What principles and processes should govern Labour’s disciplinary processes?

In a discussion article for JVL web, Prof Roger Seifert draws on his long experience in the field of industrial relations and trade union organisation to raise important issues that need to be reflected in our thinking about Labour’s disciplinary processes.

I am concerned with the nature of the current commentary about disciplinary cases and their outcomes within the Labour Party.

Those of us who have been active in our trade unions and political parties will have come across the use and abuse of disciplinary procedures in our working lives. As a union workplace rep I was involved in numerous discipline cases where we argued for an ACAS-like agreed formal procedure to exist, and then represented colleagues who were charged with wrongdoing. In this we appreciated that both the process and the outcome were to some extent negotiable. We would expect due process to be followed: that our members were informed of the accusation, told of the likely punishment if guilty, allowed full representation, and that those hearing the case (and on appeal) would be selected on the basis of fairness and impartiality. This did not always happen but we fought for the principles anyway.

Once in the formal system union reps worked within the rules, and if the outcome went against us we argued for mitigation in the range of sanctions: warnings, suspension without pay, demotion, and dismissal. In all of this we never lost sight of the wider implications of the process – the impact on those watching and those other workers potentially affected, as well on the union’s reputation.

Over the years discipline has been used at work, inside trade unions themselves, and within political parties to control participants and maintain reputation. In the two decades from about 1947 to 1967 many British and American trade unions used disciplinary systems to persecute and remove political opponents, mainly socialists and communists. They did this either on trumped up charges or through misinterpretation of rules meant for other purposes. This was also the case inside political parties, as with Labour attacks on peace activists in the 1950s.

So to Labour in 2019 and various recent cases. I am unclear as to the arguments put forward by some on the left. Just because a comrade has fought the good fight does not mean they are immune from sanction if they are guilty of wrongdoing – no one is above the law! We have various stages of the process to consider: first a complaint is made against a member – in all cases this has to be investigated but in most cases no further action is taken. This is true at work and inside all organisations since a ‘complaint’ does not mean that it can be substantiated or can lead to disciplinary action. It would be very odd indeed for all complaints to be taken further. Not only would it become an open charter to encourage vexatious and personal attacks on other members, but it would demean serious allegations and real cases. Nonetheless, some might wish to argue that failure to progress all complaints, especially at the moment concerning racism in the Labour Party (and we might say the same of sexism at work) signals that the Party leadership is not serious about the issue. This is disingenuous but still has some level of relevance that needs further clarity.

Those cases that fall at the first hurdle usually do so because of lack of evidence, lack of clarity as to what was said/done, or that it is unclear which rules have been breached. Those that are sent on to full disciplinary hearings then enter the due process stage, and there is no evidence that this stage is being ‘politicised’ within the Labour Party. If the member is found guilty of the offence then punishment needs to be meted out. This is, and always has been, a political as well as a rule-based set of decisions. At work we all know that more senior colleagues, for example, are often spared the rod while those of us lower down the scale may be thrown out. This also applies across the board for those with powerful friends inside the workplace, the union, or the party. In the current situation the suspicion is that the decision to suspend, warn, and expel is not based just on the offence but on the political persuasion/faction/sect of those involved. This cuts both ways, and such interventions can be justified on the grounds of mitigation, previous good record, extent of contrition (real or assumed), the wider reputational damage to the party/union/employer, and the timing of all of this with regard to external events (elections, contracts, disputes).

Do we really want racists to be let off the hook? Do we really wish to use discipline to persecute our political opponents? Do we want administrative solutions to political problems? If not, then be clear that offences have taken place, that some good comrades are guilty, and focus on mitigation – do not undermine the current leadership to save a few errant souls. In too many recent cases judgement has been made from outside the process without full knowledge of what has been said and done. We may suspect foul play but we cannot provide evidence that the ‘leadership’ has given in to political pressure from its opponents, and we cannot be sure that political interference works only in one direction. We cannot argue that our political friends are always right and therefore charges against them are always politically motivated and that the processes of internal investigation are always flawed. We cannot support the system just because we agree with the outcomes, and equally we cannot attack the system because it finds against our allies.

Calls for expulsion without a hearing are wrong-headed and threaten the integrity of the process; calls for automatic expulsion if found guilty are pious as this happens anyway; and calls for an ‘independent’ system are flawed — no organisation can allow an outside body to determine internal rule applications, and such a body would beg the question of who appoints its members and to whom is it answerable. Such incoherent and inconsistent attacks on the internal disciplinary system endangers the legitimacy and integrity of the current Labour Party leadership, undermines those we wish to support, and leaves us open to counter-accusations of allowing racism to go unchecked when the culprits are our friends and allies. This damages our own argument for fairness, our anti-racist credentials, and means we are in danger of throwing out the left project by defending the indefensible and attacking those we should support.


