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Don’t consign Labour Party democracy to the history books

MIKE CUSHMAN asks what's behind Keir Starmer's war on ordinary Labour members

Every day we get news of one or more constituency Labour parties defying the edicts of general secretary David Evans and insisting on debating issues of central importance to party members.

Almost every day we get news that one or more CLP officers have been suspended for allowing their members to debate.

The list of prohibited subjects steadily grows: the pay-offs to those named in the Panorama programme; the findings of the EHRC report; the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn; the removal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn; votes of no confidence in David Evans; any discussion of any of these bans on free debate.

There may be more, I find it difficult to keep up.

The alleged reasons for these bans changes with the wind. At first it was risk of legal liability, then it was that any such discussion may make Jewish members feel uncomfortable. Both excuses are facile and self-serving.

The party should not have launched itself on courses of action that made it vulnerable in the courts and inhibited members’ rights to debate their merits; that is, in itself, a dereliction of the senior members’ responsibility for careful stewardship of the party’s reputation and assets.

Political discussion which touches on important issues is often uncomfortable; and Starmer’s attacks on socialists and his abuse of our Jewish identity makes many Jewish socialists feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in our party but we must stay and fight.

We are informed that there is strong legal advice that the claims by the Panorama “whistle-blowers” were highly unlikely to succeed.

We do not know that for certain because Starmer and Evans don’t believe that even members of the NEC, let alone ordinary members, should be let into secrets that might embarrass them.

We know for certain that the EHRC’s three findings of unlawful activity by the party are poorly grounded in fact or law and could and should have been challenged in court.

The ground for describing Ken Livingstone and Pam Bromley as agents of the party runs against Supreme Court judgments on vicarious liability and case law on harassment suggests it unlikely that their actions represent “unlawful harassment of its members.”

This would be true even if the two members had actually harassed anyone, which they had not.

The “political interference” in disciplinary processes that the EHRC decry by their own admission as often worked against those accused as against the complainants.

In any case the Labour Party is a political party and acts politically, it’s the nature of the beast. The EHRC failed to demonstrate that Jewish complainants, as opposed to Jewish defendants, were discriminated against – a crucial missing element.

The third alleged offence of insufficient training in anti-semitism is no better grounded.

The party had provided more training in handling these cases than in respect of any other form of racism or religious discrimination; the report misrepresents the basic facts on this.

None of this is to argue that the party’s disciplinary processes are fit for purpose.

They clearly were not and would have been inadequate even if they had not been subverted by officials hostile to Jeremy Corbyn.

JVL is supporting the legal action being taken by members who are being disciplined, in breach of law, under these same procedures.

However, they are no worse, and quite possibly somewhat better, than those of most organisations – this speaks to endemic racism in British society, not a particular problem of anti-semitism in the Labour Party.

This raises many questions but one that demands our attention is why did Keir Starmer so enthusiastically embrace a report and recommendations so flawed and so damaging to the party he leads?

To reduce this to his obvious sympathy for zionism and for Israel is to miss the point.

It is his hostility to the socialist wing of the party, so enlarged and empowered by the Corbyn project, that is central.

Starmer mendaciously presented himself as a Corbyn sympathiser fit for contemporary media during his leadership election campaign; he was and is a Blair redux.

The same grimace photoshopped into a smile; the same misguided belief that a Labour Party warm to neoliberal finance is the only electable Labour Party.

It is a mistake to see a desire by Starmer to please the Board of Deputies of British Jews as the reason for the attack on socialists in the party, Jewish and non-Jewish.

It is the other way round: the imprimatur of the BoD and the favourable media coverage that generates is a powerful weapon in Starmer’s campaign against the left.

Confusing organ-grinder and monkey is a serious political miscalculation.

Starmer bases his claim to political legitimacy on his record as a human rights lawyer; a claim already sullied by his uneven record as director of public prosecutions.

As leader he has shown himself to have a poor grasp of either human rights or the law.

Any lawyer should have instantly seen the manifest flaws in the EHRC report; any lawyer should have careful regard for the Labour Party rulebook.

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of human rights will know the protections for free speech and free assembly laid down in articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Starmer and Evans’s increasingly draconian circulars circumscribing what members may talk about demonstrate contempt for the rulebook, the law and the membership.

The party’s increasingly Stasi-like disciplinary unit, the Starmtrooper elite, cannot keep up with their ever increasing workload.

They find it easier to leak suspensions to the press, which is where many of those suspended learn of the action against them, rather than actually take the effort to send an email to the member first.

Until recently, when members were suspended their letters gave some reason, no matter how facile, for their suspension.

Now members are suspended without being vouchsafed any indication of their alleged misbehaviour, even when they do eventually hear from the party.

Suspension from the Labour Party is only a tiny fraction as painful as administrative detention of Palestinians but the mindset is the same: “we know you are guilty of something but we can’t really be bothered to work out what it is and, even if you aren’t, taking action against you will frighten others into sullen acceptance.”

Party democracy can only be saved if members stay and fight, no matter how unpleasant that may be; Starmer wants us to quit our party – we must not give him that pleasure.

Labour Party democracy has always been a challenged concept; if Starmer has his way it will only be of interest to political historians.

Mike Cushman is a founder member of Jewish Voice for Labour.


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