South East Regional Board, 8 December 2018

The first meeting of the new board elected at the regional conference ran for four hours, and I was glad I had brought sandwiches. The first hour was spent on electing a Chair: after two ballots Lisa Fricker and Vince Maple each had 12 votes. The rules are silent on how to break a tie, and I proposed a job-share. This is not in the rules, but neither is it prohibited, and I argued that it was within the spirit of the democracy review. This allows CLPs to share almost every position, and the new disabled members’ representative on the NEC will also be open to job-sharing. After much discussion it was agreed that Vince and Lisa would jointly chair this meeting, and regional director Amy Fode would seek NEC guidance from the governance and legal unit. I hope they give us their blessing. I voted for Vince, who I’ve known for years, but by the end of the meeting I was convinced that Lisa and Vince together can provide effective leadership and bring the region together geographically – Vince is from Medway, Lisa from Southampton – and politically. Electing the vice-chair was postponed so that we could make progress with the agenda.

European Report

John Howarth MEP reported on the continuing work of Labour MEPs. This included the next seven-year budget, targets for energy efficiency, reforms of copyright legislation, and the posted workers directive, which requires employers to pay the rates in the country where the workers are deployed, not the rates in their country of origin, and prevents them from undercutting local wages. He had visited, spoken and campaigned in 55 of the 84 south-east constituencies. He thanked Jeremy Corbyn for coming to the PES (party of European socialists), but was worried that the vote for socialist parties might decline from its current 23% in next year’s Euro-elections. On Brexit he believed that a Labour government would be in a better position to negotiate with the EU27, because Labour would drop some of Theresa May’s red lines.

Answering questions, he explained that the UK’s departure date could be extended from 29 March to 4 July with MEPs continuing from the 2014 election. For a further nine months a special arrangement might be possible, but if the UK ended up remaining after all, fresh elections for MEPs would need to be held. On what members could do against the rise of the far right, he suggested a coherent programme including greater environmental protection, an honest narrative on migration, and a positive vision of the relationship between the individual and the state. Organisations like Hope Not Hate were hugely important.

The Rules of the Game

We returned to process issues. For 15 years the regional rules have said that the officers shall be Chair and vice-chair, and there may be appointed functional officers, including a campaign co-ordinator, a party development and membership co-ordinator and a partnership in power co-ordinator. This was on the agenda as “discussion on other officer positions”. Some said that the rules required us to elect to these positions immediately, but the board only has to fill positions that exist, not that may exist, and while some proponents were new members, some have been around for years and never previously seen the need.

Others pointed out that there were no role descriptions, and if we were adding posts then equalities should surely be a priority. Representatives for rural areas, for council liaison and for trade union liaison were also suggested. Further, the democracy review charged the NEC with drawing up model rules for regional structures, and these were expected in January. Finally the agenda had not indicated any elections, so members had not considered whether to stand, and most unions were unhappy at being bounced.

Against this it was argued that we didn’t need role descriptions but could just elect people that we knew would work hard. The board was too distant from members, who were unaware of its existence and activities. If the NEC recommendations were different, we could scrap the posts again. I said that if as CLP secretary I told our AGM that we could have, say, a communications officer, I didn’t know what they would do, the NEC might abolish the post in six weeks, I hadn’t invited nominations, but I insisted that they should be elected immediately from the floor, I would expect, and deserve, a dusty reception.

As a way forward a working group was suggested, to consider which roles might be needed and what they might do. This could feed in to the NEC if they were still working on regional structures, or take their decisions into account if already published. A special meeting of the board in February would elect to whatever positions were agreed. This was carried 12-11. In the meantime it was stressed that the primary accountability was between board members and their electorate, whether county groupings, unions, socialist societies, the Co-op, or young members, and that was where links had to be strengthened.

[Back home, I checked what the NEC had agreed for regional structures. These include officers for women, BAME, LGBT and disabled members, though it is not clear whether they are elected from within the regional executive committee membership or in some other way. No other positions are mentioned.]

Complaints

Amy reported that Slough CLP were now able to run their own affairs, though board members would still be responsible for their council selections through to 2020. Following the conclusion of a long-running case, others had been asked to find out what was happening with individual suspensions and complaints, some dating back more than two years. It was agreed that all investigations should be speedy and fair, and Lisa and Vince would write to the general secretary asking for a summary of cases in the pipeline. Much of this is handled centrally, though board members are asked to sit on panels for local government appeals and appeals against rejection of membership, and may be involved in mediation. Amy stressed that all board members were invited to serve, and she would welcome more volunteers.

Regional Conference Review

Amy reported record attendance, with 350 delegates and visitors. Most feedback was good, though there were issues with the sound system. Workshops on election campaigning, the economy, and GDPR were particularly appreciated. Although the £65 delegate fee was considered high, people would rather have lunch included than a lower charge. There was an interesting discussion around the fundraising dinner, where maximising income from richer members clashed with inclusiveness. I would like to explore holding a separate regional fundraiser, with a lower-priced buffet at conference which would allow everyone to socialise together. Labour’s annual local government conference does this, and it works well.

Following controversy around the motion from Brighton Pavilion, an independent conference arrangements committee was suggested, though the problem was as much with the (lack of) criteria as the people. This was only the second time that motions had been invited and the ad hoc regional CAC sought guidance from the national party, who would have ruled the motion out as relating to internal party matters rather than external policy. This may have been technically correct, but was politically a mistake. If the NEC does not cover conference arrangements in its regional rules, then we should draw up our own. More generally I reported that our delegates found motions the most engaging part of the weekend.  Motions carried at the conference would be circulated to CLPs, Labour groups, shadow ministers and the national policy forum.

The democracy review calls for regional conferences every year, and it was suggested that next time should be in the north of the region, variously understood as Milton Keynes, Oxford or Slough. The review also envisages regional committees and annual regional conferences for women, BAME, LGBT+, disabled and young members, and as well as the workload for regional staff I raised the costs to CLPs of sending delegates to so many events, on top of extra national conferences. I also took up points made by Buckinghamshire CLPs regarding the need to reflect all areas, Tory shires, mixed towns and Labour cities, on the board. There was little time to discuss these, though a suggestion that rural areas across the region should have a collective voice on common concerns. In the meantime Michaela and I are both committed to working closely with all Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire CLPs.

 Selections and Elections

There are still vacancies for council seats up for election in May 2019, and Jeremy Corbyn would be writing direct to members to encourage them to stand for Labour. Seven more constituencies had been cleared for parliamentary selections. I and others stressed that most CLPs wished to choose their candidates as soon as possible, whether or not they were regarded as winnable, and Vince and Lisa would write another letter to the general secretary on our behalf. Responding to questions about how target seats and councils were identified Amy said that these were signed off by party Chair Ian Lavery, and based on polls, previous results and judgment. However, publishing too much detail could give ammunition to our opponents.

 And Finally …

Vince was planning a get-together for Labour groups with 10 or fewer councillors in the New Year. Amy gave an update on staffing changes, and let us know that she would be taking maternity leave from May.

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