FIRST up, if you ask around the Labour group in Camden, those close to council business at least, there is not a palpable sense of outrage at Terence Flanagan’s suspension from the party. Many were sick of his emails to members for their tone, subject and block capitals, and felt it was coming whether there was a contest for the national leadership of the party in play or not.
As long as his position stands that the Labour Party disciplinary rules prevent him from giving his side of the story, however, he has no right to reply for print. In turn, those who publicly pre-empt the result of the party’s investigation, or second guess whether a libel court would agree whether his comments amount to definite anti-Semitism, can hire their own lawyers if the time comes. It may frustrate his critics, but the way the party’s own disciplinary process is framed affects the way the case can be safely reported. This may develop in a different direction in the coming days.
In the case of Camden Unison’s vice-chairman Phil Lewis, however, the actions of the Compliance Unit in suspending him do not sit comfortably with all of Camden Labour councillors, and I can say that goes for members on both side of the Corbyn In-Corbyn Out divide. Somebody with more energy than you or I has combed through his prolific Twitter feed to find three retweets – i.e. tweets authored by someone else, but shared by him – and discovered criticism of “Blairites” which apparently merits a suspension. Somebody, you may think, who has too much time on their time on their hands.
Regardless of whether RTs in the world of Twitter automatically mean endorsement, or the fact that the shared messages are combative and of ugly tone, to remove the man from the party and cancel his vote in the leadership contest – with no time for an appeal – for something like this surely risks belittling some of the other cases with greater foundation that have been sent upstairs in recent weeks.
It’s true that in this horridly-fought leadership contest, where people supposedly in the same party seem to have utter contempt for each other, the term “Blarite” has been a lazy catch-all code for anybody who can’t see a future with Jeremy Corbyn; it’s also used in attempt to stop Smith supporters using crisper, forward-looking labels like “moderniser” for themselves. But in reply, anybody who half agrees that renationalising the railways has been branded a “Trot” by those whose dislike for Corbyn seems in danger of being upgraded to a paranoid hatred. Who decides where the lines are drawn?
In these grey areas, the Compliance Unit has surely made a rod for its own back by picking through tweets and retweets attached with such obscurely-defined guilt at a time when views are so polarised that debate sometimes seems to be playing second fiddle to the settling of old scores. The former Holborn and St Pancras MP Frank Dobson, for example, and others who’d you never consider cases for suspension or expulsion have casually used the term Blairite in the past.
So rather than trying to find a way to stitch together a scarred party by harnessing both the enthusiasm and crowds Corbyn has drawn and the reality check, pragmatism offered by Smith, the party has officers working on a mountain of thousands of potential disciplinary cases which cannot be fairly resolved one way or another before the leadership voting ends. If it’s been decided that’s the best use of their time, no wonder the Tories look more clinical to floating voters.
Ultimately, if Mr Lewis’s curious case is a hint, the process will breed resentment among those who feel wronged by an over-officious discipline squad which the aggrieved feel is clamping down on free debate with little room for discretion or appreciation of the tension out there. Before the result of the contest is even known, the blocks are in place for Corbyn’s supporters to claim that a marginal victory for Smith would be tainted, unfairly won, and again making it nigh-on impossible to establish that post-contest unity which both contestants say they seek.
But perhaps most importantly, this curious disciplinary process allows more clear cut cases of nastiness to be conflated with those of more dubious origin. Labour has stupidly handed a free shot for the offensive to explain their suspensions as persecution. It paves the way for people to use that word. Purge.