This was a shorter meeting than January, only five-and-a-half hours. Glenis Willmott MEP opened with her European report, pleased that the government had finally applied for flood relief funds after Labour lobbying. Talks with Turkey were aimed at alleviating the refugee crisis, and Labour MEPs would ensure that any money was used for humanitarian assistance. Turkey’s possible accession to the EU was a long way off and would require real progress on human rights, and short-term visa arrangements would apply only within the Schengen area, not to Britain. On the transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) she promised that Labour would continue to oppose any deal which threatened public services, and to demand transparency in dispute settlement procedures. She stressed that in the coming referendum Labour was backing Britain at the centre of a social Europe, not David Cameron’s very different concept.
Jeremy Corbyn was campaigning hard in the Scottish, Welsh, London, local, mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections. Labour had led the government defeat over Sunday trading, and he paid tribute to USDAW’s campaign. Copious leaks were helping to prepare for the budget debate: four-fifths of the cuts would disproportionately affect women, the poor would suffer most, and the £1.2 billion cut in personal independence payments for disabled people was disgraceful. He had met the party of European socialists, and praised Germany and Greece for their efforts to help people driven from their homes by wars and disasters. He hoped that new talks could bring peace to Syria, but the refugees were here, now, and needed support. He had given the Keir Hardie memorial lecture, and summer would bring the centenary of Harold Wilson’s birth and the great labour movement festivals of Tolpuddle and the Durham miners’ gala.
I asked for a strong, visible pro-European campaign, with MPs and the leadership working alongside Alan Johnson. Jeremy Corbyn recognised the value of a Europe based on unity, solidarity and internationalism and thought that Labour had a coherent message but refused, I believe rightly, to share a platform with David Cameron. The BMA had thanked him for supporting the junior doctors in their continuing dispute. He also responded to comments on the lower minimum wage for under-25s, the select committee review of laws around prostitution, the importance of engaging with people from all ethnic and religious groups, the SNP’s false claims to be a party of the left, and international women’s day, when he took the shadow cabinet to Dagenham. He welcomed the unprecedented numbers of new members and their knowledge, ideas and enthusiasm: if ground down by bureaucracy and bored by meetings they would leave, and we should all mobilise around radical policies on housing and workers’ rights. The NEC urged MPs, again, to stop squabbling as they were undermining hardworking candidates.
Jon Trickett MP said that Labour’s theme would be Standing Up Not Standing By, contrasting our strong principles against the Tories as the party of privilege. Most voters thought the Tories were handling the economy badly, and John McDonnell was starting to rebuild Labour’s economic credibility. Other messages would focus on housing, crime and policing, and the NHS. Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle city council and newly-elected leader of the local government association’s Labour group, highlighted the disproportionate impact of Tory cuts on Labour councils. Central government was also interfering with local decisions on investment, and disrupting good relationships with trade unions. He suggested looking to Labour councils to demonstrate economic competence in action.
Local government representatives again thanked Jon Trickett, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn for their letter explaining that councils must set legal budgets. Nevertheless Labour councillors were doing all that they could to protect the most vulnerable. They were urged to support demonstrations which laid the blame at George Osborne’s door and to explain how a Labour government would have protected services.
Some were concerned about the impact of the Euro-referendum on council campaigns, but I supported Glenis Willmott in arguing that Europe cannot wait until 6 May. The best opportunity to collect voter intentions on Europe is while canvassing in the next six weeks. A quarter of all local parties were already doing so, and regional directors would be asked to encourage the others. Tens of thousands of jobs were at stake, and leaving would be a catastrophic blow from which it could take a decade to recover.
Chancellor in Waiting
John McDonnell reported on the work of his economic advisory council. He was planning a national economic conference on 21 May, and would circulate the women’s budget group analysis. The strategy was twofold. First, dismantle George Osborne, who was failing even on his own terms. He was selling the furniture at knock-down prices to pay the rent, and wasting £1.5 billion on competition between academies. This was not a long-term plan for the country, but a short-term plan for his own political ambitions.
Second, restore Labour’s credibility through fiscal rules which would reduce debt, balance spending and allow for long-term investment in skills and infrastructure, all overseen by an independent body. He supported zero-based budgeting to ensure that all money was spent wisely. NEC members agreed that austerity was a political choice, not an economic necessity, and highlighted the potential of “green” jobs.
Rearranging the Deckchairs?
The NEC returned to its own terms of reference, and trade union representatives produced a list of changes which they had agreed privately with the general secretary. The only disagreement was whether the NEC should be defined as “the governing body of the party” as per the website, or “subject to party conference, the NEC is the administrative body responsible for the governance of the party” as the general secretary preferred. We ended up with a compromise, and when I get the minutes I will know what it is.
I was most interested in policy-making, where NEC functions now include “acting as the custodian of Labour party policy”. This is supplemented by “as far as is possible, new policy positions are only made following consultation with the appropriate policy commission and with leader’s office agreement” and “the joint policy committee (JPC) is responsible for the oversight of the national policy forum and policy commissions in producing a rolling programme for submission to party conference and its work will be reported to the full NEC at its meetings.” This leaves most of the NEC with less say in policy than when I was first elected 17 years ago, but at least we can empathise with ordinary members.
Angela Eagle’s review may pick this up, and contributions can be made at www.labour.org.uk/ourparty or sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Policy commissions are up and running, and the national policy forum may meet in July. Other party reform groups are also meeting, though the elections and the referendum are higher priorities for many. I have passed on numerous requests to update the website.
Iain McNicol gave an update on Tory moves to bankrupt the Labour party through cuts to Short money, paid to opposition parties, and the trade union bill. Labour peers had worked tirelessly, building cross-party alliances in support of reasonable compromises. Membership continued to be strong, though the 2015 surge were now coming up to their first anniversary. This is when people decide whether to stay or leave, especially those who join with one-off payments, and every effort should be made to keep them.
I and other constituency representatives drew attention to the pressure on local parties. The NEC development fund, which holds a large chunk of membership subscriptions, attracted few bids by the February deadline, and many of those were from richer and better-organised applicants. There were no bids from the south-west or from Scotland. Part of the 2011 Refounding Labour deal was that election insurance, Contact Creator, the Euro-election levy and one conference delegate pass would be paid centrally for all constituencies. I have proposed adding NationBuilder and an allowance for conference accommodation to this list, and would be interested in views on how this fund should best be used.
Disturbing allegations have been made recently about behaviour within Oxford University Labour Club and around the election of the NEC youth representative. Baroness Jan Royall has been appointed to examine all of these, and I urge anyone with evidence to send it to her via Iain McNicol. The 11 regional representatives on the young Labour national committee were elected in online one-member-one-vote ballots with no complaints, though a turnout of just 3.5% shows that online voting is not a magic bullet.
Deputy leader Tom Watson had drafted a statement on safeguarding issues. For local parties the most common concerns will be over their young members canvassing or attending conferences, and there are now 10,000 aged between 14 and 18. Occasionally more serious issues of child sexual exploitation may come to their attention. Guidance will be circulated soon, outlining the party’s responsibilities.
Selections Past and Future
I have fed back critical comments on selection procedures for police and crime commissioner candidates. Looking forward, the boundary commission has now published its timetable for reducing 650 constituencies to 600. I am a member of the panel which will consider its recommendations, due in September 2016, and agree the party’s submissions. The panel will work in the collective interest of the whole party, and support Labour MPs through the process. Procedures for sitting MPs seeking to stand will be exactly as defined in the rulebook for the 2010/2015 cycle, with the dates rolled forward.
As usual please feel free to circulate this report, and to contact me with any comments or questions.