This was originally planned as a short meeting so members could get on with campaigning, but in the wake of recent events it ran for nearly four hours. Gordon Brown expressed disbelief at the revelations and anger at the damage to the majority of decent hardworking MPs. No-one could stand for Labour unless they upheld the highest standards of personal integrity and financial probity, and the declaration signed by candidates would be reviewed to make this explicit. Immediate measures would limit what MPs could claim in future, expenses for the last four years would be independently reviewed, and past wrongdoing would be dealt with. Beyond that, wider constitutional reform was needed to increase accountability. He felt for party members, but together, as a family, we could deal with the problems.
Every NEC member then spoke. My contribution was based on over 600 messages from the volunteers who contribute hours of unpaid time and often do not claim even for travel, postage or telephone calls. In return they were attacked on the doorstep, leaflets were thrown back at them, and councillors were accused of being on the same gravy train as MPs. Acting within the rules was no excuse, nor were the generous pay and perks enjoyed by sanctimonious journalists, nor the theft and sale of personal data, nor offences committed in other parties: Labour representatives should be able to tell right from wrong. Members wanted strong and decisive leadership, putting Labour on the front foot rather than trailing behind the Telegraph/Cameron agenda; acknowledgment and appreciation of their work; and speedy action so we could get back to helping people through the recession.
The NEC was asked to establish a panel consisting of Cath Speight as NEC Chair, myself as vice-chair and Jeremy Beecham from local government, with Ann Lucas as substitute. The chief whip or the general secretary would refer MPs to the panel if they believed there was a breach of rules. The panel would interview them and report to the organisation committee, which could rescind endorsement. So far Elliot Morley, David Chaytor, Margaret Moran and Ian Gibson have been referred. In addition constituency parties could ask the NEC to review the position of their MP or candidate.
Most NEC members wanted to extend the process beyond those who broke the rules to those who stretched them past reasonable limits. General secretary Ray Collins gave that assurance, and indeed the “green book” requires that expenses are wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for parliamentary duties, but he stressed the need for consistency and fairness. On GMTV the next day Gordon Brown said: “there are many cases where people will be suspended, where people will have to stand down at the next election and no longer be candidates for the Labour party”. This matters, because if the NEC does not act sufficiently firmly, some MPs will be deselected by the voters.
My correspondents thought the most culpable were those who claimed for non-existent expenses, followed by those who profited from property dealings, avoided tax or changed their main residence to refurbish their other houses, and then those with extravagant habits. Some felt that only those in the first group should be completely barred, while others could be reprimanded and required to refund excessive claims. Genuine mistakes or one-off slips might be considered more leniently than prolonged over-claiming. All agreed that MPs should be treated equally regardless of status.
The Right to Choose
A substantial minority of correspondents wanted every MP to face reselection again to reassure the public, with the righteous having nothing to fear. I disagreed. First, the process is time-consuming for constituency officers and party staff. Second, another trigger ballot would be unlikely to give different results because in many seats affiliated unions outnumber party branches, and tend to follow national lines. But third and most important is that it would create doubts about MPs where none existed, particularly in the local media: “it would give ammunition to opponents about good and bad alike”; “for goodness sake, my own totally reliable and honest MP does not need this”.
Ellie Reeves proposed empowering members by requiring every constituency to vote at their June meeting on whether to have a new trigger ballot. This gained little support for much the same reasons. Such votes of confidence imply possible defeat, and may reopen divisions: “there will always be an element with an axe to grind, disappointment with the government to air, or a personal issue to vent”.
Instead I confirmed constituencies’ right to refer their MP to the NEC, while defending equally their right to talk with their MP in whatever ways they thought appropriate. They are already free to meet when they choose and vote on anything they like, and would not, I believe, be empowered if the NEC forced them to have votes which they do not want: [we are] “not in favour of creating uncertainty in the run-up to an election, when, frankly, we should be focused on other things (i.e. campaigning)”.
I also added the right for local parties to have their views sought and considered by the panel when reviewing their MP. One representative argued that only the constituency could decide whether an MP had breached the spirit of the rules, and the NEC should not act as judges. Some correspondents supported this, but others feared it would lead to inconsistencies (and perhaps litigation), and would be unhappy if MPs who had seriously misbehaved escaped censure through the vote of loyalists in their general committee. The recommendations were agreed without dissent. Tony Lloyd, Chair of the backbenchers’ parliamentary committee, was present throughout, and left in no doubt of party feelings.
Among the probable consequences is an increase in vacancies where MPs are asked, or decide, to stand down before the election. Though the party remains committed to increasing the representation of women, activists have been going through difficult times not of their own making, and decisions on all-women shortlists must be sensitive to this. As I reported in March, candidates already selected cannot apply for another constituency without NEC permission.
Longer-term solutions will be considered later, after the Kelly committee has reported. I have not yet had time to summarise members’ many helpful ideas, but the most popular proposal for MPs outside London is publicly-owned hostels or residences, with the Olympic village conveniently available after 2012. On eligibility for overnight accommodation it was noted that applicants for job-seeker’s allowance are expected to travel up to 90 minutes each way, or three hours’ commuting per day, to a job. Restoring trust in politics and politicians may take much longer, but members suggested that two-way communication within the party would help, rather than e-mail exhortations and requests for money which do not accept responses. Also those without internet access must not be forgotten.
The sooner we get back to political dividing lines the better, with local and European elections only days away, and the NEC received an update on the campaign. Pat McFadden, on paternity leave following the birth of his son, reported an increase of £30 per week in statutory redundancy pay, taking it to £380 per week; plans to prevent the blacklisting of trade unionists; banning the inclusion of tips in the national minimum wage, and an increase in the rate from October, with the adult rate applying to 21-year-olds from 2010. If the Tories do not get in and block it.
Members paid tribute to Jack Jones, a giant of the labour movement. Brief committee reports followed. Teresa Pearce had been selected as the candidate for Erith & Thamesmead, and the ballot box incident was under investigation. Stoke Labour group had held its annual general meeting and elected new officers. Lord Ahmed was readmitted to the party following suspension of his prison sentence, and the disputes panel would review procedures for exclusion and readmission, to limit reapplications within the five-year period which excluded members normally have to serve. Members were assured that the party was not involved with the Red Rag website plans: Gordon Brown accepted Damian McBride’s resignation immediately it was offered, and connections with Derek Draper had been severed.
And finally an update on the Euro-levy. The general secretary has written to one constituency acknowledging that some local parties have less money than others, and explaining the difficulty of comparing them and therefore of collecting money in ways which all consider to be fair. He then adds: “nevertheless, for the future I have committed to examine with NEC colleagues all options to see if we can find a better way for apportioning costs”. I will continue to plug away at this.