Traditionally the NEC’s November meeting holds an in-depth discussion of strategy for the year ahead, but for now the election takes precedence over all else. Glasgow North East gave us a lift, with an 8,111 majority showing the impact of an excellent local candidate, effective messages and first-class organisation. Appreciation was expressed to the staff, the unions and the hundreds of volunteers.
Gordon Brown thanked the NEC for their unity, discipline, friendship and support. He spoke fluently and confidently about the key policies which would win voters over: the winter fuel allowance, cash help for small businesses and the shortest-ever NHS waiting times, with higher breast cancer survival rates showing that rapid referrals were saving lives. Undecided voters would return once they understood that the Tories would drop fast-track cancer treatment and give inheritance tax bonanzas to the few thousand richest families at the expense of public services. Dennis Skinner added fox-hunting to the list.
Pete Willsman and others backed a Tobin tax, and Gordon Brown said that with international agreement it could make a huge difference to developing countries. The temporary and agency workers’ directive was out for consultation and he would welcome union input on the economy bill. He would also look at conditions in the construction industry and at regulating estate agents. He invited a group of young women supported by the YWCA to meet him in Downing Street after Harriet Yeo said that while they welcomed more assistance for single mothers, they were upset by some of the remarks in his conference speech. Other members raised pleural plaques, council rents, immigration, housing and free school meals, and I said that public reaction to the Sun’s gutter tactics over his condolence letters to soldiers’ families showed the basic decency of the British people. The prime minister left to a round of applause.
Douglas Alexander outlined election preparations, with more effective targeting helping to compensate for limited resources. Ultimately there was no substitute for direct personal engagement, and a healthy party campaigning all year round would keep the BNP from gaining footholds. Members asked for pithy literature, contrasting positives from Labour with Tory threats. Pensions provided one example: from 2010 more women will qualify for state pensions and more credit will be given for carers, while David Cameron has said that he will “do something” unspecified but clearly horrible to public sector pensions, which despite the gold-plated myth, average only £5,000. The NEC will ask ministers making government visits to find private time to meet local members, and there were requests for them to attack Tory weaknesses more vigorously and for rebuttal material to be circulated earlier in the day.
European leader Glenis Willmott reported on speculation around the new positions of president and high representative. British MEPs were disappointed at the attitude of the Socialist and Democrat Group (formerly the Party of European Socialists) towards Tony Blair’s candidacy, and some thought the Group was drifting rightwards on social issues. [Since then Cathy Ashton’s appointment may have smoothed ruffled feathers.] Meanwhile the Tories were all over the place, unable to deliver a referendum on Lisbon or withdraw from the social chapter, and marginalised by their association with unsavoury extremists. Sister socialist parties did well in recent elections in Norway, Portugal and Greece, though the German SPD hit a record low. It was suggested that 20 years after the Wall fell, and amid the collapse of global capitalism, the time was ripe for a supranational analysis of ways forward for the left.
The September NEC referred Burnley, originally assigned an all-women shortlist (AWS), back to the organisation committee, which in the light of extra evidence changed it to an open selection. This was encouraging other constituencies to stall, and with an election only months away the need to get candidates in and running was urgent. The NEC therefore agreed that all future decisions would be made by a special selections panel comprising the officers (leader, deputy leader, Chair, vice-chair, treasurer, the Chair of the organisation committee and the NEC co-convenor of the joint policy committee), the chief whip, two trade union NEC members and one each from the socialist societies, local government, black and minority ethnic Labour, the constituencies and the government section.
Until 31 December 2009 the panel will decide which constituencies will have open or AWS selections. They will use a five-week timetable with candidates nominating themselves, the executive committee longlisting where necessary, and the general committee shortlisting. All members will be issued with ballot papers which they can cast at hustings meetings or by post. From 1 January 2010 the panel will draw up the shortlists, and I and others are pressing for constituency officers to be involved in this.
In the last resort the panel can impose candidates, but constituency representatives united behind an amendment making clear that the right of members to select their candidate would remain a priority, and only be over-ridden where timetable constraints made this impossible. For 2005 the NEC did not impose a single candidate, and I hope to maintain this, but it does depend on MPs giving sufficient notice. The NEC reaffirmed the aim of 40% women Labour MPs after the election and endorsed the proposals.
The Road to the Manifesto Revisited
Pat McFadden said that a reconvened national policy forum (NPF) was not considered the best use of resources, and instead Ed Miliband was proposing “an inclusive Clause V process”. Much hinges on what this means: the formal Clause V meeting is held after the election is called, involves over 70 people, and allows no scope for debate or amendment. Unions and MPs have regular discussions with Ed Miliband, and councillors are getting together on 27 February, but constituency representatives have no input unless they are on policy commissions. They have spent a total of just eight hours participating in the NPF since July 2008, and must be properly involved before the manifesto is set in stone. In addition surprises such as announcing the alternative vote for Westminster did not show respect for the system.
Some people said that manifestos were always produced by a select few, or that the NPF had already engaged members sufficiently. Encouraging online comments could produce unfeasible suggestions, though Ed Miliband is collecting ideas through labourspace.com/thechoice with the promise that they will be fed into the NPF. Doubtless all this will become clear in due course.
The final stage is supposed to be a one-member-one-vote ballot. I always opposed this because of the cost and the risk of a low turnout and an underwhelming Yes vote, and others stressed the need to face outwards instead. The general secretary said the rulebook should be enabling, not prescriptive, and could be interpreted in ways which would take us forward.
The entire policy-making process will be reviewed after the election. Clearly this cannot be completed by 2010, but I envisage a framework for consultation next year, with a final report in 2011. Among other things it should examine falling representation at conference: only 444 constituencies sent delegates this year, down from 501 two years ago, though total numbers rose to 547 because of lower thresholds for extra women and youth delegates. Conference feedback from the NEC was positive, with morale rising through the week, and delegates’ views are being collated. The meeting agreed that in future the NEC would discuss emergency resolutions before they were debated by conference.
The timetable for next year’s conference delegations and committee nominations has been extended to allow members to concentrate on campaigning. Initial information will be sent out in December followed by nomination forms immediately after the election. Local parties will have until 30 July to elect delegates and to nominate for the NEC, the NPF, the national constitutional committee, the auditors and the treasurer. The ballot for the NEC and for the NPF constituency places will be held between 16 August and 24 September, with results announced at the opening of the 2010 conference.
Finally the NEC received updates on finance and on membership, where the decline has slowed and, encouragingly, 90% of members joining at the £1 introductory youth rate stay on. The top reasons for joining are to get involved, help with the general election, keep the Tories out, and support our values. Though as one member commented, wistfully, Labour people are far too nice to ask for money.