Forde Report Summary (Pt5): (Allegation 1) Intense factionalism between Labour HQ & LOTO
Allegation 1: There was an unusual intensity of factionalism between 2015 and 2019, largely evidenced by the attitudes and conduct of senior HQ staff toward the leadership.
Factionalism has always existed in the party but, unlike the past where permanent staff were perceived as mostly neutral, during the Blair era those perceptions changed as permanent staff became more right wing and this continued to be the case even when Corbyn was elected leader. Corbyn getting elected heralded a rise in the intensity of factional conflict not previously seen. There was “an antagonistic relationship” between Labour HQ and LOTO, which Forde believes was compounded by the fact that there was some crossover in roles. Some attempt was made, initially, to try and work together but there was no trust and so, eventually, people just started to “pick a side”. Labour HQ’s WhatsApp “echo chamber” further “amplified the hostility and allowed the boundaries of acceptable behaviour to be blurred,” resulting in “wholly unacceptable” conduct from a number of senior HQ staff.
Forde suggests that the left of the party were committed to change while the right, who mostly held positions of authority in Labour HQ, were determined to enforce existing regulations. Forde seems to have overlooked the fact that the right went to some lengths, very early on, to change the rules in order to stop new members (mainly Corbyn supporters), from taking part in the voting process during the 2016 leadership challenge. Perhaps he’s also overlooked the fact that the right weren’t really abiding by any rules when they decided to bring a vote of no confidence against a democratically elected leader with a massive majority (59.5%, in a race with 4 candidates, where the nearest rival only took 19%).
Forde also attempts to paint a picture of a party constantly vigilant against threats of infiltration from the ‘far left’, giving examples such as “the Communist Party and Communist Front organisations of the 50s and Militant in the 80s.” He fails to appreciate that the party was actually born out of a merging of left wing groups and the Union movement, so, if anything, it’s the right who have infiltrated the party and, I would suggest, never more aggressively than during the Blair era. Forde does however acknowledge that the New Labour era saw a major shift of control to the right and notes that there had been some divisions even within New Labour, between the Blair & Brown camps. As he explains, “perfect neutrality” went out the window under Blair as officials began recruiting people who were politically right wing and supportive of the Blair leadership.
Forde explains that in 1983 the party began to elect leaders through the Electoral College process, effectively giving them leadership over the entire party, not just the PLP, but party staff were still responsible to the NEC and the General Secretary (not the leader). In 2013, in order to reduce trade union influence, they ditched the electoral college in favour of giving CLP members (who are mostly left wing) and registered supporters the right to vote in the leadership contest. This new process also cut out PLP influence. Corbyn was the first leader to be elected under the new system. Forde points out that while Labour has had left wing leaders in the past, they tended to be “soft left.” Despite overwhelming support from the membership and a significant win in 2015, many members the PLP, who were elected during the Blair / Brown years, rejected Corbyn and refused to serve in his shadow cabinet. The PLP would subsequently mount leadership challenge, less than a year after Corbyn had been elected, but, once again, the membership rallied behind Corbyn and gave him a clear majority. This did nothing to quell the deep animosity from the PLP, even after Labour’s surprisingly good general election results in 2017.
Forde tells us that a number of people have claimed that, under Corbyn, “there was no policy direction, no messaging and no coordination in terms of day to day operations” and he deduces that this was because the leader’s office had recruited an unusually large number of staff which “shifted the balance between LOTO and [Labour] HQ.” Another worrying development was that right wing unions sided with the PLP while left wing unions backed Corbyn and “each faction had its hands on at least some of the party’s operational levers of power.” Forde reflects that, under Ed Miliband’s leadership, as the party had decided to “designate two senior members of LOTO staff as Directors of the Party,” this only served to further confuse the “lines of responsibility and jurisdiction.” Forde acknowledges that most contributors to this report, from both sides, agreed that factionalism “got worse following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader in Sept 2015.” Forde believes that Party officials saw Corbyn and the 325,000 new members who joined the party (between May 2015 and July 2016) as an “existential threat to the party and it’s institutions” and that this “would steer the party toward electoral decline, if not annihilation.” What he seems not to have considered is the likelihood that what they were really worried about was that ‘they’ [the right] could lose overall control of the party to the left and that their own jobs were at risk. Given the immediate explosion in Labour Party membership and Corbyn’s clear popularity amongst voters, born out by mass rallies all over the country and the response he would get when he visited struggling communities (compared to the response Theresa May would get, for example), I would suggest electoral success was the last thing on the mind of Blairite party officials. In any case, Forde is clear that “a small minority of HQ staff, including some senior staff, were from the start unwilling to accommodate or proactively assist LOTO.” Forde adds that it’s equally “true that some senior individuals in LOTO saw HQ staff as part of the party’s history which they had been given a mandate to reject”
Forde feels that the majority of LOTO and HQ staff made genuine efforts to work together but “a small number of individuals on either side were implacably hostile to the other from the outset… those individuals (particularly those in senior roles) set the tone“ A particular trigger for those in the HQ faction was the fact that most of the new staff appointed to LOTO were not selected from the existing pool of HQ staff and there was no effort from either camp to try and define the division of functions between the two offices or to even foster better relationships. With few exceptions, most staff were unable to completely “opt out of factional tensions.” Some HQ staff accused LOTO of a lack of competence and felt affronted by LOTO’s unwillingness to invite HQ involvement so they decided they would handle the running of the “party machinery” without LOTO involvement, which LOTO saw as a clear attempt at a power grab.
