Changed NEC electoral system to benefit right

Candidates, slates and votes

How best to oppose the witch-hunt and reorient the forces of the left? James Harvey presents LPM’s reconsidered approach

With nominations now closed, the election for Labour’s national executive committee is set to be another test of strength of the left in the party. This follows, it ought to be frankly admitted, a disastrous general election defeat under a ‘dream leader’ with a ‘dream manifesto’, the subsequent failure of a hopelessly divided left in the last NEC by-election and, of course, the humiliation of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘continuity candidate’ at the hands of Sir Keir Starmer in April. Not even Corbyn’s own constituency activists in Islington North believed that the hapless Rebecca Long-Bailey could deliver the left-reformist holy of holies: ‘the next Labour government’.

Given Starmer’s rapid move to the blue Labour right and his repeated promises to continue the ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt, this election will be a test for tried and repeatedly failed centre-left formulas and an opportunity to see if the left can be reorientated … to the left as a left. With that in mind, let us turn to what will be the most hard-fought contest - the election for the Constituency Labour Party representatives on the NEC.

Before looking at the politics, let us deal with the numbers. Altogether 42 individuals are standing for nine seats, but, with well over half of them connected to organised slates of candidates, the main interest is on how these groups will perform. There are two main blocs. From the hard right there is Labour to Win (made up of Progress, Labour First and an assorted mish-mash of old Labourites, former Eurocommunists and naked careerists). Then on the ‘left’ there is Grassroots Voice (GV - formerly the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance). This is the ‘official left’, a left that looks to align itself with the ‘centre’: ie, the less openly pro-capitalist careerists who traditionally inhabit the trade union and labour bureaucracy. Predictably, GV is backed by Momentum, Red Labour, Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, Labour Representation Committee, Jewish Voice for Labour, FBU, the Bakers’ Union, Jeremy Corbyn and the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs.

At this stage of the contest, the ‘official left’ - ie, the left-centre - seems to be in a strong position: its six candidates have 42% of the nominations, with its leading candidate, former MP Laura Pidcock, gaining the backing of 333 CLPs - the highest number of nominations.1 On the hard right, the six candidates of Labour to Win only secured 24% of nominations, whilst groups defining themselves as ‘soft left’ - ie, soft right - such as Open Labour’s two candidates, secured 11% of nominations and a group of three ex-MPs supported by the Tribune Group of MPs - again a version of soft right - gained 7%.2

Labour Left Alliance has also endorsed six candidates, who together gained 5% of nominations. LLA is, of course, a loose federation of individual signatories, local groups and left organisations, including its Marxist fraction, Labour Party Marxists.

These figures are important because at the beginning of the contest the number of nominations is a rough guide to the relative strengths of the different currents ... albeit under the freezing conditions of a vicious witch-hunt (hence there are good reasons to believe that the LLA - as the anti-witch hunt slate - could conceivably garner a significantly higher level of support when it comes to members voting in the relative safety of their own homes).

Nonetheless, nomination numbers count. The election is being held using the single transferable vote (STV) in place of the previous majoritarian ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP) system familiar in Westminster elections. The Starmer leadership opted for STV, but not because they were persuaded by democratic considerations. No, the intention, and undoubtedly the effect, will be to increase the right’s majority on the NEC. Whereas in ‘normal’ circumstances the ‘left’ would win all nine, now the right can expect to get at least three seats.

The STV innovation has led to all sorts of online speculation about how this new voting system will influence the outcome and heated argument about the dangers of a split vote on the left. Some of this has arisen from genuine confusion about how the system of preferences and transfers operates, but some of the claims that LLA is splitting the left vote and handing seats to the right are plainly, transparently, unambiguously wrong and need to be convincingly countered before voting begins on October 19.

On the ballot paper members will receive they will be asked to rank candidates in order of preference - rather than nine equally weighted votes, as would be the case under an FPTP system. This means that slates will win seats in proportion to the votes they gain. In this election for nine NEC places it has been calculated that it will require approximately 10% of the vote to elect one member.3 Understanding how this system of preferences and transfers - in particular the first-preference votes - actually works is essential if the left vote is to be used most effectively. Put simply, if a candidate exceeds the quota for election or has too few votes to remain in the contest, their votes are transferred to other candidates, meaning that those lower down the list can benefit from transfers. It means that persuading the leftwing rank and file to choose more than just six candidates is more than advisable in this election.

However, whilst these numbers are important, it is the politics that are crucial. During the nomination period entitled GV operatives claimed that putting forward candidates other than their slate of six would weaken what passes for the left. They are now continuing that argument, as we prepare to vote, by suggesting that voting for more than six candidates will lessen the left’s chances of gaining seats on the NEC. Some, if not all, comrades on the LLA list have been approached and asked to stand aside in favour of the GV slate. Thus, in the remaining week or so before the voting starts the situation could quite possibly change.

