The latest episode in Labour’s internal drama this week saw the first meeting of its newly elected ruling body kick off with a walkout, or perhaps more accurately described as a click out, given that the protest took place during a Covid-appropriate video conference call.
Two of the most vocal Labour left activists within the party, former MP Laura Pidcock and Unite’s Howard Beckett, made points of order directly criticising Keir Starmer. Then 13 members of the national executive committee (NEC), including several trade unionists and a handful of representatives elected by members, left the digital gathering. What had sparked their fury was the leadership’s decision to disrupt the existing procedure for deciding the chair of the committee.
Labour’s NEC oversees the application of the party rulebook and makes crucial decisions, such as appointing the general secretary. The judgment and politics of NEC members shape the direction of the party – not only by participating in policy-setting manifesto meetings, but also by making calls about how to interpret the Labour rulebook – including the ruling that Jeremy Corbyn would automatically be on the ballot in the leadership contest triggered by MPs in 2016. Starmer’s team was therefore delighted with the recent NEC election results: although the Labour left won a majority of the nine seats directly elected by all members, the leader strengthened his majority overall. The next step? Securing the chair of the top body as a whole and of its key subcommittees.
The Labour left had expected that the next NEC chair would be Ian Murray – of the Fire Brigades Union, not the better-known Corbyn-sceptic Scottish MP. After all, he was vice-chair of the NEC, and the vice-chair becomes chair under the rotating system they thought was in place. But the leader’s office had other ideas, as they saw an opportunity to bolster control of the NEC by instead elevating veteran MP Margaret Beckett to chair. This would represent a restoration of an earlier tradition, based on seniority, whereby the longest-serving member gets to head the NEC. It would also promote a highly experienced politician to a post for which she had unjustly been passed over several times in recent years, they argued. She was elected unopposed after the walkout.
With the legally mandated recommendations of the Equality and Human Rights Commission weighing heavily on his shoulders, Starmer is determined to win control of the party’s governance structures. When he delivers the obligatory draft action plan to the equality body by 10 December, he needs to know that Labour can implement its contents – including an independent complaints process. Preferably, the leader must ensure that these changes can be made smoothly and according to a timescale of his choosing. And more generally, as one NEC source put it, “he can’t be fighting internal battles all the time when he needs to be fighting Tories”. The view of some Starmer supporters is that he needs to front-load these painful moments to ensure plain sailing in the coming years.
But, to many, the move felt like an unnecessary escalation of a factional war against the left. It followed a series of increasingly aggravating internal developments: big ones, such as the leaked report that revealed a “hyper-factional” environment in party headquarters and the twofold suspension of Jeremy Corbyn; smaller incidents, such as Young Labour being told by party headquarters to retract a statement criticising the decision to withhold the whip from Corbyn. That it was a small leftwing trade union, the FBU, being spurned in this NEC row only exacerbated ill feeling, in light of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union announcing last week that it would consult members on whether to stay affiliated to Labour.
The anger and frustration of NEC members who walked out was real. “It’s a joke. They’ll do what they want anyway,” one said after leaving the meeting. “The disrespect for the left is something we will not put up with,” Pidcock tweeted. The decision was “a slap in the face to Labour’s trade union affiliates,” FBU general secretary Matt Wrack added. There was some logic to the protest, too. While they left the meeting quorate, meaning its subsequent votes for a new chair and vice-chair were entirely valid, the move made a statement that highlighted what they see as Starmer’s unabashed factionalism. They want members to ask themselves: is this the same man who stood on a platform of party unity only seven months ago?
However, there is no consensus on the party’s left over whether the walkout was wise. Calling on members to “get over it”, Momentum co-founder Jon Lansman asked: since when is Buggins’ turn a socialist principle? Similar views were voiced by those who share his concern that the left could repeat the mistakes of the 1980s, and shut itself off rather than work with a leader who is from the middle of the party. Those NEC members who walked out have been accused of that worst crime in Labour politics: employing all tactics, no strategy.
Labour left members of the NEC say the leader’s office is dominated by deeply factional fighters and makes no attempt to reach out to them. Those close to Starmer counter that every olive branch extended is ignored and every rapprochement seen in bad faith by a paranoid left. With a still substantial number of Corbyn-allied members on the ruling body, and many ordinary members coming out to vote for Momentum candidates in internal elections, Labour’s infighting shows no signs of ending anytime soon.
• Sienna Rodgers is editor of LabourList