According to Forde, there was a certain level of dysfunction inside LOTO under Corbyn’s tenure, which got better over time but it remained difficult throughout. He explains that LOTO operations were “unstructured and at times chaotic, with a lack of clear decision making and reporting lines and, in particular, a reluctance on the part of Jeremy Corbyn himself to make and communicate unequivocal decisions.” One member of LOTO reports, “Jeremy had never run a big organisation before. It was quite clear the people around him were going to need support and it wasn’t forthcoming.” Labour HQ staff have suggested that they offered support but it was rejected by senior LOTO staff because they saw them as “Blairites.” One member of HQ staff remarked that LOTO were not being “upfront about the need for organisational change… and opening a redundancy scheme for people to leave, they sought to hound people out of their jobs, create shadow structures, and brief against departments or individuals.” At the same time, LOTO staff and Corbyn supporters working out of Labour HQ felt under attack. The atmosphere toward them at Labour HQ was nasty and they were in constant fear of hostile leaks, hostile briefings to the press, go-slow tactics (on even the most basic tasks) and “a lot of passive-aggressive hostility from a number of staff.”
According to Forde, Brexit became a key area of disagreement and it was the trigger for the 2016 leadership challenge. Labour HQ staff then started to deny ballots to new members, the majority of whom were Corbyn supporters, in an attempt to give the other leadership candidates an edge. This, in Forde’s view, was the moment when mistrust in Labour HQ became “largely calcified” within the LOTO camp and made it virtually impossible, from that point onward, for the two camps to work together as a team. In fact, it regressed to state of war with attacks and counter-attacks (sometimes not even justified). Junior and non-factional staff found themselves forced to choose sides or have one picked for them. One member of LOTO staff told the inquiry that HQ staff who were not factional and who expressed support or positivity during Labour’s 2017 election campaign were “swayed” by negative attitudes from more senior HQ staff. In fact, “it got to the stage where some of those who I was friends with would be cautious about being seen getting along with a leadership member of staff”
In Forde’s view, a “siege narrative became amplified and exaggerated, through echo chambers,” within the Labour HQ camp and especially in the SMT WhatsApp groups and this became the justification for “otherwise unacceptable conduct.” However, Forde asserts that this “blinded them to their own contribution to the dysfunction,” when it’s clear that dysfunction within Labour HQ actually served to undermine the credibility of the leadership’s office – something certain members of Labour HQ staff were actively encouraging. Forde adds that these WhatsApp groups “appear to have become echo chambers in which at times conspiratorially hostile attitudes to the party’s left were at best tolerated, and at worst amplified – including by the most senior staff.” Comments that were made in ‘jest,’ like hoping someone might be run over by a train or that they would die in a fire, were nothing short of “reprehensible” and demonstrates that these people had become completely “detached from both professional and personal norms.” By this, Forde implies that this behaviour was out of sorts for these particular members of staff but he offers no assessment of their ‘normal’ professional or personal behaviour. My concern is that this assessment implies that HQ staff felt provoked to such an extent that they temporarily lost sight of professional or personal norms. Forde adds that some members of HQ staff have deeply regretted their comments in the WhatsApp groups and feel ashamed of the part that they played. I would ask, why did they not come forward and express their regret previously, before the leaked report had been published and the content of the WhatsApp messages became public knowledge?
Forde then goes on to acknowledge that senior HQ staff were actually discussing how good it would be if the PLP could remove the elected leader, even if it took electoral disaster to achieve it. Forde believes that the content of a WhatsApp group is a fair indicator of the wider culture at Labour HQ. In his view, as the messages were between colleagues discussing work they are “not straightforwardly severable from the party’s culture, they were part of it.” He adds that the fact that LOTO staff expressed genuine shock at the level of vitriol expressed within the HQ WhatsApp group messages demonstrates that some HQ staff would outwardly reflect professional and friendly conduct in their face-to-face dealings with LOTO staff but would be mocking and acting against them in secret. As one Labour HQ insider reflected, in the perceived security of the Labour HQ Southside Office, these views were openly expressed in “common areas, the kitchenette and work areas”
Forde concludes this part by noting that only 4 of the 24 staff who were involved in the group still work for the party and some were subject to disciplinary proceedings, shortly after the initial report was leaked to the media. The NEC subsequently applied a range of sanctions. However, Forde finds that the disciplinary cases that the Forde inquiry were able to look at (because they happened during the time the Forde Inquiry had been commissioned) showed that “the strength of staff disciplinary outcomes reflected a dependence on a narrow factional majority on the NEC in one direction or the other.” In his view, this demonstrates “a serious lack of objectivity and fairness.”
The primary purpose of the The Forde Report Summary is to make the Forde report more accessible to a wider audience We’ll also be scrutinising some of it’s findings, where appropriate to do so. Spotlight will be publishing the summary report in sections over the coming days and you can find links to earlier published sections below. Next instalment… Forde Report Summary (Pt6): (Allegation 2) Factionalism adversely impacted the handling of complaints.
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