After tentative steps towards normality in November, Omicron threw the NEC into reverse and we were back online, with no opportunities for informal conversation. The leader and deputy leader were in parliament for Angela Rayner’s urgent question on partygate, leaving the NEC to focus on internal matters. Leaks to LabourList started with the apologies and continued with running commentary throughout, and members wondered who was lurking behind all those screens.
Under obituaries we paid tribute to anti-apartheid campaigner Bob Hughes, former Burnley MP Peter Pike, Leo Beckett and Jack Dromey, trade union official, party treasurer and NEC member before his election as MP for Birmingham Erdington. The NEC expressed condolences to their friends and families, particularly to Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman whose losses were personal as well as political.
The new disciplinary and complaints structures agreed at annual conference were well on the way to implementation, though existing processes would continue until March when all appointments had been made. The EHRC (equality and human rights commission) was satisfied, and would move to quarterly reviews and final sign-off in December 2022. In addition to tackling anti-semitism NEC members were keen to make progress on Islamophobia. Party chair Anneliese Dodds is working closely with the Labour Muslim Network and their co-chair Afzal Khan MP, while the Tories will not even recognise the problems or adopt the code drawn up by the all-party parliamentary group.
Less positively the conclusions of the Forde inquiry into the infamous 2020 leaked report are still stuck in the pipeline, 18 months after the due date. General secretary David Evans confessed his deep professional embarrassment and sense of responsibility even though he was not in post when it was commissioned. Martin Forde’s apology is here In its absence conspiracy theories fester, and the NEC is not immune. But I can assure members that the report is not locked in the office of the leader or the general secretary while they frantically try to get incriminating bits removed or rewritten. Honestly no-one has a clue about what is in it, precisely because the panel is independent. If it arrives before the next scheduled NEC on 29 March I hope that a special meeting will be convened. Or check your Twitter feed.
Towards the Manifesto
As chair of the national policy forum (NPF) I have been trying to get the show back on the road, and finally we have a timetable which will accommodate a general election either in 2023 or in 2024. Six new policy commissions were agreed, with the titles and co- convenors as below:
- Better jobs and better work – Rachel Reeves MP and Andy Kerr
- Safe and secure communities – Yvette Cooper MP and James Asser
- Public services that work from the start – Wes Streeting MP and Mark Ferguson
- A green and digital future – Ed Miliband MP and Margaret Beckett
- A future where families come first – Bridget Phillipson MP and Diana Holland
- Britain in the world – David Lammy MP and Michael Wheeler
These replace the previous eight commissions which shadowed groups of government departments. The names come from the Stronger Together review led by Anneliese Dodds, and we agreed it was sensible to have one integrated consultation process, rather than the 2010-2015 period when the shadow cabinet ran a separate parallel operation. It is less clear where particular topics belong, though I have established that electoral reform will be included under safe and secure communities. That is where the local parties who submitted more than 140 conference motions and won 80% of the CLP vote should direct their attention. Further thought will be given to embedding equalities into the work of every commission.
The joint policy committee (JPC) steers the detailed work of the NPF. It is chaired by the party leader and the NEC co-convenor Gavin Sibthorpe, who was elected unanimously as Tom Warnett’s successor. The NEC is represented on the JPC by the policy commission co-convenors. While CLP representatives make up 23% of the NEC seats they hold none of the co-convenor positions, and I argued successfully that key decisions, such as procedural guidelines for NPF meetings, should be agreed by the full NEC where all sections have a voice.
In May the NEC will guess whether the general election is more likely to be in 2023 or 2024 and adapt accordingly. Key dates are
March – June 2022: draft consultation documents published. CLPs will not be meeting in the run-up to the May elections, but should plan for discussions soon afterwards.
June – July 2022: policy commissions draft reports for conference, with an overarching report on the Stronger Together project. Processes for debating alternative positions within these documents are under development.
If a 2023 general election seems probable, the final full meeting of the NPF will be in November 2022 to agree Labour’s policy platform, based on consultation and conference decisions, to go forward to the “Clause V” meeting (shadow cabinet, NEC and other stakeholders) which signs off the manifesto. Otherwise this final meeting will be in summer 2023 with the outcomes ratified by conference in September.
It is four years since members chose their NPF representatives, and these are up for election in summer 2022. CLPs can nominate five candidates, including one youth, from each region and nation, along with nine CLP NEC representatives (and I shall be standing for re-election), three CLP national constitutional committee members, the NEC BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic), disabled and Young Labour representatives, the party treasurer, a disabled conference arrangements committee member, assorted national and regional Young Labour officers and, in Wales, the NEC Welsh representative. Where equalities branches are formally established they should nominate for relevant positions, but only a few are currently in operation. Full details were recently sent to CLP secretaries and are on the party website here
The deadline for nominations is noon on Friday 17 June 2022. I have asked about procedures for nomination meetings, as these caused major headaches in 2020.
