There are a few hardy folk in public affairs that maintain an unhealthy interest in the perennial fights going on within Labour (sure, laugh now, but you’ll come knocking in two years’ time!) – yes they are obscure, yes they are often over things that are barely relevant and yes they are often tedious…… but every so often they are also potentially important for the country. This is one of those times.
Labour and the trade unions are currently in the midst of campaigns over General Secretary positions in the biggest trade unions – Unison, GMB and Unite – and 18 seats on Labour’s ruling body, the NEC.
This matters because they are critical to control of the party and its future direction. Keir Starmer won the leadership, has the majority of MPs behind him, and has his man leading the party machine, but his opponents are noisy and Unite under Len McCluskey is an awkward fit.
His hold would be complete if he can ensure allies are heading up these unions and the NEC’s balance tips decisively in his favour.
You’d think that the battleground for this contest would be competing visions of the future? Nope. Instead it is competing versions of the past.
Essentially the contest revolves around Jeremy Corbyn and the General Elections fought under his leadership.
The betrayal narrative
For “The Left” there is a betrayal narrative that is key to their ability to hold onto positions, but also to stop their tradition being discredited.
Their version of recent history: Jeremy Corbyn was popular with ordinary people and inspired them to engage in politics. He was undermined by a hostile Mainstream Media, Labour MPs and the Labour Party’s staff. Despite this he registered more votes than Labour in 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015 and came ‘within a whisker’ in 2017 of becoming Prime Minister. They point to ‘the coup’ (i.e. shadow cabinet resignations and Owen Smith’s leadership challenge), changing positions on Brexit and recent Labour staffer WhatsApp message dossier as evidence that their man (and their ideas) were undermined from within.
To prevent this ever happening again: Labour members need to elect their candidates in the NEC and General Secretary elections.
Different faction, same solution
For “The Right” there is the narrative that rejects notions of betrayal and instead lays the blame on Corbyn, his advisors and media outriders for bringing their own project down and fundamentally damaging the Labour brand in the process.
Their version of recent history: Corbyn was deeply unpopular with ordinary people, 2017 saw people vote Labour because they felt Corbyn couldn’t win so it was ‘safe’ to do so and, despite the surge, saw a record amount of people vote Conservative. They portray Corbyn’s team as indulgent, elite and riven by infighting (see the revelatory articles in The Times over the last few weeks that go into great detail on the 2019 General Election) who allowed Anti-Semitic cranks to enter the party and damage its standing.
To clean up the mess and prevent this ever happening again: Labour/union members need to elect their candidates in the NEC and General Secretary elections.
The past few months have seen moments where this conflict has burst into the mainstream – particularly with the leaked dossier and the subsequent inquiry into it – and the common reaction has been to roll eyes.
That is entirely justifiable but bear in mind that what seems like a tedious, obscure, irrelevant scrap over the party’s past is a critical part of the battle for its future.
We’ll see what that direction is when NEC election results come out in November.