NEC Meeting, 19 July 2011

Tuesday 19 July was a dramatic day in parliament, with Tom Watson questioning the Murdochs and Keith Vaz chairing interviews with senior police officers. Across the committee corridor the NEC meeting was quieter but equally tense as we chose Iain McNicol for Labour’s next general secretary, the sixth appointment in 11 years, after Ray Collins’ elevation to the Lords. Two candidates were shortlisted by senior NEC members: Iain, national political officer with the GMB union, and Chris Lennie, the party’s deputy general secretary since 2001. Both promised to change the culture away from central control, with Iain stressing that he would rebuild trust, treat members as a resource rather than a problem, and put an end to silos, factions, egos and empires. I voted for Iain, as did most of the constituency representatives: this was not about left or right, but about who would be best able to deliver for Ed Miliband. As a party organiser in the 1990s Iain had to raise his own salary, which may yet come in useful, and trouble-makers should note that he is a black belt in karate and also plays the bagpipes.

Ed Miliband then gave his leader’s report. Recent events showed the importance of speaking without fear or favour, in tune with the public mood, taking on vested interests. Responsibility was not just for those on benefits, but for the rich and powerful, the bankers, the media and the police. The NEC praised him for taking risks and forcing David Cameron to follow him at every step, and congratulated Tom Watson and Chis Bryant for their dogged pursuit of the hackers. Less happily members were disturbed by job losses at Bombardier after they failed to win the Thameslink contract, and by Tory plans to abolish the agricultural wages board which protects pay and conditions for low-paid rural workers.

Members also felt Labour could have done more to defend public service pensions, instead of leaving it to Radio 4 to expose government myths. Ed Miliband thought the Hutton report was quite sensible: using career average salaries was fairer, retirement age would have to rise gradually over time, and Hutton did not support the extra 3% in employee contributions. He said he would be glad to attend a future Durham Miners Gala, but refused to appear with Bob Crow because he did not support Labour. However the party was represented by Ed Balls and Cathy Jamieson. (At a recent meeting of the prosperity and work policy commission some of us tackled Ed Balls more forcefully about Labour’s attitude towards the strikes on 30 June. Though the PCS and the NUT are not affiliated to the party, thousands of members are teachers and civil servants, and they expect Labour to be on their side.)

On electoral matters members welcomed the Inverclyde by-election victory and thanked the party staff, but some were concerned about over-reliance on Victoria Street rather than local activists. Alarms were also sounded about forthcoming elections for elected mayors and police commissioners: the Tories have candidates up and running, while we are still discussing procedures and gender balance.

Refounding Labour Continued

Peter Hain introduced the latest proposals, after discussion in the organisation committee. An interim report has been circulated to stakeholders, and I’ve attached a copy. The NEC will not agree final recommendations until 20 September, four days before conference, no amendments will be allowed, and Peter will ask delegates to vote Yes or No to the entire package including rule changes. I think this is a bad way to begin a new era. In 2007 Gordon Brown pushed Extending and Renewing Party Democracy through conference, and we spent the next three years removing unpopular and unworkable parts. As a fallback I have asked for constituency NEC representatives to be engaged throughout the summer so we do not end up with deals or stand-offs between the leadership and the unions, and I will consult as widely as I can. I was also promised, again, the full membership of the shadow cabinet review groups, a request outstanding since November 2010.

There is plenty of good stuff in the paper: welcoming new members, engaging with the community, more flexible local structures and so on, though much of this concerns good practice rather than rules. It recognises that many developments are only feasible with new technology, although these risk widening the digital divide.   Development plans for constituencies and contracts between local parties and candidates or elected representatives gained general support but the details will be crucial.

The same applies to registered supporters. Maintaining lists of people who will help with campaigns, and inviting them to social events and local policy discussions, seems uncontentious. While Refounding Labour would not give them votes for council or parliamentary candidates, it does envisage allowing them to vote for the party leader within the affiliates’ section. Further, external organisations could apply for “registered consultee” status, gaining rights to give evidence to policy commissions greater than those enjoyed by constituencies. Sharing membership information between the party and the unions is another sensitive issue, and the unions are keen to regain nomination rights in parliamentary selections.

From Each According to their Means …

The paper tries to balance concerns that subscriptions are too high against the need to maintain income. The minimum age for joining would be reduced to 14, paying £1 a year until the age of 20, then £12 from age 20 to 26. Unwaged members and registered supporters would pay £15, and this would also be the first-year rate for new joiners. After that rates would be linked to income: £24 for trade union levy-payers and those earning under £20,000, going up by £12 a year for each additional £5,000 of salary.

Currently constituencies receive 33% of reduced-rate and 22% of standard-rate subscriptions. For some this is less than central charges for election insurance and the Euro-levy, and optionally Contact Creator, so they are permanently in the red. Many have argued that these charges should be proportional to the number of members, and so I will pursue this. It fails to address inequalities in wealth related to property or legacies, but no-one has yet found a way of grasping that nettle.

On openness the paper is patchy. I agree that women, ethnic minority and young members should be able to work across local party boundaries on common objectives, and hope that this will extend to constituency secretaries, and indeed to all members. The section on Young Labour has been subject to exhaustive consultation: among many changes, constituency youth officers and national policy forum youth representatives would in future be elected by young members only. There is a commitment to further discussions with the Northern Ireland party, the SDLP and the Irish Labour Party. And it is proposed to change the rules so that constituency AGMs would normally be held in November rather than February, leaving the spring free for campaigning: I would be interested in views on this.

Counting the Votes

Most agreed that multiple votes for the leader were not defensible. MPs could be restricted to their own section, but enforcing single votes across individual and affiliated members would only be possible if the ballot was conducted by a single body. The principle of having a woman in the leadership team was endorsed, but there were doubts about a leadership ticket, where candidates would choose a running-mate of the opposite gender and members would vote for the leader only, so discussion will continue.

Also still unresolved are voting procedures at conference, the make-up of the conference arrangements committee, and the composition of the NEC itself, apart from a proposal that the Scottish and Welsh leaders should each nominate a member of their executive committee with voting status. I am opposed to giving some of the conference vote to the national policy forum: it does not exist as a collective entity, and the NEC, as part of the forum, would gain a significant share. All these areas are central to the party’s future, and it would be wrong and dangerous to bounce them through conference without proper consultation. Finally Peter Hain said that submissions supported the continued vital role of the joint policy committee, and that there was no support for restoring any policy-making role to the NEC.

Moving Forward

The Future Candidates Programme attracted 1,000 applicants for only 125 residential places. However one-day fast-track training is being arranged for 260 people who already have significant experience, plus a one-day introductory event for another 519 good candidates. Unfortunately their opportunities may be limited under the boundary changes. Draft recommendations will be published in autumn, with near-final proposals in autumn 2012, and constituency parties will be formed on new boundaries from January 2013. The first round of parliamentary selections will be for Labour MPs with a substantial territorial interest in a new constituency (defined as 40% or their largest share of any new seat). A second round will select for unfilled Labour seats and guarantee any MP who missed out in the first round a place on a shortlist. Only then will non-Labour seats be able to choose their candidates.

End Notes

European leader Glenis Willmott reported that MEPs rejected raising greenhouse gas emission targets to 30% by 326 votes to 317. Nineteen Tories voted against: so much for Dave’s green credentials. And we finally received the report on Tower Hamlets. After Lutfur Rahman expelled himself by standing against the official Labour candidate, the investigation into his conduct is on hold unless and until he reapplies for membership. This is not what I envisaged last September, but it is where we are.