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24 November 2020

Labour’s warring factions need to work out what their endgame is

The party has failed to come to terms with the central fact about the EHRC report.

By Stephen Bush

Thirteen members of the Labour left have staged a walk-out from the party’s ruling national executive committee after a majority of NEC members voted to elect Margaret Beckett as chair of the NEC, ending the precedent, that has been in place since 2016, of the vice-chair (who is also elected by the NEC) being promoted to chair. Because the meeting was still quorate, the resulting votes took place in any case.  

Although the chair of the NEC does not vote, they are valuable because they can rule whether a motion or an issue is in or out of order: the chair effectively has a “pocket veto” of sorts. In 2016, when Corbyn-sceptics briefly had a majority of one, they sacrificed this majority in order to elect the chair. Keir Starmer has a big enough majority on the NEC now that he doesn’t have to choose.

It’s hard to sustain the case that it is problematic for the elected NEC to use its majority to appoint whoever it wishes as chair, not least because the precedent of the vice-chair automatically being elected is the result of factional manoeuvring. The decision to walk out has been criticised by Steve Hart, a former political director of Unite, and Jon Lansman, the founder of Momentum and longtime organiser on the Labour left.

But the walk-out may have had tactical benefits for a few reasons. The first, is that it creates another day of headlines about conflict between Starmer and his party’s left flank. This could be an advantage for the party’s left as it demonstrates a willingness to create bad headlines for the party in order to enforce concessions on the leadership, and because it may increase engagement in the ongoing Unison general secretary election, which could potentially tip control of the NEC away from Starmer and towards the Corbynites. A day of headlines may also spread a mood within the party membership – which remember is on the whole not that politically engaged, and certainly less politically engaged than the average New Statesman reader – that Starmer is deviating from his pledges in the leadership race, in turn benefiting the Labour left in future internal elections. In addition, it may benefit Howard Beckett, one of the members of the NEC who walked out, in his bid for the role of Unite general secretary.

The problem is that the decision has tactical merit but strategic vulnerability. Something that has been lost in Labour’s internal debate, I suspect in part because Starmer has consciously and deliberately avoided making this clear in order to paint himself as an agent of change rather than its victim, is that the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s proposals are not guidelines: they are legally binding and they can ultimately be enforced in court.

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Whether it happens on the floor of Labour party conference or the NEC exercises its obligations in the rulebook to “ensure the Party meets its legal and financial responsibilities in compliance with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and all other legislative requirements” to bring an independent process and the other required changes in, these changes will happen, and then the various complaints against Corbyn and other Labour members will work their way through that process. Either at that point Corbyn will be exonerated or expelled (or given that there are a number of complaints waiting to be submitted by various people, both could well happen).

What really matters is what broad principles the party wants to adopt – because it is those broad principles that will feed into the independent process’ deliberations. The party leadership is committing itself to a set of principles, though to my eyes this is happening largely by accident as they seek to repair the damage to trust between the leadership and the mainstream of the British Jewish community done by the swift expedition of Corbyn’s case through Labour’s rules and processes. Nonetheless, in so doing, they are setting out a series of precedents: the first is that a Labour MP receives a formal warning from the party’s processes and does not apologise, they cannot remain as a Labour MP. The second is that the requirements of Labour membership and of the Labour whip are not wholly aligned: this precedent already exists in local government, but it has not in recent years been applied at Westminster.

These, to me, seem like good precedents, but they are ones that will have sharp consequences for Labour MPs who opt to take the path of least resistance as far as the repetition of racist tropes about Romani Gypsies or Irish Travellers on their leaflets are concerned (while these are not the only travelling communities in the United Kingdom, they are the only ones that count as protected characteristics for the purposes of British equalities law).

[See also: Keir Starmer’s refusal to return the Labour whip to Jeremy Corbyn is a major risk]

But while the Labour leadership seems to be creating principles and precedents by accident, its critics to its left aren’t creating or laying down principles at all. It’s clear that they oppose the continued suspension of the Labour whip in the case of Jeremy Corbyn: so they think that in the event of a formal warning, you don’t have to apologise to continue as a Labour MP. But what is not clear is in what circumstances they do support expulsions and/or the loss of the Labour whip for antisemitism or indeed any other form of racism.

Is it the use of racist tropes, the alleged use of which in the leaked internal report into the party’s handling of antisemitism in its ranks is currently under investigation? Again, that is in my view a welcome standard but one that will be far from comfortable for the Labour left just as the precedent that Starmer is setting will be far from comfortable for Labour’s centre and right.  

Just as it is not in my view at all clear what, if anything, the Labour leadership has accomplished or hoped to accomplish by continuing to run disciplinary cases through its discredited processes (not least because the era of social distancing means that the safeguarding issues that would usually compel the party to run at least a vestigial process do not apply) rather than waiting for its independent process to kick in, it is not clear what the party’s left believes it will accomplish by resisting through means of the Labour rulebook what will ultimately happen by force of law.

[See also: Jeremy Corbyn’s readmittance is a blow to Keir Starmer – and to his allies’ judgement]

What Labour’s warring factions need to do is think deeply and sensibly about what standards of behaviour they think should and shouldn’t be acceptable across the piece, to move beyond trench warfare. In short, they need to shift beyond a conversation about one person and towards the principles they would like to undergird the new process’ decision-making, to accept that the longrun consequence of the EHRC report is one in which they have a permanently reduced level of control over the party’s disciplinary processes: and which the standards they hold each other to have to apply closer to home, too.