Will Momentum, the National Executive Committee and the leader’s office break Labour’s unity with hostile rule changes at party conference?
Labour party annual conference 2017 will operate on two levels.
Publicly, the unexpectedly good performance for Labour in the June general election means that there will be a celebratory mood and frontbench speakers, particularly Jeremy Corbyn, are likely to be cheered to the rafters.
The general election also means there are unlikely to be major hard-left versus centre-left disputes over policy – any revisions to policy ahead of the next manifesto should be considered, not kneejerk. The formal policymaking cycle is now in its very early stages as it is designed to come to fruition at the end of a four-year cycle. A push from the Momentum left on unilateral nuclear disarmament looks unlikely as three of the four major unions (Unite, GMB and Usdaw) are bound by pro-Trident renewal policy so it would be almost impossible for it to pass. More importantly it is the right policy for Labour and was popular with the public. There could be contemporary motions (motions relating to events occurring after the late July publication of the National Policy Forum annual report) about Brexit and this would certainly cause a lively debate, but it would not split along Momentum versus moderate lines. Both sides are internally divided, the former between soft left and Trotskyist supporters of free movement and migration versus others from a Bennite and Stalinist anti-European Union tradition; the moderate members of parliament between those with ‘Remain’-voting London and university town constituencies and those with northern and Midlands ‘Leave’-voting constituencies. Exposing these divisions is not in the interests of a leadership trying to keep both Remain and Leave voters on board, so Momentum may use their strength among constituency Labour party delegates to keep this debate off the agenda in the priority ballot, a vote on Sunday on which eight topics get debated. One significant rule change passed last year is that conference now ‘has the right to refer back part of any document without rejecting the policy document as a whole’. This could get interesting, and confusing.
Beyond this superficial unity there will be a jostling for advantage between Momentum and its moderate rivals.
There is only one election at conference involving constituency Labour party delegates, which is for two members of the National Constitutional Committee. The quasi-judicial NCC was set up by Neil Kinnock during his battles with Militant in order to take on the most complex disputes and disciplinary cases rather than them chew up the time of the National Executive Committee. The NCC was in the headlines this year due to its verdict in the Ken Livingstone antisemitism case. Defending seats won in 2014 are NCC chair Rose Burley (supported by Progress and Labour First) and Anna Dyer (supported by Momentum). This is interesting as it shows there was not a clear moderate majority among CLP delegates even before Corbyn became leader. Completing the two slates are Kevin Hepworth for Progress and Labour First (he is trying to win back the NCC seat he lost to Dyer in 2014), and Emine Ibrahim for Momentum.
Also elected at conference are 12 trade union seats and one socialist societies’ seat on the NEC. Moderate James Asser from LGBT Labour is set to be returned in the socialist societies’ section. Although minimal change is likely in the union section as the major unions are always represented, even a switch of one seat would have big consequences for a finely balanced NEC.
A number of rule changes will definitely go to a vote this year as they were submitted by CLPs and affiliates and noted in 2016. In each case, the swing votes are probably the GMB and Unison trade unions as while Momentum has done better in the election of CLP delegates than in 2016, however, their lead does not appear to be overwhelming (CLPs have 50 per cent of the vote and unions and other affiliates 50 per cent in the card vote required on any rule change).
The proposals that will be debated include:
- Reduction of the nomination requirement for leadership and deputy elections from 15 per cent of the parliamentary Labour party to five per cent – known as the ‘McDonnell amendment’.
- Incumbent leaders and deputies automatically getting on the ballot in the event of a challenge.
- Abolition of ‘registered supporters’ (the notorious £3 voters in the 2015 leadership election) or, more controversially ‘affiliated supporters’ from the unions too.
- Four different proposals about antisemitism and how it should be dealt with in disciplinary cases, including one from the Jewish Labour Movement.
- Abolition of the 1995 Clause IV of Labour’s constitution and its replacement with ‘Labour is a democratic socialist party working for a fairer, healthier and more equal society’.
- Enabling CLPs and affiliates to submit a rule change and a contemporary policy motion each year, rather than having to choose one or the other.
- Abolition of the concept of ‘contemporary motions’ so that any policy motion can be submitted, as before the mid-1990s ‘partnership in power’ changes.
- Abolition of the one year delay in rule changes from CLPs and affiliates being debated.
- Young Labour, rather than conference, to have control of its own rulebook.
- Going back from local campaign forums to local government committees.
It is also possible there could be other more radical rule changes. Some have been mooted in the media, such as creating a second deputy leader and fundamentally changing the trigger ballot system in an attempt to remove sitting Labour members of parliament. I would not be surprised if the leader’s office tabled a whole host of last minute changes to try and force the hand of various NEC members and attempt to create the idea that opponents are against ‘democratising the party’. If they cared so much, they would promote them in advance and in public.
We will not know about these until just before conference as the NEC can agree rule change proposals at its meetings on the Tuesday and Saturday before conference. But the tight balance on the NEC, with most votes being decided by a margin of one or two, means there is unlikely to be a majority for radical changes from either side.
Luke Akehurst is secretary of Labour First. He tweets at @lukeakehurst
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