Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier (March, 2021)
Dictionary definition of a foot soldier: “…a dedicated low level follower…”
Michael Murray: firstname.lastname@example.org; FaceBook: Michael Murray London
Diary of a Corbyn Foot Soldier (February, 2021) Updated March 2021
Dictionary definition of a foot soldier: “…a dedicated low level follower…”
As the withdrawal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn passes the three month deadline, we ask: “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 in Ireland. 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 usual execution, breaches at least a dozen principles of natural justice, as I’ve detailed in this journal in the past. A retired trade union official, you could say I’ve a bee in my bonnet about the disciplinary procedure in Labour Party Rule Book. I 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 document that it is. Imagine an appeals stage in any other disciplinary procedure that may (sic) allow an appeal for reinstatement of not less than two years and up to as many five years after expulsion ? (Chapter 2 Clause F.2 of the Labour Party Rules).
As a generalisation, the Rule Book is light on Appeals: the right of a member to appeal against a decision, or, guidance on how the member might go about it. More to the point: there does not seem to be any sense of what the law calls “condign” punishment – appropriate to the alleged offence; in popular parlance; that the punishment fit the crime. Members have been suspended, apparently, for the most minor reasons. And, of course, the very use of suspension for other than the most serious, property or life threatening acts, is another shameful example of Labour Party abuse of natural justice and due process which would be very unlikely to happen in other than very low trust organisations.
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, in his capacity as Labour Party Leader, or as PLP Leader, do that? Well, he feckin’ did, didn’t he? Now, he seems to be ignoring his own time frame for how long the whip was to be withheld.
But the Labour Party is bound by a set of rules. What do the Rules say about what procedures should be followed in the withdrawal of the whip from an MP?
Struggling with this question I came to realise that I’d been looking at the Labour Rule Book from the point of view of a rank and file member, as it applied to branch and constituency level. And, then, I realised, on perusing it once more, that there was very little direct reference to how Labour’s disciplinary rules apply to the PLP, or individual MPs – apart from references, such as MPs, or Labour election candidates, charged with criminal activities or fraternising with the enemy. (Although Starmer, unilaterally, offered an olive branch to Chukka and friends more recently – as if he had the authority to do that.)
“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 rules 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.
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 subject to the control and directions of the members’ delegates at Party Conference, is the administrative authority of the Party between conferences. 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 main body of the party Rules Book.
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, apparently, in the wider Labour Party or the media.
In the Standing Orders of the PLP is a Code of Conduct which includes a section on Discipline.
Within that “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.”
A Member’s right to be heard is introduced next: “Any Member against 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.
“Expulsion from the Labour Party will automatically result in expulsion from the Parliamentary party.” Jeremy wasn’t expelled, he was suspended and that suspension was lifted by a carefully chosen, factionally balanced sub-committee, advised by a QC and put in place by the NEC, and, it has to be stressed, the administrative authority of the Labour Party between conferences.
While the disciplinary code doesn’t expressly say reinstatement after a suspension of Labour Party membership will result in readmission to the PLP, is it not implied?
Neither the PLP nor the Parliamentary Committee were known to be involved, at least not procedurally, in the lifting of the Whip – though there are no express rules and procedures on the removal of the whip from an MP dealt with elsewhere in the Rule book. These are only to be found in the PLP Standing Orders’ Code of Conduct under “Discipline.”
It is reasonable to assume that restoration of the Whip would automatically follow the lifting of the suspension. But that, as we know didn’t happen.
When members of an organisation depart from their own agreed disciplinary rules and procedures shit happens. This is why they were drawn up in the first place: to manage, limit and mitigate conflict in organisations. When this occurs in political organisations, in the language of the EHRC, disciplinary processes, which ought to be designed to be objective, get politicised.
“Half the party now believes that the original decision to suspend Corbyn amounted to political interference, the other half thinks lifting the suspension was the result of political interference,” is how LabourList summarised the situation.(Sienna Rodgers, 19/11/2021)
The Democratic socialist Labour Party is now a seriously low-trust organisation in which solidarity and comradeship are seen as defiance. It was entirely avoidable. There was a pre-existing procedure for it, as there is a rule for how long suspension is determined – which we’re now seeing being violated. The clearly written rules and procedures of the PLP on the withdrawal of the whip were not used. Why not?
Len McCluskey, leader of Unite the Union, which is a large Labour donor and, of course, represented on the NEC, spoke for a large section of party members when he said: “This is a vindictive and vengeful action, which despoils party democracy and due process alike, and amounts to overruling the unanimous decision of the NEC panel yesterday to readmit Jeremy to the party. This action gives rise to double jeopardy in the handling of the case and shows marked bad faith.”
