2016 09 – a Corbyn foot-soldier on Labour’s Rule Book

Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier  (No 4)

by Michael Murray

murraymicha@gmail.com Facebook:  Michael Murray  London
A dictionary definition of  “foot soldier…a dedicated low level follower…”

In this month’s Diary :

“Are you, or, have you ever been… “  

The Labour Party Rule Book and its part in the present internal party conflict.

It’s been a funny old summer for the Labour Party foot soldier.  After what feels like an endless period of campaigning around by-elections, London Mayoral elections and the EU Referendum all local Labour Party activity was suspended  almost immediately after the EU Referendum and the subsequent launch of the coup to oust Jeremy Corbyn. Even our own planned Branch end of Summer BBQ was cancelled, on orders from Head Office, via our Ward Secretary.  This was ordained on the grounds that Branch life as usual might lead to all sorts of inter-personal hassle between party members.  That’s hard to imagine in our neck of the woods, but we’ve been stuck with that ruling, as has the rest of the country, though I hear many local parties ignored it and carried on as per usual.  Here in Hackney North, of course, we have a mayoral election in the offing and, as incoming new Ward Organiser (yes, but I’m still a foot soldier, albeit with a stripe) without the structure of regular Branch meetings the job is that bit harder.  And, of course, the seasonal holiday comings and goings compound the reduced Branch member contact.

The leadership election campaign has filled the vacuum, to some extent – especially for supporters of Jeremy Corbyn.  And Momentum, here in Hackney, has organized events for members, pro-Corbyn ones anyway, to come together to discuss politics and local, single issue, campaigns via an exciting new educational initiative which is experimenting with participitative, shared learning methods and learning objectives. As a foot soldier (and former Trade Union Education Officer) I applaud and support Momentum’s work, but I’d like to see that energy and people power channelled through the Labour Party’s own Branch/Constituency structure.  Yes, I forgot Branches/constituencies won’t be meeting until October next at the earliest, if then…. Silly me.

On the Corbyn front, there was encouraging news a couple of days ago. YouGov published the results of a poll of a cross- section of party members which showed Jeremy comfortably ahead of his opponent, Owen Smith, in every demographic. (see yougov.co.uk).  I wish I could let myself believe that he can win with a workable margin, never mind the margin indicated in the poll. And if these poll results turn out to be even half accurate – and all that after 130,000 of mostly Corbyn supporters have been disenfranchised – what kind of a party are we going to be in at the end of the election process?  What kind of political battles are we going to be in – more to the point?

That Corbyn is comfortably ahead is not being disputed, surprisingly, in the main stream media, even though YouGov in its discussion of the poll method warns that the population polled is small and future voting intentions forecasts not wholly reliable for a number of stated reasons.  Among other things, YouGov comment on the implications of the leadership election outcome.

It says:  “Should Corbyn’s opponents split off from the party 18% would follow them to their new party.  Should Corbyn and his supporters split off 32% would follow them to their new party.”  To corroborate this result, which goes against Smith’s presumption that he is the natural choice for the leadership of the party, because of Corbyn’s “unelectability,” almost two thirds of Jeremy’s supporters believed in him as a potential Prime Minister, while only around a third of Smith’s supporters envisaged him as PM.

I’d got to this point in my diary entry, when, one third through my article, the phone rang – and I learned that two fellow members of my own local little ward Branch had been contacted, one was being expelled and the other suspended “for two years.”

The Purge, as it’s being called in the main stream media, has hit our local party.  Now I’m beginning to suspect an ulterior purpose in the decision arbitrarily taken by the NEC to close down branch activity around the country until after the Leadership elections.  Though done in the name of calming all the alleged antagonisms that could break out if people were permitted to congregate together, it seems to have another motive.

It has the appearance of being a classic “psyops” exercise generating and maintaining a sense of organizational “crisis” aimed at keeping people in line and permitting individual members targeted for expulsion, suspension – or disenfranchisement in the leadership election – to be picked off, one by one, without recourse to their local Branch.  And that makes me angry. How dare they, I say to myself?  More to the point though, is the question: how can they?  And the answer is in the instrument that is the “Labour Rule Book.”  In the remainder of this entry I will suggest to you, fellow Labour comrades, how the current rule book is not fit for purpose in our party, going forward.  With its cumbersome structure of NEC/NCC/Compliance Unit and other elements it gives Franz Kafka a run for his money.  Kafka, you ask?

Franz Kafka’s novel, “The Trial,” one of his many novels about procedural unfairness used in power relations, was dramatized at the Young Vic theatre, London, last year. It’s about a management-level employee subjected to a surreal, arbitrary trial, based on an unfathomable process, or procedure, on a non-specific charge with non-specified punishment. A predicament now widely known as Kafkaesque.”  Yes, I am angry.  And, yes, I know, in this current “psyoptic” atmosphere deliberately created in the party it could get me into trouble.

