Time for NEC reform to strengthen members’ and councillors’ voices

First published on Progressonline

The events of last weekend were historic and unifying. The changes will be meaningful and, let us hope, lasting. Giving 2.7 million trade unionists the chance to step closer to the party their forebears helped create is no small thing. And asking the nine million people who stayed loyal in 2010 when the party got the second-worst electoral thumping since 1918 should chart a new opportunity for the people’s party. All make it more likely we win the coming general election.

Missing from the reform package, and Refounding Labour before it, is the necessary changes to the committee that is now to implement the Collins proposals, the NEC.

The first person to call for reform for the NEC in this parliament was our very own leader, Ed Miliband. Incidentally, on the day the GMB declared support for him as their leadership election choice, Miliband wrote,

I also want to reform the way in which we take account of the views of the national Labour parties in Wales and Scotland, by mandating that their leaders sit on the NEC.

Substantive changes to the NEC were in fact proposed not by Progress but the Trade Union and Labour party Liaison Organisation, the organisation Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, now chairs. TULO argued in its submission to Refounding Labour that the,

‘unbalancing of our executive committee, where members have a declining voice reinforces the perception of control and increases disillusionment and disengagement amongst our members’.

It recommended,

‘We would argue that the time has come to rebalance the NEC, perhaps giving equal weight to constituencies, trade unions, and other stakeholders.’

In particular the submission called for:

‘The constituency representatives would be increased from 7 places to 9 places (including the youth delegate). With the addition of a Scottish & Welsh delegate (both elected by their own Conference) their total representation would be 11. The trade unions would reduce by a single place [from the current 12] to 11 seats.’

In her latest piece for LabourList , Jennie Formby warns what she calls the ‘link breakers’ against seeking to ‘reduce seats on the NEC’. But it is only TULO that has proposed reducing the unions’ role on the NEC in recent history. In fact, in Progress’ submission to Collins, says it ‘agrees with [TULO’s] principle of three equal sections but would suggest slight changes, in particular we see no need to reduce the union block from 12 to 11.’

From here on in there seems to be vehement agreement between TULO, Labour First and Progress.

As all submissions point out that it is party members that go under-represented, not trade unions that go over-represented. Labour First rightly says the,

‘small size of the CLP section means it is difficult to achieve BAME representation or regional balance, with a disproportionate number of CLP reps from London due to its large membership.’

In their submissions to Collins, CLPs in the north-east and south-west, each still annoyed at having been denied a broad field of candidates in last summer’s European candidate selections, called for regionalising the NEC to give members from each region a direct voice on the NEC. Peter Wheeler, currently the only NEC CLP rep living outside London and the south-east, argues that an NEC rep per region is not only a clear voice for members of the party but an attainable role for anyone currently on the NEC. Ann Black, Ellie Reeves and Johanna Baxter do a Herculean effort to get round CLPs but we ask too much for them to get round some 650 local parties and always at their own cost.

Local government has only two representatives. This is particularly egregious given the fact that not only do they and the assembly group in Wales remain the only ones to be governing as Labour in the UK, but through the levy Labour’s 7,000 local councillors contribute £1.8m directly to the party and an additional £4m indirectly (largely through Labour groups funding local organisers). This makes councillors, collectively, the single biggest financial backer of the party and by far the most ignored.

The big reforms passed on Saturday are left now to the NEC to deliver over the next five years. An NEC dominated by London, where members and councillors are under-represented in this way, will not necessarily implement these reform for all the members in all the country. Indeed, the devolved nations are totally excluded.

Sadiq Khan MP told the London delegates meeting ahead of the special conference that the ‘composition of the NEC is under constant review’ and that the same way MPs had consented to losing their vote in future leadership elections, some on the NEC would willingly be ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’. Stephen Twigg MP recent argued,

‘reform of the NEC to ensure a stronger voice for members and a bigger say for local Labour councillors. The case for this remains very powerful and it is something to which the party can return in future years.’

Why wait? If Khan is right it can be done in time for conference and members everywhere can be the custodians of the next chapter of our great party’s history.

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Richard Angell is deputy director of Progress and one of four delegates from Dulwich and West Norwood constituency Labour party delegates to vote for the reforms at the special conference. He tweets @RichardAngell

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