Labour politics is a simple game. People on Twitter get very angry for two months every summer, and then Jeremy Corbyn wins. On 3 September, the eight Momentum-backed candidates for the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) won easily. The only small surprise was that Peter Willsman, ditched from the slate after voting had opened, was also narrowly re-elected.
Willsman was dumped by the Momentum leadership after the Jewish Chronicle obtained a leaked recording of an NEC meeting in which he attacked the 68 rabbis who called on the Labour Party to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism in full (which it did finally on 4 September). The veteran left-wing organiser also claimed never to have seen or heard any anti-Semitism within Labour. That claim was particularly egregious since Willsman, like all 39 members of the NEC, sits on the party’s disputes committee, and so would have had access to some of the dozens of disciplinary cases relating to the subject.
Willsman’s victory has prompted wagging of fingers and gnashing of teeth, but it tells us little about the state of the Labour Party. He was not elected to the NEC because members agree with his views, but because he was (initially) backed by the Momentum leadership. The ballot was conducted by post and online, and many voters sent back their choices as soon as the envelopes dropped.
Despite the protests and the fulmination, Willsman’s election confirms two things we already knew about the state of Labour. One, that Corbyn is in a hegemonic position and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Two, that loyalty to the leader outweighs all other concerns as far as Team Corbyn’s power players are concerned.
Willsman’s rants are such a perennial feature of meetings of Labour’s NEC that a trade union official once joked that they now heard only “white noise” during them. Deputy leader Tom Watson called him a “loud-mouthed bully” on Twitter. He has previously been publicly accused of sexist behaviour by others on the left. Yet he was allowed on to the Momentum slate because of his long service to the Labour left through the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, which argued for mandatory reselection of MPs and whose members included Tony Benn and Momentum founder Jon Lansman. Labour’s power brokers have long been willing to turn a blind eye to his behaviour – and the party’s members are largely unaware of it.
The bigger story concerns the eight members of the Momentum slate who managed to get through the long summer campaign without embarrassing themselves or the group’s leadership. Unlike Willsman, who barely scraped on, they were comfortably elected to the NEC. It is unlikely that they will be dislodged when party activists next vote for members in 2020. By that time, the committee’s power will have swelled if – as is widely expected – a package of constitutional reforms increasing its control over the policymaking process is passed at the Labour party conference.
The Corbynite grip on the levers of Labour power will be, if anything, stronger next time elections are held, since Willsman will be cut adrift and a new candidate will carry none of his baggage.
It is sad to watch the leaders of the two main Corbynsceptic groups – Labour First and Progress – talking up the closeness of the result, like a team that lost 9-0 insisting that they would have merely been defeated 8-1 had it not been for a dodgy linesman.
The grim truth is that a candidate as flawed as Willsman still secured more than 70,000 votes, while no one backed by the officially Corbynsceptic organisations got within 20,000 votes of him. (The comedian Eddie Izzard, who was a committed supporter of Ed Miliband, came within 2,500 votes of Willsman, but he refused the endorsement of either Labour First or Progress and campaigned as an independent.)
The results in the NEC election should prompt reflection by both Labour First (generally affiliated with the old pre-Blair trade union right of the Labour Party) and Progress (founded in 1996, effectively as the Momentum of Tony Blair). Although the organisations often disagree, they fight the NEC elections as a bloc.
The two groups also drive Corbynsceptic Labour MPs to distraction. Many despair of the hostility and rancour that emanates from the leadership of both on Twitter, and believe that they are more effective at repelling soft Corbynites than rebuilding support for the party’s centre left.
Fairly or unfairly, that assessment is shared by the Labour left. One senior Corbynite recently remarked that every tweet sent by Richard Angell, Progress’s combative director, “adds ten votes” to Momentum’s pile. Yet the challenge faced by Angell, and his opposite number in Labour First, Luke Akehurst, is to try to broaden their appeal to members who currently like Corbyn – but also persuade those who detest him that they should stay in the party.
And what the latter group wants is a robust attack on Corbyn and all his works. Keeping the sceptics on side is vital – because both institutions are in trouble financially as well as organisationally if their committed supporters leave. But there is also no point merely preaching to the centre-left choir. Progress and Labour First, therefore, have to offer two incompatible messages: Corbyn-bashing to fire up the sceptics, and conciliation to his supporters.
Until the factions that oppose the Labour leadership work out how to navigate this divide, they are stuck. And Corbyn can look forward to another summer of discontent – followed by another victory for the Labour left.