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22 October 2018updated 07 Jun 2021 2:59pm

Why Labour’s new racism complaints regime won’t end its civil war

By Patrick Maguire

Has Jeremy Corbyn finally found a way forward on anti-Semitism? The Shadow Cabinet has endorsed a new process designed to speed up disciplinary action against Labour members accused of racism against Jews.

Under the new system, the gravest cases of alleged anti-Semitism, as well as all other serious allegations of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, would be put to a new panel made up of the party’s general secretary and every officer of its ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) bar the party’s leader and deputy leader.

Crucially, that eight-person panel would be able to expel the accused in the most serious of cases – a power that is currently the sole preserve of the quasi-judicial National Constitutional Committee. It would replace the smaller panels of NEC members that currently adjudicate on disciplinary cases, referring the worst offenders upwards to the NCC. 

Corbyn acknowledged that the current regime saw too many complaints left unresolved within the system for too long, and the new measures – which will be put before the NEC tomorrow – were sold to the Shadow Cabinet as an option that “would allow for more rapid expulsion in the most serious of cases”. It would not, however, introduce an auto-exclusion regime for cases with prima facie evidence of racism.

But speed is just one of the criticisms levelled against the current system: critics of the leadership have also demanded independent oversight, which some MPs are concerned the new mechanism will not provide. As well as Jennie Formby and Claudia Webbe, elected to the NEC as part of the #JC9 slate of Corbyn supporters last year, the new panel will be made up entirely of union representatives. There are complaints that its make-up will re-politicise the disciplinary process, a charge Labour sources resist. In short, the main objection to the new process is that it would be quicker without being any less opaque.

That, however, is precisely what much of the PLP would prefer to happen. A rival proposal from Tom Watson for a wholly independent disciplinary process devised and overseen by an independently-appointed chair will also go before the NEC tomorrow. The leadership does not agree, for obvious reasons: Corbyn proposed a greater level of independent oversight of complaints but Labour sources argue that no political party has outsourced its disciplinary system to an outside adjudicator in its entirety. They also worry that such a system would leave the party vulnerable to legal challenge. There is also the matter of the unforeseen consequences surrendering total control of the process to an independent body would have, particularly for higher-profile cases.

As such, many MPs remain unconvinced. Corbyn endured a long and gruelling meeting with the PLP this evening and it is clear that the action the leadership has taken over the past two days – namely its new disciplinary regime and the party’s new educational website for activists – will not be enough in themselves to end the protracted argument over just how the party should deal with accusations of anti-Semitism within its ranks. Leaving the meeting this evening, an emotional Ruth Smeeth told reporters that she suspected the new measures were a ruse to see the leadership through to recess without a further conflagration. They have at least achieved that. But with plenty of questions left unanswered, the row will run for some time yet.

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