The mood was serious but positive, with delegates sending strong messages to MPs on the need for unity, competent speeches from the platform, and lively discussion in policy seminars and on the fringe. Gordon Brown’s pledges to expand broadband access and extend free prescriptions were welcomed, and John Hutton said of LibDem leader Nick Clegg’s belief that the basic pension is £30 a week: “perhaps he thinks it should be”. But what matters most is the impact on ordinary voters watching TV at home, something which those present are least qualified to judge.
The NEC met briefly on Saturday morning before conference opened. Gordon Brown was pleased to announce a gift of £1 million from J K Rowling, accompanied by a statement of why she, as a former single parent, supported Labour. We also received a list of contemporary issues, with priorities to be determined by a ballot later in the day. These have replaced contemporary resolutions, and since conference had to decide only whether they were important enough to refer to the policy commissions, it was agreed that the NEC did not need to adopt positions on them.
The conference arrangements committee had accepted 148 submissions, referring three to the NEC because they concerned organisation, and ruling only four out of order. This was a stunning contrast with previous years, and though the criteria were the same on paper, it seemed that not just a coach-and-horses but an entire herd of wildebeest had been driven through them. Issues were accepted which had been thoroughly discussed in the national policy forum, for instance on excess packaging and airport expansion; which referred vaguely to “recent” events or gave no date or time at all; or which relied on media gossip. Proposals for a windfall tax were let through even though the national policy forum overwhelmingly rejected the idea in July and the criteria state that if an issue is defeated at the NPF, it cannot be raised through the contemporary route. All would have been excluded last year.
But now that votes have been abolished conference can discuss anything it likes, and it is time to adopt Pete Willsman’s sensible suggestion that issues should simply have to be important, with no artificial hurdles. We will also continue arguing for eight topics – four from the unions, four from constituencies – to be debated. The top three constituency choices overlapped with those of the unions (fuel poverty, employment rights, energy regulation) with housing added by constituencies and workers in a global economy by the unions, resulting in five prioritised issues rather than the possible maximum of eight.
However emergency resolutions are still allowed, and three were submitted. The first confirmed party opposition to Britain’s opt-out from the European working time directive, and was resoundingly carried. However the government seems set to ignore it, claiming that the national policy forum unanimously backed the opt-out. Few of the 180 people voting at Warwick actually realised this. Forum Chair Pat McFadden argues that “maintaining the flexibility which has been central [to job creation]” translates directly into “supports Britain’s opt-out”. This phrase was tacked onto a long passage on agency and temporary workers in a 35-page document completed at 4 a.m. by a sub-group of forum members and tabled just before we voted. He considers this process superior to a clear statement on the issues, read and understood before the debate, and endorsed by delegates from unions and constituencies across the country. Discussion of the main forum report at conference was limited to three speakers, all of them forum members, and I have yet to hear an ordinary constituency delegate speak in its favour.
The other emergency motions were less contentious. One concerned the crisis of confidence in the banking sector and called for a review of regulations and protection for jobs. The other welcomed the power-sharing agreement in Zimbabwe. Lovemore Moyo, the chairman of the Movement for Democratic Change and the first speaker of the Zimbabwean parliament to come from outside Zanu PF, addressed conference, with his experiences making our problems pale into insignificance. He also met NEC members privately and we discussed ways in which Labour might help the MDC, perhaps including the involvement of voluntary organisations and twinning between local parties.
Because resolutions were referred to the policy commissions last year, conference voted separately on the annexes to the commission reports which dealt with them. All were accepted apart from the chapter on Remploy, which was sent back with the message “could do better – try again” for further work.
On the Conference Floor
Delegates raised many issues, from Tory council priorities, with Coventry putting pretty flowerbeds ahead of tackling domestic violence, to justice for the Gurkhas. The Gateshead delegate spelt out the reality of a carer’s life: an allowance of just £50 a week which covers neither loss of earnings nor a decent hourly rate; no payment at all to pensioners even if they continue caring into their 90s; and a job which finishes often not with a golden handshake but with a funeral.
I would have liked more time for contributions on the treasurer’s report and on rule changes, and will continue asking for rule changes to be circulated earlier so constituencies can discuss them. Two speakers illustrated sharp contrasts in local finances: New Forest West reported that after deducting £375 for public liability insurance, net income from membership was £3 for the September quarter and their annual income would be around £180, making levies for the Euro-elections completely unpayable. Ashford, on the other hand, could afford to give £5,000 each to three neighbouring marginal seats. There must be ways for constituencies who are comfortably off to share with the less fortunate. The results of votes on rule changes are below, including separate percentages for constituencies and unions.
1 – delete the clause giving constituencies an extra £12 per full-rate member in a general election year – carried by 97.5% overall (95.6% in the constituency section / 99.3% in the affiliates section)
2 – raise membership subscriptions annually by inflation – carried by 89.8% (90.6% / 89.0%)
3 – allow an extra woman conference delegate where a constituency has 100 woman members, and an extra youth delegate for 30 members under the age of 27 – carried by 98.8% (97.6% / 100%)
4 – allow constituencies who make every effort to find a woman delegate in the “women’s year” to send a man the following year – carried by 96.5% (93.0% / 100.0%)
5 – charge constituencies £25 per month from summer 2009 to build up funds for the following Euro-elections – carried by 92.9% (86.9% / 98.9%)
6 – re-word the disciplinary rules to cover constituencies which have all-member meetings rather than general / executive committees – carried by 97.5% (95.4% / 99.6%)
7 – new rules for electing Young Labour officers and committee – carried by 92.9% (94.5% / 91.2%)
8 – replace “sexuality” with “sexual orientation, gender identity” – carried by 98.4% (98.4% / 98.4%)
9 – replace “the country” with “Great Britain” in specifying where the party organises – lost with 10.2% in favour (10.6% / 9.8%)
10 – lower the threshold for nominating candidates for leader and deputy leader from 12.5% to 7.5% of MPs – lost with 16.1% in favour (22.2% / 10.0%)
11 – raise union affiliations to CLPs from 6p to 10p per member – lost with 7.7% for (14.7% / 0.7%)
12 – raise union affiliations to CLPs from 6p to 20p per member – lost with 5.2% for (9.5% / 0.8%)
13 – alternative rules for Young Labour elections – lost with 16.3% for (22.6% / 9.9%).
The NEC met again on the last evening. Tributes were paid to Dianne Hayter at the end of a testing year as Chair, and to retiring members Sally Powell, a passionate advocate for local government and for women in public office, and to Walter Wolfgang. Dianne described Walter, now 85, as combining the wisdom of age with the enthusiasm of youth, and he thanked members for their kindness while stressing that the NEC should be constructively supportive of the leadership and act as a conduit for grassroots views. Janet Anderson MP sent apologies. New members Ann Lucas from local government and Peter Kenyon from the constituency section were welcomed. Cath Speight of Unite was elected as Chair, and I was honoured to be elected as vice-chair. I will do all I can to support her and new general secretary Ray Collins, and to help hardworking members and local parties. My mailbox is always open.