In Praise of Ann Black — The Mythology of the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance

The battle for Labour’s soul has now moved firmly into the arena of Labour’s National Executive Committee. Not content with winning all of three of the new NEC constituency seats, Momentum’s Leadership have not their sights on un-seating Ann Black — a founding member of the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance — in the forthcoming NEC elections. Momentum’s actions under the leadership of Jon Lansman seem to be not only unnecessarily aggressive but designed to heighten the current state of factionalism within the Party. If there has been anyone, over the last twenty years, who has championed the role of the ordinary Party member it is Ann Black. Throughout her twenty years Ann has tried to work on a non tribal basis and Labour’s members have much to be grateful for.

Today, many members of Labour’s NEC produce their own regular reports of meetings but Ann was the first to do this. Ann set a new standard in openness and transparency and I doubt if she had not maintained her reporting that others would have followed, not least as Labour’s Hard Left has never been that keen on openness and transparency themselves. It is easy to overlook the fact that when Ann first started writing these reports they were very controversial. Labour’s leadership really didn’t like them at all; proper reporting and open minutes are not part of Labour’s NEC tradition.

Back in the late 90’s the Party’s initial distrust of Ann came from the simple fact that she was a founder member of the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance. Back then alliance was truly and centre left construction. Ann campaigned (and then worked) very much to the agenda of the group who she represented on the slate, Labour Reform, a centre left alliance of members who came together in opposition to much of Tony Blair’s Party in Power process. Labour Reform championed the greater involvement of ordinary members in Party affairs most notably through the adoption of One Member One Vote. Labour Reform had two innovative features for a Labour pressure group. Firstly, Labour Reform operated very openly and maintained regular contact with the then General Secretary Tom Sawyer and his deputy Jon Cruddas. When Labour took power in 1997 Labour Reform continued to meet regularly with Cruddas who by this time had moved into Downing Street. For Labour Reform it was important to engage in dialogue. We wanted the leadership and establishment of the Party to understand, directly, about our concerns and to hear at first hand our ideas for a building a better party. These were the principles that Ann took with her into the NEC. Not only was important to Ann maintain deeply held beliefs and principles but it was critical to commit to working positively across all sections of the Party.

The Centre Left Grass Roots came together to ensure proper membership representation in the newly constituted NEC elections of 2000. This centre-left grouping which relied heavily on the networks of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy but Ann and Labour Reform made a very significant contribution to the new alliance. It was Labour Reform that convinced the left that OMOV was the way forward. Labour Reform’s record of working with the press — not least to ensure its messages were clear and not manipulated — helped the left itself open up to the outside world.

In 2000 Ann was elected to the NEC as part of the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance slate, but she was the only nominee of the centre left grouping Labour Reform who was elected. Ann’s position within this alliance was distinctive from Day One and her work saw OMOV and other Labour Reform policies subsequently adopted and embraced within the wider Party.

Despite these early successes the Grassroots Alliance ceased being a centre-left alliance some time ago and yet, as we face a new NEC election the left still references the alliance as if it is some kind of organisation in its own right, which in reality it has never been. The Grassroots Alliance — with the removal of Ann Black — is simply reflective of the new ‘hard left’.

So, Ann’s erstwhile colleagues on the left are now campaigning to defeat her in the NEC elections. Their position deserves some scrutiny. The reason given publicly for opposing Ann is the position she took on the six-month qualifying period for members to vote in the 2016 leadership election — in short they blame her for her for this policy but the truth of the matter is very different. Ann has responded to these attacks in clearly an unequivocally. She points out that she — in fact — proposed amending the freeze date to June 24 2016 which would have had the effect of reducing the qualifying period for membership to less than three weeks. Momentum’s ‘spin’ not only does not reflect reality but it also fails to acknowledge that her new proposal was not carried after a 14-14 tie. But it is the reason for the ride vote that is fascinating. Earlier in that same meeting the key issue had been whether Corbyn, as Leader, should have an automatic place on the ballot; Ann supported Corbyn’s right of inclusion in that vote. Immediately after winning this vote Corbyn and ally Jon Trickett left the meeting to engage in triumphant interviews with the broadcast meeting. When An m over her amendment to the freeze date Neither Corbyn or Trickett were in the meeting to support her. So, if you were angry at not being bale to vote this is the reason why — Corbyn and Trickett failed the most basic test of political organisation, stay any the meeting until the last vote. Momentum’s insistence on attacking Ann for this lost vote is worthy of the Kremlin at the height of its powers. The hard reality is that Corbyn and Trickett had understood the importance of Ann’s proposal we would all have been spared a lot of grief.

