The first full NEC meeting of 2017 was a fairly harmonious affair and, as with the November meeting, ran to the allotted time. The chair, Glenis Willmott MEP began by paying tribute to Margaret Beckett, one of the three Westminster backbenchers on the Committee, who was now the longest-serving woman MP; and to veteran full-timer, Mike Creighton, who was retiring after having worked for the party since 1990. There was also a minute’s silence for several members who had died over the previous couple of months.
Glenis also spoke to the EPLP report that had been tabled and responded to questions. Asked if MEPs would support a second vote on Brexit, she thought they probably would.
Ann Cryer gave a brief report in her new capacity as NPF chair, saying that each of the policy commissions was due to have its first meeting soon. Consultation with the wider party on the papers that had come out of the November NPF meeting was to begin with some events in March and the ‘Your Britain’ website was to be relaunched under a new name. Among the points made by members in the ensuing discussion were that the consultation period was beginning late, given that important elections were on the horizon, that the deadline for submissions needed to be pushed back as far as possible beyond 4 May; that it would be useful to know a.s.a.p. the date of the full NPF meeting planned for the summer; that the midweek evening time-slots for commission meetings were not very convenient for most people; and that papers should be shared with Welsh Government ministers at an early stage to ensure that the experience of devolution was factored into the party’s thinking.
The Local Government report was introduced by Cllr. Nick Forbes, Leader of Newcastle Council and Labour Leader in the LGA. He talked about the social care crisis, which was contributing to the problems in the NHS and had been exacerbated by the Tory government shifting greater financial responsibility to the councils. Many care providers were on the brink of bankruptcy or were talking about handing back their contracts. More positively, more than 200 councillors had registered for the party’s local government conference in February, which would be a useful platform for mayoral candidates. The local elections would be vital, with Labour within a hair’s breadth of taking control of the LGA. Many councillors were angry about their local Labour MPs attacking councils for the difficult decisions they had had to make because of the cuts in their budgets.
There was a lively discussion, in which points were made about the degree of control and patronage that council leaders and cabinet members have under the Local Campaign Forum system, compared to the old local government committees or county parties, where there was greater accountability; about the excessive salaries at the higher levels of local government; and about the problems of privatisation of the social care sector. Responding, Nick said there was inconsistency in the way LCFs operate, which could perhaps be addressed by regional board; that the ratio between highest and lowest salaries was lower in local government than in the private sector and even other parts of the public sector; and that councils were obliged by legislation to operate a social care market.
The General Secretary, Iain McNicol, introduced a written International Report, which listed several areas of common work between Labour and its sister-parties in other countries. James Asser of LGBT Labour then added some more detailed comments on the situation with regard to LGBTI rights in the former Yugoslavia, which vary a great deal, with some countries (e.g. Slovenia) considerably more progressive than others (e.g. Macedonia); he noted the role of the EU in the gains that had been achieved.
The Shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, then gave a Health Report. He said that the NHS was now going through the biggest financial crisis in its history, causing even Andrew Lansley to express concern. Moreover, the situation was about to get worse as a result of the STP (Sustainability and Transformation Plans) process. Brexit also posed serious problems, as 60,000 EU nationals were currently working in the NHS and the service would be in danger of collapse without them.
In the discussion, it was agreed that Labour should support the ’Our NHS’ demo in London on 4 March (Jeremy would be speaking) and we were told that many of the same problems that had been discussed in England were also being experienced in Scotland under the SNP government. I said that the party should make more of the positive experience with the NHS under Wales’ Labour government and added that it was frustrating that Welsh Labour’s progressive policies received such little attention – e.g. The Guardian had reported a move towards an ‘opt-out’ (presumed consent) system of organ donation in France, without acknowledging that Wales already had such a system in place and it has saved many lives. In his response to this specific point, Jonathan said that the Health Policy Commission would have to re-examine the issue of organ donation but he was personally agnostic about it, which I found disappointing, given the obvious benefits of the policy.
