Peter Willsman’s report of NEC meeting 26th January 2016 Print E-mail
Thursday, 28 January 2016 15:05

The NEC was faced with a very heavy agenda for the meeting because not only was there the much-heralded arrival of Margaret Beckett’s Learning the Lessons taskforce report, but we were to hear from Alan Johnson who is masterminding our Labour In For Britain referendum campaign, and Kezia Dugdale, the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, and her team.

Other major items on the agenda were a detailed document setting out proposed changes following the NEC Governance and Committee Structures Review. Several members of the NEC (including myself) had contributed to the review. In my submission I have proposed that there should be the following new committees: a staffing committee, a policy committee, and a youth committee. I also proposed that the annual women’s conference should have a delegate structure and policy-making powers which feeds into annual conference. Similarly I proposed that the party fully empower all our BAME party members in a fully-functioning BAME Section of the party, also with an annual conference with a delegate structure and policy-making powers, which feeds into annual conference. 

In relation to Local Government, I argued we need to restore proper governance arrangements for the party corresponding to local government structures, which would operate effectively and democratically, ensure accountability, oversee the operation of Labour Groups in local government, their organisation and democratic functions, and review the operation of Local Campaign Forums to ensure they meet the needs of both Labour Groups and local parties. In my opinion, we probably do need a local government subcommittee including trade union and local government representation, which may be most appropriate as a subcommittee of the policy committee.

I also proposed, in relation to nominations to the House of Lords, that instead of leaving it to the leader, rather that the NEC should propose a list from which nominations are made. 

Leader’s Report 

Jeremy reported that he has visited all parts of the country speaking at regional meetings, new members’ meetings, and trade union annual conferences. Jeremy had even found time to address the Young Labour National Committee (this may be a first in Young Labour’s history). Jeremy also makes a point of visiting churches, schools, mosques, in order to meet as wide a range of the population as possible. At the weekend he had visited the refugee camp in Dunkirk. Jeremy said that over the years he has visited refugee camps in many parts of the world but this was among the worst he had ever seen. The conditions were appalling. Some of those in the inadequate tents had British passports, but the new laws concerning the level of income means they are debarred. Jeremy said one of these passport holders is regularly visited by his mum (who lives in Stoke-on-Trent) to give him food. Also Jeremy attended the international climate change conference in Paris and addressed a meeting of some 700 people. Jeremy drew attention to the extent to which the reductions in public expenditure has badly affected our flood defences. 

Jeremy then complemented his staff for the coping with the huge workload. Thousands of emails come in every day. Also hundreds of letters are received. Jeremy pointed out that a significant portion of the population are not on the internet and we must ensure that they are not treated as second-class citizens. For example, one MP estimates that only 30% of the population in her constituency are online. In Islington it is about 70%. 

Jeremy drew attention to the parliamentary success over Tax Credits and preventing the reduction in police funding. In the Lords we were successful in getting the Trade Union Bill into a special select committee. Jeremy also drew attention to the Defence Review document from Emily Thornberry that is now out for consultation. Jeremy then outlined the issues which he had focused on in PMQs. He outlined how Labour had opposed the government’s attempt to scrap maintenance grants for working-class students, and had forced the government to put the issue to a vote, which they regrettably won. He also laid out his firm opposition to the abolition of the bursary for student nurses and his support for the BMA’s strike against Jeremy Hunt’s proposed Junior Doctors’ Contract.

Jeremy also outlined our plans for opposing the ‘Gagging’ Bill which will affect campaigning by for example trade unions and charity organisations. Many points were raised in response to Jeremy’s presentation including the trade union campaign to expose the blacklisting scandal. Also raised were the need to fight or resist the attacks on Further Education and its budget, and of the tacit support being shown by the government to China to the detriment of the UK Steel industry. It has to be said that there was a strong feeling around the table that the continuing divisions in the party were being exploited by the press and media to the detriment of the party. The situation is not helped by the small number of MPs who constantly brief the press and media about matters that should remain internal to the party. 

Jeremy also added that some three-quarters to one million votes have been lost to the register as a result of the hasty implementation of the Tory proposals on voter registration. 

Jeremy concluded with an assessment of the May elections, and especially drew attention to the good planning and organisation being developed in Scotland and Wales. 

Labour In For Britain Report - Presented by Alan Johnson 

Alan Johnson gave a perceptive presentation of the very effective campaign that is already up and running. He drew attention to the contradictions and weaknesses in those who want to float Britain off from the EU. Alan acknowledged that the population are not champing at the bit to rush to the polls to vote on this issue. We have a major task ahead to generate interest in what are sometimes rather obscure issues. Alan felt that one key argument we should make is “what will the UK be like if it is outside the EU.” Very little has been said by our opponents about what such a future would look like. 