It might be argued 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 from the NEC – the Administrative authority of the Party.
And I cannot see how ignoring, non-recourse to, this disciplinary procedure will not be taken into account in in any subsequent hearing of Jeremy’s substantive case, in the absence of any other express rules or procedures in the Rule Book for dealing with case arising out of suspension of the whip. But that’s just a lay person’s opinion.
Whatever happens in the courts, the damage to the unity of the Party caused by how this disciplinary issue was handled is already only too apparent.
And as this article was being prepared to be handed over to the printers, the news broke that the Corbyn legal team’s application for a “pre-action disclosure” has “failed.” This was followed by a threat from the ‘unifier’ Keir Starmer to make Corbyn bear the costs of the legal action. All this did not gone down well with a large section of the membership.
The application didn’t “fail,” incidentally, despite impressions given in the media. It was set aside for predictable legal reasons – one of them being that Corbyn didn’t need recourse to disclosure of the information that Labour denied existed – since that was going to feature in the substantive case anyway.
Will Jeremy Corbyn have the whip restored, in advance of, or, as a result of his legal action, which could take some time?
My friend John, introduced above, as wary of the law in these matters as most other trade unionists are, 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 QC, knighted for his contribution to the law, but by a Corbynist foot soldier with a commitment to natural justice and respect for due process, and their recognition as absolute pre-requisites for any party that claims in its Rule Book to be democratic and socialist.
A final point: I’m not asking anyone to take my word for it. To “fact-check” the main assertions being made here, go to the user-friendly ACAS guidelines on Grievance and Disciplinary rules and procedures.
ACAS; Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service, in its modern form, the initiative of a Labour government in the early 1970’s. Though the Labour Party is not an employment vis-a-vis the members, the principles of natural justice and due process impact the Labour Party – Member “contract” in broadly similar ways. Indeed, these permeate civil society and reflect its evolution, in the popular mind, since “Magna Carta” – but going back further, with a highpoint in Celtic Britain, and the concept of “Cothrom na Féinne,” as been preserved in modern Gaelic.
In brief, from the ACAS stuff we can glean a better idea of what Labour Disciplinary procedures should look like. And, it is to be hoped, that should encourage informed members to seek a root and bench overhaul of the Rule Book as a matter of urgency.
Solidarity with all those denied natural justice and due process, whether under Corbyn’s, or Starmer’s Leadership.
“Language and power under new Labour management”:
- “Competent Business”
- “Reminder of Conduct”
Humpty Dumpty:“When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean”
Alice:“The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
- “Competent Business”
“Competent Business,” is being used to limit democratic debate at Branch and CLP level – very successfully – though it is a term not to be found in the Rule Book, or in any other context, legal or commercial, other than in its obvious meaning: a business is either competent at what it does or not. In the Labour Party, I’d argue, it is a convenient weasel word which lends itself to being what someone, for ulterior purposes chooses it to mean. The only authority the term has is imparted by the disingenuous use of Capital Letters to give it a faux legitimacy. A classic case of the truth of the saying; “bullshit baffles brains.” No, that isn’t a Humpty Dumpty quote.
The term used in the Rule Book to discuss what CLP’s do is:”Party Business.” This is the title of Chapter 17 of the Labour Party Rule Book, available on the internet, and downloadable.
Clause I, G I. lays out the prime function of Party meetings as being: “to provide delegates and members with the opportunity to participate in party activities through social contact, political debate and policy discussion; and to establish objectives for the Party in the area for campaigning, the development of Party organisation and the promotion of links with sympathetic individuals and bodies within the wider community.”
G ii takes the definition of “Party Business” further: “The agenda of all Party meetings shall be drawn up to give due priority to the Party business highlighted above, the endorsement and introduction of new members and/or delegates, the discussion of resolutions, Party policy items and – other matters of interest to Party members – and the receipt of reports from public representatives.” Repeat: “other matters of interest to Party members.”
What could be of more interest to members than the suspension from membership, or exclusion from the PLP of a former Party leader – or those who want to show their support for him? It’ a non-ambiguous, non-prescriptive part of the definition of what constitutes “Party Business.” I did not understand until now, in researching this article, why that straightforward statement hasn’t been widely quoted in the row about what is appropriate to local party discussion at Labour’s regular meetings. Now I know: had the term “Party Business” been employed, and chapter and verse cited, I could have gone straight to the source in the user un-friendly 157 page Rule Book, been in a position to challenge. And so could others. Knowledge is power. But, practically the whole active membership fall for the decoy of “Competent Business” and overlook the part of the Rule Book which gives them the authority to interpret “Chapter 17: Party Business” as was intended.
