollow and the Party bureaucracy partners itself completely with the bullying that is so prevalent on the right of the Party at every level.

The boilerplate reinstatement letter contains within it the indication that the Party bureaucracy does indeed intend to continue in the practice of intimidation, through classing dissent to the ‘guidance’ of the General Secretary as “grossly detrimental” to the Party. Bear in mind this ‘guidance’ forbids motions of solidarity, motions on Jeremy Corbyn and motions of no confidence in the leader of the Party, in a clear over-extension of the powers of the NEC, and by extension the General Secretary.

Motions discussed respectfully in private Labour Party meetings on issues relating to the Party that are being discussed openly by Labour MPs in the media, could not be described as grossly detrimental to the party. The Party leadership must be accountable to the members from which it draws its mandate. David Evans notes that “elected officials” must be held to “high standards”, but the disconnect between this and the behaviour of MPs and Labour Party staff revealed in the leaked report, and the Party’s failure to hold them to account under the same logic, are remarkable.

As Duncan Shipley Dalton describes here, the reinstatement letters indicate David Evans’ intention to re-envisage the Party as a fully centralised, top-down organisation. This is not surprising given the report David Evans presented to Tony Blair in 1999 which advocated reducing members’ rights to influence policy. Elected officials in his letter serve to “implement the decisions of the NEC and to follow the guidance of the General Secretary”, not to serve the members that elected them and facilitate democracy in the Party in line with the Labour Party rule book.

So in conclusion, this is a bittersweet victory for the Save Our Socialists campaign. We are pleased to see our comrades reinstated to the party, and we will not be resting until all unfairly suspended officers are reinstated. But these officers should have never been suspended in the first place.

The insult of the 12 month period of formal warning, applied in a blanket manner regardless of the circumstances, cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. The precedent being set is greatly concerning for democracy in the Party, and suggests the General Secretary, and the Governance and Legal Unit, have no qualms about misuse of the Labour Party rule book to pursue procedural attacks against the left of the Party. But the left, who have a far stronger presence in the party than prior to 2015, have shown already that we will not take this attack on democracy lying down.

Maia Kirby is CLP Secretary for Hackney North CLP.

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