“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

22 July 2014

A cynic’s guide to Labour’s NEC elections



Despite the title ‘cynic’s guide’ I am not really a cynic – indeed I rather like being led astray by great rhetoric and romantic dreams in my politics. There is a place for emotion, passion, and being inspired – an important place too. 

Alas, the elections for Labour’s governing body the NEC (National Executive Committee) is not that place. It is a place where cynicism is more at play, almost necessarily, and the candidate statements offer plenty of insight into how Labour reproduces itself. So a bit of cynicism in looking at them is more than merited. Whether the setting of eleven that was recorded recently on my cynic-o-meter is merited I am not so sure, but there it is.

I am no Labour insider so what you are going to get is not an insider’s view, but rather how these elections and these candidates appear to me in my rather wary, grumpy, half-ignorant and sometimes rather angry state of being when it comes to internal Labour processes.

Probably like most members I have little idea what I am meant to be voting for.

By actually paying attention and checking out what is going on (which most probably don’t do), I likely have a better idea than most, but that doesn’t give me much of an idea. These are elections which take place without much in the way of public debate, visibility and accountability: a bit like a democratic political system without a civil society, so that only power brokers and elite members have much of a clue what the government is up to and what different candidates stand for behind the rhetoric.

This is understandable to an extent. As an institution, the Labour Party is unlikely to make public detailed minutes describing accurately what happens in NEC meetings. That would offer plenty of ammunition for its political opponents – though whether the angry arguments or interminable waffle would create a worse impression for readers is a matter for debate. Political parties need to have arguments within themselves, and some of these arguments need to be carried out without the media having a grandstand seat.

Nevertheless, this creates a problem when it comes to these elections.

What me as a semi-ignorant outsider sees is the same bunch of names that I see each year in the same NEC literature, of people who are almost entirely out of sight the rest of the time. There are exceptions. Ken Livingstone crops up once again. I am familiar with Luke Akehurst, Johanna Baxter and a few others from Twitter and the NEC reports they have produced. But I have little or no idea what they have argued for and against on the NEC, and indeed even what decisions have been made by the NEC. There is little responsibility and accountability going on here, which leaves the likes of me lying prey to a few hundred words of candidate statements and the machinations of Labour’s powerful interest groups in providing various forms of backing to their favoured candidates.

I have been a critic of the Labour Women’s Network, but its approach of asking candidates to commit to support continuing the practice of All Women’s Shortlists for Parliamentary candidate selection after the forthcoming General Election in May 2015 brings some welcome transparency to candidates’ views on a contentious and important issue. We could do with some more of that.

But anyway, it's time for the (hopefully) fun bit and my lazy, half-ignorant, barely-researched thoughts on the candidates based on their statements and sparse existing knowledge, i.e. the sort of thing I expect most voters will be basing their decisions on (with due recognition that my views are probably worlds away from the average Labour member’s).


Luke Akehurst

A decent, hard-working campaigner who produced NEC reports before he was voted off. Generally sensible left-of-centre politics, but much of his candidate statement sets off Labour language klaxons in my head: talking of “defending members’ democratic rights” while not mentioning his steadfast support of the central imposition of All-Women Shortlists. “A strong record of fairness” is meaningless unless one of ‘unfairness’ was a viable alternative. “Independent-minded”? Not sure of that. But seemingly a good egg.

Johanna Baxter

Well-liked, makes good use of her effective slogan ‘Putting Members First’ and indeed does get around the country visiting lots of Constituency Labour Parties so deserves the oft-used moniker ‘hard-working’. Of course putting all members first equally is impossible, however much you are into equality, so some members are more equal than others - for her, female ones, in her support for female favouritism and exclusivity in the party. Lots of meaningless talk of ‘fairness’ in her statement, but good focus on employment rights and keeping the UK together.

Ann Black

Has the most nominations from constituency parties as I believe she does in other years, but I have little awareness of who she is and what she is about. Statement saying people hate austerity suggests she is of the old left, and this confirmed by her presence on the lefty slate with Red Ken and others. Plays to the lefty crowd blaming Tories, UKIP and the media for dividing people, then talking of all the money we should start spending on being nice to everyone. Little idea where she would stand on Labour’s internal processes [by the way my short submission to the Collins Review can be viewed here].

Crispin Flintoff

A new name for me though I am familiar with his organisation Stand Up For Labour, albeit purely from Twitter. One of the more interesting candidates, with what seems to be a genuine focus on building up the grassroots. Labour’s reflex instinct is central command and control, and we could do with some different voices in opening us up and making us more appealing as an organisation. Flintoff plans to help do this by kicking the party into being a bit more fun and engaging, but he says little else at least in his statement.

