How Labour Party Bureaucrats made a Mockery of Democracy

This article was written (26/4/20) after the leaked Labour report revealed anti-democratic plots were hatched by senior party bureaucrats to sabotage Corbyn’s leadership


I.

The leaks from an internal report on antisemitism in the Labour Party highlight that Britain’s main opposition party is democratically defunct. A conspiracy to undermine Labour’s chances of an election victory in 2017, carried out at the highest levels by unelected party bureaucrats, evidences a startling disconnect between Labour’s membership and party officials. The leaks plainly show that senior party staff worked for Labour’s defeat, and hoped to trigger a leadership election that would unseat Corbyn and destroy his social democratic agenda as a consequence.

Let us take a moment to consider Corbyn’s position when the 2017 election arrived. Corbyn was first elected leader of the Labour Party in 2015 on a platform of demanding that Labour adopt a more strongly left, popular social democratic policy platform. In spite of a series of interventions by prominent figures of the New Labour era, including Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and others, who claimed Corbyn would destroy the party’s chances of being elected, Corbyn won the leadership with 59.5% of the vote. 

This mandate from the membership meant that Corbyn had clearly won the argument over what direction the party should take. 

Yet Corbyn received the vote of only 13 Labour MPs, making him the most unpopular candidate among the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). This already illustrates that PLP opinion was not representative of the views of the vast majority of Labour party members, an obvious democratic deficit.

So intolerable was Corbyn’s victory to the PLP that they rapidly brought another challenge to his leadership in 2016, triggered by a no-confidence vote and the resignation of over two dozen Shadow Cabinet members. This vote was a shameless coup, organised by the PLP against Corbyn who enjoyed significant support among ordinary members. 

Whereas 172 members of the PLP supported the no-confidence vote in Corbyn, with just 40 members of the PLP supporting the leader, ordinary Labour members gave Corbyn an even greater mandate to maintain his popular agenda. In the resulting leadership election against Owen Smith, Corbyn won 61.8% of the vote.

Corbyn had therefore definitively proven that he enjoyed the support of the vast majority of Labour members. Indeed, most of the PLP had to accept that their challenge had been unsuccessful. But this was not enough for senior, unelected party bureaucrats. 

Rather than accept that Corbyn had won, whatever their personal disagreements with him, and moving on to the task of supporting Labour’s electoral chances to the best of their ability, as they were paid to do, this anti-democratic gang repeatedly denigrated and plotted against the leadership.

Corbyn and his supporters were condemned by these party bureaucrats as ‘trots’, short for Trotskyists, which one staffer defined as anyone to the left of Gordon Brown. The head of Labour’s political strategy called Corbyn ‘a lying little toerag’. The manager of the general secretary’s office said on the election night of 2017 that Labour reversing the Conservative majority was the ‘opposite to what I had been working towards for the last couple of years.’ The general secretary of the Labour Party said that it was ‘going to be a long night’, given the horrific news of Labour’s strong performance. The manager of the general secretary’s office even expressed their contempt for democracy, complaining that ‘[t]he people have spoken. Bastards.’ 

Indeed, much of the language expressed in the conversations of these staffers is severely antidemocratic. As The Independent describes: ‘Some senior staff also joked about “hanging and burning” Jeremy Corbyn, and suggested that another staff member who cheered a speech by the party leader “should be shot”.’

The lengths that this unelected group within Labour went in order to derail democracy are nothing short of extraordinary. In January, after by-elections were triggered by the resignation of Labour MPs for the constituencies of Stoke Central and Copeland, the director of the general secretary’s office hoped that ‘if we lose these elections we could have another leadership election.’ Furthermore, they suggested creating a ‘discreet’ working group ‘to go over rules, timetable scenarios and staff servicing the process’, in order to be ‘prepared’. Evidently, senior staffers preferred to lose and secure a more factionally preferable leader than win with a leader they disagreed with.

This plan was approved by the general secretary of the party as well as the executive director for governance, membership and party services, who said they spoke to deputy leader Tom Watson about this plot, instructing him to ‘prepare for being interim leader.’ Watson was critical of Corbyn throughout his tenure as deputy leader, but the possibility of his involvement in attempts to remove the democratically elected Corbyn through an anti-democratic party machinery surely goes beyond the pale. At any rate, Labour succeeded in retaining Stoke Central while losing Copeland, allowing Corbyn to remain as leader.

But attempts to promote the interests of the anti-Corbyn faction did not end there. The executive director for elections, campaigns and organisation implored that ‘we need to try and throw cash’ at the seat of Tom Watson. This was again supported by other staffers. Given the evidence, the leaked report’s claim that ‘[t]he party’s resources – paid for by party members – were often utilised to further the interests of one faction and in some cases were used to undermine the party’s objectives’, seems totally reasonable. 

