The NEC has settled back into its usual routine after last year’s turbulence, under Glenis Willmott’s calm and authoritative leadership. She had secured European committee positions for Labour MEPs despite our impending departure, and they were continuing to work on tax avoidance, air quality, zero-hours contracts and rail privatisation. She criticised Theresa May for putting immigration ahead of economic prosperity and confirmed that under the Maltese presidency the rules on freedom of movement could be revisited, to clarify that it is freedom to work which is fundamental. Labour MPs should seek to amend the article 50 bill, exploit Tory divisions at every stage of negotiations, and press for a vote on the final deal.
Ann Cryer, Chair of the national policy forum, said that the policy commissions would publish consultation documents in March, though this is exactly when local parties shift into election mode. All commissions had champions for equality and environmental sustainability, and members suggested that Brexit had a similar overarching importance. Wales and Scotland had representatives on every commission, reminding them that Welsh Labour was in government and Scottish Labour faced its own unique political landscape.
Councillor Nick Forbes emphasised that the crisis in the NHS was interlinked with the local government crisis in adult social care. Allowing small rises in council tax did not bridge the gap and would increase inequality: an extra 2% in Tory shires raised a lot more than 2% in Knowsley. Councillors asked for proper funding for the May elections, including mayoral contests, and hoped to speak with election co-ordinator Jon Trickett soon. All agreed on the need for unity and mutual support among councillors, MPs and trade unions, and that the blame for any cuts lay squarely with central government.
NEC members had received many emails from Newham about the ballot for their mayoral candidate. Their first concern was that officers of the local campaign forum, which oversaw the process, included councillors appointed to paid positions by the incumbent mayor. This could be perceived as a conflict of interest. The second related to affiliated organisations. As with parliamentary selections a union branch can affiliate to the local party for £6 with just one member in the constituency, and multiple affiliations by the same union are allowed. Each union branch has the same voting weight as a 500-strong party branch, and unions do not have to consult their local members. Councillor Alice Perry and I would visit Newham to talk with members, and though this result would not be overturned, there may be lessons for the future.
Jonathan Ashworth MP, removed from the NEC last September, returned in his new role as shadow health secretary. He gave a devastating picture of the situation in the NHS, with soaring numbers waiting more than four hours in A&E, patients and paramedics stuck in ambulances in the car park, hospitals turning people away, and further cuts to come. Faced with the uncertainty caused by Brexit the 60,000 Europeans who worked in the NHS might leave. NEC members spoke of their own experiences, the damage to staff morale and the need for preventive work on diabetes and other conditions. Only Labour could be trusted: Paul Nuttall, UKIP’s leader and candidate in the Stoke by-election, wanted to privatise the NHS, and the SNP in Scotland presided over 12-month waits for cataract operations.
I passed on complaints about the NHS action day leaflets and asked what Labour’s plans were and how they would be paid for. Jonathan agreed that clear policies were needed and recalled that the last Labour government brought health spending close to the European average, assisted by a penny on national insurance. Jeremy Corbyn highlighted the 334 campaign events on 21 January, and urged everyone to join the national demonstration on 4 March. He said that blaming GPs was extraordinary and blaming local government was unfair. The NHS and adult social care needed more money urgently, and we had to come up with answers as to whether it would be raised from general taxation, national insurance, or elsewhere.
A View from the Top
Jeremy Corbyn’s report started with the court judgment that MPs should decide on triggering Article 50. Labour had to respect the will of the people, but that did not mean becoming a bargain basement tax haven off the coast of Europe. Two-thirds of Labour voters supported Remain while two-thirds of Labour MPs represented constituencies which voted Leave, and we must have something to say to all of them. Kezia Dugdale made clear that Labour could not vote with the Tories in the Scottish parliament. Others said that while accepting the referendum result, we did not have to accept the Tory definition of Brexit.
On other matters Clive Lewis and Chi Onwurah were leading on high-skill high-wage industrial strategies, and a series of economic conferences would spread Labour’s messages across the country. Meanwhile the Tories continued to attack trade unions through Chris Philp’s 10-minute rule bill limiting the right to strike and filibustering Melanie Onn’s private member’s bill protecting employment rights.
