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.