Labour’s disciplinary processes – “a disgrace”

JVL Introduction

We publish here a highly critical account of the Labour Party’s disciplinary processes. The author, Jacob Ecclestone, draws on decades of experience as a trade union activist and an official in the National Union of Journalists.

Too often, he believes, the rules of the Labour Party have been used as mechanisms to silence heretical views or remove political opponents from office; to smear those regarded as too radical or anonymously accuse others of thought crimes.

As we await the report of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission on its investigations into the Labour Party, it is important we set out the reforms we would like to see.

They are extensive.

Ecclestone outlines a simple set of principles, drawn from the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Human Rights Act, and enunciated too in the Chakrabarti Report which the Labour Party adopted.

These principles are widely, if not universally, deployed in labour-movement organisations and more generally.

We are entitled to demand that they should underpin Labour Party disciplinary procedures – in such urgent need of reform.

The Labour Party, Information and Power

by Jacob Ecclestone

About the author: Jacob Ecclestone was a member of the National Executive of the National Union of Journalists between 1977 and 1997. He was also Deputy General Secretary of the NUJ for 17 years. He is a member of South Norfolk CLP

A few months before he became prime minister Tony Blair gave a speech at the Campaign for Freedom of Information awards ceremony in 1996. He said: 

“It is not some isolated constitutional reform that we are proposing with a Freedom of Information Act. It is a change that is absolutely fundamental to how we see politics developing in this country over the next few years … Information is power and any government’s attitude about sharing information with the people actually says a great deal about how it views power itself and how it views the relationship between itself and the people who elected it.”

Inspiring stuff, isn’t it? Now read it again and in place of “government’s attitude” insert “political party’s attitude.”

Blair later described the Freedom of Information Act as his single greatest political error. In his memoirs, published in 2010, he described his behaviour as “naive, foolish, irresponsible….” Just to make sure we understood, he added: “There is really no description of [my] stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate.” This was an odd judgement for someone who has the blood of hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis on his hands, if not his conscience.

But the fact that he felt such remorse over allowing people even limited rights to official information suggests that the disciplinary procedures employed by today’s Labour Party have their roots in Blair’s poisonous legacy: information is indeed power, and the attitude of the Labour Party on sharing information shows how it views the relationship between itself and the people who work to elect it.

How have we come to this? Her Majesty’s loyal “Opposition” – men and women who are paid handsomely out of the public purse specifically to examine, test, challenge and if necessary publicly oppose what the government seeks to do – are themselves intolerant of scrutiny, fearful of dissent and questioning from their own supporters. Why? Supporters are the very people who are sufficiently concerned by the failures of our society that they join the Labour Party in order to change things.

Most human societies have rules to help people live together, more or less peaceably. Rules are the foundations of civilisation. Today, in Britain at least, we rather take it for granted that the law rests on certain principles: that it will be applied to all; that it will be applied fairly by men and women who have been trained to do so; that the accused has certain rights and, importantly, that the application of the rule of law will be carried out in an open and transparent way. There are several reasons why justice should be administered in public – that justice should be seen to be done – the most important being that when the judges themselves are under public scrutiny they are likely to behave with integrity and in accordance with recognised norms.

It would be difficult to claim that many of those who represent the Labour Party in Westminster, or those who are paid to administer the affairs of the party in the country at large, have shown much concern for the principles of open justice over the past few years. Too often the rules of the Labour Party have been used as mechanisms to silence heretical views or remove political opponents from office; to smear those regarded as too radical or anonymously accuse others of thought crimes. This has been noticeably the case during the campaign against Corbyn’s leadership, but is also true of earlier periods in the party’s history.

The Labour Party has a long and tawdry record of suspending and expelling members because they are regarded as too socialist, too principled, too ready to speak out on important issues. Nye Bevan, Michael Foot and Ken Livingstone are just a few of the more famous figures who have either been expelled or had the whip withdrawn. Recently there have been countless other examples.

