Local elections and the next manifesto – NEC and joint policy committee reports

Ann Black

Labour’s ruling national executive committee (NEC) met in the party’s new headquarters at 160 Blackfriars Road, further from Westminster but more spacious. After technical problems were resolved, we began with a minute’s silence to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. We then paid tribute to Brenda Etchells, trade unionist and past NEC chair, and former Labour MP Alice Mahon. Although from different political traditions, both were described as formidable and principled women who showed the breadth and inclusivity of the labour movement.

Full NEC meetings have largely returned to the old pattern, with reports from the leader, the deputy leader, the general secretary and key staff and discussion around the common aim of winning a Labour government. Procedural details are hashed out within subcommittees, notably the organisation committee. The effect is a more comradely atmosphere and shorter, more productive meetings.

NEC meeting, January 24th 2023

General secretary’s report

David Evans outlined progress. Headquarters staff and the leader’s office were working as a single team, new trainee and digital organisers were being recruited and more than 100 parliamentary candidates would be in place by May. The next test would be the local elections, with 8,000 seats last fought in 2019 when Labour and Conservatives were running neck and neck. The Tories had steamrollered photo ID through parliament, and we should encourage postal votes but avoid telling people that voting was all too difficult. And we had to convert current poll leads into firm commitment with positive, future-facing policies.

David thanked Constituency Labour Party (CLP) secretaries for help in testing the new membership systems and hoped that these could be rolled out in February. Finances were strong, with small and large donations and commercial income all increased and a record £400,000 raised through the winter raffle. Paid-up membership was around 382,000, still twice the level from 2010 to 2015, and the backlog of 10,000 unresolved disciplinary cases had been cleared and the new independent complaints procedures were up and running.

I asked about these, because if most of the 300 people expelled for supporting proscribed organisations appealed, at current rates, it would take 30 years for the national constitutional committee (NCC) to hear them all. I was assured that the new NCC will soon pick up speed. But in the meantime members waiting for six months or more have been replaced as councillors, candidates and role-holders, and that damage may be permanent. Others were concerned about lengthy suspensions of members holding elected office, as this damaged the reputation of the party as well as the individual. It was confirmed that members of affiliated socialist societies need not be Labour Party members, but they must be eligible for party membership.

Several of us had received messages from members in Leicester unhappy with NEC decisions about council candidate selections. It should be noted that “NEC decisions” include decisions made under delegated authority by (among others) the NEC officers, subcommittees, chairs of subcommittees, disciplinary panels and the general secretary. The terms of reference state that all NEC members will be advised of such decisions, but sometimes it takes a while to catch up.

Leader’s report

Keir Starmer said we are entering 2023 in good shape, but unity, discipline and focus are essential as the poll lead brings increased scrutiny. We must be confident but not complacent and campaign as if we are five points behind. As well as his new year speech calling for a decade of national renewal, he had visited Northern Ireland, where the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement gave an opportunity for progress on the protocol. He and Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves were at the Davos World Economic Forum and reported that the UK was seen as drifting away from global discussion. He stressed the need to restore and reform the NHS and praised Jonathan Ashworth for his work on over-50s leaving employment, and Bridget Phillipson’s work on childcare. Meanwhile, the Tories were bogged down in ever more sleaze.

NEC members welcomed Labour’s opposition to the Tories’ latest assault on trade unions, questioned the independence of the pay review bodies and worried about the retained EU bill, which could lead to the loss of maternity, paternity and sick pay. I said, while changes to the NHS might be sensible, “reform” sounded threatening to people already at the end of their tether. Tone mattered as well as substance, and there should be limits to private sector involvement.

Others wondered if Labour could bring in modest post-Brexit improvements – pet passports, common food standards, Horizon, Erasmus, faster entry and exit queues – without getting into arguments about the single market and the customs union. Deprived areas were suffering from the cost-of-living crisis, children were arriving in hospital with hypothermia and some had a general sense of lawlessness. Partnership with councils would be essential, and coastal and country communities had their own particular challenges.

Finally, Starmer was asked why Labour had dropped its commitment to scrap Universal Credit. He agreed that there were huge problems with timing and sanctions, but the principle of a single benefit rather than six separate benefits was, on balance, sensible. He attacked the latest Tory anti-union move as insulting, unnecessary and counterproductive. Ambulance workers were leaving picket lines to respond to emergencies, and the Tories were failing to meet minimum service levels on non-strike days. Improvements to health services should include early intervention, more preventative measures and better mental health care. He understood that reform could sound like doing things to people rather than with them and was committed to working with the unions. He was talking with the European Union about closer trading links, and would address the National Farmers Union in two weeks’ time. On crime, he agreed that prosecution and charge rates were too low and anti-social behaviour had a huge impact if people were afraid to go out after dark. Very few would say they were safer and better-off than 13 years ago.

