The meeting took place after 24 hours of media coverage of divisions in the party, following Tom Watson’s dire warnings about the supposed threat posed by Momentum and its (supposed) would-be paymaster, Len McCluskey, with the result that Jeremy Corbyn was a little late arriving, due to the throng of journalists outside.
We began, as ever, with the sad roll call of those party stalwarts who had died in recent weeks –this time including Gerald Kaufman; the long-serving former MP Tam Dalyell; and former party chair, Margaret Wall – and tributes were paid by those who had known them (Jeremy also recommended the book written by Dalyell, a serial backbench rebel: The Importance of Being Awkward!)
The Leader’s Report began with Jeremy’s reflections on another high-profile figure who had died recently, Martin McGuinness, acknowledging the controversy over the Sinn Fein leader’s earlier years but paying tribute to the huge contribution he had made to the Northern Ireland peace process. Jeremy also acknowledged the previous day’s news coverage and referred to the joint statement that he and Tom Watson had put out, seeking to draw a line under the talk of disunity. He said that he was disappointed by the attitude of some Labour MPs, however, and that no other political gathering in the country would tolerate the kind of behaviour that was often seen at PLP meetings.
Jeremy also commented on the Tory government’s budget climbdown, under Labour pressure, over National Insurance contributions by the self-employed and acknowledged that Article 50 was expected to be triggered on 29 March. Labour would continue to push for tariff-free access to the single market and for the right of EU nationals to remain in the UK – and for the equivalent rights for British nationals living in EU states (Labour was asking sister-parties to support the latter). The so-called Great Repeal Bill, which would unpick the influence of EU regulations on UK legislation, was now expected to be a short bill but accompanied by another 6-8 bills on specific subjects.
In relation to Scotland, Jeremy wanted to clarify the position that he had set out, which was that it was not in the interests of the Scottish people to have a second referendum and that independence does not represent an economically credible policy. Labour MSPs would vote against Sturgeon’s proposal in Holyrood the following day but the party’s Westminster MPs would not do likewise if and when the issue came to Parliament, as it would only play into the SNP’s hands for Labour to be seen to be blocking the referendum. Jeremy ended by talking about the challenge of the forthcoming election and the need for Labour to get a clear and consistent message across.
Jeremy dealt with questions about his comments on Scottish referendum; about the Copeland and Stoke by-elections; about the New Economics conference in Scotland; he was praised for hosting a BAME media event in his office. Someone also asked him to rebut allegations that disloyal party staff were withholding ‘short money’ and thereby reducing the number of party staff who could be employed in the Leader’s office. Jeremy was bemused by this claim and Iain McNicol clarified that there are now more staff employed in the Leader’s office than when during Ed Miliband’s time in office.
Tom Watson then presented the Deputy Leader’s report, which was brief and uncontroversial, covering things like the party’s recent local government conference, the by-election campaigns and a study he was conducting into the way that automation is changing the world of work. He was asked for further information about the latter by several of the trade union reps. One of my fellow CLP reps raised the issue of the controversy that had occupied the media over the previous day, expressing frustration that it had deflected attention from potentially more positive stories and making a plea for the party to be more united as we move towards the elections. In his response to this question, Watson sought to justify his comments as a legitimate response to what he saw as dangerously divisive activities by Momentum, as highlighted by the recording of Jon Lansman speaking at a meeting. I then asked how he thought it would assist the situation to make inflammatory comments to an already hostile media six weeks before crucial elections; whether he had spoken to Jeremy before making his remarks; and what was the difference between Momentum seeking to increase its own influence within the party and other factions, like Progress and Labour First doing the same thing. He didn’t directly answer all my questions but reiterated his position and claimed that he had been deliberately misled by Momentum’s leadership. In the meantime, others had commented on the matter, both for and against Tom Watson.