When Labour MPs and party bureaucrats encourage (or endorse by their silence) intolerance towards members of their own party, it suggests that gaining power at any price is the real purpose – not changing the relationship between the governed and the governing. Words like “socialism” or “democracy” will be bandied about, but do they mean anything?

By behaving in this way the Labour Party undermines its capacity to earn the trust of the electorate. It erodes support among its own members and at the same time plays into the hands of those who hate what it stands for – hate the idea of public ownership, the idea of the rich being made to pay more tax, the idea of a health service for all rather than for those with the means to pay, the idea of workers’ rights and racial and social justice.

How can we call on voters to trust a party which uses unjust means to silence political opposition within its own ranks? Will people not suspect that a party which declares certain issues “not competent business” for members to discuss is a threat to freedom of expression? Will the Party not be seen as giving tacit support to racism when it silences members who describe Israel as an apartheid state?

It is more than four years since Shami Chakrabarti presented her report into antisemitism in the Labour Party. She recommended rule changes to improve the party’s disciplinary process and the adoption and publication of a new complaints procedure. Although her report was formally accepted by the party, few of her recommendations have been implemented.

That is not good enough. The present disciplinary procedures are a disgrace. They would meet the needs of any half-efficient dictator. Members are subject to anonymous allegations contained in letters from unnamed officials. An accused member may be required to self-incriminate by answering loaded questions from anonymous bureaucrats and decisions are taken by disciplinary panels at meetings of which the accused is not even aware, much less invited to attend. If all this is not shocking enough, any member accused of a breach of rule is forbidden from discussing the issue – even the mere existence of the case – with anyone.

How do members of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the NEC square such grotesque regulations with the European Convention on Human Rights, which Britain signed seventy years ago, or the Human Rights Act, which parliament agreed to in 1998? In 2015 Keir Starmer declared that “the case for the HRA is a strong one. It is a moral case… It should not be viewed suspiciously as a burden, but promoted as an instrument of social cohesion and public purpose.”

Fine words, but if the rights of members of the Labour Party to an open and fair disciplinary hearing are not seen as “a burden”, then how does Starmer, with a long record as a human rights lawyer, reconcile his attitude to the laws of the United Kingdom (including Article 6 of the Human Rights Act) with the disciplinary procedures of the party he now leads?

If it is argued (and I have no doubt that it will be) that Article 6 deals with the rights of people accused of criminal offences, and that those rights are therefore not relevant to members of the Labour Party, where we are not generally dealing with criminality, then the next obvious question is this: what is it that calls for different principles of justice to be applied in the two cases?

Should the accused not have an expectation of a fair hearing, of the ability to challenge the evidence, to bring witnesses etc – principles which I outline below?

If the answer to that is “no”, then why should anyone support such an undemocratic and unprincipled organisation? If the answer is “yes”, then Keir Starmer, the PLP, the NEC and Mr David Evans had better start reforming the Governance and Legal Unit of the party. Since they have not advanced any ideas of their own, they might like to adopt the following principles. I know they work because I spent many years, as a trade unionist, applying them with a reasonable degree of success.

The accused is entitled to know the name of the accuser.

The accusation must be in writing and must be communicated to the accused.

The accused must be given a copy of the evidence on which the complaint is based.

The hearing of the complaint will be open to any member to attend.

Both parties will be allowed to bring witnesses, who must be heard.

The proceedings will be recorded impartially.

The panel hearing the complaint submits its findings in writing to a higher body with a recommendation as to guilt and penalty.

All decisions must be open to an appeals panel composed of elected members who are not members of the higher body and who hold no other position in the party.

Complaints or accusations shall be invalid unless brought within two years of the alleged offence or breach of rule.







Comments (27)

  • Christopher Lazou says:

    Jacob Ecclestone is spot on. Starmer and the rest of the Labour Party ruling structures are failing the members of the Labour Party. Those of us who joined the LP to support its high ideals will now vote with our feet.

  • Andrew O'Hagan says:

    Great article makes a clear case for transparent open process of discipline. Using legislation created by Tony Blair and further supported by both HRA and ECHR not to be confused with the EHRC.

    When courts are conducted in secret you only get Star Chamber Justice.

