NEC Meeting, 17 May 2011

After the Scottish election defeat, general secretary Ray Collins said that Jim Murphy MP and Sarah Boyack MSP would chair a review of Labour in Scotland, bringing together all stakeholders to develop a new organisational and political framework. Terms of reference had been agreed with the Scottish executive committee and were endorsed by the NEC. I and others expressed concern that members only heard about the review through the media, and after Ed Miliband announced it in London. The process had to be led and owned by the Scottish grassroots, and I am grateful to all who sent me feedback on the election and its aftermath, either directly or through their vice-chair Victoria Jamieson.

English colleagues pointed out the knock-on effects, with news from Scotland overshadowing big gains in local government and success in Wales. The Barnett funding formula, seen as generous towards Scotland, might be questioned, particularly by northern councils, and a referendum on independence would not be a matter for Scotland alone. Ray Collins said that while the review would be conducted by and for Scotland, Labour was a UK party and the NEC had ultimate responsibility. After the untimely death of David Cairns MP a by-election in Inverclyde was the next challenge.

Dennis Skinner was baffled that an apparently solid poll lead had evaporated in the last few weeks: what happened? Part of the answer was that late in the campaign, Labour ditched agreed policies and switched to the SNP positions. These included supporting a council tax freeze, despite the impact on services, and scrapping university fees. Labour was seen as opposing good policies, such as minimum alcohol pricing, just because the SNP put them forward. While election results are usually related to campaigning activity, the swing in Scotland was uniform, suggesting that problems lay with the political message and the media strategy. Personality also played a part. I passed on requests that Labour should include constituency candidates on the regional lists to bolster the list vote, as other parties do.

News from Elsewhere

Deputy leader Harriet Harman was upbeat. There was no defeatism, Labour had bounced back with the highest share of the vote in all regions, electing hundreds of enthusiastic new councillors and Carwyn Jones as first minister of Wales. We were on the front foot and going forward. Voter contact rates matched 2010, and London activists helped in marginal areas. However tough times faced the 26 councils where Labour gained control, and with it responsibility for dealing with central cuts. Analyst Greg Cook said that variations in electoral systems and political dynamics made conclusions difficult. In Scotland the collapsing LibDem vote went to the SNP, while in Wales there was a 10% swing from Plaid Cymru, Labour’s junior coalition partner. In Leicester South Jon Ashworth was elected as MP, succeeding Peter Soulsby who is now the mayor. Of 800 council gains, over half were from the Tories.

Others were more cautious. While cities such as Sheffield showed massive swings against Nick Clegg and the LibDems, and this was satisfying, the Tories had largely got away with it. This was not yet a platform for winning the next general election. I shared this view, and passed on two message from correspondents. One said: “during a war the main task is to beat the enemy, not concentrate on eliminating collaborators”. Another wanted positive policies, effective strategy and visible leadership.

In the south-east, half the LibDem vote went to the Tories, and in Brighton the Greens were the main beneficiaries. Electing single councillors in Tory strongholds and winning seats on parish and town councils lifts local morale, but it is a long way from power. There was anecdotal evidence that the AV referendum worked against Labour, by showing us as divided and by mobilising the No/Tory vote. Ken Livingstone asked us not to praise Boris Johnson when he disagreed with David Cameron, as this boosted his independent image. He stressed the need to build the party in Labour’s inner-London seats, and not focus only on the marginals. And victory in Stoke had virtually eliminated the BNP.

Leader’s Update

When Ed Miliband joined us he warned of two dangers: complacency on one hand, and excessive gloom on the other. We won progressive votes back from the LibDems, but Scotland illustrated the need for a big picture. On AV we showed unity by not tearing lumps out of each other like the coalition partners. Now that we were a credible opposition, we had to map out where we were going. The squeeze on living standards meant that many incomes had stagnated for five years, and the next generation would be hit by student fees, abolishing the educational maintenance allowance, and lack of jobs. How would they buy a home, and what kind of environment would they inherit? He recognised the need for the shadow cabinet to sharpen its attacks, and wanted party reforms to give members more of a voice, even if this was inconvenient for him personally.

