Thursday, 20 November 2014

The case for party discipline

Last week, a member of the party’s governing body, the NEC, encouraged a crowd of people to go round to the homes of public servants (£) and “peacefully” demonstrate outside.

Presumably as Unite “peacefully”
demonstrated at the homes of Grangemouth oil refinery managers, during last summer’s botched industrial dispute. It is a technique latterly championed by the union, known as “leveraging” (in fact, so excited is it by its novel idea that the union now has created a merged Organising and Leverage Department, to help promote it further).

The reality: when someone’s child dare not go outside to play, or has to ask its parents who the angry crowd of people shouting outside their garden gate are, or it is an unacceptable crossing of the line between legitimate and non-legitimate targets.

It is, needless to say, intimidation, by any other name. It is bullying.

The point is not the unpleasant practice itself: the point is that a member of the party’s NEC should be openly inciting this kind of behaviour. Morally, it would be equally bad if the victims were private sector managers, who are entitled to their privacy like anyone else; but this was worse: it was politically stupid as well.

It was against, let us not forget, public servants doing their duty; the kind of people, in fact, one might traditionally expect to support the Labour Party.

We might also note that the demonstration was in support of a political independent, currently undergoing numerous separate investigations, including by the police. A politician whom this NEC member has repeatedly supported, in opposition to the ranks of his own party’s councillors, including during an election: a clear suspension offence in the party rule-book.
Or his disingenuous backing of the Mayor of Tower Hamlets’ wearily predictable cries of “Islamophobia”, having being investigated himself for improper allocation of public funds and his election still being investigated for alleged electoral fraud.

The saddest thing is that this does not surprise us. That NEC member, we need not explain, has long demonstrated that he can do whatever he likes without any kind of meaningful sanction from his party.

Now logic would dictate that, the higher up one goes in an organisation dedicated to improving standards in public service, the greater the pressure to display unimpeachable levels of behaviour. And certainly to avoid bringing the party into disrepute.

But no: it is in fact quite the reverse. If a councillor or a lowly parliamentary candidate does something considered unacceptable, they may at least be disciplined or even suspended, as happened with
Vicki Kirby McCluskey earlier this year.

It can even happen to a peer, as the unloved-and-unmissed
Lord Ahmed showed, although he did need to be caught on camera blaming “the Jews” for his ills in order for this to come about.

For MPs, it seems that pretty much anything is ok, or at least so we have seen since 2010. Unless you are found guilty of criminal behaviour – something of a low bar – you are pretty much guaranteed leniency. And if you are a former Mayor of London, you can do anything you like because…well, last time the party took on Ken Livingstone, around fifteen years ago, it lost.

Result: no leader since has dared confront the man. In the absence of normal checks and balances, of course, his behaviour has continued to drift from the erratic towards the unpardonable.

embrace with hate preacher Al-Qaradawi; the Venezuelan “oil deal” which turned out not to be one; the support for this and other unpleasant regimes; and, last of all, the hypocrisy and half-information which ran through his 2012 story about tax avoidance, the one that helped finally finish off his hopes of a mayoral comeback. There is a fuller list here.

But we are not talking about discipline in the sense of general disorder in the ranks of the PLP: in fact, it has largely behaved surprisingly well over recent years (at least, that is, until the last few weeks’ wobbles over poor polling).

Neither is it about control-freakery over political adherence to “the line”; long may healthy debate flourish in our party. Besides, common decency and the power of patronage are quite enough to keep unity and reasonable behaviour the norm amongst most of our parliamentarians.

No, we mean discipline in the sense of dealing with the small number of our representatives who utter words or do deeds that much of the electorate would find repugnant (if, that is, they knew about them: in many cases, they don’t ever find out).

We have a rule-book for a reason and perhaps it needs strengthening. But, in the absence of a major push by the leadership, as happened over the Falkirk-inspired party reform last year, the chances of getting such changes through the NEC’s constitutional process are vanishingly small.

It is symptomatic of the current state of the Labour party that inviting hate preachers to speak in the Houses of Parliament, making disparaging comments about “white people” or implying that a Jewish diplomat cannot be trusted to look after Britain’s interests with Israel, are not “hanging offences” for MPs.

It is not just because we look like an unelectable rabble whenever the latest wrist-slapping is given. It is the problem of precedent.

As even President Obama is finding in his dealings with Iran and Russia, a lack of proper checks and balances causes serial offenders to become ever more audacious, until they stop having any inhibitions at all.

It is high time that situation changed, before some clown pulls us into a major scandal, which our fragile polling would be unlikely to survive.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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