Johanna Baxter recalls Labour’s post-2010 organisational missteps
Johanna Baxter stood for the National Executive Committee when the ballot coincided with the 2010 leadership election. Supporting Ed Balls, she toured the country in between helping his campaign, giving out her leaflets and using social media to promise to ‘put members first’. Initially disappointed, having lost out by a handful of votes, Oona King’s elevation to the House of Lords meant Baxter was herself elevated to the top table. Fast-forward six years and she has been re-elected as an independent twice. Her vote surged from 24,325 in 2014 to 60,367. But this year it was not to be.
She can, however, leave at Labour party conference with significant achievements under her belt. Baxter is, she tells us, most proud of the ‘campaign and diversity fund’ created under Refounding Labour, along with ‘the constituency Labour party minimum support package’ and later, ‘securing a place for the leaders of Scotland and Wales on the NEC’. But there is confusion about this change. ‘Prior to “Collins”’ – the review led by former party general secretary Ray Collins set up in the wake of the Falkirk vote-buying scandal – ‘there was no opportunity for [the Socttish and Welsh leaders] to be at the NEC … I got them a place. The problem was, I didn’t get agreement for that to be a voting place’. But Baxter does not give up. ‘Further reform is needed on that, which I hope to achieve before the end of my term’, she says.
Do more decisions need making in Scotland itself? Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale has a plan for further powers to be given to the Scottish party. ‘I don’t think I would necessarily oppose autonomy for the Scottish Executive Committee [the governing body of Scottish Labour]. The difficulty is that there is not a joined-up approach.’ ‘My perception is very different to Johann Lamont’s [the former party leader who infamously said on resigning her post that Scottish Labour was treated as a “branch office”]’. ‘Actually my perception is quite the opposite … [Many] are too reluctant to get involved [in Scottish Labour] in case they are perceived to be interfering.’ Too often, she argues, people ‘would rather take a step back and say, “That’s not really our problem. Someone else should deal with it,” as opposed to working collegiately.’
It was in Scotland, during Falkirk, where many of the party’s current problems started. ‘I’m very angry about how this whole system has come about because as you know I voted against the registered supporter scheme when it came to the NEC [in 2011]. It was part of Peter Hain’s review … the problem was there were two votes on what become known as Refounding Labour – one vote on the proposed introduction of registered supporters, and a second vote on the package as a whole. I voted against the introduction of the registered supporters scheme but, when we lost that vote, then voted in favour of the package as a whole. The registered supporters proposal came to the NEC on the Saturday morning before conference met on Sunday, and it had not been discussed at all before then.’ ‘My view’, she states, was that ‘anyone knowing our history [must have known it] would be abused.’
In the end, the compromise put to the NEC, and subsequently conference, was that registered supporters would get a vote in an additional section of the electoral college. Depending on the number recruited they would get either three (over 50,000 registered supporters), six or 10 (over 250,000) per cent of the college. This was all subject to their votes never being worth more than members’ votes.
‘I wasn’t comfortable with them, so that’s why I voted against it.’ Progress, traditionally, among others, in favour of primaries, had pressed for a trial with registered supporters in a fourth college. ‘By voting against it, I was perceived as not moderate enough. I disputed that at the time, and I dispute it now. I voted against it because I could see a threat coming, and I didn’t know how the scheme would work and because it diminished the rights of the members I was there to represent.’
‘And then’, she continues, ‘Ed [Miliband] did away with the college’ in the wake of the Falkirk scandal that had been in the news for weeks before the four-college trial could take place. ‘I remember exactly where I was when that speech was made. I was standing in [Labour] HQ looking at the telly and all merry hell broke loose at the NEC meeting that followed because nobody had been consulted about it’. But ‘the leader was very clear that that was what he wanted to do and we had to find a way of implementing that’.
Baxter sat through the NEC meeting that put Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot paper without any expression of support of him in the parliamentary party. ‘There were some things that happened in that meeting which are inappropriate which I thought had to be called out. I think it was inappropriate for the general secretary to be threatened with legal action unless the NEC voted a particular way. I thought it was inappropriate for Andy Burnham and Debbie Abrahams to come to the NEC and for Andy to say that if the NEC did not agree with their proposals for a negotiated outcome between the PLP and the leader that, again, the shadow cabinet would look at taking their own legal advice. It seemed to be a very clear threat to the NEC. We had several colleagues speak about intimidation they had been subject to … We therefore had a discussion about the fact that the vote should be held by secret ballot to protect those colleagues, and for me to see the leader [Corbyn] sitting at the table at that point in the meeting and not express any concern for those colleagues and actively vote against that proposal I thought was highly inappropriate and very, very disappointing.’
Baxter is replaced on the NEC by six candidate supported by Momentum. What does she think of the winner-takes-all nature of the result? ‘There is a polarisation taking place which I think is unhealthy for the party. I stood as an independent not because I had an issue with one side or the other but because I genuinely thought that we would achieve more by bringing people together from across the spectrum. I think actually the membership pre the 2015 general election certainly had an appetite for that.’ Baxter’s final thoughts are gloomy but it is clear she will not give up. ‘I think the most concerning thing about the current state of the party for me is that there seems not to be the ability for people to have independent thought … but this is my party and I’ll always fight for it and our Labour values.’
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