Corbyn’s speech to close Labour’s 2016 annual conference showed his exceptional, statesmanlike qualities and stood in stark contrast to deputy leader Tom Watson’s nauseating performance. In his shadow, the chicken-coup mediocrities talked of unity and, ludicrously, the lessons Corbyn needed to learn from his resounding victory.
However, Tuesday this week laid bare the real intentions of the Labour hard-right.
It witnessed one of the most shameful episodes in the recent history of the Labour party, as the still-twitching corpse of defeated right-wing NEC members, with the collusion of the party establishment, moved like Frankenstein’s monster to undemocratically seize control of the levers of bureaucratic power that they had emphatically lost democratically.
Sounds melodramatic? No, it’s not dramatic enough – although the processes that were exploited look dry and dusty to those who don’t understand what was going on. So some clarification of how they’ve done it and why it matters may be helpful to many.
Here’s the run of events, as clear as I can make them, before I describe today’s culmination:
- A couple of months ago, Labour party members voted for the ‘constituency’ members of the NEC, essentially the ruling committee of the party, which was previously finely balanced between pro- and anti-Corbyn members
- At the beginning of August, Corbyn-supporting members were elected in a ‘clean sweep‘ to the 6 positions available. Some of these were already members and therefore were re-elected, but the result gave Corbyn a clear majority on the NEC to support his leadership, policies and measures
- According to Labour rules, the now-defunct members of the NEC remain in position until after Labour’s annual party conference
- In the final few days before the Conference, the anti-Corbyn faction used the votes of its defeated hangers-on to force through a rule change allowing the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh Labour groups to appoint (i.e. unelected) a member each to the NEC
- Because the leaders of the national groups are not Corbyn supporters, this represents a camouflaged power-grab by the Labour right-wing to restore their control of the NEC even though Labour members massively voted it to Corbyn-supporting members. However, this rule-change needed to be ratified by the annual conference
- In order to help the rule-change progress through Conference, on Sunday 25/9 at the start of the conference, the conference Chair, Paddy Lillis, refused calls by members for a proper debate and ballot on each individual NEC rule change and called a vote by a simple show of hands on the ‘CAC report’ (Conference Arrangements Committee).
- The CAC report stated that the NEC’s proposed rule changes would all be packaged as one ‘take it or leave it’ bundle. This means that good rule-changes and bad alike have to be accepted or rejected en bloc – forcing people either to swallow a poison pill or throw the baby out with the bathwater (or more accurately, throw the baby out with the snake)
- Forcing the vote to be by show of hands only meant that there was no proper oversight. Although the numbers of hands for and against were clearly tight, Lillis simply called out ‘overwhelmingly carried’ and moved on, again ignoring angry demands that he abide by the rules and carry out a ‘card vote’ (i.e. a properly monitored and counted vote)
- The following day, many delegates again asked for ‘reference back’ (a proper debate and vote) on the ‘pre-pack’ of the rule changes and again the Chair refused
- Today, the vote on the packaged rules was scheduled to take place. Once again, many delegates – a long queue, including this writer – stood to denounce the pre-pack as cynical and anti-democratic and demanding both a proper debate/vote on each change and that the vote on that decision should be by card vote
- Lillis and the CAC chair simply dismissed the demands that the party’s rules be followed, insisting that only a show of hands vote – even when a member of the NEC itself, Christine Shawcroft, spoke to remind the Chair that the party rules state, simply and unequivocally, that if a delegate requests a card vote, a card vote must take place
- The show of hands was again tight (hard to call even on i-player’s high-angle view), but Lillis simply called it clearly carried
- The vote then took place early this afternoon, with the only choice being to accept all or reject all of the rule changes, including the underhand, undiscussed decision to simply add extra NEC members to cancel a democratically-established majority
- Because the Unite union had a number of rule changes it wanted included in the bundle, Unite delegates abstained, meaning that the anti-democratic faction (and those taken in by them) were able to win the eventual card vote on the pre-packaged measures (which was always going to be a card vote)
- Why does all this matter? Because (among other reasons) the NEC:
a) has huge influence over the CAC (conference arrangements committee), which decides how Conference is run, what business is discussed – and how proposals are packaged;
b) sets the groundrules for elections and (following a risible court ruling by a judge with close ties to Tony Blair) is the final arbiter of its decisions
c) controls the ‘compliance committee’, which in this year’s leadership election suspended or expelled vast numbers of Corbyn-supporting members
The right-wingers were quick to try to dismiss the attempt to rescue democratic process as mischief-making by the mythical ‘hard left’:
But this merely shows how ready to lie and misrepresent they are. Lillis, in waving off calls for a card vote, complained ‘it will take an hour’ (as though an hour would be a high price to do the right thing in the right way). An hour would not ‘shut down conference’. Nor was anyone who wanted proper process ‘hard left’ – they were simply ordinary delegates asking for the party’s own rules to be followed rather than trampled on.
The fact that the NEC’s gerrymandering rule change had nothing to do with empowering Scotland and Wales and everything to do with seizing control of the party’s levers of power is made plain by the Progress/Labour First (vehemently anti-Corbyn factions) briefing to their supporters calling on them to do everything to force it through:
Equally telling is the fact that all those who spoke against a proper debate and vote were Corbyn-haters, so there’s no doubt that their zeal to support the anti-democratic move had absolutely nothing to do with wanting to save the hour that following the rules would have taken.
The fact that the outgoing, right-wing, zombie NEC members felt entitled to spring a move like this in the last days of their membership is bad enough. What is worse is that the hard right then admitted they had been organising for months to use the conference to act against Corbyn, even while they shriek and whine about left-wing members organising to exercise their democratic right to select the MP/candidate they want to represent them.
So, what do right-thinking Labour members of goodwill and good conscience do about it? Here are five suggestions.
- Act and speak at your CLP
Raise awareness of this issue among your local party colleagues. Propose – and organise to win the vote – motions against the anti-democratic behaviour of the conference platform and call on the NEC to annul the rule changes, which are clearly illegal. If enough CLPs do this, it will create pressure that may help the democratic members of the NEC to act – and to exclude the illegally-appointed members from any vote for their clear conflict of interest. The Vox Political blog has posted a good draft motion that you might use as a basis for your own.
The hard right invested time and effort to organise a presence at the conference that was far stronger than their numbers in the party merited. The left needs to do the same, starting now, to ensure that trick only works once and that we are in a clear majority at the 2017 conference, just as we are in the party membership. Make sure you get to your CLP/branch meeting and work to elect good officers to the local executive, to ensure that the right can’t unduly influence delegate selection procedures.
- Join the party
If you’re not already a member, join. And don’t just join – get involved. CLP meetings can be dry (sometimes by design at the moment), but take your passion, get involved and link up with like-minded members. Then see (2) above!
Link up online and off with people around the country. Share information – and if you come across information that might be useful in the fight, contact the author of this blog so we can get it where it’s needed.
- Don’t lose heart
The right-wingers would love existing and prospective Corbyn-supporting members to become disillusioned and discouraged, then to either leave the party or not bother joining, so they can have their cosy, co-opted club back. Don’t. Instead, get more determined, more passionate, more involved – and make sure you insist on your democratic rights and influence. Even if the NEC rigging stands for now, there are still measures open to Corbyn to put things right, so all is not lost.
We are many, they are few. We have passion and authenticity, they have ‘message discipline’ with little substance. We have a vision, they have a black-belt in bureaucracy and a base willingness to trample on the rules. So let’s learn to beat them at the parts of their own game that are not corrupt, while our passion and reality beat their empty cynicism.
Idealistic? Perhaps. But that’s what people are crying out for now – and why we’ll win.