NEC Meeting, 17 July 2012

This meeting marked the first anniversary of Iain McNicol’s election as general secretary. Looking back over an eventful year he stressed that community organising and building relationships with members and supporters were essential to counter the prevailing cynicism about politicians. His goal remained the same: to ensure that Labour spent only one term in opposition.

Harriet Harman reinforced the message, saying that the main tasks were holding the coalition to account and presenting Labour as an alternative government. She and Tom Watson gave an update on campaigning, for police and crime commissioner elections and the Bristol mayor in November, by-elections in Manchester Central and Cardiff South & Penarth, county elections in May 2013, and the general election expected in 2015. Labour must do more to represent the diversity of the electorate, with more women, disabled, gay and ethnic minority candidates, and more from working-class backgrounds, where the trade unions could play a key role. It was pointed out, again, that standing for selection is prohibitively expensive for those with normal jobs and no rich backers.

In the latest batch of early selections Brighton & Hove North will choose from an all-women shortlist, with open lists in Brighton Pavilion & Hove and Brighton East & Lewes. Around 40 seats in the south-east, south-west and eastern regions with large opposition majorities and no boundary changes can also go ahead.  The organisation committee agreed that where selection timetables are too short for postal votes, for instance in by-elections, proxy votes will be provided only for disabled members and their carers, to comply with legal requirements, rather than being issued on demand.

Tom Watson was then reminded of the Euro-elections in 2014. Some NEC members visited our comrades in Brussels in the preceding week, and came back with renewed commitment to convincing our core vote that Europe does far more to protect their rights than to limit their freedoms. The procedure for choosing candidates has been agreed: sitting MEPs will be subject to a trigger ballot in the autumn, with each constituency casting one vote, and regional panels will interview candidates for the rest of the list before March 2013. These will be ranked in ballots open from late July to September, with the five-month interval between selection and ranking giving candidates the opportunity, and the incentive, to meet as many members as possible before the vote. As before, sitting MEPs will have the top section. The new candidates’ section will alternate men and women, with a woman at the top except where one woman MEP is reselected, in which case the list will be topped by the highest-ranked of either gender. This is particularly controversial in the south-west, which currently has no MEPs, but any other decision might have led to worsening the gender balance.

Looking Forward

Later Ed Miliband addressed the NEC. He enjoyed the Durham Miners Gala, as the first Labour leader to speak since Neil Kinnock in 1989. Labour had earned the chance to be heard. Now we had to pose big questions for the country, and change the way we do politics: perceptions that “they’re all the same” would only benefit the Tories. Members reported that police were being removed from vital community work to fill security gaps left by G4S at Olympic venues, and raised concerns about victims of asbestos, charges for employment tribunals, attacks on collective rights and the rising retirement age, where Ed Miliband was sympathetic to those who worked in manual jobs from the age of 16. Asked about recent media chatter, he welcomed Tony Blair’s help with fund-raising and his advice on the Olympic legacy: however, while the party honoured his contribution, Labour now needed to write a script for the future.

Partnership into Power Mark IV

The organisation committee met on 3 July and again immediately before the full NEC to discuss the latest plans. These were endorsed and will now go to conference for approval. Key features include:

–           an on-line policy hub, where members and the public can read national policy forum (NPF) and policy commission papers, submit comments or amendments, and see everyone else’s contributions;

–           those who do most work in their communities, as measured by the amount of support for their ideas on the hub, may get the right to present evidence to policy commissions;

–           a ballot at conference 2012 to choose policy priorities for the NPF from a list drawn up by the joint policy committee (JPC). This is in addition to contemporary resolutions, which will continue as now;

–           “challenge papers” on these topics to be published on the policy hub in November 2012, for comment until February 2013. Revised papers would be available for discussion during April/May;

–           the NPF to meet in June and vote on any outstanding issues, with the JPC signing off revised papers and sending them to conference for approval;

–           final-stage documents to be published by January 2014, with local parties and affiliates able to send amendments until May. As in 2008 these will go through NPF members who will decide which ones to pursue, and a June meeting will agree papers for conference to approve as the basis of the manifesto;

–           reconfigured policy commissions. Instead of mirroring government departments, there will be a flexible list under four headings: New Economy (stability and prosperity, cost of living, an economy that works), Decent Society (public services, secure communities), Better Politics, and Global Leadership;

–           the JPC to be renamed, possibly as the policy executive, with a reformed structure which better represents the party. The NEC rejected increasing the terms of office for NPF representatives from two to five years, the subject of heated debate at the JPC, because of accountability, consistency with other internal positions, and issues around members moving region or otherwise becoming ineligible.

Currently individual opinions dominate contributions to policy commissions, and the NEC agreed that greater weighting should be given to the results of collective discussions, with unease about the influence accorded to non-members. Some argued that conference should be allowed to make more decisions, through amending NPF reports or voting on them in parts. Others suggested that the JPC should be redesigned before it was given more powers, and wanted a role for the NEC.

The acid test, as always, is how much difference all this will make on the ground. However I am encouraged that senior people are at last looking at the auto-response when members reply to party mailings, which says “I’m sorry to have to inform you that your message could not be delivered”. We must learn to relate to our own members before adding thousands of supporters to a flawed system.

New Brooms

Jon Cruddas, Labour’s policy co-ordinator, set out his vision for a winning programme to rebuild Britain instead of managing decline. He hoped to build better connections between the shadow cabinet and the NPF, replacing the 36 mysterious review groups. I asked about the Daily Telegraph report that Labour would bring the armed services into education, including academies and specialist service schools in socially deprived areas. Stephen Twigg did not mention it at the NPF, and it seems to be another Jim Murphy bounce, taken to the press before the party. It may or may not be a good idea, but that isn’t the point. Jon Cruddas said that MPs were encouraged to devise “talking points” to stimulate discussion in areas such as housing, social care and immigration, but agreed that there were “process issues”,

More on Rules

Most constitutional amendments from constituencies to this year’s conference were rejected by the conference arrangements committee under the three-year rule, which prevents revisiting issues recently discussed. The other two concerned Partnership into Power and have been overtaken. However the NEC may itself revisit Refounding Labour, agreed in 2011. This laid down a core constituency executive of Chair, secretary, treasurer, vice-chair, and vice-chair / membership, with local parties free to add officers for women, youth, ethnic minorities and other groups and functions. In the pre-conference haste some colleagues did not notice that women’s officers were now optional, and reported concerns from members about the impact on women. In September the NEC will decide whether to keep the new rule; restore a mandatory women’s officer; or add a mandatory equalities officer. Comments are welcome.

Other NEC amendments will include police and crime commissioners in the rulebook, though a dedicated seat on the NPF was not pursued till we see how many there are. Further consideration will be given to whether to allow members to stand for the NEC and the NPF in the same ballot.

Although I’ve had some messages about low turnout in the NEC / NPF elections, 30% is the highest except for 2010 when they were combined with the leadership ballot. Of more concern is the youth NPF seats: eight out of 11 were uncontested and turnout in the other three ranged from 6% to 12%. One member was elected by 65 votes to 60. Maybe casting votes separately and on-line made a difference.

Finally Byron Taylor, the national trade union and liaison officer, demonstrated a website which pulls together information from public sources about Tory MPs, their donors, their directorships and their voting records. Labour’s income from millions of working people through their unions is sometimes criticised, but it is transparent. This initiative will shed light into the darker corners of Tory funding.

Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this to be circulated to members as a personal account, not an official record. Reports of meetings from July 2008 onwards are at http://www.labourblogs.com/public-blog/annblack, with earlier reports at www.annblack.com.