The NEC was preceded by a disputes panel which cleared the cases remaining after two smaller panels had spent twelve hours working through outstanding referrals. The backlog had built up due to pressures on investigating officers, the absence of a Chair for four months, and the failure to convene extra meetings in May and July despite my requests. The panel should now again be able to keep up with new matters
There were concerns about simply moving members from the disputes panel queue into the queue for national constitutional committee hearings, but hopefully these will be alleviated by more NCC members and the review of procedures.
Throughout the morning we were serenaded by chants of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” by Labour Against the Witch-Hunt and Jewish Voice for Labour: the windows are not soundproof. The main meeting opened with a query about why the names of those elected to the NEC were all over social media four hours before the candidates were told. General secretary Jennie Formby said that only a very few people knew the results. All I will add is that those on the centre and the right are unlikely to leak to skwawkbox, which broke the news. It is a site which does not exemplify the kinder, gentler politics promised by Jeremy back in 2015.
Resuming the debate on anti-semitism, again it was skwawkbox which published the statement tabled by Jeremy Corbyn, a leaked copy marked up with yellow highlighter. Perhaps the new measures to which the NEC signed up will stem the flood; in future there will be no phones, tablets or laptops in meetings, no-one will be able to dial in remotely, and staff will attend only for their items and to take minutes.
Jeremy Corbyn contrasted the huge level of online abuse to which he is personally subjected with the love and support which he receives on the ground, and my many visits to local parties confirm the esteem and affection in which he is held. On the discussion there have been numerous accounts of varying accuracy and I will not add to them or identify individual contributions. Eventually the NEC did adopt the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition and all its examples, and the accompanying sentence simply states that this does not undermine freedom of expression on Israel or the rights of Palestinians, as has always been the case. I hope and believe that reports of reopening this discussion, after I and other unhelpful members have departed, are false.
Two further points. First, when the disputes panel considers cases, most referrals to the NCC are under rule 2.1.8, for bringing the party into disrepute, or for breaching the party’s code of conduct on social media. It is neither necessary nor useful to consider only the narrow point of whether an utterance is technically anti-semitic if it is obviously offensive, obscene or damaging to the party, and on most cases the panel is easily able to reach consensus.
Second, the problem is far wider than the small numbers of outright anti-semitic remarks which reach the NEC. If you are a Jewish member, and every party meeting spends half its time discussing whether anti-semitism is really an issue or whether it is all got up to undermine Jeremy, I do not imagine that you will feel welcome. Any more than I would feel welcome surrounded by shouty men saying that only 0.01% of party members are overtly sexist, and anyone who complains is part of a rightwing media conspiracy. The democracy review suggests that “specific events [should be] organised regionally for new women members who often find the local meeting culture off-putting”. To which the tart response from the MPs on the NEC is, how about making the local meeting culture less off-putting and inclusive to all members?
Work in Progress
Although the meeting was originally called to discuss the democracy review, few decisions were made. Staff had done a heroic job of grouping the 120 recommendations under nine main headings, including relative priorities and the broad cost implications, with notes of where NEC members had made alternative suggestions. These will be turned into nine batches of rule changes for conference. I’ve covered the main features in previous reports, and this was mainly an opportunity to make additional points. On some areas, such as changes to annual conference and to policy-making, the trade unions wished to have further discussions at the TUC before finalising their position.
Also notable was the number of areas referred for further work before returning to the NEC in 2019. I counted up to 21, ranging across local government committees, CLP funding, regional structures and elections, national equalities committees, disability, digital strategy, guidance on CLP governance, and much else. NEC members and party staff will be very busy for the next twelve months, maybe longer, and I hope that there is spare capacity for campaigning to win elections in the real world.
The NEC may only get a few days to examine the proposed rule changes, and I am concerned that this may be insufficient. The argument in 2016 about whether Jeremy Corbyn should be on the ballot without needing fresh nominations arose because those who drafted the rules did not cover the situation where an incumbent leader was challenged. The more changes, and the less time, the greater the likelihood of omissions and ambiguities. But I will do my best while I still have the opportunity.
Conference For The Many But Not For All
The NEC also received an outline grid for conference and, as last year, priority will rightly be given to delegates from CLPs and affiliates. No-one is arguing for every obscure NEC member to get a three-minute slot replying to a policy commission report, or for every shadow minister to get a glimpse of the spotlight. However removing the Scottish, Welsh, European and local government reports sends bad messages to comrades outside England, to those who exercise power at devolved level, and to our MEPs for whom this may be their last-ever Labour conference. Inclusiveness would require a total of 20 minutes, and I believe would be well worth it to maintain comradeship and unity across the whole of UK Labour.
As a postscript I attended a pre-conference regional briefing, and learned that delegates will no longer get hard copies of the NPF, NEC and other reports unless they ask. We were told that a survey in July gave them this option, so maybe they are all happy with reading 60-page documents on their phones. The change is being made for cost and environmental reasons, but it has not been discussed with the NEC.