It is not every day that we devote space to the defence of centre-right Labour MPs; nor do we in any way condone the drunken and violent behaviour of Eric Joyce in the Strangers Bar at the House of Commons. However, when we read today that “Labour officials made it clear that Joyce who has been suspended from the party would now be expelled” (Guardian, print edition), our reaction is that Labour members, even MPs, deserve a bit more process than is evident in this summary expulsion announced by an unnamed official.
Eric Joyce faces judgement and possible penalty in four separate arenas (and we exclude the court of public opinion in the face of tabloid coverage of the case fortunately lacks the power of imposing an instant penalty).
The first and most important is the magistrates court in which Joyce has already pleaded guilty to four charges of assault, been fined £3,000, ordered to pay £1,400 compensation, banned from bars, pubs or restaurants for three months and been subjected to a weekend curfew.
The second is the House of Commons. As most people will have been astonished to discover through the MPs expenses scandal, it currently takes the view that MPs should only be barred from being an MP when they are sentenced to more than a year — any shorter absence from work on account of being detained at her majesty’s pleasure amazingly results in no loss of pay. The Commons may yet, of course, take some action about this specific incident.
The third is Joyce’s constituency of Falkirk. At present they do not have the right of recall of their MP. Nick Clegg may be about to come to their rescue with new powers which, though probably totally inadequate in other ways, may well allow the people of Falkirk to excercise their own judgement on this case.
And then there is the Labour Party which has already removed the whip from him. Since one of those people he assaulted was a Labour whip, we won’t criticise that swift action though in a Labour council party rules provide a fairer process: a joint meeting of Labour Group and local party executive in which evidence can be presented on both sides before decision.
The party is entitled to consider whether to take further action in spite of the fact that Joyce faces not just double jeopardy here but quadruple jeopardy. But there are a number of possible penalties: preventing him standing for parliament again (although he has already announced that he won’t), a longer period of suspension of the whip and no doubt others short of expulsion. Is he not entitled to a hearing before some properly constituted party body decides on a penalty appropriate to all the circumstances, and consistent with what has been meted out to others. Indeed, should he not be entitled to an appeal even then?
When John Prescott punched a protestor in 2001, the police spent £¼m on an investigation. Fortunately, they decided not to prosecute — not because they believed that it did not constitute an assault but because of the likely difficulty in securing a conviction. Would he have been suspended pending the outcome of the case had they decided to prosecute? Would he have been automatically expelled had he been convicted?
There are of course many differences between the two cases, not least because Eric Joyce was drunk, but every case deserves full and proper consideration before judgement. He has already be subjected to considerable shaming and will, no doubt, be subjected to more. If he is to be stripped of his party membership after many years service to the party, natural justice and the party rules demand that he at least entitled to present his own case first.