"Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we'll keep the Red Flag flying here." So go the last two lines of Jim Connell's 1889 song which is still the anthem of the British Labour Party and is sung every year at the conclusion of its annual conference. But as was pointed out at the Stop the Purge Conference held in Nottingham on 26th November, when Labour members took to social media to denounce as cowards and traitors those MPs trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn, many of them found themselves suspended or expelled. And that meant they were also denied the right to vote in the leadership election of 2016.
A significant number of the seventy or so people attending the Stop the Purge Conference - organised by Broxstowe CLP – were activists whose posts or tweets had come to the attention of Labour's shadowy Compliance Unit. Some had gone further than the type of language used in Labour’s song and had described the MP's involved in the coup as "bastards" or even worse. But as ASLEF’s President, Tosh McDonald pointed out, the use of such words is part of everyday working class conversation. It is the language of the workplace and of the local union meeting where, although much might be said in anger, most of the time people are big enough to make up afterwards and perhaps agree to disagree over a drink or two. NEC member Christine Shawcroft said that that while we all needed to learn lessons and think about how we phrased things in future, the suspensions and expulsions were largely a politically motivated attack on the right of the working class to speak out.
Those who used unparliamentary language - a group that were in the main suspended rather than expelled - are, it seems, now slowly being let back in to the party. But there are others, like Pete Radcliffe, former member of Broxstowe CLP, who were expelled because they belonged to organisations like the AWL, even though this is not a group formally proscribed by the Labour Party.
The conference also heard from representatives of two suspended CLPs: Brighton and Hove District Labour Party and Angela Eagle's Wallasey constituency. Mark Sandell, who before being expelled, was briefly Chair of Brighton and Hove, said there was a clear link between the suspension of the District Party and Councillors in Brighton who do not want to face public criticism of the cuts they are making.
A widely leaked NEC report states among other things that some members in Wallasey "have truthfully claimed that homophobic instances occurred during [an] AGM" but how can any allegation be deemed truthful when no investigation relating to the conduct of individuals has even begun? Of course, if credible allegations have been made, they should be thoroughly investigated, but according to Richard Shield from Wallasey, as of the end of November, no members faced allegations of homophobic abuse; also despite Labour Party rules requiring it, no hate crime had been reported to the police. On the whole, this seemed quite strange, particularly given that these allegations related to events which had occurred several months before.
How could the purge be stopped and how might we ensure that members are not suspended or expelled, or that CLP’s are not closed down in the future? Several speakers emphasised the need for activists to take positions in the party. Others advocated that we should all have greater familiarity with, and understanding of, party rules; that furthermore, we should not allow others to bend and twist the rules to suit their own narrow and sectarian purposes. Some good ideas emerged from workshops: for instance, producing a “bill of rights” for members. This would enshrine principles of natural justice and would guarantee that anyone suspended had a fair hearing.
The Stop the Purge initiative needs to continue and this certainly was a good start. But although the conference was never intended to lead to the issuing of formal demands and was billed as an opportunity to share ideas going forward, with hindsight it does appear that we missed the opportunity to discuss two very important issues.
A few people have been suspended on the basis of allegations of antisemitism and although this was referred to by Tosh McDonald, there was very little focus on the attempts made – both within and outside of the Labour Party – to manipulate and change the definition of antisemitism so that it can include criticism of the Israeli state and its oppression of the Palestinians. Recent allegations have come to light of Israeli Embassy involvement in campaigns to smear Corbyn and Labour activists and this may at least partly explain how so much hysteria regarding antisemitism in Labour has been allowed to build up over the past twelve months. It is therefore important that disciplinary cases involving allegations of antisemitism – such as the one against former Momentum Vice Chair, Jackie Walker - are urgently reviewed in the context of the newly emerging information.
The conference also failed to deal adequately with the issue of those who have had or who are now having their suspensions lifted. Most seem to be receiving a letter from Iain McNicol, General Secretary, referring to allegations in only the vaguest of terms. These letters warn people about their future behaviour but the recipients are not being allowed to issue any challenge to this or indeed challenge the allegations made. This is completely absurd. It is conceivable that the conduct of some individuals has warranted legitimate investigation but in the majority of cases, it appears that no proper enquiries have been made. As if in a novel by Kafka, large numbers of members find themselves accused of “breaking the law” without really knowing what crime they are alleged to have committed. What’s more, they were denied a vote and they are rightly very angry. Where the Compliance Unit or the General Secretary are unable to provide any evidence to justify these warnings, we need to demand they are rescinded and that apologies are issued to the members concerned.
Where people were expelled simply because they supported a non-proscribed socialist organisation, they should be reinstated. The conference made no explicit demand regarding the Compliance Unit but it seems clear that it should be shut down and that procedures should be introduced to ensure that allegations are properly made and fairly investigated. This was something which Shami Chakrabarti called for in the report of her inquiry into antisemitism in the Labour Party. It is vitally important that all those who face allegations in the future are guaranteed a fair process.