This was the traditional annual get-together, with a wide-ranging overview followed by a formal business meeting. The political climate had improved immeasurably since September, after a conference where members made it clear that they expected MPs to unite behind their leader, victory in the Glenrothes by-election, and Gordon Brown taking the initiative at home and abroad in difficult economic times.
General secretary Ray Collins introduced a set of aims and objectives for the year ahead, with detailed targets to be monitored regularly and a strong emphasis on volunteers, the bedrock of the party. The need for local and national parties to work together in looking after new recruits was stressed. Most people join through the website, and a single mother who appreciates how much a Labour government has helped her is not always enthused by her first branch meeting. The introductory £1 youth rate has attracted more young members, and the impact of moving to the standard rate will be kept under review.
Barack Obama’s election has cheered us all. I asked if his groundbreaking use of new technology included genuine two-way communication, as our members sometimes complain that they are bombarded with messages, but their responses bounce back unread. Apparently not, and it will be interesting to see how he manages expectations in the longer term. Development of membersnet is under way, and the party has compiled a useful set of papers putting Tory policies under scrutiny.
Deputy leader Harriet Harman introduced a discussion on the European and council elections on 4 June 2009. Every vote counts under the regional list system, and every constituency can apply for central support as an “action seat” if they commit to raising activity above current levels, however high or low these are. The Euro-levy of £1,200 per constituency will cover the national Freepost mailing, adapted for local circumstances. The NEC welcomed the announcement that the post office card account would remain with Royal Mail, and suggested dropping proposals for elected police authorities. MEPs were praised for voting to end Britain’s opt-out from the working time directive, in line with party policy.
MPs and councillors have a key role in motivating their local parties. Wimbledon and Mitcham & Morden submitted contemporary issues to conference on this theme, asking the NEC to reopen the selection process in constituencies with sitting Labour MPs and voter contact rates under 15%. These were referred to the October meeting of the organisation committee, which understood the sentiments but decided that deselections at this stage would not be helpful. Among remaining Westminster selections Cannock Chase, Bolton West and Keighley will choose candidates from all-women shortlists, with an open selection in the Wrekin.
Giving to Win
Treasurer Jack Dromey introduced the financial strategy. Loan repayments and running costs will be met by regular income from membership subscriptions and affiliations, and every extra penny raised will go directly towards campaigning, so supporters know that their donations will not disappear into a bottomless hole in Victoria Street. Help will also be available to local parties to maximise the benefits of their assets. Events such as the women’s and local government conferences will go ahead only if they are self-financing. A national youth conference is particularly desirable, as this will elect their NEC representative and the Young Labour committee under the new rules agreed at conference.
Warwick: What’s Next?
Previous final-stage national policy forums have been followed within a year by a manifesto and a general election. This time the picture is less clear, and the only scheduled Forum is on 28 February 2009. Some members believe that if the election is deferred to 2010, there is a commitment to revisit contentious issues and, if necessary, update agreements reached in July. Plans for a fourth cycle of Partnership in Power will follow the election, but in the meantime the NEC will assess the changes made in 2007, including the end of conference resolutions, and the joint policy committee will consider whether improvements are needed. I argued that these reviews must not be limited to the NEC and the NPF, but involve the 99.9% of members left outside. Again at this year’s conference no constituency delegates spoke in favour of the system, and insufficient feedback is still a problem.
I remain concerned after attending my first meeting of the JPC. This reviewed the successes and challenges of the July Forum, covered in previous reports, and considered a resolution referred from the NEC highlighting the need for effective channels for members to communicate their views. This cited abolition of the 10% tax band as an example where grassroots anxieties went unheard and proposed publishing submissions to conference, as in the old resolutions booklet, so constituencies would feel less isolated. The motion was dismissed as negative, and NPF Chair Pat McFadden said that few people ever used to read conference agendas anyway. I had no intention of asking for a vote, but found the tone overly defensive. I warned that the next own goal would be retrospective raising of vehicle excise duty on older cars, which will hit our core voters. Finally the JPC were told that contemporary issues not prioritised at conference will disappear, unlike the former contemporary resolutions which were referred to the relevant policy commissions. I will pursue this further, as I do not think it was intended.
Policy Behind the Scenes
Policy commissions are by no means rubber-stamps, and the sustainable communities commission totally opposes fixed-term contracts for council tenants. The commission on crime, justice, citizenship and equalities had a robust discussion with home office minister Shahid Malik, who asked what projects would be suitable for “community payback” and what colour the uniforms should be. Commission members were more worried about possible violence directed against participants and supervisors, and in general rejected Jack Straw’s recent punitive utterances. Supporting victims was essential, but reducing the numbers of future victims depended on restorative justice, lowering reoffending rates, and dealing effectively with mental health issues. We also met representatives of the campaign to end violence against women, and discussed Walter Wolfgang’s resolution on the handling of a Stop the War march with minister Alan Campbell. The commission felt that it was not within the NEC’s competence to censor the metropolitan police, but affirmed the right to peaceful protest.
The women, race and equalities committee met with immigration minister Phil Woolas, who said we must recognise public perceptions that the situation was out of control. Whatever the truth this suggests that Labour has done nothing for eleven years, and I believe policies should always be presented as building on prior achievements. I mentioned farmers’ complaints that fruit is rotting in the fields because they cannot recruit outside Europe, and others raised the reliance of personal care services on migrant workers, and obligations not to deport gays to countries where the penalty is prison or worse.
This year’s conference attracted 499 delegates from 465 constituencies, the lowest for some years. Thanks to Roy Kennedy and his team the full results of votes are already available, with the 2006 and 2008 NEC elections to follow. Feedback on the Saturday start was mixed, and the NEC decided to revert to Sunday afternoon to Thursday lunchtime, 27 September to 1 October 2009. Friday 12 June is the deadline for constituency delegates and for nominations to the conference arrangements committee and the national constitutional committee, with elections for the national policy forum postponed until 2010. Contemporary issues must be submitted by Friday 18 September and emergency resolutions by Thursday 24 September. I asked for information from the conference arrangements committee to be circulated earlier, including rule changes which are currently not sent to constituencies.
The NEC approved revised terms of reference. The audit committee will add risk management to its responsibilities, and the NEC officers will also serve as the business board, with an extra member drawn from previous NEC Chairs. Pete Willsman, Christine Shawcroft, Peter Kenyon and I proposed that this person could be any NEC member but were outvoted, though in practice it will make little difference. Peter Kenyon and Pete Willsman voted to refer back the first section for further clarification and then abstained, with Dennis Skinner and Christine Shawcroft, on the paper as a whole. I voted to accept it. We have just appointed our sixth general secretary in eight years, and he deserves our trust.