Labour left national executive committee members have said they took the decision to withdraw from the meeting on Tuesday “in the hope of pressing a reset button and returning hopefully to a more reasonable environment”.
Speaking at a Momentum-hosted event this evening, newly-elected representatives Gemma Bolton and Mish Rahman discussed the decision of 13 left-wing members to leave the first NEC meeting since the elections.
The reps staged the digital walkout because the existing rotating chair system was being overturned by the leadership, which allowed veteran MP Margaret Beckett to become chair rather than Labour left FBU rep and then NEC vice-chair Ian Murray.
Bolton said tonight: “After the undermining of the NEC’s processes in refusing to restore the whip to Jeremy, left reps on the NEC wrote to our new general secretary almost a week ago asking in the strongest terms that they reconsider.”
The NEC members wrote to David Evans after the walkout and argued the “true reason” Starmer wanted Beckett to become chair was that Murray had signed the first letter to the general secretary about restoring the whip to Corbyn.
Bolton told attendees: “An item was added to the agenda by the general secretary without going through the usual channels of agreeing the agenda through the officers’ group. This agenda item was to elect a new chair and vice-chair.
“Chair and vice-chair is usually elected at an NEC meeting directly after annual conference, which of course didn’t happen this year. The rulebook states that an election would happen at the start of each year…
“The controversy came when the right decided to do away with convention and put Dame Margaret Beckett into the role of chair and Alice Perry into the role of vice-chair, which would replace two trade union representatives who held the roles with none and ignoring usual practice of the current vice-chair taking the chair when the vacancy became available.”
Bolton said this happened in the context of the Bakers’ Union opting to consult its members on whether to remain affiliated to the party. She argued that it “begs the question of what, if any, relationship Starmer wants to have with the trade unions”.
She described the virtual walkout as a “bold move” and said she hopes that it “sent a message to our leadership that the utter disregard and disrespect for elected representatives is something that we’re not going to put up with”.
Bolton added: “The leadership is undermining the governance of the NEC. It’s censoring debate. It’s ignoring our processes by doubling down on the removal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn.
“This failure on the part of the majority to respect convention in one of our first meetings shows the meeting descending into pointless factionalism and we withdrew in the hope of pressing a reset button and returning hopefully to a more reasonable environment.”
Delivering his report after Bolton, Rahman said: “We were lobbied by the leader’s office to support Dame Margaret Beckett the night before the NEC meeting despite it being usual chair for the vice-chair to become chair and for the new vice-chair to be the most senior person in the NEC.
“So when people like myself questioned this, we were told ‘come on, this is Margaret Beckett, she’s highly decorated within the party’. But our party is not the party of entitlement. It cannot be. There has to be due process.”
Commenting on the election of Beckett, Jon Lansman said on Tuesday: “If it’s just about process, it was an election… Since [when] was [Buggins’] turn a socialist principle? It was Ian’s turn but we cannot argue with democracy!”
Rahman told those watching online this evening that the development regarding the chair of the ruling body “hasn’t happened in a vacuum” and described it as “the latest in a series of crackdown in recent weeks and months”.
Rahman highlighted the suspension of Corbyn, reports that the London executive committee was blocked from expressing solidarity with the former Labour leader, and instructions prohibiting certain motions being passed at local parties.
He concluded by saying: “Unless we have [party] unity – May 2021 is important – we’re going to struggle to campaign, we’re going to struggle to win elections and its going to be really, really damaging for the party.
“So we’ve got to get our house in order ASAP – bring everyone together, and by doing that we’ve got to respect the members who are the lifeblood of the party.”
Murray, Howard Beckett and Jayne Taylor of Unite, the TSSA’s Andi Fox, ASLEF’s Mick Whelan, CWU’s Andy Kerr, BFAWU’s Pauline McCarthy, youth rep Lara McNeill, Bolton, Rahman, Laura Pidcock, Yasmine Dar and Nadia Jama joined the walkout.
Veteran Labour MP Beckett was elected unopposed as the meeting went ahead without the left reps, while Alice Perry – an Islington councillor and local government representative on the party’s ruling body – was picked as vice-chair.
It is understood that the NEC’s ‘swing voters’ – local party representative Ann Black, GMB reps Tom Warnett and Kathy Abu-Bakir – all supported Beckett and Perry. Deputy leader Angela Rayner and Scottish leader Richard Leonard were not present.
Commenting on the election of Beckett and Perry, new NEC member Luke Akehurst told LabourList: “Both of them are people who seek consensus, who are extremely experienced and who passionately care about returning Labour to electability.
“Margaret is an iconic figure who was on the NEC before many current NEC members were even born. She is unique in having been the first woman deputy leader, acting leader and Foreign Secretary, and is a figure that everyone across the party has the utmost respect for.”
Beckett, who was first elected to the NEC in 1980 and is the longest-serving female MP overall, is one of only three people in Labour history to have been leader, deputy leader and NEC chair, according to party sources.