The meeting began with the Chair, Mike Payne asking the WEC to agree to discuss the papers, even though they had not been circulated with the amount of notice specified in the party rules; this was duly agreed (otherwise it would have been a very short meeting!) Mike also announced that Martin Eaglestone would be leaving Welsh Labour, after eight years as our Policy Officer, to go and work at the Assembly and warm tributes were paid to Martin for his sterling work over the years.
Derek Vaughan MEP then gave the EU report. He said that the UK government had boxed themselves in by committing themselves to a hard Brexit or no deal. They could back away from that but only at the risk of antagonising their own hardliners. Theresa May was expected to give a flexible speech on Europe before the Tory conference, then a more ‘hardline’ speech during the conference itself. The leak that week about the government’s intentions in relation to immigration hadn’t made things any easier for them. The European Parliament would get a veto on the final deal and has a track record of voting things down in the run-up to European elections (which would be the situation in 2019). The EU institutions are very united and it is agreed that citizenship rights; the UK’s liabilities (the money that the government has agreed in principle to pay for structural funds etc, but doesn’t want to put a figure on) and a common travel area with Ireland have to be resolved before other issues. Negotiations on a future trade deal wouldn’t begin in October as planned if there were insufficient progress on these three issues. The next EU budget post 2020 could not be discussed until the outcome of the Brexit talks, and whether there would continue to be UK contributions, was known. There had been a welcome shift in Labour’s own policy in recent weeks, especially in relation to the transitional period – but it was clear that the EU would not accept the latter if it were simply a means to buy time; the outcome would have to be known in advance. Derek’s own view was that we have to keep all options open; the public mood was volatile and, if the economy were seen to be faltering, there could be a shift in attitudes toward Brexit.
Derek was asked about progress on the future relationship with Ireland and said that he has regular discussions with Irish and Northern Ireland MEPs and they had understandable concerns about whether there would be a ‘hard’ border after Brexit. There were also implications for the Good Friday Agreement, which said that there could be no constitutional change on the island of Ireland without the consent of the people, yet Brexit is going ahead against the opposition of a majority in the North. Ultimately, the heads of government of the other 27 member states would decide whether sufficient progress had been made on this to allow discussions to move on to other issues.
Chris raised concerns about dissension within the PLP, with MPs like John Mann backing hard Brexit. Derek said that he meets Jeremy and Keir Starmer regularly and there is general support within the PLP for the leadership’s position of staying in the single market and customs union for a transitional period; only a minority support hard Brexit.
The WLGA Report was given by Cllr. Debbie Wilcox, Leader of Newport Council and of the WLGA. She said that Wales’ new local government leaders were taking a new approach and had written to the First Minister expressing the need to move on from austerity budgeting and to acknowledge the real problems caused by the Tories. There was a budget shortfall of £344 in social care across Wales and £400 million of efficiency savings had already been made. After the NHS, the next two biggest public services – education and social care – were the responsibility of local government and there needed to be the capacity to plan ahead, ideally over a three-year period. The WLGA were looking at all possible options for funding and was consulting the leading economist, Gerry Holtham, who had advised the Welsh Government. Debbie’s own authority had cut £48 million in three years. There needed to be flat cash settlements in future, at the very least. Debbie said that there was widespread support for many of the proposals in the Welsh Government’s consultation on local government elections but not for allowing council staff to stand for election in their own authorities, or for the proposal to allow a move towards proportional representation where a council wished to do so. The adoption in Scotland of the Single Transferable Vote system had, Debbie said, allowed the SNP to become the largest party overnight. She also opposed any return to the committee system, pointing out that an independent evaluation commissioned by the Welsh Government in 2015 had said that the current arrangements were working well.
Also included under this same agenda item was a consultation paper entitled Review of Local Campaign Forums and Related Structures, intended to seek the views of party units and affiliates as to how well the current arrangements in this area are working. The paper had been drawn up by the Local Government sub-committee and was presented as being “for the information” of the WEC. Darren asked that the WEC be given the opportunity to amend the paper and it was agreed to add a further question that he had suggested to the consultation, asking whether the LCF structure provides sufficient mechanisms for democratic accountability. A further question, suggested by another member, was also added in relation to making selection procedures more consistent across Wales. Darren praised Debbie’s position on challenging austerity and highlighted the anti-austerity rally taking place in Cardiff that afternoon, with Labour politicians and trade unionists among the speakers.
Next, Carwyn Jones gave his Leader’s Report. He began by celebrating the fact that the Welsh Government’s Trade Union Bill – repealing, within Wales, aspects of the Tories’ own draconian act – had now become law. Ironically, the powers used to pursue this legislation would be lost under the new Wales Act but now that it was on the statute book, it would be hard for the Tories to reverse the Assembly’s decision. Turning to Europe, Carwyn said that the referendum outcome should not be interpreted as a vote for the kind of ‘hard Brexit’ that the Tories were seeking. He had met Nicola Sturgeon recently to confirm that their two governments were taking the same position on the Tories’ Withdrawal Bill and they had made it clear to Damian Green that there was no chance of Wales supporting the bill as it stood, especially Clause 11, which would prevent powers from going back to Wales. Wales would also need the same arrangements in relation to its maritime border with Ireland as for the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The Tories clearly don’t understand the implications of their own policy, especially with regard to Northern Ireland. Carwyn was very pleased that Labour’s position in Wales and Westminster was now so clearly united and he had jointly written an article with Keir Starmer for the Western Mail.
