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This was the first regular meeting since January and many of us were keen to share experiences from the council elections and the Chesham & Amersham by-election. However we started with an item of unfinished business from the special meeting in February on rules for the new south-east regional executive committee (REC). That had seen ill-tempered exchanges over whether my proposal to omit standing orders from the draft was received in time. Arguably this was not even an amendment because the standing orders are separate from the rules, and they did not make sense. The meeting unanimously agreed with me and since then a working group had met and reached consensus, in an amicable and non-factional manner, on standing orders appropriate to the south-east region.
Five months later, and even after email evidence was provided some were still unhappy. They questioned my authorship because it “didn’t sound like an Ann Black amendment” and said that the committee were misled. It was a matter of integrity and it must never happen again. I wish I’d withdrawn in February, let the NEC reject the standing orders and dumped the consequences into this meeting. It was entirely my responsibility and I would prefer people to shout at me rather than at the staff who cannot reply in kind.
Sadly the atmosphere did not improve, despite requests for respect and members pointing out that as trade unionists we would never allow such personal attacks in the workplace. As someone who was once shamed by the late great Mary Turner, president of the GMB, for my thoughtless comments about party staff, I can only concur. After the shock of finding out about forthcoming redundancies through leaks to the Guardian they deserve our sympathy and support.
We’ll Meet Again?
After exploring numerous options for the regional conference, acting director Ellie Buck reported that available venues in Oxford and Milton Keynes were too expensive or not accessible. She had therefore booked Reading University for Saturday 20 / Sunday 21 November 2021, and would write to CLPs about delegate entitlement, fees and deadlines for delegates, visitors, nominations and motions. Local parties should be prepared to deal with this in early autumn.
Under the new rules the regional chair and vice-chairs are elected from within the REC membership, so elections will be a two-stage process. The conference will also elect a regional conference arrangements committee, but until November the meeting nominated David Hide, Shelley Grainger and Nada Al-Sanjari, together with Vince Maple as chair and Elaine Bolton as vice-chair, as an interim CAC. Their duties are:
- To draw up the agenda of regional conference ensuring that time is provided to enable debate and allow for any policy making process that is stipulated for the conference by the NEC or Annual Conference.
- To publish a timetable for the submission of motions from members and affiliates.
I have asked for clear criteria for motions to be sent to CLPs in the hope of minimising challenges and points of order, and hope the weekend will look outward, focusing on policy and campaigning.
A conference dinner is planned, and as in local parties there is a conflict between being fully inclusive (i.e. low prices) and generating income (i.e. rates which make a profit). There are many demands on the regional office and we cannot will the ends without willing the means. However the raffle should allow members to put in whatever they can afford. I would also suggest alternative arrangements for members who want to meet up and go for an informal curry or whatever.
The first phase of the boundary review closes on 2 August, and the director outlined the NEC’s response to proposals for the south-east, which will bring an increase from 84 to 91 constituencies. This would be submitted to the boundary commission, and councillors and members were asked to send supplementary local arguments. Public hearings would follow in the second phase, and the final decisions would be implemented in July 2023 with no need for additional parliamentary approval. Any general election before then would use the current boundaries.
Now that elections were over, areas were free to set up local government committees (LGCs) as outlined in the 2020 rulebook, with the addition of up to two representatives from the Co-operative party. The Co-op entitlement will be included through an NEC rule change at this year’s annual conference, and the NEC will also allow flexibility to reflect local circumstances, for instance where there are few or no Labour councillors. Where local campaign forums work well, as in Buckinghamshire, they can continue.
Complaints About Complaints (Again)
As at previous meetings there was deep unhappiness about continuing delays in dealing with complaints, and about members suspended for months with no news. There were reports of incidents involving sexism, Islamophobia, misogyny and bullying. Discussion with a representative from the governance and legal unit had yet to take place, and requests for classification by type and severity have gone unanswered.
This frustration is shared by the regional office and by NEC members. I was worried that analysis could slow the process further, though a sample might be useful. In addition formal complaints seem almost to be encouraged. I am clear that the party must act against all forms of harassment and discrimination including sexism, racism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, ableism, ageism, bullying, homophobia and transphobia. However I’m aware of complaints about inept chairing, or reciprocal complaints by members who don’t get on with each other. These are not vexatious, but they clog up the system and delay urgent and serious cases, and I believe that most need local resolution rather than disciplinary action.
After two general elections where constituencies could not select their own parliamentary candidates members wanted to get going soon. Unfortunately the NEC procedures require a regional officer and a REC representative to visit up to five times, and two full all-member meetings. I believe the process could be simplified to give members a democratic choice without excessive pressure on resources, staff, activists, members, and candidates, with a streamlined version for less winnable seats.
There were demands for a full inquest into why a candidate for the Sussex police and crime commissioner was only identified at the last minute. I struggled to blame this on the regional director when only three members applied, one was not eligible because of a criminal record, and one withdrew. I had more sympathy for volunteer agents desperately trying to get certificates for council candidates before the deadline and would like to work, behind the scenes, to make sure this runs more smoothly next time.
Difficulty in contacting the party has been an issue throughout the pandemic at national level, including technical support, membership and the governance and legal unit, as well as regional offices. This was raised as a key factor in grassroots demoralisation. However everyone has been under stress during Covid restrictions and, in my area anyway, members usually contact their constituency officers rather than phoning the regional office. Other members reported good service and thanked the regional staff.
Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics
As at recent NEC meetings some people continued to refer to members “haemorrhaging”. The facts are these. Membership was below 200,000 from the early 2000s to 2015. During Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 and 2016 campaigns and the 2017 general election it surged to around 540,000 and then declined through his remaining time as leader to around 430,000 in November 2019. It shot up to a new high of 550,000 early in 2020 and has slid back to 430,000 in July 2021. The $64,000 question is whether the estimated 100,000 who joined specifically to vote for Keir Starmer will stay or go, and the jury is still out on that one.
The national policy forum had met online on 6 July. Speeches and Q-and-A sessions with Keir Starmer and the party chair Anneliese Dodds were followed by a discussion of the party development review, though as chair of the NPF I think it’s unlikely that significant changes can come to conference this year.
I would have liked to discuss the political messages of the recent elections, but by now it was after 9 p.m. and members were drifting off. Our final act was to approve rules for the Reading Borough LGC, although formally this can be done by the regional director. The vote was 8-7 in favour, compared with unanimous approval for the near-identical Oxford City LGC in January. Some were opposed because the rules didn’t give trade unions one-third of the places, but the rules are changing with the addition of the Co-operative party. The priority is finding more trade union delegates, as even in Oxford the unions are only sending three out of five. In fact the underlying issue was that Reading were already electing delegates to their LGC. The REC was asked to agree the structure rather than its implementation, but concerns about acting pre-emptively would be passed on.
The next meeting was scheduled for Saturday 18 September at the party’s London headquarters, but members were nervous about packing into an enclosed space with no opening windows and we may continue to Zoom. The new REC will have 42 voting members plus at least nine more entitled to attend, an increase from 35 to 51 thanks to the 2018 democracy review. I cannot see meetings getting shorter.
Ann Black, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire CLPs, 31 July 2021