This was the first full NEC meeting since UK party conference in September. There is always an ‘away day’ at this time of year to consider the party’s work over the year ahead and it was decided to hold this one in Glasgow, partly because the new Scottish Leader would have been elected by the time we met. Richard Leonard joined us at the meeting and it was good to hear his thoughts on the party’s prospects in Scotland.
Before we got on to the scheduled agenda, the General Secretary, Iain McNicol, made a statement regarding the very sad news that a member of party staff had taken his own life a couple of days before, a story which, unfortunately, had been covered by that day’s Sunday Times in a somewhat lurid fashion. Iain reassured us that the party was doing everything it could to protect the man’s family, which is why it had prevented his name from being released. Comments from a Labour MP that had been quoted in the article suggesting that the member of staff had been badly treated in relation to accusations against him were untrue and unhelpful.
The first major item of business concerned the National Youth elections, due to take place in 2018. On the previous occasion when these positions had been elected, this had taken place at the Young Labour conference, when there had been some controversy around the process. Subsequently, the Royall Review had recommended that, in future, there should be an online ballot. The NEC had to choose between two different options as to how these elections should proceed: the first would have involved extending the term of office of the incumbents in order to conduct the elections as part of the July ballots for NEC and other positions, following the outcome of the Party Democracy Review on these matters; the other option was to have the elections conducted early in the New Year, on the basis of a process agreed by the NEC in July 2017, on the understanding that, if the Party Democracy Review recommended a different process in future, that could be adopted further on.
There were strong views put for both options, with much emphasis given to the views of Young Labour activists. The second option was eventually chosen, on the basis that the party’s democratic processes should not be delayed unduly. In addition, it was decided that the electoral college that would choose the NEC Youth Rep should consist of only two sections: all Young Labour members; and affiliates, casting a vote on behalf of their young members. This removed a third section of the college that had previously been included, which would have given student Labour clubs their own section. In my view, this was the right decision, as the previously-agreed system would have given young Labour Students two votes. The decision also reflected the views of the majority of the current Young Labour National Committee.
We then had a joint session with the Scottish Executive Committee, beginning with a welcome to Scotland from the Scottish Labour Chair, Cathy Peattie. Jeremy then gave his Leader’s Report, beginning with some tributes to prominent comrades who had sadly passed away in the recent months, including former MP Candy Atherton; longstanding NUPE and UNISON leader, Rodney Bickerstaffe; veteran MP Frank Doran; and former Welsh Government minister, Carl Sargeant, who had tragically taken his own life and whose funeral Jeremy would be attending the following week. Jeremy congratulated Richard Leonard on his election as Scottish Labour Leader and his success in challenging the SNP over their implementation of Tory austerity.
Turning to wider matters, Jeremy commended Katy Clark and her team for their hard work on the Democracy Review. He reminded us that a majority of members had been in the party for less than two years and that it was therefore particularly important that we re-examine how we do business and ensure that Labour is as welcoming and inclusive as possible. Jeremy also congratulated NEC member Paddy Lillis on his election as General Secretary of USDAW and then talked about the continuing debate in response to the Chancellor’s budget, which had reinforced the Tories’ failure to tackle issues like homelessness and tax evasion or to present a credible approach to Brexit.
Richard Leonard then addressed the meeting, noting that he was doing so in the shadow of a bust of Keir Hardie, who had been Scottish Labour leader before going on to lead the newly-formed Labour Party throughout the UK. Richard said that there was huge support for Jeremy’s leadership within Scottish Labour and that there had been a big growth in membership, the challenge now being to turn members into activists. Richard also said that he wanted to build stronger relations with the Welsh Labour party. Finally, he commented on the work-in at the threatened BiFab engineering plant in Fife, which had been organised by Unite and the GMB, and had put pressure on the SNP government to put together a deal to protect jobs.
There was then a general discussion about the issues raised by Richard and Jeremy in relation to the challenge of turning around Scottish Labour’s long decline and taking the fight to the SNP and the Tories. NEC and SEC members commented on a range of matters, from the changing social base of the Scottish electorate to issues of party democracy and the relationship between the party and the unions. Jeremy, in summing up, suggested that a similar joint session with the Welsh Executive Committee would be a good idea.
Following the lunch break, Iain McNicol kicked off a wide-ranging session on organisational matters. He covered the party’s detailed plans to deliver its four key aims over the next year: becoming General Election ready; taking on the Tories; engaging and building the membership; and building a strong and professional organisation. Iain also presented the party’s draft revised policy on dealing with sexual harassment and safeguarding issues.
