Have you ever read a headline in a newspaper (or even, God forbid, the Sun) and then when you read the article itself, you realise that the substance of the story doesn’t match the headline? The people producing the newspaper had an ulterior motive – to get you to buy it, but probably, since the people who run newspapers have a political agenda, also to affect your opinion even – or especially – if you don’t bother to read the whole thing.
The SKWAWKBOX has obtained the official report of the investigation into events at Labour MP Angela Eagle’s Wallasey constituency party (CLP). The report, which is as notable for what it omits as for what it states, is reproduced in full at the end of this article for those who wish to read it.
While carefully couched in impartial-sounding language – which CLP members who are not implicated in any wrongdoing tell me is in stark contrast to the attitude of the investigator in person – the report contains a number of statements that appear designed to mislead and, just as importantly, omits key facts that enable those with a vested interest in presenting local members in a damning light to spin the narrative to that effect. Some of the most significant misdirections and omissions follow.
The report calls into question its own credibility at several points. It also, in its final sentence, indicates that it is, in fact, Ms Eagle and her supporters – within and without Wallasey CLP – who merit censure, rather than those it attempts to implicate.
The article is necessarily fairly long, as each of the key points and any related inconsistencies are addressed. If you want to concentrate on the most contentious issues, such as that of the alleged homophobic abuse, abuse of CLP members or the ‘attack’ on Ms Eagle, those sections are clearly identified so you can skip to them, but I recommend that you read through for context.
To aid those who wish to find the relevant portions of the full report, I’ll put them under the same section headings the report uses. Emphases will, in every case, be those of this writer:
Local party environment
The impression has been – it appears, carefully – created that Wallasey CLP has been chronically dysfunctional. The truth of the matter is that the events appear to revolve around, and were certainly triggered by, something as innocuous as an influx of new members, a few of whom who didn’t ‘know the drill’ – didn’t understand how meetings had been conducted prior to their arrival – and by the not-too-surprising irritation of older members at having to accommodate the new members’ expectations.
This is something that I have experienced at my own CLP, but it certainly does not pose an insurmountable problem.
Here’s what the report says:
A small number of these new members began attending CLP meetings..their approach to meetings was at odds with pre-existing members.. A small number of the newer members felt that [an informal meeting structure] was not acceptable, and were confused by the rules. Most meetings began with a difficult discussion around procedures and rules..These clashes raised tensions, and some members stopped attending meetings, citing a hostile atmosphere.
So, a small portion of an already-small number wanted a different (and actually perfectly correct) approach to how meetings were conducted. Motions etc are a perfectly normal part of CLP proceedings. Some people didn’t like it and stopped attending – their prerogative.
What’s crucial here is the context and the report’s conclusion. Debates around the proper procedures for a meeting can sometimes become heated – but to characterise meetings as ‘hostile and aggressive’ suggested either that some longer-standing Wallasey members are extremely ‘delicate flowers’ – or that a pretext was being sought for the characterisation and this was the best the investigator could come up with.
There is a school of thought that says that if somebody felt intimidated, that means there was intimidation; if someone felt threatened or abused, there was threatening or abusive behaviour. It’s an argument I’ve seen often online. But is it just or realistic?
For example, some people are physically imposing. Occasionally, people feel intimidated when they meet someone like that – but that doesn’t mean the big person was acting wrongly. How one person felt does not define the correctness or motivation of another person’s words or actions. The fact that some people felt intimidated doesn’t automatically mean others were acting wrongly. Some people are more sensitive than others.
The description of the meeting in the report seems to treat the perception of a few people as representative of fact, but that conclusion appears unsupported, at least as regards the meeting and on the available evidence.
Complaints against Labour council
Councillors – I’m sure in every party – have to juggle an array of competing priorities and demands that ordinary members (of which I am one) may not fully appreciate. Rightly or wtongly, there are always some people dissatisfied with the performance, behaviour or attitude of some councillors. You can’t please all the people all the time.
Such complaints do not in themselves constitute disciplinary grounds. Nor, if the dissatisfaction is deep enough to inspire action, does campaigning for your councillors to change their ways and, if they don’t, campaigning for them to be deselected. That’s just democracy – which would also apply to the deselection of an MP, despite the claims of some MPs and media to the contrary.
Setting an ‘illegal budget’ in the context of draconian government cuts (that have impacted Labour-run areas disproportionately) is a contentious topic, but not an unreasonable one for politically-engaged people to discuss.
