EXCLUSIVE: John McDonnell says ‘Labour Party’s purge is having a severe impact on mental health of members’

“We’ve lost over 100,000 members, some people say 150,000, that’s the army that goes out and fights the elections for us”.

Labour MP John McDonnell has condemned what he says ‘is a good old fashioned purge’ of party members by the party and is warning that the leadership and party bureaucracy must recognise the impact it’s having on the mental health of members.

In an exclusive interview with LFF, McDonnell also discussed what he thinks Keir Starmer needs to do to unite the Labour Party ahead of the party conference, what the party needs to do to win the next election and why he thinks the answer for those frustrated with the direction of the party isn’t to quit.

According to the party’s own election records, by November 2020, it was reported that 50,000 members had left the party since Keir Starmer became leader, however McDonnell says the number has now reached 100,000.

He has since been critical of the way in which the Labour Party’s disciplinary procedures have been applied against members on the left of the party.  

In July, the party’s ruling body proscribed four groups, Socialist Appeal, Labour in Exile Network, Labour Against the Witchhunt and Resist.  Three of the groups (Labour Against the Witchhunt, Labour in Exile network, and Resist) were criticised by party officials for downplaying anti-Semitism.

McDonnell has since told the BBC that left-wing members of the party were now facing disciplinary action through guilt by association and that action was being taken against members ‘retrospectively’.

In a separate incident, the chair of Labour’s youth wing, Jess Barnard, received a letter telling her she was under investigation for “hostile or prejudiced” behaviour, with the Labour party later apologising and saying it was a mistake that happened amid an attempt to clear a backlog of complaints.

Kate Osborne, the party’s MP for Jarrow was also issued with an investigation warning for allegedly breaching party rules. Osborne swiftly responded with a lawyer’s letter, and, within an hour, Labour retracted the investigation and issued an apology for the ‘administrative error.’

Commenting on the wider issue of suspensions and investigations, McDonnell told LFF: “Elements of the right in the Labour Party now are close to the leadership and the bureaucracy and they’ve launched an old-fashioned purge that’s what it is”.

He said the suspensions and expulsions put members in an ‘extremely difficult situation when they’re under investigation’, as it stymies them from undertaking political activity and demotivates and demoralizes a large number of other people.

“We’ve lost over 100,000 members, some people say 150,000, that’s the army that goes out and fights the elections for us”, he said.

“The Labour leadership need to be worried and concerned about the impact this is having on people’s mental health, when you receive that letter you’re under investigation or you received the charges, you can’t recognize them against you, you get worried, then it drags on for months and months, the stress builds up. I think it’s causing a severe impact on a large number of people’s mental health and I think the party really needs to be concerned about the impact this is having on party members wellbeing.

“I’ve been particularly concerned about how members of Jewish Voice for Labour have been treated because the accusations against them, and I find it bizarre and ironic, that some of the accusations against our Jewish members are around anti-Semitism. Our concern about tackling anti-Semitism both in our party and in our society has resulted in Jewish members being disciplined or expelled, it’s ridiculous.”

McDonnell also said he agreed with the remarks by former Unite general secretary Len McCluskey that Keir Starmer ‘lacked an election-winning vision’. The former shadow chancellor called on the Labour Party leader to be more constructive, adding: “When Keir stood as leader he said he would unite the party and he set out his 10-point programme which was largely based upon on our last manifesto. So, for month after month after month, to a certain extent we’ve bitten our tongues, we’ve campaigned on the issues we’re concerned about, and for a continuation of the policies we support

“We’ve got to the stage where people have to speak out and say look if we’ve got an election coming up, which is most probably spring 2023, although Johnson could go sooner to avoid the COVID inquiry, if there is an election in 2023, after conference you’ve only got about 18 months”.

McDonnell added that the party needed to define its policy vision and then work to bed the policies in over time.

“You need to set out the sort of society you want to create, create the narrative around that and the best way of doing that is having a number of policies which demonstrate how you will create that society and that way you build up people’s confidence in you as a leader”, he said.

He also urged those frustrated with the direction of the Labour Party not to leave, saying that it was the best means through which to deliver socialism given the electoral system.

“This is our party, we shouldn’t give it up, most of us have devoted our lives to socialism being achieved through the Labour party and it’s still under a First Past the Post (FPTP) system, this is the only vehicle that we’ve got.

“I’m a campaigner for PR (proportional representation) it may different under PR, but within FPTP the Labour Party is the only vehicle for us to further the cause of socialism in this country, so I say to people I understand their frustration, I understand why people are tearing up their cards, but that’s not the way to fight back, that’s not the way to win.”

Basit Mahmood is co-editor of Left Foot Forward

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