Peter Willsman reports from Labour’s November Executive
National Executive Committee Away Day 26 November 2017
This NEC was the annual “Away Day”, where “blue sky thinking” is encouraged. This year we held our meeting in Glasgow, thanks to the generosity of Unite, who provided us with all the facilities at their Glasgow office. We were warmly welcomed by the new leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Richard Leonard and the very enthusiastic Scottish Executive Committee (SEC).
At the “Away Day” NEC members actually get to talk to each other and mingle. On one occasion I remember encouraging Gordon Brown to laugh more on TV. Gord (as I call him) responded by merrily regaling the whole gathering, “I do not believe this, I am getting lessons in social skills from Pete Willsman!”. On another occasion, attention was drawn to an article, embarrassingly headed, “Willsman’s Wisdom”. At which point Jeremy Beecham exclaimed, “That is a classic oxymoron!”. I once called into HQ and saw a friend, who is a member of staff, sitting in a room seemingly doing nothing. I opened the door and yelled out “Haven’t you got any work to do?” Much later, at the NEC, Iain (desperately trying to keep a straight face) announced, “Pete has managed to disrupt a webinar involving 8,000 members!”. I am pleased to be able to report that as usual at our “Away Day” there was a very comradely atmosphere.
Urgent business before joining our Scottish comrades
· Procedure for the election of the NEC representative from the party’s youth
This election is timetabled for early in the new year. It was pointed out that for some years the trade unions have been pressing for a procedure which is more representative of the two wings of our party, the industrial and the political. In particular, an electoral college consisting of 50%, young party members voting by OMOV, and 50%, affiliates – using their own mechanisms to reflect the views of their young members. After lengthy discussion, this procedure was agreed for the 2018 scheduled election. It was noted that this matter is covered by the Democracy Review and thus, in due course, the new arrangements could be amended.
Joint meeting with the Scottish Executive Committee
· Jeremy’s Welcome and Report
Jeremy warmly welcomed everyone. He then reflected on the sad events in our party in the last few weeks. Jeremy was immediately in touch with the families on behalf of the party. Jeremy recognised the shock and distress suffered by our staff in Wales and at Head Office, and expressed his admiration for the professional and heartfelt way the staff had responded.
Jeremy then gave warm congratulations to Richard on his victory and to all our members and staff in Scotland on the comradely way the election was conducted (by coincidence, Richard was sitting directly underneath a bust of Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Scottish Labour Party and the UK party). Jeremy added that he has and will visit Scotland at least once a month. As everyone in the room acknowledged, Labour must regain its historic successful record in Scotland.
Jeremy then took the meeting through the major issues over the last two months. He highlighted the importance of the Democracy Review. Jeremy emphasised that the party must be inclusive and new members must feel welcome. He encouraged all constituencies, branches and members and all affiliates and other interested parties to make brief recommendations or more detailed submissions to the review. They will all be examined in detail by the diligent team headed-up by Katy Clarke.
Jeremy then moved on to all of the issues raised in the discussions around the Budget. Labour is clear that we have a strong anti-austerity programme, that will be investment-led and will generate growth and jobs. It will also of course involve the public ownership of the utilities, who have for years been enriching the fat-cats at the expense of the general public. This unjust situation must be brought to an end and Labour will guarantee that it is. Jeremy also highlighted the scandal of the homeless on almost every high street. After the transformation brought about by Labour’s 1945-51 government, there were no homeless. There was a major supply of council housing and our voters had decent jobs and wages, not zero-hours exploitation. Jeremy pointed out that John McDonnell would be covering all of these issues later in the meeting, and did not want to steal his thunder.
Jeremy therefore moved on to outlining the work that the Frontbench and PLP in general are doing to bring some sense to the chaotic Brexit negotiations. He drew attention to Ian Murray MP’s motion, which was somewhat unhelpful. Ian had agreed that he would move his motion but would not push it to a vote. So it was agreed to only have a one-line Whip. But unfortunately Ian’s motion was voted on.
Jeremy then moved on to an account of human rights abuses around the world. He drew attention to the huge number of refugees from Myanmar fleeing to Bangladesh. Jeremy has made several strong protests about the unacceptable behaviour of the Myanmar army. Our new MP for Tooting Dr Rosena Allin-Khan has been in the region providing personal medical assistance to those in need.
Jeremy deplored the way Yemen and its people are being treated by outside forces. In particular he highlighted the Saudi-led bombardment. We have an absurd and shameful situation where the UK gives aid to Yemen and sells arms and bombs to the Saudis.
