This meeting ran for more than nine hours, but there were several major presentations and the ratio of genuine questions to set-piece speeches was higher than of late. Part of the problem is that the NEC expanded from 33 members to 35 in 2016 and to 39 in 2018 for various reasons. Our constituents expect us to speak for them, and this is the only chance we get. However I was disappointed that there was no time for an update from Anneliese Dodds on her policy review, nor for a report on the first national policy forum for more than three years. Far more people are interested in what Labour stands for and how we will make their lives better than in procedural minutiae or splinter factions. Nor was there any news on the policy development consultation, which in my view rules out significant changes at this year’s conference.
Unfortunately we had the usual running commentary on Twitter and the wholesale release of confidential papers. I’ve seen cases where leakers were identified by slight variations in the text sent to each recipient, but it is sad if the NEC has to resort to such methods.
Published comments were also selective or misleading. For instance there were repeated references to haemorrhaging membership. In fact the paid-up total was still over 430,000. This is above the figure in November 2019 which had steadily declined since peak Corbyn, and more than double the level from 2002 to 2015 when membership stayed below 200,000 throughout. Of course we should work to attract and keep members, and find out why they are joining and leaving, but why run our own party down?
The Work Goes On
Deputy leader Angela Rayner thanked everyone who helped in Batley & Spen and paid tribute to members and unions working to get us through the pandemic. Attacks on the Tories for lining their mates’ pockets were beginning to cut through. She and Andy McDonald MP were developing a vision for the future of work, with secure jobs and full employment rights from day one, and summer campaign materials would go out to local parties soon. These would be tailored to Scotland and Wales where appropriate.
The NEC congratulated Kim Leadbeater MP for her energy and dignity in the face of provocation. I asked about a leaflet featuring Boris Johnson with the Indian prime minister, and was told that this responded to the concerns of local voters. Labour should stand up against injustice and oppose the Tories for rushing to sign trade deals regardless of human rights concerns. On NHS pay Angela said the government had reneged on a promised rise of at least 2.1% and the pay review body recommendations were awaited.
General Secretary’s Overview
David Evans reported that 700 delegates from 375 CLPs and 24 trade unions attended a successful online national women’s conference. The results of the by-elections in Chesham & Amersham and Batley & Spen would be included with an evaluation of the May elections, and Labour’s initial submission to the boundary review would be ready by the deadline of 2 August following regional input. (Luke Akehurst represents CLPs on the boundary review group and I am sure will be happy to answer individual questions.)
As usual there were questions about the much-delayed Forde inquiry into the 2020 leaked report, and David shared our frustration. The Forde panel had agreed in principle to release its findings on the report’s contents and on party culture and practices, while deferring the section on the circumstances of the leak until the information commissioner’s office completes its own investigation. David hoped for “early autumn”, but don’t hold your breath. The unconscious bias training undertaken by NEC members had raised disturbing issues about internal party culture which must be addressed. Also as usual there were questions about Jeremy Corbyn’s position, where regrettably the impasse continues. A letter from the previous chief whip had set out three conditions, none of them met, though David Evans acknowledged the extent of concern. He declined to comment on the continuing or lifting of suspensions in other cases.
The instruction that all meetings must be online runs out at the end of July. David Evans said that local parties could meet in person after that if they wished, and guidance on safety would be issued. I would welcome views on this. Many members are nervous about cramming into venues while the virus is still raging, especially those who are vulnerable or shielding. Others with caring responsibilities, disabilities or transport difficulties have enjoyed being able to take part for the first time. Hybrid meetings sound good, but enabling 60 people in the room and 60 people joining via Zoom to participate equally in discussion and in voting would be financially and technically challenging. The NEC itself will stay online until conference.
In presenting Organise to Win, David Evans’ priority was a high-performing, diverse, inclusive organisation with a ruthless focus on winning elections, set against a difficult financial position which made it impossible to maintain current staffing levels. Putting voters at the heart of everything we do was in no way intended to devalue the role of members. The political structures of current regions and nations would be retained, but with three English regional hubs, one in the north (North, North West, Yorkshire & the Humber), one in the midlands (East, East Midlands and West Midlands) and one in the south (London, South East and South West) with more organisers on the ground, close to local parties. Digital campaigning would be a priority, along with political strategy and communication. Ideally he would like to see half the number of meetings, with half the people, taking half the time. Perhaps the NEC could set an example.
Most were willing to give the proposals a chance but needed convincing that they would deliver, and were concerned about the large geographical areas. David argued that technology would enable working across distances, and the hub model would reduce duplication. There were also requests for more emphasis on diversity. I again stressed that culture change cannot be enforced from the top down. Too many CLPs now see every AGM and every vote as a victory for one side or another, polarising rather than bringing members together around shared activities. Many concerns were expressed for the welfare of staff, who heard the plans first through leaks, and we were assured that their trade unions were fully involved.
