Labour’s NEC ‘Deal’: Paving the Way for Change?

Last week, it was announced that the party’s ruling National Executive Committee had agreed a deal relating to the so-called ‘McDonnell amendment’.

Last week, as delegates prepared to descend on Brighton for Labour Party conference, it was announced - after much speculation - that the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) had agreed a deal relating to the so-called ‘McDonnell amendment’. This came after an almost unprecedented grassroots mobilisation in the run-up to conference, with a survey indicating that the vast majority of CLP delegates were likely to support the amendment.

Conference will now vote on the terms of the deal put forward by the NEC, which is expected to pass overwhelmingly. In short, these terms - as first reported by Skwawkbox here - are as follows:

  • Three more CLP representatives will be added to the NEC, joining the current six.
  • An additional trade union representative will also be added to the NEC, increasing the trade union section from 12 to 13 in total. This seat will go to a representative from the right-of-centre USDAW union. However, this should also mean that the leftwing BFAWU and UCATT (now part of Unite) representatives will retain their places.
  • Jeremy Corbyn’s political secretary, Katy Clark, will lead a review into the party’s democratic structures. This ‘Party Democracy Review’ will report regularly both to Corbyn and his party chair, Ian Lavery.
  • The minimum threshold for leadership nominations will be reduced to 10% of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP) from the existing 15%. The ‘McDonnell amendment’ had originally proposed reducing this threshold to 5%. The 10% threshold will also apply to aspiring leadership contenders looking to launch a challenge - TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes had proposed a threshold of 40% in this eventuality, but this will be remitted to Katy Clark’s review.
  • Those CLP delegates tasked with moving the 27 rule changes on the conference agenda are being asked to remit them to the review (even where they are not directly covered by the review’s terms of reference). Wherever they refuse to do so and insist on proceeding with their rule changes at this year’s conference, the NEC is instructing trade unions to oppose them.
  • The BAME representative on the NEC will, from now on, be elected via an OMOV ballot of all BAME party members, rather than just those who have joined the BAME Labour organisation. The current BAME NEC representative, Keith Vaz, was recently re-elected by just a few hundred people in what was a transparent farce.
  • At present, the Scottish seat on the NEC is occupied by Alex Rowley, Scottish Labour’s interim leader. Scottish Labour members will put forward a motion to their own Scottish Executive Committee proposing that their representative to the NEC be elected via an OMOV ballot of Scottish party members. There are no plans to do likewise in Wales at present.

This deal represents a series of real gains for the Labour leadership and its supporters - i.e. the clear majority of party members. We would also note that there is nothing untoward about the way the NEC has agreed this deal and put it forward to the conference; it is perfectly entitled to do so. It is also quite possible that the reforms which eventually emerge out of the review process will be considerably more radical than those likely to be put forward in the form of CLP rule changes.

But the immediate gains made are, in important respects, quite modest. The changes put forward should provide the left with a working majority on the NEC. But it will be a fragile working majority, which will force the left on the committee to take a strategic, deal-making approach. There will not, for example, be a sufficient majority on the NEC to bring about a change of general secretary. There are also several factors which may jeopardise whatever working majority the left does have. While Richard Leonard has a very good chance of winning the Scottish leadership election, he might not. Even if he does, the left may then lose any future standalone ballot for the Scottish NEC seat. Trade unions which currently back Corbyn may change their position further along the line. Therefore, these changes will not set a left NEC majority in stone.

Furthermore, Labour Party membership has nigh-on trebled over the last two years. Increasing the number of CLP representatives - directly elected by that membership - by 50 per cent is certainly a step in the right direction, but it is only a fairly moderate one. We feel strongly that there is further scope for increasing CLP representation on the NEC to ensure that its expanded membership is adequately represented on the body.

As far as the leadership nominations threshold is concerned, 10% should certainly be sufficient to ensure that a leftwing candidate is guaranteed a place on the next leadership ballot whenever it comes. Of course, this question is not so urgent now as it seemed before the election given the party’s excellent campaign (for which Corbyn himself should take no small amount of credit), the far better-than-expected result and Corbyn’s dramatically enhanced personal standing. We would certainly like to think that the socialist left will never again account for less than 10% of the PLP - and if it ever does, something will have gone seriously wrong.

Katy Clark’s Party Democracy Review will encompass a wide range of issues relating to the party’s internal democratic process. These will include the role of constituency parties, accountability in local government, strengthening the trade union link and democratising Labour’s policymaking processes as well as bolstering the party’s efforts to work towards gender equality, potentially including enhanced powers for women’s conference. Affiliated organisations such as BAME Labour and Young Labour will be subject to the review. We strongly welcome all of this and look forward to the interim report which is expected to appear within 12 months.

However, much will hinge on exactly how the review is carried out. There could potentially be an opportunity here to radically engage the grassroots of the party, seeking the input of rank-and-file members across Britain. Given that the review is being overseen by the leader’s office, we have confidence that it will be conducted in a participatory and democratic manner - and we fervently hope that this proves to be the case. This could open the door to a radical overhaul of party democracy. But there is also a risk that the party bureaucracy (which will not be enthusiastic about any attempt to further democratise the party) may look to drain the life out of the review. It is essential that those responsible for the review are aware of this danger and are highly vigilant against it.

Another potential problem is that it appears the issue of candidate selection is beyond the scope of the Party Democracy Review. It seems that the NEC could not agree on the desirability of including this matter in the review, and we will not speculate here as to why. Given the significant divergence between many of Labour’s elected representatives (both in Parliament and at council level) which has opened up in recent years, it could potentially be very problematic if this issue is not addressed in the review. But there are other options on the table. This year, a number of CLPs have submitted rule changes relating to candidate selection with a view to getting them debated and voted on at next year’s conference. Changes to candidate selection processes, and much-needed improvements to accountability, could be pursued via this route if necessary.

It is perhaps unfortunate that this year’s conference delegates are being given a choice between remitting their rule changes into the review process, or having them defeated. The NEC didn’t have to take this step - it could have supported some of the other rule changes or adopted a neutral stance, and then incorporated any which were passed into the Party Democracy Review. The fact that it hasn’t done this may be perceived as disempowering and frustrating by some CLP delegates.

Delegates who have been tasked with moving rule changes at conference should, however, agree to remit them on this occasion. There is no point in putting rule changes forward just for them to be defeated, especially as this will trigger the three-year rule - meaning that any defeated rule changes would not be eligible to be revisited at conference until 2020. What we would suggest these delegates do is to remit their rule changes on this occasion, but to move them again at next year’s conference if the Party Democracy Review does not address them adequately.

None of this is to say that delegates have been left with nothing to decide in Brighton. The priorities ballot has already been held, and there are also the elections to the National Constitutional Committee which have yet to be decided. Here leftwing delegates will need to ensure that they are alert and organised, as a single CLP delegate can cast votes for the NCC on behalf of their entire delegation. Leftwing delegates should therefore ensure that they vote early so they are not beaten to it by any rightwing members of their delegation.

What is clearly necessary is a full and open discussion on the left about what we intend to do with the National Policy Forum (NPF). As Chris MacMackin has argued elsewhere for New Socialist, this year’s NPF reports are generally milquetoast and light on detail in important ways. The NPF process appears to have a way of producing documents of this calibre. In some areas - for example, on Palestine and the Occupied Territories - they lag well behind the recent manifesto. Conference delegates now have the option of referring back parts of NPF reports, but the process as a whole remains opaque and obscure to most party members. If we are serious about democratising the party as a whole - and about building on the success of the manifesto - this has to change. The ideas, not just the campaigning energies, of Labour’s mass membership must be properly harnessed.