Iain McNicol , the departing General Secretary of the Labour Party, was determined to end his ignominious reign by going out with a bang. Yesterday his final act was revealed. He had extended Ken Livingstone’s two-year suspension indefinitely so that there could be further internal investigations, more hearings and possibly stronger disciplinary action. Livingstone’s suspension had been due to end on 27 April, this year.
McNicol had clearly tipped off his friends – the right wing Labour MP Wes Streeting, and the pro-Zionist, anti-Corbyn, Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) – so that, yesterday morning, both could be heard loudly expressing their fears that Labour would fail to win certain councils in May’s local government elections, if they did not take decisive action against Livingstone when his suspension ends. Voila, in the afternoon, comes the news of McNicol’s last exercise of his power. The JLM, which has its own internal crisis, after the sudden resignation of its leader Jeremy Newmark, and with the police starting an investigation relating to possible misuse of funds, can pretend to its supporters that it has its fingers on the pulse and can get results.
McNicol’s underhand, manipulative, unjust practices that manifested themselves in the period when he exerted control over the Labour Party’s inner rules and procedures, are remembered by the mainstream media mostly for the expulsion of veteran socialist, Professor Moshe Machover, the long suspension of Livingstone, and the expulsion most recently of Tony Greenstein. Each of these cases began with accusations around antisemitism, before their prosecutors shifted tactically to more winnable lines of argument.
Machover, a principled socialist who refrains from gratuitous abuse, never casually throws an accusation that he can’t back up, and who just happens also to be a professor of logic, outwitted those seeking to implement McNicol’s rules and methods. Having been summarily expelled, he won his case. In contrast, both Livingstone and probably even more so, Greenstein, have arguably been their own worse enemies, frequently setting out, it seems, either to offend or be as controversial as possible, whatever the collateral damage. While claiming to have the interests of the Palestinians and Labour’s left leadership at heart, both have repeatedly provided ammunition on a plate to those who would dearly love to undermine Corbyn and smother the articulate and growing pro-Palestine and non- and anti-Zionist voices within the Labour Party.
In spite of Livingstone and Greenstein’s crass interventions, these critical voices have grown louder also
among Jewish Labour Party members who reject the policies of the Israeli government and are appalled at the daily abuses of Palestinians’ human rights by Israeli military forces in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. They now have an organisational form in Jewish Voice for Labour, launched at a Labour Conference fringe meeting last September with 300 in attendance.
When we assess McNicol’s reign we should not simply mirror the mainstream media and crude tabloids’ obsession with the likes of Livingstone. More than anything McNicol’s rule needs to be remembered for the unjust ways that thousands of ordinary members, not seeking infamy, were mistreated, especially in the periods around the two leadership elections that Jeremy Corbyn won.
Loyal members, who had given a lifetime of service to the party but who don’t have a high media profile, or have not cultivated a Facebook “fan” base, found themselves, summarily suspended and, in some cases, expelled for five years on the most trivial and ridiculous grounds: making pointed but fair remarks about the attitudes and behaviour of right wingers in their branches and in the wider party; an NUT member on strike, tweeting that it was good to see the Green Party supporting their demands; previous involvement with other parties – such as Greens or Lib-Dems. The list goes on. The Labour Party was recruiting rapidly in this period. Of course many new recruits would have had previous political convictions but, in any case, there is a world of difference between being previously a member of the Greens and being previously a member of the Tories, UKIP or the BNP.
In many cases members were suspended, expelled, or excluded from voting in the leadership contest, with no proper reason given. An estimated 4,000 Labour members/supporters were deprived of a vote in the first leadership battle that Corbyn contested, and it is widely believed that these were overwhelmingly people who were intending to vote for Corbyn. Even larger numbers of potential Corbyn supporters were deprived of a vote second time round. But the real scandal of the second leadership battle was the decision, after the contest had been announced, to arbitrarily impose a voting qualification. This excluded at a stroke between 125,000-150,000 members, who had been in the party less than 6 months from the day the contest was formally declared. These were Labour’s newest enthusiastic recruits, and this was how McNicol and Co. welcomed them. Above all, though, this was a blatant attempt by McNicol and his close circle to rig the election against Jeremy Corbyn.
After a deluge of protests, a loophole appeared. People could cancel their membership and pay £25 for the privilege of voting as Labour supporters. Many did. Others who couldn’t afford to do so remained excluded. These are examples of the kinds of practice in the Labour Party that must be investigated in Labour’s Democracy Review and never be allowed to happen again under its future General Secretaries.
Of course, there were small numbers of people who were rightly disciplined under McNicol’s regime, for antisemitism, other forms of racism, or extremely abusive behaviour to other members, but they would have been a tiny, tiny fraction compared with the numbers unjustly excluded.
Between the two leadership contests, Shami Chakrabarti led a Labour Party inquiry into antisemitism – the charge that received the most plentiful media coverage. But her report, thankfully, went a lot further and included a series of recommendations for handling disciplinary cases, highlighting the need for transparent processes, evidence-based investigations, natural justice, and proportionality with any disciplinary actions that result. She emphasised the need for cases to be dealt with speedily and fairly, and where possible to look for educational solutions rather than suspensions and exclusions.
Although the inquiry report, with its crucial recommendations, was posted on the Labour Party website, McNicol has done everything possible to delay or prevent its implementation. Last December, it mysteriously went missing from the Labour Party’s website altogether. Fortunately, that was spotted by an eagle-eyed member of Jewish Voice for Labour. After an outcry, it was restored. It is the Chakrabariti Inquiry Report that needs to be the central focus of our campaigning right now, if we are going to win justice for the many suspended and excluded by Labour, not just for the few.