This was a nine-hour marathon – the longest meeting yet during my tenure – most of it being devoted to the outcome of the Party Democracy Review and the consideration of which of the resulting rule change proposals should be put to conference.
Before we got to that point in the agenda, we had the usual standing reports. Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson talked about the campaigning they had done over the summer and their efforts to hold the Tories to account since Parliament had reconvened. Cllr Nick Forbes gave a Local Government report focussing on the challenge of austerity and the LGA’s efforts to promote debate on adult social care and Richard Corbett MEP presented an EPLP report highlighting the party’s work in relation to Brexit.
In her General Secretary’s report, Jennie Formby told us that around 12,000 people were expected at the party conference in various capacities and that this, along with healthy membership growth, had resulted in Labour being well ahead of its financial targets. She had set up a taskforce to oversee membership engagement and was planning to launch a monitoring report, analysing the demographic make-up of the membership, at conference. Only 9% of members had voted by post in the recent NEC elections, in which everyone had received a postal ballot, as a result of an NEC decision. Jennie asked that we bear this in mind for the next such exercise and consider how much money we could save by having a mainly online ballot. She also told us that the working group looking at the party’s activity in Northern Ireland was nearing the end of its work and that election readiness work was proceeding under newly-appointed executive director, Niall Sookoo.
We then turned to the Democracy Review, which took up most of the rest of the meeting. Katy Clark’s original 83-page report had been boiled down, by the 4 September meeting, to a set of options for reform, grouped under the main thematic headings (in most cases, a ‘recommended’ proposal and one or more alternatives). Now we were presented with seven ‘bundles’ of draft rule changes (again, with alternative options included in some cases, but not as many as previously). By the time we’d spent several hours discussing and voting on these, I was left feeling deeply disappointed with how little remained of the exciting – but perfectly reasonable and practicable – set of proposals drawn up by Katy and her team. Certainly, some positive decisions were taken but what we are now left with by no means reflects the hard work and vibrant discussion that has taken place over the last year. The trade unions (including the normally pro-Corbyn ones) had evidently come to an agreed position amongst themselves and in many cases had opted for the cautious approach (to put it mildly), rather than responding to the clear desire among the mass membership for democratic reform and renewal of our party.
To go through each of the sections in turn:
- Members’ rights: This was relatively uncontentious. We agreed a charter of rights, mainly revolving around shorter qualification periods for engaging in party elections and other activities (e.g. 6 months to be a conference delegate and to vote in parliamentary selections).
- Local Structures: CLPs and Branches: We agreed a mechanism for delegate-based GCs to be converted into all-member meetings; prepared the ground for party equality bodies at local level; agreed to make BAME, Disability, LGBT+, Youth, TULO, Political Education, Comms/Media and Policy officers into Executive officers and stipulated that TULO officers must be in affiliated unions; and allowed for job shares. It was also agreed that CLPs must meet a minimum of eight times a year but an attempt to set a realistic minimum-number quorum for larger CLPs where a percentage figure would be unmanageable was defeated.
- Local Government: this entire section – which would have seen dysfunctional Local Campaign Forums replaced by more robust structures of accountability – was kicked into the long grass.
- Regional Structures: this was completely uncontroversial, with mainly superficial changes aimed at replicating the democratic structures that apply elsewhere.
- NEC: We agreed to establish a Disabled Members’ seat on the NEC and agreed that the Welsh and Scottish NEC seats should be filled in a way determined by the Welsh and Scottish conferences (I proposed that these positions be elected by OMOV – which had been an option in the previous paper – but the Chair wouldn’t put this to the vote). We also agreed that any NEC seats in the CLP, trade union, socialist society or local government sections that might fall vacant should be filled by means of a by-election. Any changes to the party’s policy-making structures were, however, deferred until next year (despite the consensus that the National Policy Forum is dysfunctional).
- National Conferences: We prepared the way for more democratic structures – including annual conferences – to be established for women, young members, disabled members and members from BAME communities. We agreed to scrap the “contemporary” criterion for conference motions and to increase the number of subject areas debated at conference to 10 chosen by the CLPs and 10 chosen by affiliates but a vote to abolish the “three-year rule” (whereby issues cannot be revisited for three years after a decision has been made) and the on-year delay before rule change motions are debated, was narrowly defeated. Also lost was a proposal to increase the size of the Conference Arrangements Committee and introduce parity between CLP and trade union seats.
- Leadership elections: discussion of this section, dealing with the rules regarding nomination thresholds, was deferred to our eve-of-conference NEC meeting on Saturday.
Following the Democracy Review discussion, we considered further draft rule changes arising from the work of the NEC’s working party on disciplinary procedures; these aimed to increase the size of the National Constitutional Committee (which conducts disciplinary hearings) and set out more robust rules for its functioning and were largely uncontentious.
If all the positive proposals listed above are agreed by conference, this will represent some worthwhile progress, across a range of areas of party activity, but – to repeat – it falls far short of the expectations raised by the launch of the Democracy Review. The majority of the NEC has, sadly, proven itself too cautious and conservative to grasp the opportunity that the Review presented.
The pre-conference NEC meeting on Saturday will now consider two important matters. The first of these is the deferred issue of leadership election nominations, where the unions are apparently seeking to make the rules more restrictive than the status quo, which would suggest that nothing has been learned from 2015, when Jeremy almost failed to get on the ballot-paper but went on to win a decisive victory among party members among supporters. The other is the matter of parliamentary selections, where many rule change motions have been submitted, seeking either to reintroduce open selections or to reform the current trigger ballot procedure. The NEC seems poised to introduce its own rule change (which would take precedence over those from CLPs), making it easier to deselect ineffectual or out-of-touch MPs without going as far as reintroducing fully open selection. As a result of a Momentum e-lobbying campaign, I have received more than two thousand emails, urging me to do what I’m inclined to do anyway. While I applaud the sentiment, I haven’t had time to read most of the emails, let alone reply to them.