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Labour’s Bristol West Suspensions Are an Attack on Party Democracy

The suspension of the chair and co-secretary of Bristol West CLP over a motion supporting Jeremy Corbyn is a calculated attack on Labour members' rights and party democracy.

Seven months into his leadership of the Labour Party, the meaning of Keir Starmer’s ‘new management’ is becoming ever clearer. In the latest attack on party democracy, several members of Bristol West CLP – including its chair and co-secretary – have been suspended from the party for considering a motion opposing Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension.

General secretary David Evans – a veteran New Labour apparatchik – last week warned constituency parties, in an obviously anti-democratic manoeuvre, not to discuss Corbyn’s suspension. Yet since Corbyn was suspended, Starmer himself has loudly and regularly endorsed the decision (while insisting it wasn’t his call). He has been joined by numerous leading figures in the Shadow Cabinet, as well as many of the most prominent columnists in the liberal press. Local parties, however, are denied the same right – and have effectively been gagged.

Already this new clampdown on members’ rights has provoked further backlash. Last night, the neighbouring CLP of Bristol North West similarly defied Evans’ orders to pass a motion criticising Corbyn’s suspension as “divisive, demoralising and wrong,” continuing that it would “weaken our Party when we need to be strong to resist the harm that Tory policies are doing to millions of people.” The motion passed by a margin of more than 2-to-1, joining twelve other CLPs who had passed the CLPD motion in support of Corbyn in the past week.

But the suspension of members in Bristol West wasn’t the only crackdown of recent days. Members in nearby Kingswood CLP reported this week that the regional director had intervened to block them from donating £3,000 of the constituency party’s money to important local causes including food banks, a local refugee charity and tenants’ rights organisation Acorn.

Despite being an emergency response and an attempt to offer practical solidarity in the midst of a deadly pandemic and a burgeoning economic crisis, Regional Director Phil Gaskin decided that the donation would have represented an inappropriate use of party funds. A hashtag which circulated on Twitter in the wake of the decision – #SackGaskin – led to the bulk suspension of any identifiable Labour member who tweeted it. 

This comes just months after Labour’s south-west regional office presented a shortlist of only two candidates for the West of England mayoral selection. As Bristol Momentum pointed out at the time, any candidate who could have been considered to be on the Labour left was excluded from the shortlist – including Lesley Mansell, who not only won the most nominations from local branches this time but who had also been selected as Labour’s candidate for the mayoralty in 2017, coming within 3.2% of winning that election.

Bureaucratic manoeuvres such as these don’t just ride roughshod over party democracy; they also hinder the ability of Labour activists to come to the assistance of the people the party likes to think it represents, and at a time when many so desperately need it. They make a mockery of Keir Starmer’s pitch for the Labour leadership – emphasising party unity and the need to end factionalism – which, on the evidence of his tenure so far, now looks like one of the most audacious political swindles of recent years.

Neither Corbyn’s suspension nor the subsequent gagging of constituency parties from discussing it have anything to do with any serious, good-faith attempt to address antisemitism in the Labour Party. As Corbyn acknowledged in his response to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission report, the party’s failure to take more decisive action under his leadership caused a lot of Jewish Labour members genuine anguish. These members are again being ill served, however, by the party bureaucracy’s latest cynical clampdown – which has made the EHRC report a factional issue and all but destroyed any prospect of consensus across the party on its findings.

The cynicism of the Labour Right can, at times, be breathtaking. Many of the people who spent years under Corbyn wailing about phantom purges have, entirely predictably, reverted to cheerleading them now that their preferred faction has the upper hand. Similarly, the period of Corbyn’s leadership saw an avalanche of calls for left-wing party staff to be fired – figures such as Karie Murphy and Seumas Milne were attacked on a daily basis online by the Labour Right. But these same people today have a new standard: criticism of party staffers is grounds for suspension.

No doubt most of the media will lap it up as Labour’s leadership and its bureaucratic allies stick the boot into the Left. But those left-wing members who campaigned so enthusiastically for Labour candidates in 2017 and 2019 are unlikely to forget such contemptuous treatment in a hurry. It likely had a significant impact on the National Executive Committee elections – where the Left caused an upset by winning a majority of the CLP seats despite the proportional representation voting system.

With apologies to Bertolt Brecht, it seems the Labour leadership really would like to dissolve its party membership and elect another. Anecdotal evidence suggests they’ve had some success. A lot of Labour members have grown weary of being ritually humiliated and chosen to walk away to devote their energies to other causes, such as renters’ unions and mutual aid groups. But even as thousands have left, enough have stayed to comfortably defeat the party right-wing in internal elections – something the Starmer leadership will undoubtedly find troubling.

Keir Starmer has set out from day one to inflict as much demoralisation as possible on left-wing party members, many of whom had supported his candidacy in the first place. From sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey to installing a brazenly factional general secretary, forcing through changes to the CLP voting system, abstaining on appalling trespasses against Labour values such as the Spy Cops Bill, suspending Jeremy Corbyn and now banning discussion of that suspension, it has been a calculated attempt to hollow out the party and make it easier to shift Labour’s politics to the Right in the long-term.

As far as party democracy is concerned, the gains of the Corbyn years were slight, and the aspiration to create a truly member-led Labour Party remained just that. Nevertheless, even these modest advances are in the process of being systematically rolled back. It is likely that the NEC elections – which, thanks to proportional representation in CLP voting and the fact the rest of the NEC is weighted against the Left, delivered Starmer a larger majority – will mean the gradual dismantling of the Democracy Review and other pro-member measures, however limited they were.

For those who sincerely hoped that Starmer’s leadership would bring an end to the factional warfare of recent years, and that New Labour’s command-and-control regime had been categorically consigned to history, all this must come as a bitter disappointment.

But for many who’ve chosen to ‘stay and fight,’ it’s time to make good on the latter part. This is no time for vacillation: the Left must resolutely defend party democracy and members’ right to air legitimate criticisms. The war against the Labour Left will not end soon. And as the great miners’ leader Mick McGahey once said, they’ll only stop chasing us when we stop running.