The NEC paid tribute to members who had died recently, including Van Coulter, an Oxford city councillor and activist who was only 57 years old and my neighbour and comrade, a sad loss to us all.
Giving his leader’s report Jeremy Corbyn said that good behaviour was important in meetings at every level of the party, including MPs, and there must be zero tolerance of personal abuse on social media. He welcomed the government’s retreat on national insurance (NI) rises: there were now five million self-employed people, and they deserved fair treatment. NEC members commented that some used self-employment to avoid NI contributions, while in construction and other areas people forced into “self-employment” lost basic rights such as maternity pay and were exploited by umbrella companies. The latest twist was making casual workers meet the cost of cover if they were sick, on top of withholding their own pay. Matthew Taylor was reviewing employment practices in the modern economy and it would be sensible to consider his recommendations on the rights of self-employed workers alongside any changes to NI rates.
This Way Out
Theresa May was expected to trigger article 50 on 29 March, starting the process of withdrawing from the European Union. Labour’s priorities continued to be tariff-free access to markets, and protection for European citizens living in the UK and British citizens living in Europe. The “great repeal act” was likely to be short, and accompanied by several parallel bills which would involve everyone in the shadow cabinet.
Jeremy Corbyn was absolutely clear that Labour opposed a second Scottish referendum, though he still believed that a veto by Westminster would play into the SNP’s hands. There was now a £15 billion gap in Scotland’s economy due to falling oil prices, and the SNP did not even use their current tax-raising powers. NEC members added that the SNP voted against austerity at Westminster, but did the exact opposite in Scotland. There were fears that the next referendum would be fought on cultural identity rather than rational argument. Divisions were growing among the four nations, and the Tory government did not care about the integrity of the United Kingdom. Jeremy Corbyn suggested that people voted Leave for many reasons, including their sense of community, and this had implications for the shape of English devolution.
United We Stand …
Pete Willsman spoke for many when he criticised Peter Mandelson for saying that every day he tried to undermine the leader, particularly unhelpful just before critical by-elections. Although Labour held Stoke and lost Copeland the 37% vote share was almost identical. Jeremy Corbyn had been campaigning around the country, with the Scottish conference as the highlight, and found much agreement on policy, including investment in infrastructure and quality public services. Our greatest support came from those who searched online for information, the lowest from readers of the mainstream media.
I raised an anonymous blog which claimed that the general secretary had cut funding for staff in the leader’s office by 50% compared with Ed Miliband’s time. Jeremy Corbyn said this was news to him. In fact there were 25 funded posts in 2013 and 28 in 2014 and there are now 32, though four were vacant and another three people have left his office in the last few days. Not everything on the internet is true.
Deputy leader Tom Watson had also been campaigning relentlessly. All NEC members welcomed his joint statement with Jeremy Corbyn on the need to strengthen party unity, and asked for words to be turned into deeds. There were exchanges on whether Momentum differed fundamentally from Progress and Labour First. Labour First has frequently called me a dangerous hard left character and provided lists of “moderate” candidates for subscribers to promote instead. Momentum are doing much the same, if more effectively, but I’m uneasy about tactics which they describe as “a massive step towards bringing the local party more in line with the values of Momentum as a whole”. It should be the other way around.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell thanked all colleagues for support in the budget debate, which was followed by Philip Hammond’s U-turn. The budget failed to mention Brexit or the school funding crisis, and this was the fifth time that broadband rollout had been announced. Labour would provide an extra £10 billion for the NHS and £2 billion for social care, and restore the educational maintenance allowance. All commitments would be funded, with £70 billion raised through the bank levy, reversing cuts to corporation tax, inheritance tax and capital gains tax, scrapping the married person’s allowance and bringing back the 50% tax band. Free childcare and phasing out tuition fees would be implemented when finances allowed.
I deplored limiting child benefit to the first two children except for multiple births and where the pregnancy resulted from rape. Apart from the ghastly rape clause, children would suffer for their parents’ decisions. Others, noting that women would bear 84% of the budget cuts, asked for equalities and economic policy to be joined up. John McDonnell also praised Labour councils for their work in difficult circumstances.
