Labour’s internal complaints body looks set to have a busy few weeks. After Debbie Abrahams was effectively suspended as Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary over allegations of bullying, the Labour MP made a bullying allegation of her own. Abrahams claims she’s the one being bullied – accusing unnamed figures in the Leader’s Office of behaving in an ‘aggressive’ and ‘intimidating’ manner towards her. Adding to those two impending investigations is a report today by the Financial Times alleging that Karl Turner, Shadow Transport Minister, slapped a woman’s buttocks as she walked through his constituency office in the summer of 2015.
Now these type of allegations are by no means confined to just Labour. Following last week’s Newsnight investigation into bullying there are questions regarding the conduct of Conservative MPs – as well as the Commons Speaker. However, the Abrahams case specifically highlights the structural problem with the current system for processing complaints. Allies of Abrahams suggest that there are ulterior motives behind her move as she did not get on with the Leader’s Office. Her own statement provides some fuel for this theory:
‘I refute the allegations that have been made against me in the strongest possible terms. I will fight this spurious claim and do not rule out taking legal action. I have had no details about the complaint, who it is from, the process or timescales. I have not agreed to stand aside.
My treatment by certain individuals in the leader’s office over the last 10 months has been aggressive, intimidating and wholly unprofessional. My treatment in the last week has shown a bullying culture of the worst kind. As such I am making a formal complaint to both the Labour Party and parliamentary authorities.’
But rather than an independent body, as things stand it will be Labour HQ that conducts the various inquiries. No doubt those responsible will aim to be as impartial as possible, but serious questions remain over whether a political party – particularly a factional one – can provide the impartiality required for processing such complaints. There’s not getting away from the fact that a successful complaint makes life more difficult for the party.
One just needs to look to the current race for Labour general secretary to see how factional – and political – these internal wranglings can become. The Sunday Times reports that Christine Shawcroft, recently made head of the NEC’s disputes panel, has taken issue with the Unite candidate Jennie Formby because she had ‘mysteriously left’ the room for a ‘strategic comfort break’ during disciplinary hearings on whether to readmit to the party activists accused of anti-semitism.
This is why there is a need for an independent complaints procedure. It’s an issue that came up in the aftermath of the Westminster sleaze scandal, with a cross-party report finding a new complaints procedure was required along with an investigation mechanism independent of parties. Until this is rectified, there will be those who feel short-changed by the whole process – and those wonder if it is even worth making a complaint in the first place.