South East Regional Executive Committee, 15 February 2020

This was the first meeting since the general election. Back in September the committee asked the NEC to allow all CLPs to select parliamentary candidates, with a shortened process for non-Labour seats, but sadly we were ignored. Instead the NEC prioritised trigger ballots for sitting MPs. When Labour voted for a December election, 62 south-east constituencies still had no candidates, and seven had no applicants. The chair and vice-chair, Vince Maple and Elaine Bolton, spent 27 hours with regional staff sifting, shortlisting and consulting, and though CLP representatives were involved, not all were happy with the outcome. Members pleaded, again, for early selections, although expecting someone to commit now to four years’ hard graft is a huge ask.

Post Mortem

The south-east was the only region where all sitting Labour MPs were re-elected, a source of pride and congratulation, though also regret that there are still only eight.

There were some technical issues, including the Freepost arriving after postal votes, and targeting should have taken recent council election results into account. Opinions differed on the value of community organisers, though I don’t really understand the distinction between community organising and all-year round contact with voters. However with only three regional organisers and an acting regional director to cover 84 CLPs, it seems sensible to integrate all staffing resources across the region.

Members wanted better central messaging and a media strategy, including rebuttal of opposition lies. This dated back to 2010, when no-one countered the Tory/LibDem line that Labour trashed the economy with the truth about global recession, a source of constant frustration through five years on the NEC. Others claimed unparalleled personal hostility towards Jeremy Corbyn as leader, though some of us remember their treatment of Michael (“Worzel Gummidge”) Foot, and Neil Kinnock (“the Welsh windbag” and “will the last person to leave Britain turn out the lights?”). The media have never been our friends. Party divisions and disloyal MPs were also cited.

Some considered the manifesto a necessity not a wishlist, while others liked most of the policies but felt there were too many separate items, and questions over cost. New promises such as free broadband would have been better developed over time. The national policy forum could have involved members, but it has not met for years and its future is in doubt. The next REC meeting will consider how members can contribute to policy.

But above all, nothing in the manifesto had the simple, clear cut-through of GET BREXIT DONE, and after TAKE BACK CONTROL we should have learned this. On Brexit itself, there were conflicting narratives. In one, Labour had the same leader, the same party, the same popular policies as in 2017. The only change was the position on Brexit. If we’d stuck to honouring the referendum result and tried to get a Leave deal through parliament, we’d have swept to victory. In the other, much had changed since 2017. Then, Brexit day was far away, and Labour managed to convince both Leavers and Remainers that we were on their side. In 2019 we lost both ways. Party members were overwhelmingly pro-Remain and, even in Leave seats, so were a majority of Labour supporters. Labour’s 2019 Brexit policy was agreed by conference, by the shadow cabinet, by the NEC and by the leader, and promoted from the top as the way to reach out and bring the country together. It didn’t work, and maybe nothing could have worked, but it was a collective failure, not attributable to one man.

Looking Forward

Preparations for May’s local elections were in full swing, and candidate selection had resumed. Buckinghamshire need 147 candidates for all-out elections to their new unitary authority, and had already found more than one-third. May also brings police and crime commissioner elections. Thames Valley CLPs selected Laetisia Carter as their candidate back in July 2019, but others were delayed by the general election. Laetisia is campaigning valiantly in an area which Labour could win on a 5% swing. If we are serious about getting back into government, we must support our candidates and fight to win these contests.

The committee is still keen to establish a network of Labour parish and town councillors, and queried whether we need permission from on high to do this, or whether we can just go ahead.

Complaints about Complaints

A secondary theme of the meeting was widespread dissatisfaction about the party’s inability to deal with complaints. The numbers have increased tremendously with the surge in membership, two acrimonious leadership elections and social media, which amplifies conflict 24/7 in full view of the world, where 20 years ago friction would have been confined to a few exchanges at monthly meetings. Where there are interpersonal conflicts within local parties it was suggested that REC members could help to mediate, as four regional staff cannot supervise 84 individual CLPs.

Members reported complaints stuck in the queue for months, including serious allegations of sexual harassment, bullying, disruptive behaviour and intractable problems with repeat offenders, where local parties cannot act or bar them from meetings. Councillors are bullied online, sometimes by other members, and do not get proper respect or adequate support. I raised a recent incident where a member made clearly anti-semitic remarks, heard by 100 people. Three weeks later there are still no signs of action. They are free to continue coming to meetings, while members who were offended and upset have to stay away. Others concurred that the party is in effect excluding members who have been abused, not the offenders.

We were told that the party cannot tell us the number of complaints in each region, that only one person has the authority to suspend members, and that the department is still understaffed. The committee agreed to invite a representative of the governance and legal unit to the next meeting to discuss our concerns.

Equalities

As last time, REC members shared their personal experiences. Inclusion of disabled members was a key concern, and there were more requests for online, proxy and postal voting, particularly during leadership nominations. Some members believed it was their only chance to vote, and had not realised that a full ballot would follow. I asked if remote voting should be extended to all members, including those with childcare responsibilities, living in rural areas or with no access to public or private transport. There are financial, organisational and political challenges for CLPs, but this is the way that the world is moving.

Until then, I was interested in a claim that all-member meetings are more democratic and inclusive than delegate-based general committees, and would welcome evidence, one way or the other.

Party Reform

The next regional conference is pencilled in for November 2020, if we can decide how to elect the regional executive committee under new rules agreed at conference. This would increase in size from 27 to 42 members plus a further ten entitled to attend, so we will either have to talk less or have even longer meetings. There will be 18 CLP representatives, which should enable closer connections with geographical areas, plus one MP, one from the Co-op party, one from socialist societies, two councillors, 14 from trade unions, and one each representing women, youth, LGBT, BAME and disabled members. For this conference the last five would be elected by 50% trade union delegates, 50% CLP delegates, though in the future they might be elected by the appropriate regional committee. The chair and two vice-chairs of the REC would also be elected at the conference by a 50/50 electoral college. Watch this space.

As always, questions and comments are welcome. The next meeting will be after the local elections in May, so good luck to everyone who is standing and campaigning.

Ann Black, 07956-637958, annblack50@btinternet.com

This report is available as a pdf at SE REC 15 February 2020 Ann Black