Diary of a Corbyn Foot Soldier (February, 2021)

JVL Introduction

The decision to withdrawal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn and the failure, to date, to reinstate it would appear to have been taken quite outside the scope of the Labour Party Rule Book, the details of which Michael Murray has gone through with a fine toothcomb.

The conclusion that members need to seek a root and bench overhaul of the Rule Book is given added urgency by the story told here.

As Murray points out: “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.”

Thanks to Michael Murray for permission to repost this article which we picked up and originally linked to on Cedar Lounge Revolution.

We are pleased now to change the link to Labour Affairs, an independent left wing magazine commenting on British politics, where it first appeared.

This article was originally published by Labour Affairs on Sat 27 Feb 2021. Read the original here.

Diary of a Corbyn Foot Soldier (February, 2021)

As the withdrawal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn reaches 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 the Unite 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 has 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.

(With kind permission from the Ernest Bevin Society’s journal, Labour Affairs, where this article  first appeared)

Michael Murray:[email protected]; FaceBook: Michael Murray London 

Comments (11)

  • Margaret West says:

    Thank you for an excellent article!

    The deficiencies of the complaints procedure had been noted by many CLPs including my own and an attempt made to correct them. The result of these deliberations by one CLP was published on the JVL site ..

    The attempt by our CLP was an initial one and cut short by the
    madness of the Brexit negotiations and in wanting to prevent a “no deal exit”. Then there was the 2019 election.

    Since then the EHRC report was published and included a recommendation to change the unfair disciplinary procedures but this appears to have been kicked into the long grass along with many other important matters ..

  • Margaret West says:

    Apropos CLPs concerned about the LP disciplinary processes – here is the Cambridge CLPs resolution submitted to the NEC – for apparently the fourth time:

  • Linda says:

    Thank you for an explanation of what’s been happening which is as clear and down to earth as this opaque “process” allows it to be!

    I’m wholly baffled by the perverse actions and inactions of Starmer, Evans, the shadow cabinet and the NEC.

    It must be obvious to Starmer and Evans their autocratic, manipulative approach to party management isn’t working and is producing calamitous consequences. It must be equally obvious to them that their own jobs are at risk now.

    If they’re sensible people they ought to be seeking routes out of the trouble they and the party are in. They must have some “agency” of their own (even if acting independently could put the party or themselves at risk of losing financial and other support they value).

    Why have the Shadow Cabinet and NEC seemingly stood back from HELPING Starmer to heal the conflicts and disunity brought about mainly by Evans (but probably with Starmer’s approval)?

  • Harry Law says:

    Robert Peston.. “Is it anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist because of their discriminatory impact” on Palestinians.”
    R L Bailey…”Yes”
    Of course it all went downhill for Labour from there, only court action will stop the authoritarian policies of Starmer and Evans, plus a heavy defeat in the local elections, personally I would not contribute a penny to this undemocratic cabal.

  • Jack Sklar says:

    In the last of his published diaries; ‘Free At Last’; there is an account by Tony Benn of the threat to withdraw the whip from Jeremy Corbyn when he invited members of Sinn Féin to the House of Commons without clearing this first with the Chief Whip. Tony Benn’s support stopped the other Tony B from taking action. My point was that they had a stronger argument to take action against Corbyn but did not do so because the implications were seen to be divisive. Pity this was not seen by the current party leader.

  • John Coates says:

    Thank you Michael Murray for a detailed analysis of the Labour Party Labarynthine procedures enshrined in the Rule Book. – Knowledge is Power – although few of us have expended the time and effort required to understand fully the rules that govern our bureaucratic party.
    The utter disregard for rules and procedures designed to provide some degree of fair treatment and due process to party members can only call into question the true intentions of Starmer and his backers and supporters.
    The damage being inflicted to the party and, therefore, its traditional objectives of peace and justice – at home and internationally – is not happening by accident.
    NOTHING happens by accident.
    All of this is directed and premeditated.
    Our response to it must be considered, constructive and equally-focused.

  • Andrew Hornung says:

