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Why there has to be trust in a complaints procedure for it to be effective

March 3rd, 2019

It was barely 5 months ago that Dame Laura Cox issued her withering report on an entrenched culture within Parliament “cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed.” Strong stuff. But despite token words of condemnation and promises to learn the lessons and implement the necessary changes, the report – let alone the promised actions – seem to have sunk without trace.

A pity. There is much to learn from the report which could well be applied to other organisations facing allegations of bullying. This can be seen starkly in the public exchange of correspondence about between Tom Watson (a man whose past conduct, both in relation to his accusations of child abuse against political opponents and as Minister for Digital Engagement at the time of the Damian McBride affair, might well be graced with the “bullying” moniker) and Jenny Formby, Labour’s General Secretary, valiantly trying to stop the existing Labour complaints process from being compromised and slowed down, at least according to her latest letter.

It is always much easier to focus on arguments about processes and procedures, especially when disciplinary proceedings are being contemplated, when any failure to follow due process can lead to trouble. But as Dame Laura put it: a “devotion to process and language rather than to real effectiveness” is a waste of time. Rather, like the MacGuffin in Hitchcock films, such arguments are merely a device to move the story forward.

One of the key reasons why Watson says he is interfering is because the complaints system is not trusted. Is this Formby’s fault? This is to ask the wrong question.

Whatever process is in place, whatever procedures and rules exist, however good and effective they are, they are never sufficient. Necessary yes. But they are mostly proof of the importance with which the issue is viewed. The real test of any complaints process is whether those for whom it exists trust the organisation to investigate properly and act on the findings, no matter who is involved. Without that trust, even the best written procedures implemented by a whole host of angels are mere will o’ the wisps.

And why might that trust be missing? Well, here again Dame Laura can assist. When interviewed about her report she put forward three questions that those at the top of an organisation should ask themselves when having to manage cultural change:-

  • Do I understand that radical change is needed?”
  • Can I deliver that change?
  • Will people have confidence that I can deliver that change?

Answering that third question honestly requires a level of self-knowledge and courage that is not as common as it should be.

It is not Formby – or not only Formby – who needs to ask herself these questions. It is Labour’s leader. If Corbyn were genuinely serious about ensuring that allegations of anti-semitism by Labour members were properly investigated, then Formby would have no difficulty in implementing an effective process. Is Corbyn genuinely serious in relation to this? He is certainly serious about wishing that such complaints did not exist and that he was not constantly asked about them.

But that is not quite the same as saying that he is serious about having them properly addressed. Indeed, judging by the response of some local Labour parties to the suspension of Chris Williamson, shooting the messenger is being seen as the only proper response – and a surprisingly popular one.

Corbyn has certainly said often enough how much of an anti-racist he is and for how long and that anti-semitism has no place in society. He has even said that those who indulge in anti-semitic abuse do not do it in his name. (Oddly, this appears to have had no effect on some of his more ardent supporters, as if they know better than him what he really wants.) And yet the more he repeats this, the more this quote comes to mind: “The louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons.”

Watson may have set his sights on Formby and the complaints process for now. But anti-semitism did not appear out of nowhere. It was not borne into the party upon the wind. The question of how anti-semitism took hold and spread within Labour in recent years is being left, for the moment, to one side, as something too delicate or dangerous to be examined. But if trust in how Labour deals with such allegations is ever to be rebuilt then such an examination cannot long be postponed. Watson knows this. And he knows too who he really will be challenging if that is his intended destination. Is it?

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