Glenis Willmott is coming to the end of her year as Chair, and after another six-hour meeting I am sure she is looking forward to handing on the gavel. She wished Kezia Dugdale well for her future, welcomed Alex Rowley, the deputy leader of Scottish Labour, and joined all NEC members in mourning the loss of Mary Turner. There will be a celebration of Mary’s life in the New Year, probably in St Paul’s cathedral.
Tom Watson noted two significant recent developments. The DUP supported Labour in an opposition day debate on NHS pay, and on student fees, and the Tories abstained rather than be defeated. Boris Johnson’s outbursts had fractured the cabinet, and the government could collapse at any moment. In his shadow role he was urging reform of gambling laws and opposing Rupert Murdoch’s Sky takeover bid. He assured the NEC that there was not a jot of difference between him and Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit.
Tour de Force
Jeremy Corbyn reported at length, including preparations for government; opposing the EU withdrawal bill because it removed accountability to parliament; public service pay; the need for a jobs-first Brexit; protecting EU nationals; and deplorable abuse of MPs including anti-semitic attacks on Luciana Berger and racist and sexist attacks on Diane Abbott. He had campaigned in 50 marginal seats since June. In Southport the Labour vote had quadrupled in seven years, and the LibDems were now in third place: if we’d listened to the so-called progressive alliance we would not now be on the verge of winning the seat.
He also covered achieving a 50/50 gender balance in the next parliament; his TUC speech, where he urged everyone to join a union to combat exploitation; enabling councils to build social housing; the prospect of a Labour government in New Zealand; the appalling treatment of the Rohingya people; deaths from cholera in Yemen; working with Keir Starmer on Brexit; and the next national campaign day on 30 September.
NEC members raised the Birmingham bin strike; the TUC vote for co-ordinated action across all public services against the pay cap, with increases funded by extra spending, not job cuts; opposition to arms sales to Saudi Arabia; disappointment with the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi; requests for national policy forum documents to be as exciting as the manifesto; university vice-chancellors paid £451,000 plus perks; the continuing dangers of the zika virus; ensuring that after Brexit, appropriate powers should be passed back to Scotland and Wales, not to Westminster; and the inadequate government response to hurricane damage in former British colonies. Jeremy Corbyn responded in detail to every point. He said that Andrew Gwynne and Jack Dromey were working to bring ACAS in to resolve the Birmingham dispute.
The Changing of the Guard
Jeremy Corbyn then introduced his proposals for a review of party democracy, prompted by the surge in membership (currently 520,000 paid-up, and hopes for more on the back of a successful conference). Terms of reference covered the method of electing the party leader, including registered supporters and nomination thresholds; enhancing the role of constituency parties and conference; local and regional plans and structures; associated bodies such as Young Labour and BAME Labour, where various issues have been raised with NEC members; further recruitment; gender representation and women’s conference; the composition of CLP executive committees; strengthening links with unions; and harnessing social media.
NEC members suggested including all forms of diversity; the use of freeze dates in different contexts; the key role of local government; the function of the national policy forum; and overall governance within local parties. These points would be considered for the final draft. Jeremy Corbyn clarified that structures would not be dictated to the Scottish and Welsh parties, and that work begun within Tom Watson’s earlier party reform project would be rolled into the new review. The review would be led by political secretary Katy Clark, assisted by Malcolm Powers, head of party development, and Andy Kerr, NEC Chair-apparent, reporting to the leader and party Chair Ian Lavery MP. Keith Vaz proposed adding Claudia Webbe, and the NEC would also receive regular updates. Though some members would have liked earlier engagement, I remember 2007 when Gordon Brown’s Extending and Renewing Party Democracy was published within minutes of his coronation, though the NEC had to unpick some of the more unfeasible ideas later on.
No Time to Lose
Two changes were judged sufficiently urgent to go to this year’s conference. The first increased the number of NEC constituency representatives from six to nine, and added a thirteenth trade union member. The three extra CLP seats would be elected by early 2018 and then all nine, including at least four women, in summer 2018. This required a convoluted rule amendment bypassing two-year terms of office starting at conference, to be deleted again next year. I was concerned about the £150,000 cost of an extra ballot, but this could be substantially reduced by posting ballot packs only to members who do not vote online. (In the recent conference arrangements committee election 69% cast online votes.)
