An Open Letter to Keir Starmer and David Evans

A CLP chair writes an open letter to Labour's leader and general secretary arguing that their restrictions are undermining political debate and democracy in the party – and placing its volunteers in impossible positions.

Dear Keir and David,

I have served members in Elmet and Rothwell as chair of the local Labour Party for nearly two years. Prior to that I was secretary for three years and, before that, youth officer. From my experience, I know that being a local party officer can be incredibly rewarding – but it is also often a thankless task.

During the Covid-19 crisis, hundreds of volunteers across the country, like myself, have been expected to keep local parties moving. I have worked with colleagues on the local executive committee to run a series of political education Zoom calls, which explored topics ranging from how the local Labour council is tackling the pandemic to the US election. We have also run online events for new members, a number of local selections, and nomination meetings. All of this activity has been conducted by volunteers trying to keep the party’s profile high in the community while campaigning is prohibited. In short, it has been a real struggle trying to keep members engaged and active – but we have done our very best.

With this in mind, consider how disappointing and demoralising it is to have received a series of diktats from the general secretary – accompanied by the threat of punitive action – which ban local parties from discussing solidarity motions, the competence and suitability of officials, and other matters which are pertinent to the party nationally and of direct interest to members.

What kind of message is the party sending out to those members? Is it telling its activists that it expects them to give up time, effort and resources while refusing to give them a voice in party business? Is it saying that commitment to democratic decision-making is on our membership cards, but not our actual practice? Or is it simply happy to exist in a state of perpetual internecine warfare?

The initial prohibition against discussing an open disciplinary case seemed fair and with precedent. But once Jeremy Corbyn’s case was resolved by the National Executive Committee, this reasoning no longer held. That the Parliamentary Labour Party’s decision to take its own independent action should not be beyond collective criticism – especially when, to a large section of the membership, it appears to go against natural justice. Similarly, the leader of the party and the general secretary are not above the censure of local organisations and their members. They should be answerable. This is a fundamental part of our internal democracy.

The given reason behind the restrictions – ensuring that the party is a safe space and welcoming to all members – does not withstand scrutiny. There is already a duty of care on members and, especially, on officers, to ensure that others are welcomed and made to feel safe. Where this is not the case, there are processes in place to ensure that these problems are resolved. If necessary, chairs can remove people from meetings and there is a complaints procedure; in cases of hate speech or where there are threats to members, matters can be also referred to the police. But to pre-empt these offences, or make decrees on the basis that they might happen, without even presenting any evidence, is obviously an affront to notions of justice.

If Labour members were to accept this principle – that motions could be ruled out of order not on the basis of their own content but because they might prompt a discussion which was offensive – it would be the end of Labour’s internal democratic structures. That standard would give carte blanche to the party bureaucracy to prevent virtually any collective expression from CLPs and BLPs on the grounds that members may feel uncomfortable in the course of discussions. They would not even have to show that anything in contravention of rules or regulations was likely to happen, they would simply be able to posit that it could.

There is also the broader question of the rights of members of political parties to political speech. If the Labour Party is to be a broad church, it must provide a space for the free exchange of ideas. In fact, in a political environment dominated by big business interests, and with a media substantially owned by oligarchs, Labour is one of the only places where working people’s voices can be heard in politics. To shut this avenue down would be against the very principles on which the party was founded. There is also a case to be made that the general secretary’s guidance breaks human rights law on freedom of expression and freedom of association. Like most members, I would rather the party avoid the pain of having this dragged through the courts.

Over 175 local chairs and secretaries have written to you to express their misgivings over these instructions. It is clear that they are placing enormous pressure on the volunteers who make the Labour Party tick across the country. They are being forced into conflict with the local members who elected them, and who entrust them with upholding party democracy. This is an unnecessary situation that is likely to result in people resigning their positions, and probably many members quitting the party altogether – as tens of thousands have done already this year.

Perhaps most importantly, these restrictions do not address the serious issue of antisemitism within Labour. It is clear that we must do everything we can to eradicate the stain of antisemitism, but if we, as a party, are genuinely committed to tackling it there needs to be a thorough programme of education to challenge conspiracies, tropes and hurt caused to Jewish people where it presents itself among the party membership.

It is not too late to climb down from this position and return the whip to Jeremy Corbyn, to end the internal strife within the party, and to implement a proper educational programme, accessible for all members, on the history of antisemitism, how it manifests today, and how we can all work to fight it. Education would also empower members to challenge antisemitism when they see it, enabling them to call it out either in a party setting or in wider society.  This would be the best way to clarify the issue, build consensus, fight prejudice and ensure that those who continue to espouse hatred are swiftly thrown out of Labour for good.

I will continue to make Elmet and Rothwell CLP a welcoming and active party for as long as members feel that I am fit to do so. I hope you can help me in doing this by removing these proscriptions, and that we can get back to challenging the Conservatives at every level of government.

Luke Farley
Elmet and Rothwell Labour Party
(Writing in a personal capacity)