NEC at Conference, 25/29 September 2005

The NEC met on Sunday morning to note the contemporary resolutions approved by the conference arrangements committee, and to agree a revised foreword to Building a Party for the Future. Instead of “How quickly can all parties shift to all-member General Committees, with the Executive Committee taking full responsibility for the running of the constituency?” it now reads “How can all parties revitalise their organisation? Some of the most successful are those which decided to shift to all member General Committee (GC) meetings, with the Executive Committee responsible for the day-to-day running of local parties. Over the next year the Party Chair will be talking to GCs across the country, asking them whether this innovation will revitalise their poorly-attended GCs. In the long run CLPs will only be viable if all of the members have the opportunity to participate.”

Sunday afternoon proceeded smoothly, and conference endorsed the review of Partnership in Power and Building a Party for the Future. The priorities ballot produced six contemporary topics, with constituencies adding housing and equalities to the trade union choices of industry, pensions, Gate Gourmet and the health service. Three subjects were scheduled for compositing – combining motions on each subject into one or two resolutions – on Sunday evening, and three on Monday.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Traditionally the NEC meets at 7:30 each morning to discuss its attitude to the day’s business. By Monday it was clear that Gate Gourmet was a problem. A composite from USDAW praised the government’s many positive employment measures, and condemned the Gate Gourmet management’s precipitate behaviour. However the TGWU, who represent the sacked workers, held out for a separate motion which would give teeth to condemnation, including limited secondary industrial action in line with International Labour Organisation principles. Ian McCartney asked for more time to seek consensus and avoid damaging splits.

This was granted and the meeting broke up after ten minutes, but as the time for the debate approached, suspicion grew that a vote was being prevented because the NEC would have opposed the government line. The unions used their leverage to force a reconvened meeting at 4:30 p.m. They complained that the NEC was being treated with contempt, but then promptly supported Ian McCartney’s proposal that we should take no view on any of this year’s resolutions, including a rather good one on gay rights, since it was only fourteen months since the Warwick national policy forum agreed on everything. Only Mark Seddon, Pete Willsman and myself dissented.

Though we were promised this was a one-off, we may have adopted a new rule that the NEC can never differ from the government. If we cannot have open debate immediately after a general election, we will certainly not be allowed to have it as the next one approaches. And the manoeuvrings during the day are still a mystery to me. The quid pro quo for the unions appeared to be reopening the pensions composite, although it became more of a decomposite when a motion previously agreed by union and constituency delegates split into two separate motions, one backed by the unions which reaffirmed core principles including a basic state pension indexed to earnings, and one from Mitcham & Morden CLP which praised the government’s many positive achievements for pensioners.

Dividing Lines

As in previous years, co-ordination among the unions and persuasion of constituency delegates led to opposing results in the two sections. A composite on manufacturing which could be seen as threatening a publicly-owned post office was defeated 34.6% to 65.4% (CLPs 67.0% / 33.0%, unions 2.0% / 98%). On Gate Gourmet the TGWU motion was carried 69.4% to 30.6% (CLPs 39.2% / 60.8%, unions 99.6% / 0.4%). And a motion opposing more private provision in the health service was carried 71.1% to 28.9% (CLPs 42.5% / 57.7%, unions 99.9% / 0.1%), with a pro-government composite defeated 29.6% to 70.4% (CLPs 57.6% / 42.4%, unions 1.7% / 98.3%). Housing showed more unity, with a composite defending the fourth option carried overwhelmingly on a hand vote, and a pro-government alternative lost. It is now eight years since the unions bailed out the leadership by voting to keep Trident, against the majority of CLPs, but the link remains strong, and the NEC is again accepting Amicus’ generous hospitality at its training centre for our awayday in November.

Subs Up

Conference agreed to raise the standard rate from £24 to £36, with the reduced rate staying at £12 (overall vote 60.9% / 39.1%, CLPs 55.1% / 44.9%, unions 66.6% / 33.4%). However I am not sure the proposals are fully understood. Some members were told that all the extra money would go to local parties, and treasurer Jack Dromey reinforced the ambiguity in saying that CLPs would get “the normal proportion” every year, and more in election years. In fact CLPs will continue to receive the current £8 for three years and £20 in the fourth year, cutting the overall percentage from 33% to 30.5%. Several speakers thought the new campaign fund would pay for election costs in Wales, Scotland, London, and Westminster marginals, as well as buying Risographs and new offices for MPs. I can see a long queue already forming outside Jack’s door.

Conference also agreed rule changes which affirm the NEC’s role in promoting equality, add a disability officer to CLPs, allow any member to stand for party committees without having to be a conference delegate, and clarify that supporting anyone who stands against a Labour candidate may be automatically expelled. Proposals to allow conference to amend or refer back parts of national policy forum documents were defeated, though by smaller majorities in the CLPs than in the unions.

Closing Time

The final meeting of the NEC was on Wednesday evening, with Tony Blair thanking retiring members and welcoming the newly-elected. Leavers include Mark Seddon, off to New York as the US correspondent for Al-Jazeera, and John Holmes of the CWU, who gave the most off-message speech of the week in replying (loosely but from the heart) to the debate on transport, housing, local government and the regions. New members include Mohammed Azam, who replaces Mark. Jeremy Beecham was elected chair of the NEC for the coming year, with Mike Griffiths as vice-chair.

Ian McCartney promised an apology and a full investigation into the inappropriate manner of Walter Wolfgang’s removal for shouting “Nonsense” during Jack Straw’s speech. Last year a delegate was excluded after displaying a sign saying “sitting down for peace”, and lessons could have been learned then. Not only was it wrong, it was a public relations fiasco. Other members were concerned at over-intimate searching of bags and papers, and this echoed complaints from delegates about being unable to take sweets or chocolate bars into the hall because they might be used as missiles, though personally I reckon that pound coins are more deadly than mint imperials.

The Fixing Culture

Sadly yet again there were reports about harassment of constituency delegates. Particularly serious were those relating to the election of party committees, where the code of conduct states that “Party staff will not use or abuse their position, party resources or time in the process of an internal selection or election so as to further the interests of themselves or their personal preferred candidate(s).” One regional officer admitted that he asked delegates how they were intending to vote in the conference arrangements committee election, and when I asked him why, he said “It’s part of my job.” I shall pursue this, but the horse has already bolted and Millbank will be very satisfied with the new national policy forum intake. NEC members are currently elected by direct postal ballot, which is relatively immune to corruption, but who knows for how long?

Elections at conference also lack legitimacy because many CLPs are unrepresented. Press reports claimed that only two-thirds sent delegates, and Scotland had just 28, including five from a single CLP. Totals for card votes were under 110,000, so either membership has fallen further, or many delegates did not vote. And Jack Dromey’s figure for lost income if conference rejected the subscription increase was £1,200,000, which equals 100,000 standard-rate members. Until the NEC gets more information we are forced into these silly guessing games. What price the grown-up party?