Further aspects of NEC composition – more councillors, dropping the requirement for nomination by home CLPs, regional representation – would be referred to the review. The second change reduced the percentage of MPs / MEPs required to nominate candidates for leader and deputy leader from 15% to 10%.
Both were carried with no votes against, and most constituencies submitting rule amendments would be asked to remit them to the review. For two amendments on disciplinary action against conduct judged to be racist, anti-semitic, homophobic or arising from other prejudices, the movers will be asked to withdraw in favour of the NEC’s comprehensive amendment.
Meanwhile the Scottish leadership election required 15% of nominations from MSPs, MPs and MEPs, with members and supporters able to sign up until 9 October. Registered supporters pay £12, and though members are asked to pay the standard UK rates with a minimum of £24 a year, an email invites people to join at just £1 per month, again blurring the lines between one-off registered supporters and full members.
Harry Donaldson, Chair of the conference arrangements committee, reported record attendance, with well over 1,000 CLP delegates and 1,485 coming to women’s conference. (Final figures will be available later.) Many of us had raised the position of delegates rejected because they joined between 23 June and 7 July 2016. In April, because of the general election, the NEC extended the registration date to 7 July, but never told local parties that 23 June would remain the cutoff date for the 12-month membership qualification. I only realised the implications when delegates started being rejected in July, too late to elect replacements. Harry Donaldson offered an olive branch by accepting delegates from seven CLPs who were completely disenfranchised, but Darren Williams proposed, and I seconded, a motion to allow in all 65 affected delegates, and this was carried overwhelmingly. The lesson is when in a hole, stop digging.
The NEC agreed that the timetable must make clear where particular subjects will be debated, so that delegates know when to contribute. Following last year’s rule change, delegates will be able to refer back parts of a policy document. The Chair would aim for consensus where possible, with card votes where necessary. Various representations were made on the conference schedule, including much support for a local government slot, and debate on which mayors, if any, should be invited. To enable more delegates to speak, platform speakers have been cut to a minimum, which seems entirely reasonable.
Women on the Move
The women’s conference will, however, start with an hour of platform speakers: shadow equalities minister Dawn Butler, Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry and a presentation on the Jo Cox women in leadership programme. The afternoon will have parallel activities, with informal sessions on sisters in the struggle and an open-mic discussion, and a formal debate for voting delegates on the prioritised topics of the NHS and social care, economic and business policy, foreign policy and Brexit, and housing. Delegates will also elect members to the women’s conference arrangements committee. This year is very much a transitional event, and feedback from visitors and delegates will be invaluable in planning for 2018.
Nick Forbes gave the local government report, highlighting a model motion on the public sector pay cap, and work to improve representation of women and ethnic minorities.
Glenis Willmott’s last report as leader of Labour’s MEPs warned of the dangers of diluting standards of fire safety – beyond belief after Grenfell – and the real risk of all flights being cancelled if there is no deal on Brexit, as aviation is not covered by world trade organisation rules.
Awaiting Starter’s Orders
Finally we reached proposals for allocating all-women shortlists for the 76 new target seats. The late hour speeded up decisions, with a motion simply to endorse all recommendations only lost by 11 votes to 14. A few changes were agreed, most of which I supported but one where I preferred the original, so it was a bit swings and roundabouts. I am concerned about seats where a male candidate came close to winning and is now excluded, but as only 30 had women candidates in June, some disappointments were inevitable.
Regrettably we are still not in a position to begin selecting candidates. Nine weeks ago the NEC agreed a paper which envisaged local selection committees setting timetables this week. However the July NEC also voted for an initial stage in which a delegate general committee or an all-member meeting elects the selection committee, except for the two trade union places. No procedures have yet been published, nor information on how the unions will appoint their people. Until they are, we remain parked at square one.