Moreover, the claim that a ‘secret key seats team’ operated in Ergon House, a party office in London, without the knowledge of Labour’s leadership, also appears perfectly plausible. The Independent points out that ‘[o]fficials appeared to try and hide some of their activities,’ with one staffer saying ‘“[w]e need to stop digital campaign budgets going to [a named left-wing senior staff member] for approval, he can’t see what we are doing with digital spend”.’

Can there be any doubt of the report’s conclusion that ‘a parallel general election campaign was run to support MPs associated with the right wing of the party’? Can there be any doubt that this was an extraordinary exercise in anti-democratic plotting?

The director of Labour’s governance and legal unit had by the middle of May prepared rules and procedures for a ‘Labour leadership election 2017’. As journalist Aaron Bastani points out, this staffer also 

proposed to replace Labour’s “one member, one vote system”, which had seen Corbyn win the leadership twice, with the electoral college that existed before 2013. The plan, then, wasn’t simply to change leader, but also the rules by which Corbyn’s successor would be chosen.

There should be no confusion as to the aims of senior party bureaucrats at this time: they were intent on replacing Corbyn, in spite of overwhelming support for him among party members.

Throughout the election campaign, senior staffers expressed contempt at any support for Corbyn and expressed joy at any sign of Labour failing. In May, one staffer wrote to another that a Labour candidate was a ‘bloody hero’ because she had rhetorically ‘stabbed Corbyn’ in an interview. Crowds singing ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ in Birkenhead caused staffers to say, ‘I think this is what is making me feel ill’, and question whether ‘everyone in the north west’ had ‘gone a bit loopy’. Polls showing Labour falling and the Conservatives rising were praised by staffers, polls showing the opposite were met with shock and disdain. The international policy officer of the party said they ‘actually felt quite sick’ when they saw ‘that YouGov poll’ which showed rising support for Labour.

If we recall that Labour was less than 2,500 votes away from forming a government in 2017, the plans of the abovementioned staffers to sabotage the party should be considered all the more disgraceful. There is also gross irony in the public suggestion of one staffer who resigned his position in the party that Labour would have to decide ‘whether it wants to be a party of protest or government’. Perhaps if Labour’s senior bureaucrats had devoted themselves fully to the task of helping Labour electorally, rather than trying to sabotage the party from within at every turn, the result of the 2017 election may have been different.

II.

The efforts of these senior bureaucrats to undermine Labour’s chances of winning the 2017 election, replace Corbyn in spite of his democratic mandate, and to systematically promote the interests of one faction over another being made unequivocally clear, it is perhaps worth considering some of the ways these same staffers tried to suppress legitimate discussions within the Labour party. 

After a terrorist atrocity was committed in Manchester, Corbyn argued that British foreign policy increased the threat of terrorism in the UK. One party staffer insisted privately in response that ‘[i]n the face of a terror attack normal people do not blame foreign intervention they blame immigration.’ Another commented that the speech would not ‘go down as badly as it deserves to thanks to the large groundswell of ill-informed opposition to all western interventions.’ 

It is worth noting that Corbyn’s view is accepted by security experts in the UK. In March 2003, the Joint Intelligence Committee assessed that ‘military action against Iraq’ would mean ‘[t]he threat from al-Qaeda will increase’, with attacks being likely ‘especially in the US and UK’. They further stated that ‘[t]he worldwide threat from other Islamist terrorist groups and individuals will increase significantly’. The views of these Labour staffers on foreign policy are therefore unsound, hawkish and xenophobic. 

Indeed, these bureaucrats were worried that the outcome of the Chilcot Inquiry in 2016 would lead to what one official referred to as ‘lots of abuse at pro war mps’ and ‘an influx of anti-war angry people’. In his response to Chilcot’s report, Corbyn correctly characterised the Iraq War as an ‘act of military aggression’, illegal in light of ‘the overwhelming weight of international legal opinion’. Thereafter, ‘war criminal’ was added by some Labour staff to a list of banned phrases, which included ‘pseudo Tory’ and ‘undercover Blairite’. As journalist Phil Miller has discussed: 

Officials planned to scan through social media posts by new members after the Chilcot Inquiry was published to identify anyone using the proscribed terms. The vetting escalated on 18 August 2016 when a compliance officer stated that “calling someone a warmonger” was “generally … enough in itself” to act against members.

Miller adds that the leaked report ‘revealed the existence of the blacklist’. Indeed, the report points out that Labour bureaucrats ‘did not have any instruction or mandate’ from the party’s leadership ‘to specifically search for “abuse at pro war MPs” from “anti-war angry people”.’ The leaked report also states that ‘[w]e are not aware of any similar interest being displayed in abuse at “anti-war MPs” or from “angry pro-war people”.’

