On 10 May, I will have been a Labour party member for 23 years. Like most people, I also crave a change at the earliest possible time from self-interest in politics. Starmer has cited a crisp change of focus “from a party of protest to a party of public service.”
The phrase uneasily suggests the need for political amnesia – in aid of the aspirations to govern.
The problem is: I see cracks spreading over the veneer of political respectability within Labour.
The Nolan Principles for public service offer a test: objectivity, accountability and openness are the three at the heart of this guidance. So how many does Labour pass?
Recently the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced Labour had done enough to make amends for historic problems with its response to antisemitism. This decision can and should also be seen as closely related to how Labour is implementing the recommendations of the 2022 Forde Report, commissioned in 2020 by the National Executive (NEC) of Labour to investigate an internal report leaked to the public. Many average media followers, outside the Labour party, must be bemused by the somewhat bitty coverage of this story. Is it only about antisemitism or were there other things to put right as well?
The Forde report actually made 96 recommendations: some highlighted the need for a more balanced approach and for deep reforms to demonstrate greater transparency in key Labour complaints and disciplinary procedures. It categorised the complaints into three: 1) those already complete, 2) those in process, 3) those that cannot be dealt with due to financial or legal barriers.
Category 2 is further divided into 3: 2a) those concerning staff matters, to be dealt with by an HR committee; 2b) those tackling discrimination, culture change and code of conduct, to be dealt with by an NEC working group, and 2c) recommendations to go through the Leader’s office for report to NEC 2023. So actually, the media focus on antisemitism and culture change did not shed light on all those other recommendations which may be of great importance to those of us active in the Labour party.
The notice about the complaints procedure on the website reads:
The Labour Party expects its members to abide by the spirit and letter of its rules and to exhibit our shared values of solidarity, tolerance and respect at all times. We encourage people to report behaviour by our members that may constitute a breach of our rules or does not reflect our shared values. We take complaints seriously and we will assess every complaint received and take action where it is about an identifiable member or organisational body. Through the effective handling of complaints, we aim to ensure the rules of the party are upheld and the party provides a place where members feel comfortable to engage in political activity and debate in a welcoming environment.
We have to hope that the party is able to sustain the commitments that satisfied the EHRC.
A problem of resources
But one problem, peeping up in the voluminous Forde report, is setting aside the resources to deal with complaints, which are often time-consuming and require patient expert attention.
However, Keir Starmer, responding to the EHRC announcement that Labour has now done enough to rectify its former antisemitism, stated:
“I feel humbled when I think of all those who have tirelessly dedicated themselves to getting Labour back on track.
“All those inside and outside the party who have made it their mission to restore, renew and rebuild Labour on behalf of the country.
“It is thanks to them that we can say firmly, proudly, confidently: The Labour Party has changed.”
Some of us query this triumphant finalism: there is still a long road to implement all those improvements as set out in Forde.
The integrity of our politics is at the crux of the next election and of local election procedures. This must rate as the most scandal-ridden years of any political era since the 1920s, a time when self-interest aligned with authoritarian solutions, coming close to destroying democracy. Compare and contrast is at the heart of the Labour blame game. Integrity vs self-interest.
This Tory government has enacted legislation in breach of international responsibility, compromised free speech and has broken with common decency in its venal self-interest. It has been an easy target for anyone not living in a glass house, with a steady supply of stones.
Beware the Ratner effect
Some cynics feel that in other respects, the opposition is merely ‘Not as bad as the Tories’ – that Labour simply sees being ‘serious without substance’ as better than ‘risible with reason’. The polls certainly indicate a good market share, after careful work to create a strong ‘brand’, but an older generation will remember Gerald Ratner, who built a jewellery empire by running against the establishment brands, then famously destroyed the lucrative brand by joking in an after-dinner speech that some of the products were “crap.” The company lost so many customers and shareholders that he was pushed out as CEO. This is often cited as a textbook example of how a company must do its utmost to maintain its brand loyalty. The same applies to the brand of the Labour party.
The Labour website is an expression in plain view of Labour’s mindset at the present time. It’s loaded heavily with leadership profile and suggests a classic corporate management model. Yet there’s a curious lack of transparency about Labour’s organisational engine room team.
Where is the NEC?
The invisibility of Labour’s governing body, the NEC, contrasts with information on sites for the LibDems, Greens, Cooperative Party – and yes, even the Conservative party. It’s not just that it’s hard to find any names or any public record of key decisions; these are not communicated to the membership either. There are six policy initiatives listed on the website, but when one clicks through to get the document, a notice comes up that it is not publicly available.
There is no easy engagement for members with their national or regional officers. It’s as if local members have become a marginal consideration, as a result of the residual fear from when Momentum surged forward with a more radical agenda. Never again.
The front-page footer is where you can ‘Find your local Labour representative’ by postcode. Unfortunately, all you get is a generic message about Labour wanting to win the parliamentary seat or having already won it, depending on your location, but the idea of a local point of contact for the Labour party? If you are a member, there is a click point to give the information. But the assumption is that beyond party members nobody needs to know anything about local Labour. What about the Press wanting to get local Labour reaction to local news?
Something is missing
Somehow all this seems remiss in reflecting so little of Labour’s origins – the working class and unions, campaigners for justice ranging from Anti-Apartheid to LGBTQ+ rights. It was as a direct result of persistent protest that many of our human rights ended up being enacted as principles of society by (usually Labour) government legislation. This omission jars with the Starmer statement and the reality of opposition – fundamentally protesting against the government’s undemocratic policies as they once again serve to erode our rights.
All of which is significant: the history of the Labour Party always has been about local activists, the team who believe in change, stand to be candidates and councillors for a better future.