NEC members were joined by colleagues from the joint policy committee, the conference arrangements committee and the national constitutional committee for an informal discussion with Peter Hain on his party reform project. He explained that Liam Byrne was in charge of policy development, with shadow cabinet working groups feeding into the policy commissions and leading up to a national policy forum meeting, provisionally on 25 June 2011. Members were disturbed by reports that LibDems were playing a key role in influencing policy, and he promised to pass this message on to Liam Byrne.
In addition to the review of Partnership in Power, Ed Miliband had asked Peter Hain to look at party organisation at every level, with nothing ruled in or out. This was an opportunity to consider afresh whether a culture and structures rooted in the early 20th century were still fit for purpose. He hoped that local parties would discuss the issues in May, after the elections, and respond by the second week of June. Any rule changes would be considered by the NEC in July for this year’s conference. He agreed to send the timetable to constituencies so that they can plan ahead.
Below are some of the areas covered. They may vary in relevance to the wider party, and others can doubtless be added, but they give an idea of preoccupations in the party’s national committees.
Policy-making. Policy forums were a great idea and very popular when introduced in 1997, but confidence dissipated through the absence of feedback or visible impact on policy. Providing an audit trail would have to be managed within much reduced resources. Political education is also important.
Young Labour. Callum Munro, newly-elected to the NEC, stressed that young members were keen to contribute. Current policy priorities included student fees and the educational maintenance allowance.
Annual conference. Fewer than two-thirds of constituencies sent delegates in 2010. Cost was believed to be the main deterrent, but loss of influence was also a factor. Resolutions on important issues, such as the impact of abolishing the 10% tax band, were regularly ruled out as “not contemporary”. Restoring debate and allowing meaningful votes might rebuild essential links between party and government.
Trade unions. Is it right that the three largest unions control 40% of the vote at conference? At local level, fewer delegates from union branches attend party meetings: how could links be strengthened?
Leadership election. Do the rules need changing? Most felt that the electoral college, including all stakeholders, was still appropriate. Criticism has centred on MPs with multiple votes through unions and socialist societies, and perhaps MPs should be limited to a single vote in the parliamentary section.
Selecting parliamentary candidates. Views on postal votes ranged from (a) all-member postal ballots through (b) the current permissive system (c) more restricted availability on production of medical or other evidence to (d) voting at hustings meetings only and even (e) limited to members who had taken part in campaigning or other activities. Some suggested applying the same procedures to trigger ballots.
Composition of the NEC. Mergers have produced fewer and larger unions, and this affects the make-up of the union section. Should Scotland and Wales be explicitly represented though (a) the national leaders (b) extra constituency representatives (c) the Chairs of their executives? [Both (a) and (b) were referred to the NEC by conference in 2009.] Some were unhappy that London currently holds four out of six constituency places, though constituency representatives believe that splitting the seats into super-regions would weaken the section as a whole and give members fewer channels through which to raise concerns. [And from 2001 to 2005 London held no constituency places.]
Chairs various. Should there be an elected or an appointed party Chair, or should the Chair of the NEC be the sole Chair of the party?
Northern Ireland. The strong desire of the Northern Ireland party to stand Labour candidates was noted.
Local parties. General meetings should be policy-focused and not bogged down in tedious minutiae. One person suggested imposing a uniform set of rules on all constituencies, and another that these should specify all-member meetings with an executive committee elected once a year to run the party.
Supporters. How could supporters be more involved, without detracting from the rights of individual members? The days of mass membership were probably over, and trade union membership in the private sector stood at 15%, so new ways of reaching out into the community were needed.
Communication. The party should enable constituency secretaries to talk to each other, and NEC and national policy forum representatives to report back to the people who elected them.