With all the focus on the leader and deputy leadership elections, it’s easy to forget another series of votes have also taken place this month at constituency selection meetings. Also being contested – if you can navigate a perhaps deliberately opaque process – were nominations for two constituency representative slots and one black and minority ethnic place on the national executive committee (NEC).
That these NEC by-elections have attracted so little attention so far feels wrong – although it has not stopped some of the votes being a very close-run thing. Yes, whoever gets those places will have to run again later in the summer when the whole NEC comes up for re-election. Yes, successive Labour Party leaders and their factions have traditionally tied up NEC nominations by whipping supporters to back their ‘slates’. But that should remind us these positions bring with them real power – and if we want a truly democratic, accountable and functional party, they are critical.
That is why I’m running for the NEC. Whoever wins the leadership, I believe we must do much more quickly to make our party’s inner structures and culture work. It’s been clear from almost every discussion I’ve had, from the grassroots to Westminster, that frustrations are widespread. Members, candidates and elected office holders are fed up of botched complaints processes, stitched up selections and other often toxic behaviours.
We want better. We are still counting the electoral cost of our failure to swiftly and publicly tackle the antisemitism crisis. In far too many other areas – including racial prejudice, sexual and other forms of harassment – we are also struggling. A progressive party such as ourselves should be a beacon for best practice when it comes to safeguarding and tackling difficult issues, and we are nowhere close. The NEC is central to tackling all of that, and so far it has just not delivered.
If elected, I’m pledging to fight to make the complaints system fit for purpose, deliver accountable, transparent elections and selections – including for the NEC this summer – and work for an internal culture we can all be truly proud of. Delivering effective party systems that work is not a ‘nice to have’ – it’s a fundamental requirement for us to win in 2024. As a foreign correspondent and war reporter who has covered unravelling political systems my entire working life, I know how dangerous these trends can be.
“If this party was a company, it would have gone out of business by now,” one hard-working activist told me. I’ve lost count of the number of members at all levels who have said they have found various parts of the party so unpleasant that they have felt the need to take breaks for their mental health. Neither those who have made complaints nor those on the receiving end have anything good to say about the process. Candidates who were selected at the last election said they often felt profoundly unsupported, and the process for choosing potential MPs and others has been unaccountable in the extreme.
This isn’t a particularly factional point – many of these issues, including the party’s ongoing problem with bullying, go back through the New Labour era to Militant and beyond. Nor is it intrinsically tied to any particular candidate or candidates in the current leadership race. Most have in some way pledged to make structures more accessible, although all could take that further. The most recent democracy review called for more democratically elected NEC positions, but that has simply not happened. If anything, as with recent selections of shortlists to the London Assembly, things have become even less transparent.
In my home constituency of Vauxhall, we battled last year for the right to select our own MP. I’ve been helping local school pupils start a student newspaper, and I know how important it is to them to have a representative like Florence Eshalomi in a role they too can aspire to. As one of the most physically disabled people involved in UK politics – I broke my neck as a young reporter in Sri Lanka’s civil war, leaving me largely paralysed from the shoulders down – I was hugely honoured my constituency Labour party (CLP) nominated me to the NEC.
Perhaps because of the power of the roles, the NEC election process inherently favours those with factional backing or established political profile. There is no centralised list of when constituencies will decide, nor easy way of getting details for CLP secretaries. The only way to navigate it is to find places where you are trusted, or others who are will speak for you.
Given that, I’ve been astounded and hugely honoured to receive nominations from 17 CLPs from Edinburgh to Plymouth, to London and the South East – more than three times that necessary to make the national ballot. That enthusiasm for a more independent voice is, I believe, a sign that our supporters know things need to change.
Clearly, other factional candidates and slates are in the mix for the NEC slots once again, with varying degrees of openness and success. At best, I believe our factional groupings provide much of the energy, new thought and scrutiny we badly need. At worst, they have a tradition of papering over problems and ignoring dissenting voices in pursuit of power. Frankly, when the full NEC comes back up for selection this summer, I would rather see more independent-minded candidates committed to fixing particular issues, supporting the new leader while holding them accountable.
Only a party that the electorate views as competent and compassionate, including when it comes to handling its own, can win. Enacting the radical policies we want – saving public services, a green new deal, fixing the housing and myriad other crises – means putting our own party in order first. We are supposed to be a democratic socialist party, and the first word is as important as the second.