The chair Vince Maple reported on a positive meeting with general secretary David Evans, where he raised the need for more resources in the south-east. A partywide review of staffing was under way, though David acknowledged the importance of replacing our communications officer. Deficiencies in digital systems were being addressed. There was more to do on handling complaints, but the party was said to be making inroads into the backlog. Vince thought that regular meetings between David and regional chairs would be useful.
Peter Kyle, MP for Hove, again gave an upbeat report. People expected Labour MPs to hold the government to account in parliament and be visible in their communities, and he looked forward to being able to meet and socialise again when the Covid crisis passed. The Brexit vote was tough for passionate Remainers, but leaving with no deal – Boris Johnson’s preferred option – had to be avoided at all costs. Labour must pick up on daily issues and also think strategically. They were using opposition day debates to focus on government failings on free school meals and universal credit. More than 100,000 lives had been lost, among the highest per capita rates in the world, and this had not been inevitable. Moving Covid-positive patients into care homes, crowded beaches in the summer and university students returning all raised infection rates and created conditions where mutations were more likely.
I asked again for regular messages from Keir Starmer and the shadow cabinet to be sent directly to members, highlighting Labour achievements against a Tory majority of 80, and explaining frontbench thinking on current debates. Most constituencies do not have Labour MPs, and very little cuts through the Covid headlines and the mainstream media. Vince drew attention to the excellent weekly bulletin from the leader of the LGA (local government association) Labour Group – punchy, non-patronising and full of doorstep ammunition. Leader’s office please copy.
Other members called for fresh voices and engagement with new issues, for instance climate change. This government had let down the most vulnerable and failed on social care. Now was the time to start developing Labour’s vision of a fairer, more equal Britain. Peter agreed, and pointed out that work on the Beveridge report began in 1943 while the war was still continuing. This was a moment in history which posed new challenges, and needed answers which were both bold and credible.
Carol Hayton gave her usual informative update from the national policy forum, and urged members to continue sending in submissions on whatever they were interested in, rather than feel constrained by what the NPF thinks they should be interested in. Around 90% of entries on the website are from individuals, and she asked for more contributions from local parties. The regional director Ellie Buck would share NPF members’ contact details with CLPs so they could set up discussions and speaker meetings. Carol has represented the south-east region for nearly 18 years, consistently taking up members’ views and reporting back, and the meeting recorded its thanks.
The committee agreed that the regional conference, postponed from 2020, would be best held in the autumn, and the first weekend in November is pencilled in. It may be possible to meet in person by then, though online events can be more inclusive for those with caring responsibilities, disabilities or transport difficulties. A hybrid event, mixing virtual and physical elements, would be challenging, but by then we will be able to learn from the national women’s conference and perhaps annual conference, including ballots to elect committees and vote on motions. The next meeting will discuss proposals for new south-east structures in line with the changes agreed at annual conference in 2019.
Until then we heard from our current officers. Most trade unions were working remotely, and some smaller unions needed more encouragement to engage with the party. According to the CLP representative members were still unhappy about the same things as last time. Others added lack of party unity, delays in dealing with suspensions and complaints, and the need to tackle misogyny and sexual harassment as well as anti-semitism. The equalities representative listed problems experienced by BAME candidates, including racist abuse, and issues relating to Islamophobia, disability and trans rights. Our invitation to a representative from the governance and legal unit would be picked up when new staff are in post.
May Elections or Maybe Not
I reported on NEC meetings since November (full accounts at www.annblack.co.uk), including new and more rigorous checks on applicants for public office. I had questioned whether it was feasible to apply these to already-selected candidates in the short time before nominations close. I am still not convinced that the regional office or local parties have the capacity to weed out and replace any who fall short without significant disruption. [The mail sent to candidates on 5 February has caused considerable upset because it shows no appreciation of their hard work and commitment. I suspect the few problematic people who are identified and removed will be outnumbered by others who resent the tone and simply drop off the list on 26 February.]
Members expressed serious concerns about holding elections in May, and favoured delaying until the autumn, or later if safety cannot be guaranteed. We have a duty of care to our volunteers and to the public Only 11% of council election officials think that May is doable, and are worried about not having sufficient staff. Parties cannot canvass, deliver leaflets or collect signatures for nomination papers. Using Dialogue to phone voters reaches relatively few people, though on the positive side some are stuck at home, bored, and glad to have a chat with a friendly local councillor or candidate The government seems, as with everything else, to have done no practical planning, for instance voting over several days or all-postal ballots. As the United States managed to hold a full presidential election (to the relief of the world) it should be possible given half-competent leadership, but in any case it is out of our control.
Finally I was pleased that the committee endorsed the rules for a new Oxford city local government committee, with five councillors, five CLP delegates, five trade union delegates and a Co-operative party representative, to be put into effect as soon as circumstances permit.
This report is available as a pdf here. As usual please contact me with any comments or questions.
Ann Black, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire CLPs, 07956-637958, firstname.lastname@example.org