But do I, as Jeremy is wont to say, walk by on the other side of the street and ignore my Branch comrades’ predicament?  Or do I offer them whatever support and advice (if they ask me for it) I can?  Let’s put this “existential” question in context.  Clause IV of the Labour Rule Book 2016 reads:

Aims and values

  1. The Labour Party is a democratic socialist Party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few; where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe and where we live together freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.  (my emphasis, MJM)

I don’t believe the Labour Rule Book’s disciplinary procedure facilitates and promotes solidarity, tolerance and respect, or democratic socialism.  Chapter 6 of the Rule Book contains the following:

Paragraph 2:

When a person applies for re-admission to the Party following an expulsion by the NCC on whatever basis or by automatic exclusion under Chapter 2 4.A above of the membership rules, the application shall be submitted to the NEC for consideration and decision. Such applications shall not normally be considered by the NEC until a minimum of five years has elapsed.

Paragraph 2 continues:

The decision of the NEC shall be binding on the individual concerned and on the CLP relevant to the application.

Clause X is the final catch-all which explains the recent arbitrary rule-making and tactical interpretation which has upset people so much – mainly due to their ignorance of such a body of rules as the Labour Rule Book 2016. Note the date and think for yourselves of its significance for a moment.

Clause X

“For the avoidance of any doubt any dispute as to the meaning, interpretation and general application of the constitution, standing orders and rules of the party … shall be referred to the NEC for determination and the decision of the NEC (National Executive Committee) shall be final and conclusive for all purposes.”

(In parenthesis: can you see now why the NEC won its famous appeal, thereby disenfranchising 130,000 people?  And why the Rules must be changed ?)

In the course of my trade union work, I developed a great attachment to what are called “The Principles of Natural justice.”

So let me explain in general terms, what is meant by “Natural Justice,” and how it is a relevant set of values to be internalized by all aspiring democratic socialists.  I will explain it, as I, a lay man – a mere foot soldier – understands it without making specific reference to recent Labour Party cases, or naming names though I am bearing them in mind as I select the most relevant Principles. But let me point out: there is not one of the dozen or so Natural Justice Principles on the list below that does not have a bearing on some aspect of all the cases we have heard and read about – and the cases that have just occurred in my own Branch.  

I’ll leave it to the reader to make the connection, as I’m not legally qualified to be more prescriptive. And I’ll leave it to the reader to apply these principles to cases they are aware of  – as well as making your own judgement on the Labour Rule Book, as presently drawn up – and my personal opinion that it is not fit for purpose in a party claiming to be democratic socialist.

Principles of Natural Justice applied to Disciplinary issues:

(Note, though starting from my knowledge of Natural Justice applied to employing organizations, I’ve selected those principles of natural justice relevant to the Party-Member relationship where loss of earnings/conditions are not necessarily involved and where, instead, the potential damage to a member is reputational – and, supremely important to most active members – denial of democratic rights to participate in the Party during a period of suspension, such as that highlighted by the current leadership election.)

The Principles summarised:

 (i) To have clearly understood and regularly updated rules/standards/procedures in place (in compliance with the law, and best practice).

 (II) Rules/standards/procedures must be consistent, which means:

*Made known to all

*Applied equally to all

*Applied consistently over time

(III) Accord people the right to hear in full complaints made against them (and by whom)

*Having the procedure, time frame and possible disciplinary outcomes clarified

*Given reasonable time to prepare a response

*Access to all relevant information.  The Data Protection Act further enforces this right in both employing organisations and voluntary ones, like the Labour Party.

*Accord people the right to answer charges (with appropriate representation, including legal)

(IV) Management/the organisation must carry out a full investigation before taking any action (as far as is “reasonably practicable,” the interpretation of which must not be abused. )

(V) Fair and proportionate penalty.  i.e. What penalty would the “reasonable employer” (or, in the present context  “reasonable organisation”) sanction?  That is the  penalty should fit the crime, in other words.

(VI) A “reasonable” employer or organisation would explore all avenues other than dismissal/expulsion, which ought to be a last resort – and, again,  be subject to appeal.

(VII) The emphasis ought to be on improvement in performance, behaviour or attitudes, not sanctions and punishment. In “best practice” employments and organisations it is.

(VI) Appeal mechanism: both internal to the organisation and external “third parties” and legal redress through Tribunals or Courts, and the accused informed about them and how to access them.

*Designated senior manager(s)/senior officials as final internal appeal stage

*These must not be involved in earlier stages of investigation/hearing

(V) A reasonable set time frame for processing cases and appeals:  “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

This list of The Principles of Natural Justice was prepared in my time as a trade union official and trainer for use in management-employee relationships.  A Labour Party activist argued in the Guardian that the Labour Rule Book is not a binding contract but a pragmatic 87 page guide for arranging and facilitating party business. (Guardian, 27 July,2016)

 It is, and will be, what the members decide it ought to be; that’s a big part of the “democratic” in democratic socialism.  The members choice: begin the process for formulating a fair and just set of disciplinary rules for a democratic socialist organization, or see the Labour Rule Book as a continuing part of the problem.