NEC members pointed out that it had been normal for extra staff to join on temporary contracts in the run-up to general elections, after which levels would revert to those required for “normal” running. However after 2017 they were kept on against the possibility of another election, and then again after the 2019 election. In addition opposition parties receive “Short money” to support policy development. This is proportional to the number of MPs, so losing 60 Labour MPs in 2019 cut it by a quarter. Cancelling the 2020 conference left a gap in income, and 2021 was still uncertain. Legal costs had been higher in recent years, but hopefully these would reduce as procedures and behaviour improved. Lessons would be learned from losses such as LabourLive. It was clarified that the party is not in debt, as it was in 2005 to the tune of more than £20 million. The need now was to keep spending in line with income.
On the Road Again
Keir Starmer welcomed Kim Leadbeater’s election. He had met voters in Blackpool and would be going on to Wolverhampton, Southampton and Scotland, alongside summer campaigning around jobs and anti-social behaviour. He had attacked Boris Johnson’s recklessness in lifting all restrictions at once. NEC members urged him to take the fight to the Tories; invited him to meet the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller working group; and asked for councillors to be supported, particularly following a horrific firebomb attack on Arooj Shah, Britain’s first female Muslim council leader. Scottish local government workers may go on strike against underfunding by the SNP, who are in no sense a leftwing party. I asked for clear differentiation from the Tories on handling Covid, and also whether Labour supported vaccine passports for nightclubs. Others raised NHS pay, a £10 minimum wage for under-25s, the WASPI women, devastation in the travel industry, backing the English football team’s anti-racist stance, the disproportionate impact of Covid on disabled people, supporting shopworkers on face-coverings, pathetically low sick pay which deters self-isolation, low traffic neighbourhoods in Islington, bad opinion polls, Jeremy Corbyn and internecine friction.
In response Keir Starmer said that at the height of the crisis it had been right to put the country first by backing government measures, but that period was over. In contrast to Boris Johnson Labour supported continuing mask-wearing, proper ventilation and working from home where possible, all itemised by SAGE, the advisory committee, as significantly reducing the spread of the virus. Labour had been cautious with regard to vaccine passports, but his instinct was to oppose them. The England team embodied modern patriotism, but the Tories were stoking culture wars with the aim of setting traps for Labour. He agreed that domestic workers living as part of a family should not be exempt from the minimum wage set by the low pay commission, and was mystified that anyone could interpret his comments on under-25s as suggesting that they were lazy. He referred a question about suspended NEC members to the chair Margaret Beckett, who said that sadly this was not unprecedented. (In fact four NEC members have been suspended in the last five years, of whom two stood down and were replaced according to the rules, and two kept their seat although unable to attend meetings.)
Back to Budgets
The finance director and the treasurer set out the details behind David Evans’ presentation, and stressed the need to run at staffing levels previously the norm between general elections. Those of us with long memories recall that NEC members are personally liable for party debts and do not want to go back there. It was suggested that fundraising should become more embedded in party activity at every level.
After four hours there were more appeals, immediately broadcast on LabourList, to defer part of the agenda to another day. While running beyond 9 p.m. is bad for NEC members and for staff, so is organising a further session away from work and other commitments. We agreed that NEC meetings should not clash with religious festivals, though some Muslim members were celebrating Eid on the Wednesday rather than the Tuesday, and the whole NEC had endorsed the date six months ago. So we carried on.
David Hanson presented his report, commissioned after government intervention into the running of Liverpool city council, and pointed out that unlike Forde it was delivered on time and under budget. Labour’s vote had held up in the May 2021 elections, but it was essential to maintain that trust. The recommendations covered the Labour group, the local government committee, preparations for the 2023 elections, and the structure of Liverpool CLPs.
These had been accepted by the NEC officers, but I argued that the full NEC should see them. Some members wanted to defer discussion till October to allow more reading time as it was a long paper, though it was circulated late so that it would only leak two days before the meeting. Fortunately all names had been withheld as the panel had promised to protect those giving evidence. After impassioned pleas for prompt action and unity the NEC endorsed it without a vote. My only comment was that the issues identified are not unique to Liverpool, and other areas could benefit from the same attention.
A Question of Priorities
We moved on to the issue of organisations in conflict with Labour’s values. The proposal was to allow expulsion of members and supporters of, initially, the Labour in Exile Network (LIEN), Socialist Appeal, Labour Against the Witch-hunt (LAW) and Resist. I was unhappy with its late addition after NEC officers had agreed the agenda. I believe Labour should be hammering the Tories on the Johnson variant and “one rule for them, another for the rest of us” and setting out clear and positive policies. Instead the headlines would show not a leader taking firm action but a divided and fractious party, and stoke fears of wider moves against “the Left”, though I hope and trust that these are unjustified Defining “support” has tied us in knots even with undisputed political parties, where careless likes or retweets can lead to five years’ exclusion. Total numbers are likely to be a few hundred, and the party can already act against individual offenders.
