The NEC welcomed Jonathan Ashworth MP, who replaces Tom Watson, to his first meeting, and thanked Tom for his contribution in various capacities over the years.
Matthew McGregor of Blue State Digital gave a presentation on digital strategy, aimed at reaching beyond members to supporters and sympathisers. Every time Labour featured in the media, people should be asked to sign up: over 700 did so after Ed Miliband’s speech on party changes. The most effective messages were real stories about real people, inspired by Ed’s vision. Labour councils were making lives better, and local parties had a wealth of knowledge. Broadening our base could raise money from tens of thousands of small donors, giving each a chance to own a piece of the campaign.
He asked the NEC to publicise five questions:
- How can we encourage local parties to share data?
- Do you have local activists with a great story?
- What examples of local council wins can we promote?
- What expertise do local parties have?
- What do people want to give to?
Responses can be mailed to him at email@example.com, and please copy me in. He is also interested in views on whether membersnet can be fixed or should be replaced. Some members asked to receive e-mails only on things they are interested in; this may not be feasible, and in any case most mails do not come from HQ, but from local level or, recently, from Euro-candidates. The NEC also acknowledged that more than half our members do not use technology to engage with the party.
I said that sharing must be two-way. Refounding Labour centralised most membership money, and the NEC bids panel allocated nearly all these funds to paid organisers in battleground seats. Constituencies now get just £1.50 per member per year, and some are losing thousands of pounds. I asked if local parties can have lists of members who pay more than their basic subscription, so we can aim our own fundraising efforts at those who may be able and willing to give, though HQ are already employing a professional fundraising company to ring members for extra donations at national level.
Len McCluskey and Tony Blair have both welcomed Ed Miliband’s ideas for party change. The NEC was more cautious, though members had calmed down somewhat since the organisation committee met a week earlier and voiced unhappiness about leaks, lack of consultation, workability and affordability.
Ed Miliband said that if Keir Hardie returned today he would find society altered beyond recognition, but party structures which hadn’t changed in a century. Union political funds would continue, but instead of automatic affiliation he wanted the millions of individual levy-payers to make a positive choice for Labour, playing an active role, creating a movement 500,000 or 600,000 strong and bucking the trend towards disengagement from party politics. He also outlined plans for fairer selections and for primaries.
The NEC deplored attacks on the unions and the leader by senior party figures. There was also broad agreement on some aspects. Barring Labour MPs from consultancies was welcomed, though does not prevent them cashing in after leaving office. All-party agreement on funding, with a £5,000 cap on donations, might be good but is not within our power. There is already a code of conduct: the problem is that disqualification is the only penalty, and seems too harsh for minor breaches like sending a leaflet a day early. Limits on spending in internal contests are worth pursuing despite the difficulties, and the European ranking ballot currently under way illustrates the need to do something.
There were mixed views on primaries. I was impressed by the French socialists’ experience, where voters could pay one euro to participate in selecting their presidential candidate. Many gave more, and support for the party increased as well. London might work, as the mayoralty is a celebrity contest anyway, though the larger the electorate the more expensive for candidates, and there were concerns about media influence and about who decides the shortlist. I oppose primaries in parliamentary seats, whatever the state of the local party: members would feel even more devalued, and it would actually be easier to pack a selection where people can just sign up and vote than where they have to join.
Representatives of Young Labour and black, Asian and minority ethnic members reported excitement and enthusiasm from their sections, but others wondered if trade unionists would rush to participate when only a minority of paying members are active. They certainly would not do so without policies to attract working people: employment rights, opposition to austerity, and scrapping the bedroom tax.
I understand the principled arguments on both sides, but my main worries are financial. It will take till 2016 to pay off the debts run up by the leader before last, when the NEC failed to ask the right questions. Ed Miliband agreed that it was risky, and the onus was on Labour to show working people that we were on their side. But while he insisted again that it was the right thing to do, and the buck stopped with him, the NEC has long-term responsibilities towards party employees and to future generations. And union money is still, overall, far cleaner than large donations from rich individuals.
At the end we were shown Ed Miliband’s terms of reference:
“Lord Collins of Highbury will review and make recommendations on
- the use of primaries in the selection of the Labour candidate for London mayor and in other circumstances;
- the conduct of parliamentary selections to ensure fairness and transparency;
- the development of a new relationship between the Labour party and members of our affiliate organisations;
- constituency development agreements between affiliate organisations and constituency Labour parties;
This review will be carried out in a timely manner reporting back to the leader of the Labour party.”
Constituency representatives asked to be fully involved, and others stressed that Ray Collins should report to the NEC directly and not through press briefings.
I added the need to sort out registered supporters. This was Ed Miliband’s first move, in 2011, to open up the party, but neither the threshold where they help to choose the leader (50,000) nor the initial share of the electoral college (3%) is specified in the rulebook. This refers to NEC procedural guidelines which are not attached, and buried in old conference papers. Steps towards the maximum 10% are not defined anywhere. Though currently well short of 50,000, numbers will increase steadily if names are added and never dropped. Members reaffirm their status each year by paying, but unless supporters are audited a future leadership contest could face a constitutional nightmare, with thousands of e-mail addresses collected over years from people who may have moved, ceased to support Labour or died.
Falkirk, which lit the fuse, has drifted to the margins except in Scotland, where the coming referendum threatens the very fabric of the United Kingdom. Selection of a candidate is on hold until investigations conclude, so that suspended members are not barred, a welcome change from other occasions. Unite representatives stated again that they acted within the rules at all times, and will be vindicated.
The Real World
Many members and supporters perceive all this as a reaction to Tory taunts over a single controversial selection and a diversion from attacking economic failure and Lynton Crosby’s links with big tobacco, overshadowing Labour’s positive alternatives: job guarantees, housebuilding, a mansion tax, the 50% tax band, the living wage. Collectively we have the task of showing that they are wrong.
After a brief report on the national policy forum, Jon Cruddas said that his shadow cabinet review had influenced recent statements on welfare and education, and he was talking with Ed Miliband about what fresh ideas might be aired in his conference speech. I asked that conference should showcase Glenis Willmott and our Euro-candidates in the run-up to 2014. The NEC agreed by 14 votes (including me) to 10 to defer decisions on rule amendments to September. The most contentious is from ASLEF: it is aimed at Progress, which benefits from the £millions which Lord Sainsbury gave the party till it elected the wrong leader, but could also hit groups like the Labour Women’s Network. Others call for suspensions to be limited to 12 months, and for electoral colleges to choose leaders of Labour groups.
Finally, green shoots in Brighton, where Labour won a council seat in Caroline Lucas’ home patch by 38 votes. Since the Greens took control they have managed to alienate large sections of the local authority workforce. And hopefully light at the end of the tunnel for the small number of constituencies in special measures, where the NEC will look in the autumn at pathways back to normality.