Why is the Party leadership ignoring Conference’s rule change on by-elections?

By James McAsh

Last month, CLP and union delegates at Party Conference voted for some minimum democratic standards for when we select parliamentary candidates in by-elections and snap elections. The rule change ensures that future selections would be governed by a five-person panel, comprising three CLP representatives, someone from the NEC and another representative from the Regional Executive Committee. The first by-election since the conference is now approaching, in the Tory safe-seat of Old Bexley and Sidcup. The NEC has announced that the rule-change will be ignored: the majority of the selection panel will be from the NEC, with just one representative from the CLP. What’s going on?

The Party leadership has dismissed the rule change on the grounds that it was “inexpertly drafted”. Aside from openly admitting that they don’t want “inexpert” ordinary members participating in our Party’s democracy, what do they mean by this? They’re pointing to a part of the rulebook, unchanged by the rule change, which states:

“The NEC has the authority to modify these rules and any procedural rules and guidelines as required to meet particular circumstances or to further the stated objectives and principles of these rules. Further the NEC has the power to impose candidates where it deems that this is required by the circumstances”.

In other words, the NEC can do as it likes.

Disputes with the Labour right are a little like playing chess with a 20-foot tall toddler. You can outsmart and push them into a corner, but they will just use their brute strength to turn over the table and prevent your victory. That’s what they’re doing here: they don’t like the outcome of Party Conference so they’re using their strength to overturn it.

But like a giant toddler, the Labour right might be strong but it is not invincible. For the Labour right, their Achilles’ heel is the tension at the heart of their coalition.

Some members think the Labour left and Labour right want the same thing but have a different view on how to achieve it. They think the Labour right would love a left-wing government but believe that you can only “win from the centre-ground”. Others see the Labour right very differently: as obsessive anti-leftists, who would rather see the Party lose the next election than cede any ground to its left wing. The truth is that both are correct: the Labour right is a coalition between both types, sadly with senior roles filled by more of the former group.

It’s our job on the Labour Left to expose this contradiction. Many “moderate” members of the party will feel uncomfortable about the NEC’s decision. They will think Party Conference should be sovereign and that members should have the right to select parliamentary candidates. After all, many of them voted for a Party leader who promised just that. Above all, they will be open to the case that meaningful selection processes increase our chances of electoral success. This point was made so well by Brenda Stephenson, the CLP delegate who moved the rule change: “There is no evidence that involving CLP members in the choice of their own MP is a disaster. Whereas, there is evidence that excluding them can be.”

It’s easy to feel demoralised at the moment. After all, the Labour right seem to feel like they can make up the rules as they go along. But these overt displays of strength are only necessary because of their underlying weakness. If they were truly as strong as they make out, they wouldn’t need to resort to such tactics: they’d be able to win Conference votes outright. As it stands, they’ve lost every major all-member ballot since Starmer’s election, and they just suffered greater defeats at Conference than the left ever did under Corbyn. This underlying weakness forces them into increasingly drastic and indefensible actions, which risk damaging their relationship with their more reasonable supporters.

We must make the most of this, and attempt to rebuild the coalition that twice elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader. In other words, the left may be down but it’s definitely not out.

James McAsh is a primary school teacher, NEU officer and Labour councillor. He lives in Camberwell and Peckham CLP.

Image: Party Conference 2021, by Emma Tait.

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