This was the first full NEC meeting of the year and the first in which the three newly-elected CLP representatives and the one additional trade union representative were able to attend. It was also the last meeting for the Youth Rep, Jasmine Beckett, whose term of office was coming to an end, and she was thanked by Jeremy at the start of the meeting for her work over the previous couple of years.
There had been an expectation that the meeting would agree a statement on the party’s policy regarding the position of trans people, particularly with regard to All Women Shortlists, after this issue was discussed by the Equalities Committee the previous week. NEC members received a large number of emails from people on both sides of this debate in the expectation that we were due to make a decision. It was decided, however, that further discussion of this issue was needed and the matter was therefore deferred to a future meeting.
As usual, the formal business began with the sad duty of paying tribute to prominent party members who had died over the previous couple of months. On this occasion, the obituaries included the former MPs Jimmy Hood and Eric Moonman, the former Assistant General Secretary Cliff Williams, Jennifer Pegg, who had been an activist and Councillor in Oxford and Baroness Olive Nicol. Councillor Nick Forbes, one of the Local Government NEC representatives, said that two Council leaders, Paul Watson of Sunderland and Kieran Quinn of Tameside, had also died recently, and Iain McNicol paid tribute to Rich Green, a member of party staff who had tragically died at the end of the previous year.
Jeremy paid his own tributes to all those who had died at the start of his leader’s report, which was the next agenda item. He reminded us of the centenary of the Representation of the People Act (1918), which gave some women the vote for the first time, and said that he had done a radio interview about one of his own heroines, Mary Wollstonecraft, in connection with this anniversary. He was pleased to note that there were now more women than men on the NEC for the first time, that there was gender balance in the Shadow Cabinet and that this would hopefully apply to the whole PLP after the next General Election. He said that we need to have genuine diversity if we are to win the confidence of the people.
The crisis in the NHS in England had dominated the first Prime Minister’s Questions of 2018; despite the UK Government’s assurances that all was fine, nurses were treating patients in hospital car parks. Labour had done a party political broadcast on the subject in England the previous week and there was a big rally coming up at which both Jeremy and Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Heath Secretary, would be speaking. The NHS was a Labour creation and we would have to fight for it. The Carillion crisis had also broken in the previous week, and Labour was challenging the government’s ‘Private in Best’ ideology. Many people had lost their jobs as a result of the company’s collapse, including unknown numbers of subcontractors in the supply chain, and profit warnings had been ignored. Jeremy thanked the unions for their work on this issue. The EU Withdrawal Bill and other associated legislation had dominated the last few months, and Jeremy thanked the team that had been involved in the parliamentary debates. He assured us that Labour would continue to push for tariff-free trade and access to Europe. Jeremy also talked about the work that the party had been doing on Universal Credit and on refugees and the continuing ‘action Saturdays’ that the party was organising. He noted the forthcoming Welsh Assembly by-election in Alyn and Deeside, which he planned to visit. He then took questions on many of the items he had covered, particularly Carillion, as well as such diverse issues as the war in Yemen, violence against NHS staff and the UCU pensions dispute.
Jon Trickett MP elaborated on the Carillion crisis, saying that two hedge funds had made profits of £40 million and £90 million respectively from short selling shares in the company and had the made donations to the Conservatives. The crisis had exposed the problems with outsourcing public services and Jon had outlined a clear political response from Labour, which would involve removing the presumption of outsourcing as soon as the party won the next election. There would need to be much tougher conditions applied to any public procurement and robust contract compliance. There was no evidence that outsourcing was ultimately any cheaper and the companies involved generally made their profits by attacking workers’ conditions.
Jonathan Ashworth then spoke in more detail about the NHS crisis, which had seen patients being treated in ambulances and hospital corridors. Nearly every hospital in England had unsafe occupancy rates and infections had been spreading. There were vacancies for 40,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors and 4 million people on waiting lists. At the forthcoming rally, he would be calling for an extra £5 billion for the NHS. The Lansley Act had been designed to drive privatisation and we had seen companies like Virgin Care profiting at the expense of patients and the taxpayer. Health inequalities were widening and Labour was determined to address these issues.
Cllr Nick Forbes then gave the Local Government report. There had been no extra money for local councils from the Conservatives, but there had been an increase in their responsibilities. He was glad that Jeremy had distanced the party from Chris Williamson MP’s suggestion about doubling council tax, which Nick believed would be disadvantageous to Labour local authorities. He then raised the controversial issue of the so-called Haringey Development Vehicle being pursued by the Labour council in that borough. NEC members had received representations from backbench councillors in Haringey requesting intervention against the administration’s policy, which involved outsourcing of housing on a massive scale. With regard to Jon Trickett’s comments in relation to our response to Carillion, Nick said that councils would need support with any change in the outsourcing rules.
The issue of Haringey’s policy was then discussed at length by the NEC, with concerns led by Jim Kennedy of Unite about the proposed transfer of council property which had not been included in the party’s local manifesto. Jim said that the policy was inconsistent with Labour’s national position on outsourcing and that 21 councillors had asked the NEC to intervene, because under these circumstances, we could not remain silent. Jim therefore proposed a motion under powers given to the NEC by the party rulebook, proposing that we insist that the contract be paused and not signed until after the May elections, after which it would be reviewed. In the ensuing debate, little support was expressed for the Haringey administration’s position, but there were different views about the importance of, on the one hand, maintaining a consistent policy in the interests of local people and, on the other hand, the need to respect the autonomy of elected local council leaders. Nick Forbes in particular suggested that informal representations to the Haringey leadership would be more appropriate.
It was agreed to have a short break to allow the key people on the two sides of this debate to discuss a compromise position, which was duly agreed and would involve mediation in the first instance, but left open more robust NEC intervention as a fall-back. This was unanimously agreed and we were asked not to report on the details of such a sensitive issue; yet, within minutes, journalists were reporting on it, having had the details of the discussion leaked to them. It was also disappointing in the following days to read the open letter in the Sunday Times by Labour council leaders condemning the NEC for intervening in this issue, particularly as one of the leading signatories was Nick Forbes, who had signed up to the compromise motion.
Richard Burdon MEP, the leader of the European PLP, then gave his report, focussing particularly on issues related to Brexit but also highlighting the action being taken by the EU on tax evasion and avoidance. Iain McNicol then gave the General Secretary’s report, which as always covered a wide variety of areas and took up most of the rest of the meeting. He said that membership was now around 556,000, but about 40,000 of these were in arrears. Priority parliamentary selections were progressing, with six of the ten candidates selected in 2017 chosen from AWSLs. The democracy review was also making good progress and there would be a session on this at the forthcoming National Policy Forum in Leeds. We were given a detailed review of the 2017 conference, which had involved an unprecedented number of delegates and visitors. Points were raised about the need for a better system for calling delegates to speak, as well as on the need for a review of the criteria for contemporary motions, among many other things.