Jeremy Corbyn’s drive to get more Labour members involved in the selection of Parliamentary candidates has been given a major boost by the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC).
At its meeting on Tuesday, the NEC voted for a new system of local selection panels designed to give more of a say to the rank and file in key seats and to curb centralized control by the party’s HQ and regions, HuffPost UK has learned.
But deputy leader Tom Watson infuriated ‘centrist’ members of the NEC and party staffers by deliberately staying away from the meeting, after he privately told Corbyn that he would not stand in the way of reform.
HuffPost UK understands that Watson told Corbyn he was giving him space to make his next move, allowing him to show whether he wanted to unite the party or risk further splits.
Allies of Watson believe 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”. Either way, Watson will not get in the way.
Under the new rules, all party members will be allowed to run for posts on selection panels in 75 target seats in England, ending the current system where executive committee members have run the process for years.
The changes could see the influx of new members to the party - which has doubled in size since 2015 - take a direct say over who becomes their next MP, and is seen as a fillip to the leftwing grassroots group Momentum.
In a separate move, the NEC also looks set to ensure that at least 50% of the key Tory marginals targeted will have all-women shortlists. Its next meeting in September is expected to approve the percentage.
Corbyn is keen to get candidates swiftly in place in the 75 seats in case there is another snap election this autumn after a possible change of Tory leader and Prime Minister.
He is also personally touring many of the seats himself in a ‘summer campaign’ to build on the momentum of his general election performance.
The new system of candidate selection was approved narrowly by the NEC, which was not attended by deputy leader Tom Watson.
HuffPost UK was told initially told Watson had ‘other meetings’ but it later emerged he had agreed with Corbyn to stay away.
Labour MPs and NEC members told HuffPost UK they were “furious” at the Deputy Leader’s conduct.
“He gave the general secretary’s office one hour’s notice that he wasn’t coming and when MPs called him to check where he was they were told ‘he was due to be there’,” one source said.
Watson’s conduct - allegedly failing to alert colleagues of his secret deal with Corbyn - meant he could no longer be trusted to speak up for MPs, another said.
Tensions between the leader and his deputy have simmered since the failed ‘coup’ by MPs last summer. During the party conference last year, Watson used his setpiece speech to directly challenge Corbyn’s authority.
In recent months, Watson’s wings have been clipped by Corbyn, passing his party chair role to leftwinger Ian Lavery. Senior Corbyn allies also want to further water down his influence by creating a second deputy leader post for a female candidate.
“It’s a small, but very significant change,” an insider said of the selection panel decision. “It may lead to an abuse of due process and make selection unmanageable.”
Some ‘centrist’ members of the committee opposed the plans on the grounds that it would build in extra bureaucracy and cost, but others argued that it would be more democratic and accelerate the process to get people in place this autumn.
One NEC source suggested the real reason Watson didn’t attend was because he simply assumed the proposals were uncontentious and didn’t want to fuel any “in-fighting” narrative.
The process for nominating potential candidates will remain unchanged, with wards and union affiliates still able to take part. “It should be a fair and open process, so people should relax,” one NEC source said.
A party source added: “It’s a small and welcome step for democracy and members’ participation.”
Many local activists, particularly those on the Left, were furious earlier this year when the party in London decided to take control of Parliamentary candidate selection because of the snap election.
Local parties with vacancies were denied a chance to choose their candidate and NEC-led panels were instead used to impose Westminster hopefuls.
The NEC meeting postponed a key decision on a crunch vote on leadership rule changes due at the party’s annual conference in Brighton in September.
A plan to lower the threshold of MPs’ and MEPs’ nominations needed for a leadership bid - from 15% to 5% - is being pushed by many local activists and Momentum groups.
But unions are expected to block the leadership rule change both on the NEC and at conference in a vote.