Deputy leader’s report

Angela Rayner then reported on campaigning in the North West, where two new Labour MPs had won by-elections. Rishi Sunak showed his true colours when telling Tunbridge Wells members that his version of ‘levelling up’ would divert money to the South East from poor urban areas. She was leading on the Tories’ anti-strike ‘sack the nurses’ bill and on procurement, and questioned the need for an ethics adviser to tell the Prime Minister whether not paying tax was wrong. She assured the NEC that, if the government did collapse before 2024, Labour would be ready. After dealing with internal issues, the party was now outward-looking and fit for power. Where there were difficult conversations, we had to be respectful of each other’s views, resolve any differences and go forward as a united and pragmatic government in waiting.

100 Days and Counting

May 4th was fast approaching, with elections across England except in London. These might be the last big test before the general election, and a presentation ran through plans and themes, centred on what matters to people on the ground and using all communication channels, including local newspapers and social media. I asked for campaign ammunition against all opposition parties and a website with a search engine which leads to current policies. Others raised the need for clear, punchy slogans, tailoring national messages to local circumstances, and involving Young Labour and members in London.

Constituency representatives also asked for CLPs unaffected by boundary changes to be allowed to select parliamentary candidates, whether or not they were priority seats. Having a prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC) provides a focus for all their campaigning activity. I’m not sure the answer was yes, but we will keep trying.

Finally, the NEC noted that more national policy forum (NPF) papers would be circulated on January 30th for discussion until March 17th. Further stages would be agreed by the joint policy committee (see below).

Joint policy committee, January 26th 2023

The joint policy committee (JPC) steers the work of the NPF, and Starmer stressed its importance in preparing for the manifesto. A number of policies have already been developed, including ‘Stronger Together’ and the new deal for working people, and our job is to meld them into a coherent platform when the NPF meets on July 21st-23rd 2023. It is the first time for nine years that the NPF has reached this stage, because the process was interrupted by snap elections in 2017 and 2019.

Starmer reviewed progress to date. After the worst general election result since 1935, Labour’s tasks had been: first, to change the party rather than blaming the voters; second, to prosecute the Tory government as useless (in which they were ably assisting us); and third, to answer the question: “If not them, then why you?” We were confident in our ideas on the future of the NHS and the importance of skills and childcare. The broad objectives were to stabilise and grow the economy, to restore and reform public services, to bring decision-making closer to communities and to rebuild trust in politics. If Labour won the general election, we would inherit a far worse situation than in 1997 and must be prepared for difficult decisions.

The meeting then considered detailed procedures for the last part of the NPF cycle. The key point is that there are two distinct phases between now and annual conference.

1) Business as usual – more consultation

This has been widely trailed. Six short papers focusing on aspects of each policy commission’s work will be circulated to all members on Monday January 30th 2023, and CLPs, branches, trade unions and other stakeholders will be able to submit comments by Friday March 17th 2023, hopefully through the Labour policy forum website if this is working again. These will be collected along with all the other contributions sent in over the last three years. The commissions will continue to meet and hear from experts in their various fields. None of this has any formal status.

2) The manifesto platform

In this second and last phase, each commission will draft longer documents which cover the entire policy agenda. These will draw on all the work since 2020 and, put together, form the basis of the manifesto. They will be published by May 9th 2023 to NPF members and copied to CLP policy officers and secretaries, but there will be no opportunity for direct input from local parties. Each NPF member will be able to submit a total of up to five amendments by June 5th 2023.

While we are required to reflect the strength of feeling among our constituents, there is no clear mechanism for constituency representatives to do this. In 2014, the last full cycle, CLPs had the full text for three months and could send in ten amendments each. These were collated centrally and CLP representatives within each region looked at what they said, shared them out, and took them into the final NPF meeting.

This year, Zoom calls may be arranged between NPF representatives and CLP policy officers, but there will be no time for most CLPs to agree collective priorities or amendments, and NPF members and CLPs cannot easily contact each other. I have suggested that members should be able to upload their thoughts to the website or another central location where we can all read them.

After June 5th, the JPC will consider all amendments and, if they are in order, either endorse them or refer them for further discussion. The latter involves the shadow minister suggesting alternative words that cover the same area but may be a long way from the original proposal. Negotiations around these continue into the final NPF, and compromises are almost always agreed. If they are not agreed, the original amendment goes to a vote and is, in most cases, overwhelmingly defeated. The NPF ends with a vote on everything that has been accepted and the resulting platform goes to conference for final endorsement.

There is one exception: if an amendment gets more than 35% but less than 50% of the vote, it will be taken to conference, which has the final say. The threshold had been raised from 25% in 2014, based on the argument that the unions now have 33% of the NPF membership and any such minority positions should be able to command support from more than one section. The unions disputed the calculation and proposed 33% rather than 35%. This was rejected by 18 votes to seven. I voted with the six union representatives. It seemed a modest ask. On all previous occasions, the number of minority positions has been close to zero and the unions have never defied the rest of the NPF. A proposal to keep the number of amendments at six rather than reduce it to five was similarly lost 18 to seven. I did not see why a theoretical maximum of 1,000 amendments was manageable but 1,200 was impossible and fear that constituency representatives will be at a disadvantage, as it is harder for us to co-ordinate and avoid duplication.

So an ill-tempered argument over relatively insignificant differences was not the best start and an odd hill to die on. I hope the months ahead will restore trust and consensus.

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