Jeremy highlighted the treats to human rights in particular in Turkey and Zimbabwe. We must all hope the recent events in Zimbabwe will lead to the restoration of and respect for human rights. The Frontbench has been doing all they can to press Iran to release Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Although the contribution by the UK’s Foreign Secretary has been overwhelmingly negative.
Jeremy also gave an account of the major rallies and conferences which he has attended, drawing attention to the fantastic effort made on the party’s National Campaign Day, which had been held the previous day. There had been over 600 events around the UK. Jeremy highlighted that our rallies are increasingly inter-generational, all generations are coming together in a demand to build a better society, after the immoral destruction by the Tories. Jeremy assured us that he intends for the next Labour government to bring about changes of historic significance comparable to the 1945-51 Labour government.
· Scottish Leader’s Welcome and Report
Richard gave a rousing call to all our Scottish members and voters. He exuded enthusiasm and energy – I began to feel sorry for Nicola. The bubble has burst and the SNP are on the way down. Richard is clearly going to accelerate their decline.
Richard stressed that Scotland is politically, electorally, and symbolically critical to our party and our Movement. Scotland will be key to electing the next Labour government. Jeremy has transformed the mood in the party and among the voters. Richard emphasised that his election victory provides the opportunity to attract SNP, Greens, and non-voters to our anti-austerity and progressive policies. It is already clear that the SNP, despite their fine words, will effectively have an austerity budget. They will make yet further reductions in funding for local authorities. We must expose the fact that the SNP are effectively a conveyer-belt for the Tories’ austerity agenda. We will use our influence in local government as the focus for our fightback. Our message will be a positive one which makes clear who we are, what we stand for, and who we represent. Richard ended by highlighting that our party, led by Jeremy, offers real change. At all times the Scottish party will work on behalf of the many, not the few.
Brian Roy, secretary of the Scottish Labour Party, complemented Richard’s report. Brian stressed that all full-time and part-time staff, together with all our members, are raring to go. They are totally committed to regaining Labour’s hegemony in Keir Hardie’s homeland.
There was then a very enthusiastic discussion about our policies and campaign in Scotland, which will complement a similarly effective campaign in England and Wales. The SNP will permanently be on the back foot.
This was followed by lunch provided by Unite and lots of mingling between the two Executives. After lunch, the NEC returned to its normal business. It was a good session but lacked the verve of the joint meeting.
Continuation of the NEC Meeting
· General Secretary’s Report
Iain outlined the comprehensive staffing and organisational structures being put into place for a possible early general election. I emphasised that all of our policy documents, produced by the NPF, must take our 2017 manifesto as the basis for future policy. Iain confirmed that this would, of course, be the case.
· Update on Membership
Membership is set to end the year at 568,500 – up 25,000 on the 2016 figure and the highest figure since the party kept accurate records. So far this year our 107,000 new members means that we have recruited over 500,000 over the last 3 years. Obviously, as always, there has been some loss of membership, for all sorts of reasons. Increasingly those that fail to renew are contacted, in some cases several times. This has had the positive result that some 43% of those falling into arrears respond to our calls to renew. In addition there are many local initiatives that also have a significant effect.
Contrary to the hostile press and media, our party is not southern dominated. The largest increases in membership were in the north and Scotland. In Scotland in the last year there has been a stunning 22.5% increase in membership, followed by the Northern region with an 8.8% increase, and then the North West with an 8% increase. Recent years have also seen a very positive trend of younger members joining. This has had an impact on the overall make-up of our membership, with the average age having fallen from 55 in 2014 to 46.5 now. I pointed out to the NEC that whereas the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy is a force to be reckoned with, our mirror organisation, the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, is struggling to exist. But recently their Secretary revealed to Tribune that the average age in the Tory Party is around 68 and their membership is well below 100,000 but kept hidden from the public. At this point, George Howarth MP called out that their youth section is no doubt 59 and under. Finally, it was reported that until 2015 the gender split within our party had been around 60-40. In the last 3 years this gap has considerably narrowed.
· Party Democracy Review – Interim Report
The Review team is consulting widely with the SEC, WEC, CLPs, affiliated trade unions, other affiliated organisations, the PLP, and individual members. A first report will be timetabled at the 2018 Annual Conference in Liverpool. Katy outlined the key points of the work already undertaken, and informed the NEC that a range of specific events are being organised to maximise the input from our women members, disabled members, young members, BAME members, and LGBT members. During the discussion I made two specific points. Firstly, that much greater efforts must be made to make the selection for public office more of a level playing field. The current situation favours the economically advantaged, who can take time off and spend thousands on specially printed literature. There is a built-in bias against the working class. There are bursaries being developed to address this issue but much more needs to be done. Secondly, I argued that the Review should cover the weaknesses of our disciplinary procedure. It is a democracy issue that members can be suspended for well over 2 years and CLPs can be in special measures for some 25 years. It is also the case that the National Constitutional Committee needs to be much enlarged. There are only 11 of them and 3 must make up a panel. Not surprisingly they have a large backlog of cases.
