Welsh Executive Committee report, 9 July 2016 (Joint Report with Chris Newman)

There was only one substantive item on the agenda for this meeting: ‘Implications of the European referendum result’. Just over a fortnight after the vote, it had seemed the best use of the meeting time to give detailed consideration to the implications of the decision. Undoubtedly, the ‘Leave’ vote was – and is – a hugely important issue for the party and for Wales but it seemed artificial to exclude all other topics, especially when the party was in the midst of a leadership crisis.

The First Minister, Carwyn Jones, explained the situation. The Welsh Government had already sent out a team to Brussels, for exploratory talks with EU officials, to see what side deals, if any, could be struck for Wales. Nobody yet seemed to know what was likely to happen. Wales could not depend on the support of Scotland because they are moving toward a position of independence. This would not be a viable option for Wales, even if it were politically desirable, as we don’t have the same economic resources as the Scots.

It is vital, Carwyn said, that Wales should retain access to the single market; that was certainly the view of major firms based in the UK, such as TATA, who do not want to pay a 5% tariff on their products – but the single market means free movement of labour which the ‘Brexit’ decision implies most voters don’t want.

Departure from the EU could cost Wales some £650 million a year. The Welsh Government cannot guarantee funding for the big projects promised in its recent election if they take more than two years to complete. The projects affected could include the City Deal, the Metro and the apprenticeship scheme. The funding provided to Wales under the Barnett Formula would prove inadequate compared to the support currently available from EU Structural Funds. Once we had left the EU, we would not be able to trust the Tories to make up the difference. Therefore the Welsh Government needs to press ahead with seeking more devolved powers from Westminster.

Carwyn acknowledged that some people were raising the question of a second referendum. He certainly felt that all four UK parliaments would have to ratify the final deal, once we know what it looks like. We would have to reject it within the next twelve months if it is unacceptable. Clearly the public have been lied to. We need to start campaigning for greater social justice and the need to improve workers’ rights, to combat racism and end exploitation of workers especially as about 150,000 jobs in Wales are dependent on the EU.

Derek Vaughan MEP likened this period to a state of bereavement. The outcome was the result of a complex mixture of factors such as the influence of the right wing media, which – together with pro-Brexit MPs – had told lies and played the race card, plus the failure of Labour MPs to talk enough about immigration issues. For example Labour did not stress the fact that there are a similar number of UK citizens living in the EU as there are immigrants living in this country. The Tory Lobbying Act had also played its part by gagging charities and trade unions from speaking out on inequality matters prior to the 2015 election. It left the poor in our society feeling they had nothing to lose if we left the EU.

As a country, we need to change the way we deal with the EU but the EU is already fed up with the UK. The current situation has left us with the pound dropping in value, an estimated 750,000 jobs disappearing and businesses losing confidence in investing in the UK. In Wales, we need to ensure that EU funding for our major projects is spent by 2018 when the UK might leave the EU. Uncertainty about when Article 50 will be invoked was discussed. As for a second referendum, it may be possible to have one, as circumstances change and the final deal is shown to the people, whose views may change when they realise that they were lied to.

The discussion was then opened up to the rest of the meeting and a number of points were raised:

A question was raised as to how far we could currently quantify the likely impact of Brexit. Carwyn responded that 150,000 jobs in Wales are dependent on access to the single market and funding of apprenticeships would certainly suffer if EU funding were not replaced but Derek explained that full data on projects benefiting from the current funding programme was not yet fully available.

Concern was expressed about the damaging role that social media played in circulating racist comments. The Labour Party needs to educate its supporters against harbouring such ideas. For example in launching their local council election campaign, Newport Council had recently passed a resolution expressing pride in being a diverse city.

Chris argued that Labour needed to make the case for social justice and solidarity in response to the divisive and racist ideas of the right and to tackle the underlying causes of social division by, for example, repealing the Tory anti-union laws in order to allow unions more effectively to challenge unscrupulous employers who played off migrant and indigenous workers. Other WEC members said that we should point out that migrant workers often did the jobs that indigenous workers were reluctant to undertake and that Labour should campaign for a Living Wage and for more robust trade union recognition, as well as for the retention of the employment rights won through the EU, which would now be under threat.

