Jeremy Corbyn is getting better at command and control – but he can’t escape his old promises

The problem is that effective politics is rarely kind or gentle.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In a way, the row that broke out this weekend at Labour’s National Policy Forum is not news at all. Realising that their preferred candidate had no prospect of winning, the nine officers of the party’s ruling National Executive Committee voted to halt the election for the chair of the NPF, saying that insufficient notice had been given of the contest.

The notional justification is that the party’s rules require that NPF delegates “are entitled to receive copies of relevant documents at least seven days before the Forum takes place” – in this case, candidate statements. Mike Creighton, a Corbynsceptic former Labour staffer who knows the rulebook far better than I do, argues that this interpretation of the rules is bunk on his blog.

My personal view is that the rules are vague enough that NEC officers’ interpretation of the seven day section just about stands out. In any case, it’s wholly irrevelant:  “using the rulebook to fuck over people” as one former staffer at Labour HQ once described his job to me, is an old, old, old, old Labour trick. It’s also an old, old, old, new Labour trick. Provided you have a majority among the nine NEC officers and the 39 members of the full NEC, that’s essentially all you need.

Indeed, the irony of this particular row is that if in July 2015, you had told someone in that in two years' time, Labour’s power players would halt an election to prevent the National Policy Forum electing Ann Black as its chair, you’d probably assume that Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall were set to win the contest.

So why are people so angry? In part, it’s because Labour politics is a game where the faction(s) that controls interpretation of the rulebook abuses it and where the faction(s) that don’t complain about it, but that the people who are complaining about it now have a bigger media platform than the people who used to complain in the world pre-Jeremy Corbyn. (That the press is considerably more Corbyn-hostile than it was towards New Labour in its rule-bending pomp helps, too.)

But it’s also down to three other factors. The first is that the level of political tolerance for belligerent political fixing is, however momentarily, at all-time-low because of the wider cultural changes sweeping the Western world post-Weinstein. Shouting over someone – in this case the NPF’s vice-chair, Katrina Murray, is not  good look, and also genuinely upset many of those present. That tied into the second factor, which is that in 2018, everyone has a camera.

The third is good old-fashioned incompetence on the part of the leader’s office and particularly some of their trade union allies. (Although there has been a lot of talk about “Momentum’s” role in bringing the election to a halt, ultimately there is only one NEC officer who could be described as a representative of “Momentum”. That is Christine Shawcroft, who did not vote in any case. This was a stitch-up by the trade union members of the officers’ group.)

Regardless, there was a comfortable majority among the NEC officers, and they could have quietly cancelled the vote on the morning of the meeting and conducted their argument over its election behind closed doors, rather than produce the ugly scenes that they did.

And while the leader’s office is a noticeably sharper operation than it once was, they are still living with the consequence of two foolish pledges made in Jeremy Corbyn’s first campaign for leader: the first is a vow for “gentler, kinder politics”. The reality is that politics not gentle and is often unkind. The second was his promise of “straight-talking honest politics”, again, not an adjective that is often associated with political effectiveness.

The lasting damage of this incident however may be to the leadership campaigns of Angela Rayner and Emily Thornberry, both hitherto doing good work balancing the needs of Shadow Cabinet loyalty (and quietly courting Labour members) without egregiously offending Corbynsceptics among the parliamentary Labour party. Both deeply upset and angered Labour MPs with their defence of what occurred on Saturday on the Sunday shows (Rayner appeared on Marr, Thornberry on Peston). The biggest legacy of this weekend’s row may be the permanent disruption of that equilibrium – and with it, the increased likelihood that the party’s right will mount its own challenger for the leadership next time.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.