NEC Disputes Panel and Organisation Committee meetings, 4 July 2017

I rang in to these meetings, rather than going to London, as I do normally, as I needed to attend important meetings in Cardiff both beforehand and afterwards.

As usual, there is little that I can say about the Disputes Panel meeting, because practically all of the agenda consisted of the confidential details of disciplinary cases involving named party members. Most items involved either the arrangement of an appeal hearing, whereby someone was seeking to challenge the rejection of their membership (often after a period of expulsion) by their CLP, or a member being referred to the National Constitutional Committee (NCC) for a hearing to consider imposing a serious penalty, such as expulsion. Unless one has been lobbied by the member in question, the decision has to be made on the basis of usually a brief paragraph or two prepared by the officers and most cases are therefore ‘nodded through’. One member in London on whose behalf a few of us had been contacted with extenuating circumstances, we failed to prevent him from being referred to the NCC but secured a commitment that this would not prevent him from seeking selection as a council candidate in the meantime.

There was also a paper on South Shields CLP, which had been under suspension for more than a year, following the alleged breakdown of relations between the MP and CLP officers – a case where I had raised concerns about the CLP’s treatment when we had discussed it previously. It was now proposed that, in view of more harmonious relationships having developed, the CLP should be unsuspended, subject to a series of conditions. Some of the latter appeared somewhat questionable but, having been given the paper only shortly before the meeting, it was difficult to take an informed view on these and I was glad that we did at least agree to lift the suspension – despite some members attempting to have it extended.

We were provided with lists of those currently under suspension, referred to the NCC or recently “auto-excluded”. Questions were raised about the excessive length of time for which some members had been suspended and about the large backlog of cases awaiting an NCC hearing (57 listed). Officers acknowledged that the current state of affairs was unacceptable and cited staff changes and the disruption caused the election as contributory factors in the continuing delays. We were assured that things would start to improve from hereon in, partly due to the introduction of a case management system that would allow cases to be tracked more thoroughly.

The Organisation Committee got through its business very quickly – ironically, with the exception of an item of “A.O.B” – partly because there was little on the agenda that was contentious. The meeting began with Jeremy Corbyn – attending his first meeting with NEC members since 8 June – making some brief comments about the general election campaign, in the course of which he reflected on the tremendous results achieved by Labour on polling day and thanked all those who had contributed to the party’s successes; he would say more at the full NEC meeting on 18 July.

It was reported that the party’s review of its policy of non-participation in elections in Northern Ireland, having already taken representations from a number of people and organisations, had been interrupted by the general election but was now re-commencing with the participation of the new Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Smith.

A paper containing a draft rule change from the NEC, explicitly prohibiting discriminatory language and behaviour, was agreed for debate at conference. An earlier version of the text had been circulated previously but it was agreed to make a minor change following discussion by the Equalities Committee (of which I am not a member).

There was also a paper on CLPs in Special Measures – of which there are several, mostly in Birmingham – giving an update to the effect that Birmingham, Hall Green has now been removed from special measures and that the Legal and Governance Unit is working with Regional Directors to put in place measures to allow the same to happen in relation to the other CLPs involved. One of my fellow CLP reps then raised (not for the first time) the fact that the Birmingham Board (the city’s Local Campaign Forum) had set a qualifying date for participation in local council selections that disenfranchises the very large proportion of members who have joined since 15 July 2015. She proposed that this be brought forward to 1 January 2017 and this was agreed.

Under A.O.B. one of the trade union reps informed the committee that he had originally asked for a paper he had prepared on parliamentary selections for the next general election to be discussed but had subsequently withdrawn that proposal after discussions with the Leader’s and General Secretary’s offices and an assurance that a paper o the same topic would be put to the full NEC meeting. There followed a fairly lengthy series of comments about this issue, somewhat pre-empting the scheduled discussion, which was not particularly easy to follow for those of us who had not seen the draft paper.

NEC Meeting 21st March 2017

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.

NEC Disputes Panel and Organisation Committee meetings, 7 March 2017

Before describing the meetings themselves, it is worth mentioning that they took place at the office building in Victoria where Labour has long had its HQ, but on an additional floor that the party has recently taken over. This expansion was deemed necessary as we gear up to fight what will no doubt be an extremely challenging general election in 2020 or before – but it seems unlikely that it could have happened without the huge recent increase in membership, and the corresponding boost in income, for which we can thank Jeremy Corbyn.

The Disputes Panel meeting had as full an agenda as ever but, for once, we managed to get through it in the hour allotted (well, nearly). The majority of new cases were of members whose conduct or public comments, as quoted in the tabled papers – often containing anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, homophobic and/or misogynistic abuse – was sufficiently serious that no-one disputed that they should be referred to the National Constitutional Committee (NCC) for consideration of possible penalties (likely to be expulsion, in many cases).

Three or four issues were more controversial. I cannot say too much about individual cases, although details in respect of some of the more prominent members involved have appeared in the media (in some cases, having being leaked while the meeting was still in progress).

There was a further paper (the third since October) on Wallasey CLP, which has been suspended since last July, which was a lot more muted than the last two and suggested that the situation in the constituency is now reasonably harmonious. It was proposed that the CLP be unsuspended but only after the May elections (and specifically that for the Merseyside Metro Mayor), so that members would not be ‘distracted’ from campaigning. We were not told – but some of us had heard through other channels – that no further action was to be taken against two of the three Wallasey CLP officers who had been under investigation. Along with one other NEC member, I raised concerns about the lack of any acknowledgment of this, which – along with the comparatively positive picture painted of the CLP in the report – suggested that Wallasey had not, perhaps, been as ‘toxic’ as we’d previously been led to believe. Others, however, reiterated their view that there had been serious bullying and intimidation, particularly of a homophobic nature; the lack of disciplinary measures against individuals was (so a full-time officer explained) because of the high standard of proof required in such cases (something I remain sceptical about – not just because of the robust and detailed rebuttals by Wallasey activists but because of the fairly insubstantial ‘proof’ that has apparently been deemed sufficient in other instances). In any case, the paper was carried nem con (I had said in my contribution that the CLP should be unsuspended immediately but abstained, rather than voting against, because the principle of unsuspension in the near future had at least been agreed). More worrying was the paper on the third Wallasey CLP officer, against whom charges (for alleged bullying and intimidation – although not of a specifically homophobic nature) are still being pursued and whose case we were asked to refer to the NCC. I was not allowed to speak specifically on this individual but was strongly of the view that the case against him was not persuasive and voted against referring him (I was disappointed that only one other member opposed the recommendation, although several abstained).