Roger Seifert, having first worked as a management consultant in London specialising in pay,  was appointed professor of industrial relations at Keele University 1993, and then moved to Wolverhampton in 2008. He is now retired.

He is an active researcher and consultant in the field, especially on strikes, trade unions, pay determination, Labour Party trade union relations, and public sector employment.

Comments (7)

  • George Wilmers says:

    JVL claims that the above article “raises important issues that need to be reflected in our thinking about Labour’s disciplinary processes” .

    In my opinion article does nothing of the sort. It’s a mishmash of platitudes, attacks on straw left positions which I cannot recall seeing in any article published by JVL, factual misinformation, and passages of astonishing naivete.

    “I am unclear as to the arguments put forward by some on the left. Just because a comrade has fought the good fight does not mean they are immune from sanction if they are guilty of wrongdoing – no one is above the law!”

    Please, Professor Seifert, let us have some clarity from your side. Give us chapter and verse as to what you are referring to, because I have not seen anyone “on the left”, and certainly not in JVL, put forward such a proposition.

    “Do we really want racists to be let off the hook? Do we really wish to use discipline to persecute our political opponents?”

    Again please, Professor Seifert, be specific, tell us to whom “we” refers in each of these sentences separately? Do you have specific evidence of serious leftwing arguments, say published by JVL which would lead to racists being let off the hook?
    As for the “we” of the second sentence there is unfortunately a mass of evidence that the disciplinary process has been used by the right of the LP to persecute political opponents. How else do you account for the accusations of antisemitism against Moshe Machover, Glyn Secker, Marc Wadsworth, or Jackie Walker, to name but a few. Did you actually study the evidence available on this website?

    Now consider the passage

    “It would be very odd indeed for all complaints to be taken further……..Nonetheless some might wish to argue that failure to progress all complaints, especially at the moment concerning racism in the Labour Party (and we might say the same of sexism at work) signals that the Party leadership is not serious about the issue. This is disingenuous but still has some level of relevance that needs further clarity.”

    This is just confused. In fact the article manages to completely sideline the real problems of the disciplinary process which remain unresolved: the absence of due process and compliance with the principles of natural justice, the lack of any appeal process, the right of the accused to know the exact nature of the alleged offence and the identity of the party making the allegation, and the complete lack of formal clarity as to what constitutes an offence. All these problems were highlighted in the Chakrabarti report which was formally accepted by the LP but never implemented; indeed under the reign of the rightwing apparatchik McNichol the report itself even disappeared from view on the LP website for many months.

    And what are we to make of Seifert’s bald and misinformed assertion:

    “Those [cases] that are sent on to full disciplinary hearings then enter the due process stage, and there is no evidence that this stage is being ‘politicised’ within the Labour Party.”

    Tell that to those falsely accused mentioned above! How can JVL publish this without further comment, or at least referencing the detailed information on its own website which refutes this nonsense?

    The real confusion and naivete of Professor Seifert is exposed in his final paragraph. I had to read it several times in order to understand what he meant. Referring to criticism of the LP disciplinary procedures of a type which in fact comes from the right, he opines:

    “Such incoherent and inconsistent attacks on the internal disciplinary system endangers the legitimacy and integrity of the current Labour Party leadership, undermines those we wish to support, and leaves us open to counter-accusations of allowing racism to go unchecked when the culprits are our friends and allies.”

    Again who are “we” here? Seifert speaks of the party as if “we” were all one happy family, whereas it is obvious to almost everyone else that the attacks on the current disciplinary system from the right are of an entirely different nature from those from the left. The attacks from the right are specifically designed to leave the party open to accusations of allowing racism (in practice just antisemitism) to go unchecked while simultaneously opening the floodgates for a McCarthyite witch hunt: that is their primary purpose! The attacks from the left are by contrast intended to codify due process into the system, in order to protect the rights both of victims and of those falsely accused. Roger Seifert apparently fails to understand this basic point. He correctly asks “Do we want administrative solutions to political problems?”, but utterly fails to comprehend the significance of his own question.

