Political media – and the right inside and outside Labour – have been abuzz over Facebook comments yesterday by NEC (National Executive Committee) member Christine Shawcroft, in which she hit out at union involvement in the Labour Party, claimed that union behaviour had strengthened her support for Momentum’s Jon Lansman for the position of General Secretary – and called, briefly, for ‘disaffiliation’ of unions from the party.
Since then, senior figures in the Labour movement have come out to underline the importance of unions to the movement.
Ms Shawcroft told the SKWAWKBOX:
I’ve withdrawn the post. The unions have done great work over the years. Everyone on the left wants to work with them, not against them.
However, the ‘olive branch’ had a thorn, as she added:
That needs to work both ways.
In spite of the thorn, the conciliatory tone will be welcome.
But what happened to lead to the ‘Shawcroft incident’?
The SKWAWKBOX has spoken to other NEC members among both ‘CLP’ (Labour member) representatives and union delegates. As near as can be fairly achieved, without judgment and while respecting confidentiality where needed, the following describes what took place.
The NEC’s ‘Disputes Panel’ met yesterday to address around twenty cases. Every NEC member is entitled to attend but Disputes meetings rarely have a full complement because of other commitments. For this meeting, eight or ten members were absent – including two of the MPs on the NEC – although some who weren’t physically present were able to dial in for some or all of the meeting.
The cases heard were various, but included at least two involving allegations of criminal behaviour.
An NEC member who was at the meeting told the SKWAWKBOX:
Disputes meetings are only supposed to last an hour, but usually go on double that – but even then, the time is too short. Twenty cases is about the usual number – and that’s too many, even for two hours.
The information we receive from the investigators can be sketchy and is often just a summary of their findings. Some members basically just want the recommendations of the investigating unit to be rubber-stamped – and treat any queries as an attack on the integrity of the investigators.
As the cases all involve members, the CLP people feel its their territory and feel a big responsibility. The union members usually keep fairly quiet, perhaps aware of the risk for reputational damage if they dismiss a case, or else that it’s not their territory as it concerns party members.
Crucially – before she ever knew she would become Disputes chair – Ms Shawcroft had assisted at least two of the people whose cases were heard – and gave evidence yesterday in one of the cases that contradicted the findings of the investigators.
Some members asked her to recuse herself from the chair for that case on the grounds of a personal stake in the outcome, but she declined.
Union members present then told the panel that they would abstain from voting on some of the cases – including at least two that Ms Shawcroft felt strongly about. A union NEC delegate told the SKWAWKBOX:
I can understand why Christine was frustrated, but we had little option. The reports on the cases made recommendations and a referral to the NCC [National Constitutional Committee] doesn’t automatically mean expulsion.
In the absence of any concrete evidence to justify throwing out the recommendation, we’d be pilloried for dismissing a case that might involve serious allegations – in fact, there’d be a shitstorm. And nobody was arguing that there was no case to answer.
You can easily make an argument that Labour’s disciplinary processes need a complete overhaul, but at the moment they are what they are and we have to act within them – and we have to go on the evidence presented, we can’t just assume right or wrong.
The rejected compromise
In an attempt to buy time for further investigation and discussion, a proposal was made to take some of the most contentious cases off the table until a future meeting, but this was rejected by those who wanted them dismissed. This forced a vote on whether to pass the cases to the NCC, which passed.
Several NEC members told the SKWAWKBOX that the fallout from the meeting was almost immediate, with extremely angry words and text messages.
But of course, if it hadn’t been for the social media messages sent out subsequently, few others would ever have heard about it.
The media have attempted to cast yesterday’s events as indicative of a split between the Labour Party’s left membership and the unions. This is understandable, given Ms Shawcroft’s social media posts – but deeply inaccurate.
The unions on the NEC are divided – still – between those behind Corbyn’s leadership and those who yearn for a return to a more centrist position. But Unite and other left unions played an absolutely vital role in upholding the wishes of Labour members for most of the past two and a half years since Corbyn was first elected leader – a period when the member representatives on the NEC were not strong, or numerous, or sometimes united enough to do it.
The left unions fought to prevent the coups. The left unions fought to make sure Corbyn’s name was on the ballot paper after the 2016 ‘chicken coup’ leadership challenge.
The left unions fought to extend voting rights in the second leadership ballot to as many members as possible.
And the groundswell of Labour member support – including most of the NEC members elected on ‘left slates’ put together by Momentum and the other grassroots member organisations – has been behind union candidate Jennie Formby for the soon-to-be-vacant General Secretary positiom.
The reality of what happened yesterday at and after the Disputes meeting was not union vs member representatives – it was personal.
Primarily, it was the personal investment of Christine Shawcroft – and to a lesser degree, one or two other NEC ‘CLP’ members – in the outcome of a handful of disciplinary cases meeting an outcome that wasn’t what was passionately wanted, with a side-serving of crossed-wires over perceptions and motivations.
Add to that mix a rash decision to vent frustrations publicly and the wishes of the Labour right and part of the media estate to present an outburst of personal disappointment and rage as a factional fracture, and it brings us to where we are about now.
What comes next?
Several NEC members told this blog that a silver lining of the blow-up was that the ‘Organisation Subcommittee’ that met immediately after the Disputes session agreed that the disciplinary process needs to be reviewed and a meeting with the leader’s office was agreed to iron out conflicts and discuss options. This can only be healthy for the direction of the movement and the functioning of Labour’s ruling committee.
In addition, the questioning of the role of the unions in the Labour movement functioned – in spite of the media presentation – to bring the key figures at the top of the movement together.
Senior union figures aligned with both wings of the party spoke out about their commitment to and vital role in the Labour Party, as did senior parliamentarians and party movers – as did Jon Lansman, for whom Ms Shawcroft had said the incident had strengthened her support.
The mere mention of a threat to that role will have focused any minds that were wandering to other priorities, strengthening the movement and spurring all those in leadership to gather themselves to push onward united.
Talk of division, in that sense, said far more about the wishes and hopes of the media and those who do not want to see the continue growth of the (small ‘m’) momentum of the Labour Party as the genuine representatives of ‘the many, not the few’.
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