Politicians have always, more or less, policed their own conduct. But that has started to change in recent years. Following the expenses scandal, parliament determined that an independent standards authority needed to be set up to administer and police MPs’ expenses claims. And IPSA was created. We are now, slowly, moving to a fully independent process for bullying and harassment as a result of the Cox report, which shone a light on truly disgusting behaviour in parliament. Whilst we have not yet completed the move to a truly independent process for adjudicating such complaints, it is a clear recommendation from Dame Laura Cox, and one I hope we will see introduced shortly.
It would be something of an understatement to say that there has been an awful lot of negative attention focused on Labour Party disciplinary procedures recently. Be it antisemitism, harassment or voting for another party, we have seen inconsistencies in timescales, processes and decisions. Of course, each complaint will turn on its own facts and we will never know exactly what evidence is presented before the panel. Yet to the outside observer, it is difficult to understand why certain things happen, or don’t happen, and in the case of some complaints why they have seemingly taken years to be dealt with. Sadly, this gives the media an easy opportunity to paint the party’s procedures as fundamentally flawed and subject to political interference.
There is an opportunity for this to change. When the Cox report is fully implemented, we could find ourselves with different processes being operated against MPs for essentially the same types of complaint. The party should look to adopt a parallel independent process for complaints that could be very similar in nature but outside parliament’s remit. The political world is a much more transparent place now than it once was, and that is a good thing. It does mean, though, that decisions taken are subject to a level of scrutiny that they may not have been in the past, particularly in relation to ordinary members whose words or actions can now be transmitted around the world in seconds.
A political party’s disciplinary process should reflect the party’s values. It should be independent of the party’s leadership structure. Then, the leadership can still influence and shape the rules to send a clear message about what it stands for, but be insulated from criticism about whatever action is taken or not taken because it has allowed an independent body to investigate and adjudicate on those complaints. For as long as political parties have been in existence, leaders have wanted to control disciplinary processes. However, if we do not get our own house in order – if we do not deal with anti-semitism, bullying or harassment, whoever has done it – we have no right to lecture others about their actions. We will also face a challenge in persuading the public that we are fit to govern the country if we are seen to be unable to govern ourselves. It is vital that we restore confidence in the party having an effective method of setting standards for those who call themselves Labour members and their representatives.
We know that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) are looking into the way the party operates, but we should be acting ahead of their report and be honestly asking ourselves whether our current processes are operating as well as they could. That is why I have written to every member of Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) to ask them whether they would consider discussing, as a priority at their next meeting, whether a new independent procedure should be introduced. One where initial assessment, investigation, and adjudication are done by a body that is independent of the party. This body could consist of retired tribunal judges or trade unionists whose values are in line with our own but who have experience of determining similar issues. Although the individuals would be appointed by the party, they would operate totally independently of it. The party would lose control of aspects of the process, but that is a price worth paying if we are able to demonstrate that we have a robust and efficient process for dealing with all types of unacceptable behaviour. Perhaps then we can spend our time fighting the Tories instead of ourselves.