Support the Grassroots 5

Veronica Fagan explores some of the issues behind Labour’s internal elections.


Ballots for the constituency section of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) and a number of other internal elections were due to drop on Monday 25 July. After a number of delays, they finally started to arrive on the afternoon of August 3. (Check your inbox for mail titled – Your ballot – Labour Party electionsor Voting will continue until August 26 – and if you are entitled to a ballot and haven’t received one by August 10 contact the LP for reissue – or at the latest by August 17)

One reason given for wait by the Labour Party was ‘the added complications with date arising from the cyber incident which impacted on the Party’s membership system last year’ – a reason that has been milked many times. They also claim that this is Labour’s ‘biggest election yet’; an assertion that ignores falling membership figures since these posts were last up for election.

Labour’s NEC body is made up of a myriad of constituencies. There are five representatives of the (Shadow) Cabinet, twelve from trade unions, nine from CLP’s, three from the Parliamentary Labour Party, two from Labour Councillors and one each from Socialist Societies, BAME Labour, Young Labour, Disabled Members and representing the Scottish and Welsh front bench.

This means that even when the Corbyn leadership was at its strongest, there were still situations where the left lost votes on the NEC – or just scrapped them through. And since then, the voting system has been changed so that the CLP section is elected by STV; this means that the overwhelming likelihood is a split results as happened in 2020 when the left won five of the nine places.

So what is at stake in these elections is not the left taking control of the NEC. That is not a possibility with the current balance of forces, however effective a campaign we run – even if we were completely united. But it is both possible and important to have a team of left constituency representatives who can not only attempt to fight for left policies – hopefully in co-ordination with left reps from other sections of the NEC – but can feedback to their electorate in an accurate and timely fashion.

The Labour left is in a relatively weak and fragmented state for a myriad of reasons. Many good socialists have been expelled from the party or are still supposedly under investigation. The most high profile recent example is Audrey White from Liverpool who challenged Starmer on his recent visit to Liverpool. The supposed basis for her expulsion was writing for Socialist Appeal, but no one believes that it was not the way she challenged the Labour leader four days earlier, which prompted them to dig out the letter they should have supposedly sent back in February.

Audrey is not the only one to have been targetted recently. Could it be that we are about to have an OMOV ballot and that the factional machine, yet again exposed in the Forde report, is doing its best to marginalise the left…

And it’s not just the direct impact of the witchhunt. Labour’s membership is falling as many who joined, rejoined or became energised under Corbyn fail to see the point any more. There are people with little political experience who thought Corbyn and his team had all the answers and were demoralised when they concluded that was not true. There are people for whom the daily stories of the attacks on left MPs like Aspana Begum or Ian Byrne, or on potential MPs such as Maya Evans in Hastings or  Doina Cornell in Stroud, not to mention Corbyn’s continued suspension from the PLP, leave them disorientated and demoralised.

As I have argued here before, Momentum has never really fulfilled its promise – never mind the role it needed to fulfil. Some people are lucky enough to have healthy and democratic local Labour left groupings, organised under a number of different rubrics. But that is far from universal. Furthermore, the pandemic has made it harder to draw in new people and deal with differences whether in priorities or strategies.  

And the danger of even the best local group is the tendency to falsely universalise your own experiences – whether that is about whether you do or do not have a Labour MP or a Labour Council, what the relationship is between the left and right in the local party, how your local trade unions are organised and what their relationship is with the party, whether the local media are sympathetic etc. etc. Without a proper national arena in which to share ideas and experiences of successes and defeats, we do not learn from what has been tried elsewhere and we cannot support each other when things are difficult.

At the same time, the Labour left, like much of the rest of the left across the movement, has difficulties in debating the basis for principled unity.

Principles and tactics

As a supporter of ACR, as an activist for many decades, I have strong views on a range of questions. I was and am a strong opponent of Brexit. I support self-id for trans people and refute the idea that rights for trans people are in any way counterposed to those of cis people, cis women in particular. I am also proud that the ACR is part of the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign, standing in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

I have had, and expect to continue to have, difficult discussions with people in my local Labour Party, in my trade union and more broadly among people I consider friends and/or comrades on these and many other questions. But I do not draw the conclusion that I can or should only organise with those who agree with me completely on all these questions. Where people do, I suggest that perhaps they should be in ACR – where there is the same general approach to all these questions.

But there are other issues we have not really discussed, or at least taken a position on, in ACR. Proportional representation is more democratic than first past the post. I not only think Scotland has the democratic right to a second independence referendum but that a vote for Scottish independence would be a positive outcome for socialists everywhere because it undermines the reactionary edifice that is the British state. I think the right to self-organisation for the oppressed is a fundamental principle, which most of the radical left gives far too little priority to – especially when men on the left are called out for sexual harassment, for example…

But I also know that if I spend all of my time focusing on these questions rather than putting energy into unifying issues such as supporting unions in struggle in this cost of living crisis, I will likely become isolated and powerless. I want to win people to my way of thinking – but that does not mean I should act as if there are not people with differing views on these questions or that they are not comrades with whom I can and should organise.  And while I certainly do not devalue debate between individuals or wider groups, I think people are more likely to shift their political ideas when they come together in action.

