Bristol West, in South West England, is just the kind of constituency where Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist politics took root these last five years. Young, metropolitan, and overwhelmingly working-class, the area is blighted by extreme inequality, with wealthy neighborhoods butting up against generational poverty and political exclusion.
One in twenty voters in Bristol West is a Labour member — there are nearly five thousand in total, overwhelmingly joining after Corbyn became leader. While local Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire had scraped a win against her Liberal Democrat opponents in 2015, it was this army of members who delivered some of the biggest majorities in the country in the 2017 and 2019 general elections, under Corbyn’s leadership.
But despite this record of success, the local Constituency Labour Party (CLP) is now in uproar after the suspension of leading activists. Their supposed offense is that they spoke up in defense of Corbyn, after he had himself been suspended from the party on October 29. Their treatment points to the stifling suppression of free speech in the party — and, from some quarters, a concerted attempt to drive out all traces of the socialist left.
When Corbyn was suspended at the end of last month, his successor Keir Starmer and the rest of the Shadow Cabinet wasted no time telling anyone who would listen that the former leader’s response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) antisemitism report had simply forced the party’s hand.
Corbyn’s grievous sin, we were told, was to mention in his response to the report that the issue of antisemitism had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons.” In truth, the evidence for his statement is plain to see for anyone who bothers to look beyond the clickbait headlines about “Labour’s antisemitism crisis.”
This was the moment the party apparatus had been waiting for — it took them less than twenty-four hours to gleefully suspend his membership and remove the whip. Corbyn found out about his suspension from a cameraman, rather than his party colleagues.
Such a response was typical of triumphalist reactions to the EHRC report, sticking the knife in against the Left. In fact, whatever the EHRC’s own shortcomings, it had explicitly defended members’ right to comment on the scale of antisemitism within the party and condemned political interference in disciplinary procedures — deeming unacceptable even past interference by Corbyn’s office to speed up the complaints process in response to media hounding. But the new Starmer-appointed general secretary, David Evans, suspended Corbyn anyway — and, going one step further, ordered local CLPs not to discuss this decision, under any circumstances.
Evans relied on rules established by the previous general secretary and Corbyn ally, Jennie Formby. They stated that branches “should not engage in debate about disciplinary matters in a way that might jeopardise confidentiality or due processes.” In a fit of the scope-creep typical of the Labour bureaucracy, Evans extended this into a blanket gagging order on any discussions of disciplinary procedures. This did not, however, stop Starmer and co from publicly defending the decision; in truth, the demand for silence applied only to us ordinary members.
Silencing the Membership
Which brings us back to Bristol West. On October 29, the same night Corbyn was suspended, a neighborhood branch of the CLP tabled a motion in opposition to his suspension which took the politics of Starmer’s partisan interference head-on.
Bristol West CLP’s Executive Committee (EC), which had been elected last year on an overwhelming mandate to champion party democracy, rightly felt obliged to hear any motion brought to them within party rules — and thus convened an emergency meeting.
In email correspondence to their members on October 30, the EC condemned the party bureaucracy’s authoritarian approach, calling it a threat to unity and arguing that Evans’s edict gave party members no ability to safeguard due process against blatant political interference — the very kind the EHRC had warned against. Regional officials retaliated by threatening the officers of the EC with suspension if the meeting went ahead. In the days since Corbyn’s suspension, a handful of CLPs have passed relatively timid motions of solidarity, proposed by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), which accepted the gagging order. Bristol West, however, decided to go ahead with their meeting in spite of the threats.
The meeting was held via Zoom on November 9, featuring an appearance from local MP Debbonaire, a Starmer ally. In step with the dystopian theme of everything else happening in the party, the meeting was conducted with assiduous, almost paranoid, caution. So great was the fear of falling foul of the petty rules that microphones were muted: all communication was directed privately to the chair, and debate was limited to submitting amendments before a secret ballot was taken. The motion to defend Corbyn passed with a comfortable majority. The party’s response? To suspend the branch chair and a co-secretary, pending an investigation.
Phil Gaskin, the regional director responsible, has form for interference. He has faced claims of arbitrarily removing left-wing mayoral nominations, directing funds away from winnable marginal seats in 2017 and 2019 because of candidates’ socialist politics, or stepping in to stop CLPs donating to mutual aid efforts to keep people fed during the lockdown. Members across the region were understandably furious at the threats toward the EC officers — tweeting examples of his tin-pot despotism using #SackGaskin. Those who called for his removal were suspended, along with the EC officers, on November 12.
Rooting Out the Left
Sources inside the party say that it issued blanket suspensions to anyone tweeting on a specific hashtag. It seems that their hope is that if they fling enough muck, some will stick — and that some disheartened members will simply walk away instead of fighting the accusations. It’s important to note how vital it is for the apparatus to suppress criticism of unelected regional officials who rule the party. Despite five years under Corbyn’s leadership, the Left achieved next to nothing in terms of transforming the party’s internal structures — and still less in rooting out the right wing from positions of power.
Recent elections to the party’s ruling National Executive Committee nonetheless show that right-wing influence is still relatively small in the membership — the Right won only three of nine seats reserved for CLP representatives, making their stranglehold on the party machinery all the more critical. If they tolerate criticism, or worse, if that criticism gains purchase, their ability to dominate the party is under threat.
Senior positions in the party are filled by pen-pushing jihadis of the Blairite Third Way, many of whom cut their teeth driving socialists like the Militant Tendency out of the party in the 1980s. In this sense, whether Starmer personally wants to purge the Left is irrelevant; his long-term strategy is reliant on keeping the faith of the existing party bureaucracy and thus the Right. They proved with Corbyn that they would brook no resistance — and just as with his exchanges with the government, Starmer is choosing appeasement over rupture with the status quo.
Research by the “No Holding Back” group shows that Labour’s membership hasn’t yet abandoned the transformative politics of Corbynism. Despite the viciousness of the right-wing attacks on them, many left-wing members have lent Starmer their support, in the desperate search for unity and electability. Their conduct proves the adage that the only people who believe that the party is a “broad church” are the Labour left. Yet some are now realizing he and the party machine see their values as a liability — and their democratic rights as entirely expendable.
Rumor has it that the Right is likely to de-escalate tensions and readmit Corbyn in a few weeks’ time — hoping the experience will leave him and his supporters chastened and cowed. But it’s vital that the membership continues to push back and demand free speech — and for branches to conduct their affairs without bureaucratic interference. One key strategy will be to continue the wave of motions in solidarity with Corbyn, like the one passed by Bristol West.