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Ann Black’s report from Labour’s November executive

Inside Labour ann black from NECNational Executive Committee, 17 November 2015

Ann Black reports on Labour’s national executive committee meeting which took place this month.

The first meeting after conference is always a long session, planning for the challenges ahead. Overall objectives were to develop Labour as a campaigning movement, achieve real change, build trust in communities, and win elections at all levels. Each department would contribute, with strategic leadership on policy, effective opposition to the government, and world-class integrated strategic communications among the more important elements. The NEC’s terms of reference were circulated, and as Chair of the disputes panel I have now joined the NEC officers. Other aspects would be discussed further in January. Some members argued that the NEC had lost power since the days when the working classes ran the party, while others thought that we retained authority but just needed to exercise it.

I am not convinced of the need for lots more committees, but would like to see the NEC regain direct responsibility for policy. Some believed that the national policy forum (NPF) promoted wider and deeper engagement for ordinary members, and was effective in engaging young people. However after eighteen years, and despite Angela Eagle’s heroic efforts, it is still a mystery to most members. It has also been undermined by secret shadow cabinet reviews and ad hoc frontbench announcements. The joint policy committee (JPC), supposed to steer the NPF, does not work, and newer staff asked what it was. And while conference may never have been truly sovereign, its agendas used to show what members cared about most, and first-time delegates – as I was in 1995 – could negotiate directly with union leaders and MPs.

I therefore supported Pete Willsman in asking for policy-making to be included in Tom Watson’s party reform project, rather than a separate review by the JPC. Until then the NPF will continue, with the next meeting sometime in 2016. Six policy commissions were proposed and I remain on the economic commission, which covers business, tax, social security, employment law and much else. A seventh mini-commission on transport was then added. Ken Livingstone, co-convenor of the international commission which includes security and defence, has attracted most attention, though other NEC commission members do not share his views. Allocation of places had clearly been discussed in advance, but not with me.

For the next year the other commissions are supposed to focus on housing; mental health; early years education; crime and policing; and building a productive economy. I hope that members will be able to discuss issues important to them, including austerity, benefit cuts, trade union laws, local government funding, devolution and migration, rather than being restricted to arbitrary set-piece exercises.

Elections Past and Future

The report of the learning lessons taskforce was still not available. The first test would be in Oldham West & Royton, where Jim McMahon is seeking election after the sad death of Michael Meacher. May 2016 will bring Scottish, Welsh, London and English council elections: these seats were last fought in 2012 when Labour was nine per cent ahead in the polls after George Osborne’s omni-shambles budget, and made 823 gains. Difficult, even without Scotland and the rise of UKIP. Labour controls 130 councils, and while Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell opposed cuts, they were clear that councils must set legal budgets.

Three directly-elected mayors will also be up in 2016, as will police and crime commissioners (PCCs). I was on the panel which interviewed incumbent Labour PCCs, and though Labour would have abolished them, I was impressed with the ways that they had taken on the role. I have also got the procedure for choosing new PCC candidates amended, so that shortlisting by joint NEC / regional panels is followed by a window between 27 January and 14 February 2016 when local parties can rank the candidates.

The next general election is in 2020. Labour will not choose candidates until the boundary review is complete, several years away, and I urged all sides to drop talk of reselection or deselection as premature and unhelpful. Alan Johnson would launch Labour’s Euro-referendum campaign on 1 December, and members who complain about receiving messages from the “official Labour leave campaign” should be reassured that there is no such thing. European leader Glenis Willmott said that a four-year delay to in-work benefits for other European nationals would be the most difficult of David Cameron’s objectives.

Balancing the Books

Those who celebrate Tony Blair’s political success should recall that he also left the party more than £20 million in debt, a burden from which, after ten years, we are only just emerging. Hairshirt management will, however, continue. Boundary changes and the over-hasty introduction of individual electoral registration will stack the odds against Labour, and changes to trade union political funds are designed to paralyse their campaigning strength and to attack their financial connection with the party. More positively the surge in membership has brought money as well as enthusiasm, with numbers rising from 200,000 in April and heading towards 400,000. When supporters were contacted, one-third upgraded to full membership. A future NEC meeting may consider simplifying subscription rates, and a modest rise in the lowest £1 rate to cover costs. Some argued that fees were too high, but cost does not currently seem to be a deterrent.

The biggest increases in members are in London, the south-east and the south-west, and they impose extra burdens on the volunteers who run constituency parties. The cost of postage means that members without email or internet access get less from the party than they did 30 years ago, but it’s hard to avoid a two-tier service without resources. Following Refounding Labour in 2011, a chunk of membership money formerly distributed to local parties was channelled into central funds to promote democracy, diversity, and local improvement and campaigning. For 2013 / 2015 most of this went to organisers in key seats, but the funds will reopen for bids shortly, and secretaries should look out for invitations to apply.

