The NEC enjoyed a generally harmonious conference, with the unions in helpful mood after their achievements at the Warwick National Policy Forum. They used their four contemporary motions – on public services, pensions, employment rights and manufacturing – to remind ministers of their promises, and the NEC supported all of them as well as an emergency motion on threatened job losses at Jaguar. Eleven other emergency resolutions were submitted, but NEC members were no more able than the delegate from Bethnal Green & Bow to discover what they were about. However requests for conference papers to be circulated earlier, so that delegates have more than three days to discuss them with their constituencies, will be taken seriously.
A rule change last year allowed constituencies to choose an extra four contemporary subjects, but they did not use their new freedom and voted mainly for the union motions, already guaranteed a place on the agenda. Some reported official persuasion, at pre-conference briefings and during the ballot, to do this. The only exception was Iraq, where two motions emerged: Composite 5 expressed many concerns and urged everyone to heed the lessons of the last two years, while supporting the current political process leading to elections and a peaceful handover to the Iraqis. Composite 6 called explicitly for Tony Blair to name an early date for the withdrawal of British troops.
Informal intimations were that the leadership could live with the first but not the second, and a twin-track approach was pursued. The 19-year-old delegate from Walthamstow signed Composite 6 on Sunday, but changed his mind on Monday, leaving the motion without a seconder and liable to be dropped. This proved unnecessary when the unions agreed to oppose Composite 6, and to accept instead an NEC statement which laid out the terms of UN resolution 1546, clarifying that the mandate for the British presence would expire in December 2005, with troops leaving earlier if requested by the Iraqi government. Central to the discussions was Abdullah Muhsin of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, who said that early unilateral withdrawal would be “bad for the emerging progressive forces, a terrible blow for free trade unionism, and would play into the hands of extremists and terrorists”. I am always nervous about any individual claiming to be the sole authentic voice of working people, in Iraq or Britain or anywhere else, but the IFTU is supported by the RMT and the PCS unions on the further left, as well as by UNISON, suggesting broad-based political credibility.
The NEC only became formally involved on Wednesday, the eve of the debate. Christine Shawcroft proposed adding to the NEC statement a call for the government to begin a phased withdrawal as soon as possible, but this was rejected by 18 votes to four (Christine, Mark Seddon, John Holmes and myself) with two abstentions. The statement was then carried 20 in favour (including myself) to one against, with three abstentions. A further proposal that we should ask the movers of the two composites to withdraw them, and oppose them if they refused, was carried by 18 votes to four.
After a balanced debate with strong views from all sides, conference supported the NEC statement, Composite 5 was withdrawn, and Composite 6 was defeated by 85.8% to 14.2% (constituencies 81.5% to 18.5%, unions 90.0% to 10.0%). The text of all three is available on request.
The National Policy Forum had agreed to present five choices to conference. However two of these – votes at 16 and foundation hospitals as an example of local democracy – were withdrawn by their original proposers, negating the Forum’s decision. A third, calling vaguely for a more democratic and representative second chamber, was accepted by Lord Falconer, bypassing both the Forum and the NEC. The fourth, arguing for councils to get a level financial playing-field if tenants chose to stay with them, was carried on a show of hands, about 80% in favour. John Prescott was further discomfited when the fifth, calling for renationalisation of the railways, was also carried 63.7% to 36.3%, though he felt able to disregard it because while the unions were 99.5% to 0.5% in favour, the constituencies were 72% to 28% against. The cost was cited as £22 billion (by the government) and nothing (by the TSSA union, which suggested simply not renewing franchises when they expired).
The Rules of the Game
The NEC was happier talking about the Clause V committee, which signs off the election manifesto, and after three days and nights with Ian McCartney, Tony Robinson managed to add another two constituency members, elected by and from the National Policy Forum. I supported the principle but see the result as largely symbolic, since this meeting is really just a last-minute rubber-stamp.
Our attitudes to other rule changes had been decided at previous meetings, and conference obligingly accepted all those from the NEC and rejected all those from constituencies. The votes are listed below. The new requirement for constituencies to transfer ownership of property from their trustees to the Labour party is causing widespread concern, and I am trying to get assurances from the general secretary that it is intended as an administrative safeguard, in case the trustees die or disappear, and that local parties will retain their current level of control in practice. I was also disturbed to be told after conference that the Young Labour National Committee has not met since February, and was never consulted on the amendment introducing gender balance for the NEC youth member, or on the proposal from Hammersmith & Fulham to change the method of electing the Young Labour Chair.
The need to encourage and involve young people was stressed at a seminar on the 21st Century Party, with older members reporting that their children preferred charities and issue groups. Hazel Blears said that the working group was not plotting to disempower general committees. Most speakers were willing to experiment, though some still reported falling numbers and wondered if the real problem was that the leadership did not listen. One practical request was that local parties should be able to select council candidates earlier, and I am taking this up, particularly as positive action measures for the 2005 elections were only circulated late in June 2004, after some selections had begun.
