The prime minister described the Middle East situation as the most dangerous for decades, with kidnappings and rocket attacks provoking retaliation and the Lebanese people caught between Hizbollah and Israel. Dialogue could only follow after hostilities had ceased, and with a stabilisation force in south Lebanon. Some members stressed that Tony Blair’s commitment to a two-state solution had kept them on board over Iraq, and gave personal reports of the Wall and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Shelling civilians was a disproportionate response. Tony Blair felt that Hizbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, had started this cycle of violence, and saw it more widely as a struggle between modernisers, whose aims included multi-party elections and votes for women, and extremists. He extended his analysis to Kashmir, raised by Mohammed Azam, saying that President Musharraf wanted a return to democracy but here also, terrorist groups derailed any forward moves. There was no chance to continue discussion by pointing out that Hamas and the Iranian president both won popular mandates, so elections did not solve everything, not even, closer to home, in Northern Ireland.
I expressed concern about abolishing the chief inspector of prisons, and sending proportionately more people to prison than other European countries. Tony Blair thought that changes to the inspectorate were intended to improve efficiency rather than reduce independent oversight. Though crime had fallen under Labour for the first time ever, regrettably the rates were still higher than in the rest of Europe, an answer which raises further questions about why. Others asked about funding cuts for the ACAS helpline and citizens’ advice bureaux, the impact of withdrawing post office account cards on rural areas, transparency in European Union meetings, and the cost of implementing equal pay in public services, especially with individual lawyers undermining collectively negotiated settlements.
Consultation on Labour’s submission to the Hayden Phillips’ enquiry on party funding continues until the end of July, and the NEC noted a summary of submissions so far. The most controversial aspect remained whether individual donations should be capped and how this could impact on Labour’s relationship with the unions, either immediately or under a future Tory government. Tony Blair assured the NEC that there was no truth in reports of secret deals between Number 10 and opposition parties. Dennis Skinner suggested that Labour should regain the moral high ground by barring MPs from second jobs, hitting 90% of Tory MPs and their city sidelines. No-one could starve on a backbencher’s salary of £60,000 a year.
The party’s accounts were tabled, and have been published on the Electoral Commission’s website. General secretary Peter Watt added that the headline deficit of £27 million was misleading in that it included the mortgage on Old Queen Street, shortly to be sold, and a figure for long-term pension liabilities, newly required under accounting regulation FRS 17. (Governors of public bodies and company directors will be familiar with this.) Otherwise, £4 million of the loans will be repaid as originally arranged, and the others have been rescheduled. Members pointed out that the Tories, unlike Labour, had probably concealed loans from abroad, and more of their people than ours had been interviewed by the police, so they were in no position to throw stones.
Membership at 31 December 2005 was 198,026, down from 201,374, but income per member rose from £18.10 to £24, with no sign that the subscription increase had put people off. New recruits averaged 220 a week, with 57% joining through the website, and 1,233 people had rejoined. Resignations were low and stable, well below the Iraq peak. However several people stressed the importance of valuing members, some of whom are disillusioned by party spending priorities, lack of influence over policy, or inability to choose their own candidates. Christine Shawcroft cited continued impositions in Tower Hamlets and the suspension of local government committees, though on a happier note Birmingham LGC should soon be restored to life as a result of Mike Griffiths’ persistence. Union affiliations had been paid promptly, and expenditure was under tight control. The biggest fall was in high-value donations, unsurprising given the negative publicity. So there was no immediate crisis, but the gaps would need addressing if we were to fight the next elections effectively.
No-one would envy Peter Watt’s responsibilities. However NEC .members are personally liable for the debts, so it is in our interests to trust each other and ensure that we are all involved in important financial and political decisions. Dