NEC Meetings, September 2016

NEC Update, September 2016

This is a bumper edition, covering the NEC meeting on 20 September and the NEC meetings at annual conference on 24, 26 and 27 September 2016. As always, comments and questions are welcome.

National Executive Committee, Tuesday 20 September 2016

This meeting started at noon and finished at 8:30 p.m. Jeremy Corbyn thanked party staff and NEC members for their support during a difficult time. Disunity was damaging, and abuse and anonymous briefings from all sides had to stop. He hoped that CLPs would welcome the thousands of new members, and that they would play an active role. If he was re-elected he wanted to bring the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) together as an effective opposition, and he was entitled to their support. He would be proposing radical democratisation, giving members a stronger voice, after conference. He stressed the need to be prepared for a possible early general election.

He also touched on the Workplace 2020 initiative, post office pensions, the House of Lords, responding to Brexit and grammar schools. He asked the NEC to endorse the recommendations in Shami Chakrabarti’s report on anti-semitism and other forms of racism, and an associated code of conduct. The NEC agreed subject to detailed consideration by the equalities committee, which had not met since March.

I raised the concerns of party staff, who were reading on a daily basis that they would be “cleared out” after Jeremy Corbyn’s expected win, with the fees from registered supporters used to pay them off. Others confirmed that NEC members, not staff, made decisions on the rules governing the leadership contest and on individual exclusions and suspensions. Jeremy Corbyn said that he was not into purges and all staff should be treated with respect. The “secret meeting” at Unite’s Esher Place, reported in The Times, was with senior members of his staff and solely concerned with improving the efficiency of his office.

MPs were upset by the “hit list” of “enemies”, which had led to an increase in online abuse. They pointed out that during Jeremy Corbyn’s long years on the backbenches no-one seriously proposed trying to deselect him for following his conscience   Others felt that some MPs had consistently undermined the leader and it was not surprising if local members expressed their views. Jeremy Corbyn was praised for his absolute rejection of all forms of abuse, and asked to make it clear that offenders did not act in his name.

Walking the Walk

This led on to Tom Watson’s code of conduct for social media, which was agreed by the NEC. It included the following pledge for all new and existing party members:

“I pledge to act within the spirit and the rules of the Labour party in my conduct both on and offline, with members and non-members, and I stand against all forms of abuse. I understand that if found to be in breach of the Labour party policy on online and offline abuse, I will be subject to the rules and procedures of the Labour party.”

The levels of misogyny, anti-semitism, racism, homophobia and obscenity had shocked all members of the NEC screening panels, and some had been personally attacked. Cleaning up the internet may have been over-ambitious, but we were following Jeremy Corbyn’s principles. There will have been some mistakes and some borderline decisions, but the reasons that members give for being excluded are not always the actual reasons, not all the claims of mistaken identity are true, and political views did not play any part. No-one was excluded for liking the Foo Fighters, and of the 3,963 members and supporters excluded, nearly 1,000 said they belonged to another party on their application. We now need to deal with appeals as fast as possible, and with remarks on social media a simple expression of regret may resolve the situation.

Our Party: Made By Members

The NEC agreed procedures for safeguarding children and young people, important now that we have more than 10,000 members under the age of 18. These will be circulated to CLPs in due course.

More contentious was Tom Watson’s paper on party reform, pulling together recommendations for rule changes and procedural guidance from the various groups. Members complained that this was only circulated the night before, though to be fair a three-hour meeting was scheduled for 6 September to go through all the details and then abruptly cancelled. Some members argued for postponing everything to the NEC awayday on 22 November, but others who had spent many hours consulting and distilling views wanted rule changes agreed at this year’s conference rather than waiting till 2017. Eventually the NEC agreed to go through the paper, take forward the proposals that were supported and defer the others.