Members again asked for forceful rebuttal and a clearer idea of what Labour stands for. The LibDems seemed to be gaining credit for changes to the NHS bill, though Ed Miliband raises it repeatedly at prime minister’s questions. On Lords reform he agreed that party policy was for an elected second chamber, but bread-and-butter issues took priority. Christine Shawcroft reported complaints from Nottingham and elsewhere about arbitrary deselection of candidates: open and transparent procedures were essential. Ed Miliband said he couldn’t comment on individual cases, but members should have a proper say.

Looking Forward

Training will be available for new councillors, and for Labour groups taking control. Sixteen new organisers have been recruited, with more coming through, and any local party with money from legacies or property should consider investing in paid help. The 1p introductory rate for young members attracted over 3,000, of whom 70% were male, and membership was heading towards 200,000.

Labour has obtained funding from the Lionel Cooke memorial fund to train and support up to 75 people interested in standing as parliamentary candidates. Details are at www.labour.org.uk/nextgeneration : the deadline for applying is 4 July, and an NEC panel will choose participants. The aim is to increase diversity by encouraging more first-rate women, ethnic minority, disabled and gay candidates, and candidates from different backgrounds: 27% of Labour MPs previously worked in politics, and 28% in the law, the media or public relations. The initiative was welcomed, though some were dubious about inviting people who were not current party members. Others were concerned about raising expectations, particularly with the boundary review reducing the number of available Labour seats. Candidates should be encouraged to apply also for non-target constituencies, to gain experience as their first step towards a political career. There are also European elections coming up in 2014.

And at the top of the party, the NEC agreed a timetable for appointing a new general secretary, following Ray Collins’ elevation to the Lords. Longlisting and shortlisting will be carried out by the NEC officers, plus Ellie Reeves to represent the constituency section, Dave Sparks from local government, and leading backbencher Tom Watson substituting for Ed Miliband. The NEC will make an appointment at the next meeting on 19 July, the sixth time in 11 years that I have been involved in this process.

Refounding Labour / Fresh Ideas

Peter Hain hoped that members would take advantage of over 60 events to discuss Liam Byrne’s Fresh Ideas and his own Refounding Labour paper on party reform. Thousands of online and written submissions will be summarised for the national policy forum in Wrexham on 25 June.

I am still pursuing the shadow cabinet policy review groups. Thanks to Comprehensive Future for circulating a list for one of Andy Burnham’s groups; warm appreciation to Harriet Harman for full information on the international development review and its six expert taskforces; and rather less for Douglas Alexander, launching “Britain and the BRICs” in Beijing through a press release which gives no indication of who else is involved. Another 17 are still unknown beyond short summaries.

The flurry of stories about outside influence adds to the sense of exclusion. The fox-hunting aficionado Lord Glasman and the men of Blue Labour, Tessa Jowell and the Progress/Purple Labour project, are featured on Andrew Marr and in full-page newspaper spreads. Peter Hain told us not to worry because everything will go through the NPF and then to conference. But based on past experience the NPF will receive draft documents a few days in advance and meet for six hours without the chance even to comment on all of them, let alone make significant changes. And as members feel they have no working communication channels, they, like the NEC, believe what they read and hear in the media.

Dennis Skinner had no patience with twittering twaddle: policy consultation should be for members. He begged for reassurance that there were no plans to reduce the unions’ role in the party. Peter Hain said he was committed to the link, but union membership had collapsed over the last few decades and no longer reached into the workforce. The idea of registered supporters was to expand Labour’s base, not to sideline anyone. There were issues around the electoral college for choosing the leader, and at conference: was it right that three big unions controlled 40% of the conference vote? Which drew the riposte that the leadership ignored conference votes anyway, so did it matter? Either way, members still have until 24 June to submit views at www.refoundinglabour.org, so please use the opportunity.