The Forde inquiry report, strikes and candidate selections – Labour NEC report

Ann Black

The national executive committee (NEC) returned to Zoom – this time because of climate crisis rather than Covid – trapped in our individual sweltering attics and offices. After more false sightings than the Loch Ness monster the Forde report, an inquiry into the leaked internal report of 2020, had finally slipped into the general secretary’s inbox. The NEC agreed unanimously to publish it, and to hold a preliminary discussion later in the meeting.

Missing in action

Deputy leader Angela Rayner gave a vivid account of the last days of Boris Johnson, ranting about Brexit, partying at Chequers and joyriding in fighter jets while his underlings chaired COBRA meetings on the heat emergency. References to the deepstate working against him were going beyond delusional to full Donald Trump. With the government collapsing, the long-promised employment bill and protection for the sacked P&O workers could disappear, though the Tories were using statutory instruments to make it easier to bring in agency workers and raising the damages that employers could claim from unions if a strike was judged unlawful. She was working with party chair Anneliese Dodds on the Stronger Together policy review, and had visited Tolpuddle and the Durham Miners Gala and hosted the LBC morning programme.

NEC members praised her feisty performances. Tory tactics were clear: misrepresent Labour policies on crime and national security, create divides on wedge issues including Brexit and trans rights, and portray the party’s relationship with trade unions as merely transactional rather than historical and organic. They would stay silent on their own transactional relations with rich donors and cronyism over Covid contracts. All their leadership candidates were promising billions of pounds of unfunded tax cuts without admitting that massive tax cuts always meant massive cuts to public services and social security. Labour must live by our values of basic decency, and not allow our record or our intentions to be caricatured.

I asked why Labour peers abstained on free school meals for families receiving universal credit, and why Labour MPs were told not to visit picket lines. Angela explained that Labour could not vote for uncosted funding commitments, but this didn’t mean we wouldn’t feed starving children, and our next manifesto would include very positive messages. But that is a long time to wait. On the RMT strike she said the Tories wanted to make the story about Labour on picket lines, but Louise Haigh was doing an excellent job of putting responsibility where it belonged, with the government. Angela also supported calls for a legal maximum temperature at work, as well as a legal minimum.

General secretary’s report

David Evans was preparing for the next general election, set by the NEC as his priority. The local elections and Wakefield showed progress, and a taskforce structure would further sharpen focus. In October, the party had to leave the London headquarters at Southside and were searching for alternative premises. Fundraising was going well, with more donations in the pipeline. 15,000 members had joined since his last report and overall membership was about 415,000 including about 33,000 in arrears. A gradual downward trend was normal between general elections. He recognised the continuing stress on local role-holders following the cyber-incident, and was confident that the new membership system would deliver a first-class service. Due to lack of time a presentation on its development was deferred to a separate NEC briefing, hopefully soon.

I expressed growing concern about the decision to reorganise Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) from January 1st 2023. The new boundaries will not be published till October 2022, CLPs may not have access to membership data till February 2023, and party offices will be closed for two weeks over Christmas. David suggested that reorganisation might take place in stages, which alarmed me even more. Even CLPs with few changes may lose wards to new constituencies that do not yet exist, leaving some members homeless, and entitlement to conference delegates is based on membership at 31 December. Parliamentary selection is also affected, with a general election before July 2023 fought on current boundaries, and after that on new boundaries. Apparently the boundary review sub-committee had not thought about practicalities.

On trigger ballots, David pointed out that rule changes in 2021 made it harder for MPs to face open selections, and said that all complaints were investigated. Members noted that MPs were exempt from trigger ballots while pregnant or on maternity leave and the NEC should consider extending the principle to MPs suffering from ill-health. I support this. David reiterated that the party took all allegations of sexual harassment extremely seriously, and he would reply to recent letters from former staff.

Other members highlighted the load on regional teams, cut back under the Organise To Win restructure. Staff were so stretched that a single by-election could halt all other work. Deploying the new trainee organisers might alleviate some pressures, and enhancing communications and field operations would continue the move towards a voter-focused party. The taskforces would report regularly to the NEC. David also said the party was aware of the need for Covid safety at conference. Finally, campaign improvement boards agreed at the last meeting after some controversy were currently working with 13 Labour councils.

