A beginner’s guide to the Labour Party rulebook

Social media has gone into one of its regular (daily) meltdowns, this time over the Labour Party’s decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn’s senior adviser, Andrew Fisher, from the party, pending an investigation by the National executive Committee (NEC).

Arguments and counter-arguments – many of them pointless, or at least missing the point – have exploded on Twitter as Fisher’s defenders and critics have put their side.

So as someone with a bit of experience in Labour Party disciplinary matters (I led an inquiry into infiltration by Militant in my Glasgow Cathcart constituency in 1989 which resulted, after various legal challenges, in the expulsion of eight members), I thought it would be useful to explain – as objectively as possible, given my opinions on Labour’s new leadership regime – the basis of when and why disciplinary action can be taken against Labour Party members.

First of all, it should be pointed out that there is no right to be a member of any political party if that party doesn’t want you. Even the Human Rights Act doesn’t guarantee you membership of a club that doesn’t think you fit in. Tough, but there it is. However, for natural justice to prevail, reasons for excluding anyone must be applied consistently.

There are three main offences for which the party rule book provides the remedy of expulsion:

  1. Being a member of a party or organisation ineligible for affiliation to the Labour Party. This is the rule that has been used many times to expel members of Trotskyite organisations such as Militant and Socialist Organiser and a plethora of others (the Judean People’s Front, the People’s Front of Judea – you get the picture). At the hearings at which I presented the “prosecution” case 26 years ago, the “defendants” would often argue that Militant was not a separate party, but was more like the Fabians, with its own list of supporters but adhering to Labour’s core socialist values. This was irrelevant, the NEC having already decided that Militant was a separate party with views incompatible with Labour’s brand of democratic socialism. Therefore membership of Militant, if proved or admitted, meant automatic expulsion.
  2. Taking part in a course of action that brings the party into disrepute. This is the George Galloway rule. By making his ill-advised comments, albeit in Arabic, in 2003 at the height of the second Gulf War, Galloway, a Labour MP at the time, was judged to have brought the wider party into disrepute by his comments and was therefore expelled.
  3. Supporting or endorsing a candidate or party standing against the Labour Party or one of its candidates. This rule was used to deprive certain high profile Radio 4 comedians of a vote in the leadership election this summer, because they had raised money at events in support of Caroline Lucas, the Green MP. Now, if these individuals had quietly written a cheque for Lucas’s campaign (a campaign against the official Labour candidate in that seat), they would probably have been allowed their vote in the leadership election.

This is where Fisher’s defence runs into difficulty. Yes, he’s made some pretty unappetising criticisms of senior Labour MPs during the last parliament. But whereas he might be expected to face claims that in doing so he brought the whole party into disrepute, that’s a matter of judgment and is therefore less cut and dried than this, third, basis for expulsion. Publicly endorsing an opposing candidate, on this occasion on Twitter, either happened or it did not.

In Fisher’s case, it certainly did. In May he Tweeted:

“FFS, If you live in Croydon South, vote with dignity, vote @campaignbeard [Jon Bigger, the Class War candidate].”

Understandably, this irked Labour’s candidate in that seat, Emily Benn, enough to provoke a formal complaint to the party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol (some of Fisher’s defenders claim Benn herself should be disciplined for saying some positive things about the Women’s Equality Party in the past, but unless those comments can be proved to have been an unequivocal recommendation to vote WEP at a specific election, no charge would stick).

But here’s where things get messy, and why I suspect there’s no happy ending in all of this for the party: there have been many, many occasions in recent years where a Labour member has expressed support for an opposing candidate, usually (inevitably) on Twitter. The result was automatic expulsion – a letter sent by the general secretary informing the guilty party that s/he was no longer a member of the party. No NEC enquiry, no right of appeal. This is exactly what happened to a “Mr McLean” in my own constituency just after May’s election. The press tried to make it look as if this were a new departure for the party, but it was not; it’s standard procedure.

There is no doubt that if Fisher had been an ordinary party member working anywhere other than the leader’s office at Westminster, he would by now no longer be a member of the Labour Party.

But he is a member of the leader’s staff, which is why an enquiry has been set up. 

Either that enquiry will conclude that Fisher has excluded himself from membership by his behaviour – at which point Corbyn will have to decide whether or not to employ, not only a non-party member, but someone ineligible to be a party member – or it will conclude that he can stay in the party provided he accepts a public slap on the wrist.

If the second course of action is pursued – and we must assume that that is the path the current leader would prefer – Fisher stays. But what about every other ex-party member who has already been expelled for doing exactly the same thing as Mr Fisher? Presumably the party would have no legal basis for preventing “Mr McLean” and every other expelled member from rejoining.

As I say, it’s a no-win situation for Labour, but one entirely of its own – or its leader’s – making.

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