Parties need independent complaints procedures

Why complaints systems are broken in political parties and how we fix them

The last decade in politics has not only been messy, but it has also been difficult. It has been divisive. It has been inherently discriminatory. And at the moment, I feel that it is important to point out that this is not only the case in terms of mainstream politics, but also when it comes to the internal systems of our political parties. When it comes to the complaints procedures which our parties have been using, there have been a huge number of large-scale and systematic failures. This article will outline these internal failures and will then subsequently explain why an independent complaints procedure, outside of party control, is the only way in which party members and the public are able to be adequately safeguarded.

The importance of good complaint procedures

When arguing in favour of an independent complaint’s procedure, external to any party, the first thing to recognise its importance. Having good complaint procedures has many benefits, not just for those making the complaints and those whom the complaint is about, but also for the wider party and activist base. If the complaints system is producing results which are both fair and proportionate, this is good as it means that not only are complaints being dealt with, but also that both the wider activist base and the public are safer overall. Making sure that both the public and wider activist base are safe is something that is also important in terms of democratic participation- with more people, as a result, perhaps wanting to get involved and stay involved in politics for longer. Another reason that having a good complaints procedure within political parties is integral is because a strong procedure is one that will also stop the leadership of political parties meddling with the outcomes of any complaints. Currently, this is something that often happens, due to it being politically advantageous; yet it is something that also undermines the fairness of any result.

The current situation

At the moment, the complaints procedures of all major parties are either failing or are unfit for purpose. The next part of this article will both outline and break down these issues by party, looking at the issues within them and the reasons that their complaints procedures are not able to deal with cases.

The Conservative Party was found by an independent review to have “anti-Muslim views… seen at local association and individual level.” This would suggest that islamophobia in the party and its grassroots is a widespread problem, with there being no “code of conduct” which members were able to easily access and follow. Furthermore, the same independent review said that “at least one member of every party association should receive training on the complaints process.” This would suggest that knowledge of the complaints procedure within the party membership itself is minimal, suggesting that the party itself is failing when it comes to the handling of cases. Members being unaware of the complaints procedure is one major failure of party management, if members are unaware of how to make complaints, then cases are unable to be heard. This is bad as it leaves other activists in the party, and also the public, at increased risk due to a lack of cases being reported.

Moreover, there have also been a number of high-profile cases where party staff and representatives have acted in ways which do not follow procedure. At times, the methods used by senior individuals in the party also interfered, or at least attempted to interfere, with the judicial process. This can be shown by the Ross England scandal in Wales, or 5 Conservative MPs writing to a judge in a way which could undermine the independent nature of court proceedings. These events even occurring sets a damaging tone at the top of the Conservative Party, with it potentially suggesting to others that it is acceptable to act in this way. These interferences, in cases which are severe in nature, would imply that at least some involved in the day-to-day running of the party do not understand the importance of fair proceedings. It also raises multiple questions about the role that members of the party leadership can play inside the party when it comes to the complaints process, with there being limited oversight and transparency into this part of party procedure.

When looking into the Labour Party, the story is also one that is quite bleak. The Equality and Human Rights Commission identified “serious failings in leadership and an inadequate process of handling anti-Semitism complaints.”  It also said that there had been interference in antisemitism complaints and that the party had failed when it came to training both staff and activists on how to resolve such issues, including how the procedures should be used. Whilst a new “independent” complaints procedure has been proposed, it is one that has received a wide range of criticism. This is due to the proposals keeping the procedure internal, instead of making it external. Moreover, whilst more removed, there is still involvement of the NEC.

These issues aren’t ones that are unique only to the two main party, but also others too. The Liberal Democrats have also had issues with their complaints process in the past, with their potentially being “two decades of sex scandals in the party.” After the Lord Rennard scandal, and afterwards other cases hitting the headlines detailing the party’s failure to properly deal with issues involving sexual misconduct, the party implemented a new disciplinary process. This is one that was supposed to be both effective and independent, yet there have been a number of concerns about its implementation. Having been a member of the party at the time these started to be raised, I wrote a letter to Mark Pack, who is, and was at the time, the Party President. In this email, I queried why many people have had complaints that have lasted for months and longer than the time frames that were set out in the procedure. I also asked for a confirmation that the procedures were ‘independent’ and free of interference from party leadership- which wasn’t ever confirmed within the reply received, nor in subsequent follow-ups. When asked about there being no pastoral officer and due to it, the support that complainants received, I was unable to get an answer. There was neither a reply on why the published safeguarding measures were out of date. This to me is particularly troubling, as the point of these reforms was to ensure that all cases were heard fairly.

The Liberal Democrats are an important case study when talking about needing a complaints procedure that is independent and outside of party control. They show that simply labelling a procedure as independent is not enough, especially when the people involved in the process are still members of the party and therefore may know the people involved in the case personally. This demonstrates why an external complaints procedure is so vital, with it being an example of how political parties cannot always be trusted to manage their own procedures.

How do we implement an external independent complaints procedure?

The above case studies show why an independent complaints procedure is needed, but the next question is how we implement one. There are two main choices: getting Parliament to legislate on a new body being created; or expanding the Electoral Commissions powers so that as well as finances and party registration, they also take on the responsibility to deal with complaints inside political parties using standardised framework and procedures. Perhaps, these could be drafted by an Independent Commission; made up of a mixture of lawyers, HR professionals and people with experience of safeguarding. These changes would then need to be voted through Parliament. Another addition to these external procedures could also be a support service, which anybody would be able to access if they needed any support making or during a complaint. When complaints are concluded through the new procedure, political parties should then be legally required to follow the ruling- and if they fail to, the party will receive a fine. 

This solution would ensure that all individual complaints are properly dealt with, and political parties are held to account, making politics a much safer place for everyone. However, the one main challenge when pushing a piece of legislation like this is that it harms political parties and restricts the power that they have hugely. Therefore, the likelihood of it passing is pretty slim.

About the author

Jasneet Samrai

Deputy Director (internal)

Jasneet coordinates our team and helps to set the policy direction for Centre. They work at Breast Cancer Now, previously worked at Oxfam and has also been a campaign organiser helping to elect 3 MEP’s. Jasneet is also Head of Safeguarding and Pastoral Care.