Undercover Labour rebels are fighting Keir Starmer’s purge in ‘ghost parties’ disguised as book clubs

LIEN Logo and Keir Starmer
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The fightback against Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party has stepped up a gear with the revelation that Labour rebels have organised a network of “ghost parties” across the UK. Former members of Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) have set up the groups to resist the purge of the left by the Labour leadership.

As part of our #FactOfTheMatter series, we can confirm the existence of these ghost parties throughout the UK. We can also confirm that they’ve recruited active Labour Party members to join them. We found that two local ghost parties have gained 5,000 members between them since January 2021, including a mixture of suspended members and ones who remain in Labour “undercover”. Some of these ghost parties are meeting are the guise of book clubs due to the “hostile environment” activists say the current leadership has created.

Not only are these activists changing the landscape of local democracy, but they told The Canary they are here to “fight”.

A network of “Ghost parties”

Following the suspension and expulsion of Labour members, the Labour In Exile Network (LIEN) set up alternative Constituency Labour Party (CLP) groups or “ghost” branches that have existed in the UK since January 2021.

The LIEN told The Canary:

Since Starmer became leader last year over 70 party officers and hundreds of ordinary members have been suspended or expelled for expressions of support for former leader Jeremy Corbyn.

But how many ghost parties exist in the UK?

Read on...

The exact number of ghost or shadow CLPs in the country is problematic because as we’ve found large numbers of Labour Party (LP) members are shy of talking about what they’re doing in case, of course, they get suspended. But we know there are many, many more undercover.

Since 2020, we’ve followed the growing rebellion which started with the leadership being publicly slammed and led to the resignation of an entire CLP. We began mapping the rebellion across the UK as it grew. However, it was only a matter of time before suspended and former members organised groups of their own. These groups are also working with members who are undercover.

Undercover members

Opposition networks, secret meetings, and undercover members are not something you think of when you think of local democracy. But this is the reality local Labour activists have been forced to accept in order to continue their organising.

We spoke to a ghost party member who told us that by working undercover (secretly being a member of a ghost party while remaining in the Labour Party), people were able to debate freely:

The “undercover” members are members of the Labour Party who across the country are having regular meetings in parallel to their formal CLP. This simply allows them to be able to continue to debate Left wing and community issues without fear of being “complained” about to the party’s Governance and Legal Unit.

The members we spoke to said that it had created a “hostile environment” which left many feeling like they couldn’t support motions or votes of confidence without fear of expulsion.

In December 2020, The Canary conducted a separate investigation into how votes in support of the former leader Jeremy Corbyn had been blocked throughout the UK. We also found that in many areas votes of no confidence in the current leadership of Keir Starmer and David Evans were blocked.

At the time it was an action that general secretary Evans defended by claiming that any motions related to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation into antisemitism within the party would be blocked. He wrote:

I am aware that other motions (including expressions of solidarity, and matters relating to the internal processes of the PLP) are providing a flashpoint for the expression of views that undermine the Labour Party’s ability to provide a safe and welcoming space for all members, in particular our Jewish members. Therefore, all motions which touch on these issues will also be ruled out of order.

The members we spoke to stated that the report is being used by the leadership to ‘weaponise fears‘ within the party, and that it restricted freedom of speech.

As a result, some CLPs passed motions for freedom of expression and against political censorship. They included:

The “Starmer snitches” vs the underground book clubs

The member also told us:

These meetings are often carried out in secret (hence undercover) and often under cover of being book club meetings or similar. In nearly all CLPs there is a minority of “Starmers’ Snitches” who are just waiting for Corbyn supporters to do or say something they can report them for. It’s an horrendous situation. These people (CLP members) are still too afraid of the repercussions to openly join, but more and more are.

Recently, ghost party members joined the LIEN for what it called its first “fightback meeting”.

Inside the rebellion

A LIEN spokesperson told The Canary that the meeting with the groups had been a “great success”:

We had four brave souls speaking out at our fightback meeting, including people from West Ham, Bristol NW, Stroud and Plymouth Moor, but LIEN know there are many, many more undercover. The fightback meeting was a huge success. We hope it will encourage many more “shadow” CLP activists to come forward. We will link them all up across the country so we can confront the current leadership over their undemocratic and unfair activities. This is just the start of our fightback.

One of the speakers was former chair of West Ham CLP Carel Buxton, just one of the ghost party members who are fighting the purge. She kicked off the meeting by saying that many had been abandoned by the Labour Party:

We’re not leaving the Labour Party, the Labour Party seems to have left us.

Two local ghost parties have over 5,000 members between them… and counting.

Buxton explained that between two ghost parties in West and East Ham, they had gained over 5,000 members – members that Buxton says are ‘disenfranchised’. She described the new groups as “a network of like-minded socialists who are prepared to fight back”.

Buxton claims that since thousands joined the Labour Party in 2015 when Corbyn was elected, many have been subjected to “vilification, smears and abuse”.

She told us:

The groups want to reach out to other groups facing similiar problems in the other parts of the country. There’s nothing now we can do but fight back and that’s what we’re doing.

A former member of West Ham CLP Roger Silverman echoed Buxton’s claims:

We didn’t ask to be suspended. When we were, what were we supposed to do? Were we supposed to submit, go home, keep our mouths shut, abandon the working class of Newham who are among the most deprived people in Britain?

Terry Deans, who was suspended by the party in 2020, told the LIEN:

I believe Starmer was hoping that by suspending or expelling people he would drive many others on the left to leave the party. But most have decided to stay and fight — many by setting… up these “ghost” Labour parties.

They say the fight is on. But what does that mean?
According to the LIEN, the fightback meeting set out to organise a series of ‘working groups’ to spark change within the Labour Party:
The fightback meeting set up a number of working groups in which members will be able to advance the cause of changing the party. These include groups to fight the witch-hunt, racism and disability discrimination as well as ones on the media and transforming the Labour Party.

While the ghost parties have been quiet about how they’re planning to implement change within the political landscape, their existence alone is sending a clear message to the Labour Party: these groups are building momentum and they’re not going to give up without a fight.

The Canary contacted the Labour Party during this investigation, but they did not respond before publication.

Featured image via the LIEN and YouTube/screengrab

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You can stay up to date with this series by bookmarking our investigations page.

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