“The report demonstrates just what an impossible situation Corbyn’s Leadership was in. When they tried to work through staff they were met with obstruction. When they tried to go round existing structures, they met huge criticism.”
By Rachel Garnham, Campaign for Labour Party Democracy
The long-awaited Forde Report is a damning indictment of a deeply dysfunctional Labour Party. There are no huge surprises for those of us who have recognised the institutional racism in the Party over decades; seen the dysfunctionality develop close up since the mid-late 1990s; and from 2015 lived and breathed the barriers put up by the establishment to the implementation of Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda for a democratic, member-led Party. But to see what we know, and more besides, spelt out by an apparently relatively objective observer is an important vindication, while leaving great concern for the future in light of Keir Starmer’s completely inadequate response.
In my reading, there are four important elements of the report, which have some accompanying recommendations.
The first relates to the ‘monoculture’ of Labour’s workplaces and the resulting factionalism that we see, as evidenced in the Report, from Labour’s national and regional offices. Members have experienced this for decades, but when Jeremy Corbyn became Leader with widespread support amongst a growing membership, this factionalism was experienced in full force by the office of the Leader of the Opposition (LOTO). There is some ‘fault on both sides’ narrative accompanying this part of the report, but that is not really backed up by the evidence presented which makes it clear that the senior management at Southside saw it as their role to block Jeremy Corbyn rather than facilitate the pledges on which he was democratically elected.
‘It seems to us that a small minority of HQ staff, including some senior staff, were from the start unwilling to accommodate or proactively assist LOTO, which in their view would have amounted to complicity with a regime which they believed would cause irreparable harm to the Party. A few individuals saw their role as being to keep the Party machinery running while allowing the Corbyn “project” to implode.’
The report demonstrates just what an impossible situation Corbyn’s Leadership was in. When they tried to work through staff they were met with obstruction. When they tried to go round existing structures, they met huge criticism.
‘The conviction that the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (be it brought about by PLP revolt or electoral disaster) would be a good thing for the Party underpinned, and was reinforced by, the WhatsApp discussions…It seems to us indisputable that it gave rise to a conflict of interests.’
Covert operation diverting funds
The second element relates to the Ergon House project, and the specific undermining of efforts by the Leadership during the 2017 general election for Labour to win more seats. This part of the report is genuinely shocking – at the NEC where Forde’s Terms of Reference were agreed I moved an amendment that these should specifically reference 2017. That amendment was lost (raising concern that the NEC will once again not take this issue seriously) but Forde has chosen to interrogate the issue anyway. He finds that funds were siphoned off, outside of usual controls, to shore up seats of MPs opposed to Corbyn.
‘A handful of staff in Ergon House created an additional fund for printing costs under code GEL001 (spending some £135,000 in total on campaigns supportive of sitting largely anti-Corbyn MPs and not on campaigns for pro-Corbyn candidates in potentially Tory winnable seats)…We find that the decision to set up the Ergon House operation covertly and divert money and personnel there without authority of the Campaign Committee, whilst not illegal, departed from the approved strategy; it was as such wrong.’
Undoubted overt and underlying racism and sexism
The third, and probably most horrific, element of the Report, on which we must shine a spotlight, is the racism and sexism that appears to pervade Labour workplaces. This appears to be both overt and embedded institutionally through unfair recruitment practices. The introduction and decline of the Community Organising Unit is noted under the section on factionalism, but it was most notable as an attempt to diversify the staff base to better represent the communities Labour seeks to serve – progress dismantled under the current Leadership. The issues are best spelt out directly using the words of the Report.
Three dimensions of our Inquiry lead us to conclude that there are serious problems of discrimination in the operations of the Party:
• The undoubted overt and underlying racism and sexism apparent in some of the content of the WhatsApp messages between the Party’s most senior staff.
• A significant number of replies to our Call for Evidence – mainly from ordinary Party members – spelling out their experience of discrimination – racism, islamophobia and sexism – in constituency parties and in Party processes; whilst it is not our intention to examine cases in CLPs, often the complaints were in part about the failure of Party officials at regional and national level to take such problems seriously.
• Submissions from current and former members of staff describing their experience of discrimination and of lack of sensitivity to issues of racism and sexism displayed by senior management.
It is quite clear that these findings are still current and must be addressed.
A complaints system not fit for purpose
The fourth element drawn out by the Forde report is the completely dysfunctional complaints process inherited under Corbyn’s Leadership and not significantly rectified, despite the progress made under Jennie Formby as General Secretary putting in place proper systems and processes. I may not have agreed with all the changes during this period but no-one can doubt the commitment to try and turn things round. The use of the disciplinary process to undermine the democratic process is detailed most fully for the exclusion of Jeremy Corbyn supporters from the 2015 and 2016 Leadership contents.
‘This was by and large a factionally slanted exercise, designed and carried out with a startling lack of transparency, which had the goal of undermining Jeremy Corbyn’s chances in the leadership elections.’
The lack of engagement with Jewish Voice for Labour and issues with the antisemitism training introduced are also noted as problems.
‘Training on antisemitism has been introduced but we consider the format to be sub-optimal. Ideally, education and training on issues concerning discrimination and other cultural issues should consist of facilitated reflection, rather than taking a lecture format.’
‘We are disappointed that there has been a refusal to engage at all with Jewish Voice for Labour’s proposals for antisemitism education and that CLPs are, we are told, not even allowed to enlist their help.’
There are elements of the report that don’t chime – for example the assertion that Corbyn did not make policy accommodation to the centre – not true as the policies on Trident and schools academisation demonstrate. And there is insufficient credit given to Jennie Formby and her small team who made valiant efforts to breakdown the monoculture and increase the diversity of the staff both demographically and politically in the face of constant hostility. Questions have been asked as to why Ian McNicol was not replaced earlier but these ignore the democratic structures of the Party, which Jeremy always respected. There was not a majority on the NEC for a new General Secretary until the three new CLP places were created at Annual Conference 2017 – the first Conference where Corbyn had some preparation time rather than spending the summer winning a Leadership election.
But this is an aside. We must not let this Report be swept under the carpet. Its recommendations should be examined and considered by the NEC and wider membership in detail. Having considered the issues closely during my time on the NEC, there are few good solutions for a disciplinary process going down the route of so-called ‘independence’ and Forde’s also seem rather naïve and unaccountable, with similar illusions of possible independence that led to the current process. His focus on issues with administrative suspensions and proscriptions are correct however, if understated, and these must be addressed with greater transparency and accountability introduced.
A code of conduct with teeth for staff would be welcome, with a shift towards staff fulfilling the role of impartial civil servants. However, the prospect of changing the culture seems optimistic to say the least as we have seen a return to pre 2015 levels of monoculture but with bells on since 2020 – a more pluralistic staff would be much welcomed but seems desperately unlikely and requires a recognition that getting to know one another does not fundamentally overcome political differences. If nothing else, serious efforts must be put to rooting out racism, sexism and misogyny. And to identifying and challenging the ableism that we also know pervades Party structures – a good start would be to start resourcing and listening to the elected Labour Women’s Committee and electing Committees for BAME and Disabled Members as a matter of urgency.
Change is certainly needed if Labour’s organisation is to reflect its values. Paying attention to Forde’s findings would be a good place to start.