Clear tactics

Labour Party Marxists wholeheartedly support the LLA Six as the only candidates openly challenging the continuing witch-hunt and standing up for democracy and free speech in the party. At a time when individual leftwingers continue to be falsely accused of anti-Semitism and fast-tracked out of the party, voting for the LLA six gives rank-and-file members the chance to fight back collectively and show their defiance.4

Put the LLA six at the top of your ballot paper. Vote for the LLA candidates 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. A good vote for these comrades is vital. Hence whatever the threats, whatever the inducements, whatever the ‘big name’ phone calls, they should not stand down. To do so would amount to treachery.

However, we urge the LLA to modify its current voting tactics - tactics which our LPM fraction supported at the LLA organising group (OG) meeting on September 26, but which, after lengthy, serious discussion, we now believe should be revised, not least given the final state of the nominations and changing circumstances since the OG met. To be clear, our argument is not about the arithmetic of STV, but focuses instead on the important political messages the LLA should be sending out to Labour’s mass membership and the organised soft left.

Firstly, we should continue to make the NEC elections a political campaign against the witch-hunt and for party democracy. That is why urging members to prioritise the LLA six above all other candidates is undoubtedly correct. But we believe it is advisable, in order to maximise the chances of getting at least one anti-witch-hunt comrade onto the NEC, that the LLA ranks its candidates in order of preference, perhaps putting those with the highest number of CLP nominations at the top, therefore starting with Roger Silverman. Remarkably, especially given the witch-hunt, he secured 65 CLP nominations. Well done, comrade - more than encouraging. A mass base to build upon.

Secondly, we should prioritise the GV slate of six over the various individual left candidates not associated with any particular left group, faction or bloc. The criticisms that the LLA has made against the way that the GV candidates were selected might well be justified - but we should not be against horse-trading, deals or compromises when it comes to selecting candidates. To object would be politically childish, naive, self-defeating. In contrast the LLA made great play of organising open hustings (to which all left candidates were invited), and an open vote amongst its supporters. In other words, a popularity contest that unhealthily smacked of referendums and US primaries.

We insist, on the contrary, on our candidates having a proven record on the left, pledging their commitment to a principled Marxist programme, being chosen by a trusted, democratically elected, politically intransigent leadership and agreeing to follow its lead, no matter what the personal costs or dangers that might involve.

The GV slate ‘emerged’ from behind closed doors, without any involvement of the rank and file, without hustings … and most importantly without an agreed political platform! The crassest of crass opportunism.

To its credit LLA made numerous approaches to meet with GV, only to be answered, however, with a flat wall of silence. During the nomination period LLA continued to call for discussions with GV on a common slate.5 Yet GV refused to engage, seemingly believing that it alone has an automatic monopoly over the votes of the Labour left - despite its foul centre-left politics and the criminal refusal to criticise, question or even mention the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt.

Despite these damning criticisms of its trajectory, lack of any socialist principles, silence on the witch-hunt and thoroughly dishonest claims, LPM recognises, as a simple fact, that GV is made up of the most important organisations that for the moment pass for the Labour left. We are convinced that the majority of the supporters of these groups, like us, want to fight back against the right, reject the lies about anti-Zionism equalling anti-Semitism and will, over time, be won to the politics of Marxism.

Prioritising the six candidates of the organised left above individual, unorganised left candidates would send a clear message to those who make up GV that the LLA is serious about wanting to negotiate some kind of joint list. It would also send a clear message to individual left candidates and their supporters: the left needs organisation, not lone rangers.

LPM argues for this approach in the interests of strengthening the LLA and taking forward the struggle to form a politically principled left in the Labour Party.

NEC elections: shift the left to the left

  1. labourlist.org/2020/09/labour-left-wins-most-backing-as-nominations-close-in-nec-elections.↩︎

  2. labourlist.org/2020/10/what-local-party-nominations-tell-us-about-labours-2020-nec-elections.↩︎

  3. labourlist.org/2020/10/what-local-party-nominations-tell-us-about-labours-2020-nec-elections. See also labourleft.org/nec-elections-2020/nec-elections-stv-myths-and-reality.↩︎

  4. labourleft.org/nec-elections-2020/lla-agrees-its-nec-voting-recommendations; labourleft.org/nec-elections-2020/nec-elections-support-the-lla-6.↩︎

  5. labourleft.org/nec-elections-2020/nec-elections-support-the-lla-6.↩︎