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16 January 2018

Labour’s NEC row over Ann Black is actually a row about parliamentary selections

I hope you like initialisms because I've got a lot of them. 

By Stephen Bush

That didn’t take long: the new Corbynite majority on Labour’s ruling national executive committee has voted to replace Ann Black as chair of the party’s disputes panel, which handles the bulk of complaints about discipline issues. The new postholder is Christine Shawcroft, one of Momentum’s directors.

Although both are members of the left slate, Black is widely seen as one of the NEC’s swing votes and is popular across the party. She’s generally seen as an honest broker – including by some of those who today voted to remove her as chair. Shawcroft was herself suspended from the NEC for her support of former Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman and is seen as a more reliable vote for the left.

The day-to-day role of the disputes panel concerns tackling allegations of abuse and other bad behaviour from party members. Their role is effectively triage: cases in which people are open-and-shut guilty or the subject of a nuisance complaint are dealt with by the disputes panel, but more complex ones are kicked up to the national constitutional committee. This means that some people are worried about how seriously the party will take abuse in the future. (And to be fair, other people are cynically raising the abuse question for factional advantage but that isn’t all of the worry by any means.)  

On the whole, holding the chair of any Labour committee is more valuable than having a majority – which is why when Corbynsceptics took the majority in 2016 they chose to immediately sacrifice in order to elect a Corbynsceptic chair in Glenis Wilmott (the chair usually does not vote, but can rule motions out of order). But in this case, my reading of the rules is that there is no particular value to holding the chair here.

The importance of the disputes panel is that its chair is one of the NEC officers who has a seat on the eight-member NEC officers group. This group decides rules around by-election and late retirements. The other seven officers are: the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn; the deputy leader Tom Watson; the chair of the NEC Andy Kerr; the vice-chair of the NEC Jennie Formby; the treasurer of the NEC Diana Holland; the chair of the organisation committee Jim Kennedy; and the co-convenor of the joint policy committee Cath Speight. 

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Kerr is a member of the Communication Workers’ Union; Formby, Holland and Kennedy are all members of Unite the Union; Cath Speight is a member of the GMB, which is generally more Corbynsceptic. The politics of Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson speak for themselves.

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On the narrow question of “to Corbyn or not to Corbyn?” there was already a very comfortable Corbynite majority in the NEC officers group – six Corbynites to two Corbynsceptics – but as far as the wider questions of rule changes and candidate selections, the only pukka Corbynite in the group is Corbyn himself.

Unite and the CWU’s political line aligns with Corbyn’s on a number of issues. But when it comes to the unique and crucial power of the officers group – their control over selections in by-elections and unexpected late retirements – for the most part in the 2015-7 parliament the majority there has been held by Unite, the CWU and the GMB, working together to get their candidates selected.

Of course, the replacement of someone on the left with independent instincts – Shawcroft is regarded as more of a reliable factional operator than Black – doesn’t actually change that. But it does mean that the “organised left” now has a steady vote who will advance its interests, rather than a swing vote. Hence why they moved to replace Black with Shawcroft.