Just a few days after Starmer became Labour Leader, an internal report leaked on social media, causing shock and outrage among Labour Party members. The report was intended to show the progress made by Labour in handling antisemitism complaints, but the accidental discovery of the message log of a WhatsApp group of senior Labour Party staff changed everything. The shocking nature of the WhatsApp messages prompted demands for heads to roll. Labour’s ruling NEC responded by convening an investigatory panel, to be chaired by Martin Forde QC. On May 1st 2020, announcing the formation of the panel, an NEC spokesperson said that the NEC wanted a report delivering “by the middle of July”. After many postponements, this would eventually become the middle of July 2022.
The Labour Party has greeted the report’s publication with a wall of silence. No public statements, no tweets from frontbenchers, no emails to members. If the aim of this was to bury the report, it seems to be having the desired effect: after a mild flurry of interest on the day of publication, the press have shown virtually no interest in the report’s findings.
Here’s a link to the full report. This article has four sections. In the first, I examine the report’s findings; in the second, Labour’s response and whether the party has changed; in the third, I evaluate Forde’s recommendations; and in the fourth, I reflect on what we can learn about the scope for transformational change through the Labour Party.
- What did we learn from the Forde Report ?
“We found little evidence of mutual respect and a great deal of evidence of factionalism,” writes Forde, “so deep-rooted that the Party has found itself dysfunctional.”
The picture is one of a party at war with itself. There’s never been a time when Labour hasn’t been riven by battles between left and right. The bitterness and division after 2015 was something else though, and the endless in-fighting has been damaging in all kinds of ways.
Forde gets the fact that this has gone way beyond a breakdown in relations – “Factionalism in the party is so extreme that whole sections of the party view other factions as entirely illegitimate, that is people who should not be in the party at all. In recent years this has manifested itself in large elements on the Right of the party regarding Corbyn supporters as entirely illegitimate…” It’s much the same thing when leftwingers accuse Labour opponents of being “Tories”. This is no mere casual insult: it’s rooted in a belief that they’re people who have few values in common with the labour movement and who don’t belong in the Labour Party.
How can people work together in these circumstances ? Well, a lot of time they don’t. The central focus of the report is the toxic relationship between LOTO, the Leader of the Opposition’s Team (ie Jeremy Corbyn’s staff), and HQ, which refers to Labour HQ, run by the General Secretary of the party. This wasn’t the first occasion, as Forde points out, that a new Labour Leader found themselves at odds with the party staff. Jeremy Corbyn though was the first leader for many generations who came from a far left tradition. There was unprecedented hostility to his leadership from within the PLP. There was a great deal of fear throughout the party as to what his intentions were and where this might lead.
Within HQ, fears and distrust deepened as LOTO expanded, becoming a much larger team, and bringing in from outside people who were politically sympathetic to Corbyn. The perception of some HQ staff was that this was an aggressive factional act and part of an agenda that included taking over control of HQ. Forde doesn’t actually ask this question, but what else could Corbyn have done ? He felt the members had given him a strong mandate to lead, but in the course of 2016 he was being repeatedly frustrated by the actions of the PLP and of HQ. Developing his own independent powerbase was essential if he was to have any hope of getting things done.
Forde is critical of the fact that new roles were created in LOTO which shadowed some of the roles of HQ staff – for instance, they had their own press team. Again though: it may not have been desireable, but it was understandable at a time when Corbyn was under siege within his own party. The need for a leader’s press office arose because hostile leaks to the press were continually coming from high placed sources such as HQ and the PLP.
Racism and sexism
The WhatsApp transcripts of discussions involving senior HQ staff which appeared in the Leaked Report laid bare their extreme factionalism and hostility toward the left of the party. They also exposed a toxic culture within the party’s inner sanctum.
Forde describes a siege mentality at HQ that led staff to lose perspective and blind them to the damage caused by their own behaviour. “In this context, some of them engaged in discussions about the leader’s staff and his supporters which were at times shockingly disparaging and derogatory.” These were highly paid professionals whose job it was to be neutral arbiters of the party’s internal conflicts.
Of the attacks on Diane Abbott, Forde says this – “No one, needless to say, has said that black and female MPs should be immune from criticism. The criticisms of Diane Abbott cited above, however, are not simply a harsh response to perceived poor performance – they are expressions of visceral disgust, drawing (consciously or otherwise) on racist tropes, and they bear little resemblance to the criticisms of white male MPs elsewhere in the messages.”
