The meeting began with an update from the Acting General Secretary, Rhiannon Evans, on the Newport West by-election, which had been triggered by the sad death of the great Paul Flynn a month before. The election was obviously hugely important, as, although the party had an excellent candidate in Ruth Jones, we could not take for granted that the strong personal vote built up by Paul over many years would simply fall into our laps. In addition, it was clearly going to be a significant test of the leadership, both of Jeremy Corbyn and of Mark Drakeford, and at a time when the political atmosphere was particularly febrile because of the Brexit saga. Rhiannon offered reassurance about the degree of organisation and input from staff and volunteers into the election campaign. The TULO organisation of Labour union affiliates was to organise a big push on 23rdMarch. Darren suggested trying to get as many people to the constituency as possible on the final Saturday before the election; it appeared that the party was already thinking along similar lines.
The next item was a report from the Welsh Labour leader and First Minister, Mark Drakeford. Mark once again provided a detailed written report of his activities over the previous month, which had included speaking at the Scottish Labour Conference the week before, seeking to protect Wales’ interests as the prospect of Brexit loomed ever closer, and acting on his campaign pledge to develop a social partnership bill in collaboration with the trade unions. His action on this last point won praise from trade union reps present. Darren commended Mark and Julie Morgan for the work that they had done in addressing the concerns of campaigners, who had sought to protect the Welsh Independent Living Grant; the additional funding and provision of an independent social work assessment, which had been agreed, had assuaged many of these concerns. Mark also commented on the terrible events that had taken place in Christchurch, New Zealand; he had written to the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, to offer condolences on behalf of the Welsh Government, and had tried to provide solidarity and reassurance to Muslim communities in Wales, including by attending Friday prayers in a Cardiff mosque and also the vigil organised by the Muslim Council for Wales.
Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Christina Rees, echoed Mark’s comments about the tragedy in Christchurch and the need to protect the harmonious relations that we had sought to promote in our multicultural societies. She also reported on efforts that she had made to hold Welsh Secretary of State, Alun Cairns, to account over issues including mineworkers’ pensions and the questionable plans for the Felindre Parkway station.
Deputy Leader, Carolyn Harris, reported on a number of successful campaign days that had been held with materials tailored to the needs of Wales, and the development of Labour’s community organising strategy, highlighted by the recent event with Ian Lavery MP in the Vale of Glamorgan. She also referred to the importance not only of the Newport West by-election but also the council by-election in Merthyr, which could potentially enable Labour to regain control of the local authority.
The next item was progress on the Welsh Labour Democracy Review. Officers had prepared a detailed report on the progress that had been made on Stage 2 of the review, which, subject to WEC approval, was to be presented to Welsh Labour Conference in Llandudno. Mark Drakeford and Deputy General Secretary, David Costa, presented this report to the meeting. As indicated at the previous meeting, less of the work encompassed by the review had been accomplished that we would have liked, and there had been a focus on agreeing some changes where there was general consensus. A table of responses included in the paper indicated that there had been a sharp increase in submissions, especially from CLPs, close to the deadline, although no indication was given as to common themes and priorities from those submissions. Despite the somewhat disappointing absence of major reform proposals, overall there were some important and positive steps forward in a number of key areas. These included a relaxation of the restrictions relating to motions submitted to Welsh Labour Conference, removing the “contemporary” criterion and the two-year rule, although not, unfortunately, the requirement that motions must relate to devolved matters only. In addition, there was agreement in principle that Welsh Labour Women’s Conference should become a motion-based event with voting delegates; the Women’s Committee had been asked to draw up appropriate arrangements.
There were three items in the Democracy Review report that were more contentious. The first of these was a proposal to provide for the election by an OMOV ballot of the position representing Wales on the National Executive Committee. This post has been in the gift of the Welsh Labour leader since it was created in 2016, but there had been widespread support for it to be elected in submissions to the UK Democracy Review and Mark Drakeford had also made this one of his leadership campaign pledges. The proposal as presented would have allowed affiliates as well as CLPs to make nominations, but only party members to vote. The trade unions raised concerns about this and it was agreed that, although there were some practical difficulties (because the election had to be conducted by the UK party) an attempt would be made to accommodate their wishes for their members to vote and the matter would be brought back to the next meeting.
A second controversial matter related to the rules for reselecting parliamentary candidates. The trigger ballot mechanism was reformed at the UK Labour Conference in 2018, reducing the threshold of votes needed to trigger an open selection, but it was widely assumed that this would apply only in England. There had since been clarification that it would apply to Wales and Scotland as well. The document acknowledged this, but said that Welsh Labour might wish to ask the NEC for a further rule change to allow Wales to have the option to determine its own rules. Some WEC members expressed support for this idea, with two even questioning whether the interpretation of the rules that we had been given was correct. Darren, however, argued that, while he supported devolution where it made practical sense, there was no obvious reason why selection of Labour candidates for a UK-wide Parliament should be different in each of the constituent countries and that we should therefore accept the status quo. It was agreed that the paper could stand as written as it simply acknowledged the current position and that we come back to it at a later date
The final issue that provoked some controversy was in relation to the commitment to make WEC papers more widely available for members to see. This again was in line with one of Mark Drakeford’s pledges to promote greater openness and accountability within the Welsh party. It was agreed that Welsh Labour should seek to establish a password-protected section of the UK Labour website in which these papers could be published, subject to some exclusions for sensitive or confidential material, but there was a debate as to whether the obligation to publish the papers should be written into the standing orders or whether there should simply be a general instruction to officers that this should be done. At Mark’s suggestion, we adopted the latter approach on an initial basis with the aim of moving towards a more formal commitment once the new approach had been introduced.
There was then a paper on electoral reform, which summarised responses to the consultation that Welsh Labour had undertaken on this subject. It was reported that, although there had been general consensus that the number of Assembly Members should be increased, there was no consensus about moving towards a more proportional electoral system and it was therefore agreed that we should conduct further discussions on this through the policy process with any resulting proposals to be incorporated in Labour’s manifesto for the next Assembly elections in 2021.
The Acting General Secretary, Rhiannon Evans, reported that, since the last meeting, the Assembly Member and Police and Crime Commissioner trigger ballot processes had begun, that parliamentary candidates had been selected in Clwyd West and Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, with Brecon and Radnorshire due to conclude on 30thMarch. In addition, an expedited selection timetable had been agreed for Dwyfor Meirionnydd and this was also under consideration for Ceredigion. In response to questions, Rhiannon said that the Assembly selections in Bridgend and the Rhondda would begin after conference and that it had not yet been decided which would begin first.
Neither Derek Vaughan MEP nor Cllr Debbie Wilcox were present at the meeting, but both had circulated written reports. Jeff Cuthbert had also produced a written report on the work of the Police and Crime Commissioners and added some comments about the need for greater resources and a more coherent strategy to deal with violent crime, as well as criticising Theresa May’s denial of the link between cuts in police numbers and the increase in recorded crime.
In response to the minutes, Darren sought a further update on the question of whether new rules on quorums, agreed at UK Conference, would apply in Wales, and was told that the party had confirmed that these would apply. There was one piece of correspondence from Dwyfor Meirionnydd CLP, which incorporated a motion seeking discussion of open selections at Welsh Labour Conference, and it was agreed that this could not be taken up in the way that the CLP wanted because the Assembly selections had largely concluded and we now knew that the parliamentary selections were bound by the same rules as the UK party, but CLP reps asked that the CLP be given a detailed response that fully acknowledged their concerns and clarified the position.