The Regional Board has been renamed as the South East Regional Executive Committee, or REC. This was a comradely meeting, and Vince Maple, in the chair, moved us efficiently through the agenda.
National policy forum representative Carol Hayton sent a written report, though there was little new to say. Policy commissions were meeting up to June but there had been no national meetings. The NPF chair hasn’t been replaced since I left a year ago, and one of the three vice-chair places is also still vacant. The next REC meeting on 7 December will have a full discussion on how to engage members in policy-making.
Acting regional director Ellie Buck reported. Thames Valley CLPs had selected Laetisia Carter as their police and crime commissioner candidate, but NEC / regional shortlisting for other areas was postponed when a general election seemed imminent. An affirmative ballot might be considered if there was only one candidate, though there may be better uses of time and money.
After two years of pleading to be allowed to choose their parliamentary candidates (PPCs), applications for non-Labour seats were finally opened with members given just two days to apply. Despite some confusion, this news reached most people directly or indirectly. However very few were informed when the deadline was extended from 5 p.m. on Friday 6 September to 10 a.m. on Monday 9 September, and much midnight oil was burned unnecessarily. Buckingham were told that Labour would follow tradition in not standing a candidate against the speaker whatever the Tories did, but within 24 hours John Bercow had announced his retirement so they will, for the first time in 15 years, be mounting their own campaign.
The NEC had not yet agreed a process for selecting these PPCs, and the degree of member engagement could depend on the likely timing of a general election. If there were hustings in the 63 south-east seats, REC members might be asked to provide oversight. Some feared a repeat of the unpopular 2017 process, where all candidates were imposed by a panel of two NEC members plus the chair of the regional board. Ellie said that if one REC member is involved in any way the NEC would pick that individual. If two are allowed, the meeting supported Vince as chair and vice-chair Elaine Bolton as a balanced team. None of the seats were designated as AWS, and though Ellie understood that this would be taken into account at the shortlisting stage, members felt that women were less likely even to apply for open seats.
The REC agreed to write to the NEC regarding failures of communication, delays in allowing non-target constituencies to select followed by a sudden 48-hour ultimatum, the need for a shorter selection process in these seats, the absence of AWS, and the importance of regional and, ideally, CLP engagement. The NEC could not do everything, and should delegate more.
The Clock is Ticking
Looking ahead, Peter Kyle MP analysed the options. A general election before Brexit was resolved would be asking people to vote on two different things: a national government for five years, and an immediate decision which would affect them for generations. Currently 75% of voters identify primarily as Leave or Remain rather than with a party, and this may not play to Labour’s strengths. Putting whatever deal Boris Johnson managed to obtain to a referendum first would allow Labour to go on to campaign on welfare, jobs, health, workers’ rights and all the issues where the people are on our side. For the moment Jeremy Corbyn was proving statesmanlike at the dispatch box in comparison with the Tory leader, and in co-ordinating resistance to Boris Johnson’s no deal, and there was no rush. Peter’s contribution opened a thoughtful debate, which will doubtless continue at conference.
Rumours that trigger ballots were cancelled turned out to be false, and CLPs with Labour MPs must continue through the autumn. Slough would be overseen by the NEC, Lisa Fricker was assigned to Kemptown, Gordon Lean to Canterbury, Vince Maple to Hove and Shelley Grainger to Slough, in the only votes of the morning. Robert Evans will look after Oxford East and I am not sure who has Portsmouth South and Reading East. Southampton Test was delayed for complex reasons and the Brighton and Hove seats would be held until October to avoid overshadowing conference. Each trigger process involves at least two visits by the REC representative and one of our only four regional officers.
As I see it, the problem is this. The trigger process has two parts. First, party branches and affiliates vote on whether simply to reselect their MP, or to hold an open contest against other candidates. Second, if one-third of votes in either section request it, a full selection is held. However this would take us past an autumn election, and MPs who are triggered would enter that election damaged by a degree of local discontent, but with no time to resolve it through an all-member vote. Some REC members welcomed the process as democratic, a blessing for the party and a vital part of membership engagement. Others saw it as a gift to our political opponents and a waste of time, money and energy better spent on talking to undecided voters, not to ourselves. The meeting was told that Unite is not supporting a full selection for any MP anywhere. A further consequence is that Freepost literature can be prepared for new candidates in target seats, with 48-hour turnaround, but not for existing MPs as they may not be the candidates.
On the day of the meeting Diana Johnson in Hull North became the first MP to be triggered. Attendance at seven branch meetings was 2, 3, 3, 9, 11, 11 and 77. A branch which voted for a full selection by two votes to nil carried the same weight as a branch which voted against by 52 votes to 25. Since then Tom Watson and most other MPs have been endorsed by their CLP. As I write, on 15 September, most candidate selections in progress have been cancelled, but triggers continue. I have written to my NEC representatives pointing out that the trigger process is now based on a lie. The question on the ballot paper asks members to choose between the sitting MP and a full selection. In fact the choice is likely to be between the MP and an NEC shortlist or even imposition, with little or no local input.
Even if a general election had been announced conference would have gone ahead, albeit with an altered timetable. This year will be complicated, with 20 topics selected for debate in place of the previous eight, and a bumper crop of rule changes. Being a bit of a nerd I look forward to what the NEC has produced to flesh out the rest of the party democracy review and replace the 18 sections of the rulebook which say
“the NEC may immediately incorporate these rules into this rule book, subject to approval at Annual Conference 2019, when this sub-clause shall expire”.
A briefing for south-east delegates followed the REC meeting, and I hope to meet many again in Brighton.
Vince was pursuing the interaction between councillors’ allowances and universal credit, where the 2% levy for their ALC subscription leaves some worse off than when on benefits. Nada al-Sanjari, the equalities officer, was setting up a Facebook forum for equalities officers to share ideas, and I was pleased to see that two members of my own constituency, Hosnieh Djafari-Marbini and Jabu Nala-Hartley, have been accepted onto the Bernie Grant development programme. John Howarth MEP sent apologies.
Peter Kyle and Rosie Duffield gave further updates on their activities and the constantly changing national situation. A highlight for us all was Slough MP Tan Dhesi’s stinging demolition of Boris Johnson’s remarks comparing Muslim women to letterboxes and bank-robbers. Unusually for parliament, MPs spontaneously rose and applauded. On an early election, Peter quoted Margaret Beckett’s advice: if a Tory prime minister really really wants something, best to say No. The Tories had allegedly spent £25 million on election messaging, and framing it as parliament against the people was dangerous. This Brexit crisis was down to their mismanagement, and they had to be made to own it. The mood of unity among MPs and throughout the party was welcomed, and long may it continue.
Finally I asked that all statements from REC members should make clear when they represent official decisions, and when they are the expressions of individuals or groups. Which of course includes this account, written primarily for Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire CLPs, though I welcome comments and questions from all members in the region. It is available as a pdf at SE REC 7 September 2019 Ann Black
Ann Black, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire CLPs, 07956-637958, firstname.lastname@example.org