Chris asked Carwyn how it was the Scottish Government were able to lift the 1% pay cap for devolved public sector workers but the Welsh Government could not do so and also referred to the concerns raised by Plaid Cymru about the training of medics at Bangor University. Carwyn replied, on the first point, that Scotland was more generously funded than Wales under the Barnett Formula and there was also the possibility that the Scots would choose to use its income tax powers to help fund pay rises. Wales would like to break the cap but it would mean cutting other services. With regard to the medical school issue, he said that the Welsh Government would like to see medical training taking place in Bangor but a stand-alone medical school there is not sustainable because the population is not big enough and students would end up travelling around the country for some of their training.
In her report as Shadow Welsh Secretary, Christina Rees told the WEC about al the campaigning she had been doing around Wales. The party had had a warm reception at the Eisteddfod and the Royal Welsh Show, among other events, with its literature produced jointly by Jeremy and Carwyn, very well received. John McDonnell had visited key seats in Mid and West Wales and Jeremy, accompanied by Carwyn and Christina, had made a successful visit to North Wales. Meanwhile the Tories had reneged on their promises in relation to rail electrification and were prevaricating over the Swansea Tidal Lagoon. In questions to Christina, it was pointed out that the Tories on Bridgend Council had backed Labour motion criticising the UK government and three of them had now left the party.
There was then an important item on Selections for Parliamentary seats in Wales, focussing mainly on the arrangements for choosing candidates for the twelve non-Labour-held seats. These had been divided into six priority (“offensive”) seats and another six (“majority” seats) considered less winnable. There had been a consultation with CLPs in the “offensive” seats about the use of all-women shortlists (AWS) and three had indicated that they would be happy to choose their candidate via an AWS. The WEC’s working group on Gender Equality had recommended that these three should all be AWS and also that Arfon as the most marginal seat in Wales, should be added to the list, even though the CLP had sought an open selection. In addition, it was proposed that at least three of the “majority” seats should select via AWS and that any vacancies that may occur in Labour-held seats should be filled by AWS until gender balance is achieved in Wales’ parliamentary representation.
These proposals gave rise to lengthy debate, not on the principles, which almost everyone supported, but on a suggestion from the Chair that all Welsh CLPs should be consulted one more time before the proposals were put into effect. Some supported this view, on the basis that it might help to mitigate conflict, but Chris and Darren were among those arguing for the alternative view, that the party had already debated this issue very thoroughly over several years and the direction of travel had been clear at the last conference. Several women on the WEC who had campaigned hard for gender equality for much of their political lives gave very passionate and persuasive speeches, arguing that it had taken long enough to get to the point of having clear proposals to make that a reality and it was time for the party to show leadership. When it was put to the vote, the latter position was carried, albeit with a provision for an appeals procedure if a particular CLP felt it had legitimate reason not to adopt an AWS.
A second issue debated under this item was a proposal from one of the CLP reps, Catherine Thomas (seconded by Darren) that the six “majority” seats be allowed to select their candidates as soon as the first six selections had been concluded. This was in response to representations from several CLPs in the region that Catherine represents – Mid and West Wales – who were anxious to have their candidate in place as soon as possible, in case of another early general election. Against this, it was argued that the election could be a long way off and that it would be unfair to impose a heavy burden of responsibility on candidates and CLPs to run a lengthy campaign when there would probably be little chance of success at the end. In addition, it was pointed out that there could be problems if Assembly selections were carried out first. In response, it was argued that the CLPs and aspiring candidates in question were best placed to make these decisions and their views should be heeded and ultimately Catherine’s proposal was agreed, albeit by a very slender margin. We were told, however, that only two selections could be conducted at a time and each would take around twelve weeks, so the whole process could still be dragged out over more than a year.
Louise Magee then gave her General Secretary’s Report. She said that Welsh Labour had had a successful summer, with the Corbyn and McDonnell visits having gone well and the party’s presence at the Royal Welsh Show and Eisteddfod being well received at the events themselves and on social media. Louise added her own thanks to Martin for all his hard work and confirmed that the party would soon be advertising to fill the vacancy.
Darren pointed out that the new academic year was about to begin and asked what the party would be doing to recruit new students especially at freshers’ fayres. Louise replied that UK Labour Students would be co-ordinating the party’s efforts and we were also told that Welsh Labour Students had produced a leaflet for this occasion and that individual university Labour clubs would be mobilising.
The last substantive item was a paper on Current Issues Around Electoral Reform, which included some comments on the Welsh Government consultation, to which Debbie Wilcox had referred earlier, taking a broadly similar line to hers and suggesting that the Party Development Board (PDB – in effect, the “executive” of the WEC) agree a formal Welsh Labour response to the consultation. It also noted that the Assembly Expert panel was currently taking evidence on the Assembly’s electoral system, its number of members and the voting age. This would report in the autumn, giving Welsh Labour an opportunity to have its own discussions about the Assembly’s future electoral arrangements.
Darren asked that the party’s response to the Local Government consultation be discussed by the full WEC, rather than just the PDB, but it was explained that, as the deadline was approaching soon, this was the last meeting at which it could be discussed and the agenda was already full. Reassurance was offered, however that the role of the PDB would be simply to make a submission in line with existing party policy, rather than to develop a new policy without recourse to the full WEC.
Minutes had been tabled for the July meeting and the very brief meeting at conference in March but not for the special meeting in April, called in response to the general election announcement. Darren asked for these and it was agreed that they should be provided.
Finally, we were told that Correspondence had been received from Aberconwy, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr and Dwyfor Meirionnydd CLPs, seeking to raise various considerations of party democracy, but these issues were either matters for the NEC or had not been received in good time.