For annual conference constitutional amendments must be submitted by Friday 17 June. The deadline for ordinary motions is 5 p.m. on Thursday 15 September and, for emergency motions, 12 noon on Thursday 22 September. Conference will be in Liverpool from Saturday 24 to Wednesday 28 September.
The online women’s conference on 19/20 March 2022 is fast approaching, and deadlines are:
Registering delegates – noon, Friday 11 February 2022
Motions and rule changes – Monday 21 February 2022
Emergency motions – Tuesday 8 March 2022
Nominations for the women’s conference arrangements committee – noon, Thursday 10 March 2022.
Women may attend as visitors for a fee of £15, with details here.. As other parties use spring conferences to launch their local election campaigns I suggested that Labour’s women’s conference would be an ideal showcase.
The newly-established national women’s committee have requested more resources to support their work, and other NEC members asked about the promised national BAME and Young Labour conferences. With the extra regional and national conferences and committees introduced by the democracy review, all requiring servicing and support, the party has to make some key decisions on priorities.
General Secretary’s Report
The NEC thanked staff and volunteers for their efforts in coping with fallout from the cyber-incident. The MemberCentre system was being replaced this year anyway, but until transition is completed secretaries are spending hours compiling membership lists for selections and AGMs. I have asked for regular updates. David Evans reported total membership at around 434,000 including those in arrears, and signs of an uptick in new joiners. Numbers appear much the same as late 2019, towards the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s time, and I do not know why some comrades are so keen to believe that we are sliding into the abyss.
David also updated the NEC on staffing, fundraising and the boundary review and stressed that a voter-facing party did not in any way devalue the importance of members. He expected the latest rulebook, incorporating changes agreed by the 2021 conference, to be online soon, and training on Islamophobia was being progressed through the leader’s office and the Labour Muslim Network. He was also asked for the long-awaited scheme of delegated decision-making powers, diagrams of the new organisational structures, and statistics to monitor diversity among staff appointments.
Shabana Mahmood, the national campaign co-ordinator, gave categoric assurances that there were and are no backroom deals with other parties in North Shropshire, Old Bexley & Sidcup or anywhere else. Labour will continue to contest every seat at every level, and members will be reminded of the rules. However the “progressive alliance” tendency is real and growing, and cannot simply be wished away.
Two years after the last election the NEC finally agreed procedures for selecting new candidates. Party staff had done a fantastic job of boiling down the previous 45-page document to a slim 22 pages arranged in a logical order, and procedures secretaries will be grateful. Shortening the process from nine weeks to five weeks should benefit candidates with limited time, and fewer meetings should reduce demands on CLP officers, party staff and NEC representatives. Engagement with various stakeholders before the meeting had produced a largely consensual document with the NEC asked to vote on a few specific issues.
I was the only CLP representative to propose any amendments. Most were on technical details and were accepted, along with proposals from the disabled members’ representative on enhancing accessibility. However I was in a minority of one on suggesting that the spending cap should be reduced from £3,500 to £500, still six months-worth of the £20 per week uplift to universal credit. Opponents argued that £500 was unrealistic and unenforceable, and that the skill-set of candidates included the ability to raise funds. Though that is not mentioned in the person specification, and I wonder if we are serious about promoting members on low incomes without rich backers or connections in high places. This will be kept under review, and any would-be candidates who feel financially excluded are welcome to contact me.
The term “party branches” continues to cause confusion between ward-based branches and the new equalities branches. The NEC agreed by 19 votes to 13 that, for the current round, only geographical branches should be entitled to make nominations. I voted in favour, for the time being. Very few equalities branches have been formally approved, with only 30 women’s branches, but I hope that by the next cycle the new branches will be flourishing and can be fully empowered. As they were in the past – I still have a parliamentary nomination from my local Oxford women’s section, 40 years ago, for one Cherie Booth ….
A discussion followed on how to continue positive action, given that we cannot legally use all-women shortlists for the UK parliament while more than half of Labour MPs are women. The term “gender-balanced” for longlists and shortlists suggested that places could be reserved for men, and the NEC voted nem con to change it to “at least 50% women”. I supported this.
The Dog That Didn’t Bark
Before the meeting I objected to the NEC and the regional executive committee taking control of longlisting, and argued that local parties should continue to decide. I have seen too many NEC stitch-ups, and rigorous due diligence checks are the best way to avoid unsuitable candidates. I was ready to speak but no-one else expressed reservations, even those who subsequently reported it as “yet another power grab by the leadership”. They were apparently persuaded by the inclusion on the longlist of any candidate nominated by a trade union. The unions and the leadership both benefit from the ability to skew selections, but it was sad to see ordinary members shut out. I also wonder about the workload, with an NEC member required to chair every panel and to read the scores of applications for hundreds of seats.
