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.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

NEC Report – 26 March 2024

The first substantive item at the full NEC meeting on 26 March was David Evans’ report as General Secretary. David said he was disappointed that the General Election had not been called for 2nd May as the staff were all ready to fight it. Now the local elections and General Election would be fought sequentially. There was a live possibility that Sunak would lose control of the Tory party and be forced into a June or July election to forestall a leadership challenge. Tory digital and print spent had increased immensely, showing they had been ready for a May election, but bottled it. Restrictions on staff leave were being kept in place so that we remained on an election footing. The internal task forces had completed that General Election budgets and staffing registers for the short campaign.

David said we were now fighting local election and a parliamentary byelection in Blackpool South on 2nd May. There were three very tough mayoral contests in East Midlands, West Midlands and Tees Valley. The new HQ had been refurbished and six of the regional parties had moved into new or refurbished premises. Labour Central, the party’s back office hub in Newcastle, had also been refurbished. Fundraising was going well, with 30% of members donating in addition to their membership fees. David commended Teddy Ryan, the South East Regional Director, who had been so successful in raising donations from businesses that he was subsidising other regions. The Party’s lottery was now raising £300,000 a year. CLPs and Regions have been given QR codes enabling them to keep half the income from each lottery ticket they sell. Membership was now 366,604, of whom a historically low proportion, 11,713, were in arrears.


David said there were increasing concerns about the security of elected members, staff, members and volunteers, and he had met all the relevant government agencies. He was pushing them to remove and distinction between the protection MPs get when they are engaged in parliamentary business and when they are engaged in party business, as the threat level is the same. There had also been cyber attacks by foreign state actors and individuals, so information security was a high priority. Unfortunately, different police forces take different stances on MP and councillor security. We want national standards applied and in the short campaign each party has a senior police officer attached to them enabling us to escalate concerns very quickly.


In the Q&A I said that communication with CLPs and unsuccessful candidates in the non-battleground selections had not been satisfactory and had detracted from the selection of excellent and diverse candidates. David committed to improving communications with both candidates and CLPs about the remaining selections.


He said that publicity making claims about abuse of the Anonyvoter system used for online voting in selections was “fake news” and completely misplaced and misdirected, and that nothing that had happened in the Croydon East selection related to Anonyvoter.


He responded affirmatively to a request from Gurinder Josan to support Muslim stakeholders engaging with their communities following the Gaza war.


He agreed to change the deadline date for contemporary motions to Women’s Conference so that meetings to pass motions could happen at a reasonable time during the year.


He said Labour would take a tough line on any Labour MP accepting donations from Owen Jones’ “We Deserve Better” initiative, as this was also funding Green and independent candidates.


He said that in Government we would change the remit of the Electoral Commission to focus it on enfranchising the maximum number of voters, whereas the Tories had tried to supress turnout with the new ID requirements and rule on needing National Insurance numbers on postal vote applications.


Next, Deputy National Campaign Coordinator Ellie Reeves MP reported on the local election campaign. She said the Government was at the mercy of events as there was continuous leadership challenge speculation. The Budget had not moved the Labour poll lead. The Tories were putting party before country with the fiscal irresponsibility of their £46 billion in tax cut promises. Their Rwanda deportations policy was now centre stage and was under scrutiny over cost and effectiveness. They could lose control of the General Election date, so we have to be ready to fight one at any time. The four pillars of our campaign were that the country needs change, the Tories have failed, Keir has changed Labour, and we have a plan for long term change.


Ellie said we would treat the three key mayoral contests like byelections. There was a political lead in each one: Steve McCabe MP in West Midlands, Lord (Vernon) Coaker in East Midlands, and Julie Elliott MP in Tees Valley. There were also target councils we were directing activists to via www.events.labour.org.uk. MPs were being asked to make three campaign visits to these battlegrounds during the recess and two more after that.  


We had launched a new site for sharing social media content: www.social.labour.org.uk.


Morgan McSweeney reported as Elections Director. He said Council Tax was up because the Tory government had systematically under-funded social care. We had been ready for a 2nd May General Election and would remind voters of the change they could have had if the Tories had not bottled it. We had strong policies to offer around growth, devolution, the NHS (especially access to GPs and dentists), and law and order. We would apply our national policy missions to local council areas, particularly in those parliamentary battleground seats that are in the three key mayoral areas. These would be challenging to win as the East Midlands one was a new mayoralty and the Tory incumbents in West Midlands and Tees Valley were running on a narrative of opposition to their own government! This was the smallest set of council seats up for election in each four year cycle. A plurality of them were already Labour. We had already maxed out gains in many of these areas. The incumbent Government usually gains council seats in a General Election year. The Tories are only defending 800 council seats. Because of the Police and Crime Commissioner elections, every voter in England and Wales has a vote. The Tories have changed the goalposts by increasing spending limits and changing the mayoral electoral system to First Past the Post. Sunak is saying these elections are about sending a message to Labour, but councils are going bust because of national government funding cuts. There is no read across from Ben Houchen and Andy Street’s personal votes as mayors to what might happen in a General Election.


As I am the NEC link member to Labour International, our CLP for overseas members, I asked about measures that could be taken to secure more votes from overseas voters, many of whom are newly re-enfranchised. Ellie said that our most powerful tool in this regard was asking our members to remind relatives living overseas to register. The focus needed to be on those who were entitled to register in marginal constituencies. Morgan said that frontbenchers could reach overseas voters through appearances in expat specific media.


