I was away when the election was called – I mean, what could possibly happen in Easter week? – and have been catching up with meetings, emails and council elections since. Thanks to the wonders of technology I’ve been in on all the relevant discussions, so here is a diary of events during April and May.
The Calm before the Storm
The NEC officers’ meeting on 10 April heard a briefing on the local, mayoral, Scottish and Welsh elections which recognised that these would be challenging. On Ken Livingstone, where half my correspondents disagree with the verdict and the other half with the sentence, the NEC cannot overturn the national constitutional committee, so only events since the NCC decision would be investigated further.
Labour Students had encountered problems with electing their national committee by one-member-one-vote because membership lists held by Labour clubs turned out to be very different from members recorded as students on the party system. Their only option was therefore to hold this year’s election at a delegate conference. Some students asked that instead of allocating four delegates per club, delegate numbers should be proportional to club membership. However as well as the unreliability of membership figures, the new constitution itself moves to flat-rate delegate entitlement for policy-making conferences. They also requested proxy votes, though these have never previously been allowed. In any case Labour Students is a separate affiliated organisation, and the party cannot tell it what to do.
Women on the Move
Arrangements for policy-making at the women’s conference were agreed. Every CLP may register one voting delegate by 23 June [now extended to 7 July], with all women members invited as usual. The conference will include two hours of formal debate, with delegates invited to prioritise two topics and submit 100-word supporting statements by 11 August [to be confirmed]. The four most popular subjects will be discussed, with two chosen by affiliates and two by CLPs. Notes will be referred to the relevant policy commission, and two delegates will be invited to their meeting. Next year we hope to progress to motions.
The women’s conference will also elect its own conference arrangements committee, the WCAC, with two members elected by CLP delegates on the basis of one woman one vote (OWOV), two elected by affiliate delegates on a weighted basis, and the fifth from the annual conference CAC. Nominations will be sought from delegates by 11 August [to be confirmed]. The interim WCAC comprises Jasmin Beckett, Diana Holland, Shabana Mahmood, Alice Perry, Cath Speight and myself. For future years the working group expressed a preference for stand-alone women’s conferences in future years, though a decision on whether this is affordable has been unavoidably delayed, and spring 2018 may now be over-optimistic.
After the election I would like to return to wider aspects of women’s representation, including job-sharing within the party. In my CLP all officer roles may be shared, but others report being actively discouraged. While jobsharing is not mentioned in the rulebook, neither is it prohibited. For the last 30 years my employer had a policy that all posts were open to job-sharing unless there were specific reasons why not, and it is time that Labour caught up. Finally the bursary working group, which will draw up procedures for supporting disadvantaged candidates, was agreed as James Asser, Jennie Formby, Andi Fox and myself.
Out of the Blue
At 10 a.m. on Tuesday 18 April Theresa May dropped her bombshell. With amazing speed the staff pulled together proposals for getting 631 candidates in place within two weeks, and the NEC officers convened at 5 p.m. Discussion centred on whether there was any way to involve local members, and though no-one was happy with endorsing all sitting MPs who wished to stand again and imposing candidates in all other seats, most agreed that there was no alternative. The logistics of finding rooms and notifying hundreds of members would be horrendous, and trigger ballots for sitting MPs would have to be followed by a full selection if the MP failed. The process would consume two of the six weeks to polling day, any close result would be open to challenge, and all of us, except those in London, were fighting local elections. With minor changes the paper was endorsed.
Day Two and Counting
The full NEC met on Wednesday 18 April with several of us dialling in, including the Chair Glenis Willmott. She stressed the need to spend every single minute campaigning and handed over to the vice-chair Andy Kerr, who was in the room. Jeremy Corbyn said that Labour voted to dissolve parliament because propping up the discredited Tory regime would be inexplicable. The policies he had announced on the living wage, free school meals, local government procurement, pensions and small businesses were popular. The party was united on the kind of society that we wanted to live in, and we had to frame the election around public services and Labour’s red lines for the Brexit negotiations. Though behind in the polls, Labour had huge support among young people. Responding to comments he agreed that the Tory trade union act should be replaced with a charter of positive rights, and that we needed simple, clear policy pledges. He supported Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale in ruling out any so-called “progressive alliance”.
The NEC moved on to candidate selection. Because the NEC officers have delegated powers, and speed was of the essence, local parties had already been notified of the procedures as of Tuesday, but additional points were made in the meeting. The officers had agreed to maintain the number of women MPs and said that as a minimum, retiring women MPs would be replaced by women. NEC members asked officers to ensure that at least half of all retirement seats went to women, and to use flexibility in promoting candidates from ethnic minorities or who were gay or disabled. No-one dissented from these amendments. At that time, of course, none of us knew which MPs would go, and which would stay.