The most high profile case we considered was, of course, that of Jackie Walker. As with other individuals, I shouldn’t go into detail while this is still being dealt with by the party but, since there has been so much media commentary, I will say a few words. I abstained on the vote to refer Jackie to the NCC, which I know has disappointed some of my comrades on the left. I don’t believe for one minute that she is anti-Semitic (not least because she is partially of Jewish heritage herself) but I do think there are legitimate grounds for concern about some of her public statements. I think, however, that this is something that could more usefully be addressed through comradely debate, rather than through a disciplinary process, with the ultimate sanction of expulsion a real possibility. Unfortunately, it seems that issues related to Jewishness, Israel and anti-Semitism have now become too heated to allow the kind of calm discussion that we need. There is a reluctance in some quarters to engage with views that are provocative and discomfiting but not necessarily deliberately insulting or discriminatory. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that practically all prominent public figures of Jewish heritage are frequently on the receiving end of vile anti-Semitic abuse (especially via social media) and there are undoubtedly Labour party members who engage in this sort of behaviour, as other cases brought before the Disputes Panel have shown. I had originally intended to speak against the recommendation but, as with other controversial cases, we were presented with a detailed paper at the start of the meeting, with very little time for reading, let alone reflection, and I felt ill-equipped to respond to some of the contents. In addition, one of the other left CLP reps made an impassioned speech supporting referral to the NCC, which both confirmed my expectation that the officers’ recommendation would be overwhelmingly accepted and made me question some of my own assumptions. In the event, only one person voted against. In retrospect, I should probably have voted with him, rather than abstaining; it would have made no practical difference but at least it would have registered my unease about the process.

One other issue on which I spoke related to the ‘auto-exclusion’ (i.e. immediate expulsion based on supposedly inarguable evidence) of two party members from Northern Ireland, one of whom I’d met when he visited Wales recently and was seeking support for the party in Northern Ireland to be able to stand in elections. The charge was that one of these two had been a non-Labour candidate, and the other his agent, in the Stormont elections on 2 March. I argued that auto-exclusion was normally reserved for those who back candidates or parties standing against Labour, whereas, in this case, there was no Labour candidate, which was why these loyal (if somewhat insubordinate) party members had taken matters into their own hands; expulsion seemed too harsh a penalty. I was told that the two comrades hadn’t just run an independent Labour campaign but had joined a non-Labour party, the Cross-Community Labour Alternative, with connections to the Socialist Party. The two deny, however, that they have joined this party, although admit that they accepted its endorsement (not knowing about its SP links). My pleading on their behalf was fruitless, anyway.

The party’s position on Northern Ireland was also one of the first items on the agenda of the Organisation Committee meeting. We were told that the long-delayed review of the party’s policy of not standing elections was finally getting underway, with the four-person panel due to meet the first set of organisations giving evidence later that week.

The next item related to the election of the national officers and committee of Labour Students, which are to be held on the basis of OMOV for the first time. Delays in this process had given rise to concern but it was explained that the problem was that the database and mailing list held by Labour Students wasn’t entirely consistent with that held by the party centrally, with the two operating different membership criteria, and this needed to be resolved if the OMOV ballot was to be conducted on a sufficiently robust basis.

The most substantial item on the Committee’s agenda was a further paper on Disciplinary Procedures, fleshing out the principles agreed at the January meeting. Once again, this signalled a very positive change in the party’s approach to dealing with questionable conduct and/or breaches of the rules, with a more robust emphasis on due process, transparency and proportionality. The abandonment of automatic recourse to administrative suspension was particularly welcome, as was the news that members facing auto-exclusion will now be given 14 days to challenge the apparent facts (or their interpretation). Everyone who spoke commended the officers who had drawn up the report and made positive suggestions as to how it could be improved, virtually all of which were accepted. These included: strengthening the commitment to confidentiality, even where the identity of a member under investigation may be in the public domain; adding ‘training’ to the list of ways in which the party could address behaviour by a member that had occasioned concern; ensuring that warning letters do not necessarily imply guilt; and removing the explicit exception made for “elected or other prominent representatives” in the section setting out the hurdles for members (or recent ex-members) of other parties wishing to join Labour.

The paper also included a draft rule change expanding and clarifying the definition of “general prejudicial conduct”, which was agreed in principle (although we will have to return to the detail before conference) to inform further guidelines. A paper for distribution within the wider party will now be produced on the basis of the papers agreed by the NEC. This will provide clearer and more detailed explanation of the process and will include (at the suggestion of one of the union reps) a flowchart setting out the disciplinary process at a glance.

The rest of the agenda included brief updates on CLPs in special measures and on the internal election procedures for the Association of Labour Councillors. The committee also noted the text of all motions submitted by CLPs since our last meeting. In relation to one of these motions, an NEC member commented that there is a perception in some quarters that Labour would not be ready for an early general election. Iain McNicol responded by offering reassurance that his office were working on a daily basis to take account of every practical and logistical detail that would need to be considered in the event of such an election.

