I once won a contest organised by The Spectator to find the most boring book title ever published. My winning entry – sent to me for a reason I have never fathomed – was Hospital Purchase Records Containing Grain Price Information In Fifteenth Century Ghent. But I have long pondered writing a book others might think even more tedious – a history of Labour’s National Executive Committee elections.
You have to be a certain kind of political nerd to be excited by the comings and goings of the NEC. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, I am just such a political nerd. So when I say that the latest results, published last night, make fascinating reading and explain much about British politics right now, you’ll have to bear with me.
Few of those who contest the most interesting section, for Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs), are household names even in their own patch. But the results in that section are a reliable indicator of the state of Labour’s internal politics – which side is up, which is down – because it is ordinary party members who vote.
The results are also more than that – a point that is all the more obvious when you look at last night’s results, which show how the CLP section now perfectly represents Labour’s broader political problem.
Four moderate candidates – Luke Akehurst, Johanna Baxter, Abdi Duale and Gurinder Singh Josan – were elected, increasing the number of pro-Starmer slate ‘Labour to Win’ members on the NEC by one. That’s a positive outcome, and good news for anyone who thinks it’s important that Labour is a serious party again. And it is part of a clear change since Starmer became leader. Moderates are now in all the main positions of power within the Labour Party. Whatever your politics, for example, no one could accuse Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves of being an extremist.
And yet for all that, what might most accurately be labelled the ‘nutter wing’ of the party not only remains, but is feted by many members. The most eye-catching name elected to the NEC last night, for instance, is that of Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi. As David Hirsh, the academic and founder of the London Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism put it:
‘She is one of the key spokespeople for antisemitic politics in Britain. She mobilises her Jewish identity in an effort to make her anti-Jewish ideology seem plausible. Her election demonstrates that there’s still a significant antisemitic minority.’
Not that she is alone in representing the nutter wing. Also elected was Yasmine Dar, one of the most egregious apologists for the theocratic regime in Iran.
One of the most important lessons Tony Blair taught his party was that it would only win when people who had voted Conservative felt safe switching to Labour. He was, of course, treated as a heretic for saying this, but it is about as obvious a statement of political reality as exists – and the fact he had to keep ramming the point home says much about the Labour Party.
These NEC results exemplify Labour’s problem today. A party that can only win if Conservatives switch to support it is in trouble when the likes of Wimborne-Idrissi and Dar are the members’ chosen candidates. Whenever voters think Labour is full of nutters, it is doomed – no matter how moderate the leadership may be.
Neil Kinnock’s entire leadership was based, for example, on proving how moderate he was by destroying hard left entryists and changing the party’s image and policies through new appointments such as Peter Mandelson. For all that admirable effort, however, he was sunk below the waterline by the existence of the hard left. Voters knew it was there and would thus have no truck with Labour. (And, of course, when the leader is himself from the nutter wing then it really is game over, as we saw in 2019.)
It took Tony Blair’s unrelenting determination to smash these people into the outer reaches of irrelevance to convince voters Labour was a safe vehicle for their votes.
Given the Government’s travails, Labour should now be 20 points ahead in the polls – as a bare minimum. There’s a simple reason why it only occasionally manages to be 10 points ahead: Starmer is no Blair.
Decent, moderate and sincere he may be. But when voters look at Labour they still remember Corbyn, and they are still seeing fringe voices popping up on TV and elsewhere. Yet Starmer refuses (other than in a small number of specific disciplinary cases) to take on his own members – a prerequisite for success. The now infamous video of his terrified inability to be able to define a woman is the perfect example. He knows that for many – most? – Labour members, a woman is no longer defined biologically. So he panders to their madness, instead of taking them on and resonating with the public.
With the cost of living crisis careering out of control, many are writing off the Tories’ chances at the next general election. But if you want to understand why Labour may still lose, look at last night’s NEC results.
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