A Voice for Members?
Understandably NEC members wanted to explore all possible ways of involving local parties. Christine Shawcroft proposed holding selection meetings in retirement seats and the top 25 targets, and inviting one or two CLP officers to the NEC panels. By then I had discovered that my own MP was standing down, and I have to say that organising a procedurally watertight selection for more than 2,000 members in the middle of county elections would have been impossible, and would certainly have cost us council seats. Including CLP Chairs or secretaries might look attractive, but their role was not clear: would they participate, or simply observe? And personally I would have found it difficult. Many CLPs are still divided after the leadership contests, and any officer could be pilloried by one group or another. Giving responsibility to the NEC might actually be more likely to unite the local party, even if it was united against us.
NEC members also questioned whether all sitting MPs should be endorsed. Simon Danczuk was already awaiting a disciplinary hearing, and officers were asked to review his position. Others who were in open rebellion against the leader, notably John Woodcock, were more difficult, and the NEC would consider them when presented with the full candidate list. In the end the paper was supported with two abstentions.
Most CLPs had already stopped meeting because of local elections, and that would now continue until June, except for campaign-related activities. To allow them to consider membership applications, the period for objecting to new members was extended to 8 August. The deadline for registering delegates to conference and women’s conference and nominating to the conference arrangements committee was extended from 23 June to 7 July. I continue to be glad that my CLP kept its AGM in early March, despite Refounding Labour’s recommendation of “after May” when other elections too often get in the way.
Onwards and Upwards
Steve Howell, deputy communications director, then addressed the NEC. Theresa May was framing this as a Brexit election, but she had called it before the impact on living standards hit home. The nature of a Brexit deal had not been agreed, and Labour would fight to maintain access to the single market and protect consumer, employment and environmental rights. The Tories were presiding over tax giveaways to big companies and the rich, through cuts to corporation and inheritance tax, and the economy was rigged against the majority. Labour’s policies were more popular than polls of voting intentions suggested. We had to empathise with people’s lives, and understand the effects of the housing crisis and crumbling infrastructure, and the problems faced by students, pensioners and citizens from ethnic minorities.
At this point my phone went dead, but I am informed by a reliable source (Peter Willsman) that the NEC agreed the timetable for producing the manifesto, with telephone conferences involving the policy commissions, national policy forum representatives and other stakeholders followed by the joint policy committee on 3 May and sign-off at the Clause V meeting on 11 May.
I passed on requests from CLPs to receive the increased amount of £2.50 per member, up from £1.63, sooner rather than later, and this was picked up at the business board meeting on 26 April. The new rate will be paid from May at the end of each month, so 31 May should see the increase. The board also considered advice on banking arrangements for local parties, and you are welcome to contact me directly about this, particularly if you have more than £85,000 (don’t laugh, some do).
The NEC officers interviewed candidates for retirement seats on 26, 27 and 28 April. Of the 13 known at that time, ten men and three women were standing down, and we chose ten women and three men to succeed them. Three are from ethnic minority backgrounds, though two of these are defending small majorities. All seats accepted applications from men and women, though debate would continue over whether the three women MPs should all have been replaced by women, as has been the practice in recent years. My personal view is that CLPs should alternate between all-women shortlists and open selections, though I have gone along because those who have had a woman MP tend to be more amenable to having another. But across all the seats the NEC more than fulfilled its target of at least 50% women as well as increasing ethnic diversity, and most panels judged candidates on merit and local acceptability.
Candidates were then allocated to remaining seats by panels of two NEC members and one regional board member, based on applications, reports of local views, and social media checks. I am assured that any social media information will be erased and not kept on file. With up to 80 seats in a single day this was a colossal task, and inevitably some CLPs have not got their preferred candidate. I regret this, though overall I’ve had surprisingly few complaints. There may be others where members are not pleased but recognise that these are wholly exceptional circumstances, and I thank you for your understanding. The timetable was not only a problem for Labour – see
Towards the Manifesto
As well as the work, pensions and equality policy commission conference call I listened in to most of the regional discussions, to get an idea of what members thought across the country. National policy forum representatives were keen to engage, and contributed many ideas. Most acknowledged the need to demonstrate economic competence, and to explain how our popular policies would be funded.
Signed and Sealed
The NEC met again on 3 May. Jeremy Corbyn had been travelling the country, and found members in good spirits. Labour was challenging the Tories on education, health and housing, and he criticised Theresa May’s confrontational approach to our European partners. He thanked the staff for their incredible work and their support for his visits. Famously he does not do personal abuse, and advised us not to gossip with journalists or each other. So it would be good if he could find out who tells the papers that party staff leak sensitive information and are planning to go on strike, and make them stop.