Disagreements, what disagreements

What you might ask has that got to do with Labour’s internal elections? Unfortunately there is not agreement across the Labour left about who to support – or indeed on what basis to decide who to support.

There is a group of national organisations of the Labour left – the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance[i] (CLGA) that have been meeting for years to decide these things. There is long standing disagreement about which organisations should be in the room. There is also controversy in that individuals who have been suspended are not permitted to represent groups.

It would be a good idea, but not here or now, to make space and time for longer exploration of how decisions could best be taken about all this. It can be difficult even at local level – but generally more people know those who are putting themselves forward so judgements are more likely to be rounded. Would primaries help – or would that just promote those who are already more polished? How do you get a team with different strengths and with different areas of development? How do we ensure that any group that wants to be involved can be without being blocked? How do we deal with the situation where so many have been suspended as well as debates about putting more energy into organising with those outside Labour?

There is a discussion about how many candidates the left can reasonably expect to get in the CLP section given the current relationship of forces. In the CLGA, Momentum mostly argued that there is no chance of getting more than four people elected and that is what everyone should focus on. Most other groups feel there is a chance of getting five – and that anyway with an STV voting system it would not matter as long as people follow an agreed list of regional preferences.

There is the question of the witch hunt in general – something where Momentum has an appalling record of going back to the days of Jon Lansman’s leadership of the organisation. Despite several changes of leadership since, the situation is certainly not resolved. I know Momentum members to whom the offer of support around investigation or suspension dematerialised as soon as they found out there was an allegation of antisemitism. This is not acceptable. And given that we know that a disproportionate number of Jews who are critical of Israel have been prey to such attacks it actually fosters antisemitism. .

This leads us to the importance of having visible Jewish candidates who stand in solidarity with Palestine – most likely but not exclusively members of Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL). In the wake of the Forde report[ii], this becomes even more important. There is bad history between Momentum and JVL – the former was reluctant to support JVL member Stephen Marks as a candidate for the National Constitutional Committee (NCC) in 2018 and hostile to the candidacy of JVL member Jo Bird in 2020.

There is a strand around Black representation in which there are definitely differences of emphasis from the debates of 40 and 50 years ago, when concepts of Black self-organisation were a major issue for the left in both the Labour Party and the unions. For those organisations, Black meant anyone experiencing racism – and people of African (including Middle Eastern), Asian and Caribbean descent worked together around these demands. What was happening on the streets had an impact. It was often the Asian community who were at the forefront of violence from the far right – and mobilising against it – while Afro-Caribbean youth were more likely to suffer at the hands of the police under the hated sus laws. There are many reasons, including Forde, why this all needs to be re-explored in today’s realities. Certainly we need more Black representation at all levels in the movement. However, who qualifies to be part of this and how this is best achieved is again a complex discussion where there are new differences of emphasis – and insufficient spaces to explore them constructively.

These were all threads that were explicit in the CLGA discussions. What was known on the wider Labour left was less clear – not least because one of the many bizarre and unhelpful things is that the CLGA produces no minutes and says what happens in the meeting should be confidential… How people are supposed to report back to those who send them and get a new mandate is a mystery. The consequence of this is problematic; many people do not have access to these discussions and others only have access to partial and potentially distorted reports.

What I understand happened may not be accurate because it is based on partial reports from several sources; however, I believe the basics are correct. The CLGA did not take a position on a slate for the CLP section of the NEC. There were seven candidates who saw themselves as being on the same wavelength as the groups involved in CLGA and they campaigned for nominations from local parties during that phase of the contest. At the end of that process, five left candidates had over 100 nominations each (the 3 incumbents who are re-standing – Gemma Bolton, Yasmine Dar and Mish Rahman plus Jess Barnard from Young Labour and Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi from JVL). Deborah Hobson from Grassroots Black Left and Maryam Eslamdoust who was originally proposed by Momentum got less than 25 per cent of the vote. Maryam subsequently withdrew.

At around this time a group of organisations, many of whom had worked together through the CLGA and who supported a slate of 5 with those candidates that had shown the best chance of success through the nominations process started to meet. It was not an exclusive group in that in included two groups – Labour Black Socialists and Red Labour – that also back Deborah Hobson as well as the other five.

Momentum was not part of this group and in fact during some of this period seemed more focused on their own internal elections, which were taking place around the same time. I had a few days of surprised exhilaration when the first meeting of the new Momentum NCG meeting on July 16 decided to support the Grassroots 5. I hoped that maybe, just maybe, some people had learnt that divisions on the left will only benefit people like Labour First.

