Events have been moving fast since the excitement of the leadership contest and the September NEC meeting, and below is an update on recent developments. On 17 November the NEC will consider plans to consult on party reform, and I would welcome your thoughts in advance.
Women’s Conference, Brighton, Saturday 26 September 2015
More than 1300 women attended, some veterans, others who signed up in the summer surge. There were tributes to Harriet Harman, speeches, workshops and the ever-popular open-mic sessions, where anyone could speak without having to “catch the Chair’s eye”. Topics ranged widely: low pay, tax credit cuts, Sunday trading, standing candidates in Northern Ireland, transferable tax allowances so that women could care for their own children, discrimination in employment, barriers to selection, and hateful language on social media. Jeremy Corbyn stressed Labour’s commitment to closing the gender pay gap, giving mental health parity with physical health, and opposing austerity. His was the first-ever shadow cabinet with a majority of women, and he particularly valued help and advice from women. This was the start of a kinder, more decent politics, where we all listened to each other.
Nevertheless there were some frustrations. The election of men as leader, deputy leader and London mayoral candidate, and the absence of women on stage at the special conference on 12 September, were angrily resented. In 2011 conference agreed the principle of a gender-balanced leadership team, and a working party chaired by Harriet Harman considered a number of options but decided that none of them would work. I believe that this should be revisited. There were rumours of a proposal to create extra seats for women on the NEC, but as the NEC has women’s quotas in most sections and is currently more than 50% female I find this hard to understand.
There was a growing desire for the women’s conference to have a formal role in the party’s decision- and policy-making structures. Members said the same things every year, but nothing changed. This poses challenges, as women attend as individuals rather than delegates, This year 454 came from London, 269 from the south-east and only 21 from Scotland. Resolutions and votes would require representative structures and rules, and risk disrupting the friendly, free-flowing atmosphere.
NEC Meeting, Saturday 26 September 2015
This was a brief get-together before the main conference. Angela Eagle repeated Labour’s commitment to fight the Tories’ anti-trade union bill tooth and nail. If it went through, unions might have just three months to get millions of members to sign paper forms opting into their political funds. It would destroy the ability of unions, whether linked to Labour or not, to campaign on almost anything, and starve the party through loss of affiliation fees. Some feared that the SNP might do a deal with the Tories in return for unions being able to support parties other than Labour.
Annual Conference, Brighton, Sunday 27 – Wednesday 30 September 2015
Local parties will have reports from their own delegates, so these are just brief notes. Under the newly-relaxed procedures eight topics were scheduled for debate: Europe, employment rights, austerity and public services, housing, the licence fee, the refugee crisis, the NHS and mental health. Trident was not prioritised, perhaps wisely as some large unions support its replacement.
Emergency motions on Colombia, Syria and the Redcar steelworks were also admitted, along with an NEC statement committing a Labour government to bringing the railways back into public ownership. All were carried without dissent, and the rule changes put forward by the NEC were carried overwhelmingly. The only constituency amendment to survive the conference arrangements committee’s cull proposed an extra five NEC constituency seats, giving one for each region and nation, each required to elect a woman every other term. This was lost, though with 28% of constituencies in favour. All the motions and card vote results are in the conference arrangements committee reports on the website at http://members.labour.org.uk/conference-documents
The strapline for the week was Straight Talking, Honest Politics, a refreshing change from the dire hardworking Britain working hard for hardworking families. General secretary Iain McNicol stressed that honesty must extend to examining why we lost and how we could win again. John McDonnell spoke of the need to live within our means, but through fairer, more progressive taxation rather than balancing the books on the backs of the poor. He had assembled an impressive team of economic advisers, and emphasised the need for everyone to express their views in constructive debate: difference did not mean division. Inspired by hope, Labour would be both idealistic and pragmatic.
In his leader’s speech Jeremy Corbyn reinforced the theme of open discussion. The last few months showed a huge mandate for change in how we do politics in the party and in the country, making policy from the bottom up, moving to a kinder, more inclusive process and a more caring society. Cyber-bullying and abuse had no place. He called David Cameron out for lying about tax credits, and deplored Tory plans to cleanse four million people from the electoral register.
I spoke in the work and business debate. Before the election Labour made clear promises on the bedroom tax and zero-hours contracts, but there were uneasy compromises on universal credit and the benefit cap, and I welcomed the chance to review social security from first principles. I also chaired policy seminars on work and business and on Britain’s global role, where delegates could speak directly to shadow ministers. More than 30 people contributed from the floor in each session.
The conference closed with a barnstorming speech from Tom Watson, channelling his inner Prescott, and the traditional singing of the Red Flag and Jerusalem. I believe our Oxford delegate Michelle spoke for many when she wrote “given the scale of the general election defeat, I was really surprised at the almost buoyant atmosphere … a very upbeat, relaxed, fun and enjoyable conference”.
NEC Meeting, Tuesday 29 September 2015
The NEC thanked retiring members Hilary Benn MP, Conor McGinn and Susan Lewis and welcomed Rebecca Long Bailey MP, James Asser and Pauline McCarthy. Jim Kennedy was applauded for chairing the NEC through a difficult year. Paddy Lillis was elected as Chair, and Ellie Reeves as vice-chair. Iain McNicol reported a continuing surge in membership, with 3,200 joining since conference started, and 400 in the three hours since Jeremy Corbyn’s speech. Angela Eagle promised a review of the national policy forum, aimed at reaching out further and involving members more fully.
Equalities Committee, 20 October 2015
Jeremy Corbyn had asked Tom Watson to lead discussions on revitalising party structures to make them open, modern, relevant and engaging, and there would be a full debate at the NEC strategy day on 17 November. The national youth conference would take place on 27 / 28 February 2016 in Scarborough, with applications opening online on 2 November along with nominations for national and regional positions. Numbers of delegates would depend on the capacity of the venue, and if necessary online ballots would be held within regions to decide who can attend. There are separate sections for unions and other affiliates, and for Labour Students. Young Labour would be arguing for a simpler system based on one-member-one-vote in future, and I asked again for constituencies to be kept informed so that we can support our local young members.
Organisation Committee, 20 October 2015
The committee confirmed that any proposals to change the relationship between Scottish Labour and the UK-wide national Labour party must be discussed with the NEC. Procedures were agreed for selecting police and crime commissioner candidates, under which serving Labour PCCs would go through trigger ballots between 13 November and 19 December. For other vacancies shortlists would be drawn up by a panel from the NEC, the regional board and the shadow home affairs team. In Labour-held seats the shortlist would go to a one-member-one-vote ballot, while in other seats the panel would also select the candidate. Some other key dates: the deadline for conference delegates would be 24 June 2016, and this would also apply for nominations for the NEC constituency, local government and parliamentary places, the treasurer, auditors, the conference arrangements committee and the national constitutional committee. The closing date for contemporary motions would be Thursday 15 September and for emergency motions, Friday 23 September 2016.
The committee agreed to circulate updated advice on supporters. While registered supporters now have no formal role, affiliated supporters have a continuing relationship with the party, and the website would shortly reopen so that more can sign up. They are entitled to attend local meetings without voting power, though constituencies are only required to invite those with e-mail contact addresses. Disputes between affiliated supporters and their constituency would be resolved through the same processes used for members. I know that local parties are pursuing a variety of approaches in engaging new members and supporters, and would be keen to hear your experiences. To grow and flourish we have to channel the wave of enthusiasm into political change and electoral success, and not allow it to subside because new and returning members do not feel welcome.
Questions and comments are welcome, as always, and I am happy for this report to be circulated.