John McDonnell joined us at this point to give the Shadow Chancellor’s Report. He reported on how Labour MPs had held the Government to account over its Budget – especially the inadequacy of the sums made available for Health and Social Care and for the so-called “industrial strategy”. The austerity measures announced in the previous year’s budget – in PiP, tax credits etc – were now coming into force. The UK was unique in having a growing economy but declining real wages, reflecting the unfair distribution of income and wealth. Moreover, 84% of the cuts were falling on women, with older women and those with caring responsibilities hit particularly hard. In addition, the present government had now borrowed more than all Labour governments put together – a startling statistic – and was set to borrow much more. And, while it was good that Labour (and Tory backbenchers) had forced a climbdown on National Insurance contributions for the self-employed, this had left a£2 billion hole in the Budget and Labour was demanding more details on how this would be filled.
In the discussion, points were made about the deeply unfair removal of child benefit for a family’s third or subsequent children; about the National Insurance debacle and bogus self-employment; about school budget cuts; and about the fact that the government was showing blatant favouritism toward Tory-run councils in the distribution of funding for social care. It was also pointed out that Government ministers were not subjected to the same scrutiny as the Labour frontbench over how their policies would be paid for. In responding to this point, John reminded us that all of Labour’s existing commitments had been fully costed and the party was developing a tax strategy that would enable a future Labour government to pay for policies that were currently more aspirational, like free childcare. Initiatives like the Fiscal Credibility Rule and its work with an independent panel of respected experts like Joseph Stiglitz had done a lot to protect Labour from the excessively hostile criticism of the media.
Condemnation of the Tory Budget was continued under the next item, the Local Government Report, presented by Nick Forbes, Labour’s Leader in Newcastle Council and the LGA. He said that the only extra money given to councils had been to cover the increased cost of paying the National Minimum Wage. The retention of business rates my council was a good idea in principle but the way it was being applied could lock in inequalities. Nick reported on a very successful Labour Local Government Conference. He reminded us that it is a very difficult time to be a Labour councillor (a sentiment I can endorse from my own experience) but circulated a booklet that the party has produced listing 100 positive achievements by Labour councils around the UK in this challenging time – a very welcome initiative. NEC members then made points about the need to keep the party’s internal divisions out of the local elections and about the need for some Labour councils to do more to address the issue of low pay and to support local government unions in the face of Tory attacks on facility time. Another member remarked that we should give greater prominence to local government matters at the NEC and also suggested that, in future, we have dedicated sessions in the devolved politics of Scotland and Wakes – certainly a suggestion that I would support.
We were then given a presentation on the forthcoming elections by Andrew Glynne and Ian Lavery, the two MPs who had jointly taken over from Jon Trickett the role of National Campaign Co-ordinator. Andrew began by addressing the speculation about an early general election. He pointed out it was already too late to hold such an election on the same date as the local elections because the Tories had missed the deadline to trigger the no-confidence vote required under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. This could, however, be done on 9 or 16 May to facilitate an election on 29 June. Party staff had circulated a number of election timetable scenarios and had prepared a guide for MPs in the event of a snap election. Work had also commenced on a constituency health-check – looking at the voter ID gathered, resources required, etc for every seat.
There are elections on 4 May, Andrew reminded us, for 33 English county councils; 8 English unitary authorities; 6 Metro Mayors; 2 ‘regular’ mayors; all 22 Welsh councils; and all 32 Scottish councils. The dates of the previous elections for each of these varied greatly, from 2012 to 2015, so it was difficult to work out a national vote share. Last time around, Labour had won outright control of ten Welsh and five Scottish councils, two English counties (Derbyshire and Notts) and two unitary authorities. There had been extensive boundary changes in Scotland and the STV system meant that the party wouldn’t field as many candidates as there are seats, to avoid splitting the vote. The devolution deals agreed for the various Metro Mayors varied considerably, with the greatest powers to be exercised by the Greater Manchester Mayor, encompassing health and social care; education; housing and the role of the Police and Crime Commissioner. The West Midlands would be a major battleground, with Labour’s long-time base in Birmingham coming under concerted attack from the Tories; likewise Tees Valley.