Diane Abbott, my MP, puts the curtailment of party democracy, through the use, or abuse of the term ‘Competent Business” in a Party historical context: “These suspensions are wrong and unprecedented. Over the years there have often been issues where substantial numbers differed in their view with leadership of the party. The miners’ strike was one such issue. The Iraq War was another. But the leadership never attempted to stop people actually having a debate,” (Diane Abbott, MP. December, 2020.). Not until now.
(2) “Reminder of Conduct”
For a classic display of unenlightened management practice, on the other hand, look no further than the language in the letter to the ‘reinstated’ CLP Officers. And, bear in mind that the Labour Party letter acknowledged the validity, under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, of the CLP officers’ case against the suspension, which had been imposed for allowing discussion of solidarity motions. And the letter went on to acknowledge, also, that those readmitted had not previously transgressed any party rules.
At this juncture, best practice disciplinary management would be expected to round off a reinstatement letter, or the lifting of a suspension, with some bridge rebuilding. Best practice disciplinary management (see ACAS guidelines, for example) suggests that, ideally, this should be done privately, if possible, off-site in an informal, friendly setting.
But, fat chance of anything like that happening under Labour’s “new management.” That treatment is reserved for the party’s donors. Instead, a whole new tack is undertaken in the second part of the letter: “The NEC considers that your conduct has breached chapter 2,1,8 of the Labour Party Rule Book. Now, “Chapter 2,1.8 of the Labour Rule Book” sounds precise. But read it. It occupies 25 lines of do and don’t rules about members’ conduct, all of one piece, punctuated with a mere 3 full stops in the whole text. But it sounds serious.
Having begun as a letter of reinstatement, but without any welcome back gesture, or apology, the letter manages to morph into the language of a de-facto Written Warning: “If you commit any further breach of Labour Party rules during that period, this Reminder of Conduct and the behaviour that led to it will be taken into account in dealing with that breach. The NEC Disputes Panel may refer disciplinary charges to the National Constitutional Committee (NCC), which has the power to impose a lengthy period of suspension of your Labour Party membership or to expel you from the Labour Party.”
To be clear: where there is the possibility of a case leading from the informal to a formal stage it is obligatory to give the accused a sense of the seriousness of the case, including all possible sanctions. But that should not be used as a threat – as an inquisitorial “Show them the Instruments.” The focus should be on finding a solution, a path to agreed behavioural improvement, thus obviating even the consideration of sanctions.
But control freaks, who not surprisingly, sometimes turn up in management, can have problems with this approach to conflict resolution. Their procedures may be predicated with worthy aspirations of how to respect perceived subordinates and colleagues. Indeed, the NEC Statement “The Importance of our Members,” illustrates this well: ”We do not believe that social change can be delivered solely by a top-down approach,” it says, “That means that we value the role of our members and our affiliated members as progressive campaigners, community activists and social entrepreneurs who forge positive change in their own neighbourhoods as well as shaping and promoting national policy.” (Labour Rule Book, Appendix 1.) But walking the talk is a different ballgame.
The language used with our colleagues in the letter of ‘reinstatement’ is appalling, not least, when you consider what’s expected from local officers arising from the extensive scope of their responsibilities involved in carrying out “Party Business” as outlined in Chapter 17.
There is a more serious outcome to this unfair treatment, for the morale of the activists and the retention of the members – who have been leaving the party in their 10s of 1,000s.
The wonderful SOS (Save our Socialists) advocacy group of suspended branch and CLP Officers points out: “For some the Party is part of their everyday life and community. Suspension without reason and without a timescale for resolution (even if you include a telephone number for the Samaritans) is institutional bullying.“ Michael Walker, Novara Media has gone further. In a two party state, he says, to suspend someone as committed to the Labour Party as many of the suspended members is to disenfranchise them.
A former CLP Secretary, now Labour MP, said: “To have to choose between democracy and suspensions is not why any of us joined the Labour movement, nor is it what members have given innumerable hours of voluntary time for. The tactics of silencing and intimidation, often used by bosses towards their workers, should never be part of the Labour Party’s values or operations,“ (Apsana Begum, December, 2020.)
Let’ s spell it out: the letter sent to reinstated officers is nothing short of bullying, and it should be called out, as it would be if it occurred in employing organisations.
Back to Humpty Dumpty, for the last word on the low trust manager: “The question is, which is to be Master – that’s all.”
For labour members, foot soldiers and our respected officers the question, perhaps, should now be, a topic I first heard on a TUC workplace Reps’ course: “Is management too important to be left to managers?”