Following the close of the meeting (which, miraculously, had again run to time) the six CLP reps had a private meeting with the general secretary and the head of his office, as requested by one of our number. This provided an opportunity to explore issues like the need for members to receive more informative and engaging communications from the party and for CLP officers (in particular) to receive information and training to assist them in their duties. We also highlighted continuing concerns about the suspensions carried out following last year’s leadership election. Although there wasn’t time to cover everything I’d have liked to have raised, this was a useful dialogue and we were promised further meetings at regular intervals.

NEC Meeting 24th January 2017

The first full NEC meeting of 2017 was a fairly harmonious affair and, as with the November meeting, ran to the allotted time. The chair, Glenis Willmott MEP began by paying tribute to Margaret Beckett, one of the three Westminster backbenchers on the Committee, who was now the longest-serving woman MP; and to veteran full-timer, Mike Creighton, who was retiring after having worked for the party since 1990. There was also a minute’s silence for several members who had died over the previous couple of months.

Glenis also spoke to the EPLP report that had been tabled and responded to questions. Asked if MEPs would support a second vote on Brexit, she thought they probably would.

Ann Cryer gave a brief report in her new capacity as NPF chair, saying that each of the policy commissions was due to have its first meeting soon. Consultation with the wider party on the papers that had come out of the November NPF meeting was to begin with some events in March and the ‘Your Britain’ website was to be relaunched under a new name. Among the points made by members in the ensuing discussion were that the consultation period was beginning late, given that important elections were on the horizon, that the deadline for submissions needed to be pushed back as far as possible beyond 4 May; that it would be useful to know a.s.a.p. the date of the full NPF meeting planned for the summer; that the midweek evening time-slots for commission meetings were not very convenient for most people; and that papers should be shared with Welsh Government ministers at an early stage to ensure that the experience of devolution was factored into the party’s thinking.

The Local Government report was introduced by Cllr. Nick Forbes, Leader of Newcastle Council and Labour Leader in the LGA. He talked about the social care crisis, which was contributing to the problems in the NHS and had been exacerbated by the Tory government shifting greater financial responsibility to the councils. Many care providers were on the brink of bankruptcy or were talking about handing back their contracts. More positively, more than 200 councillors had registered for the party’s local government conference in February, which would be a useful platform for mayoral candidates. The local elections would be vital, with Labour within a hair’s breadth of taking control of the LGA. Many councillors were angry about their local Labour MPs attacking councils for the difficult decisions they had had to make because of the cuts in their budgets.

There was a lively discussion, in which points were made about the degree of control and patronage that council leaders and cabinet members have under the Local Campaign Forum system, compared to the old local government committees or county parties, where there was greater accountability; about the excessive salaries at the higher levels of local government; and about the problems of privatisation of the social care sector. Responding, Nick said there was inconsistency in the way LCFs operate, which could perhaps be addressed by regional board; that the ratio between highest and lowest salaries was lower in local government than in the private sector and even other parts of the public sector; and that councils were obliged by legislation to operate a social care market.

The General Secretary, Iain McNicol, introduced a written International Report, which listed several areas of common work between Labour and its sister-parties in other countries. James Asser of LGBT Labour then added some more detailed comments on the situation with regard to LGBTI rights in the former Yugoslavia, which vary a great deal, with some countries (e.g. Slovenia) considerably more progressive than others (e.g. Macedonia); he noted the role of the EU in the gains that had been achieved.

The Shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, then gave a Health Report. He said that the NHS was now going through the biggest financial crisis in its history, causing even Andrew Lansley to express concern. Moreover, the situation was about to get worse as a result of the STP (Sustainability and Transformation Plans) process. Brexit also posed serious problems, as 60,000 EU nationals were currently working in the NHS and the service would be in danger of collapse without them.

In the discussion, it was agreed that Labour should support the ’Our NHS’ demo in London on 4 March (Jeremy would be speaking) and we were told that many of the same problems that had been discussed in England were also being experienced in Scotland under the SNP government. I said that the party should make more of the positive experience with the NHS under Wales’ Labour government and added that it was frustrating that Welsh Labour’s progressive policies received such little attention – e.g. The Guardian had reported a move towards an ‘opt-out’ (presumed consent) system of organ donation in France, without acknowledging that Wales already had such a system in place and it has saved many lives. In his response to this specific point, Jonathan said that the Health Policy Commission would have to re-examine the issue of organ donation but he was personally agnostic about it, which I found disappointing, given the obvious benefits of the policy.

Jeremy then gave the Leader’s Report. After thanking Jonathan for his work in the Health brief and reiterating the importance to Labour of the fight to save the NHS, he addressed the issue of Brexit. He said that the Shadow Cabinet had watched the Supreme Court judgement (delivered earlier that day) and made an immediate response. The Tory government had wasted 82 days and a lot of public money appealing against the earlier decision by the High Court. Labour respects the democratic will, as expressed in the ‘Leave’ vote, but wants to protect the interests of the British people in relation to jobs, public services and the social protections presently covered by EU regulations. The Tories’ disdain for civil and employment rights was evident: that very day, one of their backbench MPs was introducing a Ten Minute Bill seeking to restrict trade union rights still further, with the likely tacit support of his party leadership (I was pleased to hear that my own MP, Kevin Brennan, was leading the Labour opposition to this bill and it was duly reported later in the meeting that it had been overwhelmingly defeated). He said that he had spent three hours in a GP surgery after Theresa May had blamed GPs for problems in the NHS. He had also joined Kezia Dugdale in Scotland the previous week and they had attacked the SNP for talking left in Westminster while making cuts in Scotland over the last ten years.

Alun Davies AM, who represents the Welsh Government on the NEC, said that, whatever people had thought they were voting for on 23 June, the Tories’ ‘hard Brexit’ had not been on the ballot-paper; the Welsh Government supports staying in the single market and customs union. He also said that he was glad to hear that the party would be holding one of its economic policy conferences in Cardiff and that the Welsh Government would be able to contribute to the policy development – for example, it was currently setting up a Welsh Development Bank.

