The Chair began the meeting by paying tribute to Lord Morris, formerly John Morris, MP for Aberavon from 1959 to 2001, who had recently passed away, and welcomed two new members: Maxine Butler (GMB) and Mike Walker (USDAW).
The first substantive item was the Leader’s Report; Mark began by echoing the Chair’s comments about John Morris, who had been one of the last links with the Labour generation active during the period of the Attlee government and who had maintained an active interest in Welsh politics up to his death. Mark then criticised the UK Government’s disregard for the Barnett rules, which had exacerbated the impact of austerity; for example, Westminster ministers had recently offered the civil service unions some extra money to settle their pay dispute, but the Welsh Government had been told that there was no extra money for them to do likewise.
On a more positive note, Mark talked about the enormous opportunities for Wales in the energy field, particularly in marine energy, specifically marine offshore wind, where plans for a new project were moving forward, for which the UK Government were claiming credit even though the Welsh Government was already actively supporting the work. Mark had also been to Edinburgh recently, where he met with Gordon Brown to launch a campaign for a different relationship between the UK nations and where there had also been discussions about the need to restore the trade flows that had been disrupted by Brexit, particularly with Ireland.
It now seemed certain that Plaid Cymru’s new leader would be Rhun ap Iorwerth, who had been somewhat more sceptical than most of his party colleagues about the agreement with Welsh Labour and who seemed to represent a more traditional brand of Plaid politics than that of his immediate predecessors, with less obvious electoral appeal to Welsh Labour voters. Finally, Mark said that Welsh ministers and officials had been spending a lot of time providing information for the UK Covid inquiry and had made a virtue of disclosing all relevant documents, in contrast to the approach taken by their counterparts in Westminster and Whitehall.
The next item was the General Secretary’s report; Jo thanked those party members and officers who had been to help in the recent English local elections. She was pleased to report that Welsh Labour had recently taken on four new trainee organisers and an administrator. She said that CLP organisation was to begin in earnest in the coming months; officers of the new CLPs were to be appointed by Welsh Labour, albeit taking into account the current CLP officers covering the areas in question. Advice for CLPs was to be made available; the party was waiting for further information from UK Labour on various matters of detail, including financial arrangements for the new CLPs.
Jo was asked a number of questions on this latter point, covering areas like the arrangements for CLP organisation at Senedd level under the new boundaries, provision for trade union affiliation and also how the new financial arrangements would affect ward branches. Bel suggested a Q&A/FAQs document for new CLPs; Darren and other CLP reps also raised concerns about the planned appointment of CLP officers by Welsh Labour officials and expressed the view that these posts should be filled in as democratic a way as possible by local members. A question was also raised about the internal consultation on further devolution of the rulebook, to which the party had committed itself at Welsh Labour Conference six months before. On this last point, Jo said that Welsh Labour was working on it and, once the WEC sub committees were re-established, they could pick up the detailed work. On UK parliamentary selections, she said that the intention was to complete them all by UK Labour Conference in October.
The next item was a general election update; Jo reported that the Campaign Committee was meeting on the last Friday on every month, led by Jessica Morden MP and Nia Griffith MP, and this was feeding into the work of the UK committee, led by Shabana Mahmood MP. The party was seeking to learn the lessons of the English local elections, for example the importance of postal vote sign-up.
The WEC next turned to the Senedd reform update, where the Deputy General Secretary, Joe Lock, reported that work was underway on two specific items on which a decision was not yet needed but early thoughts were welcome. One of these was the question of how incumbents should be considered as part of the party’s selection procedures; there were four options, ranging from incumbents being given the top positions on candidate lists in the new constituencies (subject to a trigger ballot) to them having no incumbency advantage and having to apply for selection in the same way as all other applicants.
The other issue was the question of measures to promote equality on candidate lists, both under the law as it currently stood and in a scenario where gender quota legislation had been put in place. Under the current situation, the options were between ‘zipping’ (i.e. alternating male and female candidates, with female candidates at the top of the lists, in half of the constituencies) or no zipping, with candidates listed purely on basis of party ballot. The options under potential new legislation were obviously more speculative and might also facilitate measures to promote BAME, LGBTQ+ and disabled candidates. Darren spoke in favour of a selection option that would maximise democratic choice for party members, whilst recognising the contribution of sitting MSs, and also in favour of zipping to promote greater representation of women. Bel made the point that equality would only be secured if the party did everything that it could from the outset to promote women and candidates from minorities, for example by providing training and mentoring. Joe said that the BAME Committee had recently been reconstituted and could assist in this area.
The next item, the Westminster parliamentary selections update, was the most significant and politically contentious of the meeting. A paper was presented reporting that all sitting Welsh Labour MPs who wished to seek re-election had been allocated to the new constituencies arising from the boundary review for which they had expressed a preference. In most cases, this was uncontentious, as there was only one sitting MP seeking selection for a new seat, but in two cases, the outcomes reported were far more problematic.
The first of these was Caerphilly, where Wayne David had announced his retirement and the current MP for Islwyn, Chris Evans, was declared to have been selected, even though only a small proportion of his current constituency had transferred to the new, enlarged Caerphilly seat. This matter had been discussed at previous WEC meetings and it was well-known that the CLP officers were very unhappy at the prospect of having a candidate imposed on them without any opportunity to make a choice. The procedures adopted by the WEC in December 2022 included a clause whereby if there were only one sitting MP making a claim on a seat, they would automatically be selected; the wording had not been clear in its implications at the time and there had been some hope that the matter could be revisited. Darren had submitted a couple of proposed alternative procedures to the WEC officers that would have allowed the CLP a choice, but we were told that the party’s legal advice was that these options were not available because Chris Evans would have the basis of a legal challenge.
The other contentious situation was in respect of Neath and Swansea East, where there would have been two sitting MPs with a claim on the new constituency, but one of these, Christina Rees, had been under party suspension for more than a year pending the outcome of an unresolved disciplinary matter and therefore unable to submit a claim. As a consequence, Carolyn Harris had been declared selected.
In presenting the paper, the Deputy General Secretary, Joe Lock, said that the WEC was being asked simply to note the paper, as the officers felt that there was no alternative to the information given, but that the Party Development Board would be asked to look at the matter in more detail and take the views of the CLPs involved into account, although there was no suggestion that this would result in any definite change.
There was a lengthy and impassioned debate on this issue, in which several WEC members, including Darren and Bel, along with other CLP reps and the representatives of Unite and UNISON, expressed concern about what we were being told and proposed that the paper not be accepted, but that officers be asked to take it away and come back with an alternative solution allowing a meaningful choice for members in Caerphilly and in Neath and Swansea East. Others, however, insisted that the legal advice prevented us from making any other choice and also said that there was the possibility of an early general election, meaning that all candidates needed to be in place as soon as possible.
The paper was put to a vote, which, at the request of the GMB, was conducted in secret by email and the result, very disappointingly, was 17 votes to 10 in favour of accepting the paper as presented.
The final substantive item was nomination of WEC members to sub committees. There were complaints that details of these committees had not been circulated in advance and therefore there had not been time for members to consider what contribution they might like to make to the various committees. The Organisation and Local Government committees are largely open to all volunteers; Bel volunteered for the former and Darren for the latter. The Party Development Board, which functions as the executive of the WEC, is however limited to three seats for party units and three for affiliates, in addition to the three WEC officers and others in an ex officio capacity. Darren had been serving on this for some time and put himself forward for re-election and was successful in an email ballot following the meeting.
The standard reports from elected representatives had been received in written form in all cases; these were noted without further questions and the meeting was closed.