It seems very clear to me that Ann’s real crime is that she is not really part of the right ‘gang’ and the arguments made over this freeze date vote are simply a half hearted way of using their own incompetence. Over lunch during the early summer of 2016 Ann confided to me that Lansman had made it clear that Momentum would use her clout to removed her from the NEC in 2018. They simply wanted a strong independent voice ousted.

The continued use of the term Centre Left Grassroots alliance is nothing more than a con trick, but the demise of this centre left alliance — and the treatment of Ann — reveals something else of the current state of Labour’s left.

As the then Chair of Labour Reform I was closely involved in the discussions with the left about the creation of an alliance to contest the 2000 NEC places. Those on the left who committed themselves to work with us, to understand our point of view, came from what you might call the Livingstone Left. Whatever you may think about Ken today he and his team understood the importance of alliance building across the Party. They also understood the need to work positively with the media. We all saw the effectiveness of both skills sets during Ken’s London mayoral campaigns. Looking back on the days during which we worked to create this alliance I cannot remember Lansman making any significant contribution and nor can I remember Corbyn offering any practical support, though there members of the Parliamentary Campaign Group worked with us in a very comradely fashion.

Today, I still feel it was right at that time to champion party democracy and to stand up of the increasing rights of members. It seemed clear to many of us that some close to Blair — with who we worked with well in other areas — saw a more US like future to our politics. Working with colleagues and comrades in the Grassroots Alliance we made a difference and yet, today, that willingness to work across factional boundaries has now gone. Only of those who played a serious role in developing the Grassroots Alliance — Simon Fletcher — made it into Corbyn’s backroom team. However, Fletcher — a long time ally and supporter of Livingstone — left his job as Campaigns Chief in early 2017. Corbyn’s team now reflects a very different left, one that is more tribal, more secretive and inherently suspicious of working in partnership across the breadth of the Party. It is not even reflected of the broad left within the Party

Many of those who support Momentum and the desire to see a new politics of the centre left remind me very much of those of us who were members of Labour Reform and the subsequent groupings, Save the Labour Party and the Labour Democratic Network. The hard core Momentum Leadership seems cut from a very different cloth, operating a ‘winner takes all’ philosophy or what has been called a ‘shit or bust’ programme. For all of us who feel Labour succeeds as a broad church, it is time to worry.

Ann Black has been a member of the NEC for almost twenty years. You might feel that it is time for younger blood to take over but in Ann we have a champion of both equality and openness within and across the Party. Today, Ann’s inclusive tendencies seem more important than ever and for that reason I would urge all members to support her in the forthcoming elections. I would urge others currently engaged in the creation of slates to think how they can best support Ann’s own brand of inclusive and non sectarian politics.

You can read more about Ann and her work on her own website ‘On the Record’ — http://www.annblack.co.uk — which includes every one of Ann’s NEC and National Policy Forum Reports since 1999. Even a quick skim through this archive will give you an insight into why Ann’s work on the NEC is not done.

Andy Howell

Andy Howell was the founding Chair of Labour Reform and a founder member of the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance.

Comments

  1. John Hurley says:

    As the second chair of Labour Reform and as a witness to the foundation of the Grass Roots alliance I endorse everything Andy has said. Ann has topped the elections for the NEC on most occasions because she is a true democrat who has informed, consulted and represented the membership in opposition to any faction which wishes to impose its will on the party.

    We now have a leadership faction in Momentum which is trying to use the broad left membership in the country for its own narrow factional interest to close down the very things which Ann above all opened up. In this respect the problem faced by the membership is little different from at the height of Blairism. What Mandelsohn and Progress share with Lansman and the Momentum leaqdership faction is the desire to control and dictate to the membership. This led to a rapid decline in membership after 1997 as members became disillusioned and I forsee exactly the same pattern happening again. Yet a Labour Party with a socialist agenda in power will depend on the effort of the mass of members. How will splitting the left achieve this purpose – it will indeed play to the narrative of sectarian take-over and Labour in-fighting which will keep us out of power.

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