A small, but vociferous, group of new Labour members have engaged in a campaign against the Labour council, and have called for the deselection of any councillors who refuse to set illegal budgets.. [some felt] that these people only wanted to criticise the Party rather than support it [via] motions to meetings, social media activity, and a Labour leaflet [never actually delivered]. Leaflets for 2016 were delayed significantly in some areas because those involved could not agree on the message. Councillors expect that they will be deselected in the coming few years, based on the rhetoric that they have become familiar with in Wallasey.
In the context of normal CLP life, this section is really a non-event and one wonders why it was included at all.
What is crucial however, is the completion of the ‘detective triangle’ that it provides. In any detective series, someone will talk about the need for ‘means, motive and opportunity‘ to identify the perpetrator of a crime. There’s no question that experienced councillors are embedded enough and know the rules well enough to undermine people they consider a threat – which is not, of course, the same thing as saying that they do it, but it can easily happen.
What the above section does provide is motive: councillors fully expecting to be deselected because of an influx of highly-engaged new members might understandably wish to exploit any opportunity to neutralise that democratic threat – just as an MP who knew she faced an emphatic vote of no-confidence and eventual deselection might.
The CLP holds most meetings as All-Member Meetings, but the AGM is a delegate body. Tensions were raised from the beginning of the meeting, as the meeting room was too small for all attendees..[and there was] confusion over delegations… The Chair and Secretary ruled that only those invited to the meeting as delegates could stay in the meeting…much frustration and confusion in the room, for approximately 30 minutes. Some reported that tensions were raised and the atmosphere was febrile and increasingly frightening. It has been reported by several respondents that one member loudly threatened physical violence to another member during this period. Whilst it is unlikely that this threat would have been carried through, this created a frightening atmosphere..[some members] felt that they would never return to another Labour meeting after those events.
This AGM (annual general meeting) was overcrowded from the start because of misunderstandings about who was entitled to attend. As happens when they’re crammed into a space that is too small, people became fractious and, with the added ingredient of irritation on the part of those who arrived but were unable to participate, the atmosphere of the meeting will have been irritable, but ‘febrile’ is not the word one would usually apply in this context.
One thing that must be borne in mind is that Angela Eagle was not present at this meeting. This is not disputed. This will become crucial shortly.
For now, what’s most important is to know what was omitted from the report – and the resulting hyperbole the omission enables.
The report states that “one member loudly threatened physical violence to another member”. Sounds bad. But I have spoken to witnesses to this event and the description omits two key facts.
Firstly, the person who threatened violence was a woman at the front of the room – and a very small woman at that. Secondly, the threat – which neither this blog nor the witnesses seek to condone – was in response to a loud insult from a very large man at the back of the room. From the information available, we can conclude the following:
The distance and obstacles between the two people involved meant there was never any realistic danger of actual violence.
While I don’t discount that people with a more timid nature might find it intimidating, this was not a case of two 20-stone dockers who had to be dragged apart from each other.
Instead, a small woman shouted across a room at a big, mouthy man, “shut your mouth or I’ll shut it for you”, or words to that effect. While this kind of behaviour in a public meeting cannot be condoned (and is likely to result in disciplinary action), it would not constitute grounds for serious general alarm to most people – let alone for the suspension of a CLP of many hundreds of members.
Finally, the report mentions that some people felt they would never come to another meeting because of it. This is regrettable, but subjective decisions are not probative of anything with regard to the seriousness of events.
Still on the subject of the AGM, the report continues:
The business of the AGM was conducted relatively smoothly, although there were few reports from Officers.
So, in spite of a supposedly ‘febrile’ atmosphere that threatened to erupt into violence, the meeting actually went with few problems.
The AGM section of the report concludes by describing confusion that occurred over a vote on a motion. This was not ideal, but is not all that unusual – especially when the subject is contentious or complex, as in the case of a motion addressing what many in the CLP clearly consider to be a recalcitrant MP. The fact that the confusion, such as it was, affected ‘some older members’, is again not that surprising. In my own CLP, we have several older members who are hard of hearing, for example, which can easily lead to confusion.
The report closes the AGM by making something of an issue of conflicting motions that had been put forward for discussion, mentioning one in particular said to have been in support of Ms Eagle and which was not discussed.
Even the investigator cannot conclude anything untoward from this. In fact, common sense dictates that those members against Ms Eagle, who are by all accounts in a considerable majority, would want that motion to be discussed, as they would be confident of defeating it.
