Labour's NEC has started to empower party members - but we still have a mountain to climb
The rule changes agreed by Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) yesterday will, if they are agreed by the party’s Annual Conference at the weekend, represent a significant step forward in empowering party members.
At the moment, constituency (CLP) activists have just six places on the NEC – but the membership has risen exponentially since Corbyn’s victory, with hundreds of thousands of new members joining the party. The decision to increase CLP representation from six to nine represents a 50 per cent increase, and could decisively shift the political balance of the committee in favour of member-led decision-making.
Arguably, though, more could still be done to ensure that the CLP places are evenly distributed by region, rather than concentrated in London and the South East. Nor is there any guarantee that the represenation from the Scottish and Welsh parties will be elected in future, rather than appointed – although this remains a possibility.
In a further positive move, the number of trade union places on the NEC has been increased, meaning that the left-leaning Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union were not squeezed out. Importantly, too, Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) representation on the NEC will now be determined by a one-member-one-vote ballot of all BAME members, rather than the present system, which reportedly saw MP Keith Vaz elected on the votes of just 731 members.
The overall impact of these changes, taken together, represents an important consolidation of Corbyn supporters’ position on the NEC, and a blow to those forces wishing to use the party’s central machinery to constrain the democratic will of the membership.
The agreement reached over the threshold needed for potential leadership candidates to get on the ballot paper, down from needing the nominations of 15 per cent of Labour MPs to 10 per cent, represents a weakening of the ability of MPs to act as gatekeepers and keep left wing candidates off the ballot paper. Nevertheless, any candidate would still need 28 MPs to support their candidature.
While welcome, this move should not preclude debate of rule changes submitted by a number of CLPs to next year’s conference, which would effectively end the monopoly nominating rights of MPs altogether, and allow CLPs to nominate leadership candidates directly.
As part of the deal brokered, the 10 per cent threshold of MPs would also apply to any candidates wishing to challenge the incumbent leader, meaning that a small right-wing rump could in theory force a leadership contest against Corbyn. Clearly the left on the NEC made the calculation that the right wouldn’t risk such a move any time soon given the mood of the membership, as reflected in the landslide victories of Seema Chandwani and Billy Hayes in the recent Conference Arrangements elections.
In other good news, left NEC member Darren Williams successfully moved a motion to correct an excessively draconian interpretation of freeze date rules around the eligibility of delegates to this year’s conference, meaning that many delegates who had previously been blocked will now be able to attend.
Discipline and democracy
Moves were also taken to head off potential controversy at conference in response to the Jewish Labour Movement’s demand for a rule change to specifically refer to antisemitism. Jews who do not feel represented by JLM, an organisation consitutionally committed to a Zionist outlook, have formed an alternative organisation, Jewish Voice for Labour, in order to prevent accusations of antisemitism being used as a cynical attempt to delegitimise criticism of Israel or defence of Palestinian rights.
The NEC made a serious attempt to confront the issue, with the agreed text eventually reached differing significantly from that originally proposed by the JLM. While accepting the need for such a definition will avoid the Corbyn leadership being engulfed in controversy over its willingness to tackle accusations of antisemitism, it may also embolden JLM supporters to push for a new round of disciplinary action targeted at those who have caused controversy on the left.
Whilst on balance this ‘package’ of rule changes is favourable to the left, and would be worthy of support, it is unclear as yet whether there will be a repeat of last year’s conference, where all the rule changes stood or fell together. This is in general an anti-democratic practice, since it meant for example that to defeat the right-wing stitch up of the NEC, delegates in 2016 would have had to reject proposals for a free-standing annual women’s conference! Rule changes should not be snowballed together in this way, but should be voted on separately.
Similarly, although the positive steps forward from yesterday’s NEC might mean some of the heat is taken out of discussion of rule changes at the forthcoming conference, we should be under no illusion about the scale of party reform which is still unfinished business. The National Policy Forum process, the lack of effective Local Government Committees and the difficultly in democratically determining whether to re-select sitting MPs are three particularly concerning areas where the rank-and-file membership are still basically shut out of the decision-making process. There should be no room for complacency – we still have a mountain to climb.
This article first appeared in Red Pepper