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Momentum-backed Rhea Wolfson's NEC failure could damage the Labour right in the long term

Moderates may have stopped the left wing candidate getting a place, but they will suffer for it in future.

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.

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”