Labour’s expulsion of Alastair Campbell: the politicising of party discipline

Following his admission on the BBC’s European Election results coverage on Sunday night that he had voted Liberal Democrat, Alastair Campbell – leading remain campaigner and Tony Blair’s Director of Communications in Government – has been expelled, summarily, from the Labour Party. His offence was allegedly that he breached Labour Party rules forbidding support for any other political party.

It is a decision that has been criticised on a number of grounds. First, there is considerable dispute as to whether Campbell’s actions did breach the rules. The question is whether they fall within the definition of “support” in the Labour Party’s rule book. A former Labour Party head of compliance, Mike Creighton, took to Twitter to confirm that in his view they were not; interviewed on the BBC Today Programme this morning, former Lord Chancellor Charles Falconer argued that it was questionable. Ultimately it comes down to how you define “support”, and whether a statement of how one voted after the event falls within that definition.

The relevant passage from the Labour rule-book – did Alastair Campbell breach these?

Second, there are questions about whether this is consistent with other disciplinary positions taken by Labour. For example, Andrew Fisher, now Jeremy Corbyn’s lavishly-salaried head of policy, tweeted in support of the Class War candidate against Labour candidate Emily Benn in Croydon South in the 2015 general election; and an old tweet has resurfaced from Corbyn himself congratulating George Galloway on his by-election victory in Bradford South in 2012. Moreover, the treatment of Campbell contrasts powerfully with the extreme delays in processing the cases of those like Jackie Walker, Ken Livingstone and Tony Greenstein accused of antisemitism – cases where suspensions have lasted for years. Labour has argued that in Campbell’s case, unlike the others, the expulsion is automatic; but when the Labour disciplinary process is under intense criticism that argument looks like special pleading.

And there is an issue of context; this expulsion has followed a catastrophic election defeat for Labour, when millions of voters deserted the party over its failure to oppose Brexit – and to campaign in line with the beliefs of the vast majority of members. Campbell’s offence has been to state publicly that he has done what many thousands of Labour members are likely to have done privately. As a Guardian editorial pointed out, the expulsion looks petty, mean-minded, and politically crass at a time when Labour needs to be regrouping. Expelling a Blairite may provide entertainment for the faithful but it’s no solution to Labour’s deep-seated problems over Europe.

All of this is true. But there is another question – one of the political framework within which the Labour Party now operates.

In my book The Theory and Practice of Corbynism, I argue that the Labour leadership operates according to a Leninst model of party organisation, with a strong central command which sees the party’s democratic processes as a means of endorsing decisions taken at the centre by an informed vanguard, rather than a means of criticism and challenge.

And in that context, it seems to me that Labour’s disciplinary process performs a very distinct and political function – its role is political rather than administrative, and certainly cannot be expected to conform to liberal notions of impartiality, natural justice and due process. It is part of the political struggle, and no longer functions in what we might call a quasi-judicial way, forming its decisions based on the balance of the evidence placed before it. It is an activist, not a regulatory process.

And in that context, the actions of the party in the case of Alastair Campbell make perfect sense. It is obvious that the decision was made very quickly – Campbell’s comments were made in the early hours of Monday morning on a bank holiday, and the email informing him of his expulsion was in his inbox on Tuesday morning. As Charles Falconer said on the Today programme this morning, it is almost inconceivable that this was simply a matter of process, and certainly not the result of taking reasoned legal advice on the meaning of the word “support” – this decision is political to its core, and almost certain to have been sanctioned at a senior level within the party (although, wisely, Falconer refused to be drawn on who the individuals concerned might have been). Campbell’s offence was not to have voted Lib Dem, but to have been outside what sociologist David Hirsch has called the community of the righteous.

In conclusion, it seems to me that the Campbell decision is best understood, not as an impartial action of a disciplinary process, but as a political action that is wholly consistent with the Leninist view of the purpose of disciplinary process. It is wholly consistent, too, with the fact that many of the immediate advisers around Corbyn are not of the Labour Party, but are incomers from a Communist political tradition that has long been firmly outside, and strongly antagonistic to, Labour. This is Labour’s show trial moment; and to pretend it has anything to do with fairness or due process is to misunderstand the nature of what Labour has become.

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