NEC Meeting, 18 July 2017

The NEC met in unexpectedly good spirits. As one speaker said, we may have lost the election but we certainly won the campaign. From staring into the abyss on 18 April, through 4 May when we lost nearly 400 councillors and trailed by 11% in the national vote, to removing the Tory majority five weeks later was an astonishing turnaround. Jeremy Corbyn was applauded for his inspiring performance. He thanked his co-ordinators Ian Lavery and Andrew Gwynne, his shadow cabinet, his office team, general secretary Iain McNicol, national and regional party staff, and the thousands of volunteers, mobilising on the ground and online. Party unity was critical, and it was unacceptable for candidates to campaign against the leadership. Labour won the vote among users of social media, ran level with the Tories on broadcast news as election rules required balanced reporting, and lagged only among readers of the biased right-wing press. Two million extra voters were registered, and if postal votes had gone out later we would have done even better.

The Never Ending Tour

As leader, Jeremy Corbyn would visit 40 marginal seats over the summer, campaigning on public service pay, insecure employment, living standards, industrial strategy, ending student fees and peace and justice around the world. Labour offered hope to people of all ages, not only the young. He welcomed 47 newly-elected MPs, including six from Scotland with 17 further seats now within reach and including more women than ever before. He hoped that Jim McMahon’s private members’ bill on votes at 16 would succeed. On the Grenfell tower nightmare he was calling for two inquiries, one on immediate issues around the fire, the other on wider social policy, especially housing. The fire, and the terrorist attacks in Westminster, London Bridge, Manchester and the Finsbury Park mosque showed the need to bring communities together.

Responding to questions, he promised that a Labour government would review the case of the Shrewsbury 24 and the Orgreave pickets. Others asked for fair pay for all public sector workers, not just the uniformed services, and commented that Wales was already committed to votes at 16. There were calls for clarity on Brexit, noting that most Leavers voted Conservative and a majority of Remainers voted Labour. Jeremy Corbyn pledged that Labour would challenge the “great repeal bill” at every step. It was profoundly undemocratic because it allowed the government to make laws by edict, not through parliament.

Headline membership stood at 575,474 including those up to six months in arrears, up from 543,645 at 31 December 2016, and 388,262 at 1 December 2015. Many were young and enthusiastic, and he said that young people hadn’t given up on politics, rather politics had given up on them, but there was still much to do. Their turnout had risen from 47% to 58%, but the average was 65%, and up to 75% in the oldest group. Labour’s membership had trebled but its structures were unchanged, and he would bring proposals for extending party democracy to the NEC meeting in September. We wait with interest. It would be good to have a conference which showcased Labour as the government in waiting, rather than more internal wrangles. We should leave that to the Tories.

Election Breakdown

Further reports followed from elections director Patrick Heneghan, Ian Lavery and Andrew Gwynne. The landscape had changed, with a return to two-party politics and UKIP collapsing to 1%. London saw the highest swing to Labour, with a tiny swing to the Conservatives in the North, and the Tories gaining more in Scotland from the SNP’s decline. All agreed that leadership and the manifestos were key to reversing voters’ intentions, with the tipping point less than a week before polling day. Even the leak of the manifesto helped to switch the focus to policy, and while all our policies were costed the only numbers in the Tory manifesto were the page numbers, and their policies on the triple lock, the winter fuel allowance and the “dementia tax” attacked their own core support. And the more that voters saw of Jeremy Corbyn, the more they warmed to him, while Theresa May became less strong and stable with every minute of exposure. The decision to take part in the leaders’ debate in Cambridge was one of the best of the campaign.

While Conservative central office had 48 hours’ notice, Labour had none. However the snap election guide covered every angle, and a million leaflets went out within four days. Party reserves were supplemented by £5 million in small donations, and by generous support from the trade unions. There have been questions about how that money was allocated, but all speakers, including Jeremy, made clear that all decisions were taken collectively, by the campaign co-ordinators, the leader’s office, and party staff. Early money went primarily to defending Labour seats, and shifted towards possible gains as the mood shifted. As Ian Lavery said, hindsight was a wonderful thing, but they did not have the information to do anything differently.

Tasks now were to harry the government in parliament, where Tory MPs were not used to having to turn up for every vote, to get candidates in place, to build on the hope and excitement of the campaign, and to prepare to go out and do it all again. However the Tories were not stupid, and next time we would face a better manifesto and a better leader.