It was agreed to send a letter of solidarity from the WEC, to a) Tudor Evans, Leader of Plymouth Labour Party, concerning the defacing by local fascists, of Michael Foot’s memorial in the city and b) to Jo Cox’s family; and to support a proposed remembrance day commemoration for those who had gone from Wales to fight fascism in Spain in the International Brigades.

Darren argued that Labour had failed to make a sufficiently convincing case for the EU over recent years and, in particular, had been too reluctant to acknowledge the neo-liberal drift of EU policy over the last twenty years and to set out a credible reform agenda. He pointed out that, despite the criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn’s role in the ‘Remain’ campaign by the MPs who had challenged his leadership in recent weeks, some 63% of those who had backed Labour in the general election had voted ‘Remain’ – almost the same percentage as for SNP voters, for which Nichola Sturgeon had been lauded. Another CLPs rep picked up the point about the divisions opening up in the PLP and the potential damage that could be done to Labour’s ability to campaign on issues like Europe. She observed that the party had secured considerable additional revenue as a result of the large increase in membership over the last year and proposed the WEC take a position that more of this money should go directly to branches to assist their campaigning. The chair advised her, however, that we could not vote on this as it was not within the competency of the WEC.

Paul Flynn MP, attending his first WEC meeting since taking over as Shadow Welsh Secretary, reported on the very unpleasant atmosphere in the House of Commons and said that some Labour MPs were behaving unprofessionally. Such public disunity was having an adverse effect on the standing of our party. Paul reminded the committee that he had not supported Ed Miliband in the 2010 leadership election but did not criticise him while in office, unlike the current situation where some Labour MPs seemed to think it was time for a free-for-all against Jeremy Corbyn. This point was echoed by other Committee members.

Following the conclusion of the EU debate, the minutes of previous meetings were circulated, including those of the Party Development Board (PDB), a sub-committee of the WEC. Darren asked when the PDB would next be subject to election and it was agreed that this would be done at the next meeting.

Welsh Executive Committee Report, 14 May 2016

This was the first full meeting of the Welsh Executive Committee (WEC) elected at the end of last year, which took office at Welsh Labour conference in February (there was a very brief meeting at the conference, to elect a chair and vice-chair and fill some other posts).

Election report

The main item of business was a report and discussion on the Assembly election campaign, the results and subsequent developments at Cardiff Bay.

Carwyn Jones said that Labour’s result had been better than expected and that the results in Cardiff North and the Vale, in particular, had been gratifying, but our overall vote had gone down and much of it had gone to UKIP. The latter had already split, in effect, into two groups in the Assembly. Plaid had done well in Blaenau Gwent and Cardiff West, as well as in the Rhondda, focussing mainly on local issues. There was little doubt that they had intended to take over the government when nominating Leanne for First Minister on 11 May and that Plaid AMs had approached the Tories and UKIP with this in mind. There had been strong public opposition to their manoeuvring, however.

Janice Gregory also gave her perspective as campaign co-ordinator. She said the campaign team had met weekly and had had big issues to contend with, like the steel crisis, which has had to be factored into the campaign. She praised the team in Transport House, whom she felt couldn’t have done more. She said that the result in the Rhondda had taken everyone by surprise.

The general secretary, Dave Hagendyk said it had been a very difficult campaign, with the Labour vote squeezed by Plaid and UKIP. Labour had undertaken four direct mailings in target seats and distributed three million pieces of print altogether, as well as using Facebook targetting. Across Wales, close to 300,000 people had been spoken to – more than anywhere else in the UK, outside London. Labour’s result in North Wales had been tremendous but recent elections had seen the party retreat eastward and we now needed to work hard to re-establish ourselves in the West and North-West of Wales. Welsh Labour would carry out a detailed analysis of the campaign and election results over the next couple of months and bring back a report to a future meeting.

There was a lengthy and thorough discussion of the campaign, some of the main points of which included: details of the campaigning tactics employed by Plaid in the Rhondda; the desirability in future of campaign messages tailored more specifically at North Wales; and the need to analyse the reasons for the big vote for UKIP.

