The Forde report has been finally published, after a long delay. It was commissioned by Keir Starmer in 2020 as a way of defusing the devastating revelations of the Leaked Report on Labour’s handling of antisemitism. As well as demonstrating that the Corbyn leadership did not attempt to suppress or delay disciplinary action over complaints of antisemitism, the Leaked Report brought together WhatsApp chats between senior Labour party officials that contained racist and sexist diatribes against elected representatives as well as extremely right-wing political attitudes.
One example is an extract from a chat by senior Labour staffer Jo Greening at the time of the Manchester bombings, when Corbyn made a speech pointing out how British foreign policy had opened up the public to terrorist retribution. She expressed her displeasure at Corbyn’s stance by messaging: “in the face of a terror attack normal people do not blame foreign intervention they blame immigration.”
The Forde report confirms the accuracy of the WhatsApp messages cited in the leaked report that displayed the tolerance of senior party officials for racist and sexist commentary and their extremely hostile attitude to the Corbyn leadership. It also confirms that the bureaucratic campaign to “validate” members and applicants for membership in 2016 was intended to reduce the vote for Corbyn in the rerun leadership election.
As part of its lawyerly investigation of racism within party institutions, the report called for evidence from members – and certainly got it in spades. Forde’s most damning conclusion is that the party set up a “hierarchy” of discrimination, where alleged anti-semitism and sexism were prioritized over complaints of anti-Black and anti-Islamic prejudice. To quote from statements from ethnic minority staff cited by the report, “The Party also has created a clear hierarchy of racism and prioritized the viewpoint of certain groups over others … It did not go unnoticed that the [Community Organising Unit] was treated like an enemy within and bullied by the rest of the staff as well as well known MPs and also just happened to be the most diverse.”
There has been plenty of commentary on the Forde report that criticises its attempt to place equal blame on left and right for “weaponizing” accusations of anti-semitism. But the report’s fundamental weakness is that it neglects the role of ideology at the core of the factional antagonism.
The right in the party had developed over many years a “monoculture”, the report states, where officials were hired on the basis of their similarity in outlook to existing personnel – resulting in a hyper-Blairite privilege that was increasingly divorced from both the party membership and public norms. The Blairite/neoliberal ideology of the Labour right ruled out social-democratic approaches to social problems and adapted to the existing structures of wealth and power by elevating the market as the ultimate means of distribution of resources. Policies that sought to restore collectivist solutions to problems were perceived as an existential threat to this ideological outlook.
Corbyn’s supporters who were brought into the Leader’s office clashed with these cultural attitudes since as well as policy differences they wanted to upset the traditional relations between party apparatus and membership – empowering members to democratically decide policy, which threatened the prevailing hierarchy of power. According to Forde, initial tolerant attitudes between the groups became confrontational after the PLP’s attempt to oust Corbyn in the 2016 chicken coup.
The most concrete examples of ideological difference cited by Forde came over election strategy in 2017. Whereas the party officials wanted to “play it safe” and shore up the majorities of sitting anti-Corbyn MPs, the Corbyn leadership wanted to challenge the Tory parliamentary majority and turn out to previous non-voters, expanding the electorate by appealing especially to young people. At the root of this was a different attitude to the electorate: the right assumed that the number of votes was fixed, but that UKIP voters would switch to the Tories. The left under Corbyn turned outwards through campaigning among voters who had never been contacted before by Labour with transformative policies aimed at ending neoliberal austerity and restoring opportunities for jobs, housing and education.
The experience of the campaign in the weeks before the election was an enthusiastic reception for Labour’s policies and spontaneous support from people in the streets. The problem was that feedback from canvassing on the ground either did not reach party HQ strategists, or was discounted. In fact there was no mechanism for reporting campaigners’ assessments of voters’ responses to the central office. The party apparatus was wedded to very traditional methods of canvassing through checking off previous Labour voters on electoral rolls, which did not allow for mass campaigning aimed at new voters. This form of practice itself perpetuated a conservative attitude to the electorate.
The Forde report considers it “reasonable” for the central office to have pursued a defensive strategy, given the fact that opinion polls shifted only in the final two weeks of the campaign, but canvassers on the ground had much more accurate information on the outcome. The eventual result was that Labour gained 3.5 million more votes than in the previous election, but the party had no idea who these voters were.
My own experience canvassing in Luton South bears this out. The Labour candidate Gavin Shuker was convinced that his 5,000 majority would be wiped out by the UKIP vote which in the previous election had also come to 5,000. Half an hour before the polls closed, Shuker was still fearful of losing his seat and insisted on going out to win as many last-minute votes as possible. I assured him that he had nothing to worry about – and in the event his majority was tripled thanks to the public response to Corbyn and the party manifesto. Shuker eventually defected from Labour to join Change UK, and was trounced in 2019 when he stood as an independent.
Despite the fact that Shuker and the party bureaucracy were genuinely convinced that they had to shore up their existing seats, they were actively working to undermine the strategy of the democratically elected leadership. The slush fund set up in Ergon House that diverted campaign funds to the preferred candidates of the apparatus was an overt example of this, but a more subtle undermining of the leadership’s strategy was in selecting some constituencies as winnable, allocating them the necessary resources, and identifying marginal constituencies as not winnable, starving them of campaign material and funds.
The Forde report’s assertion that it was “unlikely” the diversion of funds and personnel into the Ergon House operation cost the party the election – while admitting there is no evidence either way – underestimates the importance of central office support for enthusiastic campaigners in even unlikely constituencies. When candidates found themselves unable to get literature or canvassers because of a focus on a nearby safe seat, this contributed to demoralization of the membership. The relative success of Labour in 2017 where marginal seats Kensington and Canterbury were taken from the Tories was achieved despite the efforts of the party HQ, not because of them, and contributed to the shock felt by the establishment at the loss of the Tory majority in parliament.