“Further to the failures to follow the correct process, it would be obvious to anyone that individuals who have been suspended from the party in such an inconsistent & opaque manner, in some cases learning of their suspension from the press before the party, would have questions on why they had been targeted so unfairly.”
Despite news to the contrary, only a few of the estimated seventy officers suspended for motions expressing solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn have been re-instated to the Labour Party. This week an NEC disputes panel will meet and hopefully put an end to this terrible saga of injustice and unaccountable power, which has now dragged on for over four months.
Last month many of the local party officers suspended from the party following their CLPs or branches passing forbidden motions of solidarity, finally received their disciplinary questions from the Governance and Legal Unit of the party. The questions went a bit like this: Did they allow members of their CLP to debate the motion [pasted below]? Could they explain their understanding of the purpose of the motion? Did they receive the instruction from the General Secretary forbidding motions of solidarity, when did they receive it? Did they believe that by allowing the motion to be discussed, contrary to the instructions of the General Secretary, they were engaging in conduct which in the opinion of the NEC is prejudicial, or grossly detrimental to the Labour Party? Looking back on their actions, did they regret going against the instructions of the General Secretary?
Leaving aside the psychological effect of this type of written interrogation, and the unnerving focus on subservience to the General Secretary, these disciplinary questions at least told officers what they were accused of. For months officers had been left wondering why they had been suspended. Particularly those who had not tabled any motions, or who had withdrawn their motions before they reached the General Meeting. Many of them submitted ‘subject access requests’ in the hopes that the party would have to reveal the decision-making behind their suspension, and the reasons for it.
The biggest question relates to why some have been suspended and not others. Over 90 CLPs passed motions calling on the party to rethink the suspension of the former leader of the party, but only a third of these CLPs saw officers suspended. Why in the North were there no suspensions, whilst a third of the CLPs in the South West region were left without officers? Some passed motions of solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn, others expressed no confidence in the General Secretary and Leader of the party. Others later called for the whip to be re-instated to Corbyn. But the type of motion appears irrelevant in determining whether or not officers were going to be suspended or not. So why were some officers chosen for disciplinary action? Who made the decision to suspend them? How was this decision made? Was the party reacting to complaints submitted? Underneath all this, the question in the hearts of many of us is: are they going to try to suspend us all as part of the ruthless campaign against Corbyn and his supporters that they launched the moment he won the Labour leadership election in 2015?
Officers who have given so much unpaid time and energy to the party, deserve to know how the decision to suspend them was made. People have a right to know what information the party holds on them, and the decision-making that led to their exclusion from political activity. The party by law has thirty days to respond to a subject access request, however many are still waiting months after submitting one. Suddenly last week a blanket email denying subject access requests to suspended officers who had submitted them was issued, citing the claim that their subject access requests were ‘manifestly unfounded’, with no reason given. ‘Manifestly unfounded’ means that the organisation is claiming those that have requested their data are doing so not to exercise their rights to view the data the party holds on them, but simply want to cause disruption. They use the word ‘manifestly’ because it must be clear that the intention behind the request is disingenuous.
The party has used this exemption inappropriately and unlawfully. Denials of subject access requests based on them being ‘manifestly unfounded’, must be evidenced, which the party has failed to do. Denying a subject access request in this way must be done on a case-by-case basis, they cannot also be used as a blanket policy to deny subject access requests, as the party has done in this case. They also write in this email that this is their ‘final decision’, that if the individual still feels dissatisfied they have a right to lodge a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office. Whilst the ICO guidelines state that if you are unhappy with the response you have received from an organisation following a SAR request you must first make a complaint to the organisation.
Further to the failures to follow the correct process, it would be obvious to anyone that individuals who have been suspended from the party in such an inconsistent and opaque manner, in some cases learning of their suspension from the press before the party, would have questions on why they had been targeted so unfairly.
Subject access requests have in the past revealed the party to have lists of names given by external organisations calling for their expulsion. They have been heavily redacted to the point of being useless, but reveal cases to have been forwarded to the Leader’s office and other inappropriate places. The leaked report into the workings of the Legal and Governance Unit revealed a culture of bullying, discrimination, structural mismanagement and factional interference in the disciplinary process. What evidence is there to suggest that this culture has improved? If anything the suspension of 70-odd party officers on spurious grounds would suggest that it continues unabated. The use of suspension, without providing any evidence or a timescale for resolution, means members are left wondering whether they are the victims of false accusations, and feeling isolated and treated as guilty without any chance of proving otherwise. It flies in the face of natural justice.
Members in receipt of claims their SARs are ‘manifestly unfounded’, will need to ask the party to provide evidence for this, and otherwise will have no choice but to refer their cases to the Information Commissioner’s Office. We all have a right to be treated with dignity.
On 11 March, let’s hope that the NEC disputes panel decides to unconditionally reinstate these suspended officers. While these suspensions may have allowed for the right of the party to take control of several CLPs, the damage done to the reputation of the party, both amongst its members and the wider society that these members belong to is unlikely to have made those gains worth it in the long run, even for the most hardened of right-wing Labour activists. The party needs to stop using suspension as a tool to marginalise and intimidate its members and begin to restore faith that it can be trusted to conduct disciplinary processes fairly and impartially. It needs to cease denying members their lawful right to know what decisions are being made about them, and show that it can operate within the law. For one thing is certain, suspended members’ calls for fairness and transparency are not manifestly unfounded, but these suspensions certainly are.
- Maia Kirby is CLP Secretary of Hackney North CLP and member of the Save our Socialists team