NEC meetings have their own familiar rituals, and though the world may have changed, the routine remained the same. Members welcomed the return of Dennis Skinner, replacing John Healey who is now in the shadow cabinet, and congratulated Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson on their election as leader and deputy leader. Both addressed the NEC and responded to questions and comments.
Jeremy Corbyn thanked general secretary Iain McNicol, NEC Chair Jim Kennedy, and the staff who worked throughout the summer, registering all the new supporters. During his campaign people told him repeatedly that they wanted things done differently. He stressed that the new young members were not steeped in party culture, and if local meetings were devoted solely to minutes and matters arising, they would not come back, a sentiment with which Tony Blair would surely have agreed.
For the shadow cabinet his priorities included mental health and housing, where problems were not limited to London. Building more council homes and regulating the private rented sector were essential. John McDonnell and Seema Malhotra on the treasury team and Angela Eagle at business would work on proposals for fairer distribution of resources across regions. Jon Trickett would co-ordinate a constitutional convention, including devolution and Lords reform, taking evidence at open hearings around the country. Energy and the future of the railways were other key areas.
Jeremy Corbyn had given considerable thought to his first prime minister’s questions. He thanked the TUC for their warm reception, and said that his conference speech would contrast Labour values with this mean, nasty, narrow-minded government. He was committed to policy-making from the ground up, though recognised that this was not straightforward, and envisaged the NEC taking a central role. Social media brought some problems but also tremendous opportunities. Though print readership was in decline, newspapers still exercised huge influence on radio and TV coverage.
NEC members were keen to engage, and to build on the energy and enthusiasm generated by the Corbyn campaign. They raised housing, the decline of the steel industry, adult social care, refugees, and the plight of migrant domestic workers. Christine Shawcroft said that we must counter, however belatedly, the myth that the last Labour government trashed the economy. On the national anthem episode, the main regret was that it diverted attention from the Tories’ savage cuts to tax credits.
I pointed out that party policy, agreed in the national policy forum and endorsed by conference, was not committed to replacing Trident, but to a full debate on all aspects of defence. Jeremy Corbyn replied that at least everyone supported the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and a nuclear-free Middle East. On Scotland he said that many people at his rallies were SNP voters looking for a class-based alternative, against poverty and privatisation. Dennis Skinner suggested that giving Scotland full fiscal autonomy would prevent the SNP from blaming Westminster for everything. Union representatives drew attention to measures in the trade union bill which would require members to opt in to political funds through a cumbersome paper-based process, rather than the current opt-out system. This would hamper all unions, whether affiliated or not, in campaigning for their members, as well as in maintaining financial links with Labour. Jeremy Corbyn’s grasp of policy across the agenda was impressive, and he promised to publish online all the documents produced for his campaign.
Labour councillors, in government in many towns and cities, offered their support. Dennis Skinner opposed any collaboration with George Osborne on his so-called northern powerhouse and devolution offers, but others stressed that councils were under the Tory cosh, and blame for service reductions should be placed squarely at David Cameron’s door. There were further exchanges later in the meeting. Currently there are 38 bids for devolved powers involving 300 councils. They have to deal, sadly, with a Tory government for at least five years. There may be different views on how to cope, but questioning each others’ motives and integrity will only play into the Tories’ hands.
NEC members emphasised that MPs and ex-MPs should respect Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate and stop feeding our media enemies. This does not mean that MPs and members cannot express their own views on policy and on organisation, and indeed open debate should be encouraged. Tom Watson agreed that some of the language on Twitter and Facebook, aimed at all candidates but particularly the women, was totally unacceptable, and the NEC would have to deal with it. My impression is that new and existing members are mixing amicably and with mutual respect at local level and the really offensive stuff is online, but either way, I need to know and it has to stop.
I also asked for reassurance to MPs that there will be no “purges” or vengeful deselections, and actually selections cannot even begin till after the threatened boundary changes are complete. New constituencies will be based on the numbers of registered voters at 1 December 2015 and the priority is making sure that these lists are as complete as possible.
Whither the National Policy Forum?
The Chair Angela Eagle was praised for her inclusive approach in producing the manifesto. Jeremy Corbyn found that members felt little connection with the NPF, and it is true that after 18 years few can name their representatives. Even so, I believe it should be improved rather than abolished. We do not need more structural debates: as someone pointed out, in 2010 Ed Miliband asked local parties (a) to become more interesting, but (b) to spend a whole year discussing Refounding Labour.
In addition new representatives have just been elected to the NPF, and will be bemused if they discover that it has disappeared. I asked for a one-day NPF meeting before Christmas, and Pete Willsman suggested that members could be asked to choose which policy commission they were interested in. Angela’s proposal for NPF sessions at regional conferences was welcomed.
Iain McNicol reported that Labour now has more than 358,000 members, with 50,000 joining since 12 September. The average age has fallen from 53 to 42, and the proportion of women has risen from 40% to 45%. Guidance on affiliated and registered supporters would be reissued. While affiliated supporters signed up to a continuing relationship through their union’s political levy, registered supporters paid a one-off £3 to vote and now have no formal status. Nevertheless local parties are keen to involve them in fundraising, leafleting and canvassing, and some are inviting them to meetings on an equal basis with members. Understandably this can be resented by people who pay nearly £50. I floated the idea of making the £3 an introductory rate, with people expected to move to half-rate membership after a year and then full-rate where applicable, but sensed little support.
The good news on the financial side is that we have almost paid off the debts from Tony Blair’s last election in 2005. However 2016 brings challenging contests in Scotland, Wales and London, plus police and crime commissioners, the Bristol mayor, and another batch of council elections. The European referendum is likely also to be held during 2016, and I hoped that European leader Glenis Willmott and Alan Johnson MP would get the resources and the support that they need.
For the first time the conference arrangements committee reports, including timetables and motions, will be published daily at http://members.labour.org.uk/conference-documents . I believe that the NEC has finally managed, with Jeremy Corbyn’s support, to persuade the CAC to allow eight motions to be debated, four from trade unions and a further four from constituency parties. I argued, successfully, to keep all three policy seminar slots, and suggested that if the NEC is to regain its role in policy-making we should be prepared to reinstate the 7:30 a.m. daily meetings, not popular with all. The NEC voted to add Christine Shawcroft as an assistant Chair, alongside Johanna Baxter, Glenis Willmott and Keith Vaz, and Stella Creasy would bring sororal greetings from the Co-operative party.
During the leadership contest several thousand members had their applications rejected, though if they appealed they were allowed to vote while waiting. Most of these will be referred back to their constituencies, who will decide whether to accept them. A few hundred will be reviewed by an NEC panel which will either admit them or similarly refer them back. Any who are still rejected will be able to appeal. Because of sheer numbers it was not possible to tailor emails giving individuals the reasons for exclusion, so they will now be able to see these and add arguments to their statements.
I served on the procedures committee, and I believe that under 1% of the selectorate voted who perhaps should not have done. Conversely it’s likely that a few were unfairly rejected. I’m aware of some people whose ballot papers did not arrive, a very small proportion of the 550,000 participants, but I apologise if you were one of them. I will leave it there, except to say that at no point did the committee over-rule legal advice. We will need to review the entire process, as people and IT systems were pushed to the limit and beyond, but that can wait for the moment.
Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this report to be circulated to members as a personal account, not an official record.