Nick Forbes gave the local government report. The extra council tax would only cover the cost of the national living wage for next year, and the forthcoming green paper was expected to focus on older people, whereas most money was needed for those with learning disabilities. Devolving business rates to councils could lock inequalities in for decades. The association of Labour councillors was looking at ways to support councillors under pressure, particularly those with mental health issues. Councils were working closely with unions, defending facility time and recognising the demoralising effect of government pay freezes.
Standing Up For You
Andrew Gwynne and Ian Lavery had taken over from Jon Trickett as national campaign co-ordinators and gave a presentation of the challenges in May. The 33 county councils and eight unitary authorities were last contested in 2013, when Labour’s national vote share was 29% against 25% for the Tories. All councils in Wales and Scotland were up for the first time since 2012, with Scotland complicated by sweeping boundary changes and multi-member wards which used a single transferable vote system. Two city mayors, six new metro mayors and a new MP for Manchester Gorton would also be elected. If current polls were correct Labour would have to reach out beyond the traditional core vote.
Campaign messages would be designed around the theme “Labour: Standing Up For You” and draw on Jeremy Corbyn’s ten pledges. Labour would promise a real living wage of £10 an hour, employment rights from day one, a national investment bank, giving the NHS the money that it needs, joining up health and social care, opposing more grammar schools, safer neighbourhoods with stronger community policing, homes which people could afford to rent or buy, an end to letting fees, and security for private tenants. They recognised that there were hundreds of different local elections and the centre would support but not dictate, with a range of print materials and sophisticated digital and communication aids.
Finally the NEC was assured that should Theresa May decide to call a snap general election Labour would be ready. She would have to circumvent the fixed-term parliament act, and while there were mechanisms for doing this, not everyone agreed that Labour should collaborate at the present time.
Talking Among Ourselves
New policy documents were now at http://www.policyforum.labour.org.uk/ and submissions would be accepted up to 31 May, ahead of a national policy forum on 1/2 July – see here for a guide. As most local parties have paused for elections that would probably mean more individual comments and fewer collective contributions. Cath Speight was congratulated on her election as co-convenor of the joint policy committee.
Membership stood at 483,000 paying members with another 40,000 up to six months in arrears. The decline seemed to be partly last summer’s joiners dropping out and partly Brexit-related, but I would welcome feedback. On the bright side I finally managed to get more money returned to constituencies, up from £1.63 to £2.50 per member, indexed to inflation, to be implemented “as soon as possible”. The value of items paid centrally – election insurance, the Euro-levy, contact creator and a conference pass – had risen from £1,218 to £1,405, and if membership fell below 300,000 the position would have to be reviewed.
Labour had hosted a successful meeting of the party of European socialists, but Glenis Willmott reported that the atmosphere was becoming increasingly difficult because of Theresa May’s intransigent approach. She was pleased that Geert Wilders’ far right party failed to win the Dutch general election, but sad that our sister socialist party now held only nine seats, down from 38 last time. Asked if the government had a plan to prevent a hard border with Northern Ireland, she said No. And no plan for anything else either.
The NEC has agreed changes to disciplinary procedures which I hope will be published soon. In future most allegations would be investigated without suspension, with rights withdrawn only where necessary. Members would be entitled to see evidence and to appeal on grounds of fact and proportionality, and there would be explicit timescales, though last year’s backlog would take a while to work through.
The women’s conference will be held on Saturday 23 September. For the first time delegates from constituencies and affiliates will be able to vote on policy issues, with work continuing on the mechanisms. Consultation showed a preference for standalone women’s conferences in the spring, but a decision has not yet been taken on whether this is affordable. Finally, annual conference will as usual discuss amendments submitted last year. These include a proposal to reduce the proportion of MPs required to nominate leadership candidates from 15% to 5%, and I would be interested in your thoughts.