The meeting started by endorsing the general secretary’s response to requests for nomination forms for the party leader. These have not been issued for eleven years and the last set, circulated early in 1997, stated that if Labour was in government, nominations would be null and void. No MPs complained until recently, and while the rulebook may need tidying, custom and practice are clear. Representatives from all sections of the NEC, including myself, conveyed the overwhelming view of members that differences over policy or anything else should be expressed within the party and not in the media. We have a leader and he has our support. Deputy leader Harriet Harman recognised the responsibility of all Labour MPs to unite and work as a team.
The prime minister joined us after meeting the president of Pakistan and before leaving for Northern Ireland, entering just as Dennis Skinner was comparing the current economic situation with Black Wednesday 16 years ago. Now, there were 3.5 million more people in work, inflation was around 4% and mortgages around 6%; then, inflation and mortgage rates stood at 11% and higher. Gordon Brown had the expertise to draw out these contrasts, but must do it in sharp, clear language. His eloquence prompted Gordon to suggest that Dennis should write his conference speech.
Gordon Brown went on to say that he understood anxieties over jobs, homes and the cost of food and fuel. He was seeking long-term solutions through better global financial regulation, discussion with oil-producing countries, and alternative energy sources including coal, renewables and nuclear power. In the meantime Labour was raising the winter fuel allowance, building more homes, training in new skills, and encouraging social tariffs for gas and electricity so that people with pre-payment meters, often the worst-off, did not pay the highest rates. The Tories would instead give £1 billion in inheritance tax relief to just 3,000 people, take money from Sure Start, educational maintenance allowances and the school building programme, and lengthen NHS waiting times. Labour was right to continue investing in public services, borrowing where necessary, rather than forcing cuts and layoffs.
Members were concerned that grants for insulation would not help council tenants or those just above the income cut-off level. They drew attention to the role of untrammelled free markets in the current crisis, and to surveys showing a 95% correlation between confidence in the economy and willingness to support Labour. On other issues Gordon Brown stated that European court judgments would not be allowed to undermine pay and conditions for foreign workers employed in Britain. He promised to reply to my request for equal rights for Gurkhas who served before 1997 [supported by the courts on 30 September], to a plea for permission for asylum-seekers to work, and to Keith Vaz’ call for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka, following a well-attended meeting between Tamils and minister Mark Malloch Brown.
Pete Willsman regretted the foreign secretary’s hardline approach on Georgia, which had started the latest trouble by invading South Ossetia, but the prime minister emphasised that the European Union, represented by president Sarkozy, had agreed a unanimous position. Later Walter Wolfgang, who will retire from the NEC after conference, moved his final resolution, also on Georgia, warning against repeating the mistakes of Yugoslavia. It was understandable that Russia felt threatened by American missiles in Poland, just as the US felt threatened by Soviet bases in Cuba, and claims that Iran could launch ballistic nuclear attacks were nonsense. We should be trying to calm the situation, not inflaming it. The resolution was referred to the Britain in the World policy commission for consideration.
Warwick and After
Pat McFadden praised the hard work of national policy forum members and party staff at the July meeting at Warwick university, and promised a newsletter outlining its achievements. Many detailed reports have been circulated already, and constituencies can ask their regional representatives about specific amendments. Points made at the NEC included the need for more time to discuss the draft documents, and regret that some ministers do not understand that other members of the NPF are their equals. (Though in fact we are not, because ministers and their advisers see all the proposed amendments in advance, and the rest of us only see them when we arrive.)
I raised concerns about the way that individual members can make radical policy shifts without the knowledge of the rest of the forum, and about some major omissions. Groups which engaged with the process, for instance health, animal welfare and environmental organisations, achieved many small changes and some new commitments. However there were few amendments on matters of interest to older people. We cannot ignore pensioners simply because they do not jump through the Partnership in Power hoops, if only because two-thirds of over-65s vote, compared to one-third of under-25s. But above all we should focus on what government can do in the next 18 months, to protect the people who depend on Labour and to increase our chances of being able to implement another manifesto. Pat McFadden agreed, pointed out that resolution-based systems can also be dominated by special-interest lobbies, and said there would be opportunities to develop policy further before the election.
Walter Wolfgang despairingly described the entire process as shambolic. The July meeting may have been as effective as possible given the timescale and the resource constraints, but that does not make his statement untrue. It is for members to judge whether they feel a sense of ownership of the outcome.
The debate now moves to conference. The Manchester police gave a security briefing, with assurances that we were well-protected against external threats. After considerable discussion the NEC decided by 14 votes to 9 to run through from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesday rather than break for lunch. I opposed this because of the impact on fringe meetings and the strain on delegates, but would have preferred to finish at 1 p.m. I recognised that if people were let out, they would be unlikely to return for an NHS presentation and closing speeches. It was reported that the conference arrangements committee, unlike previous years, had ruled out of order only a handful of contemporary issues.
Iain Gray and Johann Lamont were congratulated on their election as Scottish leader and deputy leader. Campaigning is in full swing in Glenrothes, and volunteers are welcome. The Glasgow East result reinforced the need to maintain continuous contact with voters in all seats, and for next year’s Euro-elections, held on regional lists, Labour strongholds will be critical in building our vote. The campaign will be integrated with the county elections, with much responsibility devolved to regions. Dennis Skinner warned of confusion caused by different voting systems on the same day, which led to record numbers of spoiled ballots in the Scottish elections. I put on record the concerns of constituencies who have written about the £1,200 Euro-levy, and asked for their letters to be answered.
The NEC considered recommendations from a working group on directly-elected mayors. Few members like the concept, but where a Labour mayor exists it was agreed that they should automatically be leader of the Labour group, with all the obligations of group membership. Christine Shawcroft, Pete Willsman and Walter Wolfgang opposed this, arguing that the group should be free to choose its own leader, but I was persuaded that it would help to integrate the mayor into the group and discourage maverick behaviour. The role of group Chair would be enhanced, and responsibility for appointments to council positions and outside bodies would be clarified. Also mayors would be allowed to stand for more than two terms, subject to a trigger ballot and approval from the regional board.
Gary Titley MEP reported that the roof of the parliament building in Strasbourg had fallen in, raising the hopes of everyone except the French that all future meetings could be held in Brussels, saving money and reducing the carbon footprint. Replying to Pete Willsman, he said that there were no plans to remove Colombia from the list of favoured trading nations. Finally we said goodbye to Rachel Cowburn, international officer for the past five years, with thanks for her professionalism and her work with Labour’s sister parties. She will be much missed.