The prime minister welcomed celebrations to mark the 60th birthday of Britain’s unique national health service. He acknowledged the impact of rising food and fuel prices, but people had to understand the pressures of globalisation, with a growing world population demanding ever-higher living standards. Only progressive policies would get us through difficult times, and benefit from expanding international markets in the upturn. To help with housing, Labour was allowing councils to buy land and unsold properties and to build new homes. The Tories opposed hospital targets, longer GP surgery hours and raising the school-leaving age, and blamed the poor, the old and the obese for their plight, while Labour balanced responsibilities with rights. However we must never go back to the 1970s and 1980s.
Christine Shawcroft saw this as code for “no more nasty socialism” and called for a review of taxes and benefits to reduce inequality, but Gordon Brown believed this government had been more redistributive than any other, with the top 10% of earners now paying 50% of tax, up from 40%. On post offices he said that a loss of four million customers in the last few years made closures inevitable, and those which thought they were viable could appeal. I asked for pollution-linked car tax increases to apply only to vehicles bought since the changes were announced. Backdating would hit our core supporters in the spring, just as we tell them Labour is on their side and ask for their votes.
Union representatives asked for help in persuading Tory-dominated local government employers to settle the current pay dispute. While sympathetic to low-paid workers, councillors saw the offer as more than the treasury wanted, and ministers said they had no direct role in negotiations. Gordon Brown assured Mary Turner, again, that Labour is committed to ending the two-tier workforce in schools. He agreed with Walter Wolfgang that expansion of Israeli settlements was unacceptable and he would say so when he visited the Middle East, as well as offering economic support for the West Bank and Gaza. On energy he said that the party, in accepting a balanced policy, had endorsed nuclear power along with windfarms, solar energy, clean coal, and perhaps the Severn barrage. Many jobs depended on the nuclear industry, but it must be safe and secure, with proper reprocessing. Other countries were also desperate to reduce their dependence on undemocratic and unstable oil states.
NEC members reported unhappiness at plans to give Margaret Thatcher a state funeral. They wanted policies explained in everyday language rather than economic jargon, and I asked for a more positive tone: when the prime minister calls for “a national priority to aggressively and relentlessly develop the potential of the British people”, it sounds like a threat, not an opportunity. However, complaints about “hard-working families” may have got through, as recent mails refer instead to “law-abiding people who play by the rules”.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
The chancellor Alistair Darling continued the economic theme. He outlined the steps that Labour was taking internationally, including dialogue with oil producers and reviewing the role of bio-fuels, and at home, through postponing petrol tax increases, raising winter fuel allowances, and supporting people in difficulty with their mortgages. He promised that future budgets would consider help for the remaining 10% tax band losers, and whether to continue the extra £120 for all basic rate taxpayers. Pete Willsman called for tighter regulation by the financial services authority, and the chancellor was asked to look at eligibility criteria for council tax benefits, unchanged since 1991, and greatly under-claimed.
The gap between rich and poor, casting a shadow over Labour’s entire fairness agenda, was raised again, including the possible need for higher taxes at the top to pay for better pensions. The chancellor said the figures were distorted by a lot of exceptionally rich people, and the gap had in fact narrowed. He understood the anger at incompetent business leaders getting huge pay-offs, but these were not decisions for the government. It was suggested that bio-fuel from sugar, not grain, was acceptable.
Party Chair Harriet Harman warned that we should not talk ourselves into a recession when the director-general of the CBI said that employment was holding up well. Neither should we be depressed about the party, as she found that plenty of people would join if we only asked them. She thanked grassroots members for their loyalty and discipline, and hoped the upper echelons, including ministers, would live up to their example. She asked everyone to help in Glasgow East, and stressed the need to raise voter contact rates in every seat, not just the marginals.
This was endorsed by Gary Titley MEP, because in the 2009 Euro-election every vote will count under the regional list system, and most of our votes are in Labour strongholds. He described the election as the last line of defence against the barbarians at the gate. If it became a referendum on Westminster or on Europe we would lose. Labour must focus on issues such as climate change and terrorism, which no country could tackle alone, and expose the hypocrisy of other parties. Dennis Skinner agreed in principle but argued that a good budget for working-class people was the key to success.
Warwick Two and After
Next weekend sees the culmination of the third cycle of Partnership in Power. Out of a total of 2,200 amendments about 1,300 are from regional constituency representatives, based on over 4,000 sent in by more than 200 constituencies. The wealth gap is a leading concern, along with environmental issues: recycling, excess packaging, micro-generation, energy conservation, feed-in tariffs, renewables. The conclusions will go to conference, which will also discuss contemporary issues, and guidance on these is expected soon. Pete Willsman asked for Walter Wolfgang to be allowed a few moments at the rostrum in view of his sixty years of activism, from the first Aldermaston march to the present day.
The NEC then considered rule changes. Proposals to lower the threshold for leader and deputy leader candidates from 12.5% to 7.5% of MPs will be opposed, as will those seeking to increase union affiliation fees at constituency level. Movers of amendments which would impose regional restrictions on the NEC constituency places will be asked to remit them, so that their feasibility can be considered. The NEC will take forward Bethnal Green & Bow’s amendment from last year, allowing constituencies an extra woman delegate if they have 100 women members and an extra youth if they have 30 young (under-27) members. The NEC agreed that regional gatherings should elect members to the Young Labour national committee, with the Chair elected from within the committee by the Young Labour conference, and backed my proposal that where a constituency can show they have made every effort to find a woman delegate, they should be excluded only for the “woman’s year” rather than indefinitely.
The NEC will also propose linking subscriptions to inflation and raising the unwaged rate to half the standard rate, perhaps in stages. In addition conference will be asked to change the 2005 rule, when subscriptions rose to £36, so that constituencies will continue to get £8 per member but not the extra £12 in a general election year. Personally I believe there is no alternative if we are to keep a functioning national and regional organisation, as staffing levels have already been substantially cut.. In return I will try to reflect the priorities of members in what the national and regional party offers them, within available resources. Finally constituencies will pay £25 a month from mid-2009 to build up European campaign funds over time, rather than facing demands for large sums just before an election.
As part of continuing budgetary control, spring conference 2009 will not now be held, and alternative events for councillors, women and the European campaign will have to be self-financing. On the positive side, the sports dinner and auction exceeded expectations. I have requested that mailings are targeted sensitively, so we encourage all who can afford it to contribute financially, but do not badger hard-pressed pensioners to pay £1,000 for a meal. Union representatives explained their difficulties in keeping links with Labour because their members feel let down by privatisation and pay cuts.
The NEC agreed that Sunderland South and Finchley & Golders Green should choose parliamentary candidates from all-women shortlists, and Crewe & Nantwich and North West Leicestershire should have open selections. There will be further discussion of rules for councils with directly-elected mayors, particularly whether the mayor should chair the Labour group, and be limited to two terms.
Walter Wolfgang moved a resolution expressing concern that the police stopped a recent anti-war march from delivering a letter to Downing Street and, according to Walter, used unnecessary force with apparent enjoyment. It was referred to the crime, justice, citizenship and equalities policy commission.