The next item was the General Secretary’s Report, for which a lengthy document had been circulated, incorporating updates on the party’s work in each of the UK’s nations and regions. Iain McNicol highlighted the fact that the party’s HQ office was being expanded to take on another floor of the building and that the Leader’s office and the office of Jon Trickett, as Campaign Coordinator, would be accommodated alongside party staff.

A number of disparate points were made in the discussion, including on the very long freeze dates adopted for elections in 2018; some of the misleading media coverage of the previous week’s Disputes Panel meeting; and the apparent leaking of by-election canvass returns by an MP. One of my fellow CLP reps also asked what had happened to the Party Reform Working Group, about which little had been heard since conference in September; Iain replied that the Group was jointly chaired by Jeremy and Tom Watson and that he expected that they would ensure its work resumed soon.

A Conference report was given, during which one CLP rep highlighted the encouraging fact that the number of CLPs attending had been the highest for at least 14 years. This was followed by an Elections report. There was some discussion of the idea of ‘target constituencies’ and how it could be applied fairly. Several of us also raised questions that had been put to us in numerous emails from members in Newham, expressing concerns about alleged irregularities in the selection process for the party’s Mayoral candidate. The main issue seemed to concern the way certain affiliates had cast their votes. One of the full-time officers clarified the rules on this matter but the concerns of those who knew more about the details than I did were not allayed. The general secretary said that the situation had already been discussed by the London Regional Board and felt that it would set a bad precedent for the NEC to reopen the issue after the fact.

We were given a very detailed and informative Membership Report, which highlighted the fact that the party was now more than 543,000 strong (although this represented a slight decrease from the previous summer). There were now proportionately more women and more BME members in the party than before the last general election. 70% of the current membership had joined since January 2015 but a significant portion were currently in arrears. I asked about this and about what the party was doing to try and retain members and was told that a series of surveys of those lapsing or resigning were bung carried out and the information gleaned passed to local parties and MPs. Party officers were also working with the Leader’s office on a Membership Strategy.

We also had a presentation on Labour’s Financial Strategy. The party had ended the previous year with a substantial surplus and expected this to increase in 2017 but there were some major expenditures to come – including funding increased staff costs and election campaigning – and there was a question as to the stability of the current membership levels and the resultant income. The party’s Business Board was also looking at increasing the share of membership revenue coming back to CLPs and at the possibility of a free-standing women’s conference in future years, which would have financial implications.

Welsh Representation on the NEC- A Personal Statement

There has been widespread media coverage of the decision by Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) on 20 September to grant additional powers (subject to conference approval) to the Scottish and Welsh parties. I have personally come in for a fair bit of criticism for voting against one aspect of this – the proposal to give Scotland and Wales seats with voting rights on the NEC – so I just wanted to explain my position.

The proposals that were agreed formed part of a wider ‘party reform’ agenda that has been overseen by the NEC over several months (for the most part, before I joined the NEC at the beginning of July). This includes sections on women’s representation, on young members, on local government, etc. The section on devolution was largely driven by Scottish Labour and the Scottish Executive Committee (SEC) carried out an extensive consultation with members and party units. By contrast, the consultation in Wales seems to have begun and ended with the Welsh Executive Committee (WEC) before I became a WEC member in February.

The WEC was told, at the first full meeting that I attended, on 14 May 2016, that discussions with the NEC on greater devolution for the Welsh party had been taking place, with Andy Richards (Unite regional secretary) representing the WEC. There was general agreement that any increase in devolved powers offered to the Scottish party should also be offered to the Welsh party but otherwise not a lot of detail, although some examples were given, including (I believe) devolved control over selections and formalisation of the position of Welsh leader. Certainly, nothing was presented to the meeting in writing. The official minutes make reference only to the control of Westminster parliamentary selections, which the Scottish party had requested but which had not been in the original Welsh Labour submission. The minutes record that it was agreed, nevertheless, to follow Scotland’s example in this respect. The minutes do not mention the possibility of Welsh representation on the NEC and I certainly do not recall any mention of this, which I think I would have done, given its evident significance.

After I joined the NEC a few weeks later, the first meeting I attended, on 5 July, was of two sub-committees, the Disputes Panel and the Organisation Sub-Committee. The latter was presented with a progress report from the various strands of the party reform discussions. The summary for Scotland mentioned the NPF acknowledging and resolving policy differences between the devolved parties and wider UK party; clarifying SEC control of Holyrood selections and possibly adding Westminster selections; confirming Scottish Labour responsibility for local government; and formalising Scottish party’s responsibility for CLP management. The bullet-points relating to Wales were essentially the same (albeit reflecting Welsh Labour’s currently slightly weaker degree of autonomy) but add formalisation of the role of Welsh leader and establishment of the post of deputy leader. There was no reference to representation for Scotland and/or Wales on the NEC.

Nor has there been any detailed consideration of party devolution by the two subsequent WEC meetings: the meeting held on 9 July was given over entirely to a post mortem on the EU referendum campaign and the meeting on 3 September expressed concern about the cancellation of a ‘party reform’ away-day and the potential implications for the proposals for Wales, without going into any details of the latter.

I should make it clear at this point that I have always supported the principle of the Welsh party having greater control over its own affairs. In particular, Nick Davies and I commented, in our 2009 book, Clear Red Water, on the anomaly that, at a time when the Welsh Labour government was diverging significantly from New Labour orthodoxy, the Welsh party’s full-time staff were accountable only to the general secretary in London. Our arguments that the significant degree of political autonomy that already existed within Welsh Labour should be mirrored by a similar degree of organisational autonomy found little support within the Welsh Labour establishment – until recently.

