Well, I had my day off writing about the calumnies of the Labour Party, so now it’s time to get stuck back in, not least now that I have had the chance of watching the BBC Panorama hatchet job, still available on Iplayer. I would agree with Simon Maginn that it is a tendentious pile of crap, in the main repeating little more than unsubstantiated opinion and failing to pin down the hard evidence to support the programme’s premise that Labour is institutionally anti-semitic. When for example Louise Ellman MP complained that her constituency meetings were hostile, she did not actually say that was because she was Jewish, and the point wasn’t pushed. I can only say that when I was an MP I too faced hostility (especially after voting against the Iraq war) but that’s merely part and parcel of an MP’s life. God knows what it’s like now in the aftermath of the Brexit shite.
One thing that the programme’s concoctor John Ware would not be able to comprehend (and why would he) is the culture of the Labour Party. Is it the assumption that everything is conducted with decorum and civility in constituency meetings? I’m afraid that’s not been my experience. If you want a bit of cut and thrust, there was rarely a better place for it, with factional infighting and enmities aplenty, all spilt over what exactly the party stands for, etc., etc. In a broad church, what else might one expect? It was always a challenge to gain supremacy. Supremacy here means not only winning a political point but also positions. And there won’t be a Labour MP in the land who hasn’t got somebody eyeing up their seat, or wondering why you got it in the first place. These are simply the trite realities of local politics, and hostilities are often a consequence.
But my experience is not confined to having been an MP. As a party organiser for seven years, there’s a whole other story to be told. It is one which is largely ignored by political pundits, mainly because they think it doesn’t matter, or are simply ignorant of the importance of how a party organises below the level of the leader. It has to be said too, especially now, that the party leader may not understand it either. Back in the 90s when I worked for the Labour Party, it was understood that far from being a ’civil service’ serving the members impartially, it was our destiny to fulfil the leader’s wishes. In Blair’s case, he brought in Margaret McDonagh as General Secretary to shake the staff out of any complacency they may have had about this mission. One of the first tasks was to ensure that the original Clause 4 of the party’s constitution (basically the bit about nationalisation) was junked. Staff were engaged to make sure that conference delegates voted the right way. That set a pattern—regional staff were to coach delegates on how to behave, or to look out for troublemakers and isolate them. This was a deliberate policy to change the way the party worked, in other words to enforce a top-down definition of party democracy.
At the same time, older and long serving party staffers were pensioned off in favour of a new short-term student cohort. The attraction of working for the party for a short while whilst it was in the ascendant was obvious—it was the first step into a job with an MP or a lobbying business. Part of the problem with longer serving staff in this new regime could be—in my opinion—that in serving the cause they might be a wee bit cynical, which is to say that their attitude to the new top-down enforcement of Chinese style party loyalty didn’t quite fit their idea of local autonomy and the desire to build from the grassroots up. Many longer serving staff departed as new short-term contract youngsters (naturally without pension rights) swelled the ranks. Of course, the new recruits could be counted on to burn themselves out, but no matter: their CV was made.
Has this approach lessened since the benighted days of Margaret McDonagh? I suspect not. The party continues to use short term contracts and employs people on 12-hour contracts which morph into extended shifts and resentment is abundant when the party’s manifesto promises a stop to this kind of employment practice. In other words—and at last I come to my point—Corbyn has not sought to recognise his significant role as an employer, and so might as well expect his subordinates to rally against him in programmes such as the Panorama so-called investigation into the party’s ‘institutional’ anti-semitism. Of course, what I have suggested here is not an explanation of why former staffers have said what they have on that particular travesty, but I think there is here a clue—a big clue—to how the culture of the Labour Party creates problems for itself. This is to say that the leadership of the party never seems to quite trust its staff. Blair didn’t, and through McDonagh many were expunged. But at least the Blairites seemed to know what they wanted from their staff. When it comes to the left, they distrust the staff so much they cannot contemplate dealing with them. And, I could say speaking from experience, who could blame them (I am referring to my role in the defenestration of Liz Davies as parliamentary candidate in Leeds North East—just one example. By the way, in favour of a Jewish candidate)? The disjuncture today between the leader’s office staff and everyone else working for the party doesn’t look like it’s going to be resolved anytime soon. There is I suspect a siege mentality at the top which will prevent a softening of positions. I know this is all internal stuff, but if the party machine is dysfunctional it will seriously handicap its chance of electoral success, especially as the leader’s gloss wears off and everything becomes more reliant on the battle on the ground. So Jeremy—get a grip on your machine! Just as Blair did!