After a couple of special meetings called to discuss the party’s response to the leaked report, we finally held the first full NEC meeting under Keir Starmer’s leadership. Although this meeting was not due to discuss the appointment of a new General Secretary, following the sad departure of Jennie Formby, the long-listing for this post by NEC officers had taken place that morning and the Chair, Andi Fox, began by expressing her disappointment that the names of the 9 candidates who had been successful at this first stage had immediately been leaked to the media.
The Chair also informed us that Carol Sewell, the NEC BAME rep, who had been scheduled to join the NEC officers in conducting the shortlisting for the General Secretary post, was now unable to take part and the Chair therefore proposed that one of the CLP reps, Huda Elmi, take Carol’s place. This opened up a lengthy discussion where various NEC members sought not only to propose alternative candidates to Huda but also to reopen the question on the number and composition of the shortlisting panel. When the Chair quite rightly ruled that such proposals of the latter kind were out of order, she had to contend with some disgraceful barracking and general rudeness from certain NEC members. Following a vote, it was eventually decided that Shabana Mahmood MP should take Carol’s place.
Keir then gave his first report as leader, concentrating mainly on how he had been holding the Tory government to account on its failures in dealing with the coronavirus crisis, particularly in relation to testing and PPE, as well as the disturbingly high death toll within care homes. Keir also voiced the widespread concerns about Boris Johnson’s speech in which he had begun to relax the lockdown restrictions in England without apparently having given this adequate thought beforehand. The Immigration Bill was another cause for concern, given the government’s appalling treatment of NHS and care workers from other countries. Finally, Keir talked about the outreach work that the party was doing in communities where people had turned away from Labour in 2019 and cited in particular online public meetings held with people in the north of England and in Wales.
In questions on the leader’s report, concerns were raised over a number of issues, including the membership of the panel investigating the leaked report, the apparent shift in the party’s position in relation to Kashmir, the rather cautious stance taken over rent relief for tenants in the private rental sector and the hostility voiced towards the teaching unions by certain Labour figures. Mick Antoniw MS also highlighted the different approaches being taken by the four national governments within the UK over Covid-19 and the need for Labour to factor this experience into its thinking on constitutional reform. Keir responded that the inquiry panel had been agreed by the whole NEC (although it was subsequently pointed out that we hadn’t had the opportunity to research the proposed members beforehand). He also said that his letter on Kashmir followed closely the line taken in a similar letter from Ian Lavery MP under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and reassured the NEC that the party would take a strong line on any human rights abuses; NEC members highlighted the alarming deterioration of the situation in recent months and the importance of the party clearly condemning the actions of the Indian government. On rent, Keir said that the taxpayer would have to pick up the bill if tenants were relieved of the responsibility to pay. He offered support for the position of the teaching unions and said that schools should only be reopening when it was safe to do so. Keir also acknowledged Mick Antoniw’s point about devolution and said that he was in constant contact with the Welsh and Scottish Labour leaderships.
Angela Rayner then gave her first report as Deputy Leader and began by paying tribute to the work of Jennie Formby. She said that she was working with the trade unions in their efforts to boost membership, a campaign that had been inadvertently boosted by Boris Johnson’s flagrant disregard for the interests of workers. Angela made a few comments about the enquiry into the leaked report, saying in particular that the standards expected of staff needed to be absolutely clear in the future and that she hoped and expected that the issue of the misuse of finances in relation to parliamentary seats was properly examined, along with the other matters that had come to light. She acknowledged that there had been some differences recently on a number of issues such as those about which Keir had been asked, but she hoped that consensus could be reached on these matters without any return to factionalism. She also highlighted the importance of the party investing sufficient resources in the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections in particular, given the high stakes involved.
We then moved on to consider a number of papers on pressing matters arising from the Covid-19 crisis and the need for the party to adjust our plans accordingly. There was a wide-ranging paper entitled ‘Local and Regional Democracy in Lockdown.’ The first part of this looked forward to the council, mayoral and devolved parliamentary elections due to take place in 2021 and set out a timetable and revised arrangements for the selection of candidates. Much of what was proposed was sensible and pragmatic, but there were concerns about the potential implications for democracy of one or two of the proposals. A couple of amendments were agreed that improved on the original proposal; the first of these allowed for party branches to continue to conduct local government selection shortlisting in England (rather than this being taken over by the LCF assessment team and branch officers) and a second amendment deleted a proposal that the transition from LCFs to Local Government Committees should be ‘paused’.
The second part of the paper dealt with internal party elections for various sections of the NEC along with auditors, the CAC, NCC and the Young Labour National Committee. A choice was presented, whereby either CLPs could be allowed to make nominations using an electronic platform; or CLP Executive Committees would make nominations; or, finally, all internal elections would be deferred, pending a further decision on appropriate timescales. In the end, the third of these options was overwhelmingly agreed, but it was agreed to hold a further NEC meeting in June, which would consider a new paper with further detailed options as to the timetabling of the elections. It was also agreed that English regional party conferences (scheduled for autumn 2020) would be postponed until the following year and that, in the absence of the normal workings of the National Policy Forum, the party’s policy and research unit would produce guidelines to support CLPs in engaging with the NPF process via electronic platforms. Mick Antoniw proposed that this be done with due regard to devolution, given that around half of the policy content of NPF papers now relates to matters that are devolved, and this was agreed.
We then turned to a separate paper on annual conference and women’s conference; the options were either to plan for a full conference to go ahead, which would have required the procedures to be varied to allow CLPs to elect delegates using an online voting platform; or for conference to be postponed and replaced with an online policy event in the summer, which would not fulfil the constitutional function of the normal conference. Given the practical difficulties of organising a physical conference involving social distancing measures, even if it were possible for a mass meeting of this kind to go ahead at all, it was unanimously agreed to postpone conference.
The only other substantial business was to fill some gaps in the party’s policy commissions and to take a report on local government from Cllr Nick Forbes, leader of the LGA, who highlighted the close working between the Shadow Cabinet and Labour’s leadership within the LGA and the growing financial pressure on councils and the need for this to be addressed.
Under AOB, there was an attempt to reopen the agreed procedures for conducting the remainder of the General Secretary appointment, which unfortunately saw some of the same bad behaviour from certain NEC members as had been witnessed at the start of the meeting. I understand that strong representations have been made since the meeting about this and hope that we will see a more comradely and respectful attitude towards the Chair, in particular, in future meetings.