Likewise: “the criticisms of Karie Murphy were often couched in gendered terms, and it seems to us that the fact that Karie Murphy is a woman played some part in intensifying the level of vitriol towards her.”
This wasn’t simply an issue of the behaviour of a handful of people in one WhatsApp group, most of whom no longer work for the party. Forde also presents evidence of endemic racism and sexism across wide sections of Labour Party staff.
Unprofessional behaviour by senior officials
In 2015 and 2016 HQ staff expended a huge amount of resources on validation exercises which Forde recognises (as was apparent to many at the time) were highly factional, targeted against the left. One of the most extraordinary items in the report is this apparently uncorroborated witness statement: “Of particular concern for me as I commenced work at Southside was the regular ringing of bells and cheering throughout the working day. On commenting that there seemed to be a lot of birthdays among colleagues I was advised that the bell ringing was conducted by the compliance unit and represented the successful suspension or expulsion of a member – often surrounded by the description of such members as “trots”.
Forde firmly rejects suggestions of deliberate sabotage during the 2017 election campaign. HQ staff stuck to a defensive strategy throughout in good faith, believing that this was in the party’s interests. The secret diversion of funds to the Ergon House operation went against all principles of collective working and accountability. Whether or not you believe the claims of those involved that they had the best interests of the party at heart, the factional character of the operation can be seen from the fact that no pro-Corbyn candidates saw a penny of the money. The factionalism worked both ways though according to Forde: LOTO were also trying to divert resources to their preferred candidates.
What had gone wrong ? How did some of the most senior staff in the party come to act in the interests of one faction instead of the interests of the party as a whole ? And behave in ways that went against core Labour Party values ? Part of the answer lies in systems of recruitment and promotion that were unfit for purpose. “Recruitment processes in the party,” says Forde, “have long been too informal and insufficiently transparent, and as such open to factional manipulation. That led to a lack of diversity (including ideological diversity) in HQ … It is to be expected that, at any given time, some of the party’s staff will disagree with the politics of the elected leader; however, it is disastrous for almost all of them to do so, especially in circumstances where the leader in question enjoys widespread support amongst the membership.”
Abuses on all sides ?
Over a period of years, leaks from HQ had built up a narrative that the real issue was rogue behaviour by LOTO which had been interfering into investigations into antisemitism complaints. This became the premise of John Ware’s infamous Panorama programme, and numerous media reports. Forde agreed that there was some “blurring of functions” on a few occasions which shouldn’t have happened, but as to the allegations, “it is entirely misleading” to claim that this amounts to evidence of LOTO “inserting themselves unbidden into the disciplinary process for factional reasons”.
As anyone who’s read through the report will know, LOTO doesn’t get a free ride. The team, writes Forde, “was unstructured and at times chaotic, with a lack of clear decision-making and reporting lines and, in particular, a reluctance on the part of Jeremy Corbyn himself to make and communicate unequivocal decisions.” There were a number of submissions to the inquiry detailing “bullying and threatening behaviour” by LOTO staff. What we have to remember in all this is that Corbyn had to set up his team virtually from scratch in a short space of time. Very few of them had any experience to speak of working for the Labour Party before, and Corbyn of course had no ministerial experience. The rapid changes in the team reflected the extraordinary new challenges that they had to face. Of course it was chaotic and unstructured. Yet despite all this, the worst examples of unprofessionalism and factionalism in the Forde report all emanate from the highly trained and highly experienced senior staff at HQ.
2. Has Labour moved on ?
On one of the few occasions that he’s been asked about Forde, Keir Starmer told a BBC Radio Merseyside presenter “What the Forde Report shows is how dysfunctional the Labour Party was under Jeremy Corbyn … I didn’t need the report to tell me to take action.” He wants us to believe that Labour has already moved, or at least taken some big strides. Has it though ?
Staff management and recruitment
The “disastrous” lack of political diversity among Labour Party staff remains a fact. Last year Sheila Murphy was appointed by the NEC as Liverpool Officer charged with overhauling the party in Liverpool following the Hanson Report. “Her appointment to such a key Labour role may raise eyebrows” commented the Liverpool Echo, since as recently as 2019 she’d publicly resigned from the Labour Party and joined Change UK. In 2018 she gave an interview to Labour Uncut which was little more than a tirade against the local left, whom she accused of “killing the party”.
Forde notes that the party is “taking steps towards improving” its recruitment processes, but doesn’t share any details.