  • Sean O’Donoghue says:

    Thanks for this Jacob. You could add to the list those who are suspended and a year later dont know why. Judgment on Mike Sivier’s case will be delivered this week…he sued the party for refund of his subs as he was disbarred from participating in Labour Party activity for 26 months whilst awaiting his hearing (plus also sued them for breach of Data protection legislation). There are probably 1000s of similar suspendees. I waited for a year to hear charges against me, all the time suspended, but i decided not to renew by subs.

  • Maggie Pearse says:

    ‘Hearings’ are not necessarily ‘heard’ – but decided on papers only, without full reasons being passed on to the person concerned.

  • Si says:

    Long overdue. The clandestine process is just not fair, and probably illegal.

  • Nick Jenkins says:

    Well said, Jake! As members of a progressive party, we have the right to expect better.

  • Bernie Corbett says:

    I am a fairly docile member of the Labour Party, and have been for many years (except for the heights of Blair, when I left, but rejoined from a New York internet cafe on the day he announced his resignation). In the unlikely event that I was accused of a breach of the rules, I would immediately tell everyone I know all about it. The idea that “any member accused of a breach of rule is forbidden from discussing the issue” is just so wrong. Apart from anything else, it seeks to prevent other members from coming to my defence, because they don’t know I need defenders. I accept that a big political party like the Labour Party needs an internal disciplinary system. But if the Labour Party believes in open justice, then by imposing a secret, anonymous disciplinary system, it is abandoning its own principles. How have we got to this place? Plainly the Labour Party ought to remodel its internal disciplinary system from the ground up. How likely is that to happen? Sometimes I am close to despair. B

  • John C says:

    Just like you can’t have a healthy economy without a healthy population, you can’t have a morally sound Party or Government without due process. Those who talk of a need to strike a “balance between the two” should not be trusted to deliver either.

  • Allan Howard says:

    It’s odd, isn’t it, how when Jeremy was leader there were various ‘moderate’, mainly Jewish, Labour MPs claiming that they’d received hundreds, and in some cases thousands of abusive and/or anti-semitic messages on social media, but since Starmer was elected leader it appears to have all magically come to an end. Hmm.

    And I always found it rather a mystery why it was that once the A/S thing had reached a stage where it was obviously not helping Jeremy’s chances of winning a general election – which was the case by about a year into his tenure as leader – that so many left-wing Jeremy Corbyn-supporting members (allegedly) apparently seemed to be doing everything they could to undermine his chances as time went on.

    Vexatious and fraudulent claims and allegations of A/S – or whatever – should result in a life-time ban!

  • There is nothing one can disagree with in what Jacob proposes. They are the basis of what is called due process or natural justice.

    Yet did the Left in the Labour Party support such procedures? Did Lansman and Momentum? Did Corbyn and McDonnell? Do they support it now?

    These are political not just human rights or legal questions. The fact is that Corbyn supported the fast track, i.e. no hearing procedures assuring us that they would only be used in ‘egregious’ cases. As we know they are now used in EVERY anti-Semitism case. The NCC seems to have been all but sidelined.

    It was utter stupidity or treachery for Corbyn and the left around him to accept these undemocratic measures, let alone Lansman and Momentum. The inability of Corbyn to understand that the ‘antisemitism’ allegations were directed above all at him is something that cannot be erased. His failure to fight back against the Right will not be treated kindly by socialist historians

  • Illinois Cook says:

    Excellent article and comments. I have McNicol, Matthews and Hogan to thank for saving subs money since 2016. I had to ask for the evidence against me for my suspension the day before my phone interview, they had promised it but not sent it. I got it that night and it consisted of Tweets calling Woodcock a traitor, telling Bryant to ‘F off, loser!’ and some Guardian articles about Hilary Clinton (?) and Netanyahu (?) and @intifada articles, including the one detailing Smeeth’s past. And an article about Hollywood celebs raising money for the IDF. Happy to share the exact comms and info though unfortunately I didn’t tape the interview. The suspension stopped me from voting for Corbyn in the second Leadership contest, but he won by a mile anyway 🙂

