NEC Meeting Tuesday 19 May 2020

After a couple of special meetings called to discuss the party’s response to the leaked report, we finally held the first full NEC meeting under Keir Starmer’s leadership. Although this meeting was not due to discuss the appointment of a new General Secretary, following the sad departure of Jennie Formby, the long-listing for this post by NEC officers had taken place that morning and the Chair, Andi Fox, began by expressing her disappointment that the names of the 9 candidates who had been successful at this first stage had immediately been leaked to the media. 

The Chair also informed us that Carol Sewell, the NEC BAME rep, who had been scheduled to join the NEC officers in conducting the shortlisting for the General Secretary post, was now unable to take part and the Chair therefore proposed that one of the CLP reps, Huda Elmi, take Carol’s place. This opened up a lengthy discussion where various NEC members sought not only to propose alternative candidates to Huda but also to reopen the question on the number and composition of the shortlisting panel. When the Chair quite rightly ruled that such proposals of the latter kind were out of order, she had to contend with some disgraceful barracking and general rudeness from certain NEC members. Following a vote, it was eventually decided that Shabana Mahmood MP should take Carol’s place. 

Keir then gave his first report as leader, concentrating mainly on how he had been holding the Tory government to account on its failures in dealing with the coronavirus crisis, particularly in relation to testing and PPE, as well as the disturbingly high death toll within care homes. Keir also voiced the widespread concerns about Boris Johnson’s speech in which he had begun to relax the lockdown restrictions in England without apparently having given this adequate thought beforehand. The Immigration Bill was another cause for concern, given the government’s appalling treatment of NHS and care workers from other countries. Finally, Keir talked about the outreach work that the party was doing in communities where people had turned away from Labour in 2019 and cited in particular online public meetings held with people in the north of England and in Wales. 

In questions on the leader’s report, concerns were raised over a number of issues, including the membership of the panel investigating the leaked report, the apparent shift in the party’s position in relation to Kashmir, the rather cautious stance taken over rent relief for tenants in the private rental sector and the hostility voiced towards the teaching unions by certain Labour figures. Mick Antoniw MS also highlighted the different approaches being taken by the four national governments within the UK over Covid-19 and the need for Labour to factor this experience into its thinking on constitutional reform. Keir responded that the inquiry panel had been agreed by the whole NEC (although it was subsequently pointed out that we hadn’t had the opportunity to research the proposed members beforehand). He also said that his letter on Kashmir followed closely the line taken in a similar letter from Ian Lavery MP under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and reassured the NEC that the party would take a strong line on any human rights abuses; NEC members highlighted the alarming deterioration of the situation in recent months and the importance of the party clearly condemning the actions of the Indian government. On rent, Keir said that the taxpayer would have to pick up the bill if tenants were relieved of the responsibility to pay. He offered support for the position of the teaching unions and said that schools should only be reopening when it was safe to do so. Keir also acknowledged Mick Antoniw’s point about devolution and said that he was in constant contact with the Welsh and Scottish Labour leaderships. 

Angela Rayner then gave her first report as Deputy Leader and began by paying tribute to the work of Jennie Formby. She said that she was working with the trade unions in their efforts to boost membership, a campaign that had been inadvertently boosted by Boris Johnson’s flagrant disregard for the interests of workers. Angela made a few comments about the enquiry into the leaked report, saying in particular that the standards expected of staff needed to be absolutely clear in the future and that she hoped and expected that the issue of the misuse of finances in relation to parliamentary seats was properly examined, along with the other matters that had come to light. She acknowledged that there had been some differences recently on a number of issues such as those about which Keir had been asked, but she hoped that consensus could be reached on these matters without any return to factionalism. She also highlighted the importance of the party investing sufficient resources in the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections in particular, given the high stakes involved. 

We then moved on to consider a number of papers on pressing matters arising from the Covid-19 crisis and the need for the party to adjust our plans accordingly. There was a wide-ranging paper entitled ‘Local and Regional Democracy in Lockdown.’ The first part of this looked forward to the council, mayoral and devolved parliamentary elections due to take place in 2021 and set out a timetable and revised arrangements for the selection of candidates. Much of what was proposed was sensible and pragmatic, but there were concerns about the potential implications for democracy of one or two of the proposals. A couple of amendments were agreed that improved on the original proposal; the first of these allowed for party branches to continue to conduct local government selection shortlisting in England (rather than this being taken over by the LCF assessment team and branch officers) and a second amendment deleted a proposal that the transition from LCFs to Local Government Committees should be ‘paused’. 