Ian Lavery then talked about the content of Labour’s campaign and the importance of messaging. The Tories’ claim to be the party of ordinary people had to be demolished and Labour would be using the slogan, ‘Standing Up for You’. There would be a number of key themes, related to economic investment; health and social care; educational opportunities; safer neighbourhoods; and affordable housing. Each week of the campaign would highlight a different one of these themes. The strategy for communicating these messages would embrace the traditional (2.2 million items of campaign material had already been printed) as well as use of tools like Facebook to reach voters. There would be remote volunteering (members in areas without elections – such as London – being encouraged to travel to specific electoral battlegrounds); virtual phonebanks; mobilisation through SMS messaging; and a ‘town hall’ style event in London.
Responding to Andrew and Ian’s report, members emphasised the need to maintain a focus on the economy (which Andrew readily acknowledged) and to give due attention to the issues of NHS privatisation and council housing; the challenge of juggling our local election campaign with a response to Brexit, the proposed Scottish referendum and a possible early general election; and the need to reach out beyond our ‘core vote’ (Andrew agreed with this and sad that we have to reach out to ex-Labour voters and those who have never voted).
The National Policy Forum Chair’s Report was given by Ann Cryer, who told us that the eight policy commissions had all been meeting regularly and that the various papers were now out for consultation with the wider party, with a closing date of 31 May. The whole Forum would be having a two-day meeting on 1-2 July. One of the CLP reps most involved in the NPF said (quite rightly, in my view) that the closing date for responses to the policy papers wouldn’t allow sufficient time for party units to discuss and respond to the documents; some responses had started to come in but they were mostly from individuals giving their own personal views. Another CLP rep asked that any policy motions received from CLPs be considered by the relevant commissions; this was agreed by the full-time officer responsible, who also said that the party’s policy consultation website was now up-and-running, although there had been a few teething problems.
Giving the General Secretary’s Report, Iain McNicol thanked party staff for all their hard work on the two recent parliamentary by-elections. He reiterated that his team were doing detailed preparatory work for the eventuality of an early general election. On membership, he said that resignations and lapsing had increased, especially during the discussions on Brexit. The party still had a substantial financial reserve set aside, which would hopefully be put towards the general election campaign, although the effects of a more substantial dip in membership would have to be taken into account.
The question was raised as to how the party would go about selecting its candidates in the event of an early general election; this was not resolved but it was suggested by one member that those 2015 candidates willing to put themselves forward again should simply be allowed to do so (not a solution that I could support, as it would deprive party members of any democratic say over their local candidates). I asked for an update on current membership figures and for this to be included in all future meetings. I was told that the figure was still comfortably over the half-million mark but that a fairly substantial minority were in arrears. An update was also given on the (all-BME) shortlist for the Manchester, Gorton by-election; concerns were expressed about the fact that one of those shortlisted had tweeted some very hostile comments about Jeremy Corbyn and also about the composition of the panel that had made the choice: the fact that three had been parliamentarians was apparently against existing NEC policy.
One piece of good news was that the party’s Business Board has agreed that the portion of subscription revenue for each party member that goes to that member’s CLP will increase from £1.63 to £2.50 and will increase further in future as the subs themselves go up.
We were also told, when we got to the minutes of the Disputes Panel, that in future even the most sensitive papers for the Panel’s meetings would be available at HQ for members to read a couple of hours beforehand, so that we won’t have to continue making such rushed, ill-informed decisions. This is something I had requested (although my preferred option was that the papers be emailed out the night before, or on the morning of the meeting) so I was pleased that it had been agreed.
The last two substantive items – the International Report and the EPLP Report – were both rather rushed because the meeting was, by this stage, overrunning. The latter naturally focussed mainly on the situation on the eve of ‘Brexit’ negotiations, with our Chair and EPLP representative, Glenis Willmott, and other members lamenting the Tory government’s complete lack of any tangible commitment to protect the material interests of ordinary people in the UK.