    There is no longer any collective “we” in the LP because the rightwing rump of the party, in association with the entire haute bourgeoisie of the western world and their associated retinue of collaborators, has decreed that if the Labour party cannot be reclaimed from the socialist membership which has infected its body, then it must be destroyed by any means possible, however mendacious. The ideological conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism is merely a useful tool for this purpose, though it has the additional advantage of serving the geopolitical purpose of helping to transform the Palestinians into a people whose fundamental right exist can no longer be mentioned in polite circles.

  • Philip Ward says:

    I want to second George Wilmers’ excellent critique of this post by Roger Siefert. I would add another aspect that Siefert ignores. Although he mentions vexatious accusations, he fails to comprehend that these constitute probably over 90% of the accusations of antisemitism that have been made.

    The Labour party has a problem here. The state has a method of dealing with unfounded, vexatious accusations of criminal offences – namely to charge the accuser with wasting police time (at a minimum). The LP has no ability to sanction the JLM, David Collier, the BoD or other bodies and individuals that have made accusations against it and its members. These groups have had free rein to traduce pro-Palestinian activists in the party, without having to account in any way for their slurs and lies.

    At a minimum, the LP should only consider complaints from LP members, unless it is a person complaining of having been a direct victim of abuse. They also have to drop the IHRA definition, as this gives carte blanche for Zionists so inclined to use the party’s apparatus (and money) to harass and attempt to silence those of us who support the Palestinian struggle for their national rights. It was a huge mistake to adopt this McCarthyite text.

  • John says:

    I think George Wilmers is right in taking Roger Seifert to task for putting forward the kind of generic analysis that any first-year undergaradute student might present as a first attempt to get to grips with the first year curriculum of a degree course.
    What Professor Seifert has clearly failed to grasp is that the Labour Party is the subject of an undeclared war by a coalition of Israeli agents (see al-Jazeera’s “The Lobby”) and the Conservative Party (note: Sir Mick Davies, who is the Chief Executive and Treasurer of the Conservative Party and the weaponising of false antisemitism charges by untrustworthy individuals like Teresa May and Jeremy Hunt), as well as a number of former disgruntled Labour Party employees – “with axes to grind” – and disaffected Blairites in Westminster and across the United Kingdom.
    Professor Siefert has taken none of this on board and just about the only contribution he has made which is worthwhile considering is his conclusion that ‘calls for an ‘independent’ system are flawed’.

  • Mike Scott says:

    As a lifelong trade unionist and retired fulltime TU Organiser, I feel well qualified to comment on the LP disciplinary procedure, which is in need of a major overhaul.
    In my experience, the procedures negotiated by strong unions in the public sector are the best basis to start from. The current processes are confused and clearly breach the Principles of Natural Justice that Tribunals rely on in their judgements.
    The Chakrabarti proposals were certainly a step in the right direction, but were flawed by her (unsurprising) decision to base them on civil law – she is a qualified solicitor – rather than industrial best practice. The worst effect of this was to only allow appeals against abuse of process, rather than, for example, bias on the part of the Hearing Panel or a failure to take all the eveidence into account.
    The Labour Party is a part of the Labour Movement which spawned it and its policies and procedures should reflect this.

  • Penny B says:

    Interesting critique, the fact that there is no process or sanction for dealing with vexatious complaints is probably making the workload massive. It would be very interesting to analyse the complaints, but hey one would expect a bunfight just categorising!!!!

  • John Lipetz says:

    I see that Roger Seifert is against an independent system even though the current system is affected by senior members making statements that are inappropriate. Labour has to show that it is clean and transparent. What is the position of JVL? It is right that this is discussed across the JVL.

  • Philip Ward says:

    In reply to John Lipetz: the problem is not the lack of formal procedures for dealing with disciplinary cases, but the campaign of traducing anti-zionist LP members and the resulting huge workload, which is exacerbated by the fact that the majority politcal views of the LP apparatus means that they take all of these accusations seriously, rather than dumping them in the bin. This was confirmed by the resolution of their GMB branch, which, whatever the issues of overwork and maltreatment some of them are faced with, they must have known in the current context would be used by the LP right wing, zionists and the media as yet another stick to beat Corbyn with. It was a deliberate act to bolster the campaign of false accusations of anti-Semitism and showed the majority of the Branch’s true political views.

    The Chakrabarti report contains in it a whole series of measures largely concordant with the principles of natural justice, but, despite formally adopting the report, the apparatus steadfastly refuses to implement it. This is a political choice by the apparatus and requires their political defeat if they are ever to desist in their witchhunting ways.

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