NEC at Conference, 29 September / 3 October 2002

Annual conference is now the only time when the NEC decides party policy, by proposing statements and supporting or opposing resolutions. The Sunday meeting considered our position on Iraq, and Tony Blair argued passionately for keeping the option of unilateral military action by the United States and Britain, in case other countries blocked the move in the UN Security Council. For instance Russia was understandably unhappy about large unpaid oil contracts with Iraq. Mark Seddon’s proposal to add “Unless military action is explicitly endorsed by the United Nations, the UK will not take military action against Iraq” was rejected, with four in favour (Mark, Christine Shawcroft, Dennis Skinner and myself).

A second amendment was more narrowly rejected, by 13 votes to 18. This would have adopted the following sentiments from the TUC General Council statement: “The General Council are deeply concerned at the increasingly bellicose statements made particularly by some members of the US administration about unilateral American military action and regime change in Iraq. The General Council believe that for any member state of the UN unilaterally to seek regime change in another member state is not consistent with the requirements of the UN Charter.”

Tony Blair said that “regime change” was not United States policy, and it was ridiculous, absolutely and totally absurd, to claim that oil was involved. Answering my pedantic objection to describing Saddam Hussein as uniquely hideous, he said that the Taliban had been uniquely evil, and North Korea was a real danger, starving their own people while trading in nuclear technology. The next few days were crucial. The NEC statement would be studied around the world, and Saddam would exploit any signs of division. After reordering the paragraphs to put the optimistic parts at the beginning, and strengthening references to the Middle East peace process, the statement was agreed by 18 votes to 6.

Later that day Iraq was also chosen as a contemporary topic. The priorities ballot ran under new rules, accepting subjects chosen by more than half the constituencies, even if they were not in the top four places overall. Constituencies and unions both voted for pensions and public services, while the other top two, manufacturing and the Johannesburg summit, were actually bottom of the constituency poll. But 85% of the constituency vote put Iraq on the agenda, and because of an initial miscount, the Israel/ Palestine situation with 47% also made it. This is exactly the list which would have been produced if each half of conference had prioritised four topics in separately-counted ballots.

The compositing meeting on Iraq produced two resolutions, one (composite 4) urging opposition to military intervention, the other (composite 5) stressing the role of the United Nations, but stopping short of requiring an explicit UN mandate for military action. The NEC opposed composite 4 by 14 votes to 4, and supported composite 5 by 15 votes to 2. Then, just before the debate, NEC members were called backstage and asked to withdraw our own statement because it would probably be defeated.

The procession of pro-government speakers produced ironic laughter. I found it frightening. Back in the real world, members who support military action are sober and thoughtful. In Blackpool they were gung-ho, enthusiastically steeling themselves for battle, accusing those who opposed invasion as appeasers, guilty of making orphans of the sons and daughters of Cyprus servicemen, just within reach of the demon’s arsenal. Geoff Hoon lauded the job creation benefits of £3.5 billion extra defence spending and the boost to high-tech cutting-edge British manufacturing, rather than the moral case for war. Alice Mahon, called after prolonged demand from the floor, pointed out that if Saddam Hussein took one step outside Iraq he would be annihilated, and a few other sane voices managed to reach the rostrum.

The anti-war composite 4 was defeated 60%/40% in a card vote. Though the unions were more in favour (48%/52%) than the constituencies (33%/67%), the unions would have preferred not to debate Iraq at all. There were also messages for Tony Blair. Delegates were told that the way to peace was to threaten war, a line reinforced by helpful regional officers, and the pro-government vote included unknown quantities of wishful thinking. Not all supporters will be comfortable when the bombing starts. And though composite 5, carried on a show of hands, would allow military action “within the context of international law”, Tony Blair would be unwise to take this as a green light for bypassing the United Nations.

Groundhog Day

With public services we returned to familiar ground. Last year UNISON withdrew a resolution critical of Private Finance Initiative schemes in exchange for pledges to end the two-tier workforce, where new employees in outsourced services get worse conditions than their colleagues transferred from the public sector. Twelve months on, little had changed, and the unions could not go back with the same promises of “Peace in Our Time”.

The NEC statement welcomed increased spending from taxation and praised the dedication of public service workers. However, reiterating Labour’s 2001 general election commitment that “the Private Finance Initiative should not be delivered at the expense of the pay and conditions of staff” did not go beyond the current “broadly comparable” conditions for new and transferred employees. Christine Shawcroft’s proposal to remove the paragraph singing the praises of PFI was defeated 10-16, and the statement was endorsed by 22 votes to 3. The NEC then rejected the UNISON / GMB motion (composite 2) by 13 votes to 7, and supported the pro-PFI constituency motion (composite 3) by 16 votes to 8.

The debate was predictable, with the two sides answering different questions and rarely finding common ground. Constituencies spoke on the proposition “Do you want new schools and hospitals, or not?”   Siobhain McDonagh’s 80-year-old mother was rescued from years of agony by injections of private funding, and if we sacrificed our families for our political ideals, “by Christ we would be judged”.   The unions instead addressed the argument “Should low-paid workers lose what little pay, pension and protection they currently enjoy?” Dave Prentis stressed that they were asking for an independent review, not a moratorium. If PFI was such good value, the government should be happy to prove it.

Considering that 85% of public service investment is still publicly funded, portraying PFI as the elixir of eternal prosperity, rather than an accounting trick, was overblown. And UNISON members look forward to discussing with Martin Salter, scourge of the National Air Traffic Services sell-off, why PFI is not privatisation. Closing the debate, Paul Boateng was slow-handclapped because he spoke for too long, rather than because of what he said, though union leaders were wrong to join in with such enthusiasm

The votes were also predictable. The UNISON composite 2 was carried 67% / 33% (unions 92% / 8%, constituencies 42.5% / 57.5%), the pro-PFI composite 3 was lost 41.5% / 57.5% (unions 22% / 78%, constituencies 61.5% / 38.5%), and the NEC statement was lost 45% / 55% (unions 26% / 74%, constituencies 65% / 35%). Though the government highlighted the most favourable vote, Tony Blair offered an olive branch in his speech, asking unions to work with him in delivering world-class public services in return for ending the two-tier workforce. This time perhaps the pledge will be honoured.

Any Other Business

I believe it was sensible to schedule the two hot debates near the beginning, clearing the week for Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and the rest of the policy agenda. However, the 7 p.m. finish on Monday wiped out scores of fringe meetings, and many NEC members expressed concern. In fact the total time by which sesssions over-ran exceeded the lost Thursday afternoon. Rule changes were crammed into another late afternoon, with 11 separate card votes. Disappointingly the peers clung on to their right to invade the NEC constituency places, with an amendment giving them a separate seat losing 46%/54% (unions 48%/ 52%, constituencies 44%/56%). Though this looks counter-intuitive, 40% of constituencies also opposed voting rights for peers on the National Policy Forum, and a simple proposal removing them completely will stand a better chance in two years’ time than the concession they were offered in Blackpool.

Finally, all NEC members are now Foundation Supporters of the party’s appeal for the new headquarters. A pint glass was passed around, and filled with £20 notes. Some contributed with more enthusiasm than others, but those who left IOUs are being chased up. Now it’s your turn to save the party.