NEC meeting, 19 September 2017 and Labour Conference

The NEC meeting on 19 September was the annual pre-conference gathering, dedicated primarily to signing off the motions and other business to be debated by the party the following week. Given the controversial nature of some of the rule change motions, in particular, there was originally an expectation that the meeting would be contentious and drawn-out. Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to secure support for his party reform agenda had been enhanced, however, by a number of factors. First of all, there has been a general acknowledgement by key critics of Jeremy’s like Tom Watson that his authority has been enhanced by the party’s excellent general election results in June. Second, the political balance on the NEC had been changed subtly but significantly by Kezia Dugdale’s resignation, with immediate effect, as Scottish Labour Leader, as her position, including her NEC place, has been taken up by her deputy, Alex Rowley, who is more inclined to support Jeremy than Kezia was. Finally, Jeremy had held talks with the major affiliated unions before the meeting, in order to secure their backing for a package of proposals that could be put before conference in the expectation of agreement (details of this below). As a result, the meeting was shorter and less argumentative than it might have been.

As Jeremy was running late, the Deputy Leader’s Report was taken first. Tom Watson commented that the Tories seemed to be struggling to hold things together even for the duration of the Brexit talks, given that the DUP had broken ranks and Boris Johnson had caused consternation with his outburst over Brexit. Given the evident opportunity for Labour to capitalise on this, Tom said that the discussion over candidates for key seats was vital, as we need to choose an appropriately diverse range of candidates, which would be assisted by initiatives like the bursary scheme for candidates from working class backgrounds. Since the election, Tom had spoken at a wide range of events, ranging from Sikhs for Labour to the Musicians Union. Among the issues he was dealing with were the Sky takeover, the growing problem of gambling addiction and the need to get more working-class people involved in the arts. He was also working with the GMB on a memorial service for Mary Turner, to be held in February 2018. In questions to his report, Tom was asked about New Labour’s short-lived promotion of super-casinos and about the need for greater unity in public statements on the EU.  He replied that the super-casinos in the 2005 Gambling Act had quickly been dropped but, in any case, the explosion of online gambling had proven a far greater problem than casinos. On Europe, Tom said that there were now no differences between the positions of shadow cabinet members, a situation aided by the “meticulous” approach of Keir Starmer, although slight presentational differences occasionally crept into media interviews.

The next item was Obituaries and warm tributes were paid to former MPs, Kevin McNamara and Nigel Beard and especially to Mary Turner, who had sat on the NEC for several years and had acted as its chair, towards the end of a lifetime of service to the GMB and the Labour party.

As Jeremy had now arrived, his Leader’s Report was taken next and he began by suggesting that we send a message of support to Tessa Jowell, who is seriously ill, and by thanking Kezia Dugdale for her contribution to the party and welcoming her acting successor, Alex Rowley. He reiterated that, while the Tories are in disarray, Labour is preparing for government. The Tories were using the EU Withdrawal Bill to transfer a great deal of power to themselves and had flouted parliamentary practice by placing their own MPs as chairs of the various committees. Labour was united around support for tariff-free trade with Europe, protection of the rights of EU nationals and defence of the rights and regulations that had come via Europe, often at the behest of trade unions, environmental groups and the like. Jeremy had asked Cat Smith to lead an inquiry into abuse of parliamentary candidates that had taken place in the election period, which had been completely unacceptable; Luciana Berger and especially Diane Abbott had been particularly badly treated. Jeremy had visited around 50 marginal constituencies over the summer, along with several foodbanks, community projects etc.

Jeremy said that the forthcoming conference was likely to be the biggest ever and we needed to ensure that delegates and visitors – many of whom would be attending for the first time – would be enthused by it.

He then outlined the package of measures that had emerged from discussions with the unions and other key stakeholders, which he was asking the NEC to put to conference. This included the compromise of a 10% nominations threshold from MPs for future leadership candidates, along with 4 extra seats on the NEC (3 for CLPs, 1 for unions), to be added a.s.a.p. after conference, and a wide-ranging review of party democracy and policy-making, to be led by Jeremy’s political secretary (and former MP) Katy Clark. The latter could well result in further changes to the nominations, as well as changes in the respective roles of the NPF and conference in making policy.  Although one or two NEC members complained that the review had been sprung on them without prior discussion as to its terms of reference, there was ultimately virtually no opposition to the proposals but a lengthy and fruitful discussion as to how the review should operate and what should be included. I was among those who spoke to welcome the initiative and commented that there is a long-standing democratic deficit in the party, which Jeremy now has a mandate to address; the rules and procedures are opaque and inconsistent and must be particularly confusing and off-putting to the many thousands of new members who have joined in the last few years.

