This meeting took place a couple of weeks after the English local elections, in which Labour significantly increased the number of seats it held, although not to the rather exaggerated extent predicted beforehand, both by the party and by some more excitable media commentators. Jeremy was not present, as he was attending a tribute to the Manchester Arena victims, but rang in for part of the meeting. This was also Eddie Izzard’s first meeting, after taking over the CLP seat vacated by the resignation of Christine Shawcroft.
The first item was a vote as to who should replace Jennie Formby as Vice Chair, following her appointment as General Secretary. There were two candidates, both very experienced female trade unionists, Andi Fox from the TSSA and Wendy Nicholls from UNISON. I voted for Andi, who has been more consistently supportive of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the direction in which he has tried to take the party, but Wendy won the election by just one vote. Carwyn Jones, the Welsh First Minister, dialled in to take part in the meeting and there was some confusion and consternation over this, as the NEC had not been officially informed that his appointee, Alun Davies, had resigned; moreover, those who had been told were expecting another Welsh AM, Jeremy Miles, to have taken over, rather than Carwyn himself. With regard to Jennie Formby’s vacant seat as a trade union rep on the NEC, we were told that the slot would not be filled until party conference.
We then moved on to the obituaries of prominent Labour figures who had died in recent months, and particular tributes were paid to Tessa Jowell. Special mention was made of her role in securing the 2012 Olympics for London.
Tom Watson gave his Deputy Leader’s report, highlighting the hectic schedule of campaigning that he and other frontbench MPs had undertaken in the English local elections and pointed out that, as well as the more obvious victories, the party had won the popular vote in the Tory-held borough of Wandsworth and its vote had increased in Barnet. He said that it was possible to take different views of the election results, depending whether one was a pessimist or optimist. He condemned the Tories’ betrayal of the victims of phone-hacking in relation to the Leveson Two inquiry vote, but said that the campaign would continue. There had been good news on the issue of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, with the intention to reduce the initial stake from £100 to £2, on which Labour MPs including Carolyn Harris had worked.
In the following discussion, some NEC members expressed their frustration about the negative comments made by certain prominent Labour MPs during the local election campaign. Tom Watson sympathised with these concerns, but felt that there were a dwindling number of politicians engaging in such antics. The party’s work on the Windrush scandal was also praised, as was its efforts on the Sainsburys-Asda takeover.
Katy Clark then gave a report on the progress of the Party Democracy Review. She and her team would be taking submissions until the end of June, and were seeking to maximise engagement and the geographical reach of the review. There were to be several national events covering issues including Women’s Committees, Disability, LGBT and BAME Labour. Katy was expecting a huge volume of submissions on Phase Three of the review, as the deadline drew closer. There had been lots of requests for different types of positive action, some legal, others not. There was a need to improve the party’s own data in relation to members with protected characteristics; the current system can capture information on BAME status and disability when people join the party, but not at any time afterwards. There had also been more than 100 submissions in response to the CLP secretaries survey. Pete Willsman said that the party needed an impartial ombudsman to deal with complaints and concerns. I reported that the Welsh Labour conference in April had agreed to undertake a Welsh Party Democracy Review to cover those areas of party life in Wales that were excluded from Katy’s review, as they were devolved to the Welsh Executive Committee.
The next item was the International Report. Labour was organising an event for our sister parties from 25 countries, and there was also bilateral work with the Australian and New Zealand parties underway. Labour was also helping the Italian and French parties with regeneration projects following serious electoral setbacks. Keith Vaz also urged the party to offer greater assistance to the Yemen Socialist Party, which was agreed.
Richard Corbett MEP then gave the EPLP report, which included news of the new Posted Workers Directive, which stated that Posted Workers must have the same pay as local workers. He said that Brexit continues to overshadow everything and it was still unclear as to what the UK Government was seeking to achieve in relation to many EU agencies. Labour had made clear that it would oppose any withdrawal agreement that doesn’t meet our six tests, and if the government were defeated, the options are either to renegotiate or reconsider. This could be a general election or a referendum. Jeremy and Keir Starmer hadn’t ruled anything out; it was clear that Parliament must decide what happens next.
The next item was the General Secretary’s report, which covered a range of different issues. The most attention was devoted to the arrangements for the NEC elections in late summer. The original intention was to conduct the election primarily online, except in the case of those members for whom the party does not have a valid email address. It was argued, however, that there should be a hard-copy mailing to all members, as this would probably promote higher turnout, although it would be considerably more expensive. In the end, a compromise was suggested, whereby members would be emailed first to ask if they would be happy to participate electronically, and those who responded positively would get only an electronic ballot, but those who declined or who failed to respond would receive a postal ballot. This was agreed overwhelmingly, but we were told that it could affect the planned timetable for the election.
There was a lengthy discussion of a report from the working group on anti-Semitism that had been established following the previous meeting. The report set out some of the problems in the current procedures, including lengthy delays in dealing with cases and a lack of consistency between the way the different members are treated. The main proposal was for cases to be dealt with by three-person panels, rather than by the Disputes Panel, which contains all NEC members. It was also suggested that cases should be anonymised, to reduce the scope for bias in the way that cases were handled. Although many of the proposals in the paper were clearly sensible, practical attempts to get to grips with problems that had impeded the party in its handling of these cases, some of us expressed concern over certain aspects, particularly the suggestion that cases be entrusted to such a small number of NEC members, reducing transparency and accountability. Some of us expressed the view that cases could have been handled better even under the existing arrangements, if Disputes Panel meetings had been given more time to consider cases and greater detail about the facts. I also asked whether it was intended that anti-Semitism cases should always be treated separately from others, or whether those with similar characteristics, such as allegations of Islamophobia, would eventually be treated in the same way. Moreover, there is a pressing need to reform the disciplinary procedures more generally and it is frustrating that efforts in this direction have preceded so slowly, with only anti-Semitism cases being accorded priority. The discussion on this issue took the meeting far beyond the scheduled finishing time, and unfortunately, I had to leave before the discussion had concluded in order to catch the last train to Llandudno, where I was due to attend Wales TUC Conference. However, I understand that no final decisions were made, and that it was agreed that a further paper be brought back to the July meeting, which would reflect the points that had been made by NEC members.
One further issue that was dealt with after I had left was the statement on Gender Self-identification and All Women Shortlists. Like other NEC members, I had received a large volume of correspondence on this controversial issue, particularly from women concerned about the implications of trans women being covered by AWS. The statement that was put to the meeting, however, simply reaffirmed Labour’s existing policy that trans women are covered by AWS and, on this basis, it was agreed unanimously; I would have also voted for it had I been present. The wider issues relating to reform of the Gender Recognition Act will be subject to further discussion and consultation within the party, as is quite proper for such a complex issue, and will be brought back to a future NEC meeting.