  • Iain says:

    Also the accused should not be found guilty of anything other than the original accusation.
    e.g. Racism accusations are going to fail so switch to catch all “Bringing the Party into disrepute”

  • chris wallis says:

    Excellent piece. I say that as part of the LA4J group. The party’s own stats on the A-S charges are damning. The LP is 95% less AS than British society as a whole (2.7%). And if Corbyn is, in Hodge’s words, a fucking anti-semite and a racist, why is he still in the party? Can it be that there’s no evidence? And what are the EHRC hiding? Perhaps a petition to get them to publish might smoke them out. Right now Starmer and co are trying both to bury the issue and make us forget it whilst trying to construct evidence against enough people to support their previous claims. That he took all that money from Israeli govt proxys for his leadship campaign too late for it to appear on the register of members interests in time for scrutiny beofre the election tells you everything you need to konw about the man. he is unfit to lead the party, and a danger to National Security. Now where have I heard that before?

  • Margaret West says:

    When a person is bullied I do not think it fair to blame him or her –
    rather blame the bullies ..

    The problem is giving in to them at all – for that is never enough
    – but Corbyn appeared to get no support at all or even common
    sense advice.

    The problem has got much worse now though – for Starmer is
    apparently adopting his policies in order to pre-empt criticism from
    the Right. Thus in imposing a whip on the PLP to abstain when
    voting on the “Spycops” Bill he is (apparently) reacting to criticism
    that the LP is weak on Security Issues. In reality he should be
    countering the criticism which was based on Corbyn’s attitude
    to Russia – or rather the lies of the MSM concerning it.

  • Margaret West says:

    PS Concerning Security – I think the LP should go on the attack rather than on the Defence – particularly regarding Russia when it is evident that the current policies have failed. Corbyn had the right idea “Follow the Money” and this is backed up by the Russian opposition.

  • Nick Pile says:

    A very considered article. It doesn’t mention the “cottage industry” which grew up around the “big lie” of “institutional AS in the Labour Party”. It is worth keeping in mind that as well as some MPs who presented hundreds of complaints of antisemitism, most of which turned out not even to involve anyone in the Party, (or one who put the number in the thousands, almost all entirely anecdotal), there were those individuals who trawled social media accounts looking for “key” words. From this they submitted thousands of accusations, many or most of which were entirely spurious.

    This had several effects. It had Party officials chasing their tails just to keep up with the resultant work-load. It allowed the accusation that those officials were not dealing with cases efficiently or promptly. And worst, it fed that “big lie” with phoney evidence of widespread antisemitism in the Party. I don’t believe this was accidental.

    As others have suggested, the then leadership went along with this, in my view naively rather than maliciously as I believe Corbyn followed the suggestion that there can be no smoke without fire. However, it is evident that for others this achieved exactly what it was intended to do. Sadly, those supporting the Party’s subsequent “panic” response, as well as the usual suspects, includes some influential figures on the Party’s left.

    The Labour Party, as a result, is left with an inexperienced and pliant leader who, as well as weak and vacillating on many issues, despite (or perhaps because of) his time spent as a human rights lawyer, will countenance the weakening of those rights internationally, nationally and within the Party. There are many within the PLP who will welcome this. The same cannot be said among many of the Party’s ordinary members. I share the despair stated by several of your respondents.

  • Wonnie says:

    This article is not hard hitting enough. The fact is the party using suspension to ‘disappear’ people, leaving them completely adrift with no rights whatsoever. I have been disappeared and despite using a good legal firm, have spent £thousands, without even a response. My case is ultra straight forward and simple, concerning malicious allegations, which do not stand up to scrutiny. My only option now is court which will cost in the region of £30k – which I don’t have and the party knows, it can fail to respond without fear, as justice is not affordable for most victims!

  • Mike Scott says:

    As a life-long Trade Union activist and retired fulltime Organiser, I agree with the main points made by Jacob, but would go further: it’s essential that any disciplinary procedure includes a full right of appeal, not just on the grounds of procedure not being followed.

