NEC Report, September 2011

NEC Meeting, Tuesday 20 September 2011

The NEC opened by expressing sympathy for the families of the miners who died in Neath, and Peter Hain reported that contributions to the appeal fund had reached £60,000 within hours.

This was the last regular meeting before conference, and Ed Miliband stressed that the focus must be outward, standing up for hardworking people under attack by the government. Big changes were needed in how the economy runs and in easing the pain of the deficit. The Tories showed during the 2007/08 crisis and since that they would never take on the banks or other vested interests

We then spent most of the time on Refounding Labour, though little new was said. The organisation committee had explored most areas on 15 September, and negotiations were continuing with trade union leaders on contentious items. Ed Miliband argued that the national policy forum should have true debates and conference should be more than a rally with balloons, but only if it changed. The three million union levy-payers were a huge untapped resource, particularly in building local links. He opposed US-style primaries but was keen to allow registered supporters a vote in choosing the leader, as a nod towards those who backed Labour but were not quite ready to join. However there would be plenty of time to review the idea before the next leadership election.

Peter Hain said that registered supporters would only work if local parties retained ownership. He reported enthusiasm for candidates’ contracts, for greater respect for councillors, and for the principle that either the leader or the deputy should be a woman, with definite proposals coming to next year’s conference. Following many angry messages about ex-ministers who have done very nicely for themselves, I suggested that the 2% levy for councillors and MPs on all earnings deriving from their elected office should include profits from memoirs, but this was not taken up.

The NEC agreed that Young Labour and the association of Labour councillors should become affiliated organisations with the right to put motions to conference, make nominations and vote, though some were uneasy about confusion with other affiliates which include non-members. After discussion the meeting deferred outstanding issues to the eve of conference and authorised immediate dispatch of everything else to delegates, thanking the staff for turning round successive revisions in record time.

Other Countries

The review of the Scottish Labour Party (SLP) conducted by Jim Murphy MP and Sarah Boyack MSP, has concluded, though unfortunately its recommendations were given to the media before the Scottish executive saw them. The NEC agreed that a new leader should be elected as soon as possible, and MPs and MEPs will be able to stand if they commit to seek election as an MSP. The SLP will decide the rules, and I believe they are continuing the electoral college – one-third parliamentarians, one-third party members, and one-third affiliates – after rejecting a proposal to give councillors 10% of the vote.

The rest of the review will be discussed by the organisation committee on 19 October. Some proposals have far-reaching implications, particularly restructuring constituency parties (CLPs) around Scottish rather than Westminster parliamentary seats. This would need a change to the main rulebook, and give 73 local parties instead of 52. I understand the political logic, but some matters are part of the national framework, including selection of Westminster candidates, entitlement to conference delegates, nominations to national committees, and the new funding package of over £1,200 per CLP. It is not clear whether Scotland would run two systems in parallel, or whether interfaces with national structures would be different in England, Scotland and potentially Wales.

Abroad, the NEC congratulated Helle Thorning-Schmidt, leader of the social democrats (and Neil and Glenys Kinnock’s daughter-in-law) on her election as prime minister of Denmark. European leader Glenis Willmott MEP regretted that lobbying by the tobacco industry had delayed stronger anti-smoking measures. Finally the NEC received updates on party finances and on the boundary review.

NEC Meeting, 6 p.m. Saturday 24 September 2011

The Refounding Labour drama resumed in Liverpool, where constituency representatives waited all day for the outcome of union-leadership negotiations over the role of registered supporters in electing the leader. What emerged is an even more complicated system, and I am truly sorry for whoever has to read out the results next time. Ed Miliband’s original proposal to put supporters in the affiliates section with the unions and socialist societies was replaced by the following scheme:

Registered supporters will only take part when there are more than 50,000. At that point they will have 3% of the electoral college, with MPs/MEPs, individual members and affiliates each having 32.3%. If numbers grow, their share will increase towards a maximum of 10%, with the other three sections pared back towards 30%. However an individual member’s vote will always be worth more than a supporter’s vote. MPs will get one vote in their own section, while others will be able to vote twice as an affiliate and a supporter, or twice as a member and an affiliate, but not as all three at the same time.

Most NEC members were persuaded to accept this. Some agreed because membership fees are too high for working-class voters on council estates, though this is surely an argument for reducing subscriptions, not for relegating the low-paid to third-class status. Others repeated that “everyone gave something, everyone got something”. Individual members got nothing: they will lose a fraction of their voting power, but more importantly saw their views dismissed as irrelevant. I voted against, in line with feedback, but was in a small minority. Personally I would have preferred putting more effort into engaging with local sympathisers instead of token gestures which may never happen.

However I supported Refounding Labour as a whole, as I believe there is much to welcome, and there will be further opportunities to influence implementation.  On registered supporters alone we will need at least an annual reaffirmation of support: anyone who has knocked up Labour promises based on out-of-date canvass records knows how readily people change their allegiance.