Labour’s Campaign in Scotland - Presentation by Kezia Dugdale and her team 

Kezia reported that our Scottish comrades are picking themselves up from the floor. There has been a considerable increase in new members and we are up for the fight in May. Kezia also outlined the key policies that Labour was intending to focus on. She stressed that although for instance Nicola Sturgeon is quite popular the Scottish Government’s policies do not enjoy so much public support. Kezia also emphasised that it is important that the Scottish Labour Party has a degree of autonomy from London. 

I’ve been made aware of at least two proposals for autonomy. The first is that the Scottish Labour Party should become a sister party to the England and Wales Labour Party, but all under the umbrella of the National Council of Labour (which was always in the rulebook and consisted of representatives from the Labour Party, the TUC, and the Co-op movement). I pointed out this solution may be seen as too radical by some comrades. A second option of a federal structure is much more likely. In her reply it was clear that Kezia would much prefer the second option. I also pointed out that the organisation committee has agreed that there should be a joint meeting of the NEC and Scottish Executive to move forward the issue of increased autonomy. 

Jeremy is of course campaigning in Scotland at least once every two weeks. 

NEC Governance and Committee Structures Review

Given this is a very major item which has implications for the party for many years, it was agreed to take it as an early item on the next NEC’s agenda.

Review of party national structures and national policy-making

Tom Watson, deputy leader, reported on the work he has been doing to launch the two Working Groups covering the party’s digital strategy and looking at the party’s national structures. The first meeting to launch the working groups was held on the 12th of January chaired by Jeremy and Tom. It was agreed that the leader and deputy leader would write to all CLPs and affiliated organisations setting out the scope and timetable for the review of party structures. An event will be held in the South West, probably Plymouth, on 2nd April. The aim of the event will be to showcase digital engagement in order to increase the involvement with party members, there will also be policy discussions at the event. 

Angela Eagle, Chair of the National Policy Forum, presented a paper covering the proposed review of national policy-making. The review will seek as wide a consultation process as possible with members and supporters. The aim is to create a more inclusive and effective process. 

All members of the National Policy Forum are being asked which policy commissions they would like to serve on. The seven policy commissions are: ECONOMY: Building a productive economy, INTERNATIONAL: Britain’s security and defence priorities, COMMUNITIES: Housing policy, COMMUNITIES: Transport, HEALTH AND CARE: Mental health, CHILDEN AND EDUCATION: Early years, HOME AFFAIRS: Crime and policing. 

Oldham West and Royton By-Election

The NEC heartily congratulated the former NEC member Jim McMahon on his splendid result. The NEC also congratulated all of the staff and party members who played such a splendid role in our victory. The officers had prepared a detailed analysis of the election. I highlighted the key role played by regional director Anna Hutchinson and Andrew Gwynne MP. I pointed out that the press and media had all prophesied that Labour were going to do very badly, and perhaps might lose to a resurgent UKIP. I had campaigned in the by-election and pointed out that UKIP had made the election entirely about Jeremy Corbyn. They issued some six leaflets almost wholly focusing on attacking Jeremy. It was very gratifying to be able to point to the fact that in terms of the percentage of the vote, which is the most important factor, Labour had a better result than in 1997. 

‘Learning the Lessons’ Taskforce Report 

Margaret Beckett presented an eighteen-page report that had been put together by her task force. It is a well-written report in that it has a flowing style and is not cluttered with jargon. The “economic narrative” is not earth shattering, which is hardly surprising since many Nobel Prize-winning economists are still struggling to understand the Great Recession of 2008. The report makes some key points which are sometimes overlooked as the hostile press and media attempt to paint as bleak a picture as possible. Labour gained votes in 2015 both in the UK as a whole and in England and Wales. There was a swing to Labour of 1.5%. This was the first election since 1997 when Labour’s share of the vote went up. Our vote gains were overshadowed by the impact on seats of the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. There is some evidence that Liberal Democrat voters switched to Labour tactically, as well as those who switched permanently. This tactical voting also took place in Lib/Con marginals which may have had the ironic effect of letting the Tories win. The British Electoral Survey estimates that up to seven seats were lost in this way. 

Margaret’s presentation was followed by a lively and informed debate. There were those like me who draw attention to the positives but there were several who described it as a ‘disaster’. At the end of the debate Jon Ashworth MP made some very pertinent points. Jon stressed that the overall picture was very complex. Our vote went up by one and a half million. The Liberal collapse helped the Tories. Labour majorities went up in many seats we already held, but in many target seats we did poorly. Jon emphasised that much more groundwork in specific locations in order to get a fuller picture. 

Annual Conference 2016 

It was agreed that Jeremy’s speech would be moved to the Wednesday of conference. This change will be reviewed for future conferences. The conference itself will open at 11am on Sunday the 25th of September and close at 3.30pm on Wednesday 28th of September. 

Political Honours System

Jeremy is of course determined to make politics more transparent and relevant to the public. He has made it clear he is committed to reforming the honours system. It was felt that the NEC should have more of a role in deciding who should be recommended for honours. A detailed paper will be prepared for the next NEC meeting.