LABOUR’S NATIONAL EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE (NEC) is approaching the end of its current term of office, with elections for the nine CLP seats well underway. The outgoing committee is set to meet several more times, however, before the new members take their seats at the end of the party conference in Liverpool in late September and those meetings could turn out to be crucial for the future direction of the party.
A year ago, the pro-Corbyn left on the NEC was moving into a position of decisive ascendancy. The impressive gains made by Labour during the general election had bolstered the leadership’s authority and Kezia Dugdale’s resignation at the end of August saw the voting balance shift as her left wing deputy Alex Rowley took her NEC seat. Thus strengthened, Corbyn was able to secure agreement from the major unions for a package of reforms to be put to conference: a reduced nomination threshold for leadership elections; three extra CLP seats (and one more trade union seat) on the NEC; and, most importantly, the Democracy Review.
With these changes duly endorsed at a very positive conference, it seemed as though the party was finally moving on from the infighting that had characterised the first two years of the Corbyn era.
What a different state we are in now. Once again, there is open rebellion in the PLP, egged on by the media, with persistent attacks on the leadership in TV interviews and newspaper columns, along with reports of conspiracies and the threat of a breakaway party.
Ostensibly, the issue of antisemitism has brought us to this point in recent months. But this is not the whole truth. While it cannot be denied that Labour has unwittingly harboured a number of genuine antisemites among our more than half million members - or that the party has made mistakes in its handling of the issue - it is also clear that the issue has been cynically exploited by political opponents of the leadership, inside as well as outside the party.
Jeremy rightly reaffirmed, at every opportunity, our determination to root out antisemites, along with racists of all sorts, and our solidarity with the victims of such bigotry. But it needs to be explained that many of his most strident critics seem to be motivated less by sympathy for those suffering prejudice than by a determination to ‘take back’ the party.
Until recently, NEC meetings have not witnessed the same bitter arguments over antisemitism as we have seen in public. This is, perhaps, partly because the more one knows of the party’s actual response to antisemitism, the harder it is to maintain that the phenomenon has been tolerated.
If anything, there has been a tendency to rush to judgement over anyone so accused when their cases have come before the disputes panel. Some members who have simply been forthright in their denunciations of Israeli crimes against the Palestinians have been lumped in with the genuine purveyors of anti-Jewish abuse and conspiracy theories. And this is without our having (yet) accepted all the IHRA’s examples of antisemitism.
When the supposedly contentious code of conduct was put before the NEC organisation committee on 3rd July, it was adopted with very few concerns or misgivings. And even when the full NEC had a lengthy and somewhat fraught debate over the matter a fortnight later, no one suggested that the party’s document was inherently flawed. The criticisms that were expressed were based on the contention that Labour needs to be seen to ‘go the extra mile’ – by adopting the IHRA document in full – in order to placate those concerned about the matter.
Now, of course, we have seen huge pressure brought to bear for the NEC to adopt all the IHRA’s examples at its next meeting on 4th September, with all the major unions joining the chorus. It may be that a compromise formula will be agreed, incorporating caveats to protect members from disciplinary action simply for criticising Israel. But this approach is fraught with danger - not only in relation to free speech on Israel and Palestine but also for the freedom of the party leadership to pursue the agenda that Jeremy has been twice elected to carry out.
If his critics in the PLP can dictate the party line on this issue, they will be emboldened to do the same over the Democracy Review, Brexit and every other matter of importance. At some point, the leadership and the left will have to make a stand.