The paper was agreed with none against. I hope that trigger ballots will soon be completed, and that the NEC will approve the first batch of seats where new selections can begin. These will be in priority order, so less winnable areas will unfortunately have to wait. It’s also clear that the procedures will have to be flexible where fewer members apply, as not every seat will be able to longlist six candidates.
Reasons to be Cheerful
Looking towards the May elections the polls were encouraging, though I shared Laura Pidcock’s concerns that these were partly due to Tory splits and Boris Johnson’s appalling behaviour. Labour had to promote a positive programme, especially in tackling the cost of living crisis, and a windfall tax on energy companies would help low-income families with fuel bills. Keir Starmer has outlined his contract with the British people, based on security, prosperity, and respect but, as I keep saying, this will only cut through if summarised in three-word slogans which fit onto a pledge card and lodge in public consciousness.
Organisationally the party is enhancing its digital operations and rebuilding doorstep activity to pre-pandemic levels. The NEC has not yet reviewed its instruction that all meetings must be online, but I have suggested that meeting in person, where this can be done safely, would encourage campaigning as well. The NEC will hold a further discussion on the forthcoming elections at the March meeting.
This item received the lion’s share of social media attention, so here goes. I was initially minded to support a motion urging the chief whip to readmit Jeremy Corbyn to the parliamentary party. I lived through the Ken Livingstone saga, when Tony Blair blocked his candidacy for mayor of London, then persuaded the NEC to oppose his readmission, before finally asking the NEC to take him back. In the meantime Frank Dobson, the official Labour candidate, lost badly, and so many members campaigned openly for Ken Livingstone that they could not all be expelled. Without the fiasco there might never have been a mayor Boris Johnson. We have seen this movie before, and it does not end well
Personally I would have liked to lock Jeremy Corbyn’s people and Keir Starmer’s people in a sealed room a year ago, till they did a deal which allowed both sides to emerge with honour. However time has moved on. The chief whip Alan Campbell read the requirements in former whip Nick Brown’s letter of 23 November 2020. Speakers for the motion then misrepresented the outcome of the NEC disciplinary panel (which did not clear Jeremy Corbyn of all charges), and most sought to relitigate the original case. When the EHRC report was brought into the debate I decided I could not support the motion.
Some NEC members tried to conciliate, asking the movers to withdraw the motion to allow talks involving the chief whip, the CLP and the council. I proposed deferring it to March. But olive branches were rejected, and the motion was put to the vote and lost with 14 in favour and 23 against. I abstained. After the result some of the motion’s supporters asked for stakeholder discussions, but the vote had slammed the door shut, and the NEC’s standing orders mean that the issue cannot be revisited for three months.
If we had all been together at party headquarters I wonder if things might have been different. Several times under Jeremy’s leadership NEC meetings were adjourned for lengthy negotiations while most of us kicked our heels and finished the sandwiches, followed by public agreement. Perhaps the stakeholder discussions could have preceded the vote and led to genuine unity. We’ll never know.
And more food for thought: Crispin Flintoff, of Stand Up For Labour, polled his Not the Andrew Marr Show mailing list. Of the respondents 62% thought Jeremy Corbyn should form a new party, with only 24% against. These are, mainly, current or recent Labour party members. So the ship may already have sailed.
Finally I am happy to hear from members on this. I would just ask for moderate language. I never heard Jeremy call people nasty, nor refer to blood on their hands, if they took a different view from his own.
A second motion, largely eclipsed by the foregoing, returned to the organisations proscribed by the NEC last July. It opposed retrospective application of the rule, so that members are not punished for associating with a group that was not banned at the time, and called for any such expulsions to be rescinded, as well as a clearer definition of what constituted “support”.
I spoke and voted in favour of this. The numbers are tiny – fewer than 100 reported at the last Complaints and Disciplinary Committee – and mainstream members who neither know nor care about the historical antecedents of Socialist Appeal do not understand why they suddenly have to shun a regular participant in local activities. Several speakers drew comparisons with our latest MP who, before crossing the floor from the Conservatives, does not exactly seem to have epitomised Labour values.
These expulsions appear to be fast-tracked, while hundreds of other members languish in limbo, under investigation or with serious complaints unresolved. For instance a member who was suspended six months ago is unable to stand for office at their branch AGM and is therefore excluded from local activity for at least 18 months whatever the eventual outcome. The only communication is a letter once a year relieving them of another £56 and assuring them that “members like you, Mr XX, truly are our greatest strength.” Some suffer mental and physical ill-health, their family and friends share their distress, and the pandemic adds to their political and social isolation. They live a long way from London and many have no public platform.
Regrettably the motion was lost with 14 in favour and 20 against. I will continue trying to help individuals, but the system itself is badly overloaded and the NEC should focus on resolving unacceptable delays and failures in communication, rather than adding to the backlog.