Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier (April, 2021)
Dictionary definition of a foot soldier: “…a dedicated low level follower”
Content: “The weaponisation of Suspension in the Labour Party.”
(1)“The weaponisation of suspension”
(2) “ACAS guidelines on Suspensions compared to Labour Rules and Procedures”
(3) “And these are the people who are going to change the world?”
(4) “Rescue or Recuse?” A Labour Party Rule Book conundrum
(1) The weaponisation of suspension
I got a phone call from a fellow Corbyn foot soldier I’d first met in the camaraderie of a “Hackney on Tour” canvass as far back as the 2017 Election. He told 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?” His answer: “The letter didn’t quote what’s in the rule, it only mentioned it, as if I should know. Should I?” I’d hazard a guess: that’s a conversation that’s been had up and down the country.
Rule “2, 1. 8” – full reference: “Labour Party Rule Book Chapter 2, Clause 1, Sub-Clause 8,” is cited in many suspension letters as if it were well known, clear and comprehensible, as all such rules should be, and are, in best practice organisations.
But – it isn’t. Uncritical mention is made of it occasionally in media coverage of suspensions. At Labour Party meetings also, by people who haven’t looked up the Rule Book (it is a very user-unfriendly 157 page document) and, thus, remain in awe of the mere sight and sound of it: “2,1.8.” 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, Rule “2,1.8” really has to be read in its entirety. When you do read it, do ask yourself, if you were the one told that you had breached “2, 1.8.” would you be any the wiser, having read it, about how you had broken this rule – and 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 ?
To emphasise the point, what follows is the full, verbatim, text of “2, 1.8” in the 2020 Labour Party Rule Book, available, incidentally, on line. (Underliningis added to highlight the subjectivity of this Rule, a whole other point of contention, inconsistent with properly framed rules, which will be addressed separately.)
“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.”
There is a darker side to the story of the suspension mentioned above, withheld until now in order to focus on the true import of Rule “2,1.8.” and demonstrate why and how, as one of the main justifications of suspensions, it has become another weapon in the armoury 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 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 trips lightly off the tongue, but can be hard to deliver on when the chips are down.
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: denying a left wing candidate – and avowed Corbynist foot soldier, a fair crack of the whip. And there is abundant evidence, in the burgeoning alternative left media, 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 finding a way to challenge 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 and emphasis, 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 that don’t concern us here.
The Rule permitting the suspension of election candidates exists, as we’ve seen. It has a valid purpose, unquestionably. There have to be such Rules. There has to be a process of “due diligence” in the selection of Party candidates for local and national positions. But, as with all rules, that process must be fair, transparent and applied consistently to all.
But it can, and is, being mis-used, not least in the matter of thetiming, as in the case under discussion. Notice of suspension, based on an unspecified allegation of a breach of the “catch-all” Rule “2,1.8.” can be timed to arrive too late for any possible appeal against it in time to allow the selection to go ahead. And, lifting of the suspension can be invoked when it is too late to affect the outcome of the selection.
The last line of Ch. 6 1A is heavily emphasised because it raises the issue of powers of suspension being delegated down to regional level, a clear breach of natural justice and due process which would never happen in high-trust organisations, where, historically, the power to “hire, fire and suspend” has moved in the opposite direction in any half-decent organisations: from lower to higher levels of organisational management – and, with prescribed, time-limited Appeals mechanisms to boot (ACAS: “Appealing a Disciplinary or Grievance Outcome” Available on-line.)
We’re going to take a quick look at some of the general principles and practices of suspensions in disciplinary and grievance procedures which ought to, but currently do not, inform the Labour Party Rule Book. Members keep hearing terms like “natural justice” and “due process.” But may have no clear idea of what they would look like in practice. Here is how they apply to suspensions.
(2) Acas guidelines and Labour Disciplinary Rules: Suspensions
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, as mentioned then, ACAS, as we know it, owes its very existence to a Labour Government. Its first Chairman was Jim Mortimer, a former engineering union official, who later became Labour Party General Secretary.
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 should aspire. 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 in the PLP Standing Orders, 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 in the PLP, I don’t know. But the Party can’t plead ignorance of the ACAS guidelines, or their relevance.
So, here is a précis of the Acas guidelines for the use of suspensions – with a reminder that, for ACAS, this is about minimal standards:
“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. “
(My emphasis, MM: The democratic socialist Labour Party doesn’t have such a grievance procedure, considered a ‘minimal’ standard by ACAS.)
If these are a sample of minimal standards being proposed for employing organisations, how much more relevant could they be to an organisation with democratic socialist aims ?
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 – and intrinsic – duty of care to those suspended, should it be suspending members in such large, unmanageable numbers in the first place?
(3) “And these are the people who are going to change the world ?”
I’d like to declare a personal interest in why I am so exercised by the Labour Party’s use and abuse of suspension. Once upon a 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 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. For many suspended Labour Party members the same can be said: politics is a defining part of their lives.
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 it, 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,” any trade unionist or HR manager, reading this, might say. Indeed, that was one option. But the one I choose was that, if it could be proven I’d done something deserving dismissal, then I should be dismissed.
Late on, when things were at a stalemate, I learned on good authority that those bringing the case had been advised there was, in fact, no sustainable case against me which would justify dismissal, or would stand up in an Employee Appeals Tribunal. What began as a threat of Dismissal was changed to a face-saving (for them) Final Written warning – and, when I was not prepared to accept that, to a written warning for something to which, I had to acknowledge, 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 being sent to suspended members in the Labour Party. Not very professional, my response, I know. If I was asked then, or now, for advise, by 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, etc” Arse covered.
All this happened in a trade union body – and that is a large part of what colours my attitude deeply towards the disciplinary principles and procedures of the Labour Party: what I know of disciplinary procedures through being a workplace rep and later full time union official. What I learned the hard way of the inconsistencies in the “Labour and Trade Union Movement” itself – between what is preached and what is practised, especially in its dealings with its own employees and members, has a lot to do with it.
The worst part, is knowing that suspensions, are now being used in the Labour Party to an unprecedented degree, 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 punishments:“pour encourager les autres.” That, and seeing the way – not just the rules, but the interpretation of the rules, – are stacked against the members singled out for suspension to the extent that they have to go outside a Democratic Socialist party, to the Courts, to have any hope of getting fair play. That should not be.
Something else comes back to me as I ponder what’s happening in the Labour Party today. 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 of the suspension. Gesturing over his shoulder to the collection of senior trade union officials behind us, he commented: “And these are the people who are going to change the world?”
(4) “Rescue or Recuse?” A Labour Party Rule Book conundrum
The following can be seen in the 2020 edition of the Labour Party Rule Book. Chapter 1 Clause IX B I :“The guidelines may include criteria to which members (of disciplinary body/the NCC – MM)may have regard in deciding whether to rescue themselves from hearing any particular matter.”
The word “rescue” we know. The word “recuse” is less known, or used. It’s a legal term, meaning someone involved in the determination of a case who may have a ‘conflict of interest’ or lack of impartiality, and thus may “recuse” themselves, or, in plain English, excuse themselves from the case.
If anything needs rescuing it’s the conscience of the Labour Party for the way it treats valuable members and activists.
But ….. it seems, it chooses to recuse itself.
EMail: firstname.lastname@example.org; FaceBook: Michael Murray London