The first meeting after conference is always a long session, planning for the challenges ahead. Overall objectives were to develop Labour as a campaigning movement, achieve real change, build trust in communities, and win elections at all levels. Each department would contribute, with strategic leadership on policy, effective opposition to the government, and world-class integrated strategic communications among the more important elements. The NEC’s terms of reference were circulated, and as Chair of the disputes panel I have now joined the NEC officers. Other aspects would be discussed further in January. Some members argued that the NEC had lost power since the days when the working classes ran the party, while others thought that we retained authority but just needed to exercise it.
I am not convinced of the need for lots more committees, but would like to see the NEC regain direct responsibility for policy. Some believed that the national policy forum (NPF) promoted wider and deeper engagement for ordinary members, and was effective in engaging young people. However after eighteen years, and despite Angela Eagle’s heroic efforts, it is still a mystery to most members. It has also been undermined by secret shadow cabinet reviews and ad hoc frontbench announcements. The joint policy committee (JPC), supposed to steer the NPF, does not work, and newer staff asked what it was. And while conference may never have been truly sovereign, its agendas used to show what members cared about most, and first-time delegates – as I was in 1995 – could negotiate directly with union leaders and MPs.
I therefore supported Peter Willsman in asking for policy-making to be included in Tom Watson’s party reform project, rather than a separate review by the JPC. Until then the NPF will continue, with the next meeting sometime in 2016. Six policy commissions were proposed and I remain on the economic commission, which covers business, tax, social security, employment law and much else. A seventh mini-commission on transport was then added. Ken Livingstone, co-convenor of the international commission which includes security and defence, has attracted most attention, though other NEC commission members do not share his views. Allocation of places had clearly been discussed in advance, but not with me.
For the next year the other commissions are supposed to focus on housing; mental health; early years education; crime and policing; and building a productive economy. I hope that members will be able to discuss issues important to them, including austerity, benefit cuts, trade union laws, local government funding, devolution and migration, rather than being restricted to arbitrary set-piece exercises.
Elections Past and Future
The report of the learning lessons taskforce was still not available. The first test would be in Oldham West & Royton, where Jim McMahon is seeking election after the sad death of Michael Meacher. May 2016 will bring Scottish, Welsh, London and English council elections: these seats were last fought in 2012 when Labour was nine per cent ahead in the polls after George Osborne’s omni-shambles budget, and made 823 gains. Difficult, even without Scotland and the rise of UKIP. Labour controls 130 councils, and while Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell opposed cuts, they were clear that councils must set legal budgets.
Three directly-elected mayors will also be up in 2016, as will police and crime commissioners (PCCs). I was on the panel which interviewed incumbent Labour PCCs, and though Labour would have abolished them, I was impressed with the ways that they had taken on the role. I have also got the procedure for choosing new PCC candidates amended, so that shortlisting by joint NEC / regional panels is followed by a window between 27 January and 14 February 2016 when local parties can rank the candidates.
The next general election is in 2020. Labour will not choose candidates until the boundary review is complete, several years away, and I urged all sides to drop talk of reselection or deselection as premature and unhelpful. Alan Johnson would launch Labour’s Euro-referendum campaign on 1 December, and members who complain about receiving messages from the “official Labour leave campaign” should be reassured that there is no such thing. European leader Glenis Willmott said that a four-year delay to in-work benefits for other European nationals would be the most difficult of David Cameron’s objectives.
Balancing the Books
Those who celebrate Tony Blair’s political success should recall that he also left the party more than £20 million in debt, a burden from which, after ten years, we are only just emerging. Hairshirt management will, however, continue. Boundary changes and the over-hasty introduction of individual electoral registration will stack the odds against Labour, and changes to trade union political funds are designed to paralyse their campaigning strength and to attack their financial connection with the party. More positively the surge in membership has brought money as well as enthusiasm, with numbers rising from 200,000 in April and heading towards 400,000. When supporters were contacted, one-third upgraded to full membership. A future NEC meeting may consider simplifying subscription rates, and a modest rise in the lowest £1 rate to cover costs. Some argued that fees were too high, but cost does not currently seem to be a deterrent.
