The party within a party

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By Edd Mustill

We knew that elements of the party hoped to lose us the 2017 election, but seeing it all in black and white still feels like a punch in the gut.

The leaked 850 page report into the work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit (formerly the Compliance Unit) over the last few years makes grim reading for party activists. In the headline a report into the party machinery’s handling of antisemitism, it actually covers and comments on a wider array of cultural and organisational practices in the party. The full report was leaked after it became clear that the party would not be submitting it to the ongoing Equalities and Human Rights Commission investigation. Probably the leak is a factional rearguard action by Corbynites, aiming to ruin a few careers and drive some wedges between other factions in the party. Nevertheless, what’s actually written in the report cannot be ignored.

Activists will not be surprised that elements of the party machinery were hoping for, and indeed working for, defeat in 2017. It wasn’t just in the national party either – regionally resources were diverted to particular seats, locally all sorts of tricks were pulled, from voter data being conveniently “lost” to polling day text messages urging members to campaign in supposedly marginal seats that were actually safe. Yes, we could have won the 2017 election and yes, these people are directly responsible for us not winning.

The childish and vitriolic character of the communications between party staff contained in the report betrays more than just the undeniable truth that you wouldn’t want to have a drink with these people. It displays a worldview the central tenet of which is that everyone to their political left – not only the actual far left, not only the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, but people like Andy Burnham – is a “Trot” with illegitimate, stupid and old-fashioned political views. This will be familiar to anyone who has experienced the politics of the National Union of Students, and is about as mature and sophisticated as a row at NUS conference. (Probably the leakers of the report want to drive a wedge between the hard right of the party and the centre-left MP they seem so intent on slagging off.)

The party’s disciplinary procedures seemed to operate on a make-it-up-as-you-go-along basis, which will be entirely unsurprising to anyone who experienced the purges of left-wing members in 2015 and 2016 and how unevenly and arbitrarily they were decided and applied. The party was woefully unprepared to deal with complaints of a serious nature, including of antisemitism and other forms of bigotry. The staff of the party were not an impartial “civil service”, but factional actors pursuing political agendas. Those of us on the left who argued consistently for antisemitism in the party to be taken seriously and fought politically have been proven right for the umpteenth time. Clearly leaving the issue to sink into the factional swamp of a lazy and unprepared party apparatus was always going to make it worse.

None of this surprises us, world-weary as we are by now, the tumult, victories and defeats of the last five years still fresh in our minds. To see how one’s political opponents operate is always interesting. But what is it, really, that the leakers of the report have (probably unintentionally) unmasked? It is the labour movement’s biggest problem: bureaucracy.

A bureaucracy is not just a collection of ill-meaning or incompetent individuals – it is a social force with its own material interests. In this case we had a party bureaucracy afraid for its own position, its political project and its very existence. Unfortunately, we also had a leadership unwilling or unable to take it on. Corbyn and those around him never openly stated to the membership or wider society what was going on. That was left to whispering campaigns, the gossip of those privileged enough to be “in the know”. The bunker mentality of the McNicol bureaucracy was mirrored in the bunker mentality of the Leader of the Opposition’s Office, with the much lauded mass membership reduced to the position of spectators of a phoney war: denounced by the right-wing bureaucracy for our wild radical politics, tempered by the left-wing bureaucracy if we ever dared to try putting those politics into practice.

Crucially, the party’s decision-making processes, including policy-making, were not democratised. Party policy and plans continued to be made fundamentally in politicians’ offices.

The only section of the movement as obsessed with “Trots” as the apparatchiks of the Blairite right are the apparatchiks of the Stalinist left. Their methods in the field are remarkably similar: slander, spread falsehoods through social media and networks of cliquey WhatsApp groups, tell people “X must be done because Y has decreed it”. Perhaps most of important of all: use your position in the bureaucracy to shut down, shut up and denounce your political opponents. Actual politics comes in a distant second to the grubby game of institutional power.

The rot in the movement goes deep. Some of the left have replicated and internalised the worst practices of the right (or perhaps the other way around, if we remember how many of the 1990s era Blairites had Stalinist political upbringings).

I am fed up of it. Fed up of subordinating politics to institutional necessity. Fed up of the assumption that everyone is acting in bad faith. Fed up of the wilful inability to see and tackle bigotry because some of those who call it out are members of the wrong faction. Fed up of the revolving door of bureaucrats between union and party and union and party who consistently dull our politics and drive anyone who isn’t a hack or a policy wonk away from active participation in our movement.

We need to get our house in order. We need a full-time apparatus for sure, but we need people getting political jobs for political reasons and institutional jobs because of demonstrable competence. We need to end the common assumption that working for the movement is just like another job, or that the movement owes you a lifetime tenure. We need to either reduce the General Secretary position to a functional post or have it directly elected. We need a left that is not afraid of sweeping organisational change, that does not succumb to the politics of the backroom deal and the playground insult, and that has disagreements in good faith, out in the open, and on the basis of political principle.

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