The launch of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s statutory investigation into institutional racism in the Labour party represents the most shameful moment in its 119-year history. At least, I am fairly sure, until the findings of their inquiry are released, sadly. It is shameful that the Labour party now stands alongside the BNP in the roll call of political parties investigated by the regulator.
In what has been another abhorrent week to be a member of the Labour party, I can barely put into words the amount the GMB party staff branch motion means to the other whistleblowers and I. The motion affirms the support of current staff for us and demands an apology from the Labour leadership for their response.
As a former member of Unite the Union, Len McCluskey was my General Secretary when I was sat at my desk in Labour HQ considering suicide. At the time, this felt as though it was my only option to stop feeling complicit in what I saw going on.
The bravery of the staff who ensured that this motion passed, many of whom doing so while fearing reprisals from management, is a testament to solidarity – a value which should sit at the very core of the Labour party and the union movement. Reportedly, 128 voted to support the motion. Those voting against it numbered only four.
As a former member of Unite the Union, Len McCluskey was my General Secretary when I was sat at my desk in Labour HQ considering suicide. At the time, this felt as though it was my only option to stop feeling complicit in what I saw going on. I was not alone in struggling with mental health challenges – that was only the beginning of what is now being described as a “mental health crisis” for Labour party staff.
This is the context in which a handful of other former staff and I chose to speak out about our experiences of racism in the Labour party on BBC Panorama last Wednesday. It should have been a watershed moment for the party. So we were all shocked when, rather than engage with the very serious issues raised by the program, the party instead chose to come after the messengers with a vicious and libellous attack, with no due care to the emotional and mental wellbeing of those involved.
There are dozens of current party staff who have come forward in recent weeks who want to blow the whistle to the EHRC.
Prior to broadcast, I was the only name that the Labour party knew would be on the program, yet they started smearing the other whistleblowers before the program had even aired. The Labour party’s weary claim that they “do not comment on staffing matters” applies, it seems, except when they use the full force of its press office to attack and demean those of us who have chosen to blow the whistle.
The party’s hypocrisy is not limited to its press response. I have received multiple letters from Carter Ruck on behalf of the Labour party, the most recent being just last month. Shami Chakrabarti tweeted in 2017 that “Whistleblowers keep us safe, we can’t allow them to be silenced.” Sadly, this doesn’t seem to apply to those having to blow the whistle on racism in our own party.
There are dozens of current party staff who have come forward in recent weeks who want to blow the whistle to the EHRC. Two major unions are trusted to formally represent and protect them: GMB and Unite. The contrast between these two unions could not be more stark.
The GMB have stated publicly that they are standing with us as whistleblowers. That they are committed to helping current staff facing a mental health crisis caused by this toxic working environment. That they are allies of the Jewish community fighting anti-Jewish hatred making them feel unwelcome in their own party.
Unite members are scared of reprisals from the former Unite staff now running the Labour party and are being abandoned by their union without the very support that unions were formed to provide.
Unite’s General Secretary brands those brave enough to take a stand on this issue “a f**king disgrace” and brazenly accuses Jewish leaders faced with the rising scourge of anti-Semitism of showing “truculent hostility” towards the party which has been their home.
The GMB has been unequivocal in their support of their members who work for the Labour party, former and current, who might wish to step forward with their personal testimony about the racism they have witnessed. They have even gone so far as to offer to provide legal advice to those who wish to cooperate with the EHRC investigation.
Unite members are scared of reprisals from the former Unite staff now running the Labour party, and are being abandoned by their union without the very support that unions were formed to provide. Len McCluskey has described legitimate concerns that the Labour Leadership is not taking action on anti-Semitism, racism and misogyny as being designed to “bring Jeremy Corbyn down.”
The GMB has unequivocally condemned the party’s libellous response to Panorama, as have public sector union, Unison.
Unite issued generic platitudes about legal expectations for “all organisations”. They don’t seem to expect the Labour party to be any better than the bare minimum. A test which it is still failing.
The cause of this stark difference between the GMB and Unite the Union stems from the closeness of Unite’s General Secretary to the Labour Leadership. Len McCluskey’s own chief of staff, Andrew Murray, is personally implicated in the allegations of institutional anti-Semitism. As is his close friend Karie Murphy, Chief of Staff to Jeremy Corbyn and of course, his former employee, Labour General Secretary Jennie Formby.
As a result, Unite finds itself in an existential crisis over its representation of Labour party staff. People are leaving Unite and joining the GMB over this very issue. I do not blame them.
So if Unite is to retain any legitimacy as a force for workers, within the party or otherwise, I call on Len McCluskey to take the following steps:
1) He must commit to supporting his members at work, not just his friends and former Unite employees who are now the Labour party’s management. There are scores of current staff who need the support of their union to come forward with their own testimonies and whistleblow about racism in the Labour party;
2) He must commit Unite to cooperating fully with the EHRC’s investigation, turning over his union’s servers to their investigators. We know that Unite the Union email address have been used to evade the Labour party’s own servers when discussing matters relevant to the EHRC enquiry; and
3) He must uphold the democratic will of his members if the Unite branch of Labour party staff choose to pass a similar motion in solidarity with their colleagues in the GMB.
I left Unite because it seemed clear to me that Len McCluskey would go to every possible length to protect his mates at the expense of his own members. For the sake of my friends and former colleagues still on party staff, I invite him to prove me wrong.
Sam Matthews was Labour’s Head of Disputes and Acting Director of the Governance and Legal Unit between 2016 and 2018. He blew the whistle on interference in anti-Semitism cases in a BBC Panorama in July 2019 with seven other former members of Labour party staff.
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