“This week’s development is both uniquely about Jeremy Corbyn, as the former leader of the party, and is also much broader than one person because of its connection to a command-and-control trend that has been deepening for some time.”
By Simon Fletcher
Labour has published the motion that Keir Starmer will take to tomorrow’s (March 28th) National Executive Committee to bar his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, from standing as a parliamentary candidate at the next general election.
There are a number of reasons to reject it.
Seconded by Shabana Mahmood, Keir Starmer’s motion is extremely novel. Jeremy Corbyn is to be blocked because the poor result of the general election of 2019 means that the party’s prospects of winning the next election would be ‘significantly diminished should Mr Corbyn be endorsed by the Labour Party as one of its candidates for the next general election.’
Whilst organising itself around a particular point – Jeremy Corbyn’s position as leader during the 2019 defeat – it is actually extremely loosely-worded. No specific charge is made, no breach of the rules alleged. Instead the party leadership’s motion rests on catch-all phrases such as ‘it is not in the best interests of the Labour Party for it to endorse Mr Corbyn.’ Many people will feel that in granting itself such a sweeping approach to its judgement, the party leadership is involved in peremptory behaviour. Concern about the implications of that for transparent and inclusive politics ought to stretch well beyond the Labour left.
If passed, the motion would leave Jeremy Corbyn as a Labour Party member but would deprive members of Islington North Constituency Labour Party of their ability to determine whether they wish to select him as their candidate for the next election.
This week’s development is both uniquely about Jeremy Corbyn, as the former leader of the party, and is also much broader than one person because of its connection to a command-and-control trend that has been deepening for some time.
A severe infraction of Labour party and labour movement norms has been underway for months. Candidates with broad labour movement support blocked from standing for Parliamentary selections, with the effective imposition of shortlists; suspension or expulsion based on retrospective application of proscribed groupings or publications; numerous council candidates blocked from seeking re-selection; ignoring Labour conference policy such as on backing for public sector pay to keep pace with inflation.
As basic labour movement norms are eroded – or worse – so at the same time the party’s rhetoric has been willing to indulge a rightward shift, such as agreeing with Margaret Thatcher.
Under the present National Executive Committee the central party has granted itself significantly-enhanced powers to determine who is permitted to stand for selection to be an MP. There are now multiple cases where those powers have been used to stop candidates who were likely to win, or had a strong chance of winning, in order to favour another candidate.
In Broxtowe, Labour councillor Greg Marshall was barred from contesting the Labour selection. He was backed by eight unions and had attracted broad political support from Labour parliamentarians, by no means only on the left. The conduct of the machine in the Broxtowe selection caused the whole executive of the constituency party to resign. In Bolton North East the chair of the North West Labour Party, Leigh Drennan, was blocked form standing, although he had the support of Unite, GMB, Unison and CWU. The MP for Warrington North, Charlotte Nichols, described Drennan’s blocking as ‘one of the most blatantly factional examples of abuse of the process I’ve seen in the 15 years or so I’ve been a party member.’ The entire selection committee in Bolton North East resigned. For Milton Keynes North, Lauren Townsend – a local council cabinet member – was endorsed by several trade unions including ASLEF, the FBU, the CWU, UNISON and the TSSA. She was blocked. And so on – the cases mount up.
Given the abrogation of party and labour movement norms, the response of much of the left to Keir Starmer’s NEC motion on Jeremy Corbyn has been to place it within the framework of democracy and rights. The Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs issued a statement that argued: ‘It is the democratic right of Labour Party members and the affiliated trade unions and socialist societies in the Islington North CLP to choose their Parliamentary candidate. We urge members of the NEC to uphold this vital democratic right at Tuesday’s [NEC] meeting.’ The Scottish Campaign for Socialism said that ‘This move, on top of unfairly blocking numerous parliamentary candidates, will disempower all Labour members – whatever their views. Abandoning internal democracy leaves Labour short of the ideas & commitment needed to tackle the crises of our time. We must give members a say.’ In saying he cannot support the motion, NEC member Mish Rahman emphasised ‘a broad church Labour Party where members should choose their candidates,’ and said ‘now is not the time for the party to turn inwards.’
Political differences are generally better dealt with politically, not organisationally.
Defence of the Labour Party’s democracy and political breadth has the capacity to build alliances between those who do not always agree on other questions.
There are two aspects to to this. First, a broad church: many take the view that the Labour Party is better when it is open to different ideas and strands of opinion, and that this range should be protected.
Secondly, a defence of labour movement norms and processes, the importance of retaining those values into policy and in attitudes towards the trade union movement, public ownership and so on – keeping the party labour, in other words.
- This article was originally published by Simon Fletcher’s Modern Left on March 27th, 2023.
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