The second part of the paper dealt with internal party elections for various sections of the NEC along with auditors, the CAC, NCC and the Young Labour National Committee. A choice was presented, whereby either CLPs could be allowed to make nominations using an electronic platform; or CLP Executive Committees would make nominations; or, finally, all internal elections would be deferred, pending a further decision on appropriate timescales. In the end, the third of these options was overwhelmingly agreed, but it was agreed to hold a further NEC meeting in June, which would consider a new paper with further detailed options as to the timetabling of the elections. It was also agreed that English regional party conferences (scheduled for autumn 2020) would be postponed until the following year and that, in the absence of the normal workings of the National Policy Forum, the party’s policy and research unit would produce guidelines to support CLPs in engaging with the NPF process via electronic platforms. Mick Antoniw proposed that this be done with due regard to devolution, given that around half of the policy content of NPF papers now relates to matters that are devolved, and this was agreed. 

We then turned to a separate paper on annual conference and women’s conference; the options were either to plan for a full conference to go ahead, which would have required the procedures to be varied to allow CLPs to elect delegates using an online voting platform; or for conference to be postponed and replaced with an online policy event in the summer, which would not fulfil the constitutional function of the normal conference. Given the practical difficulties of organising a physical conference involving social distancing measures, even if it were possible for a mass meeting of this kind to go ahead at all, it was unanimously agreed to postpone conference. 

The only other substantial business was to fill some gaps in the party’s policy commissions and to take a report on local government from Cllr Nick Forbes, leader of the LGA, who highlighted the close working between the Shadow Cabinet and Labour’s leadership within the LGA and the growing financial pressure on councils and the need for this to be addressed. 

Under AOB, there was an attempt to reopen the agreed procedures for conducting the remainder of the General Secretary appointment, which unfortunately saw some of the same bad behaviour from certain NEC members as had been witnessed at the start of the meeting. I understand that strong representations have been made since the meeting about this and hope that we will see a more comradely and respectful attitude towards the Chair, in particular, in future meetings. 

WEC Meeting 21 May 2020 (Joint Report with Sophie Williams)

This was an extraordinary meeting, the first to be held virtually, primarily to discuss important business involving various internal selections. The first meeting of the new WEC should have been the AGM; however, the rules state that the AGM should be held after conference, which had not taken place due to Covid-19, and the party does not currently have the technology to facilitate secret ballots (needed to elect the WEC officers). Given that conference was not due to take place until October 2020 (the WEC later agreed to cancel the conference, as discussed later) and the NEC had agreed to invest in the necessary technology, it was agreed that the next meeting of the WEC would be the AGM. 

The meeting began with a series of reports from elected representatives, firstly from Welsh Labour leader and First Minister Mark Drakeford, which centred on the Covid-19 pandemic and the way in which the Welsh Government, supported by health boards and local authorities, had mobilised in response, reflecting the Welsh social partnership model. He discussed the current situation in care homes and the ‘fits and starts’ relationship with the UK Government. He had had regular discussions with Keir Starmer since he became Labour leader, and had attended a virtual meeting of the Shadow Cabinet. Mark reiterated that the Welsh Government would continue to take a careful and cautious approach to easing restrictions, in line with their ‘traffic light’ model. He also detailed survey results that indicated the Welsh population’s overwhelmingly positive response to the way in which the Welsh Government had handled the crisis. Mark answered questions on the care home situation, the ‘r’ number and the panel of experts established to advise on recovery measures. He was also asked whether the £500 payments given to 64,000 social care workers in Wales would be extended to other frontline staff, such as cooks and cleaners, in the sector- the Welsh Government would look to do so in the autumn if funding is available. 

The leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, Cllr Andrew Morgan, made some comments to supplement his written report, highlighting the cooperation between the Welsh Government and local authorities, for example on PPE provision and the forthcoming test and trace service, in contrast to the relationships in England. The Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Nia Griffith, paid tribute to her predecessor, Christina Rees, and discussed the party’s response to the Tories at Westminster and the difficulties of effectively challenging the government in opposition. She was followed by a short report from the Deputy Leader, Carolyn Harris, who outlined the party’s plan to campaign to ensure that the £500 payment to social care workers was tax-free. 

