“Even the party acknowledges the adverse effects of suspension on the members they are targeting, advising them to call the Samaritans if distressed by their disciplinary letters.”Maia Kirby.
Denunciation, also referred to as informing, has long been a means for people to use institutional power to attack their political enemies. In some cases it has been a major revolutionary practice, contributing to the overthrow of oppressive regimes. But for the most part in history, denunciation has not been motivated by a sense of collective empowerment, but rather by the desire to settle old scores and gain the upper hand in local jostles for political power. This negative use of the practice unsurprisingly thrived in oppressive regimes of the twentieth century: Vichy France, Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain to name a few. Without the support of elements of the local population in facilitating mass-surveillance, it would have proved difficult for authoritarian regimes to remain in power. In this way denunciation is a two-way process where information is passed upwards, and punishment is meted out downwards.
Given the unpalatable history of denunciation, it is surprising that so-called ‘moderates’ in the Labour Party are dealing in this two-way practice that is part and parcel of the control and coercion techniques of such political regimes. The punishment is incomparable, but still significant: exclusion from political involvement in the party in a country with an electoral system that make it nigh on impossible for any party other than the Conservatives or Labour to win a General Election.
Suspension and Expulsion from the Labour Party is not a new phenomenon. Despite being described as a ‘broad church’, members on the left of the party have faced exclusion before. In the 1980’s the ‘Militant Tendency’ was proscribed by the Labour Party and key members associated with it expelled. But these expulsions pale in comparison to the manner and scale of disciplinary actions which are currently being practiced in the party. The heavy use of informing has created a new culture, one of fear and insecurity. This adversely affects us all, but particularly marginalised members. A study has shown that Jewish members are twenty times more likely to face disciplinary action for anti-Semitism than non-Jewish members, and many have called for investigations into whether black and working-class members are disproportionately targeted.
The development of this culture began with the large-scale operation employed ahead of the 2016 leadership election. During this period the party bureaucracy used Nationbuilder software to suspend thousands of new members. This system could match members’ data with Facebook and Twitter profiles, mainly through email addresses provided by these companies. Searches sometimes resulted in unintended results, but which presumably due to workload, were nonetheless ‘rubberstamped’ by the National Executive. One member was suspended for items posted by a family member in a case of mistaken identity; others were suspended for tweets which included the letters ‘rat’, searched for in this system and returning tweets that included the words ‘democratic’ and ‘rational’. This system no doubt built up an enormous number of baseless suspensions, which at the time had the desired effect of removing votes for Jeremy Corbyn.
It also had the effect of promoting in the minds of the membership a sense of ever-present surveillance from above, and a fear of inadvertently posting something that would be deemed either now, or at a later date, to be worthy of punishment. Since then, the disciplinary system has become even more perverse, becoming increasingly dependent on local informants in the party, who pass on screenshots from members’ private Facebook pages, from closed Facebook groups, and information from inside constituency meetings.
This practice of denunciation accelerated in the post-Corbyn era, as diktats from the General Secretary promised consequences to those found discussing the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn. In November and December 2020 eighty or so local officers were suspended for allowing their members to discuss the suspension and removal of the whip from the former leader of the party. Not all officers who failed or refused to police the discussions of their members were suspended, only those who had been denounced by members of the constituency, the local MP or local regional staff members.
In recent months the proscription of four left wing organisations by the National Executive Committee has given a further green light to local informers. Members are now being sent notices warning of auto-expulsion for ‘liking’ or sharing social media posts of these organisations; in most cases these likes and shares took place years before the organisations were proscribed and were on posts that had nothing to do with the subject of anti-semitism, the reason given for the proscriptions. One member has been expelled for liking responses to a Facebook post he posted on his wall expressing feelings of despondency with the party, like many others he always responds when friends have written on his posts, whether he endorses what they have said or not.
This system invites even more malicious attempts to have people removed from the party. There are cases where local informants have doctored Facebook posts in order to invite disciplinary proceedings against other members in their constituency. In one instance the member suspended was able to prove the screenshot was fake, but others will have been less fortunate.
