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The Labour Party NEC Elections

Bob Pitt

IT CANNOT be denied that the results of this year’s elections to the constituency section of Labour’s National Executive represent a setback for the left. The centre/left Grassroots Alliance, which won four seats on the NEC in 1998, has now been reduced to two representatives, Ann Black and Christine Shawcroft. Although one of the seats was lost last year, in that election the Alliance’s share of the vote actually increased, whereas this year it was substantially reduced. What is the cause of this setback and what lessons does it have for the left in the Party?

First of all, it should be pointed out that the results are not as bad as would appear at first sight. Millbank’s disgraceful exclusion of Raghib Ahsan from the ballot reduced the Grassroots Alliance slate from six candidates to five, which largely explains the fall in the Alliance’s share of the vote to 40% compared with 47% last year.

The Blairites’ successful manoeuvre to block Raghib meant that Party members who rightly wanted to see Asian representation on the NEC had no Alliance candidate to vote for. Many of them therefore supported Millbank Tendency candidate Shahid Malik, whose election resulted in the removal of sitting NEC member and Grassroots Alliance candidate, Mark Seddon. If Raghib had been on the ballot, Seddon would almost certainly have been re-elected and possibly Raghib himself would have got on as well. Millbank also undermined Seddon’s candidacy by "accidentally" omitting half of his election statement, including the section detailing his record in the Party, from the brochure accompanying the ballot paper.

Another factor was the decision of Liz Davies, the most popular Grassroots Alliance candidate in last year’s election, not to stand again this year. In London, in addition, many Labour leftists were reportedly working hard on Ken Livingstone’s mayoral campaign (something which this writer, as a loyal Party member, thoroughly deprecates), and so were unable to distribute Grassroots Alliance election material as effectively as they had in previous years.

Millbank, for its part, managed to put together a united slate that included the Party’s former general secretary Lord Tom Sawyer and the actor Tony Robinson, both of whom had the advantage of name recognition. Robinson, who topped the poll, was assisted by favourable coverage in the press. He also opportunistically presented himself as a critic of the Party apparatus, which he piously declared had lost touch with the members. We can at least console ourselves with the thought that, if Blairites want to win the support of the Party’s rank and file, they apparently have to masquerade as leftists.

A more fundamental reason for the Alliance’s setback was the mood of demoralisation among the members, the majority of whom either failed to renew their membership in time or simply didn’t bother to vote. Even allowing for Millbank’s shambolic organisation of the election, which meant that many paid-up members didn’t receive their ballot papers, the fact remains that it is now possible to get elected to the NEC with less than half the votes that successful candidates required three years ago. This feature of the NEC elections is undoubtedly the most worrying for the left.

Dissatisfaction among Party members is obviously widespread, with resentment at the government’s policies compounded by outrage at the undemocratic methods Millbank employs to suppress this resentment. But dissatisfaction doesn’t automatically express itself in a combative attitude towards the leadership. Nor does the Blairites’ humiliation at Livingstone’s hands spontaneously increase support for the left. We need to put more effort into mobilising and organising, on as broad a basis as possible, the opposition that exists in and around the Party.