The NEC held its first meetings of 2019 towards the end of January. The Organisation Committee and Disputes Panel met on 22 January (as did the Equalities Committee, of which I’m not a member) and the full NEC met a week later on the 29th. These were the first meetings attended by Mick Antoniw, the Welsh Assembly member designated as the representative of Mark Drakeford, the newly-elected Welsh Labour Leader and First Minister. Like Mark, Mick is a committed socialist and a consistent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and he made a very positive initial impression on the NEC with some typically cogent contributions. These meetings also saw another welcome addition, with Diane Abbott taking up one of the three Shadow Cabinet seats, replacing Kate Osamor.
As usual, I can’t say very much about the Disputes Panel meeting, as most of its business consists of confidential discussions of individual cases. I would say that the discussions are much more consensual and less politically polarised than they used to be. A more robust and consistent standard for investigations now applies; officers’ recommendations are generally balanced and proportionate, as for the most part, are the NEC’s discussions. Of course, most cases of alleged anti-Semitism are now dealt with by smaller panels of three-to-five NEC members, who have access to more detailed information, albeit anonymised. I haven’t yet sat on one of these panels and can’t therefore comment on how well they work.
I do continue to be concerned about the large backlog number of members under administrative suspension and/or referred to the National Constitutional Committee for disciplinary hearings. Some of these cases came to the Disputes Panel at a time of heightened tensions in the party and would, I think, not have been dealt with so severely now. But, in all cases, natural justice dictates that the accused have their case dealt with as swiftly as possible. I know that our conscientious staff of the Governance and Legal Unit are working through the cases as quickly as they can and the increase in the size of the NCC last year should enable hearings to be held at more regular intervals, so we will hopefully see the backlog significantly reduced in the months ahead.
Some of the most significant discussions by the Organisation Committee, which met just after the Disputes Panel, and at the full NEC a week later, related to candidate selections. We continue to make progress towards gender balance in the PLP: it was reported that women candidates accounted for two-thirds of those chosen in the first round of new selections and the NEC agreed to increase the number of all-women shortlists in the next tranche. It was disappointing, however, to hear that only four candidates out of 75 so far were from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic backgrounds (when 37% of applicants had come from such communities). Admittedly, the party doesn’t currently have the legal option of imposing an all-BAME shortlist, even in particularly diverse constituencies, but more clearly needs to be done to ensure that any barriers to the selection of members from minority communities are removed and the party’s candidates reflect the people we aspire to represent.
The General Secretary also promised to bring to the next NEC meeting proposals to initiate the trigger ballot process for sitting Labour MPs and to ensure that CLPs have some meaningful say even in the event of a snap election – unlike in 2017, when incumbents were readopted automatically. This seems particularly timely in light of the rumblings that have accompanied the recent mini-exodus.
The General Secretary’s report included an update on preparations for the Women’s Conference in late February and early preparation for the main conference in Brighton, as well as for the English local elections and the possibility of a snap General Election. We were reassured that, contrary to media speculation, party membership remained healthy and well in excess of half a million, notwithstanding some cyclical fluctuations. New members joining the party in recent weeks had clearly outstripped those leaving, and the level of recent financial donations had been the highest achieved outside of a General Election. Work was needed, however, to retain members and involve them in campaigning. Similarly, in a presentation by the party’s Executive Director of Finance and Operations, the information that we were given was very much at odds with the speculation that had appeared in the media, which has sought to suggest that the party is facing a financial crisis. In fact, our finances remain healthy, but prudence is required to ensure that we are able to maintain our regular operations while also being ready for an early General Election.
The only moderately contentious items on the full NEC agenda were three papers regarding selection procedures for Labour candidates: for Metro mayors, PCCs and the Greater London Authority. These all replicated the principle established by the reform to the trigger-ballot procedure agreed at conference in September 2018, whereby an open selection could be triggered either by a third of party units or by a third of affiliates with the electoral area in question. There was a push-back against this from some union reps and MPs, who wanted to stick to the previous 50% +1 of party units and affiliates combined, but the papers as proposed were agreed by a clear margin.