But although the decision was made on the Saturday, Momentum did not make any statement either to its own supporters or more widely on social media. Rumours circulated that there was to be an emergency meeting to rediscuss things. This took place on Wednesday 20 July and reversed the decision. Momentum would back only four candidates – i.e., they would not support JVL’s Wimborne-Idrissi. This also has the consequence that there are two competing sets of advice about which order people in different parts of Britain should vote – which undermines support for all the left candidates and not only Naomi.

It is worth noting that this volte face has resulted in a lot of unease within Momentum itself. I know at least three Momentum branches – Barnet, Brent, and Tower Hamlets that have met since this revised decision and agreed to back the G5. There are undoubtedly many individual members of Momentum taking the same view.

This brings us to the question of trans rights. I was one of many people angry and upset when some months back JVL’s official twitter account was used to defend transphobe Kathleen Stock. The tweet was eventually deleted – but no apology was issued. Not good – in fact I’d argue not good enough… And while I make this point about JVL, they are far from the only group about which this has been an issue of painful contention. Momentum itself has on other occasions backed people with strong gender critical ties and much of their approach is seen by many as tokenistic. They have not been visible mobilising in support of trans demands and organisations which might well be more productive.

I strongly advocate for trans rights, including self-id, and argue that most of the ideological attacks on trans people are deeply reminiscent of attacks made on the LGBT+ community as a whole. However,– I also know this issue has become a very divisive issue on large parts of the left in Britain over the last five years or so. I wish this wasn’t the case – and I will continue to try to persuade people who describe themselves as gender critical or use similar arguments as those who do describe themselves that way that they are profoundly mistaken.

Photo: Steve Eason

But given the situation, it does not help fighting for the material and emotional support trans people need to demonise the people who hold such positions. The positions are wrong, but not necessarily the people. Labelling people as bad and shunning them is not likely to lead to a situation where they rethink their views, which is the very thing that would strengthen the fight for trans rights. (My own practice hasn’t always been consistent – and I’m not demanding the same approach from everyone else)

JVL have stated that the question of trans rights was not raised with them in relation to the G5 slate until a few weeks ago. Apparently, they were asked by Momentum, between the two NCGs, to get Naomi to sign a public statement supporting self-ID. They did not agree. They also did not agree with a separate proposal from another group that she should sign a contrary statement.

As I understand it JVL does not have a collective position on trans rights or self-ID. I don’t see why they should – it is not central to what the organisation exists for and would be likely to be divisive.

Furthermore, their view – and that of many of the other groups in the CLGA – is that candidates should not sign pledges outside what is agreed as a common platform. When I first heard about this approach  I thought it was nonsense. I have been part of many single issue campaigns that have asked candidates for public office to support our demands – and at the time, I did not see why this should be any different. On the other hand, I can see the reasons for more caution  now.

I would like to be in a situation where I could vote for people who agreed with me on everything I thought was important. Back to the discussion about how slates are put together, I would like to be part of a process of deciding what agreed platforms consist of. But I do not have a fixed idea of what I would advocate in any particular situation.

Writing this article has been hard. Undoubtedly some people will think I have said things I should not have said. Others will think I have not said enough. I may myself think tomorrow I got the balance wrong – but these are issues that need to be explored.

Vote G5

To return to where we started, despite all the complexities this article has dealt with I have no reservations in recommending everyone who has a vote casts it for the Grassroots 5. The team of Jess Barnard, Gemma Bolton, Yasmine Dar, Mish Rahman and Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi is a strong one. To find out what order to cast your vote to maximise its impact please follow this link:

That team is supported by the following organisations: Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, Campaign for Socialism, Jewish Voice for Labour, Kashmiris for Labour, Labour Assembly against Austerity, Labour Black Socialists, Labour Briefing (Co-op), Labour CND, Labour Representation Committee, Labour Women Leading, Northern England Labour Left, Red Labour and Welsh Labour Grassroots.

Many figures across the labour movement are supporting the slate including Diane Abbott MP, Richard Burgon MP, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Ian Lavery MP, John McDonnell MP, Beth Winter MP, Christine Blower (Labour peer, former NUT general secretary), Andy Kerr (CWU Deputy General Secretary), TSSA, Ruth Hayes (Chair, Labour Women Leading, personal capacity) Jumbo Chan (Co-Founder Socialist Campaign Group of Labour Councillors, personal capacity), Nadia Jama (current NEC CLP rep), Rachel Garnham (vice-chair CLPD, former NEC CLP rep), Darren Williams (former NEC CLP rep), Juliet Jacques (Writer/filmmaker), Reederwan Craayenstein (Labour Black Socialists, anti-Apartheid activist), Miriam Margolyes, Maxine Peake, Andrew Feinstein (Anti-Apartheid campaigner, former ANC MP and author) and Louise Regan (Co-chair, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, NEU National Officer, personal capacity).

If you use social media, please share links from this article to support the slate. Once the election is out of the way at the end of the month lets open a wider discussion about the lessons from all of this. But in the meantime, let’s fight with the strongest left voice.

[i] Don’t ask!!

[ii] See and many other articles on JVL website for useful assessments of the report and proposed actions

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