What we can learn from Labour’s 2020 NEC results

Sienna Rodgers

Everyone claimed victory following the release of Labour’s national executive committee results – and with good reason. The Labour left’s ‘Grassroots Voice’ slate did better than expected by winning five of nine local party representatives and both the youth and disabled posts. But the bottom line is that this was a triumph for Keir Starmer, who now has a more solid majority on the ruling body.

The ability to reliably win votes on the NEC is key to getting the leadership’s business through, particularly with tasks ahead such as implementing the Equality and Human Rights Commission report recommendations, responding to the Forde Inquiry – and the controversial matter of Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension, which could go to an NEC panel unless the investigation is dropped earlier in the process.

After the April by-elections and before the 2020 NEC elections, Starmer had 18 solid NEC votes (then of 38 members, though effectively 37 due to Pete Willsman’s suspension). He can sometimes rely on GMB backing, such as in the general secretary appointment, but these reps are considered swing voters.

The Labour leader now has a net total of two more definitely supportive NEC members, with 20 out of 39 NEC members. This might appear slim, and it is, but he can also forge various winning paths by working with Ann Black in particular, the two GMB seat holders, and to some extent Richard Leonard.

STV was a clear win for the new leadership

The leadership earlier this year backed a change to move from first-past-the-post to single transferable vote on the NEC. This was applied only in the members’ section, not those concerning trade union representation, which meant it was opposed by some on the Labour left. These results show why they were right to be concerned: the more proportional system ensured that the Starmersceptic wing was watered down among local party representatives.

With Labour First secretary Luke Akehurst topping the ballot, and Laura Pidcock coming second, it is fair to conclude that ‘Marmite’ characters do well under STV. These two candidates were respectively the most ‘Labour to Win’ and ‘Grassroots Voice’ candidates, and their high level of name recognition in the party also helped.

STV also worked well for the soft left, led by group Open Labour, which got its foot in the door thanks to the return of revered NEC veteran Ann Black. But it could have worked a lot better: Jermain Jackman dropped out of the race in its final 37th stage.

There is still no Black male representation on the NEC

The 1987 Caucus highlighted back in July, after looking into the archives, that the NEC has never had a Black man as a member. And despite Terry Paul running on the Labour right slate and Jermain Jackman running on the Open Labour slate with a stronger pitch to members on the left, this has not changed.

Ayesha Hazarika said in our live analysis of the results: “We have a problem in our party about this, and I think we have to address it.” Abena Oppong-Asare tweeted: “Not a single black man on the NEC. I think it’s about time we start to have that conversation about the elephant in the room”.

Membership of the all-important NEC officers’ group will change

The Labour left included Ann Henderson on their slate once again partly because she chaired the NEC equalities committee, which also made her a member of the crucial NEC officers’ group. But Henderson was not re-elected, perhaps due to a combination of her being a Scottish member (a disadvantage as this is a small region in party terms) and concerns over her views on trans inclusion (though similar concerns were expressed in relation to Laura Pidcock, who did very well).

The officers’ group is a small core decision-making committee on the NEC, currently with a left majority. This balance of factional power is not set to change directly as a result of these contests, but the left’s control will likely reduce slightly when the NEC picks a different member to head the equalities sub-committee.

The Labour left will be pleased to see Yasmine Dar re-elected, as she chairs the disputes panel and strengthens the left’s voice on the officers’ group. But it also worth noting that Ann Black is set to be automatically once again a member of the core group, as she is still chair of Labour’s national policy forum. (This may be disputed by some as there should have been NPF elections already but they were postponed.)

Turnout has dropped – though not as dramatically as you might think

The NEC by-elections earlier this year secured a turnout of 46%, while 27% of Labour members participated in the latest full set of elections. But it should be taken into account that the last contests were run concurrently with leadership elections, which always boosts turnout significantly.

Overall, nonetheless, turnout is down (h/t Charlie Mansell):

2004 22.0%
2006 20.2%
2008 19.8%
2010 56.0% (run alongside leadership election)
2012 30.2%
2014 33.1%
2016 48.7% (run alongside leadership election)
2017 30.2% (Conference Arrangements Committee election)
2017 20.7%
2018 32.5%
2019 35.0% (Conference Arrangements Committee election)
2020 45.6% (by-elections run alongside leadership election)
2020 27.4%

Labour left strategy was stronger for local party representatives

The Labour left approach to STV was largely successful, as Momentum adopted a regional preference strategy. By email and via an online tool, members of the left group were advised to preference local party rep candidates in a particular order, which helped to minimise the risk of Grassroots Voice candidates being knocked out early.

Labour to Win benefited from running big names, particularly Akehurst who secured an impressive 21,355 first preference votes (the next biggest was Pidcock with 15,668), but the slate did not succeed in terms of vote distribution, with the left securing a more even spread.

Young Labour elections also offer cause for Labour left optimism

In the Young Labour elections, Momentum-backed Socialist Future candidates won all but three seats on the 16-member committee, and Miriam Mirwitch has been replaced by left-winger Jess Barnard as chair. Pro-Starmer candidates succeeded in the London representative race, won by Henna Shah, and the Welsh contest, won by Jack Dunne, while Elsie Greenwood endorsed by Open Labour won in Scotland.

But the general direction of the party is going in Starmer’s favour

Corbynites lost three seats (local party and BAME) in the April by-elections, and have now lost a further two in the members’ section. There has been a swing of 10% from Momentum to Labour to Win since the last full NEC elections in 2018, with Momentum securing 37% (-19) this time, Labour to Win 31% (+1) and Open Labour 9% (+5). The left vote was also down by nine percentage points compared to earlier this year. Keir Starmer can be encouraged by the overall trajectory of the party.

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