Conference, Sunday 25 September 2011

Conference opened after lunch, with delegates unhappy at being bounced into a take-it-or-leave-it vote on over 100 pages after only hours to digest the contents. Unusually points of order seeking a more democratic process were applauded, and conference came close to rejecting the standing orders committee report, with most delegates sitting on their hands. After a string of speakers urging a Yes vote the package was carried with 93.9% in favour (88.3% of CLPs, 99.5% of affiliates).

From conversations the change in funding for local parties, where constituency representatives were involved, was a significant selling point: smaller parties will gain, and many of the “losers” accept the principle of redistribution. And despite justified complaints, extra time and separate votes would have ended up with the same result. So politically it was best to get Refounding Labour out of the way and turn back to the economy, health, education and real issues which affect real people.

Delegates then thanked outgoing general secretary Ray Collins for keeping the show on the road through choppy financial waters, and ratified his successor Iain McNicol, who was cheered for his opening: “I’ve never dumped a leaflet round, and I’ve never crossed a picket line.” In Iain’s first party role as a local organiser he had to raise his own salary, which may yet come in useful.

Conference also voted on which contemporary resolutions to discuss. As usual the four trade union topics – health and social care; jobs, growth and employment rights; public services; and phone-hacking – were selected, with housing added by constituencies. (A more balanced system would have included the August riots, service for young people and high-speed rail, all of which attracted significant constituency support.)   After resolutions on each topic were combined, the NEC decided to support the resulting composites. Hopefully they will be on the party website, but if not, I can forward copies.

Conference, Monday/Thursday 26/29 September 2011

Overall the mood was positive, and it’s always encouraging to meet like-minded people committed to the same ideals. Ed Balls gave a fighting speech as shadow chancellor, and Ed Miliband was applauded, particularly when he challenged the Tories over the NHS. As he said, it was not an attack on business, but on business-as-usual. I cannot entirely explain the reaction of some people to Tony Blair’s name, though it may have reflected general frustration, spilling over from Sunday, at being unable to express views in any other way. Many attended Ed Miliband’s question-and-answer session on Wednesday, figuring that they were more likely to be called by Eddie Izzard, despite attempts to give precedence to “ordinary people”, than in the main conference. Star of the week was Tom Watson MP for pursuing the Murdochs, starting at a time when few others would risk their political career.

Constituencies will get detailed reports from their own delegates. However I have always said that conferences are best judged by members at home, not those in the hall, and I am interested in what made it through to mainstream TV, and what impression it left, if any. Should we concentrate on new policies, perhaps years before we can implement them, or on holding the government to account? And how do we get messages across, when as an opposition we do not command the agenda?

Rule Amendments: Card Vote Results

As these can be hard to find I’ve listed them below, with separate percentages for constituencies and affiliates. All were rejected, though a couple came close to 50% among CLP delegates.

1 –   replace clause IV with new wording (proposed by Castle Point, Ceredigion and Dagenham & Rainham, opposed by the NEC because Refounding Labour showed no demand for change). Lost with 12.4% in favour (21.1% of constituencies, 3.6% of affiliates);

2 –   establish a Labour party code of ethics (proposed by South Ribble, opposed by the NEC because standards are already set out in codes of conduct and staff contracts). Lost with 20.1% in favour (29.6% / 10.6%);

3 –   establish a charter of members’ rights (proposed by Hyndburn, opposed by the NEC because most items are already in the rules or guidelines). Lost with 18.1% in favour (24.7% / 11.6%);

4 –   allow CLPs to send a male delegate to conference for two consecutive years where they cannot find a woman (proposed by Winchester, opposed by the NEC because the rule was amended in 2008 so that CLPs can send another man after two years if they are still unable to find a woman. Further change would dilute women’s representation). Lost with 7.4% in favour (12.7% / 2.0%);

5 –   debate constituency rule changes in the year that they are submitted (proposed by Dewsbury, opposed by the NEC because a year’s delay allows them to be considered fully. Delegates contrasted the 15 months which the NEC demands with the hours that they were given to digest Refounding Labour. They were told that the rule was set in 1968 and had served the party well, though any rule which is 43 years old would normally be considered ripe for modernisation);

The vote was lost with 28.2% in favour (44.5% / 11.9%). I’m surprised that this made it past the conference arrangements committee, as Lancaster & Fleetwood submitted the same amendment last year, lost with 22.7% in favour, and proposals cannot be brought back within three years;

6 –   increase the number of NEC constituency places from six to eight, with one representative elected from Scotland and one from Wales (proposed by Beverley & Holderness, Stratford-upon-Avon and Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, opposed by the NEC because “CLPs are already adequately represented” and the Scottish and Welsh leaders have a standing invitation to attend NEC meetings). Lost with 20.6% in favour (39.5% / 1.8%).

