This content is retrospective, meaning that it was written some time after the event took place. This post was written on Friday 16 October 2020, however it is tagged 9 November 2018 as this is when the event took place. It is an insight into the inner workings of the Labour Party and it’s aim is to analyse and learn from events in order to improve the effectiveness of opposition movements.
Bruce Hogan, a longstanding member of the Labour Party and former teacher. Representing Lydbrook on Forest of Dean District Council, his career in local politics, which spanned from local government to two unsuccessful parliamentary bids and several elections as the candidate’s “agent,” ended in a two year long spiral of unruly behaviour including verbally abusing opposition canvassers whilst leafleting, punching a man in the face outside a local public house and then attempting to change the rules for the standards body that upheld the complaint. He then almost was separated from the red flag when he shouted down and pounded his fist on the table at Cllr Di Martin, the Leader of the Labour Group on Forest of Dean District Council during a public Full Council meeting.
On 8 November 2018, I was asked by Shaun Stammers, 2017 General Election candidate and one of the Vice Chairman’s of Forest of Dean Labour Party to formulate a press release regarding Hogan. This press release was due to be issued after the Executive Committee advised Cllr Martin to take a particular course of action. The statement was as follows:
Councillor Bruce Hogan has been a long-standing, loyal and hard-working representative of the community over the course of many years and has been a figurehead of both local politics and the labour movement for decades serving the party as a Councillor, Parliamentary Candidate in two General Elections and as an election agent in numerous elections.
As I am sure you are aware, recently, events have come to light regarding an incident outside a public house in Lydbrook between Councillor Hogan and a member of the public which Councillor Hogan has rightly taken responsibility for and admitted his wrongdoing.
It is with deep regret that, as a result of these actions and his conduct during the October Full Council meeting, that we have been forced to withdraw the whip from Councillor Hogan. We do not take this decision lightly and are saddened that we have been left with no choice.
We recognise Councillor Hogan’s years of dedicated service both to the Labour Party and to the electorate and wish him all the best for the future.Draft Press Statement from the Leader of the Labour Group on Forest of Dean District Council, Cllr Di Martin
Now, this statement never ended up being used. The decision was made around a round table in an awkwardly large room in a pub in Coleford, the Executive Committee of Forest of Dean Labour Party – which in itself was in the midst of a major identity crisis. The left pushed for the whip to be withdrawn, “moderates” struggled to argue against the behaviour. Naturally, I took no displeasure in stoking the fire more generally that Hogan’s time was up. The minutes naturally reflected that no consensus had been present in the room and that the EC would support whatever the decision of the Labour Group was. They had to say that, because the group is sacred and does not answer to the membership or even the officers of the party.
Withdrawal of the Whip: The act of expelling an elected member of a political group from that group
When a Councillor or MP has the whip withdrawn, they stop being a representative of that political group and become an independent representative, unless they accept the whip of another political group.
In the end, he cut a deal – between himself and the Labour Group against the will of the party – to slip away quietly by not standing at the next elections in May 2019. A decision that did not best serve the Labour Party, the council or the electorate. It proved that for political capital, the right thing to do is often delayed, deferred, delegated and diverted until there is no real accountability anymore. Where the impression is given that there are no consequences for the actions of elected representatives at any level of Government.
The lesson from this is fairly simple, if we are going to remain within party structures as we know them we need to improve the methods of local party units, and by extension members of the local community, can hold their representatives to account for their actions. Whether this be breaching the Code of Conduct or abandoning policy commitments.
In instances where Councillors act in a manner such as this, which either brings themselves or their party into disrepute or acts in a manner that disregards the democratic processes of the Labour Party, the membership and the policies developed by it, there needs to be appropriate checks and balances.
Whilst it is true that the democratic legitimacy, at least in our present electoral system, of a Councillor needs to be respected as their mandate to act on the council is given by the electorate who voted for them at the last election. This, however, does not impact the ability of the political group to implement a series of consequences on their members. Any assertion otherwise is just avoiding the consequences.
The easy solution to this, in my eyes, is for an effective internal recall system within political parties. Within the Labour Party it is stated that Councillors are not “beholden to the party” – meaning that they can effectively do as they please as they are representatives of the electorate not the party. As I have stated, this is untrue. They are representative of the electorate on the council whilst representing Labour as part of the Labour Group, and they need to represent both.
It is unacceptable for policies and consensus hard fought for within the party to be discarded by a council group, they are supposed to be representative of the party not the party representative of them. More generally, it is unacceptable that political groups, in supposedly democratic parties, are treated as more significant with their opinion holding more weight than that of ordinary people and rank and file members.
Instead, could there be a recall process that allows for members and party units to hold their representatives to account, whilst preventing such mechanisms from being manipulated on either side for political or personal gain?
Currently, members of the Labour Party that live in that electoral area for the position in question – in this case, Lydbrook – select their candidate prior to an election. This is a selection meeting and unsurprisingly, especially in rural wards in less active CLPs (Constituency Labour Parties), they are very rarely quorate (at the minimum number of members needed to legally conduct business) and therefore whichever members of the CLP Executive Committee attend step in to make up the votes.
Now, the issue of the way in which candidates are selected is another one which I will link to here when I’ve spewed out some words on it, but the issue here is of accountability between elections. There is currently none of this. Councillors avoid internal meetings or leave as early as physically possible after important votes have taken place. They have the final say over the manifesto for local elections, even over the rest of the candidates who are not incumbents – giving them the power, for example, to remove a pledge to fight to retain two community hospitals which was in line with local and national party policy. Again, I have plenty to say on this which I will link to here. They can maintain their position regardless of behaviour for so long as the group is controlled by a small clique of old friends who’ve been playing the game for decades, they then use this weight to try and control the party.
If we are going to continue with the political structures we have now, we need to implement a proper internal recall and sanction system. A committee consisting of three members: one member from the electoral area the candidate represents (representing the views of those members as a collective); one member of the Executive Committee, if time permits representing the views of the General Committee (if applicable); and one member of the Labour Group representing the group.
The committee has the power to issue warnings to members for breaches of policy and breaches of an internal code of conduct, which all three elements of the party have had input into. These warnings increase in severity and relate to issues such as conduct and voting. If a Councillors exceeds a set number of warnings agreed by all parties, a vote takes place between the three members, representing the views of their respective party units which will have discussed the matter and mandated a vote in advance. This method applies for the suspension of the whip, which shall be done for investigative purposes if necessary, but also for the withdrawal of the whip for simple cases or those where the investigation is concluded.
This is a simple solution to holding Councillors to account, who can often drift into their respective council structures or defend each other in small collectives that operate as they see fit and defend each other in the face of the indefensible.
I emailed the draft statement to the Chair, Secretary and Vice Chairman (Policy) of Forest of Dean Labour Party and the Leader and Secretary of the Forest of Dean District Council Labour Group on the morning after the meeting. Cllrs Di Martin and Bernie O’Neill responded stating that they would get back to me, then the whip was never withdrawn.