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The Forde report: my experience of Southside in 2017

After 27 months the much-delayed inquiry has arrived — having worked at the heart of the struggle between the Corbyn team and the permanent party staff, I know the grim picture it paints to be true, writes BEN SELLERS

BACK in April 2020, a leaked Labour Party report told the story of hostility, abuse, bullying, racism and sexism among the party’s paid staff, as part of a broader investigation into the handling of anti-semitism claims. Martin Forde QC was tasked by Labour leader Keir Starmer with leading an inquiry into the claims.  

Forde’s report was originally intended to be published by the end of 2020, but delayed. At a succession of Labour NEC meetings afterwards, the question was repeatedly asked: “Where is the Forde report?”

At first, various excuses were given by general secretary David Evans, including claims that publication could prejudice other investigations and legal proceedings, but more recently there has simply been silence over the missing report.  

That is until Tuesday, when after 27 months the Forde report finally appeared at the NEC and was promptly published. The reasons why it took so long are still not clear, but the effect of the delay is obvious: a seething anger among grassroots party members, who know most of the facts of the case but have been waiting over two years for their confirmation.  

In the intervening time many socialists have left the party, either willingly or through a massive campaign of investigations, suspensions and expulsions.

Despite the typically cautious language of the report and the many caveats, for those of us who were inside Labour HQ during the 2017 general election, its publication is some sort of vindication, albeit far too late.  

Forde strains to present a narrative that “both sides were at fault,” but I think to anyone reading between the lines, it’s obvious who created the poisonous atmosphere that pervaded both the party machinery and the election campaign.  

Back in May 2017 I was in the invidious position of being a handful of staff moved from the leader’s office in Parliament to “Southside,” Labour HQ in Victoria Street, because election law dictates that you can’t use parliamentary resources to campaign.  

Jeremy Corbyn’s communication’s team, of which I was a temporary member working on his social media, was placed in between the party’s press team and the media team on floor two. We moved into this new workspace with just under a month to go before the election.  

Walking through the floor on the way to my new desk space (just a table with plugs, without desktop computers or any other equipment), it was noticeable how casual the atmosphere was.

Considering we were so close to a general election, there was a stark contrast between the work ethic of Corbyn’s team and Southside staff. I witnessed staff who worked on the same floor as us come in at around 10am and most would be gone by 4pm. I noticed, on my way to speak to the leader’s policy team on the other side of the floor, that many seemed to be working on individual MPs’ websites and other tasks that I personally would have thought to be low priority.

Meanwhile, Corbyn’s team came in to Southside between 7 and 9am consistently and often worked into the night. Collectively, we worked so hard, hardly taking a breather during the day.  

As a member of the small social media team, I often finished after midnight. Our work ethic was to squeeze as much out of the time we had left and do everything we could to win the election.  

There was a more disturbing culture than just a lax work ethic, however. There was palpable hostility towards us as Corbyn’s team — a rude and abrupt manner and a lack of co-operation on the most basic things, like being provided with media plans, briefings and so forth.

There was also lots of shouting and abuse that came from the permanent members of the press team in particular. One senior member of that team used to shout abuse at members of the party’s leadership when they came on our monitors for TV appearances. For example, I distinctly remember her shouting something along the lines of “terrorist sympathiser” when John McDonnell appeared on our screens.  

It was disconcerting to see how this behaviour seemed so commonplace and that not a single manager or senior figure even batted an eyelid, never mind took action to stop it. I genuinely think the purpose was to demoralise us — to make it feel that we were wasting our time in that building as an embattled minority.  

As a member of the social media team, I also experienced difficulties in dealing with the staff at Southside. I had less dealings with the permanent staff there than my colleague who worked permanently for Corbyn, but I witnessed and experienced behaviour that really shocked me. Southside staff regularly blocked content from going out with no reasons given, delayed the production of graphics and videos and acted almost as if they were on strike or a go-slow.  

Things that could have been produced in minutes took hours and in some cases days, when it was clear that they didn’t have anything pressing to do. Staff support was regularly refused. The Labour Party’s graphics and video team, who were supposed to work alongside us, were particularly obstructive.  

Often, we would have to walk up to the fifth floor where they were working, to ask why things were taking so long or why content had been blocked. Social media is 90 per cent about speed and timing, so it was extremely frustrating to keep having to chase work.  

One particularly galling incident was when the graphics and video team withheld some Ken Loach footage which had been couriered over to us from his office in Soho.  

We were perplexed as to why it hadn’t turned up and eventually established that it had been delivered to that team several days before, but had sat at their desk, without them notifying us.  

They knew that we were waiting for the footage and clearly, in any case, if something is couriered to you in the middle of a general election campaign, the chances are it is extremely important.  

My film-maker colleague, Simon Baker who sadly died in 2019, was so overjoyed at receiving this footage (off-cuts from Ken Loach’s party-political broadcast), having visited the studios where Ken was based and discussing with him how this footage could be used for social media. It still angers me that Simon had less time and was forced to work in a rush because of that team’s behaviour.

On the night of the general election itself I came back into the building around 8pm after a day of campaigning and filming around London. I found that my pass no longer worked, along with almost all my other colleagues. So, we had quite a time trying to gain access to the fifth floor where we could watch the election results come in.  

Having eventually negotiated that, I vividly remember sitting with the Loto team, watching the exit poll come in and cheering with the rest of the team in a corner of the fifth floor. The permanent Southside staff were in the adjacent room and you could have heard a pin drop it was so quiet.  

By this stage, I was not surprised — in fact I expected this, because it was so clear that they didn’t want a Labour government led by Corbyn under any circumstances.  

But I did reflect on that afterwards, along with all the terrible, abusive language and bad behaviour over that month and think: members’ subs are paying for this.

That’s what I find most difficult about all of this — that people were being paid by my party to essentially scupper any chances of that party being elected to government — and no one in a position of authority at Southside did a thing to challenge that behaviour.  

People ask me if anyone will be taken to task over all this, whether there will be disciplinary action. It’s true that some of those involved have moved on, but my bet is that the Forde report will be ignored on the whole by the party leadership.  

Firstly, it’s clear that the current leadership owes its position to exactly this kind of behaviour. If socialism had taken root in the party and democracy and accountability had become the norm in the party machine, there would be no Starmer leadership.  

Secondly, though many responsible for the abuse, bullying, sexism and racism have gone, the problem is institutional. They can simply be replaced with people with a similar mindset towards the left.  

For decades, the permanent Labour bureaucracy has been a law unto itself — the real “party within a party,” defined by a groupthink that will do anything to stop socialist policies.

Sadly, there is no happy ending to this story. It’s unlikely that either the philosophy of party staff or that institutional basis will change because of Forde.

If there is no respect for the grassroots left membership, there is no reason to answer their questions or address their anger over Forde, the leaked report, the campaign of suspensions and expulsions — or anything else.

Ben Sellers is a former member of Jeremy Corbyn’s staff.


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