This meeting ran for six-and-a-half hours. Alan Johnson kicked off with a report on the pro-Europe Labour in for Britain campaign, with 23 June the most likely referendum date. Compared to the Tories Labour is united, with all the shadow cabinet, 90% of MPs and a large majority of members in favour. The campaign pack focused on jobs and business, and the NEC asked for more on benefits such as consumer protection and for an overarching vision of peace, co-operation and security. Outside Europe Britain would be isolated, and with reduced status in the world. Glenis Willmott MEP was congratulated for keeping attacks on employment rights off David Cameron’s agenda. On TTIP there would be a trade agreement with the US anyway and it was better to influence it from inside, and if we left the European Union France would no longer allow our border control staff onto their territory, and migrants would be waiting in Dover, not Calais.
Also on Europe, Glenis Willmott gave her usual report of missed opportunities by the Tories: failing to apply for European funding to help with flood relief and opposing a level playing-field for the steel industry, while Labour was promoting a clampdown on aggressive tax avoidance and evasion, supporting co-operation against terrorism, and backing better access to digital services for disabled people.
Policy-Making Revisited, Again
Angela Eagle introduced the latest review of the national policy forum (NPF), building on the successes of the last cycle. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign had called for members to have a stronger voice, and they would be consulted on how to realise this, reaching out to every part of the country. Digital technology would play a key role, but those without online access must not be excluded. Members could contribute a wealth of expertise, and this should be used to develop policies which would enthuse not only party activists but the wider electorate. The NPF would meet in summer 2016 for the first time since the election.
I reported reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s mass mailing before the Syria vote. Some members were happy because it was the first time anyone had asked what they thought, while others stressed the need for unbiased sampling, suggested including arguments for and against a position, and had concerns about reducing complex issues to yes / no answers. Nevertheless direct consultation clearly has a role. I also pointed out, again, that the joint policy committee will not have all its constituency representatives until the NPF meets. Discussion of revised terms of reference for the NEC was deferred to March, but draft proposals would give the NEC “oversight of the policy-making process”, a phrase which needs exploration. It was confirmed that only members could vote in determining policy, not the affiliated or £3 supporters.
Jeremy Corbyn gave a full account of recent activity, including John McDonnell’s economic roadshow; the floods; fending off cuts to tax credits and policing; the shocking conditions in the refugee camps at Calais and Dunkirk; Emily Thornberry’s defence review (at www.yourbritain.org.uk/defencereview); tackling Chinese steel dumping; housing; supporting Sadiq Khan in London; Tory attacks on Labour funding; the welcome reaffiliation of the Fire Brigades Union; and the need to mobilise all our new members for the May elections. They were keen to get involved, and local parties should welcome and engage them. His office receives up to 100,000 emails and hundreds of typed or handwritten letters, and he reinforced something which I have often said: opening up to the world is good, but only if we have the capacity to respond.
NEC members raised blacklisting; the crisis in social care; council budgets, where the letter from him and John McDonnell was helpful in making clear that the Tories were to blame for cuts; scrapping security of tenure for council tenants; energy policy and climate change; breaking up BT; and attacks on further education. Jeremy Corbyn said it was outrageous for David Cameron to lecture Muslim women on learning English when his government had closed so many English courses.
Members pleaded for party unity at every level. This was not assisted by the removal of Steve Rotheram, elected to the NEC to represent backbenchers and appointed as Jeremy Corbyn’s PPS (parliamentary private secretary) in the autumn. MPs were cross that he had not stood down, and voted to replace him immediately. Technically they were correct, as PPSs are frontbenchers bound by collective responsibility, but they did not object to Anne Snelgrove representing backbenchers when she was PPS to Gordon Brown in 2009/2010. It did not help that the NEC were told that Steve had resigned when he hadn’t, nor that so-called moderates are gloating over their “victory” on social media.
Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale gave a presentation on the difference that Labour would make. Labour would fight for public services against SNP cuts, and the manifesto would pledge to restore the 50p tax band, keep the higher rate threshold at £43,000 a year, and retain the air passenger duty, with the money going into relieving child poverty. Members wished her well in a challenging campaign.