    An excellent article by Michael Murray.
    And a pertinent remark by Harry Law.
    One of the key ideas introduced – though not much discussed – in Michael Murray’s excellent article is that of “condign” sanctions – punishments that fit the ‘crime’. The Chakrabarti Report rightly pointed out that even where rules and codes were infringed, the Party’s response should not necessarily be suspension or expulsion. Unfortunately, the idiotic shoot-from-the-hip slogan of “Zero tolerance” undermines this approach.
    One issue that Michael Murray doesn’t deal with is the drift to subjectivism. We have “upsetting” some Jews in a meeting or in a community standing in for hostility to Jews in general, which in turn is interpreted as evidence of anti-semitism. Thus, so long as some Jews in a given audience can be found to complain that they felt uncomfortable with someone’s contribution, the Party leadership alleges anti-semitism. A second example is currently being invoked by David Evans: obstructing the Party’s fight against racism, where only he as General Secretary determines what constitutes obstruction. In practice – in line with the leadership’s prioritising of anti-Jewish racism over other more pressing forms of racism – this “fight” simply means accommodation to the Board of Deputies.
    By the way, in case it’s useful, below is a resolution passed by a wide majority at our recent All-member CLP meeting.
    Noting that
    1. despite the recommendation of the Chakrabarti report the Governance and Legal Unit persists in its blanket use of administrative suspension
    2. in many cases letters sent out by the GLU advising members of investigation and/or administrative suspension fail to indicate the specific allegations against the recipients of these letters
    3. in many cases letters sent out by the GLU advising members of investigation and/or administrative suspension fail to indicate the specific rules that such alleged acts are deemed to have breeched
    4. these letters seek to impose on the recipients a duty of “confidentiality”, leaving those against whom the allegations have been made without procedural support and means of defence;
    5. these practices constitute an abuse of the principles of natural justice,

    this CLP calls on the NEC to ensure that the GLU cease these practices immediately and adopt and implement the recommendations of the Chakrabarti report (as endorsed in the EHRC report) with respect to these questions.

    Further that the CLP should contact the CLPs in the county with a view to presenting a united front of resistance and opposition to the practices outlined above and support those campaigns fighting on these issues.

  • Mike Scott says:

    This sadly rings all too true. I am also a retired TU Organiser and have on several occasions noted on the JVL website that the LP Disciplinary Procedure isn’t fit for purpose and is certainly nowhere near best practice in the Labour Movement. Even the Chakrabarty proposals fell some way short, particularly in relation to appeals. I’ve all too often joked that I thought the union I worked for was bad until I rejoined the LP after a (very) long break.

    Will Starmer suddenly notice that his “efforts” to unite the party aren’t working and start behaving in a just and objective manner? Absolutely not. And why? Because he knows exactly what he’s doing and why. Like many on the right and in the centre, he resents the incomers and returners who arrived with the Corbyn leadership and would much rather have a smaller and more malleable party. The suspensions, expulsions and blatant ignoring of the rules are expressly designed to bring that about.

    A lot of good activists have already resigned before they were pushed and it’s getting increasingly difficult not to join them. Fortunately, there are a lot of good non-party and cross-party organisations doing really useful work across society, so it’s not a question of stay and fight or collapse in a heap!

    But it’s a tragedy that the party founded to represent us has sunk so low.

  • m j murray says:

    I’d like to thank all those who have commented on this issue of “The Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier,” which I’ve been writing from about 6 months into Jeremy’s leadership. The next issue goes deeper into the Rule Book through a close scrutiny of the use and abuse of such language as “Competent Business”: “Reminder of Conduct” – and “Chapter 2,1.8,” much influenced by Lewis Carroll’s much quoted lines on the “Master” being able “to make words mean what he wants them to mean.” The final article, of a “trilogy,” looks at, possibly, the most glaring breach of due process: the way in which ‘suspension’ – “administrative or otherwise – is used. ( Andrew Hornung , a commentator above, please note. And Andrew, to answer another valid comment you made: about the article not dealing with “subjectivity” and “selective” racism. It doesn’t. I’m self-censoring. The only “BOD” you’ll see me writing about is Brian O Driscoll, one of the best Irish rugby players ever and former captain of the British and Irish Lions. Or, lower case “bod” Irish (Gaelic) word for penis. Talking about “subjectivity”: I don’t feel secure enough in the Labour Party to talk openly and, I would hope constructively, without being misunderstood or misconstrued about the issues you say weren’t dealt with. And, isn’t that a sad state of affairs?)

  • Yes yes. No due process, completely ignoring standing orders, the rule book, natural justice . All semblance of these these procedures and processes have been thrown out of the window over the last 6 to 9 months by Starmer and Evans but they have got away with these outrageous actions and behaviour. Divine rights of kings is the process now with this leadership and no part of the Labour movement appears capable of reigning the terrible two in. Let alone make them acc!

  • Linda says:

    @ Mike Scott
    “Like many on the right and in the centre, [Starmer] resents the incomers and returners who arrived with the Corbyn leadership and would much rather have a smaller and more malleable party”

    You could well be right – but surely Starmer (and Evans) did a proper assessment beforehand of the COSTS consequent on turning Labour into a party of docile nodding heads? All prudent managers carry out risk assessments.

    Starmer and Evans had prior warnings of the likely COSTS of their approach from their experiences of the leaked Labour report getting into the public domain (in spite of seemingly desperate and determined efforts to hide it).

    That report is causing ongoing problems for them over a year later. The Forde Inquiry report – based partly on that leaked report – may well blow up in his face most leadership and staffing decisions Starmer has made, to such an extent he won’t be able to carry on as leader.

    Starmer’s leadership approach involves high risks for minimal return. It just doesn’t seem rational. But there’s no reason to believe Starmer irrational.

Comments are now closed.