Meanwhile nearly 100 members are still suspended after more than 18 months, paying subscriptions but unable to participate. More than 1000 complaints are unresolved, and every week I receive despairing messages from members at the end of their tether, having to attend party or council meetings with their alleged harassers unchecked, and I can do nothing to help them. We would be loading even more work onto a system which cannot cope now, and which consumes far too much time, money and energy. There is no point in clearing the current backlog at vast expense if it simply builds up again.
Against this, Labour is still “on probation” following the EHRC (equality and human rights commission) report. LIEN and LAW include clearly anti-semitic statements alongside their general grievances, and failing to act would be seen as condoning them. Resist intends to register as a political party. So I took all contributions seriously, except the suggestion that Marxism is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, but including assurances that Momentum in particular has a legitimate place in the party. In the end I
- Voted for an amendment which would require the full NEC, not a sub-panel, to decide on any future proscriptions (carried 21-12).
- Abstained on the paper as a whole (carried 22-11)
- Voted for excluding LIEN (carried 22-10)
- Abstained on excluding Socialist Appeal (carried 20-12)
- Voted for excluding LAW (carried 22-10)
- Voted for excluding Resist (carried 23-9)
To Be or Not to Be?
It’s still hard to imagine packing into Brighton’s bars in two months’ time. David Evans listed the options: a full in-person conference, a hybrid online / in-person event, and fully online. There were contingency plans for a socially-distanced main hall and more flexibility for replacing delegates. He had talked with the unions about their experiences, and the online women’s conference in June had tested arrangements for speaking and voting remotely. Members raised possible complications, including selective travel bans from parts of the UK, delegates being pinged at conference, and vaccine passports. The NEC approved standing orders, with a change to give movers of motions four rather than three minutes, and granted the conference arrangements committee more freedom to allow proxy votes and to adapt to circumstances.
Compositing will be challenging. Topics for debate will not be decided until the priorities ballot on the first day, and 20 areas will now be selected, up from eight. I believe the whole system needs review, with an earlier deadline for motions now the “contemporary” criteria have been dropped, and an online priorities ballot in advance as for the women’s conference. Compositing meetings could then be planned ahead.
Conference will also be asked to agree rule changes which create an independent review panel to make decisions on complaints, and an independent appeal board to hear appeals against their decisions, as well as any complaints requested by the NEC. The proposed procedure has been accepted by the EHRC as fulfilling their requirements and must be implemented by December. Some stakeholders feel that it is insufficiently independent, but a fully external process would be even more expensive and could actually increase the risk of its decisions being overturned in the courts. It will cover all complaints involving protected characteristics, and it was suggested that regional offices could help to resolve situations which relate to other types of uncomradely behaviour. The party seems almost to encourage complaints, but not every tension between members is resolved by reaching for a rulebook and a lawyer.
It may be the heat but the new model feels even more convoluted than the current process, and I am not convinced that it will be quicker or more user-friendly, though I hope I am wrong. Nevertheless it was carried overwhelmingly.
Women in the Lead
The NEC approved a paper on the national women’s committee (NWC), newly-elected at the women’s conference. This will meet three times a year, though the NEC women’s subcommittee may continue to discuss issues such as allocation of all-women shortlists and the equalities committee would maintain a list of women’s branches, though I am not sure why. Some members requested more NWC meetings, but the national women’s officer had serviced 16 meetings of the NEC women’s committee and the women’s conference arrangements committee in eight months, and has no spare capacity. As the 2018 party democracy review is rolled out these issues will arise for other equalities strands, and are likely to conflict with the aims of Organise to Win, which seeks fewer meetings and more activity.
Rule changes proposed by the NEC were postponed to September. These include a lot of tidying, and amendments to rules for local government committees which recognise the need for flexibility where Labour groups are small and restore the Co-operative party’s right to representation. However the latter complicates the electoral college method of voting, formerly one-third each for councillors, trade unions and CLPs, and splits votes into untidy fractions. I will try to make this more sensible before the autumn.
We then agreed a code of conduct on confidentiality and privacy at the third time of asking, and a code of conduct on Islamophobia drawn up with the full engagement of relevant stakeholders. I expect these will be published on the website soon. Finally Margaret Beckett regretted that there was no time for a national policy forum report, as it was policy which brings people into Labour in the first place.
As usual please feel free to circulate and/or post online, and comments and questions are always welcome. The report is attached as a pdf here