In the course of the discussion prompted by this presentation, a number of issues were raised, including the fact that the selection timetable for target parliamentary seats had slipped somewhat and also the need for a better system of enabling as wide as possible a range of delegates to speak at UK party conference.
One specific issue that was addressed related to an outstanding decision of the 2014 Collins Review and subsequent Special Conference, which had imposed a five-year transitional period within which an opt-in system of union affiliation would be introduced. As similar obligations had subsequently been imposed on affiliated unions by the Tories’ Trade Union Act, it was agreed that it was now unnecessary for the party to continue with its own implementation of this change.
We were then given an update on the growth and distribution of party membership, the overall figure of which was now 568,500, substantially more than the previous year and the highest year-end figure in party history. There had been increases in every part of the UK, except Greater London, with Scotland having had the largest rise. The average age of party members was continuing to drop, and the gender imbalance in favour of men had continued to decline. Like other NEC members, I was grateful to officers for the useful information provided, but asked for more detail on the regional breakdown, which the General Secretary agreed to provide.
Katy Clark gave an update on the Party Democracy Review, which is currently open for consultation. I suggested that it would be useful for the party to produce some simple guides as to how its structures and processes work at the end of the review, particularly for the newer members who are now the majority of the party. I also acknowledged that the Scottish and Welsh parties were not covered by the review for the purposes of those areas that had been internally devolved, but felt that these concerns also required consideration, citing some matters of party democracy in Wales that had given cause for concern, including the recent decision by the Welsh Executive Committee to reject OMOV in Welsh leadership and deputy leadership elections without taking this decision back to Welsh conference.
Turning to preparations for 2018 elections, we had a presentation from Ian Lavery MP and Andrew Gwynne MP, the joint campaign coordinators. The party was looking ahead to local government elections in 151 English local authorities, as well as 5 mayoral elections and possibly a city mayoral election in Sheffield. In the previous local elections, UKIP has made significant gains and its support was likely to go disproportionately to the Tories. Labour is seeking to win control of more councils, defend its existing seats and use the local elections to build momentum for the next General Election. In preparing for the latter, Labour was looking particularly to its prospects in Scotland, the work of selecting new candidates was underway and the continuing series of national campaign days were providing opportunities to involve members in an on-going process of engagement with the electorate.
Andrew Fisher gave an update on policy development and the work of the National Policy Forum. Andrew said that the experience of drawing up the last General Election manifesto had been very positive, with valuable collective input and a strong sense of common purpose. The Daily Mail had described the leaked manifesto as a ‘new suicide note’, which had obviously been falsified by events. Andrew said that he had given a presentation to Islington North CLP a few months before, at which only four people out of a hundred had understood the NPF process, and one of those worked in the policy unit at Labour headquarters. There is clearly a lot to do to improve our policy-making arrangements and Andrew and his team are working with trade unions and other progressive external bodies to develop policy.
In an update on strategy and communications, Seamus Milne reflected on how much had changed since he had last addressed the NEC in April, when there had been scepticism about Labour’s chances of closing a 20-point gap in the polls. Seamus gave an analysis of the factors that had helped to turn the situation around, including the more favourable election time broadcasting rules, the role of social media, the popularity of the party’s policies etc. The conventional wisdom about what can be accomplished in elections had been turned on its head, but we could not expect the next election to go the same way and the Tories will have learnt to be more cautious as a result of their setback in June. Labour needs to make full use of its expanded membership and particularly its sophistication with digital media, while also exploiting the Tories’ political weakness over falling living standards, Brexit and other issues. We need to consolidate the support that we won from younger voters, demonstrating that we are addressing their interests, attempt to build our support in the regions where we did less well in June and take full advantage of the government’s difficulties.
Finally, in an address on the economy and Labour’s response to the budget, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said that the Tories had attempted to manage public expectations over the budget, in light of poor economic figures, but Labour had seized the initiative with its call for an emergency budget based on five key demands: pause the introduction of Universal Credit; end the public sector pay cap; increase the funding for health, education, and local government; fund infrastructure projects; and undertake a massive housing programme. The Tories were relying on smoke and mirrors to disguise the inadequacy of their resources that they had made available in key areas, like education and housing. The Labour front bench was continuing the work of unpicking the budget and exposing the government’s deceptions. The debate over economic policy was reaching a key stage, where the previous neo-liberal consensus was coming under unprecedented challenge. Labour was making detailed preparations for government, looking at the implementation and costing of its key policies and rebutting the criticisms of sceptical commentators and stakeholders. This work was bearing fruit, with the party’s polling on economic credibility having significantly improved over the last six months.
Overall, we left the session in Glasgow with a strong sense that the party is taking every necessary step to prepare for the next General Election and the practical challenges of government.