NEC Meeting, 4 February 2014

National Executive Committee, 4 February 2014

This meeting was called to agree the proposals for party reform which will go to the special conference on 1 March. The paper before us was labelled Draft 18, and someday I would love to follow its evolution through the previous 17 drafts. The final version, after amendment by the NEC, is attached.

Ed Miliband opened by thanking everyone for their unity, discipline and comradeship, and the incredibly constructive tone in which discussion had been conducted. Labour was uniquely placed, through the trade union link, to build a living, breathing movement at grassroots level, expanding to include working people, while the Tories were a shrinking party of the few. Anything devised entirely in Westminster would fail. Ray Collins, the author, then ran through the main points and invited comments.

Before the meeting I read many of the responses to the interim report. I reflected concerns about the process: at being asked how, not whether, to implement the proposals; at the distraction from campaigning; and at paying for a conference whose decisions had already been announced on TV. But members are loyal, and most would, when it came to the crunch, vote for change despite their doubts, rather than undermine the leader. This was, in essence, the same choice that faced the NEC.

Affiliation: a Two-Stage Solution

The original idea was that trade union levy-payers should actively sign up to the party for their affiliation to continue. Based on the numbers who voted in the last leadership election a 10% opt-in rate would have been optimistic, and an immediate 90% cut in affiliation fees would have left the party unable to function, with no corresponding reduction in Tory funding. This prospect caused widespread alarm.

Instead Ray Collins came up with a more sophisticated model. At the collective level, members of affiliated unions would say whether they were willing for part of their political levy to go to the Labour party. UNISON members already make this choice, and of those who join online about 40% choose the Labour Link. Each union would implement the change within its own traditions, by the end of 2014 for new recruits and within five years for existing members. The federal structure of the party would continue, with unions and constituencies each holding half the votes at annual conference, and the composition of the NEC and other committees would stay the same. At the end of five years the voting share of each union would be based on the numbers affiliated.

There would still be financial consequences, as these numbers would undoubtedly decline. However, non-affiliated members would still be paying into the political fund; these reserves could be given to Labour as top-up donations or might, as Dennis Skinner warned, go to rival parties. If Labour formed a government then party funding could be cleaned up on all sides, but the election is not yet in the bag. Several members called for a formal review after five years. Some rejected this as showing lack of confidence; I opposed it because if the party is heading for meltdown we cannot wait till 2019 to act. Instead the business board would continuously monitor developments against the finance strategy.

Closer Links

If these collective levy-payers wanted an individual relationship with the party, they could register as affiliated supporters (AS) by signing a statement of support for Labour values, giving the party contact details including a postal address, and confirming that they were on the electoral roll. There would be no extra payment beyond the annual affiliation fee, currently £3, from their union. This would entitle them to vote in electing the party leader and deputy leader and the London mayoral candidate.

They would also be associated with their local party. This section, on page 23, would have benefited from constituency involvement. Draft 18 had AS participating on the same basis as full members in local policy forums, branches and constituency all-member meetings: almost everything except selecting candidates. I argued against this, because many submissions opposed allowing people who pay £3 a year the same rights as those who pay £45; they feared that full members would drop to the lower AS rate, and believed that standard subscriptions were too high for working-class people. Also if AS had the right to be invited to meetings and events, this would add to administrative costs, and I suggested that constituencies should receive a share of the affiliation fee, as they do for members.

The wording now makes clear that AS would have no voting rights at local level. But it could have been framed positively: who would not welcome lists of local Labour-supporting union members, willing to join campaigns, deliver leaflets, discuss policy and come to social events? One NEC member envisaged huge cultural change, with thousands of new AS engaging directly with MPs, though personally I consider damp squibs more of a danger than deluges. However all agreed that attracting both members and AS depended on the policies in Labour’s manifesto, a key task for the July national policy forum.

Future Leaders

Responses showed considerable support for one-member-one-vote (OMOV), with most disliking multiple voting and the weight given to MPs in the electoral college. So there was much to welcome here. The MPs’ section would go, and though they would retain the right to nominate candidates, the threshold, originally proposed as 20% or even 25%, had been bargained down to 15%, just above the current 12.5%. This should give both sufficient choice and adequate support from the parliamentary party.

In addition to full members, two other groups would be entitled to vote. The first would be the AS. If every levy-payer jumped through the new hoops, their 2.7 million votes would overwhelm the 200,000 individual members. However, in 2010 only 235,000 levy-payers voted, and many of these would have been full members as well. So in practice members are likely to enjoy a greater share than they do now.

Registered Supporters Mark II

The second would be registered supporters (RS), people who do not join the party either as an individual member or as an AS. They would have to sign a statement of support for Labour values, provide a postal address, be on the electoral register, and pay a fee of £3. My understanding was that this would be a one-off fee at the start of any contest, though others believed that it would be an annual fee.

Though some submissions objected to giving non-members a vote, the 2011 conference agreed, as part of Refounding Labour, that RS would have between 3% and 10% of the electoral college when their numbers reached 50,000. Details were never incorporated in the rulebook, but since then around 20,000 unverified e-mail addresses have accumulated. These would not count under the new system. So the principle was accepted three years ago, but from now on RS would be real people. This must be an improvement, and given the previous limited take-up, I doubt that members would be swamped. All ballot papers would be issued by the party, which would hold a single central register of members, AS and RS, ensuring that each person only received one ballot paper in a standard format.

Labour Listens

The report noted that a majority of responses were against the widespread use of primaries. This was an understatement: I only found a handful in support. Objections included undermining the value of membership, the cost for candidates, and making infiltration easier. So there would be a closed primary for the London mayor, with no others lined up. On the positive side constituencies and affiliates could nominate candidates, with the London region and the NEC deciding the shortlist from among those who reached a specified threshold. The primary electorate would consist of individual members, AS and RS, a system which would undoubtedly have given Ken Livingstone the candidacy in 2000.

Everyone agreed that selection processes should be fair, that Labour would benefit from more diverse representation, including from different classes, and that cost was an obstacle to many potential candidates. The NEC would be asked to draw up procedures to meet these challenges. However specific spending limits were removed pending further discussion, and consensus will not be easy. In particular some unions felt that the caps on third party donations were too low, and argued that they were not third parties but an integral part of the movement and should not be restricted in any way.

The End of the Beginning

If the March conference agreed the paper, this and other areas would be referred to an implementation group. I have offered to serve, but so, sensing its importance, has everyone else. We shall see. Finally I asked if delegates to the special conference could vote on the document and on the rule changes (to change the system for electing the leader, and to allow a London primary) in parts. This would be referred to the conference arrangements committee, which probably means No.

After nearly three hours the NEC endorsed the paper, with Christine Shawcroft and Dennis Skinner against, and Martin Mayer abstaining. I voted with the majority. My deal-breaker was the threat of imminent financial disaster, and this has been removed, or at least postponed. There are genuinely positive elements, the negative elements are not as bad as they might have been, and many details are open to further negotiation. Whether this is enough is a judgment for delegates to make on 1 March.