    And guilty verdicts must be based on clear evidence, not on “bringing the party into disrepute”, which means anything and nothing.

    As for Corbyn colluding with the current arrangements, I told anyone who would listen throughout his period as leader that he was being badly advised by a group of people who were both inexperienced and, in the case of the antisemitism allegations, mostly not Jewish. Apart from Lansman, who has his own agenda, none of them appeared to know much about UK Jewish culure and the history of self-appointed leaders such as the Board of Deputies.

  • MARK HOWELL says:

    The law can intervene in party disciplinary process, as the Williamson case shows.
    Mr Justice Pepperall:-
    “The question is not what the court would have done but whether the Labour Party is in breach of contract in its conduct of these disciplinary proceedings…
    ….I therefore conclude that, having communicated the panel’s decision as final, the Labour Party acted unfairly in that there was no proper reason for reopening the case against Mr Williamson and referring the original allegations to the NCC. Such complaint cannot be taken before the NCC and it is appropriate for the court to grant declaratory relief.”

  • LW says:

    Very good article. I have first hand experience of the devastation caused to individuals who have dedicated years of their lives to the Labour Party and who then are suspended and / or expelled without any reference to Chakrabarti recommendations, which was allegedly adopted but in fact wasn’t. The fact that nothing has replaced Chakrabarti is obvious. The process does not take care of the accused person’s human rights. We continue to support the accused, against the direction of GLU.

  • DJ says:

    Does the Labour Party actually have any coherent written disciplinary policies and procedures for members and staff?

  • Jeff Bowler says:

    Like thatcher before him the Blair legacy remains a poisonous infection across the Labour Party .

  • Rick Hayward says:

    It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Especially for a Party that (theoretically) represents the ordinary against the select.

    But – of course – that heritage and role has been under consistent attack from the establishment, and Keir Starmer’s ascendancy can be seen as the apotheosis of that trend, following his acceding to the BoD’s authoritarian demands and his recent use of the PLP as an adjunct to Tory policy in unquestioning support of massive curtailment of civil liberties under cover of Covid and the extension of law-breaking by the state under cover of ‘intelligence’ operations.

    Not a pretty record for a ‘Human Rights’ lawyer (allegedly).
    … and that’s before we get to other matters.

  • Kuhnberg says:

    Good luck in getting those recommendations accepted under Starmer’s leadership. The Labour Party has surrendered to the right-wing populist narrative that has swept the world since the beginning of the century, bringing us Brexit, climate denial, and the new McCarthyism, and the elevation of leaders like Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro. And also, unfortunately, Keir Starmer, a bureaucrat supinely obedient to the dictates of this new orthodoxy, operating in terms reminiscent of the East German Republic.

  • Graham Ramsey says:

    I know a few who have suffered

  • Cormac Kelly says:

    I was expelled recently for allegedly being a member of the Socialist Party. In fact I had left this party 18 months before. The evidence was an old photograph and references to me in the pages of the Socialist newspaper. I pointed out this out in an email reply. The Labour Party ignored it. I live in the Huddersfield constituency whose Labour MP is Barry Sheerman. Sheerman made an extremely offensive anti-semitic comment in the last few months. He has not been expelled for the reason that he is a Blairite.

  • Rosemary Brocklehurst says:

    Jacob is completely right and gives us a timely reminder of the fakir that Blair was. Everyone knows that Governments can take certain actions to prevent accountability and exposure – on defence issues for example – or by appointing toothless Commissions. I take the long view about the truth, which does not mean I am complacent. It took two decades for the Party to be captured by the apparatchiks of the right. It will take longer to make it a socialist Party that can effectively represent the people -and we will be struggling as a country then and the world will be facing the worst crises in wars. environment, poverty, food shortage and disease than ever before and at greater scale. Eventually the truth will be revealed in the History books about the Labour Party under McNichol, about the collaboration of the Labour grandees and their role in facilitating the CAA campaign to destroy Corbyn, as well as the reality of the weaknesses and naivete of the left who took the reins of the Party before they were capable and ready,.

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