Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier

Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier (April, 2021)

Dictionary definition of a foot soldier: “…a dedicated low level follower”

murraymicha@gmail.com; FaceBook: Michael Murray London 

Content: “The weaponisation of  Suspension in the Labour Party.

(1)“And these are the people who are going to change the world?”

(2)“The weaponisation of suspension” 

(3) “ACAS guidelines on Suspensions compared to Labour rules and procedures”

(4)  “Rescue or Recuse?” Nobody’s perfect, not even the NCC

(1) “And these are the people who are going to change the world ?”

Back in God’s time, I spent the bones of a year on suspension, pending dismissal from a job I loved.  

Back then, even, I would have been aware of the Shakespeare’s evocative line:“You take away my life when you take away the means whereby I live.” But it wasn’tthe threat of  being deprived of my livelihood or my life that kept me from not being able to sleep for a full week after receiving THE LETTER; it was feeling robbed of a core sense of purpose – of identity. Rightly or wrongly, my work was my life.

It was an awful year. I’d decided to present myself for work each day, and I did, to be able to demonstrate in a tribunal, or court if it came to that,  that I had made myself available for work. I had to endure a noxious rumour machine, black-balling and, of course, the “white wall treatment,” where you’re sat in an empty room and given no work: all aimed at breaking you, so you walk away. “Strong grounds for Constructive Dismissal,” I hear any trade unionists and HR Managers, who may be reading this, say. Indeed, that was one option. But the line I took was that if they could prove I’d done anything deserving dismissal, then I should be dismissed. 

Late on, when things were at a stalemate, I learned on good authority that there was no case against me which would justify dismissal, or would stand up in an Employee Appeals Tribunal if it went to that.  What began as a threat of Dismissal was changed to a Final Written warning – and, finally to a written warning for something to which, I accepted, I was obliged to plead guilty: not answering a particular letter. 

The reason I didn’t answer was that its contents made me so angry, I didn’t feel able to respond without incriminating myself: it was a letter very like the“when did you stop beating your wife” letters sent to suspended members in the Labour Party. Not very professional, my response, I know. If I was asked then, or now, to advise someone else in that situation, or course, I would say write the following: “I have passed your letter to my lawyer/union and will be in touch.”  Arse covered.  

In the event, having worked out my time to retirement doing the work I loved, I was actually asked to stay on, on a consultancy basis – which lasted several years until I had to draw the line under full time work for medical reasons.      

All this happened in a trade union body, by the way. And that colours my attitude deeply towards the disciplinary principles and procedures of the Labour Party – to the point of  an inclination to relive my own experience, when I listen to and feel the pain of virtual strangers now facing suspension and expulsion from a movement I know they love. Suspension, not as a last resort where all other options have failed or have been tried and found to be inappropriate, but as a weapon of authoritarian control, like wartime executions: “pour encourager les autres.” 

Something else comes back to me, again uninvited, as I despair at the ongoing suspension of good people, many of whom have given their whole lives in the labour and trade union movement. Something a colleague – actually “my line manager,” whispered in my ear, as we left a particularly rancorous, toxic meeting during the long drawn-out process. Gesturing back over his shoulder:  “And these are the people who want to change the world?”  On another occasion, when I was about to lose my cool he said to me quietly: “Michael. Courage is grace under pressure.” Hemingway, of course. But it was precisely what I needed to hear. It was like being yanked back from the edge of a precipice. And, as I write this now, with my head, I’m reminded that, indubitably, the body remembers … 

(2) The weaponisation of suspension

My suspension happened decades ago. But just recently, I got a phone call from a fellow Corbyn foot soldier I’d first met in the camaraderie of a “Hackney on Tour” canvass in another constituency telling me he’d been suspended. What for, I asked.  “Oh,” he said, “they say I may have breached  Rule 2, 1.8.”  “You may have? “  “Yes, may.”  “Nothing more specific?” “No.” “Have you read Rule 2, 1.8?” Not yet.”  

“2, 1. 8” – or, to make full reference to it, Labour Party Rule Book Chapter 2, Clause 1, Sub-Clause 8.  It is cited in many suspension letters as if was well known, clear, comprehensible. But – and I touched on  this in my last diary entry – it isn’t. Uncritical mention is made of it occasionally in media coverage of suspensions; at Labour Party meetings too, by people who haven’t looked it up and, thus, remain in awe of it. Which, without the shadow of a doubt, is the effect intended.  

To appreciate how it has been used in the weaponisation of suspensions in the Labour Party, to serve factional interests, it really has to be read in its entirety, I now realise. As you read it, ask yourself, if you were the one told that you had breached “2, 1.8.” would you be any the wiser, having read it, of what exactly you were being accused? 

From the point of view of natural justice it is important that you do – otherwise, how can you prepare your response, whether an admission of guilt, or mustering a defence against a charge, or charges?  

Perhaps, most important of all: how can you be expected to accept that suspension might well be a fair, necessary and unavoidable procedural measure when you don’t know of what you are being accused ?   

There follows the full, verbatim text of  “2, 1.8” from the 2020 Labour Party Rule Book:

“No member of the Party shall engage in conduct which in the opinion of the NEC is prejudicial, or in any act which in the opinion of the NEC is prejudicial, or in any act whichin the opinion of the NEC is grossly detrimental to the Party.  The NEC and NCC shall take account of any codes of conduct currently in force and shall regard any incident which in their view might reasonably be seen to demonstrate hostility or prejudice based on age; disability; gender reassignment or identity; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; or sexual orientation as conduct prejudicial to the Party: these shall include but not be limited to incidents involving racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia or otherwise racist language, sentiments, stereotypes or actions, sexual harassment, bullying or any form of intimidation towards another person on the basis of a protected characteristic as determined by the NEC, wherever if occurs, as conduct prejudicial to the Party. The disclosure of confidential information relating to the Party or to any other member, unless the disclosure is duly authorised or made pursuant to a legal obligation, shall also be considered conduct prejudicial to the Party.” (Underliningadded to highlight the subjectivity of this Rule, a whole other point of contention, which we’ll pass over here,)

There is a darker side to the story of the suspension mentioned above, withheld until now in order to expose as fully as possible the reality of Rule “2,1.8,” and how, as one of the main justification of suspensions it has become a weapon of choice of Labour’s “new management,” as it seeks to stamp its authority on the Party.     