Others contributing to the discussion asked how (if at all) the Scottish and Welsh parties would fit into the review; suggested that it should incorporate the various strands of the party review undertaken in 2015-16; should give particular attention to the operation of BAME Labour (about which NEC members had been lobbied before the meeting, following revelations that very few of the party’s BAME members had participated in the election of bits NEC representative); should consider freeze-dates for internal elections and candidate selections; and should address the accountability arrangements for the party’s local government work, especially in relation to the LGA. Tom Watson also made the reasonable point that if the nominations threshold was being lowered for leadership candidates, then the same should apply to deputy leadership candidates. In his response, Jeremy accepted Tom’s argument and most of the other points made. He said that he was not proposing that the review should look at Scottish and Welsh party structures, although some aspects would have implications for the Scottish and Welsh parties to consider and he would meet the respective party leaderships to discuss this. He said that he was asking the NEC to endorse the paper as it stood (which was duly agreed) but that all the points made would be taken into consideration and that he would come back to future NEC reports with short progress reports.

The next item was the report of the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) on preparations for the party conference the following week, presented by the CAC Chair, Harry Donaldson. There was a great deal of detail but the most significant point was that this was going to be an unprecedentedly big event, with up to 13,000 people expected to be present in once capacity or another, including as many as 7,000 party members; 1,500 were expected to attend the women’s conference on the Saturday. 120 contemporary motions had been deemed valid and would go forward for debate, subject to the outcome of the priorities ballot.

Also included under this item was a motion that I had submitted regarding the eligibility of certain elected CLP delegates to attend conference. At the special meeting held in April in response to the general election announcement, it had been push the deadline for conference delegate applications back two weeks, from 23 June to 7 July, to give CLPs more timer to fit this in, despite the disruption caused by the election. Delegates are required to have been party members for twelve months before the applications deadline but it had become clear over the summer that the freeze-date had been left as 23 June 2016, instead of being pushed back in line with the applications deadline. Harry Donaldson said that the CAC had decided to ‘uncouple’ the deadlines in April before the decision went to the NEC for ratification but that hadn’t been made clear to us at the time, as I pointed out when moving the motion. Moreover, the relevant section of the party rules makes it clear that the twelve-month gap between the two dates is set in stone. 65 delegates elected by their CLPs in good faith had been rejected because of the original decision and in seven cases, a CLP had been left without a delegate. Harry suggested that some sort of arrangement could be made for these seven CLPs but I insisted on putting my motion that the original decision be rescinded and, somewhat to my surprise, this was carried with very little opposition. I understand that, despite the short notice, 43 of the 65 affected delegates were able to attend conference a few days later as a result of the motion.

Following the decision to adopt Jeremy’s democracy review and immediate rule change proposals, the NEC had to consider its attitude towards the 12 rule change motions submitted by CLPs last year, which had been scheduled for debate at conference. These included the so-called “McDonnell amendment” to reduce the nominations threshold for leadership candidates from 15% to 5% of Labour MPs, as well as proposals to remove the hurdle that motions must be “contemporary” and the arcane practice of waiting a year before discussing motions. Although many of these were very worthy and would have been supported in principle by a majority of NEC members, those dealing with party democracy (the vast majority) were all addressed by Jeremy’s various proposals and it was therefore agreed to ask the CLPs or other bodies in question to remit them or, if they refused, to advise conference to vote against. A similar stance was taken in relation to two other motions, which were addressed by a separate NEC motion. The latter was, in effect, another compromise, which tightens up the disciplinary policy in relation to discriminatory behaviour or language. It therefore addressed issues covered by a motion promoted by the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) which effectively sought to highlight anti-Semitism and to provide for it to be penalised more severely than other transgressions; and a conflicting motion that sought to establish that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism. The JLM had been consulted on the NEC motion (drafted by Shami Chakrabarti) and agreed to remit their motion and were claiming that the latter gave them everything they wanted but in my view the agreed version was far less problematic, although I had residual reservations (also voiced by others) about whether the motion sought to penalise the holding of views rather than just their expression.

The other item discussed in relation to conference business was the matter of whether Sadiq Khan should be allocated a speaking slot at conference, by way of a Local Government Report. Different views were expressed but the majority view seemed to be that it was more important to maximise the opportunities for delegates to speak than to provide a forum for “big names” and that, if there were a Local Government speaker, there was a strong case for it to be Marvin Rees – apparently the only Afro-Caribbean mayor in Europe – rather than Sadiq, who already has a very high profile.

