Members threatened with investigation over Corbyn suspension motions

Elliot Chappell

Labour members have been threatened with investigation as a result of considering motions on the high-profile suspension of former leader Jeremy Corbyn as part of their local party business.

Momentum members from one Constituency Labour Party (CLP) took to social media earlier this week following threats they say have been sent from the regional party reacting to a motion passed by local members on Monday.

Chair of Bristol West CLP Dr Hannah Little told LabourList that while “there wasn’t an explicit threat of suspension” she was told she would be “investigated” for considering the motion.

Update, November 13th: The chair, co-secretary and a number of other members in Bristol West Labour have been suspended from the party. LabourList sources say this is due to the motion being considered and due to tweets calling for the resignation of the regional director.

Co-secretary Darran McLaughlin told LabourList that on the day of the Equality and Human Rights Commission report being published and the suspension of the former Labour leader, an emergency motion was tabled and passed by one branch.

McLaughlin, a Labour council candidate for 2021, reported that after the motion passed at branch level the chair received emails from the regional director advising that the motion should not be considered at a meeting of the whole local party.

After receiving messages from many local members, however, the CLP chair decided that it should be heard. An extraordinary general committee meeting was held online with around 200 members participating.

The chair issued a statement on the decision to hear the motion. “When Jennie Formby established the guidance around discussing suspensions, she clarified that it was about confidentiality and protecting party processes to operate uninhibited…

“I don’t feel the motion discusses any confidential information, and is calling for procedures to be followed. There are specific issues about the process that has been followed in Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension,” the statement reads.

Urging the general secretary or region to “rectify the discord created by this heavy handed approach”, the chair added: “At present, the authoritarian approach of trying to prevent any discussion isn’t helping member engagement, trust or unity.”

Local parties were warned by general secretary David Evans not to “have discussions about, or pass motions in relation to any aspect of individual disciplinary cases” in an email to local officers last week.

The guidance stated that the party would “not hesitate to take appropriate action – including against individual members” if it considered that the advice had not been adhered to.

His predecessor Formby had also advised local party secretaries not to accept motions on individual disciplinary cases in 2019, warning that “there is a lot of interest in the party and the media about our internal systems”.

But McLaughlin told LabourList: “The anti-democratic suspension of Jeremy Corbyn has, rightly, been a topic of huge debate within the party.

“Because of this it is absolutely right that members should be able to have their say, as Keir Starmer does in every interview he gives.”

The co-secretary and chair of the local party explained to LabourList that, in order to make sure there could be no discussion on or challenge to the EHRC report, it was decided that the motion should be considered without debate.

All members present were muted throughout the meeting and amendments to the motion were sent by direct message to the chair, who then took a break to consider and composite the contributions from members before proceeding to a vote.

Members first voted on whether to consider the motion, with 94 voting in favour and 59 against. The local party then voted on the motion itself, which passed by a majority of 19 with 99 voting for, 80 against and three abstentions.

Labour MP and shadow cabinet member Thangam Debbonaire, who attended the local meeting, later confirmed on social media that she had voted against the meeting being held and then against the motion itself.

Members have raised concerns that this itself constitutes political interference as the Shadow Housing Secretary offered her opinion on the ongoing disciplinary process by voting and commenting online. She has declined to comment.

Bristol West CLP has written to Labour leader Keir Starmer since the meeting, expressing their objection to the suspension of Corbyn and “any and all politically motivated disciplinary actions against the left by the leadership”.

Similar discussions have taken place in other local parties. Michael Tierney of South Cambridgeshire CLP told LabourList that officers were “threatened with suspension” when they agreed to consider a motion on Corbyn’s suspension.

Tierney, a Labour candidate in the local elections next year, said the local party decided to withdraw the motion after discussing correspondence from the regional party, but said it may again be put forward for consideration next month.

He told LabourList: “We got a notification that the motion wouldn’t be allowed at the CLP meeting and that if it was put forward to the group then disciplinary action could be taken against the executive, any officers there…

“Some variation of it will go to the next meeting in December if possible. We’re waiting to see what some of the leadership left – what they do, what’s going to happen with Corbyn.”

The threats of disciplinary action follow a meeting of the London regional board in which members were reportedly prevented from voting on a motion expressing solidarity with Corbyn earlier this month.

The unease voiced by party members also follows the Unite party staff branch last week raising concerns over “due process” in the suspension of the former Labour leader and “the integrity of our processes”.

In an email to local officers last week, Labour’s general secretary told party chairs and secretaries that he is “aware of the considerable strength of feeling and the range of views that members will have about the suspension”.

But he added: “I must remind you that in accordance with the instructions of my predecessor – which I fully agree with – it is not competent business for CLPs, branches and any other party units to have discussions about, or pass motions in relation to any aspect of individual disciplinary cases.

“This is necessary in order to protect the integrity of our processes, and to ensure that cases can be investigated and determined confidentially.”

The advice, which urged local party executives to ensure that such motions are “ruled out of order”, reflects an instruction given in August that they should not accept motions on a number of specified topics related to antisemitism.

Evans last week warned that Labour “will not hesitate to take appropriate action – including against individual members – where our rules and guidance are not adhered to, or standards of behaviour fall below that which we expect”.

A Labour source has told LabourList that the party considers it to be a long-standing position that motions on individual disciplinary matters are not competent business for local parties.

LabourList understands that the party considers this to be important for protecting the integrity of disciplinary processes and consistent with similar rulings made by Formby when she was general secretary.

