Meeting via Zoom again the chair Vince Maple steered us through the agenda, helped by written reports from most representatives. Instead of a regional conference this autumn there will be a virtual conference during the week beginning Monday 9 November. There will be no votes and no delegates, and all members will be welcome. Acting regional director Ellie Buck envisaged speeches from the leader and deputy leader, shadow cabinet Q-and-A sessions, national policy forum seminars, training workshops and panel discussions including individual equality strands. Members proposed adding trade union sessions on employment law so that everyone understands their rights in the current crisis, with Gatwick among the hardest-hit areas. Ellie reported that the Eastern region held a clinic with GMB lawyers which attracted more than 100 people, and she hoped to replicate this.
Other ideas included education; housing; campaigning for the May 2021 elections; the post-Covid industrial landscape; self-employment; the implications of Brexit; rural transport and services; and an excellent proposal for spaces where activists could share experiences, rather than be talked at. Members were keen to have an update on boundary reviews and the white paper in September which is expected to propose abolishing smaller local councils and imposing large Tory unitary authorities. The programme will be finalised after the “Labour Connected” annual conference, learning from what worked best there.
The trade union representative reported that little was happening, though the regional trade union liaison organisation may be meeting on 23 September.
The CLP representative reported concerns about poor communications, delays in outcomes of complaints, lack of understanding of the role of board members, failure to invite a representative of the governance and legal unit, and particularly the contents of a message from the general secretary on matters that local parties should not discuss. Members were bemused, angry and on the verge of resigning.
Other board members were unhappy with the tone of the message, but asked about the legal liabilities of CLP officers in the event of further court action. Continuing lack of progress with complaints, some dragging on for years, was widely regretted. Ellie responded with plans for a separate meeting on governance issues with senior staff, including the head of safeguarding. This was welcomed.
I raised additional issues mentioned by CLPs in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, including
- The need for fuller guidance regarding online meetings, and their potential to engage more widely, both within and beyond the party
- Council candidate selection, and the need for help in attracting more candidates
- Problems relating to the Organise software, Dialogue and other campaign technology
- Inability to contact national and regional offices by telephone (recognising that staff are working from home, but there should be technical solutions)
- How to campaign effectively during lockdown
- The urgent need for local parties to hold branch and CLP AGMs, or at least to be able to elect officers where postholders have stood down.
Vince Maple and Elaine Bolton agreed to write to the NEC as chair and vice-chair regarding the importance of adequate regional resources, concern about the tone and impact of the general secretary’s message, and the need for CLPs to elect officers.
On the Record
The equalities report ranged over low member engagement in the absence of meetings, the massive impact on minority groups, lack of access to data on BAME members, perceptions that Labour was pandering to populism over refugees and failing to highlight the injustices of Windrush and Grenfell, the need for all-BAME shortlists, inability to discuss racism and sexism in the party, failure to address or even acknowledge complaints of racism and prejudice, and universal disappointment among disabled members regarding accessibility. Trans members felt frightened and unsupported, and it was concerning that people did not know where NEC candidates on the regional board stood on these issues.
I pointed out that Vince Maple and myself, both through to the NEC ballot, have publicly stated our positions on trans rights. Mine is at pic.twitter.com/TBiTLrkBmh . We also replied to searching questions from Socialists of Colour, and our responses are at https://socialistsofcolour.weebly.com/nec.html. along with those from some other candidates.
On equalities data, the party now invites members to self-define as BAME or disabled, and this information is used in electing the BAME and disabled representatives on the NEC. When I left the NEC in 2018 LGBT Labour said their members were not comfortable with recording LGBT+ status on party systems. However there are data protection issues in making BAME and disability information available to CLPs, and also with CLPs compiling their own lists, so we are stuck with continuing to send mails to all members and annoying some of them. Ellie said that a new diversity and inclusion board is looking at ways forward.
Local and National News
Naushabah Khan and Vince Maple reported from local government. As well as hosting meetings with councillors across the region, and supporting Labour groups and councillors, Naushabah chaired panel interviews for Oxfordshire candidates, as she had done previously for Kent. Given the distance this would not have been possible in pre-Covid days, and maybe online interviews should continue as an option.
Carol Hayton, one of two regionally-elected national policy forum representatives, provided an excellent written report on how the NPF is working now, and posing questions for policy-making in future.
Peter Kyle, MP for Hove, gave a passionate account of life on the parliamentary frontline. He accused the government of trying to undermine the institutions of state. MPs were still forming long queues outside to vote, and waiting to get into the chamber. Far from neglecting refugees, shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds called the debate where he gave a full-throated defence of human rights and our duty of care, followed by thirty other Labour MPs. Labour had also called an emergency debate condemning the abolition of the department for international development, led attacks on government handling of Covid and education, and exposed the scandal of deaths in care homes, shortages of personal protective equipment and failings in the test, trace and isolate programme. He believed the country wanted Labour to be resolute where the government got it wrong, but without exploiting personal distress. The parliamentary party was united, and Keir Starmer was way ahead as preferred prime minister.
Members who watched prime minister’s questions were appalled at Boris Johnson accusing Keir Starmer of IRA sympathies. Peter explained that the speaker has no power to get statements withdrawn simply because they are untrue. The Tories were whipping their MPs to heckle and barrack Labour speakers. These are not normal times, and the main exchanges are between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, but frontbench spokespersons are on every available channel, putting across Labour’s concerns about health, vaccines and safe return to schools and to work.
This was impressive stuff, much of it new even to us hyper-activists. Members wondered how to get it across to the majority who never watch PMQs. When people’s daily lives are falling apart, they have even less time for politics and politicians. Meetings aren’t recorded, but getting Peter’s speech to our half a million members would cheer a lot of them up no end. I was privileged to be there.
Arran Neathey gave an update on the Co-op digital conference 10-17 October, on Owning the Future and the role of co-operatives in the post-Covid world.
Ellie asked for, and got, support for filling the vacant regional communications officer position. She reported that Tony Bunday had now been selected as the police and crime commissioner candidate for Hampshire, and confirmed that candidates selected for the postponed 2020 elections continued as candidates unless there were changed circumstances or they decided to stand down. The NEC now had the power to suspend or expel members where the case was evidence-based, primarily emails and screenshots, but the national constitutional committee still had a backlog.
Finally the board agreed to my request that Buckingham should be granted a quorum of six members for each of their branches, and 20 for the CLP if and when they move to an all-member structure.
Ann Black, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire CLPs, 07956-637958, firstname.lastname@example.org