This was a special meeting convened to discuss the business to be put before the Welsh Labour recall conference on 2 July – i.e. the Senedd reform proposals and the culmination of the Welsh Labour Democracy Review. In each case, a paper had been circulated by officers, presenting the view of Mark Drakeford and the Welsh leadership.
In the case of Senedd reform, the paper asked that the WEC agree that the proposals negotiated with Plaid Cymru be put to the conference on 2 July. Mark kicked off the discussion by reminding the WEC that Senedd reform had been an election manifesto commitment last year and that a lot of detailed work on the options had been conducted by a WEC working group, followed by a consultation with the party, leading up to the main Welsh conference in March. The requirement for a two-thirds majority in the Senedd for any change to its size and election mechanism meant that Labour had to secure the agreement of another party. Welsh conference had therefore authorised Mark to negotiate with Plaid Cymru on the basis of certain broad criteria – on overall numbers, on maintaining or increasing proportionality, on promoting equality and on ensuring equal-sized constituencies – which had been met by the agreement with Plaid announced on 10 May. This would increase numbers in the Senedd from 60 to 96 by establishing 16 constituencies, each electing six members. These constituencies would be created by pairing the 32 Westminster seats arising from the current boundary review. The d’Hondt method of proportional representation – currently used for the Senedd’s twenty regional seats – would be used and parties, rather than voters, would choose the ranking of their candidates in each constituency but gender balance would be guaranteed.
There was a lengthy debate, in which everyone accepted the need for the Senedd to be expanded but there were concerns from some quarters about the proposed electoral system, particularly to do with the larger, multi-member constituencies, the closed list system and the belief that the proposed change would mean Labour winning proportionately fewer seats and being less certain of leading the Welsh Government. These concerns came particularly from the MPs and from some of the unions, three of which – the GMB, Community and USDAW – had written to CLPs a few days before, setting out their concerns and calling for motions to be submitted to the WEC, seeking a delay in the conference decision. One CLP, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney, had duly carried such a motion and this was on the agenda.
Along with most of the other CLP reps present, we supported the proposals on the basis that, while there may be legitimate concerns about particular details, they represent the only realistic chance of reform at this point. Such reform is essential in order to provide the Senedd with sufficient members to function as a real parliament and make its electoral system more consistently proportional, and therefore more democratic. Mark has made it clear that, if the recall conference were to throw out the current proposals – which have already been approved in outline by the Senedd – there wouldn’t be time to negotiate a fresh deal with Plaid and restart the process in order to get the legislation agreed ready for the next elections in 2026. The opportunity might not arise again for a generation; this was a very real threat that had to be considered by everyone.
At the end of the debate, one of the CLP reps, who covers South Wales East, proposed the Merthyr & Rhymney motion, seeking a delay in the process. Darren raised a point of order, pointing out that the motion (which had been received the previous day) hadn’t been submitted in accordance with the notice period stipulated by standing orders and this couldn’t be considered an emergency because the proposals had been published on 10 May and had already been discussed by a previous WEC meeting; the Chair ruled, however, that normal standing orders don’t apply to special meetings. In any case, the motion was heavily defeated and the original paper was then carried by a clear margin, allowing the proposals to go to the special conference.
Welsh Labour Democracy Review
The other item of business relating to the special conference was a paper concluding the Democracy Review, launched in 2018 with a view to making the structures and processes of the Welsh party more open and accountable. The first stage of the Review had concluded after a few months, with the decision to adopt OMOV for leadership and deputy leadership elections, but the remainder of the process had been less productive, partly as a result of delays caused by the snap general election in 2019 and then by the Covid pandemic. Only a very small number of changes, most of them largely uncontentious, had been agreed. This was the WEC’s opportunity to wrap up the unfinished business.
