NEC Meetings, March/April 2019

This report covers the meetings of the Disputes Panel and Organisation Committee on 19 March; the full NEC meeting of 26 March; the extra Disputes Panel meeting on 17 April and the special meeting to agree the European Parliamentary manifesto on 30 April. 

Disputes Panel, 19 March & 17 April

As usual, the papers of the Disputes Panel were not circulated in advance, due to concerns about confidentiality. The first 45 minutes of the meeting was set aside for us to read through the relevant documents, which, on this occasion, came to 221 pages. To obtain these documents, we all had to give up our mobile phones and other devices, which is another agreed measure to guard against leaks. As the meeting began, however, it became apparent that the Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, who does not normally attend Disputes Panel meetings, still had his phone on the table in front of him. The Chair reminded everyone of the measures that we had all agreed, and directly asked Tom Watson to give up his phone. He refused to do this, however, saying that he didn’t agree with the restriction that we had introduced and that he was expecting an urgent call. Several of us spoke to express our unhappiness with this behaviour, pointing out that there is an emergency number through which NEC members can be contacted and also that phones can be temporarily returned to members when they leave the room if they need to check urgent messages. This made no difference to Tom Watson’s attitude, however, prompting the Chair to ask him to leave the meeting. He refused to do this as well, however, causing the meeting to be adjourned while the officers considered the situation. Ultimately, there was nothing that they could do other than to ask that Tom’s non-compliance with the agreed rules be noted in the minutes. I do not normally comment on individuals’ behaviour in these meetings, but this episode was so outrageous, particularly given the seniority of the person involved, that it seems only right to acknowledge what happened (which has already been reported in at least one media source, in any case).

The argument described above caused considerable delay to the start of what would already have been a heavily loaded meeting, and it soon became clear that we would not have time to get through all of the business without hugely delaying the Organisation Committee meeting, which was due to follow directly afterwards. There was some discussion about how future meetings could be arranged to alleviate the pressure of time somewhat, specifically by not having the Disputes Panel and Organisation Committee on the same day as the Equalities Committee. I cannot comment on the cases that we had time to consider, because they relate to specific individuals, but we made it about half way through the scheduled agenda and agreed that an extra meeting should be held as soon as practicable. 

This extra meeting of the Disputes Panel took place on 17 April; unfortunately, only 12 of the 39 NEC members were able to attend, some no doubt having booked holidays for the Easter period. This time, we were able to get through almost all of the cases that we had not reached on 19 March, as well as a couple of new ones. There was also some discussion of the negative commentary in the media on the party’s handling of disciplinary matters, particularly reports that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was investigating complaints that they had received in relation to anti-Semitism. It was pointed out that the EHRC had not actually begun an investigation, but had merely asked the party to respond to these complaints and was deciding whether or not an investigation would be merited. In any case, the Disputes Panel cannot itself make any changes to the way that the party deals with these matters, so this would have to be dealt with by the full NEC or by the Organisation Committee. 

Organisation Committee

Following the incomplete Disputes Panel meeting of 19 March, there was a meeting of the Organisation Committee, which also had a fairly heavy agenda to get through. The first business related to the selection of parliamentary candidates; 5 new candidates were endorsed by the NEC, in addition to the 90 who had been endorsed previously. We also looked at the 9 seats where Labour MPs had recently resigned the whip, in most cases to become part of the new so-called Independent Group/Change UK. It was agreed that, in 6 of these cases, there should be an All Women Shortlist in six of these cases and an open selection in the other three. Five of the nine seats are currently held by women so this decision would mean a small increase in the number of female MPs, assuming that Labour wins back the seats at the next General Election. There was once again some discussion of the party’s relatively poor performance in selecting BAME candidates, and what could be done about this. The General Secretary said that all the party’s Regional Directors now had, as one of their key objectives, the pursuit of greater engagement with BAME communities. 

