The Grassroots Voice slate performed above expectation in the crucial elections to Labour’s national executive committee (NEC), but the position of new leader Keir Starmer has also been strengthened.
Mike Picken teases out the complexities of this situation.
Journalists and members often think that it’s the annual delegate conference or the parliamentary leadership which controls the UK Labour Party. In fact it’s the National Executive Committee that is the pre-eminent body in the Labour Party’s rule book. So the recent elections for the NEC have been closely watched to detect trends in the move from a party previously with a radical policy agenda led by the currently suspended former leader Jeremy Corbyn, to that with a more centrist position led by new leader Sir Keir Starmer. The elections were fiercely contested by a variety of slates with anodyne titles but very differing policy agendas.
First up, the left wing slate for the nine representatives of local Constituency Labour Parties was tagged ‘Grassroots Voice: the Future We Need’ and was backed by the main organisations of the Labour left – most notably Momentum Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jewish Voice for Labour. Grassroots Voice stood six candidates and won five seats, with 37% of the first preference vote.
Grassroots Voice only stood six candidates because of the sudden move to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system rather than the plural voting system previously used.
The secret of winning well under the not-completely-proportional STV system, as the entire population of Ireland understands, is to stand the right number of candidates and evenly balance the first preference votes between them as much as possible, aiming to take all the seats at the end with as many as possible failing to make the ‘quota’ but being the ‘last person standing’ when your opponents are eliminated.
Everyone’s a winner…sort of
Despite only winning 37% of the first preference vote, Grassroots Voice won an impressive 56% of the CLP seats. This was because of significant balancing between candidates by using regionally-focussed campaigns to encourage members to list candidates in different order in different parts of the country (a classic Irish parliamentary and council election tactic). Because parliamentarians are barred from standing, many candidates from CLPs do not enjoy a national profile but tend to be better known at local and regional level, so are able to pick up significant first preference and transfer votes from their own region or nation.
The left succeeded very well in vote management terms.
Of the Grassroots Voice six candidates, the losing candidate was sitting NEC member Ann Henderson who is active in Scotland and a member of the Scottish Executive of the party – the commiserations of the left will be genuinely extended to Ann Henderson. But the problem with the Grassroots Voice ‘regional’ strategy was that the Scottish Labour Party has an extremely low level of party membership and participation, due largely to its collapse in recent years over continuing opposition to Scottish self-determination in the face of a massive rise in support for a new independence referendum. The dire state of Scottish Labour probably means that no-one with a strong profile only in Scotland is ever likely to get elected under the new voting system, as it constitutes well under 5% of the overall electorate and you need 10% to get elected and very good transfers.
The ‘Labour to Win’ pro-Starmer leadership slate won three out of nine seats with 31% of the vote. This is a significant under-performance and was caused by poor distribution of first preference votes between candidates. Its leading candidate, Luke Akehurst from Oxford – a former NEC member very much on the right of the party – won ‘too many’ first preference votes. In order to have won more seats it would need to have distributed its votes more evenly between its candidates. It’s unlikely to make this mistake in future.
The ‘Open Labour’ slate candidates won 9% winning one seat, returning Ann Black, also of Oxford, back onto the NEC. Despite giving a disproportional representation for one of England’s great seats of learning, this is a relatively proportional good performance and will be seen as revenge for her previous ditching by Momentum. Ann Black was for many years a regular and successful part of the (very) broad left slate for the NEC, but was ditched in the previous election for what was seen as her less than fulsome support for the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. She has called on members to support the new Starmer leadership and while not being 100% reliable for him, her election plus those of the more blatant pro-Starmer candidates moves the NEC towards the new leadership.
STV for trade union elections? No thanks!
Despite the focus on the fiercely contested nine seats for CLPs, the NEC actually has 40 members and the largest group is the Trade Union representatives, constituting 13 seats on the NEC. The decision to move to the STV system for the CLP representatives has not been replicated in the trade union sections. Nominations and votes in that section tend to be based on the well-established democratic principles of “you scratch our back and we’ll scratch yours” and “buggin’s turn” (who’s been around longest who hasn’t done their time yet?).
Having resisted democratic reform for years, the right wing and hierarchy of the Labour Party and its affiliated trade unions have more recently developed a ‘love-hate’ relationship with STV. They love it when it gives them a chance to limit the influence of the left and hate it when it challenges their own hegemony. Thus, they pick and choose according to what’s in their own interests. For example, in the current important election for general secretary of Unison, one of the biggest trade unions affiliated to Labour, the NEC of Unison used STV at the last minute to determine its own nomination, to try to ensure the union hierarchy’s favoured candidate narrowly got the nomination; but because there is more than one left wing candidate, they are using ‘first past the post’ for the membership election – in the hope that the most right wing candidate will slip through.
Of course STV is a more representative and better electoral system than first past the post, though it does not necessarily produce fully proportional outcomes as we have seen above. STV is currently used in local elections in Scotland and the six counties of the North of Ireland and has been used by the National Union of Students for around five decades, so at least it is well known. Democratic reform of voting systems inside the labour movement is as important as it is for parliament and other public elections and should now be embraced by all on the left to make the movement more democratic – but far too many activists have conservative views on the matter.
Other Victories for Left Candidates
There were victories for a few other Grassroots Voice backed candidates, so all sides can justifiably claim a crumb of comfort from the results. The left won the important positions of Young Members representative on the NEC and, significantly, the newly created seat for Disabled Members.
The pro-Corbyn student activist Hasan Patel was elected by a very large majority as the under-18 representative on the Young Labour National Committee, elected at the same time as the NEC, and was part of almost a clean sweep of that Committee for the left in the Party.
Overall, the Starmer position on the NEC has been reinforced and he will probably have narrow majorities for his projects in the coming period, though much depends on whether he can carry the support of the large trade union block. The big question is also whether that is enough to support expelling Jeremy Corbyn? The current suspension of Corbyn is an abomination that can only result in either Starmer backing down, Corbyn recanting, or Corbyn being expelled. There is no sign of Corbyn backing down in his correct critical comments on the way false allegations of antisemitism were used in the media and by his internal opponents against his leadership.
It certainly was not a crushing victory for Starmer supporters, but the left share of the vote was down significantly on 2018 when it was over 50% – though obviously because it was a different electoral system with different candidate numbers, exact comparisons are a bit specious.
But neither was it the “huge victory for the socialist left” claimed by some. Both turnout and overall membership were also down on 2018, so although Momentum and the pro-Corbyn left is obviously not going away yet, there is a serious decline in influence here, aided largely by the NEC majority changing the electoral system for CLP sections (but not for trade unions). And of course this was helped by the decisions of thousands of Corbyn supporters to quit the party – estimated at a loss of 55,000 members, around one in ten, from the Leadership election in April to the NEC election in November.
It’s still all to play for in the battle for the future of the Labour Party, but the left in the Party needs to up its game seriously in the vital battle for all socialists to defend Jeremy Corbyn.
Mike Picken, 15 November 2020
NB the author is not a member of the Labour Party, so cannot be suspended or expelled for any comments in support of Jeremy Corbyn above. Unfortunately, in today’s Labour Party this is regrettably not the case for those who are members.