NEC Meeting, 3 June 2014

The NEC congratulated newly-elected councillors and MEPs and thanked members, trade unions and party staff for their hard work. In July David Sparks will become Chair of the Local Government Association, as Labour is now the largest group, and he hoped to welcome Ed Miliband to their annual conference.  The figures showed significant swings from the Tories and strong performances in marginal seats and in London. Labour made net gains of 338 councillors and seven additional MEPs, taking the total to 20, the third-largest national contingent in the Socialists and Democrats group.

A general discussion followed, and my feedback from across the country was reinforced by other NEC members. Many people were unhappy about wall-to-wall Farage for weeks on end, particularly on the BBC, and about media coverage which failed to recognise that Labour did actually win the local elections, though some of our own backbenchers were less than helpful.

The Euro-elections could have been even better, as Labour narrowly missed a further seat in several regions. Mailing every household instead of every voter saved money which helped to pay for local organisers, but the leaflets did not seem to reach everyone. The unions produced some excellent materials but members would have liked the party to make a more positive case for Labour representation in Europe: what have our MEPs done, and what more could they do? They also wanted solid arguments against UKIP, who are now taking votes and seats from Labour as well from the Tories. Both of these have been raised frequently at the NEC, though it’s hard to tackle a leader who boasts that he never read his party’s last manifesto and it was rubbish anyway. The wider challenge is winning back voters who are disengaged from all mainstream parties, showing them, by living and working in the community, that Labour is on their side.

Christine Shawcroft asked for reconciliation in Tower Hamlets between Labour and the independent mayor Lutfur Rahman, and was supported by several others. Lutfur Rahman was chosen as Labour’s candidate in 2010 in a ballot of local members, but suspended by the NEC at the last minute, pending an inquiry into allegations of misconduct which has not yet been carried out. However it is unclear whether he has applied to rejoin the party.

Looking Forward

The main campaigning focus now shifts to Scotland, where the outcome of the referendum will have consequences for the whole United Kingdom. Campaign planners were urged to emphasise the benefits of unity rather than relying on the politics of fear.

The national policy forum will meet in July to discuss Labour’s 2015 general election platform. Amendments to the final-stage documents are coming in thick and fast, though some local parties thought the papers lacked substance. Jon Cruddas’ shadow cabinet reviews have received much more publicity, and members ask, for instance, why they bother to discuss the future of education when David Blunkett has already decided how the system should be organised. The Chair Angela Eagle said that nothing was party policy until agreed by the national policy forum and conference, whatever journalists or shadow ministers themselves might say. However there is no opportunity for constituencies or unions to comment on these substantial and probably influential reviews.

Elections to the six constituency and two local government places on the NEC, and of the party treasurer, would take place during the summer. Ballot packs would be posted by Monday 14 July, with a closing date of Monday 18 August and the results announced on Wednesday 20 August.

Onward and Upward

The NEC gave a warm welcome to Ed Miliband, and campaign director Spencer Livermore also joined us. The leader praised the NEC for its unity, thanked those responsible for success, and expanded on the themes of his Thurrock speech. The underlying issues dated back decades, and supported the need to deepen, broaden and strengthen the message of change. Labour must convince voters than our promises could be delivered, and show that politics could make a difference to their lives. UKIP were pretending to be all things to all people: they had now dropped a flat tax but would keep 40% as the top rate, and set up grammar schools in every town. As Christine Shawcroft pointed out this would in fact bring back secondary moderns and return to labelling three-quarters of all ten-year-olds as failures.

Members agreed that concerns about immigration should be tackled by cracking down on bad employers who undercut pay and conditions and building more homes, to reduce tensions between newer arrivals and existing residents. Ed Miliband added that Labour had always opposed illegal immigration, and it was reasonable to criticise David Cameron for failing to meet his own targets.

Trade union representatives drew attention to unrest in health and local government, with pay offers still at or below 1% and members looking for an alternative to yet more austerity. Others again asked for Labour to commit to repealing fees for employment tribunals, where applications have fallen by 80% and workers can no longer afford to exercise their rights.

Hardworking Britain: Not in Our Name

Dennis Skinner highlighted the need to win semi-rural constituencies as well as towns and cities, and others identified the importance of getting Labour’s message across. UKIP might be simplistic, but our response had to be equally clear and easily understood. Before the meeting I asked members if “Hardworking Britain Better Off” was an effective slogan, and circulated more than 200 replies, anonymised, to the NEC. To summarise: 98% of you hated it, because it is divisive; it suggests that Labour only supports those in paid work and does not value the old, the young, the sick, the carers, the disabled, the jobless; it is dog-whistle code for bashing scroungers and skivers; it sounds like a Tory slogan; it is a Tory slogan; it is ungrammatical; and it is meaningless. Parliamentary candidates avoid using it.  On the same day John Harris published the following:

which pursues similar themes. Ed Miliband said we must contest Tory claims that everyone is better off, and I agree, but we should try not to alienate our entire frontline campaign force.

Parliamentary Selections

Debates over whether seats should be open or use all-women shortlists (AWS) are intensifying as Labour MPs with large majorities begin to stand down. On 27 May the organisation committee deferred decisions on Bradford East and Bradford West pending further consultation and the possibility of Bradford South also falling vacant. AWS were agreed for Great Grimsby and for Cynon Valley and Swansea East in Wales. Peter Hain has now announced that he will not be contesting Neath, and we await a recommendation with interest. In the north-west Ashton-under-Lyne was also assigned an AWS, though I was one of two people who voted against, and the vote on Salford & Eccles was tied and therefore referred to the full NEC. Some members argued that retiring female MPs should always be replaced by women. I disagree with this principle, as it would divide seats into permanently male and permanently female, but in fact most such seats are willing to choose another woman. The NEC voted 17 – 6 for Salford & Eccles to use an AWS, and I sided with the majority because almost half the members at their consultative meeting spoke in favour, well above average levels of enthusiasm.

Recruitment Prizes

The commonest requests on membership subscriptions are that they should be (a) lower and (b) simpler. Neither is currently proposed, but instead the NEC agreed an extra initiative: when a member is traced as having been recruited by their local party, and joins at a rate of £15 or above, the constituency will receive a one-off £10 voucher to be spent in the campaign shop or on campaign creator. If successful there may be further incentives for sending “leads” (prospective members) to HQ, with £5 for each lead who takes up full membership. Publicity should be circulated soon.

Party Reform

The group charged with turning the Collins review into reality has met several times. So far much of the discussion has centred on technical aspects, developing processes and adapting systems to handle the new affiliated and registered supporters, with the business board keeping an eye on financial implications. Plans for selecting Labour’s London mayoral candidate will be finalised later this year and selection procedures in general have also been considered, with wide consultation to follow. I continue to stress that local parties must be kept in the loop. We will be able to update and report on affiliated and registered supporters through MemberCentre, and affiliated supporters have the right to be invited to meetings as soon as they sign up. This has to be promoted as a potential pool of new activists rather than another burden on hardworking secretaries, and I hope to be able to report further before too long.