NEC Meeting, 18 May 2010

The NEC congratulated Jack Dromey, MP for Birmingham Erdington, wished Stephen Timms a speedy recovery, paid tribute to Anne Snelgrove who sadly lost her Swindon South seat, and welcomed her successor Angela Smith. The meeting also expressed appreciation to Gordon Brown, and I read out some messages from members since he resigned: “Gordon has achieved so much during these 13 years, and at the end, humbly willing to put party and country before himself”; “I trust that history will give him his deserved credit for all he has done for the country and indeed the world”.

Acting leader Harriet Harman stressed that a fourth term had always been a big ask, and in the circumstances the results were remarkable. We must now look to the future, most immediately in providing strong and effective opposition. She would respond on the Queen’s speech, and former ministers would continue to shadow their ConDem counterparts. Labour had 80 women MPs against 45 Tory women, and 16 black and minority ethnic MPs including three Muslim women.

Election Debrief

Party strategist Greg Cook and Douglas Alexander MP gave an overview. Nationally 67 seats were won by the “wrong” party against predictions, with Labour doing particularly well in Scotland and on Merseyside. Demographic make-up and Ashcroft money played a part, but sheer hard graft could pay off, where members ignored the polls and simply refused to give up and die. In general sitting MPs had an advantage, but some new candidates won through. Bolton West praised theirs for leading from the front: “she was among the small team sliding on ice-covered footpaths in January when even disinterested residents had sympathy”.  Others worked equally hard but were disappointed, and they also deserve thanks, as do all the staff and activists who gave so much. Contact Creator was invaluable, but needs extra capacity to cope with half a million contacts a week.

Members thought the TV debates trivialised politics, but they are here to stay, and may even have derailed David Cameron’s smooth progression towards Downing Street. Reminding voters of the Tory threat was effective, but some wanted more positive messages on Labour’s legacy of decent homes, improved public services and international development. Privatisation cost votes among our core support, and the party and the unions should develop a shared forward agenda. References to tactical voting sowed confusion and produced knock-on effects in neighbouring seats and other elections.

Manifesto co-ordinator Ed Miliband had consulted widely with all sections of the party. Unfortunately there were some hiccups at the final stage, with members reporting that changes agreed by the Clause V meeting were not in fact incorporated. The officers will investigate. A wider review of the whole Partnership in Power process is due, and I hope that consultation will start at conference.

The Future not the Past

Although we lost, my feedback showed a party in generally upbeat mood. The outcome was better than feared, and there were some excellent local election results, producing jubilation: “We won back Southwark !!”. Nationally Labour gained 14 councils, including Enfield from the Tories and Liverpool from the LibDems, and over 400 councillors. As one message said: “we are sharpening our knives rather than licking our wounds”. Members share a deep desire for unity, with differences discussed in private, not aired in the media, and MPs could learn a lot from them.

There are opportunities and challenges ahead. Over 13,000 people had joined Labour since polling day, with more flooding in, and local parties must make them welcome. But the south-east, south-west and eastern regions now have only ten Labour MPs between them. Unless the party engages members in these areas, they will leave, taking their ideas, energy and subscriptions with them. And the lesson from 2005 is that we must start working immediately to regain the seats we lost. I have therefore asked for early progress on candidate selections. Where the losing candidate wishes to stand again, and the constituency is happy with them, I believe that simple endorsement by the general committee or all-member meeting should be sufficient. Where the losing candidate is not standing again, for whatever reason, the constituency should be able to choose a successor sooner rather than later. The difficulties include pressure on staff, who are going straight from the election into a leadership contest, and the need to review selection procedures, but I am looking for ways to manage them.

Hopefully a prompt start will give control back to local parties. In the end the special selections panel only imposed a candidate in one seat – Nottingham East – but some of the shortlists proved contentious. We cannot prevent MPs leaving their retirement to the last minute, but a proposal to charge them a hefty deposit, to be kept by the constituency if they are left in the lurch, is attracting some support.

Regeneration

The NEC discussed the process of electing a new leader at length. A hastily-convened meeting of the procedures committee (comprising the NEC officers, the Chair of the conference arrangements committee and the general secretary) had recommended a timetable ending with the party conference in September, rather than in July, in line with the preference of two-thirds of my correspondents. (Most of the rest wanted a quicker conclusion, with a few calling for a longer period of reflection first.)

There were valid arguments for both main options. July would be seen as decisive and outward-looking, a new shadow team could start preparing for the return of parliament, and we would be ready for a snap election. September would allow fuller involvement of rank-and-file members and trade unionists, the new leader would be launched in media prime-time instead of during the holidays, combining the ballot with other internal elections would save money, members could judge candidates by how effectively they attacked the ConDems, and it now looks unlikely that the coalition will fall apart by the autumn.

Eventually the meeting settled on September, but some wrinkles remained. Pete Willsman, Christine Shawcroft and Peter Kenyon argued that four days was not enough for MPs to nominate candidates. This reflected the 2007 timetable, but back then the candidates had already been campaigning for months. Later that day discontent among members and MPs became overwhelming, and on Thursday the procedures committee accepted their case and extended the deadline from 27 May to 9 June.

Peter Kenyon suggested keeping nominations open through July. However the rulebook requires candidates to be nominated by 12.5% of Labour MPs, and this would mean some MPs spending lots of money and time with no hope of success. Christine Shawcroft then proposed lowering the threshold to 10%, but this was lost with two in favour and one abstention. I think requiring support from 33 MPs is reasonable, and in 2007 six candidates for the deputy leadership reached the threshold, though I agree that a contest which is diverse in terms of race, gender and politics would be more interesting.

Big Tent Politics

The NEC did over-ride one rule, and as in 2007, we agreed that members could vote immediately they joined, right up to 8 September. Some have expressed concern about this. My view is that qualifying periods are necessary where relatively few members can exert disproportionate influence, notably on selecting council and parliamentary candidates. A national ballot of over 150,000 people cannot be “packed” in the same way. Tens of thousands are paying £39 to join, and excluding them from perhaps the most important decision of the next five years sends absolutely the wrong message. The next three months are a marvellous recruitment opportunity among members, supporters, and more than three million trade union levy-payers, who will also vote. There will be nationally-organised hustings across the country, and hopefully many workplace and local meetings and at least one televised debate.

Other details were referred to the procedures committee, including strict financial rules to avoid the problems which followed the deputy contest, and what information MPs, MEPs, constituencies and unions may circulate to members. Guidelines have been sent to constituencies who wish to organise supporting nominations before 26 July, and the ballot will run from 16 August to 22 September, together with elections to the NEC and the national policy forum. The result will be announced on the Saturday afternoon before conference, so delegates should book accommodation for Saturday night.

The NEC agreed that a shortlist for Labour’s London mayoral candidate would be drawn up by a panel of Norma Stephenson, Cath Speight, Keith Vaz and myself, plus four members of the London regional board. Party and trade union members will be balloted at the same time as the leadership election.

Women on Top

General secretary Ray Collins explained that Harriet Harman is the acting leader until conference, after which she will revert to her position of deputy leader. Peter Kenyon queried his interpretation of the rules and asked for nominations to be sought for both jobs. But unless 20% of MPs proposed someone else, there would be no contest anyway. And Harriet Harman enjoys the confidence of members, who were disappointed at the invisibility of women during the campaign, praise her dignity and coolness, and see the next four months as giving her time “to fly the flag for more women getting involved in politics”.