More generally, we are told that “steps to improve the party’s HR and staff management practices have been underway since 2016, including a significant expansion of the HR department”. Given that the GMB Labour Staff branch made a submission to the enquiry, it would have been interesting to hear their thoughts on this. It’s safe to say though that Labour’s relations with its staff unions have been better. In August 2021, both Unite and GMB Labour staff voted for strike action after the party did not rule out compulsory redundancies. Around 80 staff took up voluntary redundancy and strike action was ultimately avoided. Then in January 2022 Unite staff voted in favour of strike action over pay while the GMB reported that its members had “reluctantly” voted to accept the pay offer.
On the handling of complaints there is clear evidence of progress. The number of unresolved complaints had fallen by March 2022 to 554, after several years of chaos and huge backlogs. And in 2021 Conference approved the introduction of an independent complaints system and new disciplinary guidelines. The problems here were not of Corbyn’s making. He inherited a disciplinary system that wasn’t fit for purpose, and that was pushed to breaking point by the explosion after 2015 both in membership numbers and in factional in-fighting. The Leaked Report sought to demonstrate that under Jennie Formby, who replaced Iain McNicol as General Secretary in early 2018, Corbyn’s Labour Party was coming to grips with the creaky disciplinary system. Forde is less concerned with assigning blame, but he does at least acknowledge some of the positive changes made under Formby.
Some of the loudest calls for action following the Forde report have come from Labour’s black MPs.
Diane Abbott commented that “in a private sector organisation people who were as blatantly racist as this would be disciplined, if not sacked,” and that some apology for the abuse that she received from paid officials would be welcome.
Kate Osamor said “I feel completely let down. The findings of this report are clear. The party has a systemic and wide-ranging problem with racism. This is not a historic account of the state of the party two years ago, and it should not be dismissed as such.”
And this was Dawn Butler – “Forde concludes that there is a hierarchy of racism in the Labour Party. You can’t be anti-racist selectively and only when it serves a factional end. Our party has to do better.”
In recent months, two black Manchester councillors, Marcia Hutchinson and Ekua Bayunu, have quit the Labour Party amid claims of racism and bullying. And in July 2022 Solma Ahmed (who together with Ekua was elected to the National Women’s Committee in 2021) also resigned her membership, declaring in a pinned tweet that “as a Muslim I feel Labour no longer represents & supports my faith and principles. The way our MPs and members have been treated by the Party is astonishing…”
Even more upsetting than the racism that all these women have experienced is the fact that the Labour Party doesn’t seem to want to listen to them and acknowledge the reality of their experience; and that following Forde, there is no commitment to fighting racism within the party, or to bring Labour’s ‘hierarchy of racism” (treating certain types of racism more seriously than others) to an end.
What of the toxic factionalism at the heart of the party that so troubled Forde ?
Phil Burton-Cartledge, writing for Tribune, argues that “Under Keir Starmer, Labour has not become less factional: it’s just that the right’s writ reigns supreme… Everywhere, from parliamentary by-elections to seat selections, who is allowed to enter the running is determined behind closed doors. Socialists and left-wingers are out, compliant knowns and unknowns are in. “
Also in Tribune, outgoing Chair of Young Labour Jess Barnard described her experience of factional behaviour by paid party officials: “Over the course of my term we have faced barrages of smears, investigations and false briefings against us in the press which seemed only to be designed to intimidate or silence us. It is simply impossible to believe that many of these did not originate with party staff or senior officials.”
These are not isolated claims. Thousands of people on the Corbynite left would say that this is absolutely true, that paid Labour officials still operate in an inappropriately factional manner, and that they’re given license to do so by General Secretary David Evans and by Keir Starmer. Evans and Starmer would of course defend their actions and deny that they were ever motivated by factionalism, so why should anyone believe what the left are saying ?
Well, let’s go back to Forde. Forde says that factionalism has contributed to the growth of a toxic culture. He calls for what the report calls “cultural growth”. This requires “time and commitment at every level of the party. The leadership – both in Westminster and HQ – have to be fully engaged, and this engagement has to be sustained. This was the overwhelming message from our roundtable.”
One imagines that the roundtable would have wished to see a political commitment to charge coming from the leadership, speaking directly to members about why we need to work together better and why factionalism is harmful. And not just words, but active listening to political opponents; and promoting more listening, more education and less shouting in all party units.
There has of course been none of this, no attempt at rapprochement with the left, not even an acknowledgment that this may be in any way to be desired. Forde notes that Starmer has recently hired management consultants Q5 to analyse how party culture can be improved. As evidence of commitment to change, that’s unlikely to cut a great deal of ice with members.
