The Prime Minister stressed the importance of arguing for Britain in Europe and overcoming economic obstacles to joining the euro. This attracted general support, except from UNISON which opposes the single currency, and it will be good to have government and activists on the same side. Members of the Britain in the World policy commission hoped the campaign would bring positive feedback, as a change from continuing dissatisfaction over the war. Tony Blair also highlighted Tory threats to bring in vouchers for healthcare and schools, the need to increase consumer power in public services while maintaining equity of provision, measures to tackle anti-social behaviour, further labour market reforms to give even more opportunities to work, and plans for the reconstruction of Iraq.
Members’ concerns included the two-tier workforce, pensions, the lower youth rate for the minimum wage, violence to shopworkers, preventing local authorities from building homes, and allowing employers to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Moves to foundation hospitals and direct funding for schools could undermine the roles of local government and the party in providing public services. British National Party members were infiltrating trade unions and taking tribunal cases if expelled, using the awards to fund racist campaigns. Their local election gains, though few, were disturbing, and it was disappointing that both Scotland and Wales still had all-white legislatures.
Tony Blair explained Andrew Smith’s new insurance plan to protect contributors to occupational pension schemes if their companies went bust. Retirement age would become more flexible, but there was no intention to raise it to 70. Paying trainees the full minimum wage would cost their jobs, as in France where youth unemployment is much higher. He rejected Clare Short’s accusation that the invasion of Iraq was decided months in advance, and though Mark Seddon and Christine Shawcroft called for an independent inquiry, most NEC members wanted to move on from the war. I asked about the Esmeralda, the Chilean ship used as a torture centre by Pinochet after the 1973 coup, and set for a royal navy welcome in Dartmouth and a state visit to London. Despite protests from relatives of British victims, Amnesty International, Eryl McNally MEP and others, and cancelled visits to Sweden and the Netherlands, the Prime Minister was unaware of the issue but promised to find out.
Home and Abroad
David Blunkett spoke of the need to give people security, so they had the confidence to face change and accept a progressive agenda. Reforms of sexual offences were removing outdated anomalies and discrimination while addressing new dangers such as child pornography and contact via the Internet. Crime had fallen by 9%, though perceptions did not always reflect this. David fielded questions on tabloid lies about asylum-seekers, treating attacks on disabled people as aggravated in the same way as racial attacks, tackling domestic violence, recognising the trauma of burglary victims, rewarding good behaviour as well as penalising anti-social actions, and integrating the new single equalities watchdog across different departments. He said that weekend sentences and tough community penalties should reduce pressure on overcrowded jails, but prison places could not be rationed like healthcare. One person spoke in favour of ID cards, but I believe this needs wider debate.
Gary Titley, leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, explained that the new constitution was necessary for 25 countries, expanded from the original six, to work effectively. Contrary to propaganda, it would be more transparent, participative and accountable. Gary’s written report regretted that conservative elements were blocking research on stem cells which could bring treatment for Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and spinal cord injuries. Also, quarantine-free travel to Britain has been extended from cats and dogs to cover pet ferrets, mice, rats, chinchillas, rabbits and guinea-pigs.
Campaign plans for the 2004 Euro-election were underway. These would be on the same day as local elections, on 10 June 2004, except perhaps in Wales which was still resisting. Scotland was likely to have an all-postal ballot, and I passed on similar requests from the NorthEast, where pilots in local elections had proved so popular that activists were worried about going backwards and losing votes. There would be no free-standing European event, but the Spring Conference, on 12/14 March 2004 in Manchester, would include local government, European, women’s and rural programmes.
Turning to annual conference, the meeting agreed to continue for another year the pilot scheme for contemporary resolutions, allowing any subject supported by more than half the constituencies to be debated. I asked that constituencies be told of the March NEC decision to continue through Thursday afternoon. Members also thanked Richard Taylor for long and excellent service as head of the conference unit. David Triesman is still trying to fund a youth officer.
The party’s financial health is improving and press rumours about trouble with its pension fund are untrue, though membership declined from 272,000 at 31 December 2001 to 248,294 at 31 December 2002. Ian McCartney, the new party Chairman, stressed the over-riding need to re-engage with members. The Party Development Taskforce is taking this forward, and as a member I would be particularly interested in views and examples of
– how can constituencies and local parties best organise themselves to increase membership, campaigning, policy-making and participation from members, supporters and the community?
– how can local parties use technology to develop stronger relationships with members and voters?
The policy commissions are receiving record numbers of responses on the ten National Policy Forum documents now in circulation, and have to show that those submissions make a difference.
Ian also surveyed the results of elections in Wales (successful), Scotland (reasonable), and England (typical mid-term but a worrying rise in third parties and “independents”). Some were unhappy about the Scottish leadership deal with the LibDems on proportional representation in local government, but there was a majority for PR with or without Labour. Summer campaigning would celebrate 2 August, marking Labour’s longest-ever continuous period in government. More council candidates are needed for 2004, particularly women to meet positive action targets. Jeremy Beecham and I confirmed that Tyneside has particular problems because new ward boundaries will not be known until spring 2004.
And so to George Galloway
Thank you for the hundreds of responses to my mail. Around 44% said that the NEC should take no action, 20% that action should await the conclusion of libel cases, 8% that expulsion should follow if the allegations about taking money from Saddam Hussein or misusing charitable donations were true, 4% that an enquiry independent of the party should be held, 19% that the NEC should act by suspending, withdrawing the whip or expulsion, and 5% did not know. But just as I posted the report to party officers, George Galloway’s suspension was announced. The general secretary has the power to do this in the name of the NEC, and lawyers advised him that it would be improper to ask us first. The Disputes Panel on 17 May agreed that deputy general secretary Chris Lennie should continue his enquiry, overseen by the Chair Cath Speight, and that any case would return to the Panel before going to the National Constitutional Committee. There was no vote on the suspension as such.
At the full NEC the Chair Diana Holland was keen to have a debate, but members thought otherwise, with all but four voting not to discuss it. The minutes of the Disputes Panel were accepted with three against (Mark Seddon, Christine Shawcroft and myself). The Panel can make delegated decisions, but Ken Livingstone’s application to rejoin Labour came directly to the NEC because of its importance for the party, and I believe the same should have applied here. Others were uneasy about procedures, and about consistency given that two ex-cabinet ministers questioned Tony Blair’s statements, let alone Tam Dalyell’s Jewish cabals and John McDonnell’s praise for IRA bombers. So the case continues. On a positive note, the general secretary expressed commitment to reaching a conclusion before the Glasgow parliamentary selections, so George Galloway’s suspension will not be used to exclude him.