This week, the Labour Party begins perhaps the most important and symbolic leadership election in its history – and it didn’t start well. The defining image of the week so far must be Angela Eagle, standing forlornly on stage, a host of MPs cheering her on, calling questions from one journalist after another – who had all left the room to cover the revelation that Andrea Leadsom had pulled out of the Tory leadership race. As a friend of mine observed on social media: if a leadership election is announced and the BBC is not there to cover it, does it make a sound?
But the real farce will happen behind closed doors. Faced with a Labour Party membership that, if anything, looks like it will give Jeremy Corbyn an even bigger mandate than the 59.5 per cent he received nine months ago, some on Labour’s right wing are attempting to use procedural subterfuge to remove the Labour leader. For some clever operators on the right wing of the Labour Party, there is only one tactic that gives a prospect of victory: to keep Corbyn off the ballot. That’s how popular the leader really is.
This afternoon, the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) will meet. It is meeting with about 24 hours’ notice. After several days of refusing to communicate with Jeremy Corbyn, senior party officials cancelled a meeting of a subcommittee which would have set a date for the next NEC – likely next Tuesday – and unilaterally sent out notice of this afternoon’s proceedings. The first that the many on the left of the party knew of the arrangements for the meeting was when MPs and journalists tweeted them. Meanwhile, the same officials are attempting to prevent Jeremy Corbyn himself from voting at, or even attending, the meeting.
From the outside, these manoeuvres may look bizarre and irrelevant – but they may yet decide the future of politics in Britain. Today’s NEC meeting will vote on whether Jeremy Corbyn has the right to automatically be on the ballot in the leadership contest, or whether he will face the uphill struggle to collect nominations from MPs who have openly declared their hostility towards him.
The idea of an incumbent being unable to stand when challenged contradicts any notion of natural justice, and, when cross-referenced with the Party’s Rule Book, probably legality as well. But, shamefully, it looks like some NEC members will today take the unprecedented step of asking for the vote to be conducted in secret. It is not difficult to guess their intentions.
Not all centrists in the Labour Party agree with these tactics. Many are quite committed to having an honest leadership election, and, in a democratic party it is absolutely the right of people who hold differing views about Labour’s direction to put those forward. But what some seem to have in mind is not an election but a coup.
At root, what many MPs are displaying, along with any member of Labour’s national executive who votes in line with this attempt to exclude Corbyn, is abject contempt for the movement they are supposed to represent. If they succeed, and if MPs then fail to nominate him, they will create a crisis in the Labour Party that will take decades to heal – if it does not destroy it entirely.
This contempt could not be more at odds with the hope and enthusiasm that exists at Labour’s grassroots. When Angela Eagle launched her campaign she made much of the fact that these are “dark days for Labour”. What she failed to mention was that the party’s membership is now at its highest point in decades, and is rising. The movement built around Jeremy Corbyn has inspired hundreds of thousands of people to become politically active. An honest, principled anti-austerity politics has forced retreats from the government and is connecting with people and areas which Labour had lost. It hasn’t been easy, but when many of your own MPs are desperate for you to fail, it never is.
Today, the future of that mass movement – a living, growing embodiment of the project that generations of trade unionists and Labour activists have fought for – rests on the outcome of a decision in a committee which not all Labour members, let alone members of the public, knew existed.
The right-wingers of the party may well fail in their efforts to oust their left-wing rival – but we shouldn’t forget their behaviour. And, however the vote goes, Corbyn’s supporters can comfort themselves with the fact that it’s the hundreds of thousands of members who have the ultimate claim to the heart of the Labour Party – not a small, blinkered group of the political elite.
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