by Rob Marchant
Since Jeremy Corybn’s rise to prominence, there has been a seemingly never-ending succession of skeletons pulled out of the closets of senior Corbynites, to the delight of Tory press officers everywhere.
There was the relationships of Corbyn himself with Holocaust denier Paul Eisen, and with Hamas terrorists; John McDonnell’s outspoken pro-IRA stance; the support of a motion supporting denial of the Kosovo genocide by both; the suspension and reinstatement of MP Naz Shah over anti-Semitic remarks; the suspension of Momentum vice-chair Jackie Walker over the same; the well-known Stalin apologism of Corbynites Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray; and so on. Doubtless the Tories are currently holding fire on a number of the more juicy ones, keeping their powder dry for 2020.
But the connecting thread between all these embarrassments has been clear: no matter how senseless or unsavoury, they have all been essentially connected, in the minds of the perpetrators at least, to political positions.
For example, the connections with anti-Semites are always justified on the grounds that the people in question are merely anti-Israel (of course!) The IRA connection? Because they were romantic freedom-fighters, naturally, who happened to kill people. And the Stalin connection because, well, Communism wasn’t all bad, was it? However dire the story, there was always some kind of contorted political justification which allowed the people involved to continue to look at themselves in the mirror the following morning.
In contrast, this was clearly not the case with Ian Lavery. Lavery is Corbyn’s new Elections Coordinator and the man in charge of every set of elections, we presume, from now until Labour is inevitably decimated in 2020.
Until now he has been in relatively low-profile roles, such as Shadow Minister for Trade Unions and Civil Society, and Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office. No, with Lavery the story was not political: it was about his questionable behaviour on a matter of simple personal ethics.
Veteran Labour blogger Hopi Sen, along with Sunday Times journalist James Lyons (£), wrote one year ago about how Lavery had received redundancy payments from the tiny trade union he led, the rump National Union of Mineworkers he took over from Arthur Scargill, over a period of years. And a loan that has no evidence of ever being repaid.
They related how, among fact-finding missions to the Caribbean and India by his cronies, the £1.6m compensation payments paid to the union on behalf of invalided-out miners had been frittered away to a fraction of their original levels. Nearly £800k of it was paid directly to Lavery in remuneration, pension and car allowance. And that is not to mention a somewhat unusual £75k mortgage loan, which was later very kindly written off by the union (Lavery declined to give the names of the relevant trustees at the time). And later £62k redundancy costs, even though Lavery resigned (thus rendering himself, one presumes, ineligible for redundancy).
Lavery had no satisfactory answers to the questions raised by Sen and Lyons. And that seems to be because there exist no satisfactory answers. There are now at least two investigations being carried out into Lavery, which have yet to report. In short, there are very serious questions to answer by the former General Secretary, regarding the use of funds deriving from sick miners, who gave their money to the union in good faith.
What is fascinating is to think about what must have passed through Jeremy Corbyn’s mind on the subject, as he promoted Lavery last week.
There are three possibilities.
One is that he knows but does not believe it. He genuinely thinks that this is some kind of dastardly smear by the Tory press, the “fake news” that he claimed last week to the BBC was currently running wild in Britain. This would represent a deeply worrying, quasi-Trumpian level of self-delusion, but it is better than the other two options.
The second is that he genuinely does not know about the story. This would mean that his staff, or his whips, who must surely know about the story and are honour bound to advise him, are actively hiding it from him. He is living in a bubble, where he is kept in the dark about important information. It is inconceivable that this could have happened in previous Labour governments, where information travelled like lightning and action was taken swiftly (and often brutally) in the case of damaging revelations about a politician. That is your job as a party staffer: alert the Leader’s Office to anything cancerous before the party itself is tainted by association.
The third possibility is the worst: that he knows and does not care. He thinks that these things happen and it’s not really worse than a lot of other things that politicians have done. One would like to think that Corbyn, for all his flaws, is not yet so cynical as to be in this category.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that a person with a very serious claim to having brought the party into disrepute, if found guilty – on a non-political matter of pure ethics – is now in a key position. Perhaps his loyalty to Corbyn and the hard-left cause is thought more important than anything else. All for one and one for all, and all that.
But it is clearly debatable whether or not he should have been allowed to continue holding the whip as an MP while these investigations took place, let alone be put in a key role with regard to Labour’s election-winning capability and hence its future.
Labour’s leader is unnecessarily backing a grade-A hostage to fortune, who is seemingly unable to answer the most simple questions about how he made an awful lot of money from a tiny union. All the while, as Sen relates, its members saw an astonishingly small total of £6,451 spent on member benefits over two decades.
It is only an example of where Labour is right now, but it is tragically symptomatic. That is, it is difficult to describe the depths to which a political party has to fall in order not to take action in a case like Lavery’s. But we are there already. And the good name of our party is an asset which, once damaged, will take a long, long time to rebuild.
If that is even possible at this point.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left