Khan, who defeated Zac Goldsmith in a bitter mayoral contest last year, was told last month his speech had been removed from the conference programme because the Labour leadership wants to make more time for delegates to speak. A record number of delegates are expected to attend conference this year. Greater Manchester Metro mayor Andy Burnham has also not been included in the conference schedule.
Unison, which has two representatives on the National Executive Committee, raised the issue of Khan’s conference snub at a lengthy meeting of Labour’s 35-person governing body in London on Tuesday afternoon. It is understood that Keith Birch and Wendy Nichols appealed directly to party officials, and to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, to reconsider their decision to silence Khan. Birch said Khan has become a politician with international standing since he was elected as Europe’s first Muslim mayor following a contest with Goldsmith that was characterised by a relentlessly negative Tory campaign. Nichols said black and minority ethnic Labour members in her own constituency could not understand why Khan will not be speaking.
Unison’s campaign to have the decision overturned was supported at the meeting by George Howarth, one of three backbench MPs on the NEC. He reminded Corbyn that – unless and until the Labour leader is elected Prime Minister – Khan is the most senior elected Labour politician in the country, running by far the biggest city in the country and overseeing a total budget of £17 billion. It is understood that Corbyn listened to their arguments but did not respond. The NEC agreed that the Conference Arrangements Committee, which is responsible for the programme in Brighton, will discuss the decision to remove Khan from the schedule when it meets later today.
Keith Vaz MP, who represents BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) Labour members on the NEC, said Bristol mayor Marvyn Rees should address conference. He pointed out that Rees is the only afro-Caribbean mayor in the UK and complained that his speech to conference in Liverpool last year was cut short, according to sources at the meeting.
The official explanation for removing Khan and Burnham from the conference schedule is that time constraints mean it is simply not possible for every senior Labour figures to speak. Only a handful of senior shadow cabinet figures, including Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry and Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth, will make speeches. But some of Corbyn’s critics have claimed the decision is politically motivated.
The London mayor made a well-received speech in Liverpool last year which contained some thinly-veiled criticisms of the Labour leader. He spoke pointedly about the need to win power in order to implement Labour policies. That was interpreted by many observers as a message to the party to recognise the popular appeal of Khan’s pragmatic, election-winning programme and reject Corbyn’s more traditional, left-wing policy platform.
The shock election result in June has prompted a reassessment of Corbyn’s electoral appeal, however. The Labour leader closed a twenty-point gap in the polls, denied the Tories an overall majority and defied the predictions of pundits, the media and many of his own MPs in an election which saw a 2 per cent swing from the Tories to Labour. He is now ahead in the polls and favourite to become the next Prime Minister.
That reversal in Corbyn’s fortunes and the strength of his position as leader were underlined yesterday when the NEC unanimously agreed to rule changes he proposed. A plan to reduce the number of nominations leadership candidates must win from MPs and MEP in order to run in the event of a vacancy from 15% to 10% was unanimously agreed by the NEC.
Another proposal put forward by Corbyn, which will increase the number of NEC seats held by rank and file members from six to nine, was also voted through without opposition. Both rule changes will need to be ratified and approved by conference next week but there is little doubt they will be passed.