NEC at Conference, 28 September / 2 October 2003

Two conclusions emerged from Bournemouth. First, the Labour party is not riven by vicious infighting and on the verge of disintegration, as some journalists would have people believe. Second, the diversity of views was as great as ever, and standing ovations for public consumption were balanced by complex and thoughtful discussions away from the media glare. Below is a report on NEC meetings during the week, with some highly subjective commentary. I would be interested in feedback from conference-goers and, equally important, from the much wider audience at home.

Sunday began with unanimous approval of a rule change excluding peers, MPs, MEPs, MSPs and Welsh Assembly members from the constituency seats and other sections of the NEC, gratifying since the proposal started in my local party and succeeded through all six constituency members working together.   On Monday things became more tense, as we considered the resolutions which had emerged as priorities for debate. Those on employment rights, manufacturing and pensions were supported. On health there were two motions. The first, praising Labour’s achievements, was nodded through. The second, from UNISON, was more controversial, criticising foundation hospitals and growing private sector involvement, and concerned about pushing ahead without party or public consensus.

Dangerous Territory

The debate followed familiar lines. Dissidents were accused of leaving people in pain by resisting reform. But does change always produce improvement? British Rail did not run trains on time and to budget. Did breaking up and selling off the network make it better? Patients were quoted as happy to travel to the ends of the earth for quick treatment. But we should not have to make that choice. I do not want my local one-star hospital to decline, its staff poached by more affluent neighbours. And where are the volunteers to run hospitals, when we cannot find enough council candidates or school governors?

I think we have got into a stupid position on this. Unlike top-up fees or Iraq, few people have a clue what the argument is about. They simply see division and acrimony over something they do not understand. This point was taken seriously by every speaker, and no-one wanted to go back to the strife of the 1970s and 1980s. But some of us were no longer willing to take all the blame. Confrontation could probably have been avoided if Tony Blair had fulfilled last year’s pledge to end the two-tier workforce, where new employees of privatised services get worse pay, holidays and pensions than existing staff. Many are low-paid, part-time, women workers. The unions have been quietly advocating their cause for months, and eleventh-hour promises of consultation are no longer believed. The government line was carried by 16 votes to 15, with four constituency representatives joining Dennis Skinner and 10 of the 12 trade union members present. However, some on both sides had reservations, and the Chair Diana Holland summed up the mood as “divided but not polarised”. Hopefully dialogue can be resumed behind the scenes.

The health debate on the Wednesday morning was one of the most balanced of the week. Some delegates argued that foundation trusts would replace central statism by local socialism, with two million members running their local hospitals. Others were concerned about the effects of making hospitals compete rather then co-operate, and introducing a performance lottery instead of the postcode lottery. One speaker said that we should put patients before politics, curious since surely only politics can help patients?. At the end a card vote defeated the pro-government resolution by 55.99% to 44.01%, with 75.82% of the trade unions and 36.15% of the constituencies against it . However the critical motion was clearly carried on a show of hands in both sections, despite complaints about pre-debate lobbying by health ministers and party officers, and about visitors being invited onto the floor and allegedly voting.

There was no further discussion in the NEC. By the time that pensions were debated on Thursday, the composite motion had been hardened up by including a call from the GMB union for employers to make compulsory contributions to pension schemes. As the text was only finalised at the last minute, the NEC was unable to establish its attitude. Conference took this as a green light and carried it overwhelmingly.

Don’t Mention the War

Despite press reports, a vote on Iraq was not blocked by party managers. If half the constituency delegates had prioritised the subject it would have been debated, as it was last year. This time only 40% chose it. An emergency resolution from the RMT union was ruled out of order because it referred to speculation about (non-) weapons of mass destruction, not to fact. Nevertheless the issues were fully aired. The most interesting contrast was between the foreign policy seminar, closed to the media, and the public debate later the same day. In the seminar 13 out of 15 speakers, all constituency delegates, criticised government actions. Some were initially pro-war and now felt misled. Only the vice-chair of the National Policy Forum felt that the Forum must not disagree with the government. In the main conference the five critics were the usual suspects Alice Mahon and Jeremy Corbyn plus the RMT, the GMB and the TGWU, with 12 MPs and constituency delegates swinging behind the government.

I was alarmed to hear ministers say that it would be better if we had found 10,000 litres of anthrax, appearing to put saving face before the risk to British troops and Iraqi civilians. But perhaps the speakers who gathered widest support were two MPs, David Wright and Peter Pike, who had voted to give Hans Blix’s inspectors more time, but now felt that we had to move on, and concentrate on rebuilding the country. My guess is that the RMT motion would have been defeated, because enough people feel that the troops should stay until they have sorted out the mess, and because there is little appetite for continuing to dwell on Iraq at the expense of domestic issues. Such a vote would have helped Tony Blair more than the anti-war movement. Unfortunately efforts to put the war behind us will be shot to pieces by George Bush’s state visit in November, a truly inept piece of scheduling.

Tony Blair’s speech is on the record, and everyone will have their own views. Certainly the majority in the hall were ecstatic, moved by letters from soldiers’ families and children begging for alarm clocks so they wouldn’t miss school, though possibly nervous at taking to the road with no reverse gear. Details of the promised national consultation are awaited, but it will backfire badly if there is no prospect of the participants changing policy. Charles Clarke heard suprisingly little criticism of university top-up fees. And while I agree that some criminals should never be released from jail, the wild cheers for David Blunkett declaring “life must mean life” made me wonder momentarily which conference I was at. Standing ovations for Gordon Brown and Andrew Smith reminded me, and there were lighter moments, notably when Peter Mandelson’s brief appearance in a video clip produced spontaneous hissing.

Refusing Freedom

Constituency delegates became increasingly restive at perceived trade union domination of the agenda, starting with press announcements of the four contemporary topics six weeks in advance. It was therefore strange that they rejected (by 21.23% to 28.77%) a rule change which would guarantee each half, constituencies and unions, their top four preferences. Instead these new rights were pressed on them by the same big bad unions voting 33.49% to 16.51% in favour, giving an overall majority of 54.72% to 45.28%. Perhaps some delegates believed the rumour that they could be expelled for voting against an NEC recommendation, or the speaker who said that the change would take us back to the dark days of splits and madness. Rather over-the-top, since the four-plus-four proposal last year would have given exactly the same agenda as we actually had, hailed at the time as a success. And as all six constituency representatives supported this change at the pre-conference NEC, are we all dangerous lefties now?

And Finally . . .

On Wednesday Diana Holland, who has chaired the NEC with skill and intelligence, handed on the torch to Mary Turner for the coming year, with Ian McCartney as Vice-Chair. As he is also Party Chairman and Chair of the National Policy Forum, he has almost too many hats to count, but he wears them well.