As convenor of the gender representation group I said that the key was attracting and involving more women at local level: fewer women than men join the party, participate in meetings, stand as party officers and candidates, and get selected and elected as councillors and MPs. Growing the base of the pyramid was necessary for all further progress. The only rule change would establish a national annual women’s conference with a formal input into the party’s decision-making structures. Everyone agreed with this, though discussion is needed on timing and accountability, combining the inclusive, welcoming atmosphere with some form of delegate structure for formal votes.

The NEC agreed the establishment of a bursary scheme to help working-class and low-income members seeking selection for parliament, with up to £100,000 available, and another £50,000 for disabled members. Consideration would be given to support for gay and ethnic minority members as the scheme developed. I drew attention to the huge financial demands on women candidates in the 2015 target seats after they were selected. Jennie Formby and James Asser would take this work forward.

A series of changes within local government also went through, including a rule that members of Labour groups must not support any proposal to set an illegal budget. Changes to guidance included interviewing sitting councillors at least every two terms. I queried the requirement for assessment panels to be chaired by someone from a different local authority area, and will pursue this with councillor representatives.

Regarding devolution, the Scottish and Welsh executives would be given more power in administering and selecting their candidates at every level, and rules for electing their leaders would be extended to their deputy leaders. The youth paper was held back until later in the year, but consultation showed that 85% of young members thought the Young Labour national committee should be elected by one member one vote.

What’s Left?

The main outstanding recommendations concerned the composition of the NEC. Local government wanted another councillor and a police and crime commissioner or mayor, Scotland and Wales wanted to be represented by frontbench members, and two more trade union seats would be added to the current 12 plus treasurer, to “maintain the balance of stakeholders”. No mention of increasing the six constituency places despite individual membership rocketing from under 200,000 to 550,782 and counting.

Some proposed deferring all of these to November and looking then at the overall composition of the NEC. But Scotland was not prepared to wait. Kezia Dugdale, elected with her own mandate of 72% of Scottish members, argued passionately that they had been asking for this since Refounding Labour in 2011, and a voice on the party’s ruling body was essential to tackling nationalism. Others suggested that the real reason for adding Scottish and Welsh nominees immediately was that they would tip a finely-balanced NEC against the Left from the end of this year’s conference, and stand in the way of further democratisation, though of course these explanations are not mutually exclusive. The vote was 16-14 in favour. Jeremy Corbyn abstained, and I voted with the majority. Given Scottish Labour’s current situation I believed that the NEC should at least give it the best chance of revival.

Shadow Boxing

Tom Watson’s paper then moved on to recent and contentious issues. The first was whether the shadow cabinet should return to being elected, and two options were proposed: full election by MPs, in line with the recent vote in the PLP, or one-third elected by MPs, one-third appointed by the leader and one-third elected by a ballot of all individual members. I thought the second suggestion was unfeasible: most members do not know most MPs, so hustings with maybe 40 people would be needed, members would be deluged with emails from every candidate, posting half a million ballot packs would be expensive, and the process would take six weeks. It also excluded the unions, and I think this element has now gone away.

Otherwise there was much talk of unity, olive branches and the need to fill frontbench positions and take on the Tories, but little trust. There was a proposal to delete the current rule, giving freedom to slot in anything agreed later on, but this raised suspicions that the status quo would be overridden. After a long discussion the NEC voted on whether to set a deadline for negotiations and return to the issue on Saturday evening. This was lost 15-16. I voted against, because this has to be agreed between the leader and the PLP if it is to work. Though I am alarmed at hints that the impasse may persist until the November awayday.

The paper went on to look at changes to the method of electing the leader and deputy leader. Amending the rules to make clear that an incumbent is automatically on the ballot paper was sensible, and brought the rules into line with the court decision. Removing the category of registered supporters would be widely welcomed by members, but the NEC did not want to be bounced. Two further options, restoring an electoral college with separate sections for MPs/MEPs and/or trade unions, were not fully developed and not considered. It is a bad idea to keep changing a rule every time the results are deemed unsatisfactory.