Annual conference was upbeat despite the election, with 671 constituency delegates from 507 parties, the highest number represented since 2011. At previous conferences concerns had been expressed about using G4S for security, relating to fraudulent claims for tagging prisoners and particularly to the human rights implications of their involvement in the occupied Palestinian territories. This time a proposal to exclude G4S from tendering for 2016 was carried by 12 votes to four. I voted with the majority. I know this is a divisive issue, but the same position has been taken by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the US United Methodist Church. So far I have well over 3,000 emails, more than 90% in support.

Leader’s Report

Jeremy Corbyn joined us after spending the morning in parliament. He expressed the shock felt by us all after the Paris killings, and the importance of not allowing them to fuel xenophobia towards Muslims. He and Hilary Benn had laid a wreath at the French embassy. He was challenging David Cameron over police cuts and the impact on community policing, and hoped for progress towards a ceasefire in Syria, isolating ISIL and following the UN route as agreed at conference. Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey were all accommodating far more refugees than the 20,000 over five years offered by Britain. He had raised human rights issues in meetings with Chinese and Indian leaders, and promised a strong presence at the climate change talks in Paris. John McDonnell was showing why cutting tax credit cuts was wrong.

Members praised his efforts to save the steel industry. I highlighted David Cameron’s complaint about “unwelcome and counter- productive” closing of children’s centres by Tory-controlled Oxfordshire county council, showing ignorance of what his own government was doing to local services. Others spoke against bombing in Syria, and pointed out that housing benefit cuts might be as bad as tax credit changes. I and others raised, again, harassment and abuse of members on social media, from all sides. Jeremy Corbyn was unequivocal in condemning this as appalling and out of order, and he would not tolerate it.

Later he added: “

As we have seen in the recent past, there are clear dangers to us all in any kind of shoot to kill policy. And we must ensure that terrorist attacks are not used to undermine the very freedoms and legal protections we are determined to defend. But of course I support the use of whatever proportionate and strictly necessary force is required to save life in response to attacks of the kind we saw in Paris.”

Members Rule OK

Tom Watson introduced a paper with two main strands. The first would develop a digital strategy, using new technology to connect members across geographical boundaries, as well as involving people without online access and sharpening our rebuttal operation. The second, on party reform, would consider policy-making, promoting working class and other under-represented groups, supporting councillors, devolution in Scotland, Wales and the English regions, youth, community organising, political education, and gender representation. I shall be leading on the last of these, working with Kate Green MP, shadow cabinet member for equalities, with an agenda including gender-balanced leadership, the women’s conference, constituency culture, and better representation for women in local government. Both working groups will be open to all NEC members, and I will circulate more information as they get going.

Don’t Believe Everything in the Media ….

The Guardian reported on 21 November that registered supporters, who paid £3 to take part in the leadership election, would be able to vote on policy in online surveys. They will not. While there are benefits in extending democracy, this would apply to members only. Otherwise why would people join?

Misinformation on defence policy continues. The 2015 conference did not vote to replace Trident, it accepted the national policy forum report which simply recorded discussion through to the manifesto. More bizarrely a group called Labour First claims that conference cannot discuss nuclear weapons again until 2019 because of the “three-year rule”. This rule prevents the same constitutional amendments being proposed year after year. It does not apply to policy. If it did, conference could not change anything from the 2015 manifesto till just before the 2020 election. This is clearly idiotic, but was quoted on the Sunday Politics on 22 November. Whatever members’ views on Trident, getting the facts right is the first step.

Ann Black, 88 Howard Street, Oxford OX4 3BE, 07956-637958, annblack50@btinternet.com

6 Comments

  1. David Pavett says:

    It is really useful to have different windows on to NEC meetings.So thanks to both Peter Wilsman and Ann Black for providing them.

    I noted the comment that “Some members argued that the NEC had lost power since the days when the working classes ran the Party” and wondered just which planet such people were on. When did the “working class” run the party?

    I strongly suspect that those who argued that the NEC has power and just needs to exercise it are right. Ann reports this in passive voice so I was not clear what she thinks on the matter.

    I noted Ann’s doubts about the need for lots more committees and I share her concerns. Everyone involved in institutional/organisational politics knows that setting up committees can be a way of avoiding the need to deal with issues.

    On the NPF I am sure that Ann is right that it is a mystery to most members. However, that leaves open the question of where the problem lies. Is it in the nature of the NPF or is it in the failure of Labour to explain its structures and process to its members in a way that encourages them to participate.

    Yes, I have never been able to work out exactly what the Joint Policy Group does. The policy-making structures are unnecessarily complicated (designed to obfuscate?). But I would strongly caution against making Annual Conference the central means of deciding on Party Policy. This is an old left-wing shibboleth but it has no relation to the needs of a Party trying to cope with a complex and fast moving political situation. An annual conference is simply not enough. Sure, it can put the final seal of approval or rejection on policy proposals but it simply cannot provide an adequate forum for debate of the myriad of complex issues which the Party has to cope with. For that we need the NPF, or some revamped version of it, but it has to connect with the Party as a whole in a way that it has so far failed to do.