Allegations of homophobia
We now come to the most contentious and problematic section of the report:
The investigation has found that some members have truthfully claimed that homophobic instances occurred during the AGM. Others truthfully said that they were not aware of those instances. It is possible for the events to have occurred without the knowledge of all members. The allegations are not that the CLP is institutionally homophobic or that members were aware of homophobia but took no action, but are specific to individuals. These allegations will be reported to the next meeting of the Disputes Panel regarding individual disciplinary action.
Some members felt that these allegations affected the reputation of all members present. Others felt that the angry and public denials of the claims led to some members feeling intimidated about coming forward to address their concerns.
The SKWAWKBOX has spoken to a number of people who were at the meeting – including some who were positioned close to the individuals accused of using a specific anti-lesbian epithet. Based on those conversations, it appears that the section of the report is deeply disingenuous.
The report attempts to appear even-handed by asserting that both sets of witnesses are telling the truth. But note the subtle difference in the language used: those who assert there was homophobic abuse are honest and correct, while those who deny it simply missed hearing it.
In fact, the report’s conclusion is nonsensical. Those who said the word was not used did not simply say ‘they were not aware’. At least some of them were directly next to the accused and emphatically assert that it was not said. The circle cannot be squared – either it was said or it was not and the conclusion that it was simply missed by some is not tenable.
Further information included in the report would, if included, have further undermined the accusations. The report does not state how many people are accused of homophobic abuse, nor what they are accused of saying. But we have that information.
No fewer than three people are being accused in what one member described as ‘a whispering campaign’ – each one of using the same word.
That 3 people would each, independently, in separate parts of the room and on separate occasions, use the same epithet, is unlikely.
That 3 people would each, independently, in separate parts of the room and on separate occasions, use the same epithet – and not be heard by people sitting directly beside, in front of or behind them – is stretching probability to an extreme degree.
That 3 people would each, independently, in separate parts of the room and on separate occasions, use the same epithet, without being heard by most of those immediately around them and about a person who was not even present is almost unimaginable.
And if the whisperers about two of the people are lying, why would we assume that any of the accusations are true?
At least one of the people accused of homophobic abuse is a young, married father who is employed by a union. If the allegations against him – which, remember, most of those around him determinedly refute, rather than simply failing to have heard – he will lose his job. He is reportedly deeply worried, with good reason.
If the allegations against him and two others are indeed a politically-motivated confection, they are inexcusable and should be punished legally.
Allegations of abuse within the CLP have been presented as though entirely by Corbyn supporters toward those who are not. Angela Eagle’s own words strongly give the impression that the abuse is by those not aligned with her, while the wording of the report reinforces that impression.
Does that implication stand up to scrutiny? The report implies that abuse stemmed from members who
are angry about the action taken, and..angry about the leadership election. This has resulted in genuine fear and intimidation of a small number of other members. This creates an environment in which some members are fearful to take part in the Party or raise their voice about any issue, as they see that those that do are subject to abuse. This culture is toxic and it is self-perpetuating
Clearly the abuse was by Corbyn supporters angry about the leadership challenge and subsequent suspension of the CLP toward what might be called ‘mainstream’ members (within the paradigm of the report), yes?
But the report undermines itself by elaborating,
One member in particular has endured a significant level of personal abuse. A hashtag was created to encourage people to ‘shame’ him publicly and his home address and personal details were published online. It is likely that this had a substantial detrimental impact on the member’s family. A website appears to have engaged in a course of intimidating behaviour to this member
According to sources within the CLP, far from being an Eagle supporter abused by ‘hard left’ Corbyn supporters, the ‘one member in particular’ is a young man of 16 or 17 years of age who started an online petition calling for the resignation of Ms Eagle.
Those sources were unable to think of any other individual who might remotely qualify for the report’s description. Indeed, a Twitter hashtag does exist about this young man, although it appears that most of the tweets using it have since been deleted:
Although the report strongly implies that the abuse was toward an Eagle supporter, it appears that the opposite is true, in which case the construction of this section gives a very misleading impression.
The report goes on to reference an an extra-CLP (necessarily, since official CLP meetings were not permitted) meeting that took place to discuss the suspension – and immediately damages its own credibility:
A small number of members held a public meeting to discuss their concerns about the suspension of Wallasey CLP. The public meeting explicitly named some members.