I also supported a proposed rule change put forward by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy a few years ago, which would have augmented the six-strong CLP section of the NEC by adding two seats, to be elected by Scottish and Welsh members, respectively (until I joined the NEC this year, there had never been a Welsh CLPs rep on the Committee, and Scotland had had only infrequent representation, since the current NEC structure was introduced in the late 1990s). Unfortunately, the rule change was not agreed.

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s original election as Labour leader in September 2015, there have been noticeable efforts by the Welsh leadership to distance the Welsh party from the wider British party. There has been an attempt to rebrand Welsh Labour – clearly to the left of the British party throughout most of the devolution period – as a bulwark of ‘moderation’. This point provides some context for the furore surrounding the proposal to give Wales and Scotland extra representation on the NEC.

At the NEC meeting held on 20 September, and concerned primarily with business to be discussed at the forthcoming party conference, a further ‘party reform’ update was circulated, including rule changes that would need to be put to conference in order to give effect to the proposals recommended by the various working groups. The changes relating to Scotland and Wales reflected those set out in the paper circulated to the Organisation Sub-Committee in July but added two points: that the Scottish and Welsh party leaders should attend ‘Clause V’ meetings to draw up the party’s general election manifesto; and

“The Scottish and Welsh Labour Party each to be directly represented with voting rights on the NEC by a frontbench member of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.”

The Scottish and Welsh leaders can currently attend as observers and the Scottish leader, Kezia Dugdale, was at this meeting. She argued forcefully that agreeing the rule change would demonstrate the party’s acceptance of the changed realities of devolution and would undermine the SNP’s argument that Scottish Labour is merely a “branch office” of a London-dominated party. She made it clear that she would take up the Scottish seat herself if the change were agreed although it was acknowledged that Carwyn Jones, as leader of a governing party, would not be able to attend NEC meetings in person and would need to delegate this role to another representative.

I pointed out that Welsh Labour has only 29 seats out of the sixty in the Assembly and needs every vote; no Labour AM, therefore, would be able to attend NEC meetings in London on a Tuesday when the Assembly is sitting. I made this point twice in the discussion but it was largely ignored. My second objection to the proposed rule change – that Scotland and Wales should have NEC representation but that these seats should be subject to an OMOV ballot of all members in the countries in question – was also made by other NEC members. Nobody opposed additional representation for Scotland and Wales on principle but it was suggested that the proposal could be considered in more detail by a rescheduled ‘party reform’ away-day after conference, alongside other suggested changes to the NEC’s composition, and that these changes could be agreed by a special conference early in the New Year. When it was put to the vote, however, it was agreed by 16 votes to 14 to put the rule change to the Liverpool conference (the other rule changes relating to Scotland and Wales were uncontentious and it was unanimously agreed to recommend them to conference).

Much of the media coverage of the meeting has presented the vote on Scottish and Welsh NEC representation as a victory for Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents, who would supposedly be strengthened by the inclusion of ‘moderate’ Scottish and Welsh reps on the NEC. My vote against the proposal has, conversely, been portrayed as a reflection of my ‘Corbynista’ factional loyalties and readiness to disregard the interests of Wales and the Welsh party. Criticism on Twitter, led by former AM, Leighton Andrews and Stephen Doughty MP, has been particularly vitriolic: I have been described as “disgraceful” and accused of flouting the wishes of the WEC, on which I also sit, to vote against proposals to which I had failed to object when the WEC discussed them. My critics have shown little interest in my attempts to explain my position but I hope it will be clear from what I have said above that:

  • I have long supported greater autonomy for the Welsh party – and was happy, like the rest of the NEC, to support all but one of the rule changes proposed to bring this about;
  • I have also consistently supported the principle of NEC representation for Scotland and Wales;
  • I believe, however, that the most democratic way to fill the proposed additional NEC positions would be by a ballot of all party members in Scotland and Wales, respectively;
  • It is also clear to me that the proposal for Wales to represented on the NEC by a frontbench Assembly Member – or by any AM – is unworkable, as long as the NEC continues to meet in London on a Tuesday (not that a Wednesday or even a Thursday would be much better);
  • In voting against this proposal being recommended to conference, I was not seeking to quash the idea of NEC representation for Scotland and Wales altogether, but to refer the matter to an NEC ‘away-day’ on party reform and subsequently a special conference;
  • I was also not voting against a proposal to which I had acceded as a WEC member, as it has not been discussed by the WEC since I joined in February and, indeed, I have seen no evidence that the proposal was under serious consideration before this month, as it seems magically to have appeared on the shopping-list of devolution rule changes sometime between 5 July and 20 September.

NEC Meetings- UK Labour Conference 2016 (24-27/09)

The NEC met three times during the party conference in Liverpool. Although I wasn’t physically present, due to being away on my honeymoon, the wonders of modern technology meant that I was able to participate by telephone and cast a vote on the one occasion when a vote was called by the chair.

The first meeting took place on the Saturday evening before conference began. Jeremy took the opportunity to express his gratitude to party members and supporters for giving him a renewed mandate as Leader. He hoped that the party could now unite and return to the job of challenging the government and presenting Labour’s alternative. He was pleased to report that productive discussions had been taking place between his office and representatives of the PLP on the system that the party would adopt for choosing the Shadow Cabinet but some further work remained to be done. In relation to the decision that had been made the previous Tuesday, to ask conference to agree seats with voting rights for Scotland and Wales on the NEC, he asked that this be deferred to the party reform ‘away-day’ that was planned to take place after conference, so that the proposal could be discussed in the context of other proposed changes to the NEC. A number of members supported this request, and I reiterated my concerns about the viability of the proposal as it stood, but the chair ruled that a decision had already been made and that the proposed rule change would be put to conference for agreement.

