David Evans has responded to more than 175 local party chairs and secretaries who complained to the general secretary last year about his guidance limiting the debate of certain motions, LabourList can reveal.
Labour’s most senior official told local party secretaries, chairs, MPs, MSPs and MSPs in November that motions on the suspension of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn – including expressions of solidarity – were “out of order”.
Writing to Evans in December, locally elected officials from across the country said the restrictions on items of party business and accompanying threats of suspension were “undermining our efforts to build up our local parties”.
The local officials from 124 Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) told the general secretary that his guidance put them “in the firing line” and was “affecting the mental and physical health of chairs and secretaries”.
Evans responded to the December letter on Wednesday, ahead of a Labour national executive committee (NEC) disputes meeting for all members of the ruling body, which took place on Thursday morning.
LabourList sources say the disciplinary action was not dropped at the meeting today but NEC members were told the cases concerning out-of-order motions are expected all to be heard by panels by the end of March.
Dozens of suspended local party officers are waiting for their cases to be concluded via the Labour Party’s complaints system. Some were disappointed that Evans did not mention them in his letter this week.
“Where does this leave comrades who remain suspended?” one chair asked. Another pointed out that the motion leading to their suspension was not related to antisemitism or Jeremy Corbyn but was instead critical of Evans’ guidance.
“The [general secretary] gives no explanation as to why motions of solidarity which made no reference to the EHRC report should be ruled by him to be impermissible as a motion for debate by members,” one chair commented.
One CLP secretary made the case again that local officers, who are volunteers, have been “subjected to enormous stress and pressure” due to the guidance issued by David Evans and the orders of regional directors.
“Staff should not be blaming ordinary members who have done no wrong,” one signatory commented. “It was the staff of the Labour Party that failed to deal with antisemitism, not the members.”
Evans stressed to local officers in his response that Labour being found to have acted unlawfully in its handling of antisemitism was “the most shameful day in our party’s long history” and led to the guidance being issued.
He said Labour “needed to take a firmer stance and expand the number of issues that were not appropriate for discussion” after it “became clear” that in “some areas” the party needed to do more to improve its culture.
The general secretary added that the original guidance “was not clear that it was I as general secretary – backed by the NEC – ruling these motions out of order”, therefore “it was not for members to seek to challenge chairs”.
Evans concluded: “I will always keep any guidance I issue under review and will continue to do so in order to foster a more inclusive, open and positive framework for discussion. We must face up to our previous failure to deal with antisemitism and deliver a genuine zero-tolerance approach.”
Below is the full text of the new letter from David Evans to local party officers (March 10th).
Thank you for your letter, and apologies for the delay in providing a response.
I first of all want to say that I can fully understand the feelings and emotions that the issue of antisemitism, the EHRC’s report and the actions taken since have engendered within the Party. It is a complex and serious issue and there are a range of perspectives and points of view.
But in October last year, the Labour Party was found guilty of committing unlawful harassment of our members and unlawful acts of indirect discrimination against our Jewish members. The publication of the EHRC report was the most shameful day in our Party’s long history and we cannot lose sight of that fact. The EHRC codified and set out clear expectations on the Party around agency, which required us to give very clear guidance to voluntary officers such as yourselves.
Rest assured that I did not put myself forward to be General Secretary in order to have to issue such guidance about motions to stop CLPs. That’s why my initial guidance asked that members be mindful of how they discussed the EHRC report and, in line with our statutory responsibilities, asked that branches and CLPs did not bring forward motions which sought to repudiate the findings of the report or question the EHRC’s competency to undertake the investigation. I also suggested that the binary nature of motions – forcing members to retreat to ‘for’ or ‘against’ camps – might not be the best mechanism for debating the important issues the EHRC report had brought to light, and I provided some model questions to inform workshop-style discussion at local meetings. There was significant evidence that where more adversarial propositions were allowed, contrary to my guidance, that an exclusory, rather than an inclusive atmosphere, was created.
While the vast majority of members and CLPs accepted this advice, unfortunately it soon became clear in some areas we need to more to improve culture and provide an open and welcoming space for members of all backgrounds. That’s the only reason we needed to take a firmer stance and expand the number of issues that were not appropriate for discussion.
I know that the Labour Party would be nothing without its volunteers and I will once again offer my thanks to the branch and CLP officers who have been implementing the guidance. In hindsight, the guidance I issued originally was not clear that it was I as General Secretary – backed by the NEC – ruling these motions out of order. I was not expecting local chairs to make that decision, and therefore it was not for members to seek to challenge chairs.
It is also not the case that chairs or other officers were being instructed to break any rules or standing orders. I hope that clarifies matters going forward.
With the EHRC having signed off the NEC’s action plan to implement the recommendations contained in the EHRC’s report, the way forward is now clear. I will always keep any guidance I issue under review and will continue to do so in order to foster a more inclusive, open and positive framework for discussion. We must face up to our previous failure to deal with antisemitism and deliver a genuine zero-tolerance approach.
Harold Wilson famously said that the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing. I very much hope that I can count on you – and other officers, members, and elected representatives across the country – to help us to live up to that aspiration.
Below is the full text of the original letter from CLP officers to David Evans (December).
Dear David Evans,
We are writing to you, as Constituency Labour Party secretaries and chairs, to raise our concerns about recent emails you have sent us, that instruct secretaries and chairs to prohibit discussion on certain topics.
Our party membership and its collective discussion in local branch and CLP meetings are vital to building an effective local political party. Unfortunately, the recent emails from you, placing restrictions on items of party business that can be discussed in meetings, accompanied by threats and suspensions, are undermining our efforts to build up our local parties. Democratically discussing the issues of party business that concern our members helps us develop and motivate our local party.
Treating our members’ rights with respect is also important for morale and increases the capacity of local parties to turn outwards and campaign in elections. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that was long fought for and has been traditionally upheld by the Labour Party, including in our party meetings. The right to freedom of expression is not only about the right to speak but it is also about the right to listen to others and for different views to be heard. Party members should have the right to express their views, including on whether the whip should or should not be restored to Jeremy Corbyn.
The policing of discussion, on a decision which has received a lot of media attention, is also demanding a great deal from volunteers who take up the role of administrators to facilitate and encourage dynamic campaigning local parties. Our local members and party officers are all volunteers, many of whom work very hard for the party. We feel that your recent guidance only puts us further into the firing line, and is affecting the mental and physical health of chairs and secretaries, many of whom are standing down from their posts because of the stress. This is expertise the Party can ill afford to lose with important elections coming up in May 2021.
Suspensions of officers who allow discussion on the removal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn to take place also raises serious issues – chairs have in some instances had their membership of the party suspended for allowing discussion to take place when the General Committee or All Member Meeting has voted for them to do so. As CLP Officers, we are elected by General Committees or All Member Meetings, not appointed by the General Secretary and therefore we are being called upon, under threat of membership suspension, to break our own standing orders, and the rules of the party.
It is vital for us that the national party acts in a responsible way to help us maintain members’ enthusiasm to campaign for Labour. The attempts to stifle legitimate discussion are harming our local parties and their campaigning capacity, notwithstanding the suppression of members’ rights to speak and be heard.
We urge you to withdraw the ‘guidance’ you have sent to our CLPs and halt any disciplinary action currently being taken against Party Officers for facilitating democratic discussion of party business.
We look forward to your response.