Labour’s rulebook is an arcane document so full of clauses and subclauses it is hard to make sense of. But this week it also became a ruthlessly wielded weapon. But will this backfire on former MP Jim Murphy and the Labour right?
The NEC is the Labour party’s governing body. While it doesn’t set policy (theoretically, that’s done by the National Policy Forum but in reality its most done by the leader’s office and the shadow cabinet) it holds huge influence over how the party is governed including the current highly contentious matter of suspensions and expulsions.
The NEC is made up of representatives from trade unions, socialist societies and six constituency reps who are elected by party members to serve two year terms – though there is no term limit. The vote is usually highly factional, slugged out as it is between the left and right wings of the party for control with independents rarely fairing well – though this has changed somewhat recently.
To be elected you have to be nominated by your home CLP and at least two others.
The left wing slate is hoping to do well this year riding the wave of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. However, it got off to a rocky start as one member of the slate was Ken Livingstone, whose suspension made him ineligible to run. He was immediately replaced by a young Jewish woman called Rhea Wolfson. Given Livingstone has been accused of antisemitism, Wolfson’s Judaism was a positive for her candidacy and as such she was supported by the Jewish Labour Movement, which has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership and the left more widely on this issue. She was also backed by Momentum, the organisation set up in the wake of Corbyn’s spectacular leadership bid.
But last night, the wheels came off Wolfson’s campaign when her home CLP failed to nominate her. In a statement published on Facebook, Wolfson claims that former Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy personally intervened to stop her candidacy, arguing that her constituency shouldn’t back a Momentum-supported candidate as they have a “problem with antisemitism”.
Some on the hard left have claimed that concerns about antisemitism are baseless and made up. They aren’t. But to use those concerns as a weapon (if, indeed, this story turns out to be true) against a Jewish woman with a strong record of fighting antisemitism fuels just that sentiment. To fight conspiracy theories, it helps if you don’t publicly conspire.
Organisationally, Wolfson messed up. Getting the nomination of your home seat should be nailed on. A candidate shouldn’t even begin to think of standing unless they know they could guarantee that, and it should never be assumed. But the bigger question is what the impact of this move will be politically.
In the short term, this is a quite obvious win for the Labour right. There will be one fewer candidate from their opposing slate making it more likely they will have one of their candidates elected in her place.
However, this short term win may come to haunt them. A precedent has now been set and the right will have absolutely no leg to stand on if it finds one of its own candidates blocked in a similar way the next time these seats are contested. Equally, while this is all perfectly within the rules, it smacks of all the factional infighting that has contributed enormously to Scottish Labour’s current parlous state. It doesn’t give onlookers like myself confidence that the right lessons about being an outward facing party are being learned from either left or right.
Ultimately, it is power that counts and a two-year stint on the NEC is a prize worth having. A political calculation has clearly been made that the appearance of the thing matters less than the outcome and the short term win is worth any long term pain. That may well be true. These are extraordinary times, and the NEC will be at the heart of the battle for Labour’s soul over the coming years. With this move Labour’s centrists have shown they still have some muscle to flex and are very much willing to do so.
*For transparency, I will not be voting for any slate of candidates but will pick and choose according to the qualities I believe are needed. I am publicly endorsing only one candidate – Johanna Baxter.