This was the first meeting since the end of the leadership election and the party conference in Liverpool. With Welsh conference and the local elections on the horizon, there was a very full agenda, as a result of which the last couple of items were dealt with somewhat hurriedly. Chris Newman was away at a Socialist Educational Association meeting, so I am reporting this one ‘solo’.
We began with a minute’s silence for Terry Thomas, a former NUM and GMB official who had chaired the WEC at one time and had passed away since the last meeting. Sophie and I were congratulated on her wedding and Jo Stevens was welcomed to her first meeting as Shadow Welsh Secretary – the third person to hold that position since I joined the WEC in February.
Carwyn then gave his Leader’s Report. The main issue affecting Wales continued to be the prospect of Brexit. He noted the court judgement earlier in the week, which had determined that the royal prerogative could not be used to overturn an act of Parliament. The Tories didn’t seem to think that they could succeed in challenging the ruling, hence the talk of an early general election. If they did win, there would be wider ramifications for Wales, inasmuch as the royal prerogative could also be used to interfere with the devolution process. Carwyn had attended a Joint Ministerial Council meeting with Theresa May, where he had asked her to rule out any deal involving tariffs. The Tories did not seem to have a clue as to their position. Should there be an early general election, the Wales Bill currently going through Parliament would be lost; despite the bill’s serious flaws, this would be a setback for Wales. Carwyn also reported on the legislation being taken forward by the Welsh Government in the National Assembly, including a bill to repeal the Trade Union Act in its application to the devolved public sector in Wales. Welsh Labour’s budget for 2017/18 also seemed assured of acceptance, following a deal with Plaid Cymru that had involved some uncontentious concessions.
Carwyn then took questions from WEC members, most of which related to Brexit and the risks to the Welsh economy, although the replacement of Communities First and moves to promote collaboration between local authorities were also raised. I asked him about two recent developments where the private sector appeared to be encroaching on public services in Wales: the announcement of four private bidders for the Wales and the Borders rail franchise; and the plan to build a private hospital in the grounds of Morriston hospital, by relocating the existing Sancta Maria facility. On the first point, he said that the current Wales Bill would prevent the Welsh Government from running rail services directly or from establishing a new public provider (which may be true but doesn’t explain why they couldn’t have promoted an alternative not for profit approach, in line with Welsh Labour conference policy). On the second, he said that he knew nothing about the proposal but would look into it.
The Shadow Welsh Secretary’s Report was then given by Jo Stevens, the third person to hold this position since I joined the WEC in February. Jo paid tribute to her immediate predecessor, Paul Flynn, who had made his mark during his brief tenure, and highlighted the significant contribution now being made by Welsh MPs to Labour’s frontbench, across several policy areas. Jo talked about Labour’s efforts to challenge the Tories in Parliament over their handling of ‘Brexit’, putting in 170 questions to represent the 170 days until Article 50 is triggered. David Davis had been avoiding answering any questions, while Theresa May had shown her misplaced priorities by putting immigration and border controls ahead of the economy in her talks with the EU. Jo also covered a number of other areas in which she and her parliamentary colleagues were currently active, including the prospects for the proposed Swansea tidal lagoon; the failings of the Concentrix contract let by HMRC to address tax credit fraud; the campaign for state pension equality for women; and winter pressures in the NHS. Jo was keen that, when issues like grammar schools came up, Wales’ positive record should be highlighted and Jeremy was very supportive of this. Jo emphasised the need for a united response to the Boundary Review, which was due to close on 5 December, and finished by highlighting the possibility of an early general election in the spring, which was likely to be challenging for Labour, given recent opinion polls an by-election results.
An EU Update was on the agenda but was not taken as our MEP, Derek Vaughan, had sent his apologies and the issue had already been aired under Carwyn’s and Jo’s reports.