There had been speculation before the meeting of a potential bust-up over Brexit but, although one of the MPs mentioned the ‘People’s Vote’ petition and suggested that at some point the party might want to consult its members on the issue, there were few differences of opinion expressed during the meeting. In his report from the EPLP, Richard Corbett MEP told us that the Party of European Socialists had decided to back Franz Timmermans for President of the Commission. Richard thought it likely that the other 27 EU states would support an extension of Article 50 beyond the 29 March deadline. If the UK’s departure were extended no further than 1 July, we would not have to participate in elections to the European Parliament, otherwise British political parties would have to campaign in an election for which no-one had prepared. He said there was unanimity within the party that we don’t want the UK to leave the EU without a deal, therefore the only options were either an alternative deal or to stop Brexit. An alternative deal would need Theresa May to split her own party and negotiate with the Opposition. Jeremy had been right to recognise her offer to meet the other leaders as a gimmick.
In Cllr. Nick Forbes’ Local Government report we heard that the Local Government Funding Settlement had resulted in Tory households face a cut of £29 and Labour households a cut of £60 over the coming year. The Tories were trying to taker deprivation out of the mechanism by which the settlement is calculated and replace it with rurality and sparsity to suit their own political interests. Labour in the LGA was working on a big campaign against this, under the banner, ‘Stop the Stitch-up’.
While the meeting was underway, news came through of the sentencing of former Labour MP Fiona Onasanya; although her sentence didn’t require an immediate by-election, there was a commitment to allow members in her Peterborough constituency to choose a new candidate as quickly as possible.
In his Deputy Leader’s report, Tom Watson revealed that he had received well-founded information that the Tories were actively preparing for a General Election, reinforcing the need for Labour to take positive steps in this direction. Also, the recent Court judgment relating to the Tory MP for South Thanet had demonstrated that the current legislation is not fit for purpose as it places a very heavy responsibility on party staff and voluntary agents. Tom also highlighted the Government’s own predictions that 9 million jobs are likely to be lost to automation by 2030 and only a Labour government can respond adequately to this challenge by shifting the balance of power in the workplace back towards labour. He also said that Labour is committed to protecting free TV licences for over 75s in the face of the Tories backsliding on this issue.
Jeremy was able to come along and give a brief Leader’s Report in a break from all the excitement taking place in the House of Commons, where there had been further significant votes in relation to Brexit. He talked about the wider international picture, including his concerns about the actions of the hard-right Brazilian President Bolsonaro and about the situation in Venezuela, where he supported a negotiated settlement and not external intervention. More positively, Jeremy had attended the inauguration of Mexico’s new left-wing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO). Jeremy reviewed developments over Brexit in recent weeks, including the government’s historic defeat on the meaningful vote. Labour’s priority continued to be pushing for a General Election and Jeremy had been meeting unions to discuss policy priorities. In his speech in Wakefield, Jeremy had emphasised the shared interests of Leave and Remain supporters in the fact of austerity and the possibility of building unity in support of a change in government policy. He finished by saying that the socialist government in Portugal had achieved a great deal in a short time and should be an example to all of this.
We were also given a detailed report on the work of the Procedures Working Group (PWG), which was set up to review the party’s disciplinary rules and procedures and their application. Arising from its discussions were some minor proposed refinements of the procedures for dealing with anti-semitism cases, most notably the introduction of a ‘reminder of values’ that might sometimes be useful even when there were no grounds for undertaking a formal investigation. I asked whether these changes would apply to other kinds of disciplinary case and was told that this was being considered. The proposals were agreed. There were also detailed proposals to update and strengthen the party’s sexual harassment procedures designed to provide greater support to complainants, including through the involvement of an independent investigator, who would act as a first point of contact and advise staff. These proposals were also agreed.
The PWG also set out its current and future work programme, including a review of guidance relating to administrative suspension of members in disciplinary cases, and exploring a possible mechanism for appeal or review of a decision by the NCC to suspend or expel a member. This latter idea had been recommended by the Chakrabarti Report in 2016 but not acted upon and there have been growing demands, including via CLP resolutions, for it to be addressed.
There was also a report from the party’s Safeguarding Unit on its activities over the previous year. Acting on the advice of the NSPCC it had developed its previous Safeguarding and Member Welfare Policy into a Safeguarding Children Policy and Procedure and a Safeguarding Adults at Risk Policy and Procedure. Both of these documents, along with a new Safeguarding Code of Conduct, were presented to the meeting and unanimously agreed.
Finally, looking at the NEC’s schedule of meetings up to conference in the autumn, there was agreement that it would be sensible to try and schedule an additional Disputes Panel meeting at some point, and Jennie agreed to take this away and try to come up with the most practical solution.