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2 March 2016

Labour’s battle over the NEC comes to an end – for now

Both the left and centre-left have reasons for optimism in the struggles ahead. 

By Stephen Bush

The bitter war to become Labour’s youth representative on the party’s ruling national executive committee came to an end of sorts yesterday as Jasmin Beckett was welcomed onto the NEC almost by acclamation. Just Unite’s representatives – Jennie Formby and Martin Mayer – and Ken Livingstone, elected by ordinary party members, raised an objection but “backed down as it became clear they didn’t have any support in the room”, according to one NEC member.

Some on the left had hoped the closeness of the result and the accompanying controversies would lead the NEC to annul the ballot and re-run the election, but instead, Beckett will remain on the NEC, leaving the body finely balanced between the left and centre-left.

For the left, it is a defeat that has been a long time coming. Delegate elections in London were “astonishingly poor for us”, in the words of one, contributing to the defeat. There was a serious attempt by the left to disbar Beckett from standing prior to the election, which failed due to insufficient support on the party’s NEC. Also crucial were the votes of Unite delegates from Wales, some of whom broke with the union’s official line to vote for Beckett, who studies and lives in Liverpool, over Elliott, a finalist at Oxford. A trade union source blamed “incompetence” on the errant votes, saying Unite focussed on “regional balance” in its delegation and not enough on “sending the right people”.

There is little chance that Baroness Royall’s report into allegations of anti-Semitism at the Oxford University Labour Club and intimidation at Young Labour conference will force a re-run.  Iain McNicol, the party’s general secretary, is “under pressure from all sides” according to one MP and it is thought likely that any party inquiry will seek to avoid as much controversy as possible.  

While the result is a boost for the centre-left against the left, one insider described it as a “Pyrrhic victory”. Unite’s leadership is widely known to be sceptical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party, and, should Len McCluskey win re-election as general secretary, may be receptive to attempts to remove Corbyn from the top of the party. However, as one trade union official remarked, “they want to stay power players in the party – they won’t get rid of Jeremy if they think the consequence will be that they are on the fringes too”.

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Others on the left are less sanguine. They point to disappointing results in by-elections so far. In both Oldham West – prompted by the death of Michael Meacher – and Ogmore – prompted by the decision of Huw Irranca-Davies, the sitting MP, to seek a seat in the Welsh Assembly – candidates from the centre-left prevailed over candidates from the left. The results are especially disappointing as both Meacher and Irranca-Davies signed Corbyn’s nomination papers.

The coming Sheffield Brightside selection – caused by the death of Harry Harpham – looks a better prospect, where Gill Furniss, the previous MP’s widow, is the favoured candidate of the leader’s office and is well-liked locally. Furniss, in addition to her role as a councillor, worked as a researcher in her husband’s office. Should Furniss be unsuccessful in her bid, Team Corbyn could face calls for a retool of the leader’s office. One senior figure on the party’s left complained that staffing decisions resembled “getting the old band back together” rather than getting “the best for the job” in key positions.