Kevin Maguire: New battle lines are emerging within Labour
Momentum boss Jon Lansman is not the only new NEC member worth watching closely.
Largely overlooked as three Momentum activists this week triumphantly took their seats on Labour’s governing National Executive Committee is the addition of a new face who represents the shape of battles ahead for control of the people’s party.
Usdaw’s Joanne Cairns filling an extra place on what is now an enlarged and potentially unwieldly 39-strong body, signals organised labour’s fierce determination to fight its corner. The place was created for trade unions in the deal stitched-up to boost constituency representation from six to nine.
Labour membership mushrooming beyond 500,000 justified an enhanced presence for local parties, but with union affiliations falling the additional seat was early evidence of what’s brewing. Unions are essentially defensive operations and the seismic disputes in the coming years for the heart and soul of Labour may prove to be not between a Jeremy Corbyn cult and its enemies, or wider Left versus Right clashes but the collective industrial movement up against individual political activists.
General secretaries I spoke to emphasised an unshakable resolve to retain the influence of their own and other unions. Those on the Left fear Momentum may prove a flash in the pan or ultimately reckless while those to the Right assert they provide, as one leader put it, the “ballast to keep our party’s feet on the ground and the show on the road.”.
United the unions will stand when push comes to shove. An injury to one is an injury to all when it comes to institutional influence.
Broad consensus exists between the unions collectively and Momentum on policy following the success of Labour’s 2017 election manifesto, overseen by the underestimated Andrew Fisher. The unashamedly popular democratic socialist programme, promising a £10 minimum wage, significantly stronger employment rights and restored public ownership of privatised services, was legitimately hailed as the real star of the campaign by Corbyn’s Islington neighbour Emily Thornberry.
The next battle is fought in the minefields of parliamentary selections where the unions take no prisoners, arming and provisioning candidates to beat anybody, including Momentum. Mandatory reselection replacing existing trigger ballots, sitting MPs currently forced to go up against challengers only if a local party votes for a contest, would threaten existing union-backed figures so Momentum’s free-for-all enthusiasm isn’t widely shared by the industrial brothers and sisters.
“We might think an MP is a bastard,” growled a union veteran. “But it’s a totally different game when they’re our bastard.”
Momentum’s growth is impressive yet its strength is regularly over-stated. The 31,000 followers are patchily spread, although Yasmine Dar, Jon Lansman and Rachel Garnham comfortably topping the NEC poll did build on the grassroots movement’s muscle flexing at last year’s annual conference. And - of course - Corbyn’s leadership double.
Yet it’s proved noticeably less successful in landing Westminster seats for favoured sons and daughters. Luke Akehurst, a leading light in Momentum’s smaller Right-wing rival Labour First, tweeted triumphantly that Chris Ostrowski, a candidate he labelled contentiously as “mainstream”, was readopted in the Watford Tory marginal against a Momentum and Unite-backed activist.
“Momentum have won only 5 of 24 selections so far,” crowed Akehurst. The score could change rapidly when it’s unlikely both Unite and Momentum will often lose together but the odds are most serving MPs will still be standing at the next election unless they retire.
Momentum isn’t Militant and is more sinned against than sinner. The ousting of Ann Black as chair of Labour’s disputes panel carried an unhealthy whiff of sectarianism. Momentum, however, couldn’t and didn’t achieve it alone. Equally, the instant smearing of Black’s successor (Christine Shawcroft is falsely accused of blocking anti-semitism complaints) underlined that nobody has clean hands when it comes to internal struggles.
Lansman, an old Bennite, will recall that unions effectively vetoed Tony Benn wresting the deputy leader crown from Denis Healey in 1981 and wish to remain King or Queen makers. Usdaw’s Cairns is no Corbynista and pro-Corbyn unions recognised the extra NEC seat would go to the shopworkers as a large affiliate.
Within Labour, unions co-ordinate NEC voting at meetings usually before the governing body convenes. Union solidarity is a check on, and a challenge to, Momentum. There is trouble ahead.
Kevin Maguire is associate editor at the Daily Mirror.