NEC Meeting, 12 June 2008

The NEC began by interviewing and appointing Ray Collins as Labour’s new general secretary. With his record of financial and organisational success at the TGWU and his commitment to probity, honest dialogue with government, and rebuilding and re-motivating membership, I am confident that this time we made the right decision. Thanks were recorded to Chris Lennie for holding the party together as acting general secretary since November, and to all the staff during a period of considerable insecurity. The meeting welcomed Tom Watson MP, who replaces Dawn Primarolo in the ministerial section, and the Chair congratulated chief whip Geoff Hoon on winning the previous night’s vote allowing up to 42 days’ pre-charge detention. Under obituaries there were tributes to former NEC members Tom Burlison, party treasurer, and Gwyneth Dunwoody, a key player in the battle against Militant. We also remembered Val Price, the moving spirit behind Labour Women’s Network, and Bernadette Hartley, whom I knew as a fellow-constituency representative in the early days of the national policy forum.

Prime Minister’s Questions

Gordon Brown highlighted Britain’s support for banning cluster bombs, and the recent agreement with the TUC and the CBI on temporary and agency workers. Current economic difficulties arose from global turbulence and were not limited to Britain, nor a consequence of government policies. Our responsibility was to support people through difficult times, and the supplementary budget announcement not only compensated many of the 10% tax band losers, but also helped all basic rate taxpayers with high food, fuel and energy costs. He was asked to do what he could to protect people against repossessions, and to let the energy watchdogs off the leash in controlling prices.

The vote on the terrorism bill showed Labour’s desire for unity, and the issue was now a problem for other parties. This claim became plausible later in the day, when members surreptitiously checking their BlackBerrys picked up the bizarre resignation of shadow home secretary David Davis. As Harriet Harman pointed out, the terrorism bill is in its early stages and he would have had plenty more opportunities to argue the case. Also his record on civil liberties record is patchy, and includes support for the death penalty. As I write it seems he will be opposed only by an assortment of fringe elements.

The prime minister was thanked for supporting comprehensive anti-discrimination laws at European level, and for hosting a reception for Show Racism the Red Card at Number 10. He was urged to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the NHS, and forget about plans for more directly-elected mayors and police authorities. Members warned of continuing problems for casual employees, with one Eastern European taking home £8.80 a week after deductions for “living costs”, Latvian workers sacked 48 hours after Gordon Brown visited their factory, and migrant domestic workers at risk from unintended consequences of the new immigration systems.

I questioned some of Labour’s messages in Crewe and Nantwich, notably on “toffs” where members point out that Clem Attlee came from a privileged background yet did great good. People should be judged on their actions, not their birth. Also, attacking the Tories for opposing compulsory ID cards for foreigners was seen by some as verging on racism. However those on the ground reported that the Labour vote held up well, but we suffered from an unusually high turnout for a by-election.

Learning Lessons

Douglas Alexander ran though recent election results. Though not good, David Cameron was nowhere near the same position as Tony Blair in the mid-1990s. He talked tough but voted soft on crime, he talked nice but voted nasty on family-friendly issues. It was time to turn the spotlight on Tory contradictions. This was agreed, but with a plea to limit the use of “hard-working families” as it tends to exclude pensioners, the young, the single and the childless. He also stressed that Labour must be in touch, listening and acting on voters’ daily concerns If we lost our mantle of fairness, we would lose their loyalty and our moral authority. However he went on to say that voters currently define fairness primarily in terms of crime and immigration, and I would have liked a deeper discussion of what “fairness” means. Does it include non-doms who pay little tax, or those who hide their wealth offshore? Does it include the obligation of those who are lucky in health, family and life to help those less fortunate through no fault of their own? Perhaps too philosophical for New Labour.

On campaigning, new technology makes it easier to contact voters about their personal concerns, but communication has to be two-way. When people are e-mailed they don’t expect their replies to bounce back. Harriet Harman is taking this on board, so please let me know if there are still problems. Finally Douglas Alexander said it was up to the party, and particularly MPs, to decide whether they were keen enough to lead their constituencies in winning again. Hard work pays off, and the best results were in seats like Slough and Oxford, with the highest levels of voter contact and the most active campaigning.

Forward not Back

“More of the same” will not win us another term, and the national policy forum in July will start to build a new vision. Pat McFadden was aware of 50 meetings planning to discuss the draft documents, and hundreds of amendments have already arrived. I have copies of 300, but from only 20 out of more than 600 constituencies, and hope that by the 20 June deadline the majority will have taken part.

There was an interesting debate on whether to allow the media into the forum, with Walter Wolfgang favouring total access. I was more cautious, as the press have a way of picking three minutes of negativity or confrontation and running it across every bulletin, but others, and not the usual suspects, thought the disconnect between ordinary members and the forum was so great that risks must be taken. Local parties should be able to follow their issues through the process. Some suggested a video produced by the party, while others thought this would just look stage-managed. Recording votes by name on the final morning was also proposed. I look forward to the joint policy committee’s decision.

The documents will then go on to annual conference, and presumably the one-member-one-vote ballot agreed last year, though I still think there are better uses for half a million pounds. For those who plan ahead, the leader’s speech will revert to Tuesday afternoon, and next year’s spring conference will be in Manchester from Friday 27 February to Sunday 1 March 2009.

Closing Session

It was now the fifth hour, and we moved swiftly through subcommittee minutes. Mike Griffiths will make further attempts to bring peace to Easington, suspended for selecting only four women out of 22 candidates, and he is also meeting officers of Labour International with a view to closer integration into the party mainstream. Wolverhampton North East will have an open selection as recommended by the organisation committee despite the opposition of Harriet Harman and myself. And I asked again for NEC members to be informed of significant committee decisions, in this case the local government committee decision to surcharge Labour groups who pay their councillors’ subscriptions by cheque.

Finally we reached resolutions.   The NEC does not debate these, but the movers are invited to discuss them with the relevant policy commission. I used this opportunity to pursue the 10% tax band fallout, seconded by Pete Willsman, and took part in a telephone conference with Yvette Cooper. I was pleased with the simple approach of raising tax thresholds rather than fiddling with tax credits, winter fuel allowances and the minimum wage, but there are still many losers at the low end, and questions about whether the extra £120 for basic rate taxpayers will continue next year, because if not, there could be another 22 million disgruntled voters. Yvette Cooper said all this would be considered in the autumn pre-budget report. In addition several constituencies tried to raise the issue at last year’s conference, but were dismissed because it was “not contemporary”, and the motion asked the joint policy committee if rejected resolutions could at least be published so other members could read them and feel less alone.

Walter Wolfgang proposed a motion, also seconded by Pete Willsman, calling for policy changes on housing, union rights, public services, Trident, Iraq and Afghanistan, which should offer meetings with at least three different commissions. An emergency resolution from Mary Turner was not circulated.