The ten point programme on which Jeremy had campaigned for re-election had been circulated to all party members following his victory and it was agreed that the Committee consider putting this formally to conference as an NEC statement, along with the statement on international trade that Jeremy had tabled; a decision would be made on this at the next meeting. Finally, the General Secretary told the NEC that materials were being produced for despatch to CLPs in England for a campaign day on education – specifically, opposing the government’s proposals on grammar schools – to take place the following Saturday. It was agreed to look at doing some similar campaigning in Scotland and Wales in the near future.

The second meeting took place on the Monday morning, before conference began for the day. It was agreed to put the two documents circulated by Jeremy to conference with the backing of the NEC. The main discussion flowed from the Conference Arrangements Committee report, which indicated that all of the proposed rule changes endorsed the previous week would be presented to conference as a single package, to be agreed in its entirety. Several members argued – rightly, in my view – that the proposals covered a diverse range of issues and it would be bad practice for conference to be asked to vote for them on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. Others argued that those seeking that the changes be presented individually were simply attempting to derail the contentious proposal on NEC places for Scotland and Carwyn Jones – exercising his right to attend the NEC as an observer for the first time – emphasised how important this change would be. The chair did not put this to a vote but ruled that presenting the proposals as a package was consistent with the decisions made the previous Tuesday. This approach was challenged from the floor when the proposals were put to conference but the chair was again unyielding and the changes were carried.

The final NEC meeting at conference took place on the Tuesday evening and was the first occasion when newly-elected NEC members were invited to attend (alongside outgoing members): Claudia Webbe and Rhea Wolfson, in the CLPs section; Nick Forbes, representing Labour councillors; and George Howarth, representing backbench MPs. Carwyn Jones also joined the meeting by telephone.

Jeremy thanked the NEC for all its work over the previous year and looked forward to the work that it would be doing over the months ahead, including the campaign against the government’s plans for grammar schools. He said that the ‘away-day’ now planned for 22 November would present an opportunity to re-energise the party. He highlighted some of the challenges coming up, such as the by-elections in Batley and Spen and in Witney, the Council elections in May 2017, the Brexit process and the government’s assault on the Human Rights Act. He said that the party was now developing a ‘bottom-up’ approach to policy-making and that John McDonnell was working with Scottish Labour to set out a clear economic alternative for the Scottish people, exposing the inadequacies of the SNP’s approach.

Jeremy then paid tribute to those members who would leaving the NEC: Johanna Baxter and Ellie Reeves in the CLPs section; Ann Lucas in the councillors’ section; Angela Eagle, who had been a Shadow Cabinet rep earlier in the year; and his old friend , Dennis Skinned, who was stepping down after several years representing backbench MPs. All of these responded to Jeremy’s thanks and Dennis Skinner made some typically entertaining valedictory comments, ending with the need for the party to unite to defeat the Tories.

Carwyn was asked if he intended to take up the full NEC seat now allocated to Wales. He said that he would but would send a representative when unable to attend meetings in person. The Chair pointed out that substitutes are not allowed under the rules, so Carwyn said that he would take up the place for now but that its long-term future would be resolved in the next 24 hours.

The meeting then moved on to the election of a chair and vice-chair for 2016/17. A question was raised as to who would be able to vote and the outgoing chair ruled that new, as well as old, NEC members were entitled to take part, despite strong objections from at least one very longstanding member, who said that this was not the normal practice.

Two members were nominated: Andy Kerr of the CWU and Glenis Willmott MEP. It was agreed that one should serve as chair and the other as vice-chair. The Committee then voted on which should be chair. I voted for Andy Kerr but he was pipped at the post by Glenis Willmott (18 votes to 17) after all votes, including Carwyn’s, had been cast.

The outgoing chair, Paddy Lillis, then handed over to Glenis, who thanked the Committee for its support and said that we would meet again for the ‘away-day’ on 22 November.

NEC Report 20/9/2016

This main purpose of this meeting was to discuss conference business, a few days before the party was due to gather in Liverpool. It had a somewhat strange atmosphere, however, as it took place just a couple of days before the end of the leadership election and virtually everyone present had already accepted (as several frankly acknowledged) that Jeremy Corbyn was going to be declared the winner. It also overran the four hours scheduled by another 4.5 hours.

The first substantive item was the Leader’s Report. Jeremy acknowledged that things had been said during the leadership election that were a matter of regret but now was the time to move on and reunite the party. He said that the abuse and anonymous briefings needed to end and that whoever was elected leader would be entitled to the support of the PLP. He also accepted as legitimate, however, the concerns that had prompted the PLP’s call for election to the Shadow Cabinet and felt that this could potentially be accommodated, to some degree, if it might help to heal the rift that had opened up in the party.

Jeremy suggested a procedure for this and other rule changes, whereby the NEC would take an initial view on a set of proposals; this would be explored in more detail at an ‘away-day’; there would then be a brief consultation with the wider party; the NEC would consider the responses and agreed a final package of proposals, which would be put forward for decision and implementation, perhaps by a special conference in the New Year.

Jeremy also highlighted the importance of the review that had been conducted by Shami Chakrabarti, the conclusions of which he wanted to be implemented in full, although some of it would first need to be considered in detail by the NEC’s Equalities Committee (the NEC unanimously agreed the Code of Conduct drawn up in response to the inquiry, committing Labour to “equality and combating and campaigning against all forms of racism and prejudice”). He said that Shami would be a real asset to the party in the House of Lords, given the government’s assault on human rights. He reported that he had met European social democratic leaders to discuss the implications of Brexit and also that he was pushing for public inquiries into Orgreave and the Shrewsbury 24.

Jeremy’s report was followed by two hours of questions and discussion, much of which consisted of the same points being repeated by different NEC members. Some members paid tribute to the hard work of party staff during the leadership campaign and expressed disquiet at the criticism that some had received, when they had been carrying out the decisions of the NEC. A number of members raised concerns about the online abuse apparently experienced by MPs who had criticised or voted against Jeremy and some highlighted the leaked dossier compiled by someone in the Leader’s office, containing a list of 14 MPs who were considered to have been abusive towards Jeremy. This was described by one MP as “an invitation to deselection” and was held up by others as an example of Jeremy’s supposed responsibility for the abuse endured by MPs; some fairly strident demands were made for him to use his authority to make it stop.

