Defend Labour Party democracy

9 February 2021

Dave Kellaway and Terry Conway looks at the major assault against the left in the Labour Party and the steps needed to effectively resist

Starmer and his ‘new’ leadership suspended Jeremy Corbyn for his comments on the scale of anti-semitism in the party and his opinion on the role of the mass media and political opponents in exaggerating it. After the NEC voted to reinstate him Starmer then removed the parliamentary whip, effectively excluding him from the Parliamentary Labour Party.

David Evans, the General Secretary (unelected and unconfirmed in the post), then sent a series of circulars prohibiting any discussion about these matters by party members. Motions critical of his decisions, such as motions of no confidence, were not allowed. These were gag orders that the Stalinists, who used to run the Communist Parties in the bad old days, would have been proud of.

The first pretext used by Evans was that individual disciplinary cases like Corbyn’s cannot be discussed. This was a ruling also made by the previous General Secretary, Jennie Formby under Corbyn’s own leadership – and contested by some of the left.

But Corbyn’s case was unique not only because he was a former leader of the party but because he had been exonerated by the highest body of the party outside the annual conference – the National Executive Committee. Many contest that Starmer had the right to withdraw the whip in those circumstances. It’s also patently outrageous that prominent MPs could make comments about his guilt to the media, but local Labour Parties were prevented from taking a view.

Another offensive suggestion was that discussing such motions would inevitably cause offense and discomfort to Jewish members of the party. It’s highly unlikely that Evans is unaware of the large numbers of Jewish members who publicly condemned the withdrawal of the whip from Corbyn. Many Jews have loudly complained that the assumption that all Jewish members of the Labour Party have a single view is in itself antisemitic.

Understandably many thousands of members around the country, perhaps a majority, were outraged at this bureaucratic stifling of any debate. Motions were put up for debate directly challenging Evans and Starmer. Some were ruled out of order locally – both by people who agreed with the edicts of the machine and were happy to have a mechanism to stifle the left locally, but also by others who disagreed but felt that maintaining a left majority locally was more important. The goalposts kept moving – getting closer together – but at the same time resistance was growing.

At least ninety Constituency parties (CLPs) passed motions in support of Corbyn and others suspended or votes of no confidence in the leadership. As a result over 70 CLP branch officers have been suspended – with the latest we have heard of happening in February (but relating to alleged actions in November). The majority have received letters which cite potential breach of rules without giving instances of when this apparently happened whereas a smaller number received more specific (and not always accurate) charges.

If the Labour leadership thought that such draconian action would nip the revolt in the bud and the recalibration of the party to the right could continue smoothly, they were wrong. 284 officers from 200 CLPs signed a letter opposing the clampdown on free speech and requesting the suspensions to be lifted before the Christmas break – and have still had no reply from HQ.

Dozens of online meetings have been held either specifically to discuss how the left should best respond, or with this as a major item. A group of CLP secretaries involved in the letter against the restrictions set up Save our Socialists and launched a petition which deserves wide support. Another appeal by left organisations and individuals was published at the same time – and was notable for the role played by prominent trade unionists alongside MPs.

The Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs certainly needs to be much more consistent in its defence of free speech in the party and of suspended socialists. For example, Nadia Whittome, MP for Nottingham East and member of the group signed the second appeal against the crackdown but acted against people defending democratic debate in her own CLP (see report in Labour Briefing)

Many of the suspended officers have taken legal advice. There was a particular urgency for Alan Gibbons, the suspended Secretary of Liverpool Walton CLP because he was planning to stand for selection as a Labour candidate in the local elections taking place in the city in May. As his lawyers pointed out to the party unless he was reinstated before the selection meeting took place he wouldn’t have that opportunity On February 5, Alan received an email informing him he had been reinstated. Seemed like excellent news, especially when rumours spread that 50 others were due similar letters.

As far as we know very few others have received such letters, but that is not the main reason for concern. Instead, it’s the particular details of the ‘reminder of conduct’ letter sent in these instances. It has long been standard practice for the Labour Party when lifting suspensions to give what is its equivalent of a ‘first written warning’ in employment law, something that will be used against you if there is a further alleged breach. But this letter goes way beyond that as barrister Duncan Shipley-Dalton argues here, in that it is a major power grab by the party machine in general and the General Secretary in particular.

This is the context in which Labour MPs, Party Members, some members of the National Executive Committee and Trade Unions including the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, UNITE, the Fire Brigades Union, the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union, Don’t Leave Organise and Momentum, have come together to launch a campaign for an emergency ‘Recall Conference’ of the Labour party and are asking members as a matter of urgency to take this motion to meetings of their Constituency Labour Party and branches of affiliated organisations.

This welcome and unprecedented co-operation between the left in affiliated trade unions and in local Labour Parties has been building since last year’s NEC elections but is absolutely essential if this attack on party democracy is to be effectively resisted. It will be important that, if as we expect the NEC on Feb 11 ignores these demands that urgent steps are taken to call a conference of the left to debate next steps.

A vibrant organised left in the Labour Party is an obstacle to Starmer’s plans to ‘rebrand’ Labour as the champion of the union jack, the army and traditional (white) working-class families. If the Starmer leadership manages to neuter the left in the Labour Party it would be a significant defeat for the whole of the labour movement.

Dave Kellaway is a Hackney North GM delegate and an A*C.R supporter.

Terry Conway is chair of Hackney and Islington Unite Community, a delegate from that body to Islington North GM and an A*C.R supporter

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