NEC Meeting, 29 May 2012

The NEC met in the new London HQ at Brewers Green, a vast improvement on the windowless cavern at Victoria Street. We welcomed Sadiq Khan, who replaces Peter Hain in the shadow cabinet section, and thanked Peter for his lead role in Refounding Labour. Deputy party Chair Tom Watson takes over this responsibility, with the implementation group retitled as the community campaigning working group, while Angela Eagle will be elected Chair of the national policy forum when it meets in two weeks’ time. Three equality-based groups continue: on gender-balanced leadership, likely to report in 2013; on ethnic minority organisation, with recommendations due; and on complaint procedures, still to meet. It is assumed that all other aspects of Refounding Labour have now settled in.

Tom Watson summarised the May election results: 823 council seats gained, a 38% national vote share, the LibDem collapse continuing, and a growing swing to Labour. Victory in Glasgow vindicated tough action over selecting candidates. There was qualified satisfaction, but the low turnout leaves questions: where would the stay-at-homes go in a general election, would UKIP voters return to the Tories, and were small local increases in the Green vote simply protests? But Labour has now earned the chance to be heard, and to win over the “let-down-by-Dave” voters and the jilted younger generation. Sadly Ed Miliband’s standing ovation at the Royal College of Nursing went largely unreported.

In London Labour added four assembly seats on a 13% swing, but just failed to regain the mayoralty. Tom Watson and the Chair Michael Cashman led tributes to Ken Livingstone for clawing his way back into the race through sheer dogged determination, losing partly because Boris Johnson was judged to be funnier. Ken in turn thanked staff and activists for unstinting support in rebuilding the party across London. Now assembly members must hold Boris to account. He was even more convinced that personality politics is a Bad Thing, and pleased that most cities rejected the mayoral model.

Complaints had been received about members campaigning for other candidates, and will be treated seriously. And conspiracy theories about fixing Ken’s selection through an early ballot are false: one-member-one-vote elections are expensive, and combining them freed up resources for the campaign.

The Bradford West by-election was the subject of a separate report, and further recommendations will encourage strong, open local parties, active in their communities. Members stressed that policies were as important as organisation: attacking public service pay and pensions loses Labour votes. But the Galloway effect is not unique, nor confined to any social or ethnic mix: in Oxford we lost a “safe” ward to a self-publicising local independent who hoovered up LibDem votes. The appeal of anti-politicians and the growth of “they’re all the same” cynicism should concern every mainstream party.

Moving On

The next elections will be in November, for the mayor of Bristol and for police and crime commissioners (PCCs).   The selection of PCC candidates attracted criticism over the shortlisting process and the lack of choice, with 12 out of 41 positions uncontested. The NEC abandoned its decision that a shortlist of two or three must include at least one woman, with at least two women on a shortlist of four. Despite extending the deadline, sufficient women could not be found. The elections will be full of unknowns – rumours of famous names, absence of LibDem candidates and probably low turnout – but there are high potential votes in Labour areas and among police civilian staff, threatened by cuts and privatisation.

County elections will follow in 2013, when we hope to recoup our 2009 losses, and European elections in 2014, along with local elections in London where new candidate selection procedures will be piloted. The Scottish referendum campaign will be led by Scottish Labour. Others raised the impact of individual voter registration on young and transient voters, both immediately and on further boundary changes. The general election is still expected in 2015. Tom Watson confirmed that early-selected candidates do better, something which members have been saying since the day after the 2010 defeat, but selections have to speed up to reach Iain McNicol’s target of 100 candidates in place by the end of the year.

The NEC noted the organisation committee’s decisions that Bristol South, Carlisle, Milton Keynes North, Redcar, Stafford, and Tamworth & South-East Staffordshire should select from all-women shortlists, while Cannock Chase, Crewe & Nantwich, Gillingham & Rainham, Gloucester and Reading East will be open. Warwick & Leamington’s request to change from open to AWS was also granted. There were concerns about lack of transparency and consistency in regional recommendations, but only Redcar required a vote: constituency representatives had heard nothing from local members, so I supported an AWS. Absolute consistency may be unachievable, but hidden agendas could again become obvious when MPs stand down from safe seats at the last minute: before 2005 the NEC agreed that all late retirements should be replaced from AWS, but failed to hold the line.