Along with a veteran left-wing MP and another Grassroots Alliance-backed CLPs rep, I attempted to restore some balance by pointing out that Jeremy had probably been on the receiving end of more abuse than anyone else in the party, much of it coming from the very MPs who were complaining about their own treatment (for the record: neither I nor anyone else in a position of responsibility on the Labour left would condone any abusive, obscene or intimidatory messages directed against anyone – but it is wrong to suggest that this behaviour is the preserve of any one section of the party).

One member also asked whether there would be an investigation into Momentum following the previous night’s Channel 4 “Despatches” programme and referred to a meeting that Jeremy had apparently attended at the Unite offices in Esher at which there had supposedly been a discussion about getting rid of Jeremy’s leading critics, including senior full-time staff and NEC trade union reps.

In his response to the discussion, Jeremy echoed the supportive comments made about party staff, whom he said should always be treated with respect. He reiterated that he absolutely condemned all forms of abuse and pointed out that, while “unkind” things had been said about him on social media, he had always refused to respond in kind. He said that he was “not into purges” and that employment of staff was the responsibility of the NEC as a whole, not just the Leader. With regard to the Despatches programme, he pointed out that the reporter had gone undercover to take a paid job with Momentum, drawing two salaries, and had illegally tape-recorded conversations. Jeremy was comfortable with the fact that there were different organised groups in the party and had even spoken at a Progress meeting. The meeting Jeremy had had in Esher had been about making his office more efficient; he had not been involved in the kind of discussions that had been reported.

The NEC next agreed a Safeguarding Code of Conduct, developed in collaboration with the NSPCC and designed to address the party’s responsibilities to its 10,000 members under the age of 18, and agreed some minor changes to the Social Media Code, which had been adopted at the previous meeting. The latter prompted some reflections from NEC members who had been involved in the panels considering complaints against party members and supporters. They all said that it had been a difficult task, both because of the unpleasant character of some of the abusive comments complained about and because of the need to try and exercise some discretion in relation to the age of the members involved; the presence or absence of a pattern of ‘offending’ behaviour; whether there was any threat involved, etc. Some also felt that there should be a wider range of penalties, including written warnings for less serious offences, rather than going straight to suspension. One trade union rep raised concerns about the situation in Bristol, where the suspension of three Labour councillors had resulted in the party losing our majority; she called for these cases to be looked at urgently.

Tom Watson then presented a report on the ‘party reform’ agenda that has been overseen by the NEC over several months, drawing together specific proposals arising from the work that had been done on gender representation, on local government, on devolution and on promoting political representation by people from working class and low-income backgrounds. An NEC ‘away-day’ set for 6 September and intended to work up some rule changes ahead of conference had been cancelled because of the leadership election and it had been suggested that the proposals might have to await a rescheduled ‘away-day’ after conference. It was agreed, however, that there were a number of proposals that were sufficiently uncontentious that they could be agreed without further delay and presented to conference for endorsement. These were:

  • Gender representation: NEC to establish a formal policy-making women’s conference.
  • Local government: Councils and Labour Group Executives should reflect the wider community and gender balance of the executive should reflect the group as a whole; members of Labour Group should not support any proposal to set an illegal budget; Combined Authority Mayors and PCCs to be accountable to CLPs, Labour Groups and Affiliates with regular reports to those unitd and to regional conferences; Combined Authority Mayors and PCCs to uphold Labour’s commitment to diversity and under-representation in any appointments they make; ALC [Association of Labour Councillors] levy payments to be made by regular direct debit.
  • Devolution: The Leaders of the Scottish and Welsh Labour Party to attend Clause V meetings [to draw up the general election manifesto]; Scottish and Welsh Executives to administer the procedures and selection of Westminster Parliamentary Candidates in Scotland and Wales [this was agreed after it was confirmed that the procedures themselves would continue to be those drawn up by the NEC]; Scottish and Welsh Executives to manage and administer selection of candidates for devolved institutions and local government in Scotland and Wales; Scottish and Welsh Executives to set procedural rules for the election of the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Scottish and Welsh Labour Party.
  • Bursary Scheme: The Labour Party to introduce a scheme to support members seeking selection to Parliament from working class and low income backgrounds.

 

There was, of course, one further rule change proposal in the section on Devolution, which the NEC discussed:

“The Scottish and Welsh Labour Party each to be directly represented with voting rights on the NEC by a frontbench member of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.”

There has been widespread media coverage of the decision to endorse this proposal and I have personally come in for a fair bit of criticism for voting against it. I have defended myself at length elsewhere, so I will summarise my position as briefly as possible here. This proposal, and the whole section on devolution, was largely driven by Scottish Labour, with the Welsh Executive Committee (WEC) adopting the default position that any increase in devolved powers offered to the Scottish party should also be offered to Wales.

There has been no reference, however, to any desire for a ring-fenced NEC seat for Wales on the brief occasions when the question of intra-party devolution has been discussed since I joined the WEC in February. Moreover, when a set of proposals for increased autonomy for the Welsh party was circulated to the then members of the WEC for their approval in September 2015, there was no reference to NEC representation on that occasion either. And when, on 5 July, the NEC’s Organisation Sub-Committee was presented with a ‘party reform’ progress report, there was no reference to representation on the NEC for Wales or for Scotland. In other words, the NEC meeting on 20 September was the first time, to my knowledge, that this issue had been acknowledged – at least, over the last year or so.

