A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Monday, May 30, 2022

NEC Report – 24 May 2022

This was another relatively short NEC meeting, at six hours, as the party moves on from the infighting of recent years to preparations for the General Election.


The meeting opened Angela Rayner’s report as Deputy Leader. She talked about the local election results and then about the misogynistic and classist attack she had been subjected to by the media, prompted by the Tories, and thanked Keir, the NEC and party for supporting her. The meat of her report was then on policy on employment and workplace issues. The Tories had dropped the Employment Bill from the Queen’s Speech. Labour was promoting a New Deal for Working People, and improvements to procurement law that would be helpful to good businesses that invest in their staff and the country. She praised the GMB getting a good agreement for Deliveroo drivers. Labour would ban zero hours contracts. Sadly 230,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost. Angela had been on the picket line with Oldham bus drivers and attended the TULO (Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation) political weekend. She had been working with Labour Women’s Network and Stella Creasy to support women candidates. She highlighted the TUC We Demand Better march and rally due on 18 June. Labour had won the Commons vote on forcing the release of security advice about Lord Lebedev given to the PM. She was pursuing the scandals relating to dodgy PPE contracts, taxpayer funded focus groups for the Chancellor, and Baroness Mone. She believed that whilst law-breaking by the PM over party gate was not as central an issue the cost of living, it was still important to expose it as he has demeaned his office.


David Evans then reported as General Secretary. He described progress in the local elections as firm and significant. The staffing of the party was at its leanest but with fewer staff than in May 2020 we increased our vote share by 6% and got our biggest lead over the Tories for a decade. There were some flies in the ointment where we went backwards in individual councils. It was disgraceful the way Arooj Shah, who lost her seat as Oldham Leader, had been treated, and we had a duty of care to candidates. He said there was no complacency, and we can and must do everything better. We must change the party further and faster and challenge bad internal cultures and become inclusive and outward facing everywhere. Our digital campaigning was much improved. We had successfully framed the election as being about cost of living. The number of canvassing contacts made had broken records. We now need to put meat back on the bone of the staffing, that needs money. Resources must be focused on the battleground General Election seats and the key voters in them. We have raised more this year already than in 2021 but that is still not enough. Staffing was moving to a Task Force based structure for the General Election. A revised voter conversation script would deliver better information. Every marginal seat will have a plan of action tailored to it. Candidate selections have started. There have been 500 applications for the 21 trainee organiser roles. The Wakefield byelection campaign is underway and Simon Lightwood has been selected as candidate. We must take due diligence about candidates very seriously and that was done in Wakefield. We also have an excellent candidate in Tiverton & Honiton, Liz Pole. The independent complaints process is now up and running. Of the first c30 cases heard by NEC panels reviewed independently only one has been remitted back to a fresh panel. Membership is still declining but at a gentler rate than projected. With 10,000 new members this year, membership is now 420,000, of which 30,000 are in arrears. The new membership system for CLPs and branches to use will be in place by the end of the summer at the latest. Martin Forde QC has written a new letter saying his report will be completed shortly as it is being checked legally and for factual accuracy. Conference will run from Sunday to Wednesday, i.e. will not sit on the Saturday.


Answering questions on Forde, including a rather rude call for David to resign from one of the Momentum members, David said he was not in post when the Forde inquiry was set up, did not set the terms of reference and was confident he was discharging his duties correctly. He reminded Momentum they had had the chance to vote him out of office at Conference 2021 and had lost the vote. He will be the person who receives the report from Forde, he hasn’t received it yet. It will be a public document.


In other answers he said that Labour Muslim Network has applied to be an affiliated socialist society and this is being reviewed as per all applications. 58 trigger ballots for reselecting sitting MPs have been completed and 35 are underway. The NEC majority in the composition of byelection selection panels was raised and he reminded the NEC that one of our previous meetings had agreed the supplementary guidance on this as the rulebook contradicted itself since the 2021 rule change.