Morgan said that the London Mayor and Assembly contest did not require as much central support as the three previously mentioned because the London CLPs have such large and active memberships. In contrast, additional funding, digital effort and staffing were going into Scotland, which has historically had smaller membership CLPs.


He said within the battleground seats there was a focus of resources on the core battleground, the seats which were neither easier to gain nor the most stretching targets, but that would give us a working majority.   


Keir Starmer then gave his Leader’s report. He reiterated that the organisation had been ready for a 2nd May General Election, but this was still a really important set of elections. We had to keep focused and keep the momentum going, as a one or two seat parliamentary majority requires a bigger swing than Labour got in 1997. We must avoid complacency due to the large poll leads as that would drive down turnout. He had attended Sadiq Khan’s campaign  launch and had campaigned with the new First Minister Vaughan Gething in North Wales. Vaughan’s election was a historic moment, the first black leader of any government in Europe. It would be amazing to have a Labour Government in Westminster working with the devolved administrations, not holding them back. Keir thanked Mark Drakeford for his years of service, especially during the pandemic. He repeated the need to keep focused and disciplined through to 2nd May and then through the summer.


In the Q&A, Keir said there would be an anti-poverty strategy from day one of a Labour Government.


On the Gaza UN Security Council vote, he said the US and Israel now had different public positions. This reinforces Labour’s decision to call for an immediate ceasefire. Our motion in the last parliamentary debate had been proven to be the correct policy stance. There are one million civilians in Rafah, they need a ceasefire, the hostages need to be got out, and aid needs to go in, and there needs to be a foot in the door for a political process for a two state solution. It would be a Labour Government’s solemn duty to drive the two state agenda politically. But the fact that fighting is still going on despite the UNSC vote shows that just calling for a ceasefire doesn’t make one happen.


Keir said he was committed to the New Deal for Working People and dignity at work. Good terms and conditions led to higher productivity, so this was part of our strategy for building a stronger economy. He had told the TUC Labour was pro-business and he had told business conferences that we were pro-union and would bring in the New Deal.


On house building, he said the plight of young people, paying a fortune in rent or stuck with their parents as mortgages were unaffordable, was appalling, and a commitment to house building was a key dividing line with other parties.


He said he was against fire and rehire, wherever it is, including if the employer is a Labour council.


He said Sunak cannot put himself in the shoes of people who are struggling, and the fact the Tories are leaving the country worse than they found it is unforgivable.


He said Frank Hester’s abusive comments about Diane Abbott were racist and misogynistic and it was shocking that Sunak had sent ministers out to argue they weren’t. Diane had suffered abuse for decades and she was a trailblazer as the first black woman MP. However, there was a separate process about Diane’s own remarks in the letter to the Observer. He could not comment on individual disciplinary cases as that would be going down the slippery slope that had led his predecessor to the EHRC Report. But there are reasons why some cases take a long time. There has to be a formal fact-finding investigation. Then a chance for the person accused of breaking the rules to respond. They don’t always play ball within the time frame and you can’t move on until they do. In most cases, once it has been established that something wrong happened, and a sanction has been determined, there is then a decision to be taken before the whip is restored to establish what the person needs to do to come back into being a Labour MP, e.g. an apology, or training, or accepting the findings. Individuals sometimes don’t cooperate with these requirements.


Votes for the Greens, Lib Dems and smaller parties help the Tories and make it more difficult for Labour to remove the Tory government. The Greens would not take the country forward. There was a straight choice between a transformative Labour Government or rewarding the Tories for 14 years of failure with another 5 years in power.


We then received a report on the Bernie Grant Leadership Programme, which was about nurturing Black talent in the party. 30 participants had been chosen from 528 applications. It was a bespoke programme with a lot of resource and staff time put into it. The next cohort would have a wider BAME profile, rather than being specifically Black.


We approved a new code of conduct on disablism. As a disabled member, I thanked Disabled Rep on the NEC Ellen Morrison for her hard work with staff to bring forward this important set of protections.


Angela Rayner then gave her Deputy Leader’s report. She thanked Mark Drakeford and commented on Vaughan Gething’s election. She commended our incumbent mayors for their work on policy areas such as bringing buses back into public control, and tackling violence against women and girls, and challenged us to imagine how much more could be done if the mayors were working hand-in-hand with a Labour government.  She was launching a plan to tackle regional inequality and highlighted how the Tories had changed funding formulas to take money away from the most deprived local authorities and give it to the most affluent. She said Michael Gove’s proposals around counter-extremism needed very careful scrutiny as they might have unintended consequences. The New Deal for Working People was creating headlines and it was important to note that it was polling incredibly well. Angela said she, Keir and Rachel were pro-worker and pro-business, the two go hand in hand. The New Deal will be central to our economic mission. In the Q&A I commended Angela on the dignified way she had dealt with abusive comments and a very invasive book by Lord Ashcroft, and said she had the whole NEC’s solidarity.


Finally, we considered the BAME Labour development plan. A major finding of the Forde Report was the need to get BAME Labour back on its feet, as it has been moribund since 2018 and so the party has lacked an effective BAME affiliate. There had been problems getting membership and financial records, so it was proposed to appoint an interim committee which would get BAME Labour back on a stable governance footing, get it campaign-ready for the General Election, and organise an AGM. Unfortunately, it was not possible to agree this at the meeting, as colleagues from the trade unions wanted a period of consultation, so there was a vote by 13 to 10 to defer the paper until the May NEC. I was one of the 10 who voted to move forward immediately.


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