The final major item at the NEC meeting was the decision on which of the 76 priority non-Labour-held parliamentary seats in England should have all-women shortlists (AWS). There had been consultation with the CLPs in question since the selection process had been agreed at the July NEC meeting and their views had been taken into account by officers in drawing up a paper with recommendations on each seat. We worked through the list, constituency by constituency, accepting most of the recommendations but changing a few. The end result is that 46 of the 76 seats will be AWS, which is a really positive outcome, making it much more likely that we’ll achieve gender balance in the PLP after the next general election.

I won’t discuss the conference itself in detail, as most people will have seen the media coverage, even if they weren’t present in person. It is just worth mentioning, however, that the NEC’s recommendations in relation to rule changes were agreed by conference. All of the bodies that had submitted their own rule change motions agreed to remit them, with the exception of Brighton Pavilion CLP, who were seeking to abolish the “contemporary” stipulation and felt particularly strongly because of their failure to get the 2015 conference to discuss the then-recent and locally-significant Shoreham air crash; their motion was defeated, although two-thirds of CLP delegates voted in favour.

There were two NEC meetings at conference, one beforehand on the Friday evening and the other towards the end on the Tuesday evening, and both were very brief. The only significant decision made at the first meeting was to add to the rule change on NEC membership a change to the nominations criteria required of NEC candidates. The current situation was that a candidate needs three CLP nominations, one of which must be from their ‘home’ constituency and it was agreed to change this to five CLP nominations, without a requirement that their ‘home’ constituency be among them (this had been discussed at the previous week’s NEC meeting without a firm decision being made). The second NEC meeting at conference welcomed new members and said goodbye to those stepping down. Jamie Bramwell and Martin Mayer, both from Unite, were departing and were thanked by Jeremy and the NEC for their sterling contributions to the party. Ian Murray of the FBU, Mick Whelan of Aslef and Sarah Owen of the GMB (replacing the late Mary Turner) were welcomed as new trade union representatives. Andy Kerr of the CWU, who has been vice-chair of the NEC over the last year, was elected as chair for 2017/18 and Jennie Formby of Unite was elected vice-chair.

Welsh Executive Committee meeting, 9 September 2017 (joint report with Chris Newman)

The meeting began with the Chair, Mike Payne asking the WEC to agree to discuss the papers, even though they had not been circulated with the amount of notice specified in the party rules; this was duly agreed (otherwise it would have been a very short meeting!) Mike also announced that Martin Eaglestone would be leaving Welsh Labour, after eight years as our Policy Officer, to go and work at the Assembly and warm tributes were paid to Martin for his sterling work over the years.

Derek Vaughan MEP then gave the EU report. He said that the UK government had boxed themselves in by committing themselves to a hard Brexit or no deal. They could back away from that but only at the risk of antagonising their own hardliners. Theresa May was expected to give a flexible speech on Europe before the Tory conference, then a more ‘hardline’ speech during the conference itself. The leak that week about the government’s intentions in relation to immigration hadn’t made things any easier for them. The European Parliament would get a veto on the final deal and has a track record of voting things down in the run-up to European elections (which would be the situation in 2019). The EU institutions are very united and it is agreed that citizenship rights; the UK’s liabilities (the money that the government has agreed in principle to pay for structural funds etc, but doesn’t want to put a figure on) and a common travel area with Ireland have to be resolved before other issues. Negotiations on a future trade deal wouldn’t begin in October as planned if there were insufficient progress on these three issues. The next EU budget post 2020 could not be discussed until the outcome of the Brexit talks, and whether there would continue to be UK contributions, was known. There had been a welcome shift in Labour’s own policy in recent weeks, especially in relation to the transitional period – but it was clear that the EU would not accept the latter if it were simply a means to buy time; the outcome would have to be known in advance. Derek’s own view was that we have to keep all options open; the public mood was volatile and, if the economy were seen to be faltering, there could be a shift in attitudes toward Brexit.

Derek was asked about progress on the future relationship with Ireland and said that he has regular discussions with Irish and Northern Ireland MEPs and they had understandable concerns about whether there would be a ‘hard’ border after Brexit. There were also implications for the Good Friday Agreement, which said that there could be no constitutional change on the island of Ireland without the consent of the people, yet Brexit is going ahead against the opposition of a majority in the North. Ultimately, the heads of government of the other 27 member states would decide whether sufficient progress had been made on this to allow discussions to move on to other issues.

