The NEC had to complete business in under four hours because the general secretary interviews were scheduled for 2:30 p.m. This was achieved, but only by skipping questions to Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson and merely noting most of the reports and subcommittee minutes.
As usual we began with obituaries, including Stephen Hawking, a lifelong party member with whom Jeremy Corbyn had discussed the NHS, nuclear weapons and the future of the planet. Fulsome tributes were paid to departing general secretary Iain McNicol. Jeremy thanked Iain for his good humour, friendship and service, Pete Willsman described him as the best general secretary since Larry Whitty, the Chair Andy Kerr praised him for steering the party out of debt, and I added that building on Ray Collins’ work, Iain had done much to reduce the fixing culture of the late 1990s. A pity that no-one could persuade him to stay.
A number of other staff are leaving with Iain after many years of service. They have not sought public attention, though some have attracted online abuse nonetheless, but NEC members know them and are grateful. In responding, Iain looked back on two general elections, two referendums, two leadership elections, eight Scottish leaders and three different head offices. His lasting regret was failing to win a general election since 2005, because his childhood community desperately needs a Labour government, and he advised his successor that the privilege of being general secretary carries great responsibility.
Jeremy Corbyn reviewed national issues, including the nerve gas poisoning in Salisbury, the billion-pound deficit in NHS trusts, chancellor Philip Hammond’s content-free spring statement, Northamptonshire’s Tory council going bust and Surrey in dire straits, and the university lecturers’ strike over pensions. He had set out Labour’s position on Brexit in his Coventry speech, emphasising jobs, services and an investment-led high-wage economy, bringing together the 60% of Labour supporters who backed Remain and the 40% who voted to Leave. The Brexit bill was now in the House of Lords, where Labour was tabling the same amendments as in the Commons. He had spoken at a highly successful Scottish conference and was campaigning tirelessly throughout the country in the run-up to the May elections.
Disputes over Disputes
The disputes panel agreed on 6 March to set up a working group, but in the general confusion members had different recollections of what it was supposed to do. The majority understood an immediate need to look at a consistent approach to allegations of anti-semitic behaviour, followed by a wider review of all procedures around complaints and discipline. Membership was agreed as Keith Birch, Jim Kennedy, Jon Lansman, Shabana Mahmood, Christine Shawcroft, Rhea Wolfson and myself.
Pete Willsman suggested that the national constitutional committee should be increased from its current eleven members to cope with the number of referrals, though I am told that the backlog relates mainly to the complexity of investigations, and therefore requires more staff. Another member said it was simply not fit for purpose. Concerns about delays which prevent a suspended councillor seeking re-election were countered by a reminder that the same NEC members voted in January to postpone discussing his case. Personally I am most worried by members suspended since 2016 on the basis of evidence which would not now justify suspension at all, and hope that staff changes do not prevent these being resolved.
MPs and Multi-Tasking
In South Yorkshire members were voting on Labour’s candidate for mayor. The post would cover Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield, but other proposals for devolution were still up in the air and the powers, responsibilities and salary of this mayor were still not clear. The NEC officers appeared to say that if an MP was selected as the candidate they must stand down from parliament immediately. This seemed unreasonable, but standing down if elected as mayor would be consistent with previous decisions on mayors in Manchester and Liverpool, and indeed with Wales, where Huw Irranca-Davies resigned as an MP in 2016 even before being elected to the Welsh assembly.
So the principle that MPs have one full-time job and one electoral mandate has not changed. Two jobs would send the wrong message to people with no jobs or rubbish jobs. However some MPs are also councillors, which can be beneficial but can cause conflicts. This will be looked at in the democracy review.
Partnership in Power
Policy supremo Simon Jackson reported on a well-attended national policy forum in Leeds. Jeremy’s email inviting members to write the next manifesto generated 100,000 hits and crashed the forum website, showing a hunger to engage. Papers are with CLP secretaries, and consultation closes on 24 June.