Keir Starmer then gave his leader’s report. It had been a good set of local election results. He cited wins in Cumberland (which includes the parliamentary marginals of Carlisle, Copeland and Workington), Rossendale, Southampton, Worthing, Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster, all significant pointers for General Election marginals. Barnet and Bury have large Jewish communities and could not have been won if we had not tackled antisemitism. There had been progress in Wales and in Scotland we moved into second place and got our best result for ten years. He thanked Shabana Mahmood, Conor McGinn and Morgan McSweeney for their leadership of the campaign. The next two years will involve a lot more hard work and hard decisions. We must win the Wakefield byelection. The Tories were out of touch and had no response to the cost-of-living crisis. He predicted they would U-turn on the Windfall Tax Labour had called for 132 days previously. People are really suffering but all the Tories do is stoke culture wars. They will try to focus on this and not the economy in the General Election. There was no content to the Queen’s Speech, even though it is supposed to be a two-year programme. We need to pull together and it was heartening that ASLEF and FBU conferences had voted to continue affiliation to Labour. We need good local campaigns to make national ones work across the country, hence the proposal for Campaign Improvement Boards. There are 11 months to a May 2023 election or 95 weeks to a May 2024 one.


Morgan McSweeney, Elections Director, reported in detail on the local elections. We won, with growth in every type of voter and every part of the country. The results would see us be the largest party in a General Election, but not yet reach 326 seats. It was the best Labour vote share lead for ten years. We gained a net 108 councillors and the Tories did a lot worse than expected. Our 12 council gains were in every part of the country. Labour vote share was up most in the North and the West Midlands, but the North West and Yorkshire had not performed so well. Our vote grew fastest in areas that had voted Leave in 2016. Where these elections mapped directly to parliamentary constituencies, there would have been 44 clear constituency gains. Labour’s projected national vote share of 35% would see us gain 88 MPs, whilst the Tories on 30% would lose 112. There were good signs of organisational health. 2.4 million canvassing contacts had been made between 1 January and Polling Day. This beats all the non-General Election years since 2010. We had fielded the most candidates of any party for the first time in six years (5,304 versus 5,273 Tories and 3,623 Lib Dems). We had stuck to the issue of the cost of living and not got dragged into Tory culture wars. This had all happened because the NEC had changed how the party works. The Tories can’t hold together their majority, forged around culture wars, because of the economy. Annual Conference is the next big set piece event and needs to be a platform to show the public what a Labour government would look like. In some areas the activity rates were low or local parties lack campaign skills. This must be addressed. There are fewer and fewer solid voters for either main party, and far more churn between elections, so we have to research what motivates voters.


Shabana Mahmood, Campaign Chair, added that there had been significant progress among Labour Leave voters and people we lost for the first time in 2019, but slower progress in winning over Remain-voting Tories, some of whom were moving to the Greens.


In the Q&A I warned about the Tories using government funding given to Labour councils for radical traffic reduction measures, such as Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, as a tool to create another culture war where they pit different elements of Labour’s support base against each other, namely our environmentalist middle class supporters against parts of our core vote who are reliant on their cars for essential journeys, and we lose votes at both ends of our coalition, to the Greens and the Tories.


We agreed that parliamentary selections in the following seats should begin as

soon as practicable: Bassetlaw, Birmingham Northfield, Bishop Auckland, Chingford & Woodford Green, Cities of London & Westminster, Dover, Erewash, Exeter, Hartlepool, Hastings & Rye, Hendon, Ipswich, Norwich North, Penistone & Stocksbridge, Peterborough, Plymouth Moor View, Shipley, South Swindon, Southampton Itchen, Stoke-on-Trent Central, and Watford. A review of procedures will be undertaken once selections in the earlier, first tranche of 16 seats have concluded, likely at a July meeting of the NEC. I urged a focus on speeding up the selections and said I hoped NEC colleagues would be relaxed about further tranches being signed off at NEC Officers’ meetings or Organisation Committee rather than waiting two months for a full NEC meeting. The aim remains to get all the marginal seats selected by the end of the year unless they would be massively impacted by boundary changes.


We agreed a proposal to create Campaign Improvement Boards which can intervene where there are dysfunctional Labour Groups or councils. I argued in favour of this, citing the success of NEC and LGA and government intervention in Hackney in the 1990s and 2000s in turning the worst local authority in the country into a very good one. The paper was passed by 20 votes to 8 with 2 abstentions.


