South East Regional Board, 16 March 2019

The meeting opened with a minute’s silence for the victims of the horrific massacres in New Zealand.

John Howarth then gave what may or may not be his final report as an MEP. He said that the whole Brexit process had been a long lesson in how not to negotiate. Up to two months ago the European Union did not believe we would be crazy enough to crash out without a deal, but they were now preparing to enable life to continue more or less as normal whatever happened. To reconcile the 52% and the 48%, the sensible approach would have been to work with Labour and aim to maintain close relations with the remaining 27 countries, but instead Theresa May had tacked to the right. To complicate matters, European elections will be held at the end of May. An extension of article 50 might be acceptable up to 2 July when the new parliament is sworn in, but anything longer would require the UK to elect MEPs just as we head for the exit.

Responding to questions, John said that the EU27 would have preferred the UK to stay in, as a large country which provided stability and balance. Following the referendum they accepted that Britain would leave, but were now becoming irritated because we couldn’t make up our mind. On Labour’s proposals, the EU was an organisation of member states and therefore dealt with governments, so these would only be relevant if there was a general election and a change at the top. He said there was no serious planning for freight, which had increased fourfold through Dover since joining the EU. The Norway option would not be easy: the current European economic area consists of small countries, with a combined population of 8-9 million, and would be dominated by the UK’s 60 million. The problem has been, and continues to be, the UK government’s red lines, especially on freedom of movement.

John said that Labour had to tread a careful line: 70% of our voters were pro-Remain and more likely to vote. If Theresa May managed to do a deal, the Tories could get a bounce if a general election followed shortly after. In the meantime the best way to protect vulnerable communities was to elect as many Labour councillors as possible. Members who blame Labour councils for implementing cuts in services should understand that it is the national Tory government which has slashed council budgets by 50% or more, and direct the anger at those primarily responsible. Finally, he had no idea how candidates would be selected if the UK found itself contesting the European elections after all: that would be a matter for the NEC.

Trashing Consensus

John then left, and the board moved on to business. As at the last meeting, internal wrangling generated the strongest emotions and took up most time, and I apologise for devoting so much space to it. In December I reported that following a tie in the election for Chair, Lisa Fricker and Vince Maple were agreed as joint co-chairs subject to NEC approval. This was readily granted, and I believe it brought the region together both geographically and politically. A subsequent working group on regional board structures was again chaired by Vince and Lisa, and again the atmosphere was positive and largely consensual.

The agenda item was listed as “ratification of the recommendation regarding co-chairs”, at which point it became clear that the priority for some was to remove both Lisa and Vince and scrap co-chairs entirely. No arguments were put in favour of this. A secret ballot was demanded and granted, despite not being required by standing orders, and the brief experiment in harmony was ended by 11 votes to 9. An attempt to move immediately to electing a different chair was, after much argument, rejected on the advice of the regional director Amy Fode, as a possible vacancy had not been advertised on the agenda. Language became distinctly unparliamentary, with lectures on the importance of unity, not playing petty politics and all remaining as comradely friends. A long-standing NPF member, elected on the left slate, said they had never walked into such an unpleasant atmosphere.

Elaine Bolton was then elected as vice-chair with 11 votes to my 9. I was fine with that, and congratulated her. I was less happy with moves to install Elaine in the chair forthwith, but some members retained sufficient decorum to allow Lisa and Vince to finish the meeting, though the chair is vacant now until 15 June when we will make a third attempt.

Transitional Arrangements

The meeting then considered other recommendations from the working group, and agreed that the steering group for the board would include the chair, vice-chair, an equalities officer, a CLP representative, a trade union representative and a representative from all the other bits (MPs, MEP, councillors, Co-op and socialist societies). After persuasive contributions the board agreed by 17 votes in favour, one against and two abstentions to add a Co-op representative, and unanimously to include a youth representative.

The final question was whether the new representatives should be elected only by members in their own section (so CLP board members elect the CLP representative etc) or whether they should all be elected by the board as a whole, which could mean a representative not holding majority support in their own section. The second option was carried by 11 votes to 9. After all the hoohah, there were no elections. Nada al-Sanjari was unopposed as equalities officer, David Hide as CLP representative, Gordon Lean as trade union representative, and Naushabah Khan for councillors, MPs and socialist societies. The Co-op and the youth representative would be elected next time, along with the chair. Sadly all this took so long that we didn’t go on to discuss subgroups on rural areas and other cross-cutting themes of interest to members.

The main question I had was: why bother? Regional board functions are largely administrative, not political, and often devolved to sub-areas. The “steering group” is only empowered to make decisions if there is no time to consult the entire board, which is very rare. And the NEC is producing model structures which we will be expected to adopt from 2020. These were not finalised, but were likely to include officers for all equalities strands, and to expand the south-east regional executive to more than 40 members.

Local Action

At last we turned to the upcoming local elections, with 1,892 seats in play. Efforts to recruit candidates were continuing, so that everyone would have the opportunity to vote Labour. The requirement for a year’s membership can no longer be waived by the regional director, but must be signed off by the NEC. Amy explained that applicants rejected by the local campaign forum could appeal to a panel of three board members, and complaints about the running of selection processes are referred to the regional office.

There were concerns about key parliamentary seats without full council slates, and mixed experiences on whether it was more difficult this year to find candidates. Several members said that the toxic political environment deterred women, particularly women of colour, from entering the public domain. Some reported internal hostility and attacks on social media, and found the party’s complaints procedures unsatisfactory.  One member suggested inviting complainants to contact us directly, but others pointed out that board members could be responsible for adjudicating in disputes, so it was inappropriate to get involved on behalf of one side at an early stage.

Selections Various

The current tranche of parliamentary selections should be completed by August, and the NEC agreed in January that all seats should be able to select candidates as soon as possible, though sadly this does not seem to be very soon. The Bernie Grant programme to promote BAME candidates should be up and running, in the hope that it would achieve the same successes that the Jo Cox programme had for women.

Applications have opened for candidates standing as police and crime commissioners in May 2020, and a panel of two NEC members and two regional board members will shortlist towards the end of May. Gemma Bolton, Gordon Lean, Lisa Fricker and Lynda MacDermott volunteered to serve. This time non-target areas, which is all of those in the south-east, will not run one-member-one-vote ballots, but choose their preferred candidate at all-member meetings, with votes weighted by constituency membership. Detailed NEC guidance is awaited, but CLPs should plan meetings to do this during June.

Reports

While the national policy forum is still in abeyance the policy commissions are meeting regularly and have drawn up discussion documents, though again these are published just as election campaigning gets into full swing, with consultation closing in June.   All NPF representatives stressed their willingness to attend CLP meetings, and some regional events may be organised.

From local government, Vince Maple announced a planned event in June for small Labour groups and those in opposition. I submitted a report on behalf of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire CLPs, covering the need for Buckingham to select 147 candidates for 2020, when the new unitary authority is formed, support for Wycombe as a target seat, the parliamentary selection in Banbury, and the desire from Buckingham, Wantage and Oxford West & Abingdon to select candidates soon. Labour does not have national policy on unitary authorities, though a single Oxfordshire authority would scrap Oxford’s Labour council and give control to the Tories even though they do not hold a single seat within the city. The next regional conference was not discussed, so I will raise points on this at our next meeting. Finally we wished Amy well for her maternity leave, and look forward to working with whoever is appointed to cover her absence.

Ann Black, Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire CLPs, 07956-637958, annblack50@btinternet.com