Labour does not currently stand candidates in Northern Ireland, and I receive many messages about this. An NEC panel would review the position in consultation with officers of the Northern Ireland CLP, the SDLP, the Irish Labour Party, affiliated unions active in Northern Ireland, and the Co-operative Party.
Iain McNicol reported that membership was still heading upwards. Overall 220,000 new members joined in 2015, with resignations only 3% of this number. The NEC has an interesting report on the new members by age, gender and Mosaic social class. The south-west and the south-east saw the greatest increases, though London is still the largest region, followed by the north-west.
The NEC congratulated Jim McMahon MP and everyone who helped in the Oldham West & Royton by-election, where prophecies of doom were met with a resounding victory. In Ogmore Hugh Irranca-Davies MP was standing down to run for a seat in the Welsh Assembly, and an NEC panel would shortlist candidates to succeed him, with a selection meeting on 14 February.
All sitting police and crime commissioners passed their trigger ballots, but there were concerns about selecting candidates in other areas. These were delayed till after the general election, as we had hoped to scrap the positions, and then by the leadership contest. Allowing ballots at CLP level was a compromise, and next time we should be able to run full one-member-one-vote ballots alongside other internal elections. This will be done for candidates for directly-elected city and region mayors, with self-nomination from 23 May to 17 June, then shortlisting interviews, and a ballot from 11 July to 5 August 2016.
There were more applicants than places for the Young Labour conference, and delegates were elected in online ballots within regions. Their names had not been published for safeguarding reasons and because they might be lobbied. There will be a full review of the youth organisation, as it is not very democratic for just 1% of young members to elect their national representatives. For annual conference the NEC agreed to move the leader’s speech to the Wednesday, closing the conference on a high.
Deputy Leader’s Report
Tom Watson reported on using his shadow cabinet office role to try to repeal the gagging clause in the charities bill, and to prevent restrictions on exit payments for long-serving low-paid public service workers. He gave an update on the party reform and digital working groups, all of which are now up and running. The digital team are keen to talk to members who don’t have online access, and if you know of any who would like to take part, please forward contact details to me, or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am chairing the women’s representation group, working with Kate Green MP, shadow minister for women and equalities. A survey will go out soon to all women members and I am particularly interested in views from women who may not go to meetings and whose voices are not usually heard. Local party officers, men and women, will also be asked to contribute, as changing party culture involves everyone. Other priorities are strengthening the role of the women’s conference and improving procedures on harassment and bullying, so that members have confidence that their complaints will be handled properly. I have asked for selection procedures to be overseen by the organisation committee, as these cut across many of the individual groups. The NEC development fund, for projects promoting democracy and diversity and for local campaigns and improvement, is open for bids, with deadlines of 29 February and 29 August 2016.
Those Who Do Not Learn From History …
Margaret Beckett presented her long-awaited report on the 2015 election. This has attracted some criticism, but there is much in it if you read between the lines. The conclusions are similar to mine, compiled within weeks of the result: we failed to counter the Tory / LibDem mantra that Labour caused the crash, Ed Miliband was not seen as prime ministerial, and Labour had good individual policies but lacked a coherent overall narrative. The immediate lesson is that we must counter the current Tory mantra that Labour is a threat to Britain’s economic and national security, or it will take root too deeply to dislodge.
Though there was a 1.5% swing to Labour overall, the highest increases were in safe Labour seats, and this again raises questions over how much difference the ground campaign makes compared with direct mail, national media and demographic make-up. Demands on candidates and activists were enormous, and some resented funding being tied to nationally-defined targets rather than adapted for local needs. We cannot keep sending them over the top without better evidence that this is value for money. Most issues had been raised at the NEC and elsewhere through the five years up to the election, so the main lesson is that the leadership and the national party should listen to members while there is still time to change.
Finally a paper on the political honours system was also deferred to March. This asks if honours should continue to be awarded and, if so, whether Westminster or the NEC should make recommendations.