The next section of the meeting dealt with updates on the work flowing from the Party Democracy Review. This fell into a number of categories, the first of which related to CLP governance. Under this heading, we agreed to codify the custom and practice governing the conversion of single constituency to multi-constituency CLPs and vice versa; agreed to invite CLPs to pilot alternative methods of organisation to maximise participation – specifically, staggered meetings, electronic attendance and online voting; and took steps to make information about local party meetings available to members on an electronic platform. The second heading was rules for regional executive committees and regional conferences in England, where detailed changes were agreed to make the provisions more robust and consistent. Finally, there was a detailed paper on the rules for Young Labour, seeking to amend the existing rules in a number of ways, which are too complex to summarise, but the net effect of which (broadly speaking) to bring Young Labour into conformity with the principles of the Democracy Review and to empower young members. This paper was agreed but some further amendments proposed by NEC members, including the Young Members’ rep, were deferred to the full NEC meeting the following week.

We also agreed a paper aimed at improving equality and diversity in local government, which set out provisions relating to equality monitoring, training directed at underrepresented members and enforcement of positive action procedures. And we adopted a definition of Islamophobia, which had originally been drawn up in April 2018 by the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims. The definition is quite succinct, as follows:

“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

This, along with an accompanying briefing note as to why this matter is so important and how the party should act on it, was agreed without dissent. 

These were the main items covered, with the exception of confidential papers on developments in local parties in St Helen’s and Enfield, which the NEC agreed but details of which cannot be disclosed. 

Full NEC meeting

The full NEC meeting took place on 26 March. The Chair began by acknowledging the message that we had all received, along with all other party members, from the General Secretary, Jennie Formby, relating to her diagnosis of breast cancer. The Chair and others paid tribute to Jennie and agreed that she needed to concentrate on her health and that the party should rally round to support her staff in ensuring that the important work of the General Secretary’s office continued to be done under these difficult circumstances. 

The first substantive item discussed was the series of obituaries of prominent members who had died since the last meeting, the first of which was Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West for nearly 32 years until his death in February. I spoke about the unique contribution that Paul had made to Labour politics, especially in Wales, the respect that he had won for his intellect, principle and independent-mindedness, and the consequent benefit to the party. 

Cllr Nick Forbes gave the Local Government Report, commenting on the recent Labour Local Government conference, at which, for the first time, a majority of speakers and panel members had been women. He said that there was a good story to tell about the achievements of Labour councils in difficult times and a new version of the booklet setting out some of these achievements was to be published. In the ensuing discussion, several speakers welcomed the party’s recent announcement on ‘in-sourcing’ local services; Nick pointed out that many Labour councils had never outsourced much in the first place. 

Richard Corbett MEP gave the EPLP Report, which, as usual, related mainly to the Brexit process. He also reported that the Party of European Socialists (PES) had agreed its European manifesto. There was some comment on the need to maintain relationships with other European parties through PES if the UK should leave the EU. There was also a query about the possibility of merger between the SDLP, Labour’s sister-party in Northern Ireland, and the Irish centre-right party, Fianna Fail. It remained unclear how likely this was, but if it were to happen, the SDLP would no longer be able to remain within PES. 

Jeremy then gave his Leaders’ Report, adding his own tributes to those covered in the obituaries section, including Paul Flynn, whose funeral in Newport he had attended. Jeremy reported on the many campaign visits he had continued to undertake around Britain, especially in the Midlands and Scotland. He said that cuts in local government were now worse than under Thatcher and that this needed to be made clear in the English local elections campaign. He had attended the Scottish Labour conference, which had been very well-attended and upbeat. Members’ assemblies were being planned across Scotland to help promote Scottish Labour’s policies and its challenge to the SNP. 

Jeremy acknowledged that Brexit continued to dominate everything that the party was doing; he had been to Brussels recently to meet the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. The Tories had passed a bill some time previously to empower David Davis, the then Brexit Secretary, to determine everything, but, thanks to Labour’s efforts, a lot of this had been pushed back subsequently. Labour had put its own 5-point Brexit policy to the House of Commons and, although it had been defeated, it had secured more votes than Theresa May’s deal. Following a series of important votes in the Commons, Brexit had been delayed until April or May, if the Government’s agreement with the EU were carried. Given the uncertainty surrounding the ongoing Brexit process, Labour was continuing to prepare for a snap General Election and Jon Trickett MP was leading on the party’s preparations for government. Jeremy also commented on the appalling atrocity carried out in Christchurch, which he said reflected the rise of the far right around the world and which made Labour’s participation in the annual UN Day Against Racism all the more important. He had been to see the New Zealand High Commission and laid a wreath, as well as contacting the country’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern to offer his support and commend her on her response to the attack. He had also attended a service at a mosque in his own constituency. Finally, Jeremy said that he had been shocked by Jennie’s cancer diagnosis and was sending her his love and support; he paid tribute to the continuing efforts of the staff at Southside and in his own office. 

