Diary of a Corbyn Foot Soldier (February, 2021)
Dictionary definition of a foot soldier: “…a dedicated low level follower…”
Michael Murray: email@example.com; FaceBook: Michael Murray London
“They’ve taken the Whip away from Jeremy: Can they do that?”
Going over in my mind the frankly depressing spate of suspensions and expulsions that have happened in the Labour Party over recent years I can’t help thinking of an old trade union friend and colleague in a past life. For his sins he is a (Dublin) Shelbourne FC and (London) Crystal Palace FC supporter, the bane of whose life as a union official was the phone-call that began: “John (for that is his name) they’ve suspended/sacked Joe Bloggs and sent him home without consulting me, his shop steward. Can they do that?” His characteristic response: “They just feckin’ have, haven’t they? ” John’s next question might be (if he didn’t already know): ”What does your Disciplinary and Grievance Procedure say? “
The same question has occurred to me in the past few years in the Labour Party, seeing many good comrades suffer the euphemistically named “administrative suspension” treatment” which, in its execution breaches at least a dozen principles of natural justice, as I’ve detailed in this journal in the past. As a retired trade union official you could say I’ve a bee in my bonnet about the disciplinary Labour Party Rules and Constitution and can’t see how the generations of trade unionists in positions of influence in the party in the past could have allowed the disciplinary aspects of the Rules to evolve into the crock that it is. Imagine an appeals stage in any other disciplinary procedure that may (sic) allow an appeal for reinstatement not less than two years and up to five years after expulsion ? (Chapter 2 Clause F.2 of the Labour Party Rules)
In the uproar that followed the removal of the Whip from Jeremy Corbyn, the day after his reinstatement to Labour Party membership, the Deputy Political editor of the Guardian wrote: “Faced with the prospect that at least one senior Jewish MP. Margaret Hodge – could quit the party in protest at Corbyn’s return to the fold, Starmer issued a strongly worded statement saying he would not welcome his predecessor back into the parliamentary party.” The article went on to quote Starmer further: “Jeremy Corbyn’s actions in response to the EHRC report undermined and set back our work in restoring trust and confidence in the Labour Party’s ability to tackle antisemitism. In those circumstances, I have taken the decision not to restore the whip to Jeremy Corbyn. I will keep this situation under review.” (Jessica Elgot, et al, 18/01/21)
So, could Keir Starmer, Labour Party and PLP Leader, do that? Well, he just feckin’ did. But did he follow all the options open to him within the Party’s disciplinary rules and procedures ? Did he have any other choice but to do what he did? Struggling with this question I came to realise that I’d been looking at the disciplinary rules primarily from the point of view of a rank and file member as they applied to branch and constituency level. And, then, only in the Labour Party Rule, where there was no direct reference to how Labour’s disciplinary rules apply to the PLP, or its individual members. “Why was the Whip withdrawn?” was a headline in more than one newspaper. The media has been more exercised with why it happened than how: that is, it was not looking to establish on whose, or what authority, under what rule and according to which procedure did the removal of the whip from Jeremy occur ?
The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) may appear to be a law unto itself, centred on Westminster, detached from the bolshy mob that is the membership. But it isn’t, at least within the Rules. It’s subject to that same Labour Party Rule Book, all 157 pages of it, as are all the rest us.
The Leader and Deputy Leader of the Party are ex-officio Leader and Deputy Leader of the PLP. Clause II lays out the Party structure. The National Executive Committee (NEC), which is only subject to the control and directions of the Party Conference, is the administrative authority of the Party. Its relationship with the PLP and the membership, through the Party Conference, is laid out in Clause VIII and Chapter 3. The PLP operates under its own Standing Orders which must be endorsed by the NEC. The PLP, in turn, elects a Parliamentary Committee which meets weekly when the House of Commons is in session. What most members, and journalists who pontificate on Labour’s disciplinary matters may not be aware of is that within the Standing Orders of the PLP there are two disciplinary procedures: one appertaining to the ‘employees’ of MPs, which is deserving of comment, in passing, since it is closer to what a ‘best practice’ disciplinary procedure should look like than that contained in the party Rules. The other disciplinary procedure, of immediate concern to the issue of the withdrawal of the Whip from Jeremy Corbyn, we will now reproduce here in full, since it’s quite short – with direct bearing on the Corbyn case – and little known in the wider Labour Party or the media.
In the Standing Orders of the PLP is a Code of Practice which includes a section on Discipline. Within that the “Withdrawal of the Whip,” is dealt with. It reads: “Following the conclusion of an investigation into a Member’s conduct or in exceptional circumstances, withdrawal of the Whip (i.e. expulsion from the Parliamentary Labour Party) may be decided upon by a meeting of the Parliamentary Party at which prior notice of the motion has been given by the Parliamentary Committee. The notice of motion shall include the terms of the proposed withdrawal including the length of time the withdrawal is proposed to last. Withdrawal of the Whip shall be reported to the NEC and to the CLP of the Member concerned.”
None of the above happened. Neither the PLP nor the Parliamentary Committee became involved though there are no express rules and procedures on the removal of the Whip elsewhere in the Rule book. These are contained only in the Disciplinary section of the PLP Standing Orders. Instead, what happened was that the NEC-constituted sub-committee that was brought together to deal with the case by the NEC had its role and verdict – informed by a QC we’ve since learned – undermined by the shit-show that ensued over the 17th/18th of November when the reinstatement of Jeremy as a full member of the Party was subverted by an ad-hoc decision not to reinstate him as a Labour MP. The PLP Standing Orders, we will see in a moment, has a bearing on this, implicitly, if not expressly. The Standing Orders goes on to discuss the “Member’s right to be heard.” “Any Member again whom disciplinary action is proposed under paragraph (d) shall be given at least three days’ notice and shall have the right to make representations to the next meeting of the Parliamentary Committee prior to a motion being put to the vote.”
On Expulsion from the Labour Party it says: “In exceptionally serious circumstances it may be deemed appropriate for the Member to be expelled from membership of the party in accordance with the disciplinary powers within the Labour Party Rule Book as set out in Chapter 1, Clause IX;Chapter 2, A.4D and Chapter 6, a.1(a).” The final paragraph states:
“Expulsion from the Labour Party will automatically result in expulsion from the Parliamentary party.”
It doesn’t expressly say that reinstatement will result in readmission to the PLP, but is it implied? It might be argued, opportunistically, that the “Code of Conduct” doesn’t have the same weight as the Disciplinary rules in the main Rule Book. But, as has been mentioned, the Standing Orders, which include the Code of Conduct, derives its authority by being endorsed by the NEC – the Administrative authority of the Party. And I cannot see how non-recourse to this disciplinary procedure will not be taken into account in any subsequent hearing of Jeremy’s substantive case. But the damage to the unity of the Party caused by how this disciplinary issue was handled is already only too apparent.
Today, as we prepare to hand over this journal to the printers, the news that Corbyn’s legal team’s application for a “pre-action disclosure” has failed, followed by a threat from the ‘unifier’ Keir Starmer to make Corbyn bear the costs of the legal action, has not gone down well with a large swathe of the membership.
My friend John, introduced above, and as wary of the law in these matters as most other trade unionists, with good reason, would not, at this point, be above quoting 19th century Jeremy Bentham: “The power of the lawyer is in the uncertainty of the law.” That is the caveat I’d like to add to this piece, written, not by a knighted QC, but by a Corbynist foot soldier with a commitment to natural justice and respect for due process as the pre-requisites of a Democratic Socialist Party.