Annual Conference, September 2019

Bird’s Eye View

 After three years attending conference as a constituency delegate, two years as a national policy forum representative and 18 years on the NEC, this time I watched as a visitor from high in the balcony.  I was proud of our delegates from Oxford East and Oxford West & Abingdon, all of whom made it to the podium, and of our Oxford East MP Anneliese Dodds, praised by John McDonnell as a member of his treasury team:  he said that Anneliese had found the magic money tree in the Cayman Islands, and was busy digging it up.  Many members will have seen proceedings at home, so this is a look behind the headlines.

Why Are We Waiting?

I’m afraid I cannot explain why the NEC, despite several marathon meetings, will still not allow non-Labour seats to choose their parliamentary candidates.  Local government representative Alice Perry, writing at reports that 12,000 members applied within the 48-hour window.  Many are still waiting for an acknowledgment.  Instead scarce resources are devoted to trigger ballots for sitting MPs, though with an election looming the choice may actually be between the current MP and an NEC shortlist or even an NEC-imposed candidate, as in 2017.

Alice also reports that the NEC has decided not to stand Labour candidates in Northern Ireland.  I was on the NI working group for two years and there are no easy answers.  I understand the disappointment of our members, and it was unfortunate that the shadow Northern Ireland secretary did not address conference.

The NEC’s other priorities seem to have included shutting down Labour Students and trying to delete the deputy leader.  On the former, clearly students deserve a democratic organisation.  The difficulty in moving to one-member-one-vote for electing Labour Students officers is that many members paying the student rate are no longer students, and not all students pay the student rate.  This could be overcome with IT development and proper verification, if the necessary resources are provided.

On Tom Watson, I believe that the deputy’s job is to support the leader publicly and advise them privately.  However as a trade union steward I have seen management eliminate problematic employees by disappearing their post rather than tackling the individual, and this is bad in principle and in practice.  And overshadowing the start of a conference set to unveil the most radical and transformative programme for generations was extraordinary.  The mainstream media are not on our side, but why make it easy for them?  I’m told that all CLP and Unite members challenged the chair Wendy Nichols, who ruled the proposal out of order, and the 17-10 vote almost reached the two-thirds needed to overturn her decision.

Conference did, however, agree a rule change making the appointment of an acting leader subject to approval by the NEC, and the NEC must be consulted on any significant changes to party policy “to the extent that is practicable”.  This applies in government as well as in opposition, and I wonder who will run the country while the NEC is in permanent session.  Perhaps parliament could be prorogued until it reaches conclusions.  Interestingly only 38% of affiliates voted for this, but with support from 80% of CLPs it was carried with 59% in favour.

Opening Ceremonies

After a welcome by Nancy Platts, leader of Brighton & Hove council, and the chair Wendy Nichols reflecting on the past year, we moved on to numerous and diverse points of order.  This section increasingly reminds me of NALGO (now part of UNISON) conferences in the 1980s.  A card vote was called on the conference arrangements committee (CAC) report which included the day’s agenda, though business continued regardless.  Four-fifths of constituency delegates rejected it but 98% of affiliates voted to proceed.

More than 400 motions were submitted, and the CAC had grouped them into 54 subject areas.  During Saturday afternoon delegates voted on which topics to prioritise, and many spent Saturday and Sunday evenings attempting to boil down dozens of motions to one or two composites.  This was just about feasible with eight topics, but with 20 it has become seriously unmanageable.  One option would be to return to the pre-1998 system where all motions were accepted and compositing took place the day before conference opened.  Alternatively an earlier deadline for motions would allow balloting for priorities online and in advance, which worked well for the 2019 women’s conference.  (Speaking of which, I was concerned to hear that no venue for a 2020 women’s conference is yet booked.  When I was NEC vice-chair for women we started planning the Telford event a year in advance, and February is only four months away.)

Saturday afternoon continued with the treasurer’s report, where Diana Holland confirmed that the party remained debt-free, and reserves allowed Labour to continue on a general election footing.  Membership was still higher than all other UK political parties combined, with guesstimates around 450,000.  Some delegates queried the ethics of sponsorship by BP, Kellogg, Heathrow and Gatwick, given their contribution to climate change.  As with last year’s NEC decision on McDonald’s, the arguments are finely balanced, and the airports in particular are a major source of employment.

Reading the Small Print

The rest of the day was devoted to constitutional amendments from the NEC and from constituencies, including further changes arising from the 2018 democracy review.  As last year, delegates complained at being expected to digest 70 pages of text less than 24 hours before the vote, but I think I’ve got my head round most of them.  There was some discussion on giving the NEC as well as the NCC powers to expel members, with 52% of CLPs opposed but 99% of affiliates in favour, and over local government changes, with 64% of CLPs voting against the NEC proposals for local government committees (LGCs) which replace local campaign forums (LCFs) and 51% in favour of electing Labour group executive boards by joint trade union / individual member electoral colleges, both again outvoted by affiliates.