The first substantive paper was received only a short time before the meeting, due to changes having been made following the NEC meeting two days prior. This paper detailed the plans for choosing regional list candidates for all five regions ahead of the 2021 Senedd elections and it was reported that there had been a good response to the call for party members to join the panel of approved candidates. The plan remained to try to tie the ballot to the forthcoming NEC ballot; however, the NEC had yet to agree a final timetable for those elections, so the party may need to hold a separate ballot. The proposed timetable in the paper, which sought to have candidates in place by October 2020 to allow for the remaining constituency selections in the autumn, was agreed, as was the proposal to allow BAME applicants only to apply for more than one region. It was confirmed that the shortlisting procedure would seek to shortlist 5 men and 5 women, with an additional BAME place if no BAME applicants were initially shortlisted. The proposal to hold only one hustings meeting per region, held by Welsh Labour, was not agreed; instead, CLPs or groups of CLPs would be allowed to hold virtual hustings meetings provided all eligible candidates were invited and that the meeting was cleared by Welsh Labour before taking place. 

The next paper was the most controversial and provoked a heated debate. It argued that, due to Covid-19, the two sitting Senedd Members in Mid & West Wales, should be automatically re-selected as the top two candidates on the regional list for the 2021 elections, instead of facing a trigger ballot. We, alongside the majority of the other CLP reps, particularly Christine Hardacre and Ivan Monckton (the two CLP reps for the region in question) and other comrades, opposed this, as it would be entirely anti-democratic and prevent the eight CLPs in that region from being able to decide their candidates for those elections. After a prolonged debate, Mark Drakeford proposed that a decision on this paper be delayed until a future WEC meeting, which was agreed. We will continue to campaign on this issue prior to the next WEC meeting in the hopes of successfully opposing it. 

Two further papers (one on the proposed selection procedure for the Senedd candidate for the Rhondda constituency and one on the proposed process for the Welsh Policy Forum ahead of the 2021 conference and Senedd manifesto) were agreed without amendment. The main proposal in the Rhondda paper was for a postal ballot of all members in the constituency, as the coronavirus had prevented a selection meeting from taking place. Similarly, the policy forum paper presented fallback proposals following the cancellation of a Welsh Policy Forum meeting in June; these plans involved either a rescheduled WPF meeting in November or, failing that, policy papers being considered at Welsh conference in February 2021.

Welsh Labour now publish WEC papers on the party website for members only. 

The final items were reports from the General Secretary, Louise Magee and from Jeff Cuthbert, Police and Crime Commissioner for Gwent. Louise proposed that, given the ongoing crisis, Welsh Labour conference should not take place in October, and that the next conference would be the 2021 conference ahead of the May Senedd elections, which was agreed. She outlined plans for candidate development and training programmes. Darren raised a point regarding the vacancy on the WEC for one the two seats representing the Co-op Party and socialist societies. We had been told that this seat would remain unfilled until the rescheduled Welsh conference, as there had been a tied vote in the postal ballot conducted among the socialist societies. In view of the cancellation of conference, Louise agreed to revisit this issue. Jeff had circulated a written report and discussed the cooperation between the Welsh Government and Welsh police forces in the current crisis. 

Special NEC Meetings, 23rd April and 1st May 2020

The first scheduled NEC meeting that Keir Starmer would have attended following his election as party leader would have been on 19th May 2020. The leak of the internal report on the party’s handling of anti-Semitism complaints, however, resulted in a couple of special meetings being called. 

Keir and Angela Rayner had already announced that there would be an investigation into the substance of the leaked report, as well as the circumstances of its production and release into the public domain. The contents of the report had already been widely reported by the media and there had been widespread outrage among party members over revelations that senior party officials had apparently conspired against Jeremy Corbyn, undermining Labour’s 2017 General Election campaign and impeding efforts to deal with anti-Semitism complaints.

Along with all of my fellow NEC members, I received hundreds of emails expressing shock and revulsion at these revelations, and demanding that the party take robust action to address the behaviour sighted in the report and restore the confidence of party members. 