An amendment from Rotherham, Sheffield Central and Wentworth & Dearne to allow Young Labour group officers to contact their own members was withdrawn, but the thrust of Refounding Labour is towards better communication across the party, and I hope this will be solved through other means.

The Changing of the Guard: Wednesday 28 September 2011

On Wednesday evening the NEC said farewell to departing colleagues and welcomed new members. I shall particularly miss Cath Speight, who without seeking the limelight has contributed an enormous amount over the years, and been loyal throughout to her party and her union; also Norma Stephenson for her work on equalities and Chair for 2010/11, Simon Wright of the socialist societies who is sadly leaving after just a year, and Chris Weldon of Unite. We are joined by Wendy Nicholls of UNISON, Susan Lewis of Community, Martin Mayer and Jennie Formby of Unite and Conor McGinn of the Labour Party Irish Society. Michael Cashman MEP was elected as Chair for the year ahead and pledged to represent all voices on the NEC, with Harriet Yeo of the TSSA as his vice-chair.

Looking Forward: After Conference

Peter Hain stressed that conference approval of Refounding Labour is the beginning, not the end of the process, and agreed that working groups should oversee implementation. There are many matters of detail: for instance moving constituency AGMs to the autumn raises questions about approving annual accounts which close in December; nominating to national committees where the deadline is usually April, and electing conference delegates, based on membership figures at 31 December.

More seriously the section on Partnership in Power is still detached from reality. Better feedback has been promised so often that members will believe it when they see it. Only one meeting of the national policy forum is planned for 2011/12, following two short sessions in 2010/11, and representatives who competed for constituency seats last year must wonder why they bothered. This would only partly be compensated by giving every member a place on one of the policy commissions.

And yet again the joint policy committee, supposed to steer the process, was attended by only 13 members in September, again with no departmental shadow ministers showing up.

The NEC statement to conference on Partnership in Power says:

“Discussions during this consultation have focused on the need to make a reformed policy-making system more accessible and responsive to party members, with a fresh empowered annual conference with even greater democracy,. We are determined to take a new approach to policy-making with meets those objectives and will take more time to develop the details. The NEC therefore agrees to further consult between now and the end of March 2012 on how to make the policy and decision-making processes more dynamic, open and democratic with a view to taking forward proposals to the NEC next spring, ahead of conference.”

Hidden Agendas

I hope this does not just mean more arguments over the union share of the conference vote, with constituency representatives shut out, because there are bigger issues at stake. Policy-making seems to have moved not only beyond the NEC but beyond the national policy forum and conference. Near the end I discovered four glossy booklets entitled “Towards a new economy”, “Britain’s role in the world”, “Restoring responsibility, strengthening our communities” and “Fulfilling the promise of Britain”.

Maybe the papers came from the elusive shadow cabinet working groups. They appear hastily compiled, with inconsistencies, identical quotes attributed to different people, and repeated paragraphs, but they make interesting reading. On defence policy there is no mention of Trident, and the document says that “our strategic position needs to be rethought and ‘smart defence’ must move from rhetoric to reality”. I may be too optimistic in hoping that this heralds real change. On the other hand I am deeply uneasy over attitudes towards immigration, with granting priority for social housing to “those who give back to their communities”, and with the repeated emphasis that people should “get out what they put in”.

What happened to “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”? Some of us are lucky in health, talent and family, others are less fortunate from the start, or they become ill, injured, or overwhelmed. The deepest silence during Ed Miliband’s speech was when he said that benefits are too easy to come by, and he was challenged at the question-and-answer session: when the sick and disabled were being hardest hit by government cuts, why did he reinforce the stereotype of all claimants as scroungers?

Recently the tabloids had a field day with a woman filmed sky-diving while she drew incapacity benefit for a bad back. Yes of course this is wrong. But what are we saying to this member:

“I have a severely disabled son, and he tells me he feels guilty for being in a wheelchair. This is the first time he has used the word ‘guilty’ in the almost 20 years since he was paralysed as the result of viral encephalitis.”

Or this, from the father of a profoundly deaf 50-year-old man on disability benefit:

“He got an HND in engineering, was made redundant, and has been out of work for 15 years.  This has not been for want of trying, and it is not because of any limitation to a narrow range of employment;  he has tried for jobs as packer and shelf-filler. He has done course after course of updating skills. People with disabilities are constantly made to feel that it is all their own fault. The Archbishop of Canterbury is quite right when he says that this causes a sense of hopelessness and despair.”

Who will stand up for them if not the Labour party? And with government intransigence driving public sector workers to ballot for strike action over pensions, the leadership urgently need to understand a little more and condemn a little less. There are serious issues about both policy and process, and a great deal to do if we are to regain power and promote a Labour vision which can convince and also inspire. I hope that we will all be able to contribute.