Let this stand as evidence of party bureaucrats attempting to stifle freedom of speech within the Labour party, directing their censorship toward those members they disagreed with.

III. 

Having been presented with immense evidence of anti-democratic practices, how has British media reacted to the astonishing revelations in the leaked report? The Times’ reported that ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s allies have been accused of a last-minute bid to “smear whistleblowers” and “discredit allegations” of antisemitism in the Labour Party during his tenure.’ Although antisemitism in the Labour Party is an issue that must be treated with seriousness, how can the issue of democracy as raised by the leaked report simply be skirted over? 

Gideon Falter, head of the Campaign Against Antisemitism, claimed the report was ‘an attempt to imagine a vast anti-Corbyn conspiracy’. No imagination is required when we have the words of senior Labour staff about their support for anti-Corbyn Labour Party figures and their operations to undermine the party leader.

The Telegraph and the Evening Standard followed The Times and hardly discussed the evidence of electoral sabotage revealed in the report. The Evening Standard even condemned the leaked report for its ‘Stasi-like trawl of internal mails and messages in search of disloyalty’. This is claimed despite the fact that the messages included in the report were drawn only from WhatsApp groups made for work purposes, an internal messaging tool and Labour party work emails. It is also interesting that the wider implications of such internal sabotage are not considered. The report itself is dismissed as a ‘diversionary tactic’ emanating from a ‘convenient delusion’, that Labour was sabotaged from within. There is, unsurprisingly, no engagement with the evidence of this sabotage.

A democracy cannot function except with the existence of real, fierce competition between political parties. For one party to be hobbled by unelected bureaucrats wishing to hinder it from within and thereby topple an elected leader they find disagreeable is nothing short of an attack upon democracy itself. By undermining the ability of one party to compete in the 2017 election, these Labour bureaucrats directly violated democratic principles. Thus to dismiss what has been revealed in the leaked report as evidence of a ‘faction fight’, or something that should be ignored in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, is both short-sighted and naive. Maintaining democracy means maintaining the spirit of democratic competition, not ignoring internal sabotage within political parties.

It goes without saying that what these unelected bureaucrats did is reprehensible and severe. They should be held to account for their actions, if for no reason other than to help restore the British people’s faith in their political system. Yet now The Guardian reports that ‘[m]ore than a dozen people are drawing up legal action against Labour’, due to their being named in this report, with data protection claims, invasion of privacy claims and so forth. It is difficult to believe that the leaking of the report does not constitute an example of whistleblowing in the public interest, considering the attack upon democracy these bureaucrats were responsible for.

Mark Lewis, the lawyer who is representing the individuals named in the report, was quoted in The Guardian as saying that ‘[p]eople need to be careful about statements that have been made. If this bankrupts the Labour party or individuals, so be it. Actions have consequences.’ 

It is surely a perversion of justice of severe magnitude that those who have been exposed for behaviour that contravenes the basic tenets of democracy (such as accepting the vote of the majority and competition between parties) are now taking the moral high ground with the notion that ‘actions have consequences’. Furthermore, Lewis’ idea that bankrupting Britain’s main opposition party and the largest political party in Western Europe is a righteous deed that might be necessary to compensate those who created and carried out anti-democratic plots is frankly ridiculous.

The Guardian also carried a quote from someone who is ‘considering legal action’. They said:

The Labour Party had made serious allegations about our behaviour. These allegations were never put to us and not a single one of us did anything other than to work towards the best result in the 2017 election. Many of us are now being subjected to horrendous online abuse directly as a consequence.

It is interesting that the evidence assembled in the report from the work communications of these staffers is not directly challenged as false. By now, however, it should be clear that the claim this anti-democratic gang wanted to ‘work towards the best result in the 2017 election’ is utterly false, if ‘the best result’ was a Labour victory. Rather, they worked for what they perceived to be ‘the best result’, namely, sabotaging Labour from within in order to fail in such a way that would discredit Corbyn and allow a leader they found more agreeable to emerge. 

If we live in a country that is serious about democracy, about the value of people voting and acting politically as engaged, informed citizens, then we can in no way stand for the sort of behaviour that these Labour staffers displayed. They worked to lose by-elections, they worked to lose seats in the 2017 general election, and the revelations of their anti-democratic plotting has disheartened grassroots political activists and volunteers – ordinary people who are not paid to secure election victories as these bureaucrats are, and who actually hoped and worked for a Labour victory. The individuals responsible for the behaviour discussed in the leaked report must be held to account, and if we all cherish democracy, all sides of the political spectrum must condemn the behaviour they engaged in.

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