By Martin Thomas
The Labour Party leadership have drafted the “skeleton” of a new complaints procedure and indicated that they want rule changes at the conference in September.
Cases to do with sexism, racism, antisemitism etc. will go to National Executive Committee (NEC) panels, and appeals to a new Appeal Board, replacing the National Constitutional Committee (NCC), and appointed, not elected: four lawyers, four HR people, four appointed party members.
This is a response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) calling for an independent procedure. It looks like the EHRC has ok’d it.
But it makes the General Secretary the manager of prosecutions and of the appointment of judges. It makes disciplinary procedures less independent of the Leader’s Office and the General Secretary than they were before. And it’s not clear when people would have a right to appeal, even to the new appointed Appeals Board.
There are no rules or guidance about proportionality of sanctions to offences, so the machinery can still expel some people for minor offences while leaving others unscathed or only reprimanded.
Even where the rule is fairly clear-cut, as in prohibiting support for anti-Labour candidates in elections, there is a lot that is arbitrary in the rulebook. A number of people were excluded in 2015-6 because they had recently opposed the Labour Party electorally. Or rather, because they had done that and lost. If they had won and then sought to cross the floor, they would have been accepted straight off.
The rules most used for exclusions are even more arbitrary. You can be excluded for association with any political group other than an official Labour one, so in principle anyone could be expelled for supporting Friends of the Earth, or CND… or Progress (and with “support” defined vaguely). There’s no defence, there’s no appeal.
Multiple channels for exclusion
So the Labour Party is developing a series of channels for exclusions. There’s the new complaints procedure, for cases involving “protected characteristics”. Then a second channel is set up by the new bans, for auto-exclusions to be done in bulk and at speed.
A third channel: the new ban doesn’t supersede the old blanket power to auto-exclude anyone associated with any group other than an “official Labour” one. Two Socialist Appeal people were recently excluded under that old blanket power, even before the new bans.
Channel four is indefinite suspensions: hundreds of people suspended, often without clear charges, for long periods, and with a warning that talking publicly about their suspension will be considered a disciplinary case.
Ann Black, a member of the NEC who voted for three of the bans and abstained on Socialist Appeal, reports “nearly 100 members still suspended after more than 18 months… more than 1000 complaints… unresolved”.
And the fifth channel, presumably, is a disciplinary process for charges not to do with racism, sexism, antisemitism, etc., and not subject to “auto-exclusion”, plain old misbehaviour like mishandling party funds.
The big issue here straightforward bullying and cheating by full time officers. There remains pretty much no way to deal with that. On the contrary, we’re beginning to get to the position where we cannot discuss the performance of Labour Party staff because it’s subject to a staff agreement.
There is a current rulebook provision for Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) to initiate disciplinary cases, but it is not really workable, and in practice is not used. Remedies for straightforward rule breaking, ability to hold full time staff to account, and right of fair treatment for members, are non-existent.
Around the same time we’ve heard that the Labour Party is proposing to make redundant a quarter of its staff and employ dozens of agency workers to process complaints.
How are the agency staff trained? Who is accountable for the work? Who owns the agency? Who’s making a profit on this?
There is no review process for the handling of complaints and nothing that we have seen has anything has tried to remedy that lack. When the staff make a decision to prosecute, no-one knows if it’s fair.
The EHRC discovered that in the 70 cases that they looked at, as a sample, a significant number had no documentation, no records of the interviews…
No to court cases
As a matter of political approach, we’re against taking the Labour Party to court. We want to resolve issues within the party. Others will think differently; but even on practical grounds their prospects are poor.
There was a court case about unjust procedures recently taken by a number of people who had been either suspended or accused of antisemitism. Fundamentally, they lost. That will give the Labour Party leadership massive confidence that the bars for action to be defined as capricious, perverse or arbitrary or irrational are exceedingly high.
A court permitted Iain McNicol (general secretary 2011-18) to kick 125,000 members out of the 2016 leadership election. In 2016 a Socialist Appeal supporter, Jack Halinski-Fitzpatrick, raised £10,000 to get an injunction against his suspension, and he lost.
Sadly, we missed chances to change things in the Corbyn era: a rule change to delete the “auto-exclusion” clause, for example, was defeated after getting no support from the party leadership and the scrappiest of debates. The Labour Party’s unfair procedures with rule changes will make the pushback a long battle.
CLPs can get rule changes considered only after long delays, and often have their proposals ruled out of order capriciously. The NEC has the power, and often uses it, to push through large rule changes at conference with only a few days’ or hours’ previous notice.
It’s a long battle, part of the bigger long battle to transform the labour movement into a force capable of winning socialism.