On a local matter, trade unions and socialist societies currently have no voting rights at constituency AGMs unless they were affiliated at 31 December of the previous year. With many AGMs moving to the autumn this meant a very long wait. So the NEC agreed to put forward a rule change giving new affiliates full rights if they were accepted at least 60 days before the AGM.

Onwards to Liverpool

Harry Donaldson, Chair of the conference arrangements committee (CAC), reported that 499 CLPs were sending 812 delegates. There are far more delegates but the number of CLPs is much the same as previous years, so it looks like the richer ones are sending more delegates while others still cannot afford any. The NEC agreed with me on removing the ballot on priorities for the national policy forum. Last year we ditched this because the NPF hadn’t met and the party was occupied with a leadership contest, and neither of those had changed. I suggested that the policy commissions should concentrate on rapid reaction to whatever the Tory government does, and on working through the consequences of Brexit.

The NEC was then asked to oppose rule changes submitted by CLPs. These included an amendment from Sheffield Heeley which would give conference the right to refer back part of any document without rejecting the document as a whole. A proposal to support the amendment was lost 15-16. I voted for the amendment: it is 20 years since Partnership in Power promised that

“In the past, policy statements have been presented to conference on an all-or-nothing basis. Under the rolling programme, conference would for the first time be able to have separate votes on key sections and proposals in the policy statement.”

Rule changes submitted this year were included for noting, and would be debated next year. However several NEC members asked to bring forward an amendment from Ashfield CLP which would allow retired member sections of trade unions to affiliate to CLPs, of particular importance to the NUM. This was agreed, but followed by a request also to bring forward an amendment from the Jewish Labour Movement and six CLPs.  I’d received representations regarding this and an alternative from Hastings & Rye CLP, but assumed that these would be considered in 2017. The meeting was in its ninth hour and there were 21 further amendments, so I said that we should leave them all to next year as usual. Afterwards I was told that Jeremy had personally promised the JLM that their amendment would be discussed this year, so I can only suggest that the proposers take it up directly with Jeremy, who was at the meeting throughout.

In the closing half hour the NEC agreed a paper which streamlines membership rates. In future there will be three rates: standard and reduced, both index-linked as now, and an introductory rate, starting at £3 and set at 6.5% of the standard rate. This would apply to members aged 14-19, students, and armed forces members in their first year, and cover basic servicing costs. Members already on the £1 annual rate would stay on it until their circumstances change.

And finally I offered to present the report on the Brighton & Hove Labour Party, the subject of much correspondence and many complaints and questions, but the NEC just wanted to go home. I will look for the earliest opportunity to have it signed off.

National Executive Committee Meeting, Saturday 24 September 2016

The NEC congratulated Jeremy Corbyn on his overwhelming re-election as leader, and he said he was doing all he could to rebuild relationships across the party. He hoped that some MPs would return to the frontbench, and he was continuing talks on possible elections to the shadow cabinet.

He then asked the NEC to defer the addition of Scottish and Welsh leaders to the November awayday, as part of his promised democratisation. Many of the arguments were the same as on Tuesday. On the one hand members said that they supported this in principle but it was just a matter of timing. Proposals agreed in November need not wait till 2017 as the party could always hold a special conference on rule changes. Some thought that the NEC decision lacked clarity, and we had not agreed the actual text of the amendment. On the other hand it was argued that the NEC made a clear decision, and there was little point in staying for more than eight hours if votes were repeatedly re-run, against our own standing orders. Kezia Dugdale pleaded with the NEC not to undermine her position. In the end there was no further vote, and the text for all the other rule changes was also approved.

Jeremy Corbyn also tabled the ten principles on which he had campaigned for the leadership and a motion on international trade. It was agreed to bring these to the next meeting on Monday morning and, subject to any amendments, put them before conference as statements in the name of the NEC.