The policy commissions have been meeting, and in the recent work, pensions and equalities session we heard from pensions expert Colin Meech of UNISON. He confirmed my fears that auto-enrolment is a giant con, with people who pay the minimum receiving a total pot of £40,000 to cover the rest of their lives, and explained that small schemes are subject to swingeing explicit and hidden fees and charges. .
The NEC officers put forward a timetable for electing the NPF Chair, fulfilling Andy Kerr’s promise. The only objections came from constituency representatives who proposed leaving it vacant for nine months until after the next NPF elections. Ironic, as a ballot was held for the three new CLP places at an extra unbudgeted cost of £50,000 – the same as the total fund for supporting candidates with disabilities – just six months before all nine seats were up. However the unions were onside, and the election will conclude on 27 April. Even so, ten weeks is three times the period allowed for replacing the general secretary.
Around and About
Under the report on activity in the nations and regions NEC members raised a variety of issues relating to local parties and selections, including Newham, where Rokhsana Fiaz has been chosen as the mayoral candidate after months of legal wrangling. It will be good to see a woman, and a woman of colour, as mayor. Members in London are understandably unhappy because their regional conference voted to elect the regional board by one-member-one-vote and the board is ignoring the conference decision.
Members on Tom Watson’s mailing list have doubtless been following his exercise and weight loss programme with keen interest. He spoke to the NEC about his commission on the future of work, lobbying for a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft, mobilising members in the run-up to the May elections, and trying to retrieve part two of the Leveson inquiry from the dustbin where the Tories have dumped it.
Rights and Responsibilities
The NEC were briefed on the GDPR (general data protection regulations) which come into force in May. These will enhance the rights of data subjects and require significant changes from organisations. A message was sent to all members in February, though I can’t seem to locate this. It will be followed by general information before 31 March and member training and guidance documents for CLPs by 31 May. I hope these are comprehensive and comprehensible, as ignorance of the law is rarely an excuse. Lara McNeill, the newly-elected youth representative, and others asked about possible breaches of the code of conduct in the Young Labour elections, and the general secretary would investigate.
Katy Clark gave an update on the party democracy review. She outlined the position of Labour Students, who are an affiliated socialist society, but not truly independent as they are an accounting unit of the party and their three sabbatical officers are paid by the party and work out of party headquarters. Everyone who joins at the student rate is considered a Labour student by the membership system, though Katy agreed that there was no incentive for them ever to move off the £3 rate and onto the standard rate of £50 or the reduced rate of £25. Perhaps this should be followed up. Paying membership stood at 522,000.
I am impressed by Katy’s energy and commitment. She spent the previous evening with activists in Oxford where one member suggested live-streaming NEC meetings to promote transparency. I said they were already live-tweeted, though even putting confidentiality aside, I doubt if it would enhance our reputation.
The May elections would build towards 2019 and the next general election. Ian Lavery MP and Anna Hutchinson ran through final preparations, including campaign themes, and responded to questions and comments on the doorstep canvassing app, campaigning among EU citizens, realistic targets, what would happen to the UKIP vote, and integrating younger, newer members with the veterans. Councils in Bromley, Gosport and Woking were piloting schemes to require photographic or other ID at polling stations, and in Swindon and Watford voters would be turned away if they did not bring their polling cards. Party members would be asked to look for any signs that legitimate voters were being prevented from exercising their democratic rights.
This is the seventh time that I have taken part in electing a general secretary. On previous occasions the NEC has had a choice of qualified candidates, and some have involved genuine suspense. On Tuesday this was not the case. NEC members were assured that Christine Blower and Jennie Formby were streets ahead of all other applicants and met all the criteria. Following hour-long interviews Jennie was elected by 35 votes (including mine) to two, which felt about right. I wish her, and the party, the best of luck.
As usual please feel free to circulate and / or post online, and comments and questions are welcome.
Ann Black, 07956-637958, email@example.com. Previous reports are at www.annblack.co.uk