A bitter Labour row has broken out after Jeremy Corbyn’s allies postponed the election for the chair of the party’s national policy-making body, HuffPost has learned.
Just minutes before the party’s National Policy Forum (NPF) was due to gather in Leeds on Saturday morning, an emergency meeting of the ruling National Executive Committee officers’ group decided to block the vote.
Veteran activist Ann Black (pictured, above) – who lost the backing of Momentum this month - had been on course to defeat union rep Andi Fox in a hastily-arranged election to chair the hugely important policy forum, which sets Labour policy for future general elections.
But the party leadership felt that ‘insufficent notice’ had been given for the election and with the backing of trade unions moved to postpone it.
When the policy forum meeting formally began, Labour activists furious at the NEC officer decision tried to still go ahead with the election.
Amid scenes that some said had not been seen ‘since the 1980s’, NPF vice chair Katrina Murray called for a vote despite the opposition of NEC chair Andy Kerr.
One MP shouted “bully!” as Kerr tried to pull rank and replace Murray at the lectern.
He responded: “Let’s be clear. All elections in the party are in the realms of the NEC, not the NPF, not any other body. The decision of the NEC officers is the decision.
“We are not electing the chair of the NPF today. I repeat we are not electing the chair of the NPF today, under any circumstances.”
Despite his plea, Murray went ahead and called a vote, before the meeting had to be adjourned.
The party refused to publish the result of the vote but a source in the room told HuffPost that roughly 70 people backed an election and just 45 opposed it.
Following the chaos, Corbyn’s speech had to be postponed for more than an hour. His planned Q&A session with the policy forum audience was cancelled.
Members now hope a postal ballot of members will go ahead to elect the new NPF chair, but a timetable is yet to be decided. It could take place in four weeks’ time or later this summer, after other changes to the policy body’s make-up.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry is understood to have been among those to back Kerr as the wrangling broke out, while others claimed critics of the Left were trying to ‘hijack’ the election.
A Labour source insisted the issue was one of procedure: “For elections to be valid, seven days’ notice is required according to party rules.
“That’s why the NEC ruled out an election at its first opportunity. The NPF can’t overrule the NEC.”
However, this account was hotly disputed by former Labour party senior staffer Mike Creighton, who blogged that none of the “general rules or procedure of the Labour Party require that seven days notice is given to fill such a vacancy”.
The NPF - which is made up of MPs, union reps, local members and others - was also set to discuss the party’s line on Brexit and other key policies at the Leeds meeting.
Former MP Ann Cryer and NPF chair announced this week she was stepping aside from the post, sparking a race to succeed her.
But as it emerged that Black was on course for victory, Corbyn supporters objected that there had been too little notice of the election and voted to cancel it.
A conference call of the NEC officers group voted by 5 votes to 1 to halt the election, multiple sources revealed.
Neither Jeremy Corbyn nor deputy leader To Watson took part in the vote, but left-backed unions won the day. Only Unison’s Keith Birch voted to go ahead with the election of the chair. Momentum-backed Christine Shawcroft was not on the conference call.
Momentum surprised some activists when it decided to withdraw its support for Black this month, but she has since won the backing of MPs and others who feel she is an ‘honest broker’ with long experience in the party.
Earlier, former Shadow Education Secretary Lucy Powell expressed her irritation at the decision.
After the row in the meeting, other Labour MPs tweeted their dismay.
Murray thanked colleagues for their good wishes but insisted “as a trade union woman” “I can deal with it”.
At the heart of the row is the battle for membership of the party’s nine-member NEC officers’ group, which controls selection of Parliamentary candidates and other crucial issues.
Chairmanship of the NPF automatically carries membership of the officers’ group, which currently has a ‘Corbyn-friendly’ majority of six-to-one.
A senior Labour MP told HuffPost: “We are expecting fireworks now because members of the policy forum are angry that the NEC officers seem to be doing this on the instruction of the Leader’s office.”
One source added that the process for elections was agreed by the Joint Policy Committee, which oversees the NPF jointly with the NEC, of which Corbyn is co-chair.
Another NEC source said that veteran leftwinger George McManus had been due to nominate Black for the chair’s role, along with several constituency Labour parties.
“Jeremy has ordered a national review of party democracy and yet this morning it looks like his office has ensured there is no internal party democracy for the National Policy Forum,” a party insider added.
HuffPost understands there is some union disquiet at the way the party leadership decided to back Fox - who represents the leftwing TSSA union - as its candidate for NPF chair, when other contenders could have had a better chance.
When it became clear that Fox would not defeat Black, an 11th hour decision to cancel the election was taken.
One union source said: “We can’t understand why the leadership are going to war on this. And if you do go to war, you do it properly.”
A party source within the Leeds meeting said that the vote for an election had been clear. “The NPF wanted to elect a chair, a small group of the NEC officers wanted to stop them, presumably since they thought they couldn’t control the result.
“The argument that the vote wasn’t in order is rubbish - it’s all about control.”
Richard Angell, director of centrist group Progress, said: “As ever, the leader’s office, Momentum and their union boss allies only like party democracy that goes their way.
“If they cannot get the outcome they want, they will bend the rules and fix the outcome. It’s shameful really.”
A Momentum source hit back: “Only one out of the nine members on the NEC officers group is Momentum backed [Shawcroft], yet this still ends up being a ‘Momentum plot’.
“The motion was carried by the trade unions - who have a clear majority on the group - but obviously that doesn’t fit with the paranoid fantasies of a small minority in the party.”
One GMB source objected to the union’s decision to side with Unite in the NEC officers’ meeting. “Our HQ is like the Euston branch of Unite these days!”
But others in the union rejected the characterisation, stressing it wanted to work constructively with fellow unions on issues where its members’ views aligned with those of Labour members and the party leadership.
One insider was surprised that party general secretary Iain McNicol was not in Leeds for the NPF meeting. He was understood to be at a convention for the Canadian New Democrat party.
HuffPost revealed this month that Momentum had decided to pull its support for Black because of her role on the NEC in excluding 125,000 new party members from the leadership election in 2016.
Black’s supporters point out she had in fact proposed allowing all members who had joined up to July that year to take part, but the move failed because Corbyn and Shadow minister Jon Trickett were out of the room.