My own longstanding support for the principle of the Welsh party having greater control over its own affairs is well-documented and I was enthusiastic about a proposed rule change put forward by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy a few years ago – unfortunately, without success – which would have augmented the six-strong CLP section of the NEC by adding two seats, to be elected by Scottish and Welsh members, respectively (until I joined the NEC this year, there had never been a Welsh CLPs rep on the Committee, and Scotland had had only infrequent representation, since the current NEC structure was introduced in the late 1990s).

The Scottish and Welsh Labour leaders can currently attend NEC meetings as observers and the Scottish leader, Kezia Dugdale, was present on 20 September. She argued forcefully that agreeing the rule change would demonstrate the party’s acceptance of the changed realities of devolution and would undermine the SNP’s argument that Scottish Labour is merely a “branch office” of a London-dominated party. She made it clear that she would take up the Scottish seat herself if the change were agreed although it was acknowledged that Carwyn Jones, as leader of a governing party, would not be able to attend NEC meetings in person and would need to delegate this role to another representative.

I pointed out that Welsh Labour has only 29 seats out of the sixty in the Assembly and needs every vote; no Labour AM, therefore, would be able to attend NEC meetings in London on a Tuesday when the Assembly is sitting. I made this point twice in the discussion but it was largely ignored. My second objection to the proposed rule change – that Scotland and Wales should have NEC representation but that these seats should be subject to an OMOV ballot of all members in the countries in question – was also made by other NEC members. Nobody opposed additional representation for Scotland and Wales on principle but it was suggested that the proposal could be considered in more detail by a rescheduled ‘party reform’ away-day after conference, alongside other suggested changes to the NEC’s composition, and that these changes could be agreed by a special conference early in the New Year. When it was put to the vote, however, it was agreed by 16 votes to 14 to put the rule change to the Liverpool conference.

(Had the vote gone the other way, it would not have meant the end of any idea of NEC representation for Scotland and Wales altogether, to which nobody present was opposed in principle, but the matter would have been referred, for more detailed consideration, to a rescheduled NEC ‘away-day’ on party reform and subsequently a special conference.)

The other major proposal in Tom Watson’s paper on party reform was on the much-publicised issue of the election (or otherwise) of the shadow cabinet. He had put forward two alternative models for change: one involving the election of the whole shadow cabinet by the PLP; and the other involving a third of the shadow cabinet elected in that way, a third appointed by the Leader, as at present, and a third elected by party members, as Jeremy had suggested. There was general agreement that some sort of compromise solution was desirable but a lengthy discussion ensued as to how this could be arrived at. One of the trade union reps proposed that talks between the Leader’s office and representatives of the PLP should take place and that whatever position had been reached as of the pre-conference NEC meeting on Saturday 24 September should be put to conference. Everyone agreed that the talks were a good idea but some of Jeremy’s strongest supporters argued – rightly, in my view – that these talks would need to take as long as necessary to come up with the right solution and that an artificial deadline should not be set. This view eventually prevailed and the motion fell by 16 votes to 15.

Less controversial was a rule change to clarify that an incumbent party leader (or deputy leader) should automatically be on the ballot-paper if challenged, which everyone agreed to recommend to conference, as the matter had (eventually!) been settled by the 12 July NEC meeting and subsequently defended by the party when challenged in the courts.

With the meeting already having gone on for more than seven hours, we finally got to the substantive item on Conference Business, introduced by the Chair of the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC), Harry Donaldson. The main task here was to agree the NEC attitude on rule change motions submitted by party bodies (in most cases, a year before). I supported a proposal that the NEC back a rule change from Sheffield Healey CLP, seeking to allow conference to vote in parts on the lengthy policy documents brought forward by the National Policy Forum, which currently have to be accepted or rejected in their entirety. There was opposition to this, however, on the grounds that it might cut across the review of policy-making commissioned by the Leader and might also cause “confusion”. It was agreed by 16 votes to 15 to ask conference to remit or oppose the motion. More positively, it was agreed to support a motion from Ashfield CLP, calling for unions’ retired members’ branches (they had in mind the NUM, in particular) to be able to affiliate to CLPs in their own right.

The last significant discussion was under the General Secretary’s report, where some of us raised concerns about aspects of the leadership election – in particular, the large number of suspensions of members over public statements that had been abusive in nature or supportive of another party. A paper circulated to the meeting showed that 11,250 complaints had been received and, although 52% of these had not included sufficient evidence to be referred to an NEC panel, 3,963 had resulted in action being taken (usually suspension). I said that these figures were disturbing in their scale and that many party members had been living in fear of losing their membership rights over a comment they may have made on social media. From what I’d seen in a number of cases brought to my attention, many of the infractions committed had not been serious enough to warrant such a heavy penalty and there was a strong case for urgently re-examining many of the cases – although it was hard to see the Compliance Unit getting through such a heavy volume of investigations in any reasonable sort of timescale. I also raised concerns about the ‘collective punishment’ meted out to Brighton and Hove DLP and to Wallasey CLP.

Another CLPs rep, who raised similar concerns about the suspensions, also highlighted the fact that a substantial number of people (albeit probably a small minority of the total) had, for no apparent reason, never received a ballot-paper, despite repeated phone calls to the party.

In response, the General Secretary and a CLPs rep who had sat on many of the panels looking at complaints, broadly defended the process, albeit acknowledging that there had been some issues (te General Secretary said that the system had worked better than the previous year). In relation to Brighton and Hove, which had also been raised by a trade union rep, the General Secretary said that a report had been completed and its conclusions were awaiting endorsement and action.

I would have liked to have pursued these issues in greater detail but it wasn’t possible to do so at the end of such a long meeting. I am continuing to seek answers to my concerns via correspondence, however.

There still remained a number of items on the agenda and these were now whizzed through in record time. I hope that future meetings will stick more closely to schedule – however controversial the subject-matter – by restricting contributions when we reach the point at which the main issues have been aired.