The Partnership in Power review groups also held a consultation session. Perhaps too many contributions were from those of us inside the system, who enjoy face-to-face dialogue with ministers, and though the vice-chairs stressed that they are there to reflect members’ views, not one delegate could identify the seven people from their region who act in their name. Many suggested using the party website to publish submissions, so that people knew how many others shared their concerns. Others asked who decided which ideas went into the documents, and emphasised that if minority positions were agreed by conference but omitted from the manifesto, it discredited the whole system.
The NEC received regular security updates. We do not yet know whether some of the protesters at Tony Blair’s speech only joined the party two days earlier, but the Mole Valley delegate, a campaigner of many years, was removed by the police for several hours before being let back in. Unfortunately the cute foxy glove puppets sold by the League Against Cruel Sports were confiscated, because of fears that delegates might wave them at Countryside Alliance marchers and stir up uncontrollable frenzy. Our seating arrangements were also a moveable feast, with NEC members angry at being kept in the dark at the back on Sunday, and asking repeatedly for more women to grace the platform.
Some people asked me whether the rule-book included a dress code. Recipients of campaigning awards wore eye-catching T-shirts against hunting (Dewsbury) and for fair trade (Stroud), and the Sedgefield delegate sported a badge featuring Tony Blair However, T-shirts backing public ownership of the railways were barred. The purple-pink and acid green set was thought lurid, though maybe it looked better on TV, and the semi-oval behind the speakers reminded me of a varnished thumb-nail.
Overall the atmosphere was united but subdued. Chants of “four more years”, borrowed from presidential rallies, may have fitted a prime ministerial speech given mainly in the first person (“the decisions I’ve taken, the judgments I’ve made”) with little reference to cabinet or collective opinion, but surely we should ask for five more years on this side of the pond? And though Tony Blair and Tesco, who sponsored the delegates’ welcome reception, claimed to share the same values, I would not bet on supermarkets sticking around for five minutes if we lost an election. Unlike the unions and their solidarity through eighteen years in the wilderness.
Ken Livingstone got a standing ovation for simply being there. He introduced London’s Olympic bid, backed by many delegates and all parties except UKIP, which unpatriotically favours Paris. Most policy announcements had been well-trailed, but beneath the surface there are hints at new attacks on incapacity benefit, and though Mark Seddon raised this at the NEC, he did not get an answer.
In September the NEC was told that Bono would not be speaking, but Christine Shawcroft’s entreaties must have produced a change of heart. He was warmly received. And the Corus Chorus did indeed lead us in The Red Flag, and in Jerusalem, where Tony Blair joined in with enthusiasm: “I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land”. And in the deserts of Iraq, and in Palestine, and in Africa . . .
Once, Twice, Three Times a Chair
On Wednesday night Ian McCartney took over from Mary Turner as Chair of the NEC, adding to his roles as appointed party Chair and Chair of the National Policy Forum. Jeremy Beecham was elected vice-chair. Tony Blair paid tribute to retiring NEC colleagues Jimmy Elsby and Tony Robinson, praising the latter’s integrity and understanding of ordinary members. I seconded these sentiments, and pointed out that if his virtues had been appreciated by Millbank, we would not be saying goodbye to him. Perhaps the NEC will feature in the next series of The Worst Jobs in the World.
Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this to be circulated to members as a personal account, not an official record. Past reports are available at http://www.annblack.com/
Changes to comply with PPERA (party funding legislation) – carried 96.6% / 3.4% (constituencies 93.2% / 6.8%, affiliates 100% / 0%)
Rules to establish ethnic minority forums – carried 97.9% / 2.1% (constituencies 96.1% / 3.9%, affiliates 99.8% / 0.2%)
Amended rules for Labour Groups – carried 88.5% / 11.5% (constituencies 91.5% / 8.5%, affiliates 85.5% / 14.5%)
Property ownership to be transferred to Labour party nominees – carried 84.9% / 15.1% (constituencies 70.8% / 29.2%, affiliates 99.0% / 1.0%)
Young Labour NEC representative to be a woman at least every other term – carried 97.4% / 2.6% (constituencies 94.7% / 5.3%, affiliates 100.0% / 0.0%)
Regional parties to act as European constituency parties – carried 99.4% / 0.6% (constituencies 98.9% / 1.1%, affiliates 100.0% / 0.0%)
Party chair and vice-chair to be elected by conference delegates – lost 26.3% / 73.7% (constituencies 28.1% / 71.9%, affiliates 24.5% / 75.5%)
CLPs to be able to send two delegates to conference for the first 749 members – lost 25.6% / 74.4% (constituencies 39.9% / 60.1%, affiliates 11.3% / 88.7%)
Increase constituency NEC seats from 6 to 8 – lost 43.3% / 56.7% (constituencies 45.2% / 54.8%, affiliates 41.4% / 58.6%)
Young Labour conference to elect Chair of Young Labour – lost 25.3% / 74.7% (constituencies 26.4% / 73.6%, affiliates 24.2% / 75.8%)
Minimum quotas for men as well as for women – lost 12.6% / 87.4% (constituencies 24.7% / 75.3%, affiliates 0.5% / 99.5%)
Clause V committee – carried 95.78% / 4.22% (constituencies 92.2% / 7.8%, affiliates 99.3%, 0.7%)