Last year the Future Candidates’ Programme attracted over 1000 people, many from under-represented backgrounds such as small business, community work and the armed forces, of whom 120 took part in the residential programme, with fast-track training for the more experienced and introductory sessions for most others. Some are now being selected as council and parliamentary candidates, and the programme is running again, with application details on the website and a closing date in July.

Deputy Leader’s Report

Ed Miliband was on holiday, but Harriet Harman gave a full report in his stead. She welcomed Jon Cruddas’ appointment as co-ordinator of the shadow cabinet policy review, in place of Liam Byrne: during his campaign for deputy in 2007 Jon stressed housing and agency workers, and was right on both. She pointed out that northern MPs provide an organisational infrastructure not available in the three southern / eastern regions, where there are just ten Labour MPs in 200 constituencies, and party staffing levels must reflect relative needs. She was uneasy with the lack of Scottish and Welsh representation on the NEC, though their leaders may attend and speak, and a rule change giving each nation their own constituency representative only needs the NEC to change its mind and approve it. Members asked for Labour to campaign forcefully against the Beecroft proposals: giving employers the right to sack staff without explanation would spread insecurity and undermine equal opportunities.

Under New Management

The general secretary introduced five new executive directors. Emilie Oldknow (governance and party services) envisaged a well-governed party, seen to do the right thing, and better career development for staff. Greg Beales (strategy and planning) wanted members and supporters to drive home the message that economic failure is the Tories’ fault and Britain needs change, showcasing Labour’s dynamic and unified top team. Torsten Bell (policy and rebuttal) recognised that the policy review must engage members, but repeated the phrase “making the country work for working people”, omitting the old, the young, the ill and the unlucky. Olly Buston (members and supporters) aimed to improve members’ experience, and Patrick Heneghan (field operations) would continue to build campaigning strength.

The national policy forum will meet on 16/17 June in Birmingham. We were promised much discussion, including European elements and the future of Partnership in Power. I asked about Sharon Hodgson’s work on special educational needs (a report is in preparation); party reservations about Dilnot’s report on social care (not explained) and the absence of culture in the policy papers (members are free to add it).

But there are more fundamental issues. Of the latest 115 contributions to the prosperity and work commission, just two were from local parties. The rest were from individuals, and of these only a quarter were members. They are a fascinating mix of reasoned argument, opinion and rants, but no basis for a coherent platform. Members are angry at the short timescale for the current consultation, and though views will be considered after the forum, many have given up. In 15 years Partnership in Power has replaced collective conversation, inside and outside the party, with solitary messages from the website.

Newer NEC colleagues thought the process lacked strategic direction and credibility, and failed to draw on members’ expertise. Peter Hain’s proposals concentrate on the inner workings and repeat Gordon Brown’s 2007 promise of more power for the joint policy committee (attendance at last meeting 11 out of 33), but fail to reconnect with the grassroots: a correspondent described his efforts at understanding as “trying to pick up mercury with a fork”. Angela Eagle and Jon Cruddas have a huge task ahead.

European Update

Leader Glenis Willmott explained that Labour MEPs abstained in a vote on a financial transaction tax because it would have channelled proceeds into the general European budget.   The cost of mobile phone calls will fall to 20p this year and 12p by 2014. She spoke passionately against a referendum on EU membership, with MEPs infuriated by persistent media chatter. The bandwagon would be hard to control: as with Scotland, some would want a third option: stay, leave, or renegotiate. Business would face further uncertainty, and was this really how Labour should spend its first two years back in power, when under 10% of voters see it as a priority? However on the positive side Ed Miliband had established excellent links with president Francois Hollande while David Cameron was still refusing to meet him, and the European agenda was shifting in Labour’s direction, towards jobs and growth.

Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this to be circulated to members as a personal account, not an official record. Reports of meetings from July 2008 onwards are at http://www.labourblogs.com/public-blog/annblack, with earlier reports at www.annblack.com.