Continuity and change was the mood of the first full NEC for four months. Chair Mike Griffiths welcomed new members: ministers Pat McFadden, Dawn Primarolo and Angela Eagle, formerly an MPs’ representative and now replaced by Janet Anderson; chief whip Geoff Hoon; deputy leader Harriet Harman; and Gordon Brown, warmly received on all sides. Gordon in turn thanked everyone for their friendship and solidarity. He reiterated the themes of his speech to the National Policy Forum, focusing on the domestic issues – health, education, pensions, housing – which matter most to voters. He intended to bridge the gap between government and party, win back alienated ex-members, and mobilise volunteers to speak up for working people. With membership at 182,370 last December this is urgent but achievable, given that 1,000 new members joined every week of the leadership contest. Dennis Skinner reported success from constituencies which reached out to lapsed comrades.
Gordon Brown promised to consider all the issues raised by members. These included the importance of manufacturing; re-skilling redundant employees; public sector pay and funding for equal pay; protecting employees under private equity takeovers; falling take-up of school meals; progress against discrimination; the calm response to recent terrorist attacks; and ensuring that new immigration rules did not turn foreign domestic workers back into slaves. He explained that a referendum on the revised European treaty was unnecessary because all our “red lines” had been met. And he responded strongly to complaints about jobs for Digby Jones, who had described unions as backward-looking and irrelevant, and for Shirley Williams, who had helped to keep Labour in opposition for so long. He argued that broadening the government to appeal to all the people showed strength, not weakness, and it was the TUC general council, not the CBI, that he invited to meet with him in the cabinet room.
Harriet Harman planned to write to women trade union members, inviting them to join her in tackling work-life balance and domestic violence. It was pointed out that women were almost never hit by men who were sober, and the interaction with policies on alcohol must be recognised.
The leadership campaign was judged highly successful. I suggested that procedures for constituency supporting nominations were impracticable within the timescale, though no candidate had complained. I also asked for full results: the Guardian published all the percentages, Tribune gave numbers for the first round, NEC members got numbers for the final round, but we should have the complete picture.
Revised terms of reference for the NEC were tabled. The appointed party Chair has gone and the elected deputy leader takes that role, eliminating the democratic deficit. Members asked for papers in advance of meetings and information on decisions, as people expect us to know what is going on. In fact notes of officers’ meetings are circulated promptly and most of my questions are answered, though I am still trying to find out what the local government committee agreed on subscriptions to the association of Labour councillors (ALC) to make sure that constituencies are not hit again.
There were some issues around the joint policy committee (JPC). This includes ten NEC members (currently six trade union, two MPs, one MEP, one socialist societies, none from the constituencies). Pete Willsman asked for two-way dialogue with the NEC, but I think Mike Griffiths said that as the JPC was the executive for Partnership in Power, the rest of the NEC had no role. However we will in future get all the JPC papers, so we will know a bit more. The other grey area was confidentiality. While some matters must obviously be kept completely private, others, such as conference deadlines, should be widely advertised. In between, how to be accountable and interesting while not giving ammunition to the enemy is a question which I take very seriously.
Elections Past and Future
Statistics from May showed that in Scotland Labour’s vote only fell by 2.5%, and the SNP gained because the independent vote collapsed. In Wales the coalition with Plaid Cymru was agreed at a special conference, with 93% of affiliates and 61% of constituencies in favour. Members stressed that AMs in Wales and MSPs in Scotland should work closely with Westminster MPs. Poor results in the south-east were seen mainly as catching up with trends elsewhere. Overall share of the vote depended on numbers of candidates, and local parties were urged to find a Labour candidate for every ward.
On the eve of the by-elections there was some concern about Ealing Southall, where the NEC initially agreed an all-women shortlist, but under stringent by-election procedures the panel shortlisted two men. I understood their decision: the priority was a candidate who could unify the local membership and whose record could stand up to all hostile criticism. But I was most concerned that only four women applied for Ealing Southall and three for Sedgefield, against around 50 men for both. Women will rarely win open selections when they are outnumbered ten to one.
The NEC did, however, endorse an all-women shortlist for Walthamstow, despite the fact that an ethnic minority candidate has never been selected from an AWS. Party officers will look again at possible legal ways to improve the odds for ethnic minorities. AWS have also been agreed for Burton, Leeds West, Nuneaton, and Washington & Sunderland West. Those parties still waiting for NEC decisions should ask their regional directors to send us recommendations, fast.
For local government, positive action increased the proportion of women councillors from 24% to 32% between 2003 and 2006. This still falls short of parity, so measures will continue. The main change is that in all-out elections, selections will be run in two parts: the first ballot will select a candidate from among the women, and the second will select other candidates from all the rest. It is hoped that this will prevent the resentment felt by a man losing to a woman with fewer votes. Details will be agreed between the regional director, the local government committee and constituencies, and if procedures are not followed, selections will be re-run. Regrettably that did not happen in one area this year. It was stressed that in future, members would not be allowed to undermine NEC decisions; abuse of party staff and lay officers was unacceptable; and delays or late resignations could not be used to get round the policy. The organisation committee also agreed to legitimise practices in some regions by which all sitting councillors would be reinterviewed rather than singling out individuals, and by which reports on councillors from branches would be waived if branches were not functioning.
The NEC approved the accounts, which showed an improving financial situation. Cross-party talks on party funding were close to agreement on local and national spending, with the main outstanding issue the transparency of the relationship between union affiliations and individual levy-payers. Legislation was expected in 2008. It was suggested that union affiliation fees to constituencies might be raised, as currently just £6 gets a general committee delegate and a vote in selections and trigger ballots.
The most eye-catching change this year is that the leader’s speech will be on Monday. Pete Willsman asked that recipients of merit awards should again be allowed to address conference, and I asked for papers to be sent out as early as possible. Unfortunately delegates will not get rule changes in advance, as the NEC will only agree them on 18 September after consultation closes on Gordon Brown’s proposals. So far 25 submissions had been received, plus 32 from the website. These asked for reassurance that issues would not disappear if contemporary motions were ended, and a majority of constituencies supported a one-member-one-vote ballot on the final NPF document. NEC members’ comments at the meeting largely repeated those made in previous discussions, with several stressing that we had one last chance to get this right. However general secretary Peter Watt made clear that it was not possible to create an expensive bureaucracy to respond to every contribution, and he believed that discussion was more important than feedback. I am not sure if members will view it that way.
The Black Socialist Society is also seeking rule changes, including reserved seats on regional boards, with NEC support. I enquired after twelve constituency amendments ruled out of order, and some may be reinstated. Of the others, lowering the threshold for extra conference delegates will be covered under party renewal, as will barring ministers from the conference arrangements committee.
Finally we should know soon if the local government conference and/or spring conference will be reinstated for 2008. The alternative programme was popular, but very demanding of staff resources.