A full review would follow. I contributed the views of the hundreds of members who mailed me, and highlighted the so-called “progressive alliance”, which depressed the Labour vote in parts of England and in Scotland. Other NEC members raised the need to understand shifts in working-class votes, particularly in old mining communities; differences between the local and general election results; whether the huge new majorities were stable or volatile; and the need to co-ordinate Scottish and UK campaigning.

At Home and Abroad

Nick Forbes gave the local government report, commenting that the Tories apparently had no money to help councils prevent fires, but £1.5 billion for the DUP to prevent an election. Continuing cuts to social security, public services and housing placed cumulative strains on their budgets.

Glenis Willmott reported on developments in the European parliament, including a trade deal with Japan. This removed tariffs from 99% of goods, but the UK would have to negotiate a similar deal post-Brexit or Japanese car companies would relocate to the continent. Similarly roaming charges for mobile phones have been entirely scrapped within the European Union, and we may lose that benefit as well.

National policy forum members were consulted on policy priorities through a series of telephone conferences, leading up to the formal clause 5 meeting which signed off the manifesto. Pete Willsman and I stressed the urgency of arranging a full meeting in the autumn.

Fired Up and Ready to Go

Jeremy Corbyn always emphasises that the new members are put off by jargon and arcane procedures. For the rest of the meeting the NEC talked of little else, so you may want to skip to the end.

We began with selections. Local parties are keen to choose their candidates, and the NEC welcomed proposals to start the process in the 75 most winnable seats in England. Scotland and Wales will decide their own targets. My only caveat was that after 2010 we had candidates in place for years and by 2015 many were financially, physically and emotionally exhausted, but we have to prepare for a general election which could be any time between this autumn and 2022.

During the summer members and unions will be consulted on which of these should have all-women shortlists, with views required by 4 September. The desire for at least half to be designated as AWS may pose difficulties, as the NEC imposed male candidates in 45 of the 75 seats, and would have to block up to eight of them, however popular they were with members and with the voters who almost elected them.

The Scottish and Welsh executives will agree their own detailed procedures. For England the summary paper envisaged the selection committee (SC) meeting before conference to agree the timetable. The SC would comprise the constituency treasurer and secretary, an NEC representative, two representatives of affiliated organisations and between one and five additional members, with at least half women overall.

This is Where it Gets Complicated

The summary paper seemed to indicate that the executive committee (EC) would form or appoint the SC. Instead the full document proposed that these additional members would be elected by the general committee (GC) where constituency parties (CLPs) operate a delegate-based structure, or an all-member meeting (AMM) where the CLPs operate on an AMM basis or where their GC decides to hold an AMM. This meeting would decide how many SC members to add and then elect them, presumably following self-nomination. For delegate-based GCs this might only add a week to the timetable, but for AMMs the secretary would have to contact every member including those without email, advise those ineligible to take part, and give those in arrears the opportunity to pay. CLPs would have to estimate how many members would attend when booking rooms, as even a turnout below 10% could mean several hundred people.

So I estimated an extra two weeks and hundreds of pounds for postage and room hire, and as ECs are already elected by members at each AGM I failed to see the point. However others said that ECs were elites and cliques and electing the SC was an essential extension of party democracy, and that was carried 16-14. We now have to make it work, and details will return to the NEC in September. Watch this space.

Thus Far, but no Further

The unions argued that while their members will take part in electing the CLP SC members, it was inappropriate for their own representatives to be elected by a GC or AMM, and they would provide people through their own internal structures. I have asked that at least one of these should be a woman, and that they should live in the constituency, come from branches affiliated to the CLP, and preferably be GC delegates or known locally. I also wondered where the Co-op party and other affiliates fit into the picture.

Once the selection committee is established, it will elect one of its members as the procedures secretary, and nominations, longlisting and shortlisting will largely follow previous practice. Windows for applications, nominations and hustings are tight, but I believe that CLPs want candidates in place as soon as possible. I know that applies to non-target seats as well, and this is my next priority, but it is unlikely before 2018.

