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12 March 2020

Labour HQ is the subject of distrust and division – even within the building

The suspension of Trevor Phillips and the delay in members receiving leadership ballots have deepened concern over the party's head office. How would Keir Starmer respond as leader?

By George Grylls

Over the last week, the Labour Party has been absorbed by two internal rows. Firstly, Trevor Phillips, a veteran Labour member and the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, was suspended from the party, pending investigation over alleged Islamophobia. Secondly, new party members reported experiencing delays in receiving their leadership election ballots. These two issues are different symptoms of the same disease, namely that the party at large has lost trust in “Southside” – Labour’s head office in London, which organises internal elections and handles disputes.

In the case of Phillips, Labour members are most concerned by the party’s apparent double standards. They contrast Phillips’s suspension with the party’s handling of some complaints of anti-Semitism in recent years. According to one Southside staffer, the episode, above all, “illuminates a lack of faith in the party’s processes”.

The dispute over ballots also reflects a belief that Jeremy Corbyn’s allies are controlling the party’s inner workings and seeking to rig the leadership contest in favour of their preferred candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey.

“It is deeply concerning that the party appears to be applying a different standard to new members, which is causing significant delays in sending out ballots,” says one senior leadership campaign organiser. “The same checks should be applied to everyone and the urgent priority needs to be issuing ballots. This certainly raises alarm bells that new members are being deliberately disenfranchised.” 

In truth, a grand conspiracy seems unlikely. The organisation of the leadership contest has been outsourced by Southside to Civica Election Services, a company that has managed ballots for everyone from the National Trust to the Marylebone Cricket Club – hardly the telltale CV of a firm acting as a Trojan Horse for ideological warfare. 

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“We have raised the concerns with Civica and would also like to point out from us that of an electorate of almost 800,000 only 2,000 have requested a reissued ballot so far,” Labour general secretary Jennie Formby wrote to leadership and deputy leadership candidates last week

In any case, Labour leadership elections are always riddled with accusations of ballot tampering. In 2015, the situation was the reverse of today. Back then, there was a widespread perception that supposedly impartial Labour staffers were hostile to Corbynism, and those complaining about delayed ballots were allies of Corbyn, not critics.

What these two rows highlight is the breakdown in trust between Southside and the rest of the party. And this has been accompanied by a breakdown in trust within Southside itself. In the wake of Labour’s worst general election defeat since 1935, the atmosphere in the head office is said to be despondent, with employees complaining that senior managers are “terrible” at their jobs. Over the past 12 months, “leaving party after leaving party after leaving party” has been held for demoralised Southside staffers. 

Aides report feeling as if they are being made to pay for the failures at the top. “If there is any justice in the world Karie and Seumas would go,” complains one staffer. Murphy is apparently seen at Southside with increasing frequency, with Milne reportedly dropping in about once a week. By contrast, Andrew Murray – another member of the “Four Ms” alongside Milne, Murphy and John McDonnell – announced last month that he would step down as an adviser to Corbyn upon the conclusion of the leadership contest.

In the minds of most Labour MPs, the way to restore trust is to rid the party of such figures. The important question is whether Keir Starmer – who remains the unambiguous leadership frontrunner – shares their thinking. Does the “unity” that his campaign has preached rule out the possibility of factional purges?

“He’ll never be more powerful than when he’s just elected,” observers one veteran MP and Starmer supporter, noting that the shadow Brexit secretary’s popularity among the parliamentary party derives from a widespread belief that he will indeed ruthlessly unravel Corbyn’s influence on the party’s structures – beginning with Murphy and Milne. “If he doesn’t finish him off, they’ll finish him off. If you appease that lot, you’re lost. It’s like trying to appease the alien from the Ridley Scott film,” the MP said. 

Many expect the Equality and Human Rights Commission report into anti-Semitism, due to be published this summer, to supply Starmer with the necessary ammunition. And his earlier promise of reform to the party’s ruling National Executive Committee suggests an appetite for structural change. Starmer’s leadership – within Labour ranks at least – will be judged by his ability to restore trust in the party’s structures. How he deals with Southside will be an immediate and intriguing test.