3. A report with no teeth
The absence of eye-catching headline recommendations has made the Forde Report easier to ignore.
Forde’s core recommendations are broadly sensible, but apply primarily to Labour Party staff rather than to the wider party. They cover areas like recruitment and management, codes of conduct, social media policy, regular staff surveys, and education and training. Detailed proposals are made for a further overhaul of the disciplinary process, going beyond the changes that have just been introduced by Starmer.
In contrast to the Leaked Report, Forde avoids naming individuals. “We understand the intensity of anger,” he writes, “at the WhatsApp messages cited in the Leaked Report. Our focus, though, is on how such a toxic situation arose and (more importantly) how it can be avoided in future.”
That’s all very well, but surely one way of avoiding it in future would be to restore confidence in the disciplinary process; and this is never going to happen when some members are being expelled for minor infractions such as “liking” Facebook posts, while the perception remains that senior officials found to have acted with unprofessional factionalism against the best interests of the party, or to have engaged in racist and sexist abuse, suffer no consequence.
Despite hearing many allegations of racism, Forde made no attempt to establish its prevalence within the party. How can the party regain the trust and confidence of black members, and other minority groups ? Forde offers no answers. What should the party do to dispel the belief that there’s a hierarchy of racism, in which antisemitism complaints are prioritised above all others ? The report leaves us with the anodyne comment that “antisemitism does need specific treatment but should also be integrated within a broader programme of anti-racism education”.
Ultimately the greatest failure of the Forde Report is to come up with any ways to bring the Labour Party together and heal the wounds caused by factionalism. In this, Forde was hamstrung by his remit, which was to investigate the truth of the allegations in the Leaked Report, and how it came to be leaked. With a more wide-ranging remit, perhaps Forde could have interviewed at length key figures in different factions, including Keir Starmer and his principal advisers, and tried to secure some buy-in for proposals for change.
Instead, Forde is reduced to pleading for a change of culture, more kindness and more listening, on the strength of a roundtable discussion with unnamed participants. Unsurprisingly, these pleas have fallen on deaf ears: few people either on the right or left of the party have welcomed them with any real enthusiasm.
The ironies abound. The circumstances in which the Forde Report was commissioned, combined with the two year delay in its publication, has resulted – long before anyone had read a word of the report – of a deepening of distrust within the party; precisely the kind of thing that Forde was trying to combat. And while Forde’s core message, of the importance of the whole party working towards the same goals, is one which the current leadership would endorse, Keir Starmer’s idea of how to get there – more central control and less internal discussion – is in direct conflict with Forde’s recommended approach.
4. Perspectives for the Left
Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party revitalised belief that there was a simple pathway towards making Labour an unapologetically socialist party, involving the election of a left leader.
It was also the trigger for a factional war within the party, in which both sides convinced themselves that there could only be one winner. Ever since Corbyn stood down, a view has persisted among sections of the left that if only he’d been more ruthless in his treatment of political opponents within the party, things could have turned out differently. The evidence for this however is unconvincing.
Opposition to Corbyn came from people with a range of political backgrounds. What united them was the belief that having Corbyn as leader compromised Labour’s identity and purpose as a left of centre party, partnered by trade unions, which sought to have a broad cross-class appeal.
Crucially, these views were embedded in the party’s institutions. The PLP, as we already know, was overwhelmingly conservative in its outlook. Although some of the biggest trade unions had endorsed Corbyn’s leadership bid, their support was primarily for his policy agenda, and on the NEC they voted on an issue by issue basis. With the aid of Forde, we can now complete the picture. Paid party officials were ideologically committed to preventing any kind of left-wing takeover; and this was built in to the ways in which the party operated and recruited staff.
Corbyn’s freedom of manoeuvre was very restricted. He couldn’t withdraw the whip from dozens of MPs. Even withdrawing it from 3 or 4 would have triggered a revolt that would have been hard to contain. He couldn’t sack paid officials without getting embroiled in industrial tribunals and legal actions that could have crippled the party. He could have commissioned reviews early on of the party’s internal workings, imposed codes of conduct, but even this would only have been damage limitation.
Any future leader from the far left would face all the same institutional obstacles, and more. They would find that it’s even harder now to unseat sitting Labour MPs, and that lay party members have even less power and influence than they did before 2015. In these circumstances, our hypothetical leader would most likely have to talk to the PLP, to the trade unions, to senior staff, and try and put their fears and concerns to rest so that the party could move forward together. To successfully achieve this, there could be a heavy political price to be paid.