Shortly before the meeting on 23rd April, the NEC received draft terms of reference for the investigation from Keir. This document was not especially contentious, rightly acknowledging the concerns that many party members have felt on reading about the leaked report, and setting out the basis for an investigation to be overseen by a panel of four independent members. The proposed terms of reference fell into three categories: first, the truth or otherwise of the main allegations in the report; second, the circumstances under which it had been commissioned and written and those in which it was leaked; and finally, the structure, culture and practices of the party. 

The meeting on 23rd April was convened solely to discuss these terms of reference. There was also a brief report from Jennie Formby, General Secretary, in which she explained that the document had originally been intended for the party’s lawyers in the context of the EHRC investigation into complaints about anti-Semitism in the party. Jennie also detailed the action that she had taken since the leak, including contacting the Information Commissioner’s Office, launching an immediate internal investigation into the data breach and contacting all those named in the report. 

Keir said in presenting his draft terms of reference that he was sorry to be attending his first meeting under such circumstances and that it was necessary for the party to undertake such an inward-looking responsibility at a time of national crisis. 

A series of amendments to the terms of reference had been submitted, most from the left of the party, and these were discussed in turn. The general thrust of most of these amendments was to emphasise the importance of investigating the substance of the report as opposed to the lesser matters of how it come to be written and how it had been leaked. This focus reflected the concerns of the many members who had contacted us and sought to avoid an undue preoccupation with identifying the source of the leak. One of the MPs on the NEC suggested that anyone suspected of having been responsible for the leak should be suspended, but thankfully this suggestion was not adopted. Unfortunately, most of the amendments were defeated, reflecting the weakness of the left following the leadership and NEC by-elections. Those that were accepted acknowledged the legitimate concerns about relations between party staff and the membership, reinforced the fact that any chance to party structures would fall outside the scope of the investigation and finally highlighted the fact that an apparent racist and sexist culture within party offices had been one of the most alarming aspects of the report. 

The second special meeting on 1st May was called in order to seek agreement from the NEC for the people whom Keir Starmer wanted to appoint to the investigation panel. The NEC had not received these names in advance of the meeting and there had therefore been no opportunity to look into the record of the people involved. The nominee for chair was Martin Forde QC, a prominent black barrister who had provided advice on the Windrush compensation scheme. The other proposed members were Lord Larry Whitty (former Labour General Secretary and a member of the House of Lords since 1996), Baroness Debbie Wilcox (former leader of Newport Council and of the Welsh Local Government Association) and finally Baroness Ruth Lister (a well-known social policy academic and also a Labour peer). 

Keir said that he had considered asking Lord Alf Dubs (former Labour MP for Battersea and more recently a Labour peer) to join the panel, but considered that Alf’s strong support for Keir’s leadership campaign might cause his independence to be called into question. Jon Lansman argued, however, that it was a matter of concern that there were no Jewish members proposed for a panel whose subject matter would partially centre on the party’s response to anti-Semitism complaints and suggested that Lord Dubs be added as a fifth member. This was put to the vote and I was among those who supported the proposal, but it was narrowly lost. I also supported the suggestion that Andy Kerr, from the CWU and Chair of the NEC Organisation Committee, should serve as an NEC liaison with the panel, but unfortunately this again was defeated. 

There was some discussion about the members of the panel and about the process; Larry Whitty was probably seen as the most controversial choice during the meeting itself, due to his involvement in some of the factional struggles within the party during the late 1980s and early 1990s, although even some on the left felt that he was a figure whose judgement should be respected and it was pointed out that he had been removed as General Secretary under Tony Blair. All four nominees were overwhelmingly endorsed by the NEC, although some of us abstained at some cases. I voted to accept Debbie Wilcox, having worked with her on the Welsh Executive Committee and considered her to be independently-minded, but I have subsequently been concerned to see some of her tweets, which endorse strong criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and suggest a sympathy for right-wing factions within the party. 

During both meetings, some of us raised the question of administrative suspensions of those alleged in the leaked report to have been guilty of wrongdoing; one of the main concerns of those party members who had written to use was that no action was being taken against former and current officials who appeared to have engaged in very troubling conduct, yet many ordinary party members had been suspended pending investigation of often lesser offences. While there were no guarantees offered of action in this respect, Keir said that the progress of the investigation should not impede any disciplinary action against particular individuals and Jennie confirmed that the Governance and Legal Unit was examining the evidence to consider whether any action might be necessary.