We therefore moved on to the General Secretary’s report. Dave Hagendyk began with the update on suspensions that he had promised at the last meeting. 57 members in Wales had been suspended during the leadership campaign. 23 of these, whose cases were not deemed very serious, had had their suspensions lifted but been given a warning; the remaining 34 were subject to further investigation. Dave also reported that Michelle Perfect had been replaced by Joe Lock as North Wales organiser and that the press officer, Huw Price had left to become a Special Adviser to the Welsh Government. CLPs and affiliates were now able to make nominations for the Welsh Labour Best Practice Awards (closing date: 28 January). There had been mixed results in recent council by-elections, with Labour victories in Caerphilly, Denbighshire and the Vale of Glamorgan but seats lost to opponents in Cardiff and Neath Port Talbot.
Dave then put forward a paper setting out a proposed procedure for considering whatever changes to the Welsh party’s rules and standing orders may be necessary as a result of the devolution of certain responsibilities from London to Cardiff. The proposals seemed unduly complicated to me, with varying timescales for the different areas of the rules. Some changes that are judged necessary to be made immediately (e.g. recognising the position of Welsh Labour Leader, as opposed to just Leader of the National Assembly Labour Group), but which would apparently involve minor changes to the existing rules, would be presented to conference in March, while others (including, for example, the rules for the election of the leader and deputy leader, as well as selection procedures for candidates at all levels) would be considered afterwards and either implemented by the WEC (where it has the power to do so) or dealt with at a future conference. (In addition, a later agenda item sought to initiate a consultation on the Welsh Policy Forum process with a view to agreeing the way forward at conference in March.)
In the light of all this complexity, some of us welcomed the submission by Aberconwy CLP of a motion calling for a special rules review conference, which would enable all matters dealing with the party’s structure and governance to be dealt with together at a dedicated event. I moved that this be adopted by the WEC, with the regional secretary of Unison seconding the motion. Although Aberconwy had not specified a timescale, it was made clear in the discussion (after initial criticisms that a rules review conference would be a distraction from the local election campaign) that it couldn’t take place before the late summer and probably have to wait until the autumn. Nevertheless, it was, unfortunately, defeated by 12 votes to 9.
There were also three motions (from Cynon Valley, Preseli Pembrokeshire and Swansea West CLPs) welcoming the creation of a seat for Wales on the NEC (as agreed at the Liverpool conference) but calling for it to be elected by OMOV, rather than appointed by Carwyn (a branch in Dwyfor Meirionnydd had also passed a similar motion but this was discounted because it hadn’t gone to the CLP first). Dave Hagendyk advised us that these motions could not be considered because the Welsh party does not have the power to override a decision made by the ‘national’ party conference. Nevertheless, there was a brief discussion initiated by one of the other CLP reps, who argued that members had reason to feel aggrieved because they hadn’t been consulted about the basis on which the new NEC seat would be established. I spoke to support this point and pointed out that the WEC hadn’t actually discussed the extra NEC seat at any point in the time that I had been a member and that information from comrades who were members last year suggested that it hadn’t been discussed then either. I was then personally criticised (by colleagues who either hadn’t understood or didn’t accept what I had already said) for voting at the NEC against the “WEC position” and for defending my position in media interviews, before the chair brought things to a close, after giving me another chance to defend myself, and said that if members had concerns about particular individuals’ conduct, they should make a formal complaint, rather than indulge in personal attacks during meetings. (At the end of the meeting, a senior WEC member said that he would be making a formal complaint about my “behaviour”.)
Finally on the General Secretary’s report, another CLP rep raised concerns (which I share) about the suspensions that had been carried out and it was agreed that this issue would be discussed more fully at the next meeting.
The remainder of the agenda was fairly uncontroversial. There were reports from those WEC sub-committees that had met since the last full meeting, including the Organisation sub-committee, on which I sit and which had agreed, among other things, to conduct an audit of Welsh CLPs, to ascertain how healthily (or otherwise) these bodies are functioning. There was also the item referred to above, regarding a review of the Welsh Policy-Making Process, which will be conducted by consulting party units and affiliates in the period leading up to February 2017, with the conclusions presented to Welsh party conference.