LGBTQIA+ Officer, Kieron Haley, argues that the Labour Party should be far more robust in dealing with internal abuse and members’ misbehaviour.
The Labour Party has a problem. While Labour Party members are united in our belief in equality, tolerance and respect, we have consistently failed to uphold these values when the actions which threaten them have come from within. It is no secret that the Labour Party has a problem with anti-Semitism, but what is truly worrying is how far within the party this has spread and how little has been done to deal with it. In 2016, Ken Livingstone found himself knee-deep in controversy after appearing to equate Zionism with Nazism. Rather than being expelled from the party, however, he was only given a one-year suspension pending review. Not so long ago, OULC itself was at the centre of an anti-Semitic storm. Remarkably, the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) took no action thereafter, even after an internal party investigation found anti-Semitic behaviour had occurred. For what it’s worth, the club has subsequently made significant changes to the constitution which have prevented any anti-Semitic incident happening again.
Perhaps most disturbingly of all, it has now emerged that our leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was a member of several Facebook groups which regularly shared anti-Semitic abuse, yet there is not one recorded instance of him criticising any of the appalling comments made. In fact, on another Facebook post, he argued against the removal of an obviously anti-Semitic mural. It is utterly appalling that any member of our party, let alone our leader, should be able to act in such a way without facing any consequences. The impact these shockingly lacklustre responses have had on the well-being of some of our own members, and on the party’s reputation, cannot be underestimated or undone.
While anti-Semitism has recently received more attention than other kinds of offensive behaviour committed by our own members, it is far from the only example of bullying or bigotry to come from within our party; abuse in all its forms has too often gone unpunished or ignored when perpetrated by our own members. Earlier this year, Scottish Labour MP Hugh Gaffney gave a speech, to students, in which he used the overtly racist and homophobic terms ‘chinky’ and ‘bent’. Rather than being punished or suspended, Gaffney was made only to voluntarily attend ‘diversity training.’ If he were an elected official of any other party, we would undoubtedly, and quite rightly, be calling for far stronger repercussions in response to such appalling behaviour.
In yet another case in which one of our representatives have been caught making offensive remarks, Jared O’Mara was suspended from the party after it emerged that he made a series of blatantly sexist, homophobic and transphobic comments prior to becoming an MP. While suspension was certainly a step in the right direction, the question remains as to whether expulsion would have been more appropriate, with many people wondering how he came to be selected as a parliamentary candidate in the first place. This February, a further series of failures came to light when a dossier containing 43 anonymous stories of harassment and sexual assault against women at all levels of the Labour Party – including rape, groping, and a series of attempts to silence victims – was submitted to the Labour leadership by a movement called LabourToo. Why should we tolerate this sort of behaviour when it comes from within the party, when we would not tolerate it elsewhere? If we are to become the party of equality that we claim to be, then we must stop being hypocritical and begin holding ourselves to the same standard.
The fact that these incidents, which are far from the only examples of misbehaviour, took place so recently and over such a short period of time, serves only to highlight that this problem is not behind us. It would be far too easy to look at these issues and, as some members have done, attempt to silence critics due to fear of potentially negative electoral repercussions. This does nothing to alleviate the real worries felt by many not only in our party, but in wider society. As a collective, we need comprehensive policies covering bullying, sexual harassment, homophobia, and more. Rather than sending people to ‘diversity training’ only after they have been reported for abusive behaviour of offensive language, as in the case of Hugh Gaffney, we should make it compulsory for all party staff and elected representatives to undergo training to ensure that incidents like these do not happen again. We need to consider putting prospective parliamentary candidates through greater scrutiny, to ensure that in future we do not select candidates like Jared O’Mara who hold bigoted views or who have a record of acting abusively. As it stands, the NEC alone is responsible for arbitrating internal party disputes and, as an elected body, it is far too open to political persuasion and acts too much on the basis of internal party politics. We ought to set up a truly independent system for investigating complaints in order to put an end to any fear members may have and to encourage them to come forward and report the injustices they have faced.
I am far from the first person to have suggested changes like these to party policy. So far, however, while these accusations and incidents have been acknowledged, little has been done to prevent such injustices from happening again. It is time that changed. We need to make certain that the people in our party who have acted with impunity against others are dealt with and punished appropriately, and we need to take action to guarantee that the most marginalised people in our society – those whose gender, sexuality, race, religion, or disability makes them a target of abuse – have a place in the Labour Party. Above all, we need to ensure that the party we are all so proud to be members of puts into practice the progressive, liberal and tolerant values each of us holds so dear.