Chris raised concerns about dissension within the PLP, with MPs like John Mann backing hard Brexit. Derek said that he meets Jeremy and Keir Starmer regularly and there is general support within the PLP for the leadership’s position of staying in the single market and customs union for a transitional period; only a minority support hard Brexit.

The WLGA Report was given by Cllr. Debbie Wilcox, Leader of Newport Council and of the WLGA. She said that Wales’ new local government leaders were taking a new approach and had written to the First Minister expressing the need to move on from austerity budgeting and to acknowledge the real problems caused by the Tories. There was a budget shortfall of £344 in social care across Wales and £400 million of efficiency savings had already been made. After the NHS, the next two biggest public services – education and social care – were the responsibility of local government and there needed to be the capacity to plan ahead, ideally over a three-year period. The WLGA were looking at all possible options for funding and was consulting the leading economist, Gerry Holtham, who had advised the Welsh Government. Debbie’s own authority had cut £48 million in three years. There needed to be flat cash settlements in future, at the very least.  Debbie said that there was widespread support for many of the proposals in the Welsh Government’s consultation on local government elections but not for allowing council staff to stand for election in their own authorities, or for the proposal to allow a move towards proportional representation where a council wished to do so. The adoption in Scotland of the Single Transferable Vote system had, Debbie said, allowed the SNP to become the largest party overnight. She also opposed any return to the committee system, pointing out that an independent evaluation commissioned by the Welsh Government in 2015 had said that the current arrangements were working well.

Also included under this same agenda item was a consultation paper entitled Review of Local Campaign Forums and Related Structures, intended to seek the views of party units and affiliates as to how well the current arrangements in this area are working. The paper had been drawn up by the Local Government sub-committee and was presented as being “for the information” of the WEC. Darren asked that the WEC be given the opportunity to amend the paper and it was agreed to add a further question that he had suggested to the consultation, asking whether the LCF structure provides sufficient mechanisms for democratic accountability. A further question, suggested by another member, was also added in relation to making selection procedures more consistent across Wales. Darren praised Debbie’s position on challenging austerity and highlighted the anti-austerity rally taking place in Cardiff that afternoon, with Labour politicians and trade unionists among the speakers.

Next, Carwyn Jones gave his Leader’s Report. He began by celebrating the fact that the Welsh Government’s Trade Union Bill – repealing, within Wales, aspects of the Tories’ own draconian act – had now become law. Ironically, the powers used to pursue this legislation would be lost under the new Wales Act but now that it was on the statute book, it would be hard for the Tories to reverse the Assembly’s decision. Turning to Europe, Carwyn said that the referendum outcome should not be interpreted as a vote for the kind of ‘hard Brexit’ that the Tories were seeking. He had met Nicola Sturgeon recently to confirm that their two governments were taking the same position on the Tories’ Withdrawal Bill and they had made it clear to Damian Green that there was no chance of Wales supporting the bill as it stood, especially Clause 11, which would prevent powers from going back to Wales. Wales would also need the same arrangements in relation to its maritime border with Ireland as for the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The Tories clearly don’t understand the implications of their own policy, especially with regard to Northern Ireland. Carwyn was very pleased that Labour’s position in Wales and Westminster was now so clearly united and he had jointly written an article with Keir Starmer for the Western Mail.

Chris asked Carwyn how it was the Scottish Government were able to lift the 1% pay cap for devolved public sector workers but the Welsh Government could not do so and also referred to the concerns raised by Plaid Cymru about the training of medics at Bangor University. Carwyn replied, on the first point, that Scotland was more generously funded than Wales under the Barnett Formula and there was also the possibility that the Scots would choose to use its income tax powers to help fund pay rises. Wales would like to break the cap but it would mean cutting other services. With regard to the medical school issue, he said that the Welsh Government would like to see medical training taking place in Bangor but a stand-alone medical school there is not sustainable because the population is not big enough and students would end up travelling around the country for some of their training.

In her report as Shadow Welsh Secretary, Christina Rees told the WEC about al the campaigning she had been doing around Wales. The party had had a warm reception at the Eisteddfod and the Royal Welsh Show, among other events, with its literature produced jointly by Jeremy and Carwyn, very well received. John McDonnell had visited key seats in Mid and West Wales and Jeremy, accompanied by Carwyn and Christina, had made a successful visit to North Wales. Meanwhile the Tories had reneged on their promises in relation to rail electrification and were prevaricating over the Swansea Tidal Lagoon. In questions to Christina, it was pointed out that the Tories on Bridgend Council had backed Labour motion criticising the UK government and three of them had now left the party.