Ken Livingstone

Red Ken himself: still going, though seems to have rather less nominations than I remember he used to get. His statement is a reminder of the qualities on policy and detail that made him a generally excellent Mayor of London, rather than the divisive, closed-minded character that lost successive elections to the Tory Boris Johnson in a Labour city (memories are fresh of voters on the doorstep saying: “I’m Labour but I won’t vote for Ken”). Lots of interesting ideas for a Labour government to implement, but nothing about the party. A practised exponent on machine politics and sectarian ethnic politics – which counts against him in my eyes.

Florence Nosegbe

Seems pleasant enough. Scores highly in Labour top trumps as a black woman and is backed by the former New Labour pressure group Progress, but has relatively few nominations. A bland, generic statement saying how nice and good it would be if we did lots of nice and good things. Gets a bit political saying we must challenge UKIP “lies” and not “pander” on immigration. “A track record of engaging underrepresented groups, including young people, BAME [Black and Minority Ethnic] groups and working class members” unfortunately sets Labour interest group sirens off in my head and doesn’t tell us how well she did at this. Being pro-immigration and pro-BAME favouritism is unlikely to please working class people who lose out materially and existentially from these things.

Kate Osamor

Sorry to mention race and gender again (personally I wish we were virtually colour-blind and comfortable with gender differences), but this is a crucial aspect of Labour’s internal politics. Osamor also scores highly here, but has more nominations than Nosegbe and is on the same slate with old left types like Livingstone and Ann Black. A reasonably nice, well-written statement which speaks to the left crowd and tells the folks what they want to hear: opposing Tories on war for example, and “challenging UKIP’s scapegoating campaign”.

Kevin Peel

A reasonably prominent LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Labour activist who has secured Progress’ second nomination along with Nosegbe. I hope I am wrong but this suggests to me an effort by Progress to reach out beyond New Labour roots to Labour’s other powerful interest groups. As an organisation Progress is widely loathed by the unions, so for the moment that leaves the identity politics groups based around gender, race and sexuality. Peel seems like a decent, sensible bloke, with decent, sensible ideas, but he doesn’t seem to be someone who will challenge Labour group-think. I think these identity politics narratives have largely exhausted themselves for being won, but he wants to press on.

Ellie Reeves

I’m familiar with Reeves mostly from her presence cheerfully and effectively chairing proceedings at Labour conference. She seems like a good, sensible sort. Me being me though, I don’t much like the heading ‘My values’ followed by a bunch of stuff which isn’t values, but favoured policies – a recurring problem in Labour politics where ‘Labour values’ are often trumpeted and boasted about without being known. A cap on spending for selections is her internal politics proposal. Otherwise there is little to get your teeth into, which is probably part of the point of these things.

Christine Shawcroft

Familiar from her repeated presence on the lefty slate for NEC elections but otherwise I know nothing about her. Gets stuck in to her statement with an immediate attack on ‘austerity’ as an election-loser, despite all the polling evidence suggesting otherwise (not that I am in favour of ‘austerity’, but just saying). Lots of left crowd-pleasing policy stuff – cancelling Trident, abolishing the Bedroom Tax, nationalising privatised services. And – controversy klaxon! She’s against the Collins Report. Been on the NEC and National Policy Forum for 15 years so has clearly been doing something right.

Peter Wheeler

Another one for whom I have little or no knowledge except familiarity with the name, and often in elections like this one, that is enough. First priorities to win the Scottish Referendum and the election. Says: “We need to dramatically step up our game” – so someone who seems to be prepared to speak truth to power. I’m also liking his talk of targeting working class communities that feel abandoned by politicians: this suggests a resistance to standard liberal-left causes like the universal – and absurd – embrace of immigration. Simple message and straight to the point, but little in the way of detail.

Darren Williams

Comes straight out firing old left bullets – “a vision of hope for a clear alternative to austerity”, praising Ed Miliband’s steps to the left and criticising him for conceding too much on welfare, immigration and crime (does he really want more of each?). Also wants re-nationalisation, scrap Trident, tackle climate change (I’d agree on that one, with bells on), more democracy and transparency in the party (good – but not sure how that would work with the unions).

Peter Willsman

A nicely-written statement, which is something I appreciate. Another on the lefty slate; comes out with a conventional list of good things he would like and probably so would us all. Commits to write reports on NEC meetings and get around to local parties. Loads of experience, but little impression of where he sits on internal issues here.


So how have I voted?

Well, I decided this was not an election I really wanted to participate in. Few candidates impressed me with their statements. I found in them rather too much doublespeak, telling activists what they want to hear, general confusion and incoherence in use of language and a lack of open, honest declarations of what this election is all about and what the candidates stand for in it. This is understandable and I’m not condemning anyone for it. I am probably too demanding, but on the balance I would rather seek high standards than be happy with mediocrity and confusion.

So I’m afraid I tore up my ballot paper and threw it into the recycling. I am making something of a habit of this sort of thing when it comes to Labour’s internal processes. It would be good if we could improve these processes. The NEC is the way to go about it, but these elections only seem to offer more of the same.


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