A large number of proposals, most of which we supported, had been submitted by CLPs and affiliates in an attempt to give members greater influence over decision-making and a bigger say over who represents them on the party’s leadership bodies. Many of these proposals were strongly opposed by more conservative forces within the party, however, and Mark had sought to identify areas where there was sufficient consensus to facilitate reform. On this basis, the WEC had agreed two broad principles earlier in the year: that more WEC members should be subject to direct election; and that the nominations process for leadership and deputy leadership elections should be broadened out to include CLPs and affiliates, as well as MPs and MSs. The conference in March had supported this position and charged the WEC with producing some definite proposals for consideration by the recall conference.
On the question of direct elections to the WEC, the paper made two proposals: that the BAME rep, who is currently elected by the BAME Committee, should in future be chosen by an electoral college comprising 50% self-identified BAME members and 50% trade unions; and that the position of Disabled Members’ rep be created, similarly elected by 50% self-identified Disabled members and 50% unions. Darren proposed an amendment, whereby the elections would be conducted on an OMOV basis (i.e. with no weighting between members and affiliates) and that the second component of each ballot should involve direct votes by, respectively, BAME and Disabled members of affiliated unions, rather than the leaderships of those unions. This amendment was heavily defeated. The original proposal, which we were willing to support as a fallback, was also then voted down, albeit by a narrower margin. The only reason given in the debate was that it would weaken the influence of the BAME Committee to deprive it of the ability to choose the WEC BAME rep. No explanation was given for the decision to kill off the chance to give Disabled members representation on the WEC.
The second element of the paper proposed a formula to give CLPs and affiliates a role in nominating Welsh leadership and deputy leadership candidates. For Leader, it proposed two routes for candidates to get on the ballot-paper: either by the current mechanism of securing nominations from 20% of the Senedd Labour Group (which proved to be somewhat of a tall order in 2018); or by winning a combination of nominations from 10% of Labour MSs and either 20% of CLPs or three affiliates, two of which being unions collectively representing 5% of the total affiliated membership in Wales. The proposal for Deputy Leader was the same, except that the percentages for nominations from elected representatives applied to MSs and MPs combined, and a five-year term limit was also proposed, although this would only come into being when the present incumbent stepped down.
Although this was an improvement over the current arrangements, which make elected politicians the only gatekeepers, we felt that the suggested quotas were still too high and Darren thereby proposed an amendment that would reduce the percentage of nominations required under the first method to 15% of MSs and, under the second method, 5% of MSs and 10% of CLPs, with affiliate figures unchanged. This amendment was heavily defeated. The original proposals were then put to the vote; again, we voted in favour. Strangely, the proposal for Leadership elections was carried but the very similar proposal was defeated.
Only one, very modest, proposal from Stage Two of the Democracy Review will therefore be put to the recall conference. This is deeply disappointing, given the evident appetite for greater accountability among ordinary members, supported by a series of detailed submissions by CLPs and affiliates. An important opportunity to make the party more inclusive has, in effect, been killed off by those who apparently distrust the notion of membership empowerment.
A third substantive item appeared on the agenda of this meeting: the WEC was asked to approve a lengthy document setting out procedures for selecting new candidates for parliamentary seats without a sitting Labour MP. Although Welsh Labour has devolved control over this area, the paper had clearly been cut-and-paste from the equivalent document produced by the NEC for selections in England, with only a few superficial changes. Among other problems, the paper ignored the decision made by the WEC in 2018 to establish a combined panel of candidates for parliamentary and Senedd elections; and it proposed that the WEC itself draw up an individual ‘longlist’ of candidates for every seat needing a candidate. Another concern was the criteria to be relied upon in determining whether a candidate was ‘good’ enough, as per the proposed job description, considering most candidates were unlikely to have had experience in office, but might have a depth of wider experience, such as campaigning within their communities. In light of these contentious matters, the fact that most people hadn’t read the paper and there was limited time left, Darren proposed that discussion be deferred to the next WEC meeting, to allow party unit and affiliates to be informed and consulted about the draft procedures and to decide whether they should be accepted in their current form.
Party officials suggested, however, that the procedures needed to be adopted urgently, in case of a snap general election and it would be difficult to hold another WEC meeting before September; Darren’s proposal was defeated and the procedures adopted, with minimal discussion.