There was then an important item on Selections for Parliamentary seats in Wales, focussing mainly on the arrangements for choosing candidates for the twelve non-Labour-held seats. These had been divided into six priority (“offensive”) seats and another six (“majority” seats) considered less winnable. There had been a consultation with CLPs in the “offensive” seats about the use of all-women shortlists (AWS) and three had indicated that they would be happy to choose their candidate via an AWS. The WEC’s working group on Gender Equality had recommended that these three should all be AWS and also that Arfon as the most marginal seat in Wales, should be added to the list, even though the CLP had sought an open selection. In addition, it was proposed that at least three of the “majority” seats should select via AWS and that any vacancies that may occur in Labour-held seats should be filled by AWS until gender balance is achieved in Wales’ parliamentary representation.

These proposals gave rise to lengthy debate, not on the principles, which almost everyone supported, but on a suggestion from the Chair that all Welsh CLPs should be consulted one more time before the proposals were put into effect. Some supported this view, on the basis that it might help to mitigate conflict, but Chris and Darren were among those arguing for the alternative view, that the party had already debated this issue very thoroughly over several years and the direction of travel had been clear at the last conference. Several women on the WEC who had campaigned hard for gender equality for much of their political lives gave very passionate and persuasive speeches, arguing that it had taken long enough to get to the point of having clear proposals to make that a reality and it was time for the party to show leadership. When it was put to the vote, the latter position was carried, albeit with a provision for an appeals procedure if a particular CLP felt it had legitimate reason not to adopt an AWS.

A second issue debated under this item was a proposal from one of the CLP reps, Catherine Thomas (seconded by Darren) that the six “majority” seats be allowed to select their candidates as soon as the first six selections had been concluded. This was in response to representations from several CLPs in the region that Catherine represents – Mid and West Wales – who were anxious to have their candidate in place as soon as possible, in case of another early general election. Against this, it was argued that the election could be a long way off and that it would be unfair to impose a heavy burden of responsibility on candidates and CLPs to run a lengthy campaign when there would probably be little chance of success at the end. In addition, it was pointed out that there could be problems if Assembly selections were carried out first. In response, it was argued that the CLPs and aspiring candidates in question were best placed to make these decisions and their views should be heeded and ultimately Catherine’s proposal was agreed, albeit by a very slender margin. We were told, however, that only two selections could be conducted at a time and each would take around twelve weeks, so the whole process could still be dragged out over more than a year.

Louise Magee then gave her General Secretary’s Report. She said that Welsh Labour had had a successful summer, with the Corbyn and McDonnell visits having gone well and the party’s presence at the Royal Welsh Show and Eisteddfod being well received at the events themselves and on social media. Louise added her own thanks to Martin for all his hard work and confirmed that the party would soon be advertising to fill the vacancy.

Darren pointed out that the new academic year was about to begin and asked what the party would be doing to recruit new students especially at freshers’ fayres. Louise replied that UK Labour Students would be co-ordinating the party’s efforts and we were also told that Welsh Labour Students had produced a leaflet for this occasion and that individual university Labour clubs would be mobilising.

The last substantive item was a paper on Current Issues Around Electoral Reform, which included some comments on the Welsh Government consultation, to which Debbie Wilcox had referred earlier, taking a broadly similar line to hers and suggesting that the Party Development Board (PDB – in effect, the “executive” of the WEC) agree a formal Welsh Labour response to the consultation. It also noted that the Assembly Expert panel was currently taking evidence on the Assembly’s electoral system, its number of members and the voting age. This would report in the autumn, giving Welsh Labour an opportunity to have its own discussions about the Assembly’s future electoral arrangements.

Darren asked that the party’s response to the Local Government consultation be discussed by the full WEC, rather than just the PDB, but it was explained that, as the deadline was approaching soon, this was the last meeting at which it could be discussed and the agenda was already full. Reassurance was offered, however that the role of the PDB would be simply to make a submission in line with existing party policy, rather than to develop a new policy without recourse to the full WEC.

Minutes had been tabled for the July meeting and the very brief meeting at conference in March but not for the special meeting in April, called in response to the general election announcement. Darren asked for these and it was agreed that they should be provided.

Finally, we were told that Correspondence had been received from Aberconwy, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr and Dwyfor Meirionnydd CLPs, seeking to raise various considerations of party democracy, but these issues were either matters for the NEC or had not been received in good time.