Peter Kenyon surveys the shitstorms breaking out within the party
Do we want to depose the Tories, or not? That is the simple question every single one of us – the half million or so registered members – have got to answer pdq.
My politics are not easily labelled. While in Brownswood Ward in Hackney North CLP in the 1970s and 1980s, I was dubbed right-wing. In 2008, I was elected to the National Executive Committee on the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance slate. I was elbowed off the CLGA in 2010, by the notoriously undemocratic Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. I voted for Jeremy Corbyn as Leader in 2015, and again in 2016. That second vote was a dogged determination not to give an inch to the Parliamentary Labour Party, which took leave of its senses when Corbyn got his personal prejudices about the European Union jumbled up with the best interests of the country. And so it goes on. Each of us has personal axes to grind; none of it is of much relevance to whether Keir Starmer can return the Labour Party to electoral success in 2024 or whenever.
At risk of getting myself suspended or expelled, I’d venture to suggest that we all need to take a deep breath. From the standpoint of a democratic socialist, the absence of delegate voting facilities at this year’s virtual conference is an outrage. Am I going to campaign about it? No. The idea of party delegates squabbling in the ether over issues that detract from Labour’s electability is daft. The NEC were right to take a step back and engage in some naked revenue protection ideas, aka Connected.
Starmer has clearly been persuaded to win over the voters. Latest polling suggests he is succeeding. Labour is still behind the curve on economic credibility. But we are a long way from a probable election. The economic consequences of Boris Johnson have yet to be felt in any significant measure. So, if you are part of the Labour faction screaming “but we should be 20 points ahead in the polls”, count me out.
Of course, trying to make up for the £2 million annual profit from a normal party conference wasn’t the only reason for denying delegates votes. There are a number of internal difficulties arising from the perceived inability of the party administration under Corbyn to deal with allegations of antisemitism.
On 12 August 2020, the new general secretary, David Evans, issued guidance to CLP secretaries and chairs. It has not been received with universal acclaim by the membership. It is unfortunate that Evans did not take the opportunity to demonstrate his communication and governance skills by addressing each member personally. It might have been smarter to remind us all (those of us that are paid up Labour Party card carriers) that this great party of ours in law is an unincorporated voluntary association. That is, we are each individually and severally responsible for the party’s finances. In practice, it is unlikely that any court action to oblige us to pay up would succeed. But, in the advice from Evans to close down internal discussion about decisions taken by Starmer and the new management, he is undoubtedly alluding to it.
Those decisions are worth citing. Evans lists three areas of “concern”: the Panorama settlement, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report and the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
On the Panorama settlement he writes:
“The Labour Party recently agreed a settlement with seven former members of staff who appeared on an edition of the BBC’s Panorama programme, as well as with the journalist who hosted that programme. Those settlements included an unreserved apology and a withdrawal of the allegations previously made by the Party about those individuals. The withdrawal and apology are binding on the party and any motions which seek to undermine or contradict them will create a risk of further legal proceedings for both the national party and local parties. As such, motions relating to these settlements and the circumstances behind them are not competent business for discussion by local parties. CLP officers have an important responsibility to ensure that they and other members conduct themselves in a respectful and comradely manner. We therefore take this opportunity to reiterate to local Labour Parties and officers that they should be aware of the potential liabilities to them should the allegations that have now been withdrawn by the national party be repeated.”
Having been engaged in libel litigation myself against Associated Newspapers while I was Chief Whip of Hackney Council, I think I understand some of the thinking that might have led to that decision to settle. In financial terms, what would it have cost the Labour Party in terms of members’ contributions to continue and risk losing when compared with settling? In political terms, there was also a choice – continue with the existing policy alienating one section of society, or drawing a line and seeking to rebuild relations and win back votes, even if it upset another section of society whose votes are arguably not at risk. I have tweeted support for the settlement and am willing to support my CLP/Branch chair in reminding members that any further discussion should be ruled ‘out of order’.
The second of the Pandora’s boxes is the EHRC report. Again, I think Evans is right when he said in his missive:
“On Monday 13 July 2020 the party announced that it had received the EHRC’s draft report into allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party. This draft report has been provided to the party by the EHRC on a confidential basis as part of its investigation. When we are able to provide more information about the EHRC’s report we will do so. Until that time speculation as to the contents of the report is not helpful. It is therefore not competent business for CLPs to discuss.”
Thirdly, he reminds CLP chairs and secretaries about the IHRA definition of antisemitism saying:
“We are aware that some CLPs and branches have had motions tabled to “repudiate” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The IHRA definition of antisemitism and its examples was properly adopted by the Labour Party in September 2018. CLPs and branches have no powers to overturn this decision. Furthermore, such motions undermine the Labour Party’s ability to tackle racism. Any such motions are therefore not competent business for CLPs or branches” In this regard, he is winging it. He could have just said: let’s await the EHRC report.
Beyond those issues are the allegations of sabotage of the 2017 General Election campaign by party staff, demonising of Corbyn and systematic undermining of party democracy by Starmer’s new management. Come next Easter or hopefully earlier, we might be wondering what the fuss was about when Labour is 20 points ahead in the polls and the One Nation Tory revivalists are calling openly for Johnson’s resignation. In the meantime, comrades, let’s all take that deep breath and remember that Napoleon quote: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”. To date Johnson has presided over eight major policy U-turns and his premiership is just one year old.