The current spate of notices of investigation and auto-expulsion suggests the party is pursuing a strategy of cramming all complaints against individuals into notices of investigation, some of which clearly date back several years, others recycled from former disciplinary actions. Some of the more bizarre consequences of this practice have been coming out in recent days. The chair of Young Labour received a notice of investigation for tweets calling out transphobia, and an MP received ‘notices of investigation’ for a tweet supporting Rebecca Long-Bailey when she was sacked from the shadow cabinet. Both innocuous tweets. These notices have since been rescinded but give a strong indication that little to no scrutiny of the items sent in by informers is being applied before staff members issue disciplinary actions. The sudden increase in notices of investigations has led left wingers to suspect that the leadership is hoping to trim down the number of left delegates to annual conference this weekend. In her recent report back from the September National Executive Committee meeting, Ann Black reported that the General Secretary had denied that the party are using a new trawling system. It seems that instead they have handed over all denunciations sent over the last few years to agency staff who are inexperienced and battling a huge backlog.
But fundamentally these errors arise from the implicit trust given to denouncers by the Labour party bureaucracy; they are perceived to be motivated by the same factional desire to rid the party of Corbyn supporters. The consequences are that these suspensions and expulsions of members on the back of information sent from local antagonists take no account of who the members are, their protected characteristics, their current circumstances or what they have contributed to the party. In one case a Constituency Labour Party (CLP) Officer who had just lost their partner was served a notice for retrospective ‘likes’ of posts by a now proscribed organisation. These members are met with the full institutional weight of the party’s disciplinary system regardless.
The creepy and intrusive nature of the process is often revealed in the evidence sent as part of disciplinary questions or investigations: revealing how many mutual friends the person shares with the denouncer, the fact the denouncer is in the same closed constituency labour party group, or that the denouncer has access to ‘protected’ tweets. The licence given to these local bullies fosters a deeply undemocratic and unsavoury culture, that rewards violations of privacy and vindictiveness; for denunciation is for the most part motivated by personal rivalry, and a view to making factional and individual gains. For instance, a candidate for a councillor selections meeting, a single mother, was suspended just an hour before the meeting was to take place, meaning that she was no longer able to stand. She had been preparing all day, worried that her child had been watching too much TV and concerned that she needed to get some food in before the meeting. The alleged informant would have known of her personal circumstances when he decided to call in a favour from a friend in the Governance and Legal Unit.
Denouncers like this are most effective when they have friendships with Labour party staff and senior figures in the party. In Nottingham East CLP, the Chair was suspended just 15 minutes after the meeting had ended for allowing members to vote on a motion calling for Jeremy Corbyn’s reinstatement to the party. In another CLP a complaint about meetings being held on a Friday was acted on well before fully evidenced complaints of Islamophobia and anti-black racism from the same CLP.
Some members have been repeatedly targeted with suspension and investigation over many years, presumably initiated by the same local informant. The effect on members mental health when receiving these suspensions should not be pushed aside. Indeed, even the party acknowledges the adverse effects of suspension on the members they are targeting, advising them to call the Samaritans if distressed by their disciplinary letters. Many of those suspended or put under investigation have given countless hours to the party in campaigning and administration and are removed from their Labour Party community for an unknown time and in some cases unknown reasons, whilst being told they cannot tell anyone. This last point is in many ways key to understanding the potency of denunciation: the use of shame to silence and intimidate.
Is it not time for the whole party to consider this practice a sinister and nasty way to marginalise the left, and a form of institutional bullying and harassment? It is these informants, and the power handed to them by the leadership and bureaucracy, who are creating a toxic culture. We must demand an end to denunciation in the party and champion training over punishment; this would be a real return to Labour values, restoring the dignity and respect for members that the rule book requires. A society based on control and punishment is not the kind of society that most Labour members want to see: our vision for a just and more equal world must begin at home.
- If you have been suspended or issued with a notice of investigation or auto-expulsion you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org for support