But if it wants to win power, it will have to resist the temptation to boot out Labour’s moderates
AS ELECTIONS to arcane committees in the Labour Party go, the race for slots on its National Executive Committee (NEC) was star-studded. The candidacy of Eddie Izzard, a comedian and longtime Labour activist, added some colour amid the crop of councillors and bearded Bennites.
Sadly for Mr Izzard, star power was not enough. Instead, three candidates backed by Momentum, the activist group set up to support Labour’s left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, bagged the positions. The result gives Corbynites a cast-iron majority on the NEC, an unwieldy politburo of 39 members comprising MPs, councillors, unionists and ordinary party members. Jon Lansman, the founder of Momentum, will now sit on the body that sets rules on everything from leadership elections to the deselection of MPs.
Those in the party’s moderate and right-leaning camps fear the worst. The spectre of deselection has stalked MPs since Mr Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015. Mr Lansman has in the past made clear that he would like mandatory reselections, with MPs forced to go before local party members before being allowed to stand again. With control of the NEC, a change to the rule book is now feasible.
Yet the idea may be put on the back burner. A push for mass deselections would prove wildly controversial, and potentially for little gain. Party infighting would dominate the headlines and create bad blood among activists. For a party polling at 40% and styling itself as a government-in-waiting, it would be needlessly risky. “It would be silly for the party and the left,” says one Momentum activist.
Nor would it guarantee more left-leaning MPs. Labour is already in the process of selecting candidates for the next election. So far, Momentum has struggled to place its candidates in winnable seats. Although the group and its 32,000 members have won plaudits for their sharp digital campaigning, these online organising skills have not always translated to a local level, where socialism still takes up too many evenings. Labour candidates chosen in a rush before the 2017 election were mainly moderate. And they have an embedded advantage when it comes to selections, having got to know local activists during the campaign.
Other institutional checks may hinder Momentum’s efforts to overhaul the party’s structures. Unions have in the past acted as a block on the more radical parts of the Labour movement. Their cash remains the financial backbone of the party and their preferred candidates find their way to safe seats. Giving extra power to Labour members would mean diluting that of the unions, which will not cede it lightly.
Those banking that this balance would result in a fragile peace had their faith dented by the new-look NEC’s first step. The council voted to remove the chairwoman of its disciplinary committee, which investigates misbehaving members. Critics called it a purge, pointing out that her replacement, Christine Shawcroft, is a key figure in Momentum. Ms Shawcroft, who was suspended from the party in 2015 for supporting a disgraced former mayor who had been convicted of electoral fraud, dismissed it as a “storm in a tea cup”.
Whether the clear-out continues will indicate where the left’s ambitions truly lie. After decades in the wilderness, Mr Lansman and co find themselves on the doorstep of Downing Street. Plunging Labour into civil war—again—could destroy any chance of winning power. Labour’s left has a choice: try to seize total control of the party, or take a chance to run the country. It cannot do both.