Finally he praised the women and men who marched against Donald Trump’s racist, misogynist and generally disgraceful behaviour, and worried that Theresa May might open Britain to private US healthcare companies and dumping of American goods. Members were concerned about the growth of “alternative facts“ and fake news, and some wanted to see more of Jeremy Corbyn in the mainstream media.
NEC members poured cold water on the vogueish talk of progressive alliances. The SNP were not progressive, the Greens had cost Chris Williamson a seat in Derby, and Tim Farron had just said that the LibDems would stand in every constituency regardless.
Finances and Forecasting
General secretary Iain McNicol said that finances were in reasonable shape, though the trade union bill would reduce the income from affiliates and it was not known how many of the current 500,000 paying members would stay for the long haul. Of those joining in 2016, 45.5% were women, against 39% before the 2015 election, with 48% under 30, 24% from an ethnic minority background, and 16,000 declaring a disability. The average age was 47. In comparison the Conservatives were thought to have 100,000 members with an average age of 68. On the expenditure side by-elections were costly, but everyone recognised the importance of holding Copeland and Stoke. Campaign staff were co-ordinating work on the ground, but the political leadership was responsible for uniting the party and for messages on Brexit.
At the November meeting Iain McNicol promised to return the Euro-levy, at £300 per year, to local parties, but the electoral commission had asked parties to allow for Euro-elections in 2019 just in case. However I have been pushing for the amount per member going to CLPs to be raised from around £1.61 to perhaps £2.50, and I hope I will be able to confirm this in March.
Conferences Past and Future
Final figures showed that 822 constituency delegates from 536 constituencies attended the 2016 annual conference, the most for more than 15 years. In 2017 each CLP would also be able to send one woman as a voting delegate to the women’s conference on Saturday 23 September in Brighton. Visitors would still be welcome, and work continues on a framework which gives the conference decision-making powers but maintains an open and inclusive atmosphere for all women members. Further, the NEC would have to decide on whether future women’s conferences should be held as stand-alone events. Constituencies and unions say they would prefer this, but it would cost a six-figure sum and require extra staff resources.
Recently the NEC has been plagued by wholesale leaks and misreporting. Among the “alternative facts” on social media were claims that the disputes panel, which I chair, had refused even to issue warnings to two members who had committed anti-semitic acts. The truth is that a full investigation did not substantiate charges of anti-semitism. The proposed warnings were for other misbehaviour, and the panel took the view that sufficient lessons had been learned. However the same meeting referred three other members to the national constitutional committee for statements on social media which compared Israel and its supporters to vampires, compared Israelis to Nazis, called Laura Kuenssberg a Zionist stooge and said that Zionists control the media. Labour is not soft on anti-semitism, and next time I will try to get the facts out there.
The organisation committee agreed revised guidance on quorums for branch and all-member meetings which recognises that 25% attendance is rarely or never achieved, and suggests a sensible number or percentage instead. The committee also received a report on 11 constituencies in special measures, gave back control to Leeds North East and noted pathways towards normal functioning for others.
The committee received 71 motions from CLPs, most referring to aspects of the leadership contest. Some of these were addressed in draft principles for amended disciplinary procedures. Rights associated with membership would be suspended only where necessary, and a range of penalties would allow a more proportionate response where allegations were upheld. I asked for appeal rights for people excluded for supporting other parties or organisations, and for local parties to be involved. Following many complaints about suspension or exclusion last summer, some CLPs are now objecting that the NEC has allowed people in against their wishes. Finally I would like to see standard rules for future leadership elections in two areas. First, registered supporters should either be removed or have their fee linked to membership subscriptions, perhaps at the reduced rate. Second, the cut-off date for participation, which I believe should be set at six months before the date when the timetable is agreed. I am open to other ideas, but the NEC cannot keep bouncing from one extreme to the other. Please let me know what you think.