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19 September 2018

The row over Labour’s rule changes pits Momentum against the machine

Planned reforms could make it harder for future Corbynite candidates to qualify for a leadership election. 

By George Eaton

Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of an unfinished revolution. Though Labour’s policies have been transformed, its structures have not. Most notably, the rules by which parliamentary candidates are chosen have been unchanged throughout the Corbyn era.

The Labour left recognises that its current strength – unprecedented in the party’s 118-year history – may not endure. Activist groups such as Momentum are determined to democratise Labour while they have the chance and ensure a Corbynite legacy.

Ahead of the party’s conference, the left has two defining aims: to ensure that future socialist leadership candidates cannot be kept off the ballot (as Corbyn almost was in 2015) and to secure the introduction of “open selections”: enabling anti-Corbyn MPs to be replaced with more left-wing candidates (the left currently has no more than 20 committed ideological followers in the Commons).

Rather than a negative emphasis on “deselections”, Momentum has smartly adopted a positive emphasis on new selections. Laura Parker, the group’s national coordinator, recently wrote that Labour could discover the equivalent of 28-year-old New York socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee, however, yesterday failed to agree changes by the end of a nine-hour meeting (it will reconvene on Saturday). And the proposed compromises have dismayed the left.

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On candidate selections, the current system would be reformed to enable 30 per cent of local party branches or 30 per cent of affiliate/trade union branches to trigger an open selection. Though the left regards this an improvement on the current system (which requires the backing of 50 per cent of all branches), it falls far short of Momentum’s demand for open selections (publicly opposed by shadow chancellor John McDonnell but not Corbyn).

It is the proposed changes to leadership elections, however, which most trouble the left. Under the current rules, candidates require the support of 10 per cent of MPs/MEPs to qualify for the ballot (a reduction from the 15 per cent threshold used in 2015). To further reduce the influence of the parliamentary party, Momentum backed a system which would enable candidates to qualify by two other means: nominations from 5 per cent of MPs/MEPs and 10 per cent of Constituency Labour Parties, or 5 per cent of MPs/MEPs and 10 per cent of affiliates/trade unions.

The current compromise proposal, however, would force candidates to achieve the backing of all of the following: 10 per cent of MPs/MEPs, 5 per cent of CLPs and three affiliates, including at least two trade unions accounting for 5 per cent of all members.

To the left’s dismay, this could make it harder, rather than easier, for candidates to make the ballot. Both MPs and the big four trade unions (Unite, Unison, the GMB and USDAW) would be gifted an effective veto.

“A socialist candidate in the mould of Jeremy Corbyn would not have qualified under these rules,” a Momentum source said. The proposed rules would favour candidates from Labour’s “soft left”, such as Angela Rayner and Emily Thornberry, rather than those from its left and right (such as Liz Kendall).

Momentum emphasise that they favour a “range of candidate from all wings of the party” and want “members, rather than gatekeepers” to be in control (though some would argue that the real problem is the absence of an obvious left successor to Corbyn).

Since the Bennite era, the left’s project has been to democratise Labour. But until 2015, members had less influence in leadership elections than their Conservative and Liberal Democrat counterparts, and they still have less influence than others in parliamentary selections.

Others however, argue for a more federalist conception in which the parliamentary party and the trade unions from “whose bowels”, in the words of Ernest Bevin, Labour emerged, retain significant influence. To this, the left replies that a mass membership party (with 540,000 members, Labour is the largest in western Europe) cannot afford to alienate its activists.

As members furiously lobby the NEC, the battlelines are clear: it is Momentum against the machine.

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