I understand that the new local government rules resulted from negotiations between stakeholders on the NEC, but foresee problems with a one-size-fits-all approach.  The LGC is to be composed of three sections:  CLP representatives, councillors and trade unions.  Each section should have equal numbers, and each section has one-third of the votes.  Questions include (a) what if local parties have no trade union delegates (b) does this make sense for very small Labour groups in permanent opposition (c) must two-tier local government areas have two LGCs at borough and county level (d) why has the Co-op Party disappeared?  Also the rule requiring at least one of the three officers (chair, vice-chair and secretary) to be a woman has been amended to at least 50%, which is the same thing:  the general secretary recently confirmed that women’s quotas can be rounded down, so seven men out of 13 places, or two men out of three places, is OK.  I look forward to discussions with our regional office on how to make sense of this.

There was overwhelming support for action intended to increase candidates from under-represented groups, and in particular to designate BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) priority selections with a minimum number of places reserved for BAME candidates as far as the 2010 Equality Act permits.

Rule changes from local parties fell with near-unanimous opposition from affiliates, though around 60% of CLP delegates supported a return to the original Clause IV – “if it was good enough for Keir Hardie it’s good enough for us” – despite the promise of a year-long consultation on the totemic wording.  Nearly one-third of CLPs supported a devolved Cornish Labour party.  There were three amendments on internal elections:  Daventry proposed single transferable vote for all national committees, Mitcham & Morden would apply preferential voting to NEC elections, and Derby South would set a maximum of two NEC members from any nation or region.  Their delegates failed to move them and they fell, but I understand that they could be brought back next year, as the three-year restriction only applies if an amendment is defeated.

A Lot Done, a Lot To Do …

Turning to the democracy review, some of the 2018 areas were rolled forward again to 2020, notably the long-promised review of membership subscriptions.  During the year the NEC had filled some of the gaps, though I do wonder if the details have undergone sufficient scrutiny.  The rules for CLP-level branches for women, BAME, disabled, LGBT and young members all state that a proportion of members’ subscriptions should be allocated to the branch.  I think this dates back to before 2011, when CLPs received 30% of membership income rather than the current amount of less than £3 per member.  CLPs are also required to mail all members within each group, which can only currently be done for women and young members.  The party has asked BAME and disabled members to identify themselves, but I am told that only 1,800 BAME members – an average of three per CLP – had done so.  LGBT status is not even being collected.

The 2018 conference agreed that the NEC should bring rules for national women’s, BAME and disabled members’ conferences to the 2019 conference for approval.  However no details were provided, only wording which says there shall be (a) a women’s representative structure, including a national women’s committee and a national women’s conference (b) a BAME representative structure, and (c) a disabled members representative structure, all of which shall operate on procedural guidelines issued by the NEC.  Procedural guidelines are always a bugbear, as they are not part of the rulebook and tend to change without warning.  So the future shape of our equalities structures has moved from open approval by conference into the party’s mysterious innards.  All the affiliates and 96.3% of CLPs endorsed this.

Regional Reform

Regional structures were long overdue for review, and more consistency is welcome, but again the devil is in the detail.  The stated aims include working with registered supporters, who have no party status beyond one-off payments to vote in leadership elections, and affiliated supporters, whose records are not regularly updated.  Affiliated supporters are apparently entitled to attend regional conferences as visitors even if they are not party members, which I would have opposed.  Regional executive committees (RECs – formerly regional boards) have become larger, with the south-east now at (I think) 42 members.

Regional conferences will be held annually, with elections to the REC every other year.  Representatives for women, BAME, disabled and LGBT+ will be elected by their respective regional committees or, where these don’t exist, by delegates to regional conference.  It is not clear whether this means by all delegates, or by delegates from their own strand, for instance only women delegates elect the woman representative, only LGBT+ members elect the LGBT+ representative.  The Young Labour representative will be elected by an all-member meeting of the regional Young Labour group.  Regional conference delegates will also elect the REC chair and two vice-chairs (including at least one woman), though membership of the REC will not be known at the start of the conference.


From Sunday the conference moved on to policy debates, with frontbench speakers, motions and national policy forum (NPF) papers.  In 2018, fulfilling the promise of Partnership in Power in 1997, delegates were at last able to refer back (or “reference back” in the new jargon) sections of NPF documents.  Relatively few delegates did so, and the process seemed to work well.  Alas, this year it rather came off the rails.  Nearly 50 references were received in advance, two-thirds of them from Brighton Pavilion, with more taken from the floor.  Initially the relevant paragraph and the reason for reference were not printed in the daily agenda, though the CAC reacted with commendable speed and next day all the information was included.

