NEC Meeting, 1 November 2011

The meeting after conference is always a marathon, reviewing the state of the party and planning the year ahead. First up was Tom Watson, deputy party Chair and campaign co-ordinator, praised for his tactics in the famous Hodge Hill by-election. Tom saw his role as mobilising members, consulting on policy and raising funds. At my suggestion he included a working return address in his latest e-mail, and had already replied to 500 messages. I said again that members want doorstep ammunition, visible leadership and rapid rebuttal of Tory lies. Others added hope in tough times: pensioners are losing part of their winter fuel allowance, the council tax freeze will cost more jobs, youth unemployment is at record levels and Labour cannot be neutral as public service workers defend their modest pensions.

The critical battle-grounds next year will be London, with the mayoral and assembly elections, and Scotland, where good council results would help to derail the independence bandwagon. Two weeks earlier the NEC’s organisation committee agreed to devolve many powers to the Scottish party, and authorised local organisation around Scottish rather than Westminster constituencies. This is the clear will of Scottish members, and I have asked only that the NEC is kept informed of developments.

Unmusical Chairs

Meanwhile the whole country is in the throes of the boundary review. In most regions Labour, working with MPs and local parties, has developed a united response to the initial proposals, but may have to adapt as other parties make submissions. The picture should be clearer by autumn 2012. Careers are at stake and the NEC wished to support MPs through traumatic times ahead, as well as constituency parties which will re-form on new boundaries from January 2013. Of course Labour is not the only party affected, and insecurity was thought to be fuelling rebellions. If Tory MPs have to compete with each other, better to keep their activists happy than try to please David Cameron.

A few more constituencies will be able to choose parliamentary candidates in the New Year and feedback from early selections is welcome, so we can modify procedures if necessary. Keith Vaz regretted that no ethnic minority candidates had yet been selected, and I am concerned that there are far more male than female applicants, making it hard to draw up gender-balanced shortlists. However these are opposition-held seats, meaning years of hard slog with no guarantee of reward, unappealing to those wanting a fast track. Last-minute retirements in plum seats will attract more interest.

Committees and Conferences

The meeting agreed the membership of subcommittees. The equalities committee, specified as 13 members, has 17, and the organisation committee now includes 27 of the 33 NEC members. (The joint policy committee has even more, but most of them don’t come to meetings.) I continue as a member of the prosperity and work policy commission, where Jennie Formby of Unite takes over as co-convenor.

This year 630 delegates from 522 constituencies attended conference, the highest since before 2002 (570 delegates from 527 constituencies) and well up from the 412 constituencies represented in 2010.  Liverpool was praised for the weather and the spacious dockside site, though accommodation costs, at £70 – £100 a night, were high. As usual the biggest complaint was too little time for delegates, with only nine speakers on health, and some suggested culling videos and pre-scripted panel discussions.

Refounding Labour: Next Steps

Peter Hain and Alicia Kennedy introduced a guide to implementation which takes forward the 124 recommendations agreed at conference. This, and much other material, is available at http://members.labour.org.uk/refoundinglabourandyou, or I can mail copies. A working group will oversee progress, with a separate group on achieving gender balance in the leadership team.   New youth structures will be phased in through 2012 and 2013 and NEC Chair Michael Cashman will meet members in Northern Ireland, reporting back in March 2012. Model contracts for parliamentary candidates are being drafted, with Scotland and Wales responsible for MSPs and AMs, and European variants will be agreed in autumn 2012 together with procedures for selecting Euro-candidates.

Councillors will pay the new 2% levy from May 2012. Much heated reaction was reported, but their representatives were pleased with the improved legal services, campaign materials, training and support which this will buy. I emphasised that the new local campaign forums needed flexibility and a role in policy, particularly where there are few or no Labour councillors. In October councillors were consulted on ways of improving candidate selection, and local parties have now also been asked to comment: ideas can be sent to councillors@labour.org.uk.   On the technical side membersnet will be revamped, and requests were again made for the party telephone line to be open throughout the day and evening.

Peter Hain’s top priority was to register 100,000s of supporters, building a massive database for fundraising and communication. All supporters, whether joining nationally or locally, would be checked against Contact Creator and details supplied to constituencies, and their status would be verified before a leadership election. The guide guarantees that locally-collected e-mail addresses will not be used for national spam or pleas for money, though Peter is keen to revisit this. I still have reservations, but the French experience, where nearly three million people paid a euro each to vote for the socialist presidential candidate, has caused me to think about the positive potential of wider engagement.

Parliamentary Report

Ed Miliband joined us in the afternoon. He thought the economic argument was shifting, and rising unemployment showed the need for alternatives. This was a crisis about growth, not just the deficit, and the kind of economy that we should build. Ed Balls’ five-point plan would tax bank bonuses to fund jobs for young people; invest in infrastructure; cut VAT to relieve family budgets; reduce VAT to 5% on home improvements and repairs; and give tax breaks to small businesses hiring extra workers. The St Paul’s protests showed that the system is failing, and Labour should speak out on top pay and argue for rules which reward hard-working families. Andy Burnham was attacking the Tories on the NHS, where patient experience was deteriorating and waiting times were rising. All this was well received.

Tackled on public service pensions, Ed Miliband felt that maximum pressure should be exerted before 30 November, so that if strikes went ahead it would be clear that the government was to blame. He agreed that the living wage is an idea whose time has come, and he was talking with business minister Chuka Umunna about Labour’s response to attacks on employment rights, particularly charging for employment tribunals and restricting claims for unfair dismissal. For young people Labour would cap student fees at £6,000, and review whether to restore the educational maintenance allowance.

Ed Miliband believed the Tories were alarmed about falling support among women, and this explained David Cameron’s flurry of announcements on elective Caesareans, easier adoption and allowing royal women equal succession rights. None of these would tackle women’s basic need for jobs, fair pay, public services and security for themselves and their families. Nor would they protect an estimated 25,000 women every year who suffer domestic violence but would no longer be able to get legal aid.

I asked about the mystery policy documents, launched at conference without being seen by MPs, the national policy forum or the NEC. Ed Miliband said they came from the shadow cabinet groups: he had not intended to bypass party structures, and the NEC should have been kept informed. I would hope for more of a partnership, along the lines of his wide-ranging discussions before the 2010 election.

This linked into a presentation on Partnership into Power. Liam Byrne’s New Politics Fresh Ideas exercise made four million contacts and gathered 6,000 written responses. However submissions on policy-making processes showed a degree of cynicism. Peter Hain said that some people wanted more time and comments would be accepted at http://members.labour.org.uk/policymaking up to 31 January 2012, though I suspect this is more about cutting the union share of the conference vote than addressing deeper issues. The next national policy forum will not be till summer 2012, particularly frustrating for constituency representatives who wonder they bothered. It was suggested that they could lead further consultation, but members are tired of talking about structures: they want engagement and action.

Going Forward

Harriet Harman said that it was important to blend political and organisational strategies, and others emphasised the need to work in every seat, not just the marginals. They asked for campaign materials which are straightforward but not patronising. Iain McNicol reported on the management and commercial review led by Charles Allen, and gave an update on finances. One point deserves wider publicity: the press often claim that Labour is wholly dependent on the unions, but this is because only large donations must be declared to, and published by, the electoral commission. In fact over a third of our income is from members’ subscriptions and small donations, and union funding is itself composed of a few pounds each from millions of individual levy-payers. Lies, damn lies and statistics …

And finally alert members may have noticed that e-mails from the party are now suffixed @labour.org.uk rather than @new.labour.org.uk … so we are once again plain Labour and proud of it.