We heard an NPF (National Policy Forum) update from Adam Terry, Head of Policy. There was a discussion about whether the final stage NPF meeting should be in Q4 of 2022 or summer 2023. Colleagues from the unions wanted to defer this decision until the July NEC meeting but that was defeated by 12 votes to 10 and it was agreed unanimously to hold the final stage meeting in summer 2023.


The meeting concluded with a very wide-ranging and impressive update on all the different strands of our equalities work by Vidhya Alakeson, the party’s new Director of External Relations, who stressed that “Equalities sits at the heart of what the Labour Party is about. It defines who we are as a Party and will define who we are as a future government.” She outlined work around creating a more diverse party; engaging equalities stakeholders; and policymaking to support equalities.


Since the previous NEC meeting on 29th March, I have also participated in the following other meetings. It is not my intention usually to report in detail on sub-committee meetings because when I was on the NEC before we were under instruction that reports should only be on full meetings not committees, and in the case of disciplinary panels the proceedings are confidential:


Boundary Review Working Group


4 Disputes Panels


NEC-led local government selection panels in Newham

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

In memory of my dad

My dad, Anthony Philip Akehurst, died aged 83 on 9th May 2022. I wanted to tell his story so that future generations of the family, and anyone else who chooses to read this, will know a bit about this kind, modest, generous, helpful and caring man.


It’s impossible to tell dad’s story without setting it in the context of place, because he was born, lived all except two years of his life, worked and died all within about a 20-mile radius. Go to a map of East Kent and draw a rough quadrilateral with the west side being the River Stour, the north side the A2 from Canterbury to Dover, the east side the channel coast from Dover through Folkestone to Dungeness, and the south side a line from there to Ashford. Almost everything in dad’s life happened in this little part of the aptly named Garden of England.


Every day for 40 years my dad would drive to work on his farm every morning and back every evening through scenery literally labelled as an area of outstanding natural beauty. He was deeply rooted in this place, and he understandably didn’t want to be anywhere else.


Tony was born in July 1938 in his parents’ home, Kano, in the village of Dymchurch on Romney Marsh. He was the fourth of five children, with older brother Douglas already being 13, and sisters Daphne and Olive 10 and 7. His little brother Bob was born after the war in 1947. Dad’s father Philip was an insurance agent. Phil and his wife Freda were highly religious people, very active at the time in the Salvation Army, but later leaving it after some kind of falling out over the running of the local branch’s band. The whole family were musical – there is a press cutting I have from a local newspaper detailing all the different instruments each family member including aunts and uncles played.


The early years of dad’s life were played out with World War Two as the backdrop, in one of the most dangerous places in the country. East Kent was known as Hell’s Corner because it was the nearest part of England to the Nazi occupied continent, hence subject to air threat and in the case of Dover, where one of dad’s granddads lived, to long range artillery bombardment from Calais. Dymchurch, with its lovely wide sandy beach, would have been a key landing point for Operation Sealion, Hitler’s planned invasion, and dad’s house was immediately behind the sea wall. His parents were advised to evacuate but were stubborn and the family stayed through the entire war years in this potentially vulnerable location. Dad’s father was away serving in the RAF, serving as a ground crew electrician at the Lincolnshire base of 617 Squadron, the famous Dam Busters. For a little boy, the war was exciting. Dad saw both German and Allied aircraft, and later V1 doodlebug flying bombs, fly low over the sea wall. Next door was an anti-aircraft artillery gun base with soldiers to chat to. American GIs would come past and hand out sweets. Dad assembled a collection of shrapnel.


Dad didn’t enjoy school, other than showing a talent at Secondary Modern school for woodwork and metalwork. His only anecdotes about it were about avoiding being in the front row so the teacher couldn’t whack him on the knuckles with a yard ruler. He left with no qualifications as quickly as he was legally allowed, which in those days was just 15 years old.


At this tender age, he started working as a farm labourer, in his words “shovelling chicken shit out of sheds”.


