In 2014 Labour had a democratic overhaul. Out went the electoral college – an awkward child of the early 1980s – and in came a genuine one member one vote system, in which the votes of ordinary members, MPs and trade union members all counted equally. But other Labour institutions have not kept pace and many remain unwieldy, murky and insufficiently democratic.
Most important of these is the NEC, Labour’s ruling body. Its makeup has echoes of the old electoral college, giving allocated representation to members, trade unionists and elected representatives (MPs, MEPs and councillors). But the proportions are unbalanced – Labour members directly elect only 6 out the 33 seats. This is not fit for purpose in a 21st century organisation that claims to be democratic. Members expect their votes to make a difference, but the recent NEC elections in which the Momentum/CLGA slate was totally victorious will make little difference to the overall balance of the NEC. Although the left/pro-Corbyn side gains 2 seats, this is partially offset by the fact that in the MPs section, Dennis Skinner is stepping down and will be replaced by the anti-Corbyn George Howarth. The ‘new NEC’ will look very similar to the old one.
To end this state of affairs we need NEC reform. The simplest outcome would be a system very similar to that now used to elect Labour leaders. All Labour members and affiliate supporters would collectively elect the entire NEC, with no separate sections. The NEC could be smaller (and thus more effective), say 16 seats, all of which would be directly elected using the ‘Singe Transferable Vote system (STV), so voters would rank 16 candidates in order of preference. There would need to be provision for gender balance – I suggest that the 8 female candidates with the highest vote should be automatically elected. Such an approach could be repeated to ensure sufficient BAME representation and perhaps also to guarantee representation of a certain number of trade unionists. The latter may well be necessary for the reforms to be supported by the current NEC on which Trade Unions are the largest bloc (12/33).
Such an agenda will no doubt be viewed as pro-Corbyn. But it shouldn’t be – more democracy is in everyone’s interests and, in their submission to the 2014 Collins report, Progress advocated increasing member representation on the NEC from 6 to 11 seats. Moreover, this reform is pro-coherence. A leadership election system in which members are sovereign cannot comfortably coexist with an NEC in which members elect only 18% of the seats and real power remains in the hands of MPs and conservative trade unionists. While I disagree with it, Tom Watson’s recent call to return to the electoral college would at least be logical; but if the current leadership election system remains the NEC must be brought into line with it if Labour’s infighting is ever to come to an end.
While all Labour members of all stripes should support NEC reform, there are particular reasons why supporters of Jeremy Corbyn should back it as an urgent priority. Corbyn’s agenda is all about empowering members, which is not consistent with an NEC that disenfranchises 130,000 post January members and bans CLP meetings for the duration of the contest. If pro-Corbyn members seek to replace Ian McNichol as party chair or to change the rules for MP reselections, they are unlikely to find a majority for them on the current NEC, still less for more radical proposals such as regular votes of the whole membership to decide policy. Over the last year Corbyn supporters have learned the hard way that the elected leader does not necessarily have control of the party. This has not lead to a healthy balance of power, it’s lead to internal anarchy. NEC reform is urgently required, not just to make the party’s governance democratic but simply to make the party function again.