Concerns have also been raised by members because the leader has commented on Corbyn’s disciplinary case in public. Starmer has said the decision to suspend the former leader was not made by him, but by the general secretary.

Asked why the leader can comment but local parties are not allowed to do so, Starmer’s spokesperson said: “Because Keir has been asked about Corbyn’s suspension in the media. We will obviously provide a response to that.”

The Highgate branch of Starmer’s own local party has passed a motion on the suspension, by 33 votes to 29. It reads: “This branch/CLP expresses its solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn. Jeremy is a lifelong campaigner against racism and antisemitism.

“We believe that unity, not division, is important for the party to make progress and effectively challenge racism, fascism, antisemitism and harassment in what ever form this may take.”

The motion will now progress to a general meeting of the Holborn and St Pancras Labour. Local member Richard Kuper told LabourList that the CLP chair had been aware of the motion and not advised that it was out of order.

Kuper, the political education officer of the Highgate Labour branch in Starmer’s constituency, said: “It seemed to me in line with what David Evans said, and in my moving the motion I referred to his constraints.

“I said very clearly I would remain within these constraints but protest at them. At what seems to me a massive interference with my rights as a party member to express an opinion on this important matter.”

Commenting on the motions, Momentum co-chair Andrew Scattergood said: “Members are sending the leadership a very clear signal that we will not take attacks on the socialist left and the principle of member-led democracy lying down.

“This attempt to prevent discussion is control-freakery at its worst. It’s time to give CLPs the right to conduct their business as they see fit.”

Corbyn was suspended after he issued a statement in response to the EHRC report into antisemitism within the Labour Party, which found Labour responsible for three breaches of the Equality Act over its handling of complaints.

The former Labour leader commented in response to the 128-page document that “one antisemite” is “too many” but added that “the scale” of Labour antisemitism was “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents”.

A Labour spokesperson announced three hours later that Corbyn was suspended from the party pending investigation and that he had had the whip withdrawn “[in] light of his comments… and his failure to retract them subsequently”.

Below is the letter sent to the leadership by Bristol West CLP.

Dear Sir Keir

I’m writing as co-secretary of Bristol West CLP to update you on the urgent meeting held on 9th November.

Nearly 200 members attended (including our current MP – Thangam Debbonaire). Local members had been called to hear an urgent motion that centred around party democracy. The meeting began with members having the opportunity to vote on whether or not to hear the motion. Members decided that they were firmly in favour of hearing it. Amendments were then tabled and finally the motion then was voted on and passed. Details of the motion and voting are detailed below.

The key points that our CLP wish to express with you are that Bristol West Constituency Labour Party condemns Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension and demands his reinstatement to the party and that we oppose any and all politically motivated disciplinary actions against the left by the leadership.

Before the meeting, our chair Hannah Little explained very eloquently the issues and pressures she had been facing:

“The regional director and executive director of legal affairs have been in touch to make it clear that I will investigated for breach of rules should the meeting go ahead this evening. Threatening emails aside, I’m sure you can all understand the predicament I’m in here where I’m being forced to choose between keeping a large chunk of the membership happy and heard, or being subject to disciplinary action. It seems very counter intuitive that I should be in this position in a democratic party and it is causing me quite a lot of distress. When I stood as chair, it was on a platform of pushing for member democracy and as part of this aim, I habitually put matters that come to the EC up for vote. In the spirit of further democracy, I’m happy to hold a vote with the members in the meeting on whether to hear the motion before going ahead.

When Jenny Formby established the guidance around discussing suspensions, she clarified that it was about confidentiality and protecting party processes to operate uninhibited and I absolutely support these objectives and I absolutely support the findings and recommendations of the EHRC report. I don’t feel the motion discusses any confidential information and is calling for procedures to be followed. There are specific issues about the process that has been followed in Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension that have not been carried out in accordance with the correct procedure, as Unite’s Labour party staff branch and others have pointed out. The suspension also looks to be a breach of the EHRC’s recommendations which specifically and repeatedly say there should be no political influence in disciplinary matters and that remarks relating to the scale of antisemitism within the party, based on member’s own experience, should be permissible if they are within the law.

Aside from going ahead, I’m currently at a loss for how I can ensure party members can push for procedures and recommendations of the report to be followed if we’re not allowed to pass motions requesting that they are. To me, it seems fair to allow members to ask for party processes and the report’s recommendations to be followed, and maintain procedures that allow for party members to call for transparency and hold the party to account.”

The meeting was carried out in such a way that we were in full accordance with party rules as we understand them.

The full amended motion reads as follows:

Bristol West CLP notes:

  • That the Labour Party leadership has suspended Jeremy Corbyn MP from the party and removed the parliamentary whip, ostensibly due to his statement regarding the EHRC’s report on antisemitism in the Labour Party.
  • A number of public figures, including but not limited to the leader of the party, the deputy leader of the party, and the Socialist Campaign Group have issued public statements on the suspension, and that the Socialist Campaign Group has called for reinstatement, yet the general secretary has nevertheless ordered that CLPs cannot do the same.

Bristol West CLP believes:

  • That Jeremy Corbyn MP is a socialist and life-long fighter against racism inside and outside the Labour Party.
  • That his suspension is a politically motivated attack against the left of the Labour Party by the leadership.

Bristol West CLP resolves:

  • To condemn Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension and demand his reinstatement to the party.
  • To oppose any and all politically motivated disciplinary actions against the left by the leadership.
  • To send the contents of this motion to the leader’s office and the national executive committee.
  • That the voting numbers for, against or abstaining on this motion will be included with any messages sent within the Labour Party.

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