Jeremy then gave the Leader’s Report. After thanking Jonathan for his work in the Health brief and reiterating the importance to Labour of the fight to save the NHS, he addressed the issue of Brexit. He said that the Shadow Cabinet had watched the Supreme Court judgement (delivered earlier that day) and made an immediate response. The Tory government had wasted 82 days and a lot of public money appealing against the earlier decision by the High Court. Labour respects the democratic will, as expressed in the ‘Leave’ vote, but wants to protect the interests of the British people in relation to jobs, public services and the social protections presently covered by EU regulations. The Tories’ disdain for civil and employment rights was evident: that very day, one of their backbench MPs was introducing a Ten Minute Bill seeking to restrict trade union rights still further, with the likely tacit support of his party leadership (I was pleased to hear that my own MP, Kevin Brennan, was leading the Labour opposition to this bill and it was duly reported later in the meeting that it had been overwhelmingly defeated). He said that he had spent three hours in a GP surgery after Theresa May had blamed GPs for problems in the NHS. He had also joined Kezia Dugdale in Scotland the previous week and they had attacked the SNP for talking left in Westminster while making cuts in Scotland over the last ten years.
Alun Davies AM, who represents the Welsh Government on the NEC, said that, whatever people had thought they were voting for on 23 June, the Tories’ ‘hard Brexit’ had not been on the ballot-paper; the Welsh Government supports staying in the single market and customs union. He also said that he was glad to hear that the party would be holding one of its economic policy conferences in Cardiff and that the Welsh Government would be able to contribute to the policy development – for example, it was currently setting up a Welsh Development Bank.
The next item was the General Secretary’s Report, for which a lengthy document had been circulated, incorporating updates on the party’s work in each of the UK’s nations and regions. Iain McNicol highlighted the fact that the party’s HQ office was being expanded to take on another floor of the building and that the Leader’s office and the office of Jon Trickett, as Campaign Coordinator, would be accommodated alongside party staff.
A number of disparate points were made in the discussion, including on the very long freeze dates adopted for elections in 2018; some of the misleading media coverage of the previous week’s Disputes Panel meeting; and the apparent leaking of by-election canvass returns by an MP. One of my fellow CLP reps also asked what had happened to the Party Reform Working Group, about which little had been heard since conference in September; Iain replied that the Group was jointly chaired by Jeremy and Tom Watson and that he expected that they would ensure its work resumed soon.
A Conference report was given, during which one CLP rep highlighted the encouraging fact that the number of CLPs attending had been the highest for at least 14 years. This was followed by an Elections report. There was some discussion of the idea of ‘target constituencies’ and how it could be applied fairly. Several of us also raised questions that had been put to us in numerous emails from members in Newham, expressing concerns about alleged irregularities in the selection process for the party’s Mayoral candidate. The main issue seemed to concern the way certain affiliates had cast their votes. One of the full-time officers clarified the rules on this matter but the concerns of those who knew more about the details than I did were not allayed. The general secretary said that the situation had already been discussed by the London Regional Board and felt that it would set a bad precedent for the NEC to reopen the issue after the fact.
We were given a very detailed and informative Membership Report, which highlighted the fact that the party was now more than 543,000 strong (although this represented a slight decrease from the previous summer). There were now proportionately more women and more BME members in the party than before the last general election. 70% of the current membership had joined since January 2015 but a significant portion were currently in arrears. I asked about this and about what the party was doing to try and retain members and was told that a series of surveys of those lapsing or resigning were bung carried out and the information gleaned passed to local parties and MPs. Party officers were also working with the Leader’s office on a Membership Strategy.
We also had a presentation on Labour’s Financial Strategy. The party had ended the previous year with a substantial surplus and expected this to increase in 2017 but there were some major expenditures to come – including funding increased staff costs and election campaigning – and there was a question as to the stability of the current membership levels and the resultant income. The party’s Business Board was also looking at increasing the share of membership revenue coming back to CLPs and at the possibility of a free-standing women’s conference in future years, which would have financial implications.