Newer delegates find it mystifying that all votes are taken at the end of a session, hours after the speeches, and “well, we’ve always done it this way” is not a sufficient reason.  Attempts to vote on references back at Sunday lunchtime were abandoned, and by 5:30 p.m. conference was faced with a long list covering education, health, and justice and home affairs.  Shows of hands are complicated by the system where half the votes are cast by constituency delegates and half by trade unions and other affiliates.  CLPs now send three or four times as many delegates as the unions, so the chair has to assess levels of support within each section separately.  As the evening wore on it was obvious that most CLPs were voting for every reference back, and most of the unions were voting against, not a good look as there were always more hands in favour, and the chair ended up calling card votes on all of them.  This proved necessary as the results, published the next day, were all within the 48% / 52% range, some carried, some not carried.  Shabana Mahmood MP was praised for chairing with grace and good humour, acknowledging frustration while maintaining authority, but I am sure that lessons will be learned for next year.  And I do hope the calls for Labour to abolish the 11-plus, led by Alexa Collins of Beaconsfield, will be heeded.  Some of us spent 13 years trying and failing under the last Labour government, and change is long overdue.

Missing In Action

Afterwards I asked trade union friends why they didn’t just sit on their hands, as referring back simply asks the policy commissions to think again, it does not alter policy.  They felt that a handful of CLPs were using the device to circumvent the policy-making process.  I would query whether this process still exists.  The NPF has met twice in the last five years.  The positions of NPF chair and CLP vice-chair have been vacant since I and Katrina Murray left a year ago, and Andrew Fisher, director of policy and research, is resigning, citing a “lack of professionalism, competence and human decency” and a “blizzard of lies and excuses” at the top of the party, claiming that the upper echelons were engaged in “class war”.  (This from someone who has described senior party figures as scumbags, vile gits, no better than the BNP and the most abject collection of absolute shite, and tweeted support for the Class War candidate standing against Emily Benn in 2015.)

One Door Closes, Another Opens

Katrina Murray of UNISON was congratulated on her election as the disabled members’ representative on the CAC with 57.2% of the vote in a 50/50 CLP/trade union electoral college.  Andy Thompson was runner-up with 19.3%.  As I said last year the new BAME and disabled places on the NEC will be filled by the same electoral system, gifting them to the unions.  In contrast the three CLP representatives on the national constitutional committee (NCC), including our own Stephen Marks, were elected by CLP delegates only.  Contrary to complaints, it was in order for all three to be men, as half of the ten places were already occupied by women from previous years’ elections.  CLPs were correctly informed in the hardcopy conference mailing in January, but unfortunately a reminder email in April said that at least two women must be elected, which contributed to the confusion.

Brexit Revisited

There were strong views on all sides, but once the debate had been framed as a vote of confidence in the leader, it was bound to end as it did.  Tony Blair used to make similar appeals to delegates to vote against their own instincts or their local party policy, and at the 2004 conference 81% of CLP delegates supported him on Iraq.  On Brexit the two positions could be summed up as on the one hand, Labour is not the party of the 48% or the 52% but the party of the 99%, and on the other hand, those who hang around in the middle of the road get run over from both directions.  Some argued that the results of the Euro-elections reinforced the latter analysis and warned of dire electoral consequences, but time will tell.

Much has been written about the close vote on composite 13, which called on Labour to campaign for a public vote and for Remain.  I believe the chair’s decision was correct, that the motion was lost narrowly, and that a card vote would have reflected this in both the CLP and the affiliate sections, but the platform discussion did not look good.  I was also surprised to find that the standing orders for party conference gave sole responsibility for calling a card vote to the chair.  Delegates now have no power.  This contradicts the Delegates’ Report which still says

“Votes at Conference are taken as a show of hands unless a card vote is requested by a delegate or by the decision of the Chair … Where a show of hands is unclear a card vote can be taken having been either requested by delegates or by the decision of the Chair.”

The 2018 conference passed an amendment from Islington North CLP which said there should be standing orders for conference, but did not specify what they should say.  Presumably the NEC wrote them.  But after the showdown in 2016 when the chair was accused of riding roughshod over members’ views, and Manuel Cortes of the TSSA and Christine Shawcroft led impassioned demands for a card vote, the last thing I expected was that Momentum would give up delegates’ right to call for one.  It’s a funny old world.

Things Can Only Get Better …

… and they did, on Tuesday when the amazing 11-nil supreme court ruling came through, lifting everyone’s spirits.  It also solved the problem of Tom Watson’s speech, which would have reignited factional splits.  With MPs rushing back to London, Jeremy Corbyn’s speech was one of his best, and brought Tuesday to a rousing close.  Wednesday morning was used to debate remaining business, including important decisions on migration, free movement and voting rights, after which we all headed home.

“People Before Privilege”?

… and finally, I was not sure about this as the conference strapline .  Privilege is not an absolute.  Arguably anyone with a good job, a roof over their head and food on the table is privileged in these dark times, even where we are not part of the 1%.  Personally I preferred Straight Talking, Honest Politics …

This report is available as a pdf at Conference 2019 Ann Black

Links to CAC reports, with all the motions, rule changes and votes, are at