Democracy, But Not As We Know It

On trigger ballots the paper notes that the NEC has agreed procedures following the boundary review, if it happens, but says that the NEC can decide to commence trigger ballots as deemed necessary. These will raise a whole new set of issues. To be reselected without a contest an MP requires a majority among party branches plus affiliate branches. An affiliate branch with one member living in the constituency and paying £6 gets one vote. A party branch with 200 members paying up to £50 each, so up to £10,000 in total, also gets one vote. While the number of party branches has declined, the number of affiliated branches has exploded, with up to 26 separate branches of the same union affiliated to a single CLP. So thousands of individual members could be over-ridden by a couple of general secretaries. This is entirely within party rules, but I doubt if the experience will leave members feeling valued and empowered

Annual Conference

The NEC noted the draft timetable, and agreed a rule change which would amend the disciplinary section to rule out hostility or prejudice based on age, disability, gender identity, marriage or civil partnership status, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, or sexual orientation. CLPs and affiliates proposing amendments to this rule would be asked to remit in favour of the NEC wording.

I was keen to support an amendment from Kingswood which would delete registered supporters from the rulebook, backed by 90% of my correspondents. However other NEC members argued that supporters were introduced by the Collins review in 2014 and rather than unpick it piecemeal the amendments should be referred to an NEC review of all aspects of Collins, including the proportion of MPs required to nominate candidates for leader and deputy leader, and the implications of government changes to trade union political funds. CLPs would be asked to remit their amendments to the review, whose nature would be clarified before conference. This was agreed, perhaps because no-one quite knew how the votes stacked up on any individual amendment. The other rule changes would also return to the September NEC.

Dates and Definitions

I had been contacted by CLPs whose conference delegates were excluded for not having the required 12 months membership. They had joined after 23 June 2016, which was a year before the initial deadline for registration, but before 7 July 2016, a year before the extended date. The argument against was that CLPs electing delegates before April had not considered anyone joining after 23 June, and so eligibility would depend partly on where members live. On balance I would have accepted them – more delegates bring greater representation and extra income – but the conference arrangements committee decided otherwise. However the party does have to take more care in making the position clear to members and CLPs.

Qualifying dates also came up in connection with choosing candidates for Birmingham city elections in 2018. The “freeze date” was set at July 2016 when the timetable was agreed, and Birmingham required 12 months’ membership at that date rather than the standard six months. Selections were then delayed, leaving some members still unable to vote after more than two years.

The organisation committee had changed the freeze date to 1 January 2017 and the qualifying period to six months rather than 12 months, by 15 votes to 11. I was in the minority, conscious of the many demands and sparse resources in Birmingham, but am not unhappy with the outcome. After some confusion between freeze dates and cutoff dates the NEC confirmed the decision. However Newham members have already contacted me asking for the same deal, and unless the NEC sets fair standards and then reaffirms local autonomy we will end up setting individual freeze dates for every council area in England.

Youth Matters

The final substantive item was the method for determining who attends the national youth policy conference in October. In 2016 young members elected representatives in online ballots within regions, with turnout only around 5% and from very long lists: London members had to choose 78 out of 204 names. Various alternatives were suggested: first-come-first-served (favours insiders), random allocation (intuitively unattractive), constituency youth officers (excludes newer members). There was no consensus and the NEC agreed by 13 votes to 12 to refer the decision to the NEC officers. The officers have now agreed online ballots, but with larger regions subdivided so that numbers within each are more sensible.

Separately some NEC members wanted to change the structure of the conference, currently one-third young members, one-third Labour clubs and one-third affiliated young members, either to merge Labour students with young members in a single section, or to treat Labour students as an affiliate. We were now in the sixth hour of a meeting timed at four hours, and whatever the arguments I agreed that it was unwise to make sweeping decisions until all stakeholders had been fully consulted.

The End of an Era

Glenis Willmott told us that she would be standing down as an MEP in October. Jeremy Corbyn spoke warmly of her unfailing support, and we appreciate her efforts to hold the party together through a testing year. The following day the death was announced of Mary Turner, a member of the NEC since 1995, and her wisdom, passion and commitment to the lowest-paid and the marginalised will continue to inspire us all.

Postscript: Vote Early, Vote Often

The ballot for the conference arrangements committee has now opened, and voting online will save the cost of sending a postal ballot. These will go out from 7 August, with a closing date of 8 September.

Finally constituency delegates to the women’s conference will be sent a link on 1 August allowing them to choose which policy topics will be debated in the formal session, with a deadline of 8 September. CLPs will also be able to nominate candidates for the women’s conference arrangements committee. Candidates must have twelve months’ membership at 11 August 2017, and members of the frontbench are not eligible. The WCAC will be elected at women’s conference on 23 September, with two members chosen by CLP delegates, two by affiliated organisations, and one from annual conference CAC. I hope to see you there.