In the context of a comment about the damaging effects of party disunity, there was some criticism (justifiably, in my view) of the circumstances of Stephen Doughty’s resignation from the front bench earlier in the year. Stephen, who was present as one of the two representatives of the Welsh PLP, defended himself, saying that he had resigned in writing prior to the contentious BBC interview on the matter and – notwithstanding his criticisms of the reshuffle – had worked loyally with the party leadership throughout. His explanation was accepted by the chair.

Carwyn alluded to the events surrounding Ken Livingstone’s comments about Zionism and the cancellation of Jeremy Corbyn’s planned visit to Wales. He criticised Ken for detracting from the positive messages of the campaign, saying that a day had been wasted, and reiterated that he had not stopped Jeremy from coming to Wales: the decision had been made by mutual agreement. While agreeing with Carwyn about the unhelpfulness of Ken’s comments, I expressed concern about his call for Ken to be expelled, as I felt that any disciplinary penalty should await the outcome of the party’s investigation. I also said that, notwithstanding the explanation he had given about Jeremy’s visit, the comments in the Western Mail attributed to a “party source” had been damaging, as they had implied that Jeremy was an electoral liability. Carwyn said that the media coverage had been “unfortunate” and Janice added that it was difficult to prevent people lacking any real authority from preventing themselves in the media as anonymous “Labour sources”. Andy Richards of Unite said that his union backed Carwyn’s position on the Livingstone issue.

I also commented on the Plaid campaign in Cardiff West, which had been very negative and focussed entirely on local government, rather than Assembly, issues, and I endorsed another Committee member’s comment that it was a shame that the Welsh Labour manifesto had been published so late.

Report from Nia Griffith, Shadow Welsh Secretary – Nia talked about the series of issues over which the UK Tory government had been forced to back down recently, including their plans to force all English schools to become Academies, as well as aspects of the draconian Trade Union Bill. The Queen’s Speech was due to take place in the coming week and the proposed legislation to tackle extremism was likely to be particularly controversial, in the light of the disgraceful Islamophobic campaign against Sadiq Khan. Nia also commented on the implications of the Tories’ proposed parliamentary boundary changes, which would reduce Wales’ representation from 40 seats to 29. Stephen Doughty observed that the partial success of the campaign against the Trade Union Bill showed that the Tories can be defeated. Dave Hagendyk added that thanks were also due to Labour’s representatives in the House of Lords, including Eluned Morgan, who had now been elected to the Assembly.

European Referendum – Dave reported that printed campaign materials had now been delivered. The campaign needed to engage both with those voters who needed to be persuaded to vote ‘yes’ and with those already inclined to do so, who needed to be encouraged to turn out. Many loyal Labour voters were unconvinced of the need to remain in the EU and so much of the party’s efforts would be focussed on ‘heartland’ areas, rather than election marginals. There was a discussion, covering a number of points, including: the need to get the student vote out; the varying attitudes to the EU in different economic sectors; and the need to counter UKIP’s appeal to disaffected voters. Margaret Thomas of Unison said that her union had registered as a third-party campaign for the referendum, having consulted members, who’d been overwhelmingly supportive of a ‘yes’ vote. I said that Labour needed to have a distinct message from the official ‘IN’ campaign, emphasising the need for reform of the EU, to avoid repeating our mistake in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, when we were seen as too close to the Tories in the ‘Better Together’ campaign.

General Secretary’s report – Dave said that the Welsh party’s policy consultation work now needed to be refocussed on UK-wide issues, via ‘Your Britain’. He also reported that Welsh Labour would be left with just two organisers after the referendum: Michelle in North Wales and one (to be appointed) in the South.

Party Reform update – The chair, Donna Hutton reported that a ‘Party Reform’ exercise was being led by the NEC, with a number of strands, including one concerning the relationship between the party centrally and its Welsh and Scottish organisations. Andy Richards had been representing Welsh Labour in discussions about areas of party activity in which responsibility could be devolved to Wales. Any proposals would be put before the party conference in September, after which the Welsh party would conduct its own, detailed review of its rules and processes, which would culminate at the 2017 Welsh conference. In response to a question from Catherine Thomas (Mid & West Wales CLPs), it was confirmed that this would include agreeing a more consistent approach to gender-balanced representation.

Welsh Labour Conference 2017 – It was confirmed that this will take place in Llandudno, 22-26 March.

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.