Cleaning up Britain

Keir Starmer echoed Angela Rayner on the chaos at the top of the Tory Party. Their leadership candidates had pulled out of more TV debates, worried about giving further attack lines to Labour, and their fantasy economics increased from £200bn of unfunded spending commitments in the morning to £330bn by the same evening. They had lost all sense of purpose, and a fresh start for Britain, after 12 years of Tory failure, needed a new government.

Labour would boost the economy across the UK, revitalise public services and unite the country. Our ambitious plans included £28bn a year to meet climate change commitments through new green jobs, equipping everyone with the skills they need and resolving post-Brexit problems around science, security, trade and the Northern Ireland protocol. Gordon Brown’s proposals would call for power to be devolved to the people and away from Whitehall. Due diligence in choosing candidates would avoid the disgrace that had brought down so many Tory MPs.

After he and Angela were elected in 2020, Keir’s priorities had been changing the party and then showing that the Tories were unfit to govern. The third stage was answering the question ‘if not them, then why us?’ And at this year’s conference he would set out plans for a fresh start for Britain. Finally, he warned us against complacency, though personally I am not in the least complacent.

Members praised Keir’s principled stand in promising to resign if found to have broken Covid rules, and were pleased that all present had been cleared of wrongdoing. They asked Labour to talk in normal language: pay and jobs, not “rebooting the economy”. The Welsh representative described Gordon Brown’s initiative as a really open process, though this process is not known to me as chair of the national policy forum or as a member of the policy commission that covers constitutional matters.

On climate change, Keir said that Britain should be leading on renewables and new developments such as hydrogen planes, contrasted with the Tory leadership candidates who are all trying to weasel out of net zero targets. Members understood his position on Brexit but there were huge problems for touring musicians and performers, and Labour has pledged to tackle these. And Labour had to look at fairer taxation of unearned as well as earned income, and deal with non-domiciled tax avoiders.

Which side are you on?

Many NEC members returned to relations between the leadership and the unions, with more industrial action likely across public and private sectors. Workers had endured years of real-terms pay cuts, inflation was soaring and energy prices were out of control. CWU members in BT were balloting for the first time in 35 years, and with profits of £1.3bn and executive pay at £3.5m, employees on £20,000 a year simply did not believe the company could not afford a decent rise.

During the meeting Andy Kerr of the CWU announced the results of the Royal Mail strike ballot: a turnout of 77% and a 97.5% Yes vote. Firefighters had turned down a 2% offer and two and a half million public sector workers – nurses, teachers, armed forces, local council staff – were also likely to reject offers well below inflation. Strikes were always a last resort, and successive Conservative governments had made the threshold very high, but when employers refused to negotiate, affiliated and non-affiliated unions expected Labour to stand shoulder to shoulder with working people.

Keir Starmer emphasised his commitment as a lifelong union member, citing Labour’s plans for full employment rights from day one, and the conciliatory, co-operative approach that a Labour government would take. He understood the frustration of falling pay for those who couldn’t pay their bills. The question was not whether Labour supported the unions, but how to express that support as a government in waiting.

The Tories wanted the rail strikes to go ahead, so they could foment division on a wedge issue. But the danger, through a long, hot summer is of driving a wedge between the shadow cabinet and the many members, activists and supporters who want visible support. The Scottish leader Anas Sarwar met RMT strikers without apparent loss of credibility. Keir did, however, say that David Lammy was right to apologise to BA workers who were not seeking a pay rise, just restoration to pre-pandemic levels.

And so, to Forde

The report’s release at noon meant that by 3pm everyone interested had been able to skim it except the NEC members who would decide its fate, and Twitter was alive with snippets and counter-snippets from its 138 pages. Full disclosure: I have not read it. I will do so as soon as this report is finished, and may have more to say later. For anyone who has not yet discovered it, you can read the full report here.