The subject of the story, a highly regarded voluntary community worker of many years and accomplishments had  made it to a Labour branch short-list of candidates for the upcoming local elections. The letter of suspension arrived on the eve of the meeting of the relevant selection panel. His name was removed from the panel and the Labour candidate selection proceeded without him, after, it has to be said, a majority, albeit a slender one, shamefully voted in favour of getting on with the selection rather than postpone it to seek clarity on the reason for the decision to suspend the member. Solidarity can sometimes be in short supply when most needed.   

Some, closer to those events than I, surmised that when the May elections have been and gone my friend may well, sooner or later, get a follow-up letter, lifting the suspension. But “2, 1. 8.” will have achieved its purpose – again: denying a left wing candidate a fair crack of the whip. Because there is abundant evidence, in the burgeoning alternative left media – the MSM chooses to look the other way – that the case mentioned here, is far from unique. 

We, the members, being the majority of the Party, have to take the lions’ share of the responsibility for not challenging a Party rule that opens the door to the wholesale abuse we’ve seen at every level in the Party for some time – and long before the installation of “new management.”  A rule that’s an invitation to people at different levels of the open-ended delegated authority of the NEC to subvert the democratic process by the tactical use of  “shoot-first ask questions later” suspensions. That Rule is Chapter 6 Clause 1A & 1B:

Chapter 6 Clause IA. “In relation to any alleged breach of the constitution, rules or standing orders of the Party by an individual member or members of the Party, the NEC may, pending the final outcome of any investigation and charges (if any), suspend that individual or individuals from office or representation of the Party notwithstanding the fact that the individual concerned has been or may be eligible to be selected as a candidate in any election or by-election … the powers of the NEC and General secretary …. May be exercised … through such persons as may be designated.” 

(My underlining, MM)

Chapter 6. Clause 1B. is a repeat of 1A, as regards suspension of members “who may be eligible for selection as a candidate in any election or by-election” but with specific reference to breaches of  Chapter 2, 1. 8. which have different procedural outcomes for reasons that don’t concern us here. 

Before we conclude, we’re going to take a look at some of the general principles and practices of  suspensions in disciplinary and grievance procedures. Members keep hearing terms like “natural justice” and “due process” bandied about. But I’m not sure they can envisage what they look like in practice. Here is how they would look as regards suspensions.       

(3)  ACAS guidelines and Labour Disciplinary Rules

The ACAS Code of Practice and guidelines on disciplinary and grievance procedures are intended as a minimal approach to dispute resolution and good employee-employer relationship. Their relevance to the Member-Labour Party relationship was argued in the two previous articles on the Labour Party Rule Book: not the least of which being that ACAS, as we know it, owes its existence to a Labour Government.  

Suffice it to say here that they constitute a valuable guide to the practical application of the principles of natural justice and due process to which the Labour Party aspires.

On the latter point: there is an exception within the Party rules themselves. The Standing Orders of the PLP has incorporated much of the ACAS guidelines described below into its procedure for dispute resolution. There is also a Grievance procedure, not to be found in the main body of the Rule Book and, even, mention of conciliation and mediation as a pre-disciplinary stage, to be found in most high-trust organisations   How this works in practice, I don’t know. Paper never refused ink. 

Likewise, there’s a rule in the Party Rule Book that MPs should belong to a Trade Union and should encourage their own full and part-time employees to sign up. But, I wonder, in my ignorance, when was the last card check?  I suspect in Blair’s time, but I may be wrong.  

Here is a brief precis of the ACAS guidelines for the place of suspensions in dispute resolution:  

“An employer should consider all other options before considering the suspension of an employee. It should be a last, not a first resort…there should be no assumption of guilt … suspension  should not be used as a disciplinary sanction … 

“During a suspension … an employee should be kept regularly updated about their suspension, the ongoing reasons for it, and how much longer it is likely to last…

“It is important that the employee is supported during this time and is able to contact someone at the workplace to discuss any concerns they may have… 

“If  the re-instated employee has concerns with the way their suspension was handled, and it cannot be resolved informally, the employee could make a formal complaint, called a grievance … the organisation should have one in place. “ 

If these are a sample minimal standards being proposed for employing organisations, how much more relevant could they possibly be to an organisation with the democratic socialist aims and objectives and working methods outlined in the Labour Rule Book? Is the referral of suspended members to the Samaritans for support in a stressful process good enough ?  And, if the Party wants to plead poverty for not properly discharging their moral duty of care to those suspended, should it be suspending members in such large, unmanageable numbers in the first place?  

(4) “Rescue or Recuse?” Nobody’s perfect, not even the NCC

The following can be seen in the 2020 edition of the Labour Party Rule Book. “Rescue,” we know. “Recuse,”  less so. “Recuse” is the verb. “Recusal” the noun. It’s a legal term, meaning someone involved in the determination of a case where they may have a ‘conflict of interest’  or lack of impartiality,  “recusing” themselves,  excusing themselves from the case, in plain English.  

Chapter 1 Clause IX  B I   “The guidelines may include criteria to which members (of NCC, MM) may have regard in deciding whether to rescue themselves from hearing any particular matter.”

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