Before describing the meetings themselves, it is worth mentioning that they took place at the office building in Victoria where Labour has long had its HQ, but on an additional floor that the party has recently taken over. This expansion was deemed necessary as we gear up to fight what will no doubt be an extremely challenging general election in 2020 or before – but it seems unlikely that it could have happened without the huge recent increase in membership, and the corresponding boost in income, for which we can thank Jeremy Corbyn.
The Disputes Panel meeting had as full an agenda as ever but, for once, we managed to get through it in the hour allotted (well, nearly). The majority of new cases were of members whose conduct or public comments, as quoted in the tabled papers – often containing anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, homophobic and/or misogynistic abuse – was sufficiently serious that no-one disputed that they should be referred to the National Constitutional Committee (NCC) for consideration of possible penalties (likely to be expulsion, in many cases).
Three or four issues were more controversial. I cannot say too much about individual cases, although details in respect of some of the more prominent members involved have appeared in the media (in some cases, having being leaked while the meeting was still in progress).
There was a further paper (the third since October) on Wallasey CLP, which has been suspended since last July, which was a lot more muted than the last two and suggested that the situation in the constituency is now reasonably harmonious. It was proposed that the CLP be unsuspended but only after the May elections (and specifically that for the Merseyside Metro Mayor), so that members would not be ‘distracted’ from campaigning. We were not told – but some of us had heard through other channels – that no further action was to be taken against two of the three Wallasey CLP officers who had been under investigation. Along with one other NEC member, I raised concerns about the lack of any acknowledgment of this, which – along with the comparatively positive picture painted of the CLP in the report – suggested that Wallasey had not, perhaps, been as ‘toxic’ as we’d previously been led to believe. Others, however, reiterated their view that there had been serious bullying and intimidation, particularly of a homophobic nature; the lack of disciplinary measures against individuals was (so a full-time officer explained) because of the high standard of proof required in such cases (something I remain sceptical about – not just because of the robust and detailed rebuttals by Wallasey activists but because of the fairly insubstantial ‘proof’ that has apparently been deemed sufficient in other instances). In any case, the paper was carried nem con (I had said in my contribution that the CLP should be unsuspended immediately but abstained, rather than voting against, because the principle of unsuspension in the near future had at least been agreed). More worrying was the paper on the third Wallasey CLP officer, against whom charges (for alleged bullying and intimidation – although not of a specifically homophobic nature) are still being pursued and whose case we were asked to refer to the NCC. I was not allowed to speak specifically on this individual but was strongly of the view that the case against him was not persuasive and voted against referring him (I was disappointed that only one other member opposed the recommendation, although several abstained).
The most high profile case we considered was, of course, that of Jackie Walker. As with other individuals, I shouldn’t go into detail while this is still being dealt with by the party but, since there has been so much media commentary, I will say a few words. I abstained on the vote to refer Jackie to the NCC, which I know has disappointed some of my comrades on the left. I don’t believe for one minute that she is anti-Semitic (not least because she is partially of Jewish heritage herself) but I do think there are legitimate grounds for concern about some of her public statements. I think, however, that this is something that could more usefully be addressed through comradely debate, rather than through a disciplinary process, with the ultimate sanction of expulsion a real possibility. Unfortunately, it seems that issues related to Jewishness, Israel and anti-Semitism have now become too heated to allow the kind of calm discussion that we need. There is a reluctance in some quarters to engage with views that are provocative and discomfiting but not necessarily deliberately insulting or discriminatory. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that practically all prominent public figures of Jewish heritage are frequently on the receiving end of vile anti-Semitic abuse (especially via social media) and there are undoubtedly Labour party members who engage in this sort of behaviour, as other cases brought before the Disputes Panel have shown. I had originally intended to speak against the recommendation but, as with other controversial cases, we were presented with a detailed paper at the start of the meeting, with very little time for reading, let alone reflection, and I felt ill-equipped to respond to some of the contents. In addition, one of the other left CLP reps made an impassioned speech supporting referral to the NCC, which both confirmed my expectation that the officers’ recommendation would be overwhelmingly accepted and made me question some of my own assumptions. In the event, only one person voted against. In retrospect, I should probably have voted with him, rather than abstaining; it would have made no practical difference but at least it would have registered my unease about the process.