In April 1954, Phil and Freda moved from Dymchurch to Clipgate Farm, at Lodge Lees, a hamlet between Barham and Denton, and took up farming, so from this point Dad was working on the family farm. The holding initially consisted of 10 acres of land, a timber bungalow of a type built in 1919 for returning WW1 officers, chicken sheds and pigsties. In the first few years Clipgate produced eggs, which were sold to the public in the neighbouring towns and villages via an egg round. Pigs were also reared for sale at Canterbury and Ashford Markets. Dad talked about Christmases dominated by plucking vast numbers of turkeys. Over the years the farm slowly grew in size and diversity, particularly taking on contracting work to make it more cost effective to own tractors and combine harvesters, with major clients being at times Kent County Council for grass verge cutting and snow ploughing, and Pfizer, who owned an experimental farm next door at Breach Farm in the Elham Valley.


At 18, Dad was unlucky to be part of the final intake of conscripts who had to do two years of Cold War era National Service. Like his father and elder brother Doug he went into the RAF. He served on bases near Stratford-on-Avon and in Wiltshire, the only time in his life he ever lived away from Kent. His duties were to be a telephone operator, and because he could already play a trumpet from his Salvation Army days, a bandsman. He claimed in later life to be able to assemble and disassemble blindfolded all the main small arms, Bren LMG, Sten SMG and Lee Enfield rifle, in the event that Soviet parachutists had landed at night! He didn’t enjoy air force service. It was boring, arduous, they had very little money and he was homesick. If given weekend leave, he would motorcycle all the way back to Clipgate to get Sunday lunch at home.


Back home working on the farm, dad’s social life centred on the East Kent Young Farmers, which I believe he was an office holder in. He played bass guitar in a band with Bob his younger brother on lead guitar and earned money from gigs at weddings and the like well into the 1980s. Whatever he got up to in the 1960s before meeting mum, he never told us!


In 1970 he met my mum, Nan Davies, at a jazz gig at Bridge Country Club. You can read more about mum here: http://lukeakehurst.blogspot.com/2021/04/in-memory-of-my-mum.html


He fell in love with this trendy and stylish young woman, who was eight years younger than him and from a rather more middle-class background. They had in common a love of music, and families that, whilst otherwise not very similar, were both staunchly Labour.


In October 1971 they married at Canterbury Registrar’s Office, and initially lived with mum’s parents in Rough Common, on the edge of Canterbury. Dad became very close to his in-laws George and Molly, who were delighted that their daughter had met a calming influence!


My mum viewed dad both with adoration but also as a long-term project – a rough-edged farm boy who needed to be poshed up a bit. She made him read library books every week, with some success as he got really into the historical novels of George MacDonald Fraser and William Clive. I’m not clear if listening to classical music was something he had done before, or a mum-imposed thing. She corrected his speech - dropped H’s and saying “ain’t” and swearing too much. He ignored her and carried on speaking the way he always had. Later she got him to give up smoking, but I’m fairly sure he carried on sneaking the occasional roll-up at work. He was given a constant rota of jobs around the house and garden, which must have been exhausting on top of a tough physical job at the farm. The bit of her lifestyle he really did buy into was the food, he was prepared to accept being bossed about as it came with cordon bleu dinners.


The family grew, to dad’s delight – the beam on his face in pictures with us as babies is something else. I was born in 1972 and my brother Sam in 1974 and sister Ella in 1976.


Dad was a wonderful father. He played sports with us and whilst he wasn’t that engaged directly in our play in the modern way he would ask us about everything we were doing and affect to being astonished by the complexity of our toy soldier battles compared to his. Where there were practical tasks, like fixing a Hornby railway set onto a massive base board, his DIY skills came into play. He drove us around on request to school, to drop us off to go running, and when we were sixth formers to and from the pub. On Saturday mornings in the school holidays he would often take us to the farm while he worked, leading to my brother taking a deep interest in tractors and their engines which set him on the path to be a Professor of Mechanical Engineering. He didn’t push advice or life lessons on us, but was there if we needed to talk to him, as long as it wasn’t over the phone, his conversations on that being limited to “I’ll just get your mother”. Everything we did or achieved seemed to delight and amaze him. When my sister encountered health problems, he devoted himself to her care, and has been there for her for decades providing incredible support through many ups and downs.


After a couple of years living with Molly and George, dad and mum moved to Coverts, another of the 1919 bungalows in Lodge Lees, on the plot next to Clipgate.


