The NEC spent Monday reviewing the past year and planning for the challenges ahead, with a formal meeting on Tuesday. Matt Carter gave an update on finance, staffing and resources. So far 14,233 new members had joined in 2004, more than in the whole of 2003, and resignations were falling. However activists, especially treasurers, faced increasing demands and needed central support.
Sam Younger, chairman of the electoral commission, gave a presentation. He was attacked by members who felt that the commission assumed political parties were corrupt and its main job was to catch them out, but he argued that some of the flaws lay in the legislation. Minor misdemeanours should attract parking-ticket type penalties rather than criminal sanctions, and the £200 threshold for local donations was too low. The problem remains that publishing donations leads to a media feeding frenzy, and a measure intended to bolster trust in politics and politicians may have done the reverse. We have created a Frankenstein’s monster, but the genie cannot now be stuffed back into the bottle.
Reasons to be Cheerful
Alan Milburn reminded us of Labour’s achievements, with a successful economy and public services delivering for hard-working families. Our accident and emergency departments and school standards were beacons for the world, giving the lie to Tory claims that nothing worked. The LibDems were high on tax and soft on crime, and the Hartlepool by-election had begun to expose their hypocrisy. On the ground there was a huge appetite to get on with the election. The main danger was that Tory weakness would lead to voters using the election as a referendum on Tony Blair, rather than a choice between alternative governments. Labour now needed to win back women and Muslims after the war, and to attract students, young people, Guardian/Independent readers and supporters of international charities, the idealists who were inspired by Bono’s conference speech. Colleagues stressed the key role of unions in talking directly to their members, the need to present the government as a team, and the importance of women and elected NEC representatives in leading the campaign.
It’s the Politics, Stupid
The explosion of anger over the gambling bill surprised ministers, who blamed the Daily Mail for whipping up the fuss. MPs above all had no right to complain because there had been four years of consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny. NEC opinion varied, with one member lauding the benefits of casinos for deprived communities, with fully-unionised workforces in satisfying jobs, but others opposing them in principle because of the damage done by debt, and because they distracted from core concerns such as pensions. Perceptions that Labour cared mainly about 24/7 access to gambling, drinking and shopping confused liberty with licence and disguised our true values.
Instead the Warwick agreement should be centre-stage, spelling out the gains which were already being implemented or would be in the manifesto. Family-friendly measures should ensure that no-one had to choose between work and caring for loved ones. But on Iraq the line was uncompromising. We must acknowledge the difficult and divisive decisions, and accept responsibility for the intelligence being wrong. But the country did not support the LibDem “troops out” position. People wanted the job finished, and we should be as confident about Iraq as about everything else.
Partnership in Power and 21st Century Party
Hazel Blears and Luke Bruce reported on the ongoing reviews. Party, government and electorate were staying in touch, the party was generally united, and comrades from France were studying our success. The Big Conversation showed ways of opening up debate beyond the National Policy Forum, though better ways of responding to the thousands of submissions were needed. The 21st Century Party discussion was not intended to impose a one-size-fits-all model on local parties, but to learn from and share best practice, including whether all-member meetings and joint branches could counteract the effects of falling membership. The NEC split into groups to discuss these issues. Mine was acutely aware that 99.9% of members have no direct engagement with the Forum process or input into the final results, and unless this is tackled, scepticism and opposition will grow. The NEC will devote a further half-day to these subjects next year. In addition the National Policy Forum will meet on 22 January 2005, together with candidates and activists, in the build-up to the election.
Prime Minister’s Questions
Opening Tuesday’s meeting, Tony Blair urged us to exude confidence. Uncertainty over the US presidency would soon be removed. The Iraqi election in January would be a key event for Labour, though some warned against putting too much weight on this. Diana Holland reported that the Britain in the World policy commission expressed concern to Geoff Hoon about the redeployment of the Black Watch because it disrupted the delicate balance of the NEC statement agreed by conference, it was not consistent with the UN view of the military approach, and it appeared to signal support for George Bush just before the American election. Tony Blair said the move was requested by the Iraqi government, who would also authorise any attack on Fallujah, and Kofi Annan was keen for the troops to stay and provide stability. Refusing would have produced political blowback. The election in Afghanistan had tremendous positive effects, with 87% of women voting, and Iraq would benefit similarly. [Official figures from Afghanistan show a turnout of 70%, of whom 40% overall were women, ranging from 2% to 52% in different provinces. Two-thirds of the population are women.]
Members praised the government on civil partnerships, domestic violence, climate control and Sudan. Dennis Skinner hoped Labour would not stumble at the last fence on fox-hunting, but was assured that the Commons would have the last word, including the use of the Parliament Act if necessary. Tony Blair reassured us that councils could continue to provide local services, and promised to look at rent rises for social housing. He was trying to meet the concerns of both the CBI and the TUC on the agency workers’ directive and the working time directive, stalled in the European council of ministers.
On gambling he said that the bill aimed to protect children while treating adults as adults, but recognised that people wanted compromise and a staged approach. He had no view on Billy Bragg’s proposal for replacing the Lords through a secondary mandate, electing from party lists in proportion to votes cast at a general election, and did not comment on my question about whether there was already agreement in principle to base US interceptor missiles at Fylingdales, making Yorkshire a target for pre-emptive action and recreating Greenham Common under a Labour government.
European leader Gary Titley’s report included an analysis of Turkey’s application to join the European Union. MEPs were congratulated on rejecting a justice commissioner who described homosexuality as a sin and women’s primary functions as serving their husbands’ needs and bearing children.
Conferences and Committees
Margaret Wheeler said that the conference arrangements committee took seriously the late arrival of papers, and would examine the conduct of card votes. The ban on leafleting had been widely ignored. Disruption of the leader’s speech was unfortunate, but the culprits had passed police checks and a balance had to be struck between letting people in and keeping them out without good cause. Attendance on Thursday afternoon was low. Matt Carter reported that 500 CLPs sent delegates, one more than last year, so there was no concern about representation except perhaps for Scotland. The NEC organisation committee referred most constitutional amendments for 2005 to the Partnership in Power review, and rejected Weston-super-Mare CLP’s call for a public inquiry into membership following Dennis Skinner’s observation that everyone knew what the problems were.
Next up is the Spring Conference in Newcastle, 11/13 February 2005. The NEC equalities committee was hoping to widen the women’s element into a general diversity strand, but the programme had already been finalised and sent to stallholders. Constituencies should receive information shortly, including forms to nominate the NEC youth representative, followed in December by a mailing for the 2005 annual conference, where the deadline for delegates and nominations is 25 March 2005.
NEC committee membership is largely unchanged, but I have moved to the crime, justice, equalities and citizenship policy commission. Steps to increase numbers of women councillors in 2006 have been agreed, and should be circulated soon. And I am assured that constituency property will only be transferred to national trustees where there are obvious local problems, which should allay some fears.