Darren Williams writes: The NEC meeting held on 12 July (my first since taking over from Ken Livingstone) was probably one of the most contentious and closely watched in the Party’s history. It was called at 24 hours’ notice and had one substantive item of business: the party leadership election, which had been prompted by Angela Eagle’s announcement the day before that she had secured the 51 nominations needed to run. Concerns were expressed over the lack of notice – which meant that some people had to travel long distances very quickly in order to attend - and the fact that Jeremy himself had apparently been kept in the dark about the meeting until the last minute.
The political balance on the NEC is very delicate and some members don’t consistently vote with either the left or the right. When, therefore, I received an email from the Party’s Compliance Unit within days of becoming an NEC member, informing me that I was being investigated for an apparently trivial matter (of which I am entirely innocent) it prompted understandable suspicions that this was an attempt to keep me from attending meetings. Thanks to the efforts of my solicitor, however, this has not yet come to pass.
The papers for the meeting – which included three sets of legal advice and several procedural documents relating to the leadership election - were not circulated in advance but were only available on the day, so there was very little time to get one’s head around the finer points of detail.
When the meeting began, there was a long discussion as to whether Andy Burnham and Debbie Abrahams should address the meeting, as they had requested, to make representations in favour of third-party mediation between the leader and his opponents in the PLP. They were eventually allowed in but their suggestion that the election be delayed while mediation took place was not accepted; instead, the meeting opted for a compromise proposal from Ann Black, that there be a two-day delay to the start of the timetable, giving the option of the election being cancelled if mediation were successful.
Next, it was proposed that voting at the meeting be by secret ballot – a break from the normal practice of voting by show of hands. The fear was that this was intended to allow certain people – in particular, representatives of unions publicly loyal to Jeremy – to vote that he shouldn’t automatically be on the ballot-paper. This part of the meeting was emotionally highly-charged, with reference being made to death threats, rape threats, intimidation and abuse received by prominent female party members in particular; in this context, the secret ballot proposal was, we were told, necessary to protect NEC members from reprisals. While no-one disputes that some deeply disturbing and reprehensible things are said online and that this is sometimes taken further, so that there are genuine fears for people’s safety, the idea that a secret ballot would, in itself, provide significant protection from this seems hard to accept. Moreover, the suggestion – made during the meeting and subsequently stated more explicitly – that Jeremy and his supporters have somehow whipped up an atmosphere of hostility and fear has no credible basis in fact. The vote was nevertheless carried.
The chair then asked Jeremy to leave the meeting, on the grounds that he was seeking to be a candidate and therefore had a personal interest in the outcome that should preclude his attendance. The alternative case was put that, as party leader, Jeremy had a perfect right to be there but Jeremy voluntarily withdrew before this went to a vote, after making a typically dignified speech regretting the uncomradely behaviour to which he had recently been subjected.
There was then a lengthy discussion of the legal guidance, conflicting versions of which had been circulated. In the course of this, the QC who had provided what the General Secretary regarded as the definitive advice was asked to address the meeting and answer questions. His argument was that Jeremy should have to secure the same number of nominations as anyone else in order to stand again but other guidance received made the opposite case equal force. The arguments came down to what has been meant by the somewhat vaguely worded rules on this score but the conclusion each of us drew was always going to be a political, rather than a legal judgement. Unite had obtained guidance from Michael Mansfield QC that Jeremy didn’t need to secure nominations and Mansfield had offered to attend the needing but the NEC voted not to take any further representations.
At this point, it was proposed that Jeremy be allowed back into the meeting and this was agreed – again, on a secret ballot – by 16 votes to 15. This was the first positive development in the whole meeting. Jeremy returned to the room and the vote on the substantive matter was finally taken, with an 18-14 decision that he should be on the ballot-paper as of right.
Jeremy then left to address the crowd of journalists and supporters outside and we moved on to the other matters related to the timetable and procedures for the election. In the course of this, we agreed a number of things that have since become highly controversial (which were actually taken on a show of hands):
- the six-month freeze-date for party members to vote in the election: the Left moved a freeze-date of 24 June but this fell, 14-14
- the £25 fee for registered supporters: the original proposal was £12, but this amendment was put forward by an NEC member and was narrowly carried
- the three-day window for registered supporters to sign up: the Left moved an amendment to extend this to seven days but this was narrowly defeated
- the suspension of party meetings during election period: this was in one of the papers and at least one person expressed concern about it but it didn't go to a vote.
Many people have asked how the NEC made the right decision to put Jeremy on the ballot-paper but then proceeded to exclude many thousands of his natural supporters from the election.
The first point in answer to this is that, given the secret ballot in the early part of the meeting, we don’t know exactly who ‘switched sides’, so there must be a degree of speculation about people’s thinking. Second, there was far less focus on the procedural matters than on the question of Jeremy’s candidacy, exacerbated by the failure to provide papers until we turned up at the meeting, and there was no attempt to co-ordinate a left 'line' on the other issues. Furthermore, while most of us were reeling from several hours of grueling debate and an outcome that came as pleasant surprise to many of us, the right seemed to recover more quickly and were determined to achieve some ‘damage limitation’.
And a few people left before the meeting ended – most notably Jeremy himself, but also one of the pro-Corbyn union reps and a couple of others who may have been floating voters.
The meeting on Tuesday also established a Procedure Committee to oversee the election, which is made up mainly of NEC officers (presumably in keeping with custom & practice). It is therefore dominated by the right but its membership wasn't challenged.
The Procedure Committee then met on Thursday and made a couple of further important decisions:
- The six month freeze-date for affiliated supporters to have been members of their union before voting - they presented this as "interpreting" (rather than overruling) the NEC's decisions on Tuesday, which made no reference to this;
- Detailed instructions as to the conduct of nominating meetings, including a 30-minute upper limit on contributions from the floor.
All of this demonstrates the way in which the ongoing battles in the Party are reflected in its elected committees and, hence, the need for left wing members to get more engaged in Labour’s democratic processes. The importance, in the first instance, of electing the six Grassroots Alliance candidates as CLP reps could hardly be more obvious.