Inside Southside: my 2017 General Election and the Forde Report

By Ben Sellers

Like many others, I sent my submission to the Forde Inquiry in the summer of 2020. I thought it was important that my experience was recorded, even if I didn’t have great expectations that anything would change as a result.

I worked for Jeremy Corbyn during the 2017 election, but within Labour HQ at Southside. In some ways, it was the most exciting period of my political life, as we watched the substantial Tory lead be gradually whittled away by a collective, grassroots effort that would have been unthinkable before 2015. But it was also a real eye opener about the way that the Labour Party operates at the centre, and how power is wielded by an unelected, permanent staff.

It has been 27 months since Martin Forde QC was asked, in very different political circumstances, by the then newly elected leader of the Labour Party, to look into the allegations which arose from the leaking of an internal Labour Party report on the handling of antisemitism cases.

In that time, Keir Starmer has spent a lot more effort in pursuing the leakers of the report than chasing the Forde Report, which had originally been expected to report by the end of 2020. And certainly, Starmer and his team have shown little or no interest in addressing some of the issues raised by the leaked report.

Of course, there’s good reason for that: in the intervening months, thousands upon thousands of active socialists have left the party, angry at their treatment and that of former leader Jeremy Corbyn. Many others have been suspended, expelled, or investigated, often on spurious and shaky legal grounds. There has been an all-out campaign waged to rid the party of socialists.

Starmer very much owes his position to this campaign, as well as the flouting of rules which have marked his leadership. So, the delay in the Forde Report played to his agenda – ensuring that the response was more muted than it would have been in 2020.

I don’t care for being silenced much, so I have decided to make my submission public. Of course, some people won’t like this. We’re supposed to be good, quiet little socialists and accept our defeats meekly. I’ve never listened to that. So, here goes:

“I worked for the Leader of the Opposition’s office for the majority of the General Election campaign in May – June 2017. I started working for LOTO in the first week of May, having previously worked for Jeremy Corbyn on the leadership campaign of 2015 (as the social media lead). In early May 2017, I was called and offered a short-term contract to work for Jeremy Corbyn again for the General Election period, working within the communications team. Specifically, my role was to work on Jeremy’s social media accounts (Twitter and Facebook).

In the first week, I was based in the Leader’s Office in Norman Shaw North within Parliament (the Leader’s Office). The atmosphere working there was friendly and productive, but soon we were moved, as a team, into Southside, Labour HQ in Victoria Street. Corbyn’s communication’s team was placed in between the Labour Party’s Press team and the Media team on floor 2. We moved, en bloc, into this new workspace with just under a month to go before the election. Walking through the floor on the way to my new desk space (just a table with plugs, without desktops or any other equipment), it was noticeable how casual the atmosphere was, considering we were so close to a General Election.

Over the next few weeks, I witnessed the many staff that worked on the same floor as us come in at around 10am and most would be gone by 4. I noticed, on my way to speak to the LOTO policy team on the other side of the floor, that many seemed to be working on individual MPs’ websites and other tasks that I personally would have thought to be low priority. There didn’t seem to be much of a work ethic and there was lots of messing around and chatter. Meanwhile, Corbyn’s team came in between 7-9am and often worked into the night. Collectively, we worked so hard, hardly taking a breather during the day. As a member of the small social media team, I often finished after midnight. Our work ethic was to squeeze as much out of the time we had left and do everything we could to win the election.

There was a more disturbing culture than that, however. There was palpable hostility towards us as Corbyn’s team – illustrated by a rude and abrupt manner and a lack of co-operation on the most basic things, like being provided with media plans, briefings, etc. There was also lots of shouting and abuse that came from the permanent members of the Press team in particular. One senior member of that team, **** ******, used to shout abuse at members of the party’s leadership when they came on our monitors for TV appearances. For example, I distinctly remember her shouting something along the lines of ‘terrorist sympathiser’ when John McDonnell appeared on our screens.

