Saboteurs at the heart of Labour’s apparatus

An internal Labour Party report, leaked to the British media over the Easter weekend in April, has detailed sabotage by senior party officials of the attempts by former Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to radicalise Labour policies. It accuses senior party officials of working for Labour’s defeat in the 2017 general election.

The report, a mammoth 851 pages long, is entitled ‘The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014-2019’. It quotes from transcripts of thousands of emails and WhatsApp discussions between Labour’s senior officials, particularly in the 2015-2018 era before the appointment of the current general secretary, Jennie Formby.

According to the Guardian newspaper, John McDonnell, Labour’s former shadow chancellor, has said the report was commissioned by Jennie Formby, the Labour Party general secretary.

The previous general secretary, Iain McNicol, oversaw Labour’s machine from 2011-2018. He was formerly the national political officer of the third largest union in the UK, the GMB. Lord McNicol has stepped down from his official party role in the House of Lords whilst an investigation into the report, ordered by Labour’s new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is carried out. The inquiry, which is supposed to be ‘independent’, ‘professional’, and ‘quick’, will, according to Starmer, help Labour “turn our back on factionalism”.

The official report was drawn up, so its authors say, to provide context to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation into the party’s handling of complaints of antisemitism. It contradicts complaints by other former Labour staff which were used to form the basis of a BBC Panorama documentary in 2019.

The EHRC investigation followed an allegation that political interference under Corbyn had influenced how complaints of antisemitism in the Labour Party were treated. The Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) launched legal complaints said to have influenced the initiation of the EHRC inquiry. The CAA’s chief executive has said “over the course of his leadership we have seen enough to convince us that Jeremy Corbyn himself is an anti-Semite and unfit for any public office”.

In contrast, according to the Guardian, Jeremy Corbyn’s former director of strategic communication has said the report “suggests that some of those most responsible for the failure to deal with antisemitism in the Labour Party… worked against the elected leadership and tried to shift the blame”.

The report itself says that no evidence was found that complaints of antisemitism were treated any differently to any other complaints, but in fact that other work was prioritised for factional gains, such as the purge of Labour members prior to the 2015 and 2016 leadership elections.

The use of the Labour Party department, the Governance and Legal Unit, charged with processing complaints including those of antisemitism, for ‘factionalism’ – that is, progressing the agenda of the party’s right wing – occupies the largest section of the report at 90 pages.

But the report also itemises how senior officers, at Labour’s head office, deliberately worked against the party’s attempts to win the 2017 general election, in the expectation that defeat would lead to a third leadership contest and that Jeremy Corbyn could be replaced.  This will have chimed well with right-wing Labour MPs, one of whom was quoted anonymously in the I newspaper (28 September 2018) as saying: “Having spent a lifetime trying to get a Labour government into power I’m now in the incredible position of doing everything I can to stop Corbyn becoming prime minister”.

In the run-up to the June 2017 election, the report claims, party finances were routed away from marginals to right-wing, anti-Corbyn MPs and parliamentary candidates, including the then deputy leader, Tom Watson. Some funds were even controlled through a separate office, in “a parallel general election campaign”, to hide their destinations from Corbyn and his staff.

When the result of the 2017 election was the Tory government’s loss of their majority, with Labour gaining its biggest increase in votes since 1945, one senior official is quoted as saying Labour’s better than expected outcome (which would mean Corbyn was unlikely to resign) was the “opposite to what I had been working towards for the last couple of years”.

There are numerous communications detailed in the report between senior right-wing officers describing activists in abusive terms – for example hoping that one young Labour activist who was known to have mental health problems “dies in a fire”, to which another official replies “I wouldn’t piss on him to put it out”, and a third added “wish there was a petrol can emoji”.  Senior staff working directly for Jeremy Corbyn are described in pejorative and misogynistic terms. Jeremy Corbyn himself is described in June 2017, by Labour’s then head of political strategy, as “a lying little toe rag”.

Two of the frequently quoted officials, both then at director level, now work at senior levels in the Unison public services union; one was suggested, in several media stories in February 2020, to be a possible candidate under Sir Keir Starmer for Labour’s next general secretary!

The Socialist Party argued right from Jeremy Corbyn’s first victory as Labour leader in September 2015 that attempts to transform Labour’s previous Blairite trajectory would fail unless the composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and of Labour’s own internal machine, were also transformed.

One editorial in Socialism Today (issue 191, September 2015, on the eve of Corbyn’s victory), warned that he would need to mobilise “the necessary mass campaign required to defeat the still dominant organised capitalist forces within the Labour Party”. Unfortunately, that was not done. In fact, repeated conciliations were made with the right, which allowed Labour’s civil war to continue. Contrast Jeremy Corbyn’s prevarications over the repeated sabotage against him, with the decisive action by Boris Johnson in September 2019 in dismissing 21 MPs from the Tory Party for voting against him, including former government ministers, chancellors, secretaries of state, and even Winston Churchill’s grandson!

Not restoring mandatory reselection for Labour MPs left most right wingers in place, and able to use the platform of parliament to continue to attack Corbyn. And, as this report so clearly indicates, not acting decisively against the right-wing machine at the top of Labour’s structures meant that the Corbyn project was doomed to failure.

Under Corbyn Labour was, as Socialism Today has repeatedly characterised it, ‘two parties in one’; a potential for an anti-austerity party, which was the hope of tens of thousands who joined because of Jeremy Corbyn’s radical policies, in conflict with the still organised forces loyal to Tony Blair’s era of overt support for market capitalism. This report shows just how organised the right was in the party machine.

Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader, together with the restoration of right wingers to leading positions, has pleased those capitalists who viewed the Corbyn era with fear and now relish Labour being transformed back into a ‘safe second eleven’.

Those hoping, however, that the path towards fundamental political and economic change in Britain lay through a Labour Party transformed by Jeremy Corbyn must now question whether that project can be completed.

Prospects for organisational change in Labour’s structures, to match the political direction Jeremy Corbyn was trying to take Labour, which would have been possible with a determined, left leadership, look impossible now as, with Starmer as leader, right wingers as leading party spokespersons, and victories in NEC by-elections, the right has effective control in all three areas of party life.

The Corbyn era is over, just as the need for a mass workers party that has a socialist programme capable of tackling the greatest capitalist economic crisis for 90 years is more urgent than ever. Labour, union, and socialist activists must now start a discussion on the lessons of that period, including the failure to root out the hostile forces so clearly exposed in this report.

Dave Nellist, former Labour MP, 1983-92