NEC Meeting, 16 December 2003

This meeting was originally called to appoint David Triesman’s successor as general secretary, and following interviews, Matt Carter was chosen and congratulated. However with media speculation at fever pitch it was a good opportunity to revisit the Livingstone question. NEC members were fed-up with being badgered by journalists who knew more than they did.

Back in July 2002 the NEC rejected Ken Livingstone’s application to rejoin the party by 17 votes to 13. Nicky Gavron was then selected as Labour’s mayoral candidate in a one-member-one-vote ballot of members and affiliated trade unionists. But recent opinion polls were not good, and rumours spread that she was willing to stand down and run as deputy mayor if Ken Livingstone could be the Labour candidate. On 16 December she formally withdrew. The NEC officers – Mary Turner, Ian McCartney, Jimmy Elsby, Mike Griffiths, Margaret Wall, Tony Blair and John Prescott – proposed:

  1. that the NEC accepts Nicky Gavron’s resignation as Labour’s London mayoral candidate;
  2. that the officers should interview Ken Livingstone and decide on readmission based on his acceptance of party rules and policies;
  3. that if readmitted, he would be treated in the same way as a sitting Labour MP, with a trigger ballot on whether London members accepted or rejected him as the Labour candidate;
  4. that the electoral college for the trigger process would be 50% individual members with a full postal ballot, and 50% trade unions and other affiliates casting block votes without balloting. Voting papers would be posted by 16 January with a deadline of 30 January 2004.No procedure was specified if Ken Livingstone failed the test, but presumably there would be an open selection with fresh nominations over a longer timescale.

Return of the Prodigal Ken?

I voted for readmission last year, and supported it now for the same reasons. Most ordinary members wanted him back; the party acted wrongly in fixing the first selection against him; splitting the left vote would let the Tories in. Dennis Skinner and Michael Cashman were still opposed, also for the same reasons as before: the five-year ban must be applied consistently, without special favours; Ken Livingstone broke his word last time, and would break it again; his promises were worthless.But other minds had changed. Tony Blair now spoke in favour, though stressing that Ken Livingstone must show absolute and genuine commitment to the party manifesto. Readmission is not automatic, and the officers’ interview will be rigorous. He moved that the full NEC should then make the final decision. This was widely welcomed, and the second recommendation was amended accordingly.  Last time we were told that waiving the five-year penalty would open legal floodgates, with over 400 similarly-excluded members bankrupting us in the courts. Our current lawyers now assure us that the NEC does have discretion to vary the rule, and while aggrieved members may complain, they cannot successfully sue. The key second recommendation was carried by 25 votes to 2, though with gritted teeth in some quarters. The officers’ interview and the NEC meeting will be on 6 January 2004.

Take it or Leave it

I joined Michael Cashman and Dennis Skinner in opposing the third recommendation, which was carried 24-3. I felt that the anti-Ken minority, plus party democrats, deserved a choice of candidates in an open selection, and trigger ballots were meant for Labour incumbents of more than five minutes’ standing. I hope that I am wrong, and voting for or against Livingstone will be enough. And I am concerned about reverting to union general secretaries casting block votes without a ballot, the system which helped to exclude Ken Livingstone the first time round, as well as Rhodri Morgan in Wales.Nevertheless, the affair shows that the NEC can change its mind, and that the Prime Minister has a reverse gear when necessary. And an official Labour candidate who describes George Bush as “the greatest threat to life on this planet” will broaden the walls of the Labour church considerably.

A Woman’s Place is in the House

The other selection in the news has been Blaenau Gwent, allegedly “punished” with an all-women shortlist for opposing the war. Here I must defend the NEC. The Labour party has clear policy on increasing women’s representation, and Wales in the 21st century still has only four woman MPs. I am offended by suggestions that only men can take forward the great socialist tradition of Nye Bevan and Michael Foot. And the winning candidate Maggie Jones was not “parachuted in”. She was shortlisted and selected by individual members from among all eligible women in the country. If some people chose not to take part, that is regrettable, and a loss to themselves and to the party.

But nationally the picture has become muddied. The NEC initially agreed that where sitting MPs gave notice of their retirement by 31 December 2002, half the vacancies would be filled through all-women shortlists (AWS). After that, all further vacancies would be filled from AWS except in “exceptional circumstances” where diversity could be enhanced in other ways, for instance through an ethnic minority candidate (and people did point out that half of ethnic minorities are actually women as well). Scotland was exempted because boundary changes have meant severe culling of sitting MPs.

This was supposed to encourage MPs to make their minds up early, but in the end only 16 did so.   Because the 50% rule was applied by region and rounded up (for example, two out of three vacant seats within a region would be AWS), 12 out of the 16 were designated as AWS selections. (In Yorkshire & Humberside, three out of four were AWS. I queried this, but was told that because Alice Mahon was retiring in Halifax, she must be replaced by another woman.)

Backward Steps

By autumn 2003 six more MPs had decided to stand down, and these vacancies were discussed by the organisation committee on 20 November. The panel which considers late retirements recommended that two should be open selections. For Ealing, Acton and Shepherds Bush the argument was that the constituency has a high ethnic minority population, including local activists and councillors, and an open selection was agreed.

Dewsbury, where Ann Taylor is retiring, was more contentious. We were told that the constituency is moribund and has no view, but there is a substantial ethnic minority population, unhappy about the war and flirting with the LibDems, who would desert Labour if barred from putting forward male candidates. Some of us felt this was not adequate, and the most likely outcome was a white man. And following the Alice Mahon argument, surely a woman should have replaced Ann Taylor. After much agonising the organisation committee voted for an open selection by the narrowest possible margin.

So we have a situation where the 50/50 AWS rule for early retirements has produced 75% AWS, and late retirements, which would be open only in exceptional circumstances, have produced 67% AWS. This is not a recipe for encouraging early declarations of intent next time, because constituencies have more chance of an open selection if their MP hangs on.

And Finally . . .

Annual conference next year returns to Brighton, and the NEC has just been advised that the 2005 conference is likely to be in Brighton as well. I am sure the financial arguments are compelling, but despite the pooled fare arrangements, Scotland in particular seems under-represented at south coast conferences. This year only 499 constituencies sent delegates, and the decline has to be reversed.

It only remains to wish everyone a happy New Year, and success to all candidates in local, London and European elections. And to mayor Livingstone, we presume . . .