Dad was initially working on non-farm jobs as an insurance agent for his father’s old employer Wesleyan and General, and then as a sheet metal worker and later foreman at ActionAir and Canterbury Sheet Metal Works. He hated the factory jobs, and missed farming, so in the late ‘70s he went back to work on the family farm, staying there for the rest of his working life. This was the only major decision he ever took without mum and it angered her a lot, but I think it was probably essential for his happiness to be doing the job that he loved.


Farm life is necessarily seasonal, and my childhood memories are of dad almost staggering through the door having worked every daylight hour at harvest time, sunburnt and covered in dust from the combine harvester.


Throughout my childhood dad never earned much, money always seemed to be extremely tight. Their financial situation only really improved in the 1990s. Dad personally never carried any money at all, he gave his entire pay straight to mum as he didn’t want the rows over money he had seen between his own parents.


In 1979 mum and dad, having waited for a decent rather than decaying home for several years, benefited from the Callaghan government’s push on new social housing and were allocated a newly built house on The Hyde, an estate in the village of Chartham, just south of Canterbury. They lived in Chartham the rest of their lives, moving in the early ‘90s to Swanhaven, a house in the heart of the village. Mum’s extensive involvement in the village community and various clubs and committees meant that dad had a supporting role helping set up fetes, fairs and jumble sales, and helping us be perennial winners of “most unusual pet” competitions by bending the rules to include farm animals.


As we grew up and had families of our own, dad was delighted to become father-in-law to my wife Linda and Sam’s wife Catherine, both of whom he adored. He became a much-loved grandfather to a total of five little boys and has played an important role in bringing up my sister’s son Caspar, as she is a single parent and has lived with him at Swanhaven.


Dad made his first ever trip abroad with me (a day trip to Boulogne) as late as 1991, but he wasn’t a narrow-minded person, he liked to know about the wider world and enjoyed holidays with his children in Portugal and Italy and a period where he and mum explored Europe on coach trips.


I’m not 100% sure when dad formally retired from the farm, as he didn’t let on to mum that he had done so, and carried on going there every day, possibly to avoid being set chores. In any case, the ratio of tractor driving to tea breaks gradually reversed over time. He loved to spend time there with Bob and his wife Averil, who were not just his relatives and business partners, but also his closest friends. As late as the week before he died dad was at Clipgate, driving a golf buggy with Bob.


Having enjoyed robust health until he was nearly 80, Dad was diagnosed with a progressive lung disease in 2019, and this eventually caused his death, but he bore this unpleasant illness uncomplainingly and with considerable dignity, alongside deterioration in his hearing and eyesight which meant that he had to give up his car. Losing mum in April 2021 was a devastating blow to him after 49 years of loving marriage, but he was determined to carry on enjoying life, and in this last year enjoyed time spent with family and trips out to eat and to visit the farm. After mum’s death it was very touching that my private and reserved dad felt able to talk about his love for her and for us, and to hear how much we all loved him.


His mind was sharp and he kept his love of life right to the end, the week before his death he was still enjoying steak and a glass of wine at home.


Like many farmers, dad combined a love of being in the countryside and around nature with a passion for machinery and engines and driving. He loved music and could play piano, trumpet and guitar, and listened to a wide range of sounds but particularly trad jazz. He enjoyed both hearty food and fine dining, red wine, a G&T and a pint of Shepherd Neame Master Brew bitter.


He was a modest and somewhat shy man who never boasted about anything, but took obvious pride in his wife, children and grandchildren and their achievements.


But he was also extremely passionate in his political views. A lifelong socialist and Labour supporter, and in the ‘80s a big fan of Tony Benn, he was angry about injustice and inequality, and hated the Tories and the SDP.


He retained a keen interest in current affairs right until the final hours of his life, when he was asking about Ukraine and the local election results.


I never heard anyone say dad had done them any wrong, and I met many, many people he had helped through countless small acts of kindness. Everyone who met him enjoyed his company, and he was held in great affection by an incredible range of people.


He lived his life selflessly, working hard, nurturing and caring for his family, always putting others first.


He was fundamentally a very good, and lovely man, who consistently did the right thing as a husband and father.


I am honoured to be his son and loved him very much.


Dad is survived by his three children, five grandsons and his brothers Doug and Bob.

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