The next item was the Deputy Leader, Tom Watson’s report, covering meetings and events that he had undertaken as part of his remit, as well as his presentation of some LBC phone-in radio programmes. He had also made a number of policy speeches on issues like TV licences, digital democracy and online gambling. He had spoken at the People’s Vote march in London the previous Saturday and had also set up the Future Britain group of parliamentarians in response to the departure of several Labour MPs to establish the Independent Group. He commented on the need to address concerns felt by MPs over issues like Brexit, anti-Semitism and the threat of deselection. In the ensuing discussion, several of us made some fairly robust comments on various of the issues that Tom had raised and asked some probing questions, especially in relation to the establishment of the Future Britain group, the precise purpose of which remained unclear, along with the governance arrangements that appeared to have been set up.  

We then had an International Report, covering Labour’s work with sister parties, such as the French Socialists, who are undertaking a process of renewal following some bad election results. There was also an update on the initiative agreed at a previous meeting to review Labour’s links with other progressive parties and movements around the world in the light of the widespread political upheaval that we have witnessed in recent years. This work was focussing in the first instance on Latin America, where there has been a worrying rise of the populist hard right, especially in Brazil. There was a lengthy discussion about this area of activity, considering questions like the implications of any new international relationships for our existing sister parties. 

The meeting also agreed detailed procedural guidelines for disciplinary cases brought before the National Constitutional Committee (NCC). These clarified and expanded the existing procedures, generally in very positive ways; for example, confirming that a member facing an NCC hearing would be entitled to be supported by a silent friend or represented by a lay person, such as a trade union official, and that the panel could also allow legal representation in certain specified types of case. 

There were further reports on items arising from the Democracy Review, including detailed consideration of some additional proposed amendments to the rules governing Young Labour – some, but not all, of which were accepted – and proposals for the online presence of local parties. In addition, we took further steps towards the establishment of a seat representing disabled members on the NEC, agreeing that this could be a job share. With both this seat and the seat representing BAME members, where, in future, the electorate will be expanded beyond members of the party affiliate BAME Labour, it was agreed that the elections would go ahead once sufficient equality data had been gathered to provide ‘a viable electorate’.

European manifesto meeting

On 30 April, a special meeting the full NEC was held to agree the party’s manifesto for the European Elections, which, it had by then become clear, we would have to fight after all. The rules laid down for the agreement of European manifestos are somewhat simpler than those that apply to general elections, and the necessary preliminary consultation had already taken place with TULO, the EPLP, the International Policy Commission of the NPF and the Shadow Cabinet, which had met immediately prior to the NEC meeting. Policy Director Andrew Fisher had, by common consent, done an excellent job in pulling together the party’s key policy priorities in relation to Europe in a very short space of time. In contrast to the 20,000 General Election 2017 manifesto, the European manifesto ran to around 2,000, most of which was uncontentious and based on previously agreed policy. 

There had, however, been intense media speculation about supposedly sharp divisions that would be exposed at the meeting in relation to a commitment to a second referendum, and indeed, all NEC members had received literally thousands of emails lobbying us on this matter in the week or so leading up to the meeting (although many of these were not from actual party members). The discussion in the meeting, however, demonstrated a surprisingly high degree of consensus in reaffirming a position in line with the resolution agreed at the Labour Conference in September 2018. As the published manifesto has now made clear, the agreed position was that Labour would continue to seek positive changes to the Tories’ proposed Brexit deal, in line with our own alternative plan; if such changes could not be agreed, we would retain the option of pressing for a public vote. Some NEC members did argue for a more emphatic commitment to a confirmatory referendum, but this was not ultimately the view that prevailed. It was nevertheless a comparatively harmonious and comradely meeting, which demonstrated that, contrary to widespread perceptions, there is relatively little disagreement within the party on the major principles underlying our policy.