On 20 May 2019 I released short statement on Twitter:
I won’t support ‘a political organisation other than an official Labour group or other unit of the Party’ nor will I support ‘any candidate against an official Labour candidate’ but I’ve returned my EU election PV and for the first time in 46 years I’ve not voted Labour.20 May 2019, shortly before EU polling day
I chose that formulation of words with care. I knew many thousands of Labour members would be considering lending their votes to another Party in protest at Labour’s continued ambiguity on Brexit. I wanted to make it clear that voting was a private matter, and that by itself could not be in contravention of the Labour Party rules. Blindingly obvious really. To constrain a person’s vote by offering or refusing some benefit, in this case membership of the Labour Party, is a breach of the Representation of the People Act and subsequent legislation. (Although someone did suggest to me that “membership of the Party isn’t a benefit, it’s just bloody hard work.”)
Apart from the legal wrangle over whether or not demanding a vote in return for membership of a political organisation is or is not illegal, there are there practical problems of evidence and enforcement. Of course, you could introduce some sort of loyalty pledge – I promise to vote Labour at every election in which I am an eligible voter – in which case vote swapping, tactical voting or whatever all go underground. Only exposed when the Labour vote falls below the number of Labour members in an area. Frighteningly, this may soon no longer be a joke.
The only thing one can say with any certainty is whether a person voted at all. Although votes may be inspected by order of the High Court (in exceptional circumstances, usually when investigating electoral fraud) to identify which way an individual voted, the vote itself is, to all intents and purposes, secret. But whether or not each individual cast a vote is open to public inspection and all political parties access this data on a regular basis to inform their election campaign planning. It would be a simple matter to check whether any or all members of a political party had voted. And it could be argued that failing to vote gave support to other parties or candidates.
Now we are at the nub of the issue.
On Tuesday 28 May, Alistair Campbell received an email telling him he had been auto-excluded from the Labour Party for saying (after the polls closed) that he had voted Liberal Democrat in the European Elections.
The accompanying statement form the Labour Party read as follows:
Support for another political party or candidate is incompatible with party membership.
As the sky started to fall in on the Labour Party, the Labour Party Press Team, directed by Seumas Milne, took to the social media airwaves to issue a panicked clarification:
To be absolutely clear, the way Labour Party members vote is a private matter. But publicly declaring or encouraging support for another candidate or party is against the rules and is incompatible with Party membership.3:06 PM – 28 May 2019
And at that point any residual case the Labour Party had for justifying the auto-exclusion of Alistair Campbell collapsed. If the way a person voted does not, cannot, be in breach of party rules then we come simply to the more normal use of the words in the rule book.
The relevant section of the current rule book says:
A member of the Party who joins and/or supports a political organisation other than an official Labour group or other unit of the Party, or supports any candidate who stands against an official Labour candidate, or publicly declares their intent to stand against a Labour candidate, shall automatically be ineligible to be or remain a Party member.Rule 2.1.4.B – Labour Party Rulebook
Given that the Labour Party has itself now ruled out voting against Labour as a reason for expulsion how has Campbell breached the rule above? And the simple and obvious answer is that he hasn’t. It is not possible to support another candidate (the essential allegation) after the polls have closed.
Let’s briefly contrast this with the case of Andrew Fisher, now a senior political advisor to the Leader of the Opposition. In November 2015 he was suspended following complaints that he had called for support for another candidate. Referencing an article written by Emily Benn, the Labour candidate for Croydon South, Fisher said:
If you live in Croydon South, vote with dignity, vote Class War.Andrew Fisher
The Leader’s office ensured (without intervening, you understand, because apparently they never do) that Fisher’s offence was considered under the more subjective rule about ‘bringing the Party into disrepute’. This allowed the disciplinary process to be concluded with no case to answer save a smack on the wrist rather than the inevitable expulsion that would have followed otherwise. Mates’ rates in the rule book.
So why has Labour allowed itself to get into this position? One thing is certain. This was not a decision taken by an officer of the Governance and Legal Unit on Bank Holiday Monday. This wasn’t a decision about an unknown party member who had stood against an official Labour candidate at some local election. This was about a prominent member of the Labour Party with a significant public profile. This would have been a decision taken at the highest possible level.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that it is either vindictive retribution presumably orchestrated by, or with the full knowledge of, Seumas Milne. Or a deliberate distraction from the earlier announcement on the same day by the EHRC of a statutory investigation into allegations of institutional antisemitism within Labour. Or both. Whatever the reason, the decision has proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Many heavyweights from the Labour Party have condemned the action. Charles Clarke, Harriet Harman and Lord Falconer QC to name but three.
Lord Falconer QC, former Lord Chancellor, who knows something about how the courts interpret the words before them, said:
The rules do not make expulsion mandatory. Support for another political organisation envisages something more than voting for them and only going public after the polls have closed and making clear it was a one off. If voting was enough the rule would have said so.Lord Falconer QC
And these are not the usual suspects, plotting to undermine Corbyn but senior figures from past and present whose voice should be listened to with some care. There is a long queue of people from across the Labour family who share their concerns.
Even more worrying is the immediate rise of the #ExpelMeToo and #IamSpartacus hashtags as hundreds, maybe thousands by now, of Party members declared that they too had lent their vote to another party. Excluding Campbell may lead some people, many people, to question whether their vote lent to another party will ever be cast for Labour again.
Tom Watson MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party has now also echoed the views of many others, and made clear that Labour has made a grave error. He said it is “spiteful” to expel people from the Labour Party and called for an “amnesty” for members who did not support the party at the European elections.
It is very clear that many thousands of Labour Party members voted for other parties last week. They were disappointed with the position on Brexit that a small number of people on the NEC inserted into our manifesto. They were sending the NEC a message that our position lacked clarity and they were right.
It is spiteful to resort to expulsions when the NEC should be listening to members.
The politics of intolerance holds no future for the Labour Party. A broad church party requires pluralism and tolerance to survive.
There should be an amnesty for members who voted a different way last week. We should be listening to members rather than punishing them.”Tom Watson MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party
The Labour Party should admit to a mistake and reinstate Alistair Campbell without delay. The prospect of this ending in the High Court is another example of any chance of Corbyn’s Labour winning the 2022 General Election being frittered away by sheer bloody-minded incompetence by some who populate the Leader’s Office.