Up and down the country, Labour members are receiving their ballots for the elections to the National Executive Committee (NEC) and National Policy Forum (NPF). What are these organisations and who makes up the membership? More importantly, are they still fit for purpose in the modern Labour Party?
The NEC is the governing body of the Labour Party, responsible for setting its strategic direction and overseeing internal policy-making processes. Today, 33 members sit on the committee, drawn from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), affiliated trade unions and socialist societies, and Constituency Labour Party (CLP) representatives. A handful of special positions are also set aside to represent Young Labour, Labour councillors and members of the Labour Party in the European Parliament. The link with rank-and-file members is sustained by the practice of directly electing CLP representatives, which is meant to ensure that the NEC speaks for the party as a whole, rather than just for specific stakeholders.
The purpose of the NEC is to govern in the interests of members. However, the New Labour project sought to govern the party in the interests of its leaders, and set about this by diluting the influence of trade unionists and CLP members on the NEC. This project reached its climax in 1997, when Blair published the ‘Partnership in Power’ reforms, which substantially altered the party’s internal decision-making structures. The affiliated unions share of seats declined from 17/30 to 12/32, and a new Joint Policy Committee (JPC) was established with the right to review the policy decisions of the NEC and NPF, and to overrule them when necessary.
Understandably, ‘Partnership in Power’ was seen as a ploy to transfer power from the NEC and concentrate it in the hands of the leadership. The new JPC was made up of appointed, not elected, members, and dominated by frontbench MPs under the watchful eyes of the leader. Ordinary members were placed in a perplexing situation whereby they voted for the membership of a decision-making body that had a good deal of its decision-making powers stolen away from it.
Ed Miliband has sought to remedy some of the more upsetting aspects of ‘Partnership in Power’ through the ‘Refounding Labour’ campaign. However, the final report remains vague on the future of Labour’s internal democracy. To date, it remains the case that ordinary members have no say over the composition of the JPC, and that ordinary members only have the right to vote for roughly 20% of the total NEC membership.
This does not seem in keeping with the image of a vibrant, democratic party that Labour seeks to make its own. The NEC must be liberated from the old-fashioned procedures that restrict the membership from having the final say on its composition. Members should have the right to vote on all the positions on the NEC- bar the leader and deputy leader. In addition, Labour has to wake up to the fact that in order for its governing committee to truly stand up for equality, it needs to create new positions allowing for the broadest amount of participation possible. To this end, dedicated Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish representatives should sit on the committee, which will allow the NEC to speak for Labour members in all corners of the Union.
They should sit alongside members who promote the key liberation campaigns present in Britain today- Women, BME, Disability, and LBT. Yes, the NEC has an Equalities Sub-Committee where the voices of these minorities are heard. However, if Labour wants to be seen as serious on gender rights, disability rights, and ethnic issues, it needs to put such representatives on the governing body proper.
Labour has always sought to be the pioneering party in terms of equality and representation- think about all-women shortlists and LGBT Labour. Now it must take the next logical step and place liberation officers on a new NEC, one that is fully elected, and fully representative.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog