This was the meeting that takes place every year in the week preceding party conference and which finalises whatever decisions the NEC might need to make regarding the conference agenda and other arrangements. It is normally, therefore, one of the lengthier meetings and this year’s was no exception.
Jeremy began his Leader’s report by paying tribute to those prominent party members who had died over the summer months and for whom we had received obituaries, but also to Jennie Formby, who had continued to undertake the role of General Secretary with her usual fortitude and professionalism despite having to contend with her treatment for cancer. He also thanked the party staff in general, who had worked hard throughout a particularly demanding period.
Jeremy then reminded us of the challenge that we would soon face to secure a government that would represent ordinary people. Boris Johnson had been elected by a mere 92,000 Tory votes, he was making a series of unfunded spending commitments and had the temerity to say that austerity was now over when this was clearly not the case. Jeremy continued to campaign all over the UK and had paid a visit to Whaley Bridge, to see the damage done by the flood and the work that had been put into deal with it and protect local people. The community had been full of praise for the emergency services and seemed supportive of the local Labour MP. The Tories were still committed to leaving the EU by 31st October but didn’t seem to have any new proposals. They had tried not to publish the Yellowhammer report but it had come out two days after parliament was prorogued. Legislation had been passed to avoid a no-deal Brexit, thanks to Labour MPs and peers.
The Prime Minister was under pressure to say whether he would abide by the law as passed. There was also a court case underway on the question of whether the prorogation had been legal and Shami Chakrabarti had attached herself to the case. Jeremy had reached out to other opposition parties to prioritise ruling out no deal and this had proven effective. He said that we shouldn’t promote either a referendum or an election until no deal was off the table. The government no longer had a majority, having lost 21 Tory MPs. If Boris Johnson were defeated on the Queen’s Speech, this could lead to an election; otherwise Labour could potentially table a vote of no confidence. The alternative to Labour’s approach would be Johnson taking the UK into the arms of Trump’s USA. Labour was determined to campaign on all issues during an election including poverty and austerity. In the meantime, we would be having a full debate at conference on Brexit and Labour’s plans for a Green New Deal among other issues.
In the ensuing discussion, several NEC members congratulated Jeremy on his handling of the Brexit issue in parliament and there was criticism of Jo Swinson for her attempt to avoid working with Jeremy and the LibDems commitment to revoke Article 50 without going back to the people.
The next item should have been the Deputy Leader’s report but Tom Watson was not present and had not given apologies, so we had to move on to the subsequent item. This was the local government report, where Cllr Nick Forbes said that the LGA had unanimously adopted a Labour motion on the climate emergency. He was also promoting Labour innovation in local government on a special website, which would be a useful resource for the party. Andrew Gwynne MP had said that local government was an important delivery agent for 44% of our manifesto. Nick was also delighted that Debbie Wilcox, previously Leader of Newport Council and the WLGA, had been elevated to the House of Lords.
The International Report was presented by John Hilary, former Director of War on Want, who had recently moved into this role and wanted to ensure more political content in the NEC’s discussions of its relations with parties and other organisations abroad. Kashmir and Yemen were among the pressing international issues raised under this item.
We then had the General Secretary’s report, with Jennie ringing in for this item. This covered many of the organisational issues that required consideration. Jennie reported that the EHRC were still working on their investigation. The party has also stepped is planning for a general election, which had been underway since 2017 and subject to regular review, with funding now made available for specific quantities of election materials. The party had recently opened up applications for aspiring parliamentary candidates and had received 1200 of these before the deadline. The Governance and Legal Unit had been carrying out due diligence checks. Trigger ballots for Labour-held seats were currently the priority.
There was lengthy discussion covering a number of the points that Jennie had raised, including concerns about the procedure undertaken to fill vacancies for candidates in seats where the MP was retiring or had defected to another party- some of these selections had begun only to be abruptly halted and had yet to be recommenced. There was clearly a pressing need for the party to have candidates in place in these important winnable seats as soon as possible.
Jennie asked the NEC to agree that the party should continue to prioritise trigger ballots, but ask officers to come back with a proposal for a truncated process for new selections. The NEC agreed, but asked for a detailed proposal to be brought to the eve of conference meeting the following Friday, despite Jennie expressing reservations as to whether this would be achievable, given the pressure of conference preparation work. NEC members also expressed concern about the continuing absence of a date for the next Women’s Conference- Jennie pointed out that other conferences had been cancelled but gave assurances that the Women’s Conference would definitely take place in the New Year, albeit that it was currently difficult to be more precise because the events team were preoccupied with the main conference.
Harry Donaldson, Chair of Conference Arrangements Committee, then gave a report on how motions would be dealt with at conference- 398 had been submitted, 9 of which had been ruled out of order due to excessive length, 23 were on organisational matters and had therefore been referred to the NEC. The remainder had been grouped into 53 different subject areas. The issue of organisational issues not being considered a valid subject for conference motions is a controversial one as there is nothing in the rulebook to support this approach and it has simply become custom and practice since the Blair era. In the next item, which was acceptance of NEC Officers’ decisions, Jon Lansman moved that the officers’ decision on whether to allow organisational motions should be reconsidered, which I supported, but this was lost by 18 votes to 11.
The next item was the report from the long-running review on Labour’s policy on organising in Northern Ireland. Jim Kennedy, who had chaired the review panel, presented a paper. There were a number of complex considerations regarding Labour’s links with the SDLP, which currently remained a sister party even though it had taken steps towards closer relations with Fianna Fail, which might yet result in merger. There were also questions to consider regarding the implications of any change in Labour’s position for the Good Friday Peace Agreement, which was currently in a more sensitive state than it had been for some time as a result of the Tories’ crude politicking in relation to Brexit. The overwhelming view of the NEC was that the report was a sensible, sober response to complex issues and should be accepted, although some of use, myself included, expressed the hope that we would not be closing the door to a potential change in policy in the future and that we needed to acknowledge the aspirations of the many Labour Party members in Northern Ireland who wanted to be able to play a more active role.
We then turned to rule changes to be debated at conference both from the NEC and from CLPs. Most of the NEC rule changes were fairly uncontentious and represented attempts to address practical issues and to take forward the work of the democracy review. There was a lengthy debate on a motion regarding efforts to promote the selection of a greater number of BAME candidates, the result of which was that it was agreed that there should be more targeting of our efforts in this regard towards particular areas. By far the most contentious NEC rule change was the one seeking to give the NEC the power to carry out fast-track expulsions of members accused of particularly egregious conduct in relation to discrimination issues, where there was clear evidence of their guilt. Along with a couple of other NEC members, I strongly opposed this proposal, as I had done when it had been first raised, on the grounds that it was not necessary to improve the efficiency of the party’s disciplinary procedures but was rather an attempt to demonstrate to the media and the wider external audience that we were ‘getting tough’ on anti-Semitism. There was no clear definition offered as to what would constitute a sufficiently egregious case nor what kind of evidence would be considered prima facie. In addition, the change would blur the distinction between the role of the NEC as investigator/prosecutor and the quasi-judicial role of the National Constitutional Committee. These objections were, however, dismissed by the majority of NEC members and the rule change was accepted. None of the constituency party rule changes secured NEC support, which was unfortunate as a couple of them proposed very sensible and reasonable changes.