New wave of disciplinary action against Labour members: A rightwing campaign to purge the left

A fortnight ago I finally got a letter from the Complaints Team in the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit with a list of “draft charges” against me. I was alleged to have engaged in conduct that may reasonably be seen to “demonstrate hostility or prejudice based on race, religion and belief” and to “involve antisemitic actions, stereotypes and sentiments”, which “undermines the Party’s ability to campaign against racism”.

Particularly absurd, given that I’ve put a lot of time and effort into opposing antisemitic conspiracy theories (see for example here, here, here, here, here, here and here), was the allegation that I may have been responsible for “making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective – such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.”

This was held to be in breach of Chapter 2 Clause I.8 of the Labour Party’s rules.

The letter didn’t exactly come as a surprise. In recent weeks large numbers of party members – including such prominent figures as Young Labour chair Jess Barnard and Jarrow MP Kate Osborne – have fallen victim to a new wave of disciplinary action by the bureaucracy, and I was beginning to wonder why I’d been spared. (I mean, it didn’t look good. Some of my critics in one Facebook discussion group had previously seen my readiness to call out examples of antisemitism as evidence that I was a spy. What would they have said if I’d escaped this latest phase in the witch-hunt?)

I now face thirteen charges over my articles and Facebook posts, based on what appear to be two separate complaints. The more substantial complaint, which was the source of twelve charges, concerned material posted in the period between October 2017 and May 2019. The other complaint involved an article I wrote criticising an officer of the Jewish Labour Movement over an attack on a peaceful protest outside Labour Party conference in September 2019. It’s clear that the complaints date from two years ago, and that back then the Governance and Legal Unit can’t have considered them substantial enough to qualify for disciplinary action.

It isn’t difficult to work out the likely identity of the complainant behind the twelve charges, which were accompanied by screenshots of my offending Facebook posts. As you can see below, the individual had multiple Facebook tabs open when this screenshot was taken and must have been scrolling through the timelines of numerous other party members too, screenshotting our posts as he went. The culprit is almost certainly Ben Santhouse, who became notorious among GLU staff for this sort of obsessive behaviour.

As I showed in my article “Who is behind the complaints about Labour antisemitism?”, it was Santhouse who was said to be responsible for half of all the complaints received by the party in 2019. According to staff who had to deal with this crank, his complaints were “typically poorly evidenced”, consisting mainly of “screenshots of streams of Facebook posts”, and showed “a poor understanding of antisemitism”. That would explain why this complaint about me didn’t result in any disciplinary action at the time.

The above screenshot was presented by the Complaints Team as evidence for the first charge, which reads: “On 03 October 2017, Mr Pitt posted on Facebook post and a link to the story on 04 October 2017 in relation the expulsion of Moshe Machover.” I can only suppose that this gibberish was copied-and-pasted by a staff member from the original complaint. They didn’t even bother to correct the grammar so that the charge made sense.

The most bizarre charge, which was again presented in a barely coherent form, arises from the item below and reads: “On 27 December 2017, Mr Pitt posted on Facebook a post picture with a picture saying ‘A Jew is a crook’.”

The suggestion is that I was endorsing the view that Jews are crooks. If the individual dealing with the complaint had taken just a few minutes to check, they would have found that I was in fact condemning this as an example of antisemitism and advocating disciplinary action against the party member responsible for promoting it. (See my article “Antisemitism in the Labour Party – the case of Adam Langleben and Laura Stuart”.) But they didn’t take the trouble to look.

Typical of the other charges is this one: “On 22 August 2018, Mr Pitt posted on Facebook a post and link to an article he had written with the Headline ‘Israel as a racist endeavour – how the IHRA is used to suppress free speech’.” Or this one: “On 21 March 2019, Mr Pitt posted on Facebook a link to an article you have written with the headline. Has the Labour left subjected Luciana Berger to death threats?” Quite why it should constitute evidence of antisemitism that I wrote articles with these titles is not explained, and it’s obvious that nobody from the Complaints Team has made the effort to read them.

In short, there was no attempt by GLU staff to carry out an assessment of these two-to-four-year-old Facebook posts, and decide whether they did in fact merit disciplinary action, or even to formulate charges of their own. All they appear to have done is copied the complainant’s subliterate comments into a template letter and then sent it off. As I pointed out in my reply: “At best, this is completely unprofessional behaviour and a contemptuous way to treat party members. At worst, and more realistically, it suggests that the aim here isn’t to uncover actual cases of antisemitism but to carry out a purge of the left.”

You could see this coming two months ago when it was reported that, at the same time as announcing large-scale redundancies among permanent staff due to the party’s serious financial problems, Labour general secretary David Evans was hiring up to fifty “temporary investigation officers” through an agency, to assist in clearing what was described as a “large backlog” of complaints.

These temps were evidently set to work trawling through the GLU’s records, pulling out old cases that must have been filed under no further action, and then automatically translating them into disciplinary charges without any concern for the accuracy or legitimacy of the original complaints. It’s only when well-known individuals like Jess Barnard and Kate Osborne have been struck down in the course of this scattergun attack on the left that the party bureaucracy has backed off, rescinding the charges and blaming “administrative errors”.

But the problem here isn’t isolated mistakes by individual staff. This is the result of a general policy driven from the top. And the motive is obvious. The current membership represents an obstacle to the Labour right’s political project. According to a recent YouGov poll, members want Jeremy Corbyn re-admitted to the Parliamentary Labour Party by a majority of 60% to 33%. By 51% to 23% they think that Labour “should keep most of the policies that Jeremy Corbyn put forward at the last election”.

So the aim of the right is to expel as many as possible of these obstinate Corbyn-sympathising leftwingers, and perhaps more importantly spread demoralisation among the remaining members so that many more give up and resign. The overall strategy is to put an end to the mass membership party that developed during Jeremy Corbyn’s period of leadership, leaving a much shrunken organisation that is tightly controlled by the right. The right’s justification for their strategy is that they will make the party electable by destroying the left. If things go on like this, they’re more likely to end up destroying the party.

My (very long) response to the Governance and Legal Unit can be downloaded here.

First published on Medium in September 2021