It was disconcerting and demoralising to see how this behaviour seemed so commonplace and that not a single manager or senior figure even batted an eyelid, never mind took action to stop it. In some cases, it was the most senior members of the team behaving in this way. I genuinely think the purpose was to demoralise us – to make it feel that we were wasting our time, as an embattled minority – extraordinary from people in our own party, indeed people who were paid by the party.

As a member of the social media team, I also experienced difficulties in dealing with the staff at Southside. I had less dealings with the permanent staff there than my colleague **** **** (who permanently worked for Jeremy), but I witnessed and experienced Labour Party staff’s behaviour that really shocked me. Southside staff regularly blocked content from going out (with no reason), delayed the production of graphics and videos and acted almost as if they were on strike or a go-slow. Things that could have been produced in minutes took hours and, in some cases, days, when it was clear that they didn’t have anything pressing to do. Staff support was regularly refused. The Labour Party’s graphics / video team, who were supposed to work alongside us, were particularly obstructive. Often, we would have to walk up to the 5th floor, where they were working, to ask why things were taking so long or why content had been blocked. Social media is 90% about speed and timing, so it was extremely frustrating to keep having to chase work.

One particularly galling incident was when the graphics / video team withheld some Ken Loach footage which had been couriered over to us from his office in Soho. We were perplexed as to why it hadn’t turned up and eventually established that it had been delivered to that team several days before, but had sat at their desk, without them notifying us. They knew that we were waiting for the footage and clearly, in any case, if something is couriered to you in the middle of a General Election campaign, the chances are, it is extremely important.

My film-maker colleague, Simon Baker (who sadly died last year) was so overjoyed at receiving this footage (off-cuts from Ken Loach’s party-political broadcast), having visited the studios in Soho where Ken Loach was based and discussing with him how this footage could be used for social media. It still angers me that Simon had less time, and was forced to work in a rush, because of that team’s behaviour. They were not the actions of political colleagues, nor even people in the same party.

On the night of the General Election itself, I came back into the building around 8-9pm after a day of campaigning and filming around London. I found that my pass no longer worked, along with almost all my other colleagues. So, we had quite a time trying to gain access to the 5th floor where we could watch the election results come in. Having eventually negotiated that, I vividly remember sitting with the LOTO team, watching the exit poll come in and cheering with the rest of the team in a corner of the 5th floor. The permanent Southside staff were in the adjacent room, and you could have heard a pin drop, it was so quiet. By this stage, I was not surprised – in fact, I expected this, because it was so clear that they didn’t want a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn in any circumstances. But I did reflect on that afterwards, along with all the terrible, abusive language and bad behaviour over that month period and think, member’s subs are paying for this. That’s what I find most difficult about all of this – that people were being paid by my party to essentially scupper any chances of that party being elected to government – and no one in a position of authority at Southside did a thing to challenge that behaviour.”

So, what’s next? Firstly, I think the current leadership will quietly bury the Forde Report, and certainly the aspects of it which confirms the testimony from the left of the party. Anyone who thinks Keir Starmer will take action against either the individuals involved or address the culture that led to that behaviour is almost certainly kidding themselves.

Secondly, I think it’s important to recognise that the problem is institutional, not about ‘bad apples’. Some of those responsible have gone, but anyone who has been around on the party’s left for any period of time knows that to have got a job with the Labour Party over the last 25 years or more, you almost had to fit a profile, which is well to the right of the party’s membership – the only exception being during Jennie Formby’s time as General Secretary, between 2018 and 2020 (and even then it was tricky).

Thirdly, there will be some soul-searching about what this means in terms of socialists in the party. I have not quite done all my thinking yet, but for me this isn’t necessarily about ‘in or out’ of the Labour Party, but about democracy. The way the major party of opposition is run, whether it is democratic, grassroots and rules-based, or an undemocratic, unrepresentative free-for-all – that matters. The toxicity of our politics matters and the privilege of those who behave in this way, right across our movement must be challenged – not by waiting for Starmer, but by speaking out, loud and clear.

Ben Sellers is a former member of Jeremy Corbyn’s staff. He writes in a personal capacity.

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