Here is that meeting with ‘a small number of members’:
In fact, the meeting was attended by some 400 people – and live-streamed by the Liverpool Echo so that other interested parties could see the proceedings (report of the meeting here, titled ‘Hundreds attend meeting..’). In spite of the emotive topic, the meeting was entirely orderly and not remotely suggestive of people inclined to ‘abuse’.
Campaign against Angela Eagle
This section starts by focusing on the infamous ‘brick’, concluding without preamble that it was related to Ms Eagle’s leadership challenge:
It’s highly likely that the brick thrown through the window of Angela Eagle’s office was related to her leadership challenge. The position of the window made it very unlikely that this was a random passer-by. The window was directly between two Labour offices.
This writer is intensely curious about the grounds for this leap. A Freedom of Information Act request was lodged with police asking, among other things, whether a brick had been discovered. The police have refused to answer the question, so there is no evidence that the brick existed.
Nobody has been charged with the offence, so thus far there is no evidence whatever to support the conclusion that its connection with Ms Eagle’s leadership challenge is ‘highly likely’.
Moreover, the broken window ‘was directly between two Labour offices’.
I have no desire to throw a brick through any windows. But were I inclined to do so out of anger at a Labour MP, a window ‘between two Labour offices’ would certainly not be the target I would choose. Especially when at least one of the offices has Labour party flyers in the window:
The report goes on to mention – but not to evidence – abuse surrounding the incident, before stating that
The office of Angela Eagle has endured a significant amount of abuse, including abusive and intimidating phone calls. Staff members were eventually forced to unplug the phone. The investigation has received many hundreds of abusive, homophobic, and frightening messages that have been sent by Labour members to Angela Eagle. Where appropriate, members have been administratively suspended pending investigation.
Again, no evidence is provided that ‘many hundreds of abusive, homophobic and frightening messages’ originated with members of the Labour party.
On the contrary, the very small number of people who ‘have been administratively suspended’ suggests that if any Labour members are involved, it’s a tiny number of very busy abusers. But the fact that the suspensions are ‘pending investigation’ – when an investigation generating the report we’re reading has already taken place – suggests that the evidence is anything but conclusive.
Either way, the impression given is seriously misleading.
The report then goes on to further undermine its own credibility:
The office received a death threat for Angela Eagle, for which a man has been arrested. Instead of condemning this and supporting the MP and the office staff receiving this, members have questioned whether this really occurred. The death threat has been seen by the investigation.
Indeed, a man has been arrested – a man who was already on trial when this report was released and sentenced just afterward.
A man who lives in Scotland, hundreds of miles away from Wallasey and not qualified to be a member of the CLP, if he is (or was) even a member of the Labour party at all, which is not clear.
By including this when it was already in the public record that the culprit had no connection whatever to the CLP, the report reinforces the impression that it is designed to create an impression that the facts do not support.
And then the icing on the cake:
Even if one did not believe these events happened, the comradely response would be to support fellow members in true distress. Members instead went to the press to insinuate that the allegations were lies.
Even assuming the distress was true, this claim is ironic in the extreme when one considers that the allegations of homophobic and other abuse were given to national print and broadcast media by Ms Eagle and/or her supporters.
The report then concludes with a short, uncontentious section on safeguarding young members and then a set of recommendations(*). You can read these in the full report, but the final sentence merits special attention:
This report should not be used to exacerbate problems. Claims and counter-claims will not improve the environment, and we will not act on unsubstantiated allegations.
Considering that Ms Eagle’s immediate response to the report was to use it to justify herself via a verbal, political attack on some of her CLP members in front of television cameras and print journalists, she is now in line for censure.
As many of her fellow Progress members leapt to publicly reinforce the impression that the alleged abuse was real and to use it to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, they should be equally liable to sanction.
The report claims that the Disputes Panel ‘will not act on unsubstantiated allegations’. Let’s hope this is true, but the report itself suggests that it’s a forlorn hope.
For those who still have the appetite, here is the full report as promised:
* I didn’t initially go into detail on the recommendations, but as Vox Political and others have rightly observed, the fact that the end result of a furore, stoked by an MP and councillors who admit (at least the councillors, as shown above) to fully expecting to be deselected, is the suspension of the CLP’s right to select candidates underscores even more boldly the ‘motive’ comments in the original article above.
The suspension of selection rights is said only to be temporary until January, but if grounds are mysteriously found for extending it, this writer will be signally unsurprised.