Why it’s a mistake to compare Labour’s internal rows to those of an ordinary workplace

There is a legitimate case to be made against Ian Austin and Margaret Hodge, but this isn’t it.

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There’s an interesting repeated question that people have started to raise in light of Labour’s anti-Semitism row. Novara’s Michael Walker is the latest, talking about what would happen in a workplace if you called your boss “a fucking anti-Semite and racist” and comparing it to the treatment of Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin.

There are a couple of points to raise. The first is that, as far as I am aware, no one on either side disputes that Hodge did not, as first reported, swear. She simply referred to Jeremy Corbyn as “an anti-Semite and racist”. (In contrast, the account of what happened between Labour MP Ian Austin and the party’s chair Ian Lavery, is still fiercely disputed on both sides, with Austin and others maintaining that he did not call Lavery a “wanker” and “fucking bastard”, while other witnesses say that he did.)

But the second – and what seems to be not widely understood – point, is that actually, in a workplace, if I call my boss a racist, my workplace rights are clear: that claim of racism should be investigated. I shouldn’t face sanctions as an employee as a result, and would be legally within my rights to sue if I did. Now, of course, thanks to the cuts to legal aid and the changes to how tribunals work introduced by the successive Conservative and Conservative-led governments since 2010, my ability to guarantee those rights are limited. But frankly that is not a desirable state of affairs and it isn’t one that supporters of the Corbyn project should be co-opting to defend the idea that someone making accusations of racism should face disciplinary procedures.

The actual problem with what Hodge and Austin are doing – and this is why on the whole comparing political parties to regular workplaces is a pretty arid analogy – is that ultimately “Jeremy Corbyn for prime minister” is the Labour party’s product, and by criticising him they are decreasing the chances that anyone will buy it. Or, at least in theory: I am highly dubious of the electoral impact of the row, but that’s a subject for another time.

As I’ve written before, Corbyn’s internal opponents ought to take their opinion to its obvious conclusion: if they think that Corbyn is a racist, they can’t reasonably expect to go into the next election as representatives of a party whose first clause binds it to making him prime minister, and nor should they want to.

It’s perfectly legitimate for a political party to bring disciplinary measures on that issue – and indeed that’s why Labour’s constitution contains the deliberately broad measure of “bringing the party into disrepute” – and Corbyn’s outriders should make their case on that basis. They shouldn’t do so on the back of a poor analogy about the rights rightly extended to protected classes in the workplace.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.