Conference, Sunday 25 September 2016

The action now moved to the floor of conference, which opened with Harry Donaldson moving the conference arrangements committee report. This included the rule changes agreed by the NEC on Saturday, describing them as a package and stating that they would be voted on as a single item. A number of delegates objected to this, and they had a point: sometimes NEC rule changes are voted on individually, and sometimes, as with Refounding Labour and the Collins Report, on a single vote. Counter-intuitively, the more numerous and disparate the proposals, the more likely that they will be lumped together. However the CAC report was carried on a show of hands, and conference proceeded.

National Executive Committee Meeting, Monday 26 September 2016

Jeremy Corbyn’s ten points and the statement on international trade were approved unanimously as a framework, and would go to the national policy forum for discussion and development.   Beyond that there was little agreement as we returned again to rule changes. The NEC had not expressed a view on whether these should be put forward individually or as a package, and some members were surprised to see the CAC statement. It was argued that both Refounding Labour and the Collins Report showed the problems when changes were pushed through en bloc, and indeed Collins had led to some of this summer’s problems with the leadership election rules.

However conference had now agreed the CAC report, and the only ground for overturning this decision was that conference had been misinformed about the NEC’s intentions and/or didn’t understand what it was doing. But behind the arguments over process it was clear that Scottish and Welsh representation was again the key. Conference was more likely to vote this down if it did not also sink the women’s conference and essential local government reforms. But sending Carwyn Jones and Kezia Dugdale back home without a vote would give the message that Labour still did not get devolution. Again there was no vote.

Conference, Monday/Tuesday 26/27 September 2016

On Monday morning several delegates again queried the CAC on combining the rule changes in a single vote, and on Tuesday morning no fewer than 20 delegates raised points of order, some calling for separate votes and others arguing that we should be spending conference time on policy, not procedures. Despite requests for a card vote the CAC report was accepted by a substantial majority on a show of hands.

Later that day the NEC “package” was carried by 80% to 20% (68% to 32% in the CLP section and 92% to 8% in the affiliates section). However the Sheffield Heeley amendment was carried against NEC advice by 51.5% to 48.5% (45.5% to 54.5% in the CLP section, 57.5% to 42.5% in the affiliate section). So the promise of Partnership in Power was fulfilled, and the NPF will now have to consider how to manage votes on documents in parts. And the NEC might consider whether this amendment has implications for rule changes as well as for policy papers.

National Executive Committee Meeting, 27 September 2016

The last meeting at conference is normally a brief ceremonial handover to the new NEC, but nothing now is normal. Jeremy Corbyn again thanked the NEC and looked forward to the awayday where we could talk about how to engage and enthuse members, and develop policies from the bottom up. New technology made it easy for us to contact members, but it was still not so easy for them to influence us.

He welcomed Kezia Dugdale and Carwyn Jones as voting members, new constituency representatives Claudia Webbe and Rhea Wolfson, councillor Nick Forbes and George Howarth MP. The NEC said farewell to Dennis Skinner MP, truly the end of an era, to councillor Ann Lucas and to Ellie Reeves and Johanna Baxter, who have both done a great deal of work in public and behind the scenes on behalf of ordinary members, and thanked Paddy Lillis who, as Chair, held the party together through the most tumultuous year since I joined the NEC.

Normally the vice-chair moves up to Chair and the next longest-serving member becomes vice-chair, but nothing now is normal. Ellie Reeves, vice-chair last year, was not re-elected to the NEC and Keith Vaz, next in line, said he would not throw his hat in the ring at the moment. There were nominations for Andy Kerr and Glenis Willmott MEP as Chair, and Glenis was elected by 18 votes to 17. I voted for her, as few leaders of the European PLP serve for long enough to become Chair, and in the year of Brexit and consequent upheaval it sends a powerful message of solidarity and reconciliation. Andy Kerr will be vice-chair and can expect to succeed as Chair next year, giving him two years as an NEC officer. And the NEC thanked Margaret Lynch, finally retiring from her job at HQ supporting conference and party finances.