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15 January 2018

Jeremy Corbyn has a big majority on Labour’s NEC – but limits on his power remain

Master of (almost all) he surveys.

By Stephen Bush

Momentum have swept the board in the elections to Labour’s ruling national executive committee, with Jon Lansman, Momentum’s founder and chair, elected to the ruling body.

No news is big news

In a way, this story is “dog bites man”: Momentum-backed candidates took six positions out of six elected by members in 2016, won the Conference Arrangements Committee elections in 2017 and have now won the extra three positions created as part of a set of rule changes passed at Labour party conference.

Nor does it really change the political composition all that much. Yes, on paper, Jeremy Corbyn had quite a narrow majority if you were dividing members of the NEC, sheep and goats style between Corbynites and Corbynsceptics. However, in practice, the Labour leader had quite a comfortable majority provided at least two of the big trade unions (Unite, Unison, Usdaw and the GMB) were willing to play ball.  Now at least three have to work together in concert while retaining the support of the Corbynsceptic minority. Although the political directors of the big unions work closely together, it is hard to think of many issues on which a) they are all at odds with Corbyn and b) can rely on the votes of all of the NEC’s remaining Corbynsceptics.  Also, because Corbyn is ascendant, few of the NEC’s Corbynsceptic members are going to want to be the NEC member who blocks him. So while Corbyn is in possession of a handsome majority on the NEC, both that, and his remaining area of vulnerability on the ruling body, remains unchanged.

That matters as far as rule changes go. The trade unions have had a very successful period as far selections go since 2010, emerging as the overwhelming winner in contests in both by-elections and general elections over the last seven years, so I think it is unlikely that changes to selection will be as all-encompassing as we expect. A tweak to the reselection process, perhaps requiring a two-thirds majority rather than simply 50 per cent plus one to avoid a full selection process, maybe, but not much more than that.

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Turnout is about what we expect

Turnout looks to have been in the region of 19 per cent, give or take.  Some Corbynsceptics are spinning that this is a blow for Corbyn or a sign the party needs to reflect, which, to be fair, is probably what I’d advise them to do in the circumstances.

However the figure is what we’d expect of an NEC election, particularly considering the expectation it was a foregone conclusion and the limited effect that the election is going to have on the balance of forces in the NEC in the short term.

Actually the most interesting story is how the Labour membership hasn’t changed all that much

For all there are a lot more people in the Labour party, they don’t seem to any more interested, proportionally speaking, in voting in NEC elections or participating in the constitutional structures of the Labour party than the pre-Corbyn membership. (In fact, the only noticeable difference between Labour members who joined before Corbyn’s leadership and afterwards is gender: the surge in membership has reduced the gap between the party and the country as a whole as far as the proportion of women in the party go.

The membership doesn’t seem that “political” 

There was a lot of concern in what you might call the “professional” Labour left that lingering doubts about how Lansman had tackled dissent in Momentum would lead to people voting for candidates other than him, and allow Eddie Izzard or Johanna Baxter to slip through on name recognition. Instead Lansman came a strong second, well ahead of Rachel Garnham, a fellow member of his slate, and behind Yasmine Dar, a well-known Labour councillor from a city with a large Labour membership. 

Party activists don’t seem to be voting that differently to how they did under Ed Miliband – that is, for the left slate but with “big names”, wherever are they are in the Labour party, doing a bit better than their slates. 

For that reason I would be very careful before making any predictions about the party “changing forever” or being “permanently” on the left

It’s not too long ago that everyone was predicting that Ed Miliband’s party reforms would ensure that his replacement would be closer to his brother’s politics than his own.

It’s true – as these results once again remind us – that the left is currently ascendant in Labour and the centre-left is in what may be a prolonged recession. It seems likely that that the party’s next leadership election, if it takes place before 2022, will be a contest about who can most plausibly present themselves as loving Corbyn more. (And even in that contest you can see how any of Emily Thornberry, Angela Rayner, Laura Pidcock or Jon Ashworth might emerge as the winner, which gives you an idea of the relative ideological breadth as far as possible next leaders go.) But that doesn’t mean that Corbynite hegemony will be any more enduring than New Labour hegemony or Kinnockite hegemony before that.