Detailed reports of our preparations for the 2018 local elections, a possible general election, and our campaigning and policy development and messaging
· Preparations for elections 2018
A very authoritative and upbeat presentation was made by Andrew Gwynne MP and Ian Lavery MP, our party’s National Campaign Coordinators, complemented by our new and enthusiastic Executive Director, Anna Hutchinson. Andrew took the NEC through the boundary changes that will affect 4 metropolitan districts, 3 London boroughs, and 7 county councils. Andrew also outlined the gains and loses in the 2014 election. In that election there were 159 UKIP gains – 80 from the Tories, 52 from Labour, and 24 from Liberals. Evidence suggests that there is a tendency for ex-UKIP voters to vote Tory rather than Labour. Iain concluded this item by running through all of the seats where we are having early selections.
· Policy Formation and National Policy Forum
This item was introduced by Cath Speight (JPC co-convenor), complemented by the Executive Director, Andrew Fisher. Attention was drawn to the fact that there has been an increased emphasis on party democracy over recent years. For example, a composite on housing was carried at this year’s Annual Conference, and then in his closing Leader’s Speech, Jeremy referred to the Conference decision as “party policy”. The NEC has been pressing for a full National Policy Forum get together to begin developing our progressive policies. Iain responded by confirming that a full NPF is being arranged for either late February or early March.
· Strategy and Communications
Seumas Milne (Executive Director) introduced this item. Seumas enthusiastically went through all of the political weaknesses of the Tory party, both in parliament and on the ground. Its membership is dwindling and they are paying delivering agencies to put their literature through letterboxes. Seumas was pleased to point out that Jeremy is becoming increasingly popular in Scotland. His monthly visits showcasing our popular policies are clearly having an impact. Seumas emphasised the shift in the political climate that is now becoming clear, even to the hostile press and media.
Richard Corbett (the new EPLP leader), after commenting that at the NEC Glenis had left very large shoes to fill, drew attention to the changing landscape in relation to the Brexit issue. He drew attention to the mess the Tories are making of the Brexit negotiations. Richard emphasised that we need to take maximum advantage of the situation.
During the subsequent well-informed discussion, I made the point that the argument that gets across on the doorstep is to make a comparison between the 1950s after the 1945-51 Labour government and the present disgraceful situation. When I was young, there were no homeless sleeping in doorways, no betting shops, no pawn shops, no zero-hour contracts. There was a genuine welfare system. People had proper jobs, proper apprenticeships, and access to excellent council accommodation. By contrast, when the Tories are in government, homelessness, poverty, and inequality massively increase. The public are increasingly seeing Jeremy and what he stands for as a refreshing and genuine alternative. The Tory lackeys in the hostile press and media, have attacked Jeremy for so long that the public have become immune from their lies and distortions attacks.
· The economy and Labour’s response to the Budget
John McDonnell led a lively discussion on the lacklustre Tory budget, which met none of their hollow promises. John emphasised that we are winning the argument on fair taxation, on tax evasion, tax avoidance, on austerity, on housing, and on poverty and inequality. John stressed that our policies will always be properly costed. He highlighted the failure of the Budget to address social care. A majority of NEC members contributed to the very worthwhile discussion. Attention was particularly drawn to the continued total hostility of the Tories to council housing. I pointed out that there are some stellar failures to highlight. For example, that we are now back to 1905 in terms of the inequality between the rich and the poor. We now have the longest period of stagnant real wages for well over a hundred years. Recent statistics can be used to highlight this dreadful situation. In 1998, the average pay of a FTSE 100 boss was 47 times higher than the average worker. It is now a staggering 160 times higher than the average worker. I also pointed out that the Tory deceit of comparing a person’s debt with a country’s debt. An individual is unable to print billions of new money – which the central banks are doing all the time.
In detailed response to the debate, John stressed that the lacklustre Budget had addressed none of the major issues we had highlighted.
“If you allow a small minority to live in luxury and so arrange things that the maintenance of that luxury is directly dependent on the poverty of that majority, as we have done in the capitalist world, then undeniably the riches of the few are responsible for the poverty of the many.” George Lansbury, Labour Party leader, 1937.
This quote and loads more are on the CLPD website (left-hand side, scroll down).
As you will see, the CLPD website has lots of useful stuff for members and CLPs, e.g. guide for new members. It also has an archive going back to the 1970s.