Staff ran through the chapter headings: foreword, introduction, terms of reference, main allegations, disciplinary processes, culture, structure and practices, recommendations. The main allegations in the leaked internal report were unusual factionalism, its impact on complaints of anti-semitism, its impact on other areas, the 2017 general election, poor recruitment and management practices and racism and sexism. There were 165 recommendations and these would take time to work through. Nobody now disputes that disciplinary procedures were not fit for purpose and the Equality and Human Rights Commission report on antisemitism led to significant changes backed by the force of law. Other recommendations may have been overtaken by changes since the events described, dating back to 2015, and since the Forde inquiry was established in 2020.

My first impression, and this may change, is that Forde contains few surprises and could easily have been written two years ago. It begins by noting that “the leaked report is unarguably a slanted document; it represents another front in the factional warfare that it describes and by its nature added nothing to the supposed ‘kindness in politics’ that the party purported to be moving towards” before going on to analyse its claims. It condemns WhatsApp messages that reveal “deplorably factional and insensitive, and at times discriminatory, attitudes” expressed by many senior staff. My concerns about the 2016 Labour leadership election, as the then chair of the disputes panel, are quoted at length and available in full here.

However, it was reasonable to adopt a defensive strategy in the 2017 general election campaign where Labour started 20 points behind in the polls, staff did not work to lose the election and reallocation of funds to additional target seats would have had to be “impossibly cost-effective and so extraordinarily precisely targeted to make any significant difference to individual results let alone the overall result of the general election”.

NEC members made a range of comments, all stressing their desire to move forward but not helped by the Labour spokesperson who tweeted that “Keir Starmer is now in control and has made real progress in ridding the party of the destructive factionalism and unacceptable culture that did so much damage”.

My concern was what we do next. Forde was intended to draw a line, not to re-litigate past arguments. The delay did not help, and it was six years to the day since the NEC sat at Southside in the second of two fraught meetings about the 2016 leadership election, the most poisonous time I lived through. I proposed a special NEC meeting after we had digested the report, to speak fully and frankly and decide which recommendations were still relevant and whether and how to implement them. Unless this is resolved soon it will overshadow conference and Labour’s fresh start for Britain, and will be used, to quote Jeremy Corbyn, “for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media”.

Picking winners

Into the evening, and the NEC deferred discussing attitudes to constitutional amendments from CLPs – regrettable as they will again get little notice of why we oppose them. The meeting made minor changes to parliamentary selection procedures, giving candidates 48 hours’ notice of due diligence issues and reducing the minimum longlist from six to four, and the minimum shortlist from four to two. The shorter procedure had been well received and the spending cap levelled the playing field (at least, for those who can afford £3,500).

Further measures were agreed to attract more applicants from under-represented groups: advertising the bursaries available to selected candidates and working with MotheRED, a project that gives financial support to mothers standing for selection and election within the labour movement. I asked for detailed guidance for branch nomination meetings and streamlined processes as we move towards non-target seats, and both were promised. I sensed little support for returning longlisting power to CLPs. The importance of due diligence was again stressed, and the Tories were said to have six full-time staff searching for dirt on Labour candidates. There may or may not be a further review, so please keep sending feedback. I do not know when more selections will start, though am keenly aware of the need for faster progress if the NEC is to avoid imposing candidates for a third successive election.

Conferences various

The draft schedule for annual conference was noted, with the leader’s speech returning to the Tuesday afternoon slot. The national policy forum consultation had closed, with 1,500 written submissions and 400 people attending roundtable discussions with shadow ministers. BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) members were not satisfied with a one-day online engagement event on November 19th and were pressing for the full standalone conference enshrined in the rulebook. Disabled members did not want to be left behind, and women still did not have dates for a conference in spring 2023. An update was promised for the September NEC meeting, but unless planning has started by then the standalone women’s conference, and the others, risk being lost by default rather than by explicit NEC decisions.

And, finally…

The national campaign co-ordinator raised the need for plans to strengthen capacity in the nations and regions, especially in improving communication with voters. This was not on the agenda and an odd item for any other business, especially as it seemed to echo concerns about regional staffing expressed some hours earlier. However, it was now 7pm, the time when the air-conditioning is switched off at Southside and rather than condemn the general secretary and his staff to slow suffocation we had to leave this hanging.

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