Leftwing members of Labour’s governing body have staged a mass walkout in protest of the actions of the Labour leadership, including the election of a key ally of Keir Starmer as the body’s chair.
The Guardian understands 13 members of the national executive committee (NEC) – including senior members of the trade unions Unite and the FBU, as well as constituency representatives including the ex-MP Laura Pidcock – staged a pre-planned walkout in protest of the election of MP Margaret Beckett as NEC chair.
A number of leftwing members of the NEC have expressed outrage at Starmer’s decision to withhold the whip from the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn after comments he made in the wake of a report by the equality watchdog into antisemitism in the party.
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By Dan Sabbagh
The Corbyn-supporting bloc on the NEC – which now has a majority supportive of Starmer’s leadership – has been further angered by a decision to suspend the system of a rotating chairmanship of the body. The move allowed Beckett, the former Labour deputy leader, to be elected chair instead of the FBU’s Ian Murray, who was due to take on the role after having served as vice-chair.
Murray was among 14 NEC members who signed a letter to the general secretary, David Evans, which was highly critical of Starmer’s leadership and criticised the “political interference” in the decision to suspend the whip from Corbyn after his suspension from the party was lifted by an NEC disciplinary panel.
In a second letter to Evans released after the walkout, the 13 members repeated their request that Evans “admonish Starmer for his decision to undermine the role of the NEC by withdrawing the whip from Jeremy Corbyn”.
They said the “longstanding protocol” was for the vice-chair to be elected to the head of the body. “This is not protocol and is another example of the leader promoting factional division within Labour,” the letter said.
“The leader’s decision to again promote factionalism comes at a time when the historic relationship with trade unions is under tremendous strain,” the letter said.
The letter said the 13 members were not intending to resign from the NEC and would return to future meetings “to be the legitimate voice of the membership and to continue to demand that the party unite and reject the current factional approach of the leader”.
It is understood the walkout, which took place at the Labour NEC away-day on Zoom, was coordinated by Pidcock and Unite’s Howard Beckett, a candidate hoping to succeed Len McCluskey as the trade union’s general secretary.
Mish Rahman, one of the local constituency representatives on the body, said: “Yet again Starmer is trying to play games with democracy and undermine the role of trade unions within our party. This latest action fits a worrying pattern of control-freakery reminiscent of the New Labour years.
“There can be no party unity until Starmer fully understands the need to work with the Labour movement and the many tens of thousands of grassroots members who can help deliver a Labour government. Our walkout today was to remind him of this, and to send a message that we will not put up with petty and repeated attacks on trade unions and members.”
NEC members described chaos as the bloc walked out, which allowed Margaret Beckett to be elected NEC by a unanimous 24 votes. One NEC member said it was “clearly planned in advance … they’ve thrown their toys out of the pram … none of us ever walked out when we didn’t get our way, lost votes!”
Another called it a “full-frontal attack” on the leader by Howard Beckett and Pidcock. The walkout did not go as smoothly as intended. One source described how Howard Beckett had given an angry speech ahead of the walkout but then spent an agonising minute attempting to find the button to leave the virtual meeting.
Labour sources said the move to elect Margaret Beckett rather than allow Murray to take his turn in the chair was the restoration of the old system which had been in place until 2017 under which the longest-serving NEC member becomes chair. Beckett was first elected to the NEC in 1980. Alice Perry, a long-serving Islington councillor, was elected vice-chair.
Corbyn has had the whip suspended for three months – barring him from the parliamentary Labour party – pending an investigation into whether he had broken the PLP code of conduct.
He had been suspended from the Labour party as a whole in late October over comments he made after a report by the equality watchdog about antisemitism in the party, but his membership was restored after three weeks when he was given a formal warning by the party.
The former Labour leader has been asked to formally apologise and withdraw comments in which he said the scale of the problem had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons” by opponents and the media.