    As with Peter Wilsman’s report, I understand comments like “I therefore supported Pete Willsman in asking for policy-making to be included in Tom Watson’s party reform project, rather than a separate review by the JPC”. But I am left wondering what was the upshot of these comments.

    I was really thrown by “Ken Livingstone, co-convenor of the international commission which includes security and defence, has attracted most attention, though other NEC commission members do not share his views”. I really don’t understand what that is about. What has the views of other NEC commission member (which commissions?) got to do with anything. It is not that I am a keen Livingstone supporter (he should learn the art of keeping quiet when he has nothing useful to say) but as an active interested ordinary member I have no idea what this means.

    On the various commissions Ann says “I hope that members will be able to discuss issues important to them, including austerity, benefit cuts, trade union laws, local government funding, devolution and migration, rather than being restricted to arbitrary set-piece exercises”. Yes, I hope so too but I suggest that the only way of avoiding this is that the commisions see their task as one of making the key alternatives arguments in the clearest form possible made available to all Party members to help them to form their views. Under Miliband’s leadership Commissions circulated documents aimed at getting results decided in advance. Under the previous leadership the NPF and the “root and branch” Policy review under Liam Byrne/Jon Cruddas didn’t even come close to such a balance process of putting the members in possession of the key contending arguments.

    “The report of the learning lessons taskforce was still not available”. This is an outrage. I am lost for words. I will be putting a complaint in through my branch.

    Labour’s failure to organise a coherent debate about the EU is reflected in Ann’s report is very disturbing. It doesn’t have to be like this. If the Party doesn’t collectively know what to do then it could at least ask the protagonists of different views to lay out their stalls clearly, coherently and briefly for the members to consider.

    Balancing the books. It is good that Labour is (financially) out of the red(!) but not so good that it is sucking resources away from CLPs as never before.

    On communication with members I think the problem is simpler than Ann suggests. If Labour got its act together it would be possible to communicate with all members with and without Internet access. CLPs need to move into the 21st century (even the 20th century) and provide all those who do have such access with information without cost so that those without access can get information via snail mail.

    Useful to know that “funds will reopen for bids shortly, and secretaries should look out for invitations to apply”. I will make sure my CLP secretary knows of this – I suspect that she already does.

    I don’t understand Jeremy Corbyn’s point about a shoot to kill policy since I am not aware than such a policy exists. I am not even sure what the phrase means.

    On Tom Watson’s report concerning digital strategy I can only report what I have said before. As an ordinary member with some knowledge and experience of digital strategies I have written to him four times making positive proposals and indicating work I have done for Labour in the digital sphere. The response? Nothing. That looks to me alarmingly like business as usual in the Labour hierarchy.

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      To be completely honest although I continue to have a great deal of time and sympathy for your comments and analysis here, “I will be putting a complaint in through my branch,” well good luck with that mate for all the good will do any of us.

      Which is to say non at all.

      1. Robert says:

        Tell my branch you have a complaint they’d be on the floor in laughter. the six people who now bother to sometimes turn up will tell you this is a get together for a pint. It takes thirty minutes to get through business and then two hours to have a pint and a chat. When we select an MP we all know they are selected for us and our selection get no further then the NEC to be told they are not needed not suitable , but look up and you will see the bright red or Blue parachute.

        And Corbyn did not say anything about having a shoot to kill he said he died not want one, too many people have been shot dead in what was seen as being a shoot to kill policy.

        1. David Pavett says:

          @Robert
          Your experience sounds pretty awful but don’t judge the whole Party by that. A few of us have worked to get my branch to the point of taking politics seriously and no we have debates about important issues from which we send our views to the GC and beyond. Have you organised to bring the new members in? How many do you have? I would be surprised if in the current situation you can’t do better that six people waiting to get to the pub.

      2. David Pavett says:

        @J.P. Craig-Weston
        I think you have interpreted putting complaints through branches rather negatively. It is not a question of the fact of making a complaint but of the cumulative impact of lots of branches doing the same in order to put pressure on those at the top of the hierarchy. If one branch only does it then nothing will happen. If hundreds do it then it is a different matter and that for me is the point of blogs like this. Not just for a general moan but to agree on what we can do to move things forward.

  2. Sue says:

    Thank you Ann for the report. I am a Labour member in the Eastleigh constituency. The nearby constituency of Southampton is run by a Labour council. They are having to make harsh cuts. Some argue that Labour councils should now set “illegal” no cuts bugdets. I note your comment ———“Labour controls 130 councils, and while Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell opposed cuts, they were clear that councils must set legal budgets.” Are you able to elaborate further? Does this mean that Labour councils have to do the Tories work? What would happen is all 130 Labour run councils refused to set “legal” budgets? Wouldnt this be a way to take the fight re cuts to the Tories? Thank you in advance for any comments you are able to make.

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