When Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee met in London last September, the party’s Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale staged her very own sit-in to get her way.
Just a week before the annual conference reconfirmed Jeremy Corbyn’s second landslide leadership election, the meeting at the party’s HQ in Victoria Street was yet another of those tense, finely-balanced affairs that had come to characterise the Corbyn era.
Dugdale, who had taken the provocative step of publicly backing Corbyn’s challenger Owen Smith, was battling to give the Scottish and Welsh Labour parties voting reps on the NEC for the first time.
And when some in the room suggested that the whole idea should be put off to another day, the party’s Holyrood leader was having none of it.
Exercising her right to attend and speak at (but not vote) at the NEC, she told the meeting: “I’ve come here on a 5am train and I’ve not booked one back. I’m not going home unless this is approved.”
The proposal – to let party leaders in Scotland and Wales nominate a representative to the NEC - was indeed endorsed by a narrow 16-14 majority, with Corbyn pointedly abstaining.
Afterwards, ‘moderates’ in the party were delighted that they had found a way to gently tip the balance of power of the party’s ruling body back in their direction.
Dugdale’s anger spilled over again a week later at the party conference in Liverpool when a newly-elected Corbyn asked the NEC to delay the plan to give Scotland and Wales extra seats. “How dare you preach unity, and then try to undermine me as Scottish leader,” she told him. The leader backed down, the plan was approved and the full conference then backed it days later.
And although Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones decided to nominate a colleague to sit on the NEC, Dugdale swiftly announced that she would personally take up the new Scottish place.
In the following months, she also turned up at meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party, another regular flashpoint in the internal warfare over the direction of the party under Corbyn.
Fast-forward to August 2017, and Dugdale’s shock resignation has prompted many to ask whether her departure has significantly changed the balance of power at the top of the Labour Party.
Even for those uninterested in Scottish politics, let alone Labour’s internal battles north of the border, the question of who controls the NEC has been a hot topic in the past two years.
The National Executive Committee is the party’s most important decision-making and rule-making body, the gatekeeper for major constitutional changes that can only be approved by the full annual conference.
It has a powerful say over vexed issues such as leadership rules, reselection of MPs, the union link, membership eligibility, funding and internal discipline.
Crucially, its composition reflects the grassroots nature of Labour, with reps drawn from across the country. Its 33 members represent MPs, the Shadow Cabinet, local councils, constituency Labour parties, BAME communities, socialist societies, trade unions and others.
From the moment Corbyn was first elected in 2015, both the Left and the PLP-supporting ‘centrists’ came to see the NEC as the battlefield for the soul of Labour.
As a result, the smallest change in its make-up or proceedings would preoccupy various factions in way never seen under Blair or Brown or Miliband.
When Jon Ashworth was removed from the NEC and replaced by Kate Osamor, it was seen as a victory for the Left. When Dugdale and a Welsh rep secured new places, it was seen as a defeat for the Left. When any member of the committee was ill or absent, frantic plans were put in place to counter the impact.
The bitter, five-hour marathon meetings of 2016, culminating in one famous victory for Corbyn in ensuring he was automatically on the leadership ballot, proved how high the stakes were.
And yet since the general election, and the famous ‘Corbyn surge’ deprived Theresa May of her Commons majority, those attending the NEC say the mood has changed markedly.
Just as PLP meetings are no longer verbal punch-ups, the NEC is a calmer place too. “We’re all Corbynistas now, aren’t we?” joked one senior figure this summer.
After its most recent meeting in July, one member told me how the atmosphere was “much more friendly and comradely” than in recent years.
That’s not to say that some faction-fighting has been wiped out entirely. There was an ill-fated bid to replace Keith Vaz as the BAME rep on the NEC, but the Left failed to organise in time and he remained in place.
Those closest to the NEC point out that its decisions are often not even traditional left-right splits, but are determined by the trade unions who really hold the balance of power. Unite has more reps than others, but it rarely gets its own way if the GMB and Unison have other plans.
The biggest change since the election, however, has been Tom Watson’s decision to let Corbyn have his way at the NEC. The deputy leader infuriated some ‘moderates’ in July by staying away as the Left pushed through new moves to give members more of a say over candidate selection.
Watson told Corbyn personally before the meeting that he would not stand in his way. Allies of Watson tell me he believes that the leader can turn the coming party conference in Brighton into “an outward facing team effort from a Prime Minister-in-waiting - or use his new found authority to be the most dominant hard left faction leader in post-war history”.
Some MPs worry that Watson “is a general who has given up the fight”, just as centrists battle in the trenches to fend off Momentum’s increasing presence in local parties. Some suspect that the leadership is quietly sidelining Watson with promotions of Ian Lavery as party chair and Emily Thornberry as Corbyn’s deputy at PMQs. One Watson ally tells me “a good general knows when to retreat”.
Either way, Watson will not get in the way. And that, more than whoever replaces Kezia Dugdale (and interim leader Alex Rowley is expected to side with the Left on the NEC), is what many insiders think matters most right now.
One member of the NEC says that there is little appetite for internal navel-gazing and the committee is focused on a possible election. “Lots of people have moved on and are less interested in factional battles and more interested in beating the Tories,” they say.
Still, the slow-burn ‘Corbynisation’ of the NEC continues, just as it has across the mass membership. Left candidates are expected to see election to bodies such as the Conference Arrangements Committee and National Constitutional Committee, changes that could have a big impact on the 2018 conference next year.
Whether his revolution will mean major changes on issues such as leadership ballot thresholds, MP selection or members’ role in policy-making, really is up to Corbyn and those who support him so passionately.