The biggest increases in members are in London, the south-east and the south-west, and they impose extra burdens on the volunteers who run constituency parties. The cost of postage means that members without email or internet access get less from the party than they did 30 years ago, but it’s hard to avoid a two-tier service without resources. Following Refounding Labour in 2011, a chunk of membership money formerly distributed to local parties was channelled into central funds to promote democracy, diversity, and local improvement and campaigning. For 2013 / 2015 most of this went to organisers in key seats, but the funds will reopen for bids shortly, and secretaries should look out for invitations to apply.
Annual conference was upbeat despite the election, with 671 constituency delegates from 507 parties, the highest number represented since 2011. At previous conferences concerns had been expressed about using G4S for security, relating to fraudulent claims for tagging prisoners and particularly to the human rights implications of their involvement in the occupied Palestinian territories. This time a proposal to exclude G4S from tendering for 2016 was carried by 12 votes to four. I voted with the majority. I know this is a divisive issue, but the same position has been taken by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the US United Methodist Church. So far I have well over 3,000 emails, more than 90% in support.
Jeremy Corbyn joined us after spending the morning in parliament. He expressed the shock felt by us all after the Paris killings, and the importance of not allowing them to fuel xenophobia towards Muslims. He and Hilary Benn had laid a wreath at the French embassy. He was challenging David Cameron over police cuts and the impact on community policing, and hoped for progress towards a ceasefire in Syria, isolating ISIL and following the UN route as agreed at conference. Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey were all accommodating far more refugees than the 20,000 over five years offered by Britain. He had raised human rights issues in meetings with Chinese and Indian leaders, and promised a strong presence at the climate change talks in Paris. John McDonnell was showing why cutting tax credit cuts was wrong.
Members praised his efforts to save the steel industry. I highlighted David Cameron’s complaint about “unwelcome and counter- productive” closing of children’s centres by Tory-controlled Oxfordshire county council, showing ignorance of what his own government was doing to local services. Others spoke against bombing in Syria, and pointed out that housing benefit cuts might be as bad as tax credit changes. I and others raised, again, harassment and abuse of members on social media, from all sides. Jeremy Corbyn was unequivocal in condemning this as appalling and out of order, and he would not tolerate it.
Later he added: “As we have seen in the recent past, there are clear dangers to us all in any kind of shoot to kill policy. And we must ensure that terrorist attacks are not used to undermine the very freedoms and legal protections we are determined to defend. But of course I support the use of whatever proportionate and strictly necessary force is required to save life in response to attacks of the kind we saw in Paris.”
Members Rule OK
Tom Watson introduced a paper with two main strands. The first would develop a digital strategy, using new technology to connect members across geographical boundaries, as well as involving people without online access and sharpening our rebuttal operation. The second, on party reform, would consider policy-making, promoting working class and other under-represented groups, supporting councillors, devolution in Scotland, Wales and the English regions, youth, community organising, political education, and gender representation. I shall be leading on the last of these, working with Kate Green MP, shadow cabinet member for equalities, with an agenda including gender-balanced leadership, the women’s conference, constituency culture, and better representation for women in local government. Both working groups will be open to all NEC members, and I will circulate more information as they get going.
Don’t Believe Everything in the Media ….
The Guardian reported on 21 November that registered supporters, who paid £3 to take part in the leadership election, would be able to vote on policy in online surveys. They will not. While there are benefits in extending democracy, this would apply to members only. Otherwise why would people join?
Misinformation on defence policy continues. The 2015 conference did not vote to replace Trident, it accepted the national policy forum report which simply recorded discussion through to the manifesto. More bizarrely a group called Labour First claims that conference cannot discuss nuclear weapons again until 2019 because of the “three-year rule”. This rule prevents the same constitutional amendments being proposed year after year. It does not apply to policy. If it did, conference could not change anything from the 2015 manifesto till just before the 2020 election. This is clearly idiotic, but was quoted on the Sunday Politics on 22 November. Whatever members’ views on Trident, getting the facts right is the first step.
Ann Black, email@example.com, 07956-637958