There was no need for a recount. After a robust and scrupulously even-handed debate (speeches timed to the second), Edinburgh Northern and Leith voted decisively to nominate Jeremy Corbyn as candidate for Labour leadership.
Perhaps the result – 50 for Jeremy Corby, 30 for Owen Smith, with a handful of abstentions – was no surprise. Like other constituencies across the UK, EN&L has seen a huge increase in membership in the last year. Many, if not most, of the new members have joined because of Jeremy Corbyn. And many of the new members who are eligible to vote attended the nomination meeting on Thursday 3 August. By the time the doors closed, there were 86 people filling the smartly furnished meeting room in Norton Park Conference Centre.
‘When was the last time you saw so many people at a CLP meeting?’ asked our chair, Bill Gilby.
Without missing a beat, Nick Gardner (Lab Councillor for Leith Walk) replied: ‘At the nomination meeting for Mark Lazarowicz in 2001.’
That was when Mark Lazarowicz, our former Labour MP, successfully stood to replace Malcolm Chisholm who had been elected to the new Scottish Parliament. But those were very different days (Mark was replaced by SNP MP Deidre Brock in 2015, and on Malcolm’s retirement this year SNP’s Ben Macpherson took the seat in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election).
‘This is the first time I’ve ever seen an agenda projected on Power Point,’ observed Bill as the screen behind him outlined the programme for the evening.
So there was some room for humour, but not during a carefully managed debate which allocated a strict three minutes for each speaker. Rules were explained clearly and deliberately at the start of the event, allowing extra time for late arrivals. Then eight speakers took part in the debate – four for Owen Smith, four for Jeremy Corbyn – some reading from pre-prepared notes, others spontaneously, some a little nervously, some with a calm that barely concealed a depth of feeling. All of them expressing a mixture of anger, frustration, anxiety, hope and despair. And yet – on both sides – a shared desire for something better.
Corbyn supporters evoked the excitement of a social movement for change; Smith supporters the need to win a wider electorate in order to achieve that change. ‘Hope’ was the word that echoed – most powerfully in one very moving and personal contribution – through the Corbyn speeches. ‘Electability’ was the argument expressed equally eloquently from the Smith side.
Look at the numbers, said Corbyn supporters, look at the enthusiasm of new members and huge crowds at public meetings. Look at the polls, said Smith supporters, both Labour and leader are at historic lows in public opinion.
Rules required contributors to debate the ‘qualities’ of the candidates but it was difficult for either side to resist a chance to point out the failings of the opposing candidate. Speakers alternately described Corbyn as calm, dignified, principled, effective and a threat to the status quo, or as divisive, unable to take criticism, impossible to work with, no team player, lacking leadership skills. Smith, was either typical of the ‘neo-liberal elite’ that had dragged Labour to the right, or a down to earth pragmatist who has given coherent substance to Corbyn’s more abstract left wing policies. While Corbyn was generally credited with moving Labour to the left, and highlighting the failure of austerity economics, he was also criticised for calling for Article 50 to be invoked the day after the referendum (without consulting the shadow cabinet) to speed UK’s separation from the EU. In contrast Smith has made constructive opposition to Brexit central to his campaign.
Ultimately, however, many agreed there was not much difference between the policies offered by either candidate – and for one speaker that was exactly why the CLP should nominate neither. ‘Both of them promising the earth on unaffordable, uncosted, unelectable economic policies. The Labour Party has got to get realistic. We made the same mistake in 1983.’
In fact there was no requirement to nominate a candidate. Although EN&L backed Jeremy Corbyn in last year’s leadership campaign, other CLPs have decided not to nominate any candidate. And as this ‘third way’ was also put to the meeting, a no-nomination debate produced further strong points, forcefully made. For nomination, one speaker urged us to show who we support in a constituency where poverty produces a need for food banks and soup kitchens. Against nomination, another expressed despair at the consequences of a divided Labour party, ‘History shows us that the Far Right flourishes when the Left is divided. Somehow compromise and consensus have become dirty words and yet they are a fundamental part of the Labour Party.’
A show of hands decided the issue – 51 for nomination, 30 against. As it turned out that was almost exactly the result of the secret ballot.
And then it was done. A vote of thanks to the chair and executive committee commended the comradely spirit of the well-organised meeting (a feeling later echoed in comments on the CLP Facebook page). Consensus had not yet broken out but the debate had perhaps produced a degree of mutual respect lacking in many social media ‘conversations’.
‘We should congratulate ourselves,’ Bill told the members as the meeting ended. ‘Now we must get on with the hard work, and there’s lots more to do. There’s a motion to conference if we want to make one. There’s the Recovery Plan to develop. We have 177 new members in the CLP and we will be really happy to see you at the next meeting.’
Make a note of the dates: 8 and 21 September there’s no big screen for a Power Point agenda. But don’t let that put you off.