One other issue on which I spoke related to the ‘auto-exclusion’ (i.e. immediate expulsion based on supposedly inarguable evidence) of two party members from Northern Ireland, one of whom I’d met when he visited Wales recently and was seeking support for the party in Northern Ireland to be able to stand in elections. The charge was that one of these two had been a non-Labour candidate, and the other his agent, in the Stormont elections on 2 March. I argued that auto-exclusion was normally reserved for those who back candidates or parties standing against Labour, whereas, in this case, there was no Labour candidate, which was why these loyal (if somewhat insubordinate) party members had taken matters into their own hands; expulsion seemed too harsh a penalty. I was told that the two comrades hadn’t just run an independent Labour campaign but had joined a non-Labour party, the Cross-Community Labour Alternative, with connections to the Socialist Party. The two deny, however, that they have joined this party, although admit that they accepted its endorsement (not knowing about its SP links). My pleading on their behalf was fruitless, anyway.
The party’s position on Northern Ireland was also one of the first items on the agenda of the Organisation Committee meeting. We were told that the long-delayed review of the party’s policy of not standing elections was finally getting underway, with the four-person panel due to meet the first set of organisations giving evidence later that week.
The next item related to the election of the national officers and committee of Labour Students, which are to be held on the basis of OMOV for the first time. Delays in this process had given rise to concern but it was explained that the problem was that the database and mailing list held by Labour Students wasn’t entirely consistent with that held by the party centrally, with the two operating different membership criteria, and this needed to be resolved if the OMOV ballot was to be conducted on a sufficiently robust basis.
The most substantial item on the Committee’s agenda was a further paper on Disciplinary Procedures, fleshing out the principles agreed at the January meeting. Once again, this signalled a very positive change in the party’s approach to dealing with questionable conduct and/or breaches of the rules, with a more robust emphasis on due process, transparency and proportionality. The abandonment of automatic recourse to administrative suspension was particularly welcome, as was the news that members facing auto-exclusion will now be given 14 days to challenge the apparent facts (or their interpretation). Everyone who spoke commended the officers who had drawn up the report and made positive suggestions as to how it could be improved, virtually all of which were accepted. These included: strengthening the commitment to confidentiality, even where the identity of a member under investigation may be in the public domain; adding ‘training’ to the list of ways in which the party could address behaviour by a member that had occasioned concern; ensuring that warning letters do not necessarily imply guilt; and removing the explicit exception made for “elected or other prominent representatives” in the section setting out the hurdles for members (or recent ex-members) of other parties wishing to join Labour.
The paper also included a draft rule change expanding and clarifying the definition of “general prejudicial conduct”, which was agreed in principle (although we will have to return to the detail before conference) to inform further guidelines. A paper for distribution within the wider party will now be produced on the basis of the papers agreed by the NEC. This will provide clearer and more detailed explanation of the process and will include (at the suggestion of one of the union reps) a flowchart setting out the disciplinary process at a glance.
The rest of the agenda included brief updates on CLPs in special measures and on the internal election procedures for the Association of Labour Councillors. The committee also noted the text of all motions submitted by CLPs since our last meeting. In relation to one of these motions, an NEC member commented that there is a perception in some quarters that Labour would not be ready for an early general election. Iain McNicol responded by offering reassurance that his office were working on a daily basis to take account of every practical and logistical detail that would need to be considered in the event of such an election.
Following the close of the meeting (which, miraculously, had again run to time) the six CLP reps had a private meeting with the general secretary and the head of his office, as requested by one of our number. This provided an opportunity to explore issues like the need for members to receive more informative and engaging communications from the party and for CLP officers (in particular) to receive information and training to assist them in their duties. We also highlighted continuing concerns about the suspensions carried out following last year’s leadership election. Although there wasn’t time to cover everything I’d have liked to have raised, this was a useful dialogue and we were promised further meetings at regular intervals.