The main business was to endorse the list of candidates. The only vacancy was in Rochdale, where the NEC unanimously agreed that Simon Danczuk should not be approved. He told the endorsement interview panel that he would not stand against Labour, though seems to have changed his mind. John Woodcock had also provoked widespread anger by stating frequently that he would not accept Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. No-one liked his behaviour, but the majority, including myself, felt that removing him would generate even more publicity, and could lead to legal action for taking his job away. Jeremy Corbyn suggested that Glenis Willmott should speak to him, and she agreed. He was then accepted with five votes against and one abstention, though the disputes panel may consider his case after the election.
Overall the party had selected 374 men and 255 women, the first time that more than 40% of candidates have been women. On other dimensions 57 are from ethnic minorities (compared to 44 in 2015), 29 with disabilities (5 in 2015) and 43 are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (26 in 2015). The NEC agreed that there should be more clarity on when all-women shortlists are used, and we will return to that for next time. Jeremy Corbyn would write to all candidates and reach out to local parties, and recommended that everyone seeking office should close their social media accounts.
Enough has been written elsewhere about the elections on 4 May, and I would just like to thank members and pay tribute to all the dedicated and hardworking councillors who have been lost to their communities. Oxfordshire, where I live, is not typical of anywhere really: Labour took both Green seats and ended with a net loss of one, still the second-largest group. Eleven of those 14 councillors are women, with two from ethnic minorities, all selected from open lists. And the award for defying political gravity surely goes to Laura Price in Witney. In 2013 she won by 10 votes with 31% of the vote, with UKIP and the Tories virtually tied for second place. This year UKIP didn’t stand, yet she increased her majority to 126, taking 46% of the vote.
Those enamoured of “progressive alliances” should note that in the West Midlands mayoral contest, more than half the Green and LibDem first preference voters gave their second preference to the Conservative candidate. The Greens’ second parliamentary target, after Brighton Pavilion, is Labour-held Bristol West. The LibDems only lost Oxford West in 2010 because they tried to take Oxford East from Labour as well, and despite calling on Labour to stand aside in West, they are again aggressively targeting East. Having said that, I know that members need solid reasons to support Labour in areas where there is little hope of elected representation even at town or parish council level, and will pick this up after June.
With Simon Danczuk removed in Rochdale, and Steve Rotheram standing down from Liverpool Walton after being elected as Liverpool city region mayor, NEC panels allocated these seats respectively to Tony Lloyd, former Chair of the parliamentary Labour party and outgoing police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester, and to Len McCluskey’s aide Daniel Carden. This means that two-thirds of the retirement seats, 10 out of 15, have women candidates, where 80% of the former MPs were men.
Blueprint for Britain
The Clause V group which agrees the manifesto includes the NEC, the shadow cabinet, the parliamentary committee and various other stakeholders, upwards of 80 people. The meeting on 11 May was overshadowed by leaks of the manifesto, apparently several different drafts, which will reach a far wider readership than the final version. Jeremy Corbyn said he was extremely disappointed, which in Jeremy’s language means very cross indeed, and a mole hunt has been launched. I’ve now had a look, and the typos and half-finished alterations suggest someone close to the original authors, but who knows? Pete Willsman robustly defended the party staff, and I agreed. Unfortunately there were some careless phrases which have now been replaced with conference policy, but which will hang around in cyberspace forever.
After Jeremy Corbyn again thanked the staff, election co-ordinators Andrew Gwynne and Ian Lavery urged us to go out and campaign to elect as many Labour MPs as possible. We then worked through the document. Contrary to reports it was not a fractious meeting and, to correct one of many errors, Emily Thornberry did not storm out. She was appearing on Question Time in Edinburgh and had to catch a plane. It was a long meeting – four hours – but contributions were made in a spirit of constructive compromise, and many items were added to an already ambitious programme, perhaps even longer than the 1983 manifesto. Costings would be added later, with funding sources. Many of these have been trailed, but I warned John McDonnell not to mess with inheritance tax and to remember how the Tories wrong-footed Gordon Brown in 2007.
However while there are policies to appeal to everyone, Labour has to be in government to implement any of them, and it is now down to presenting messages clearly and effectively. There is a certain irony in that twenty years after Tony Blair’s landslide, a very different leader is campaigning on the same slogan: “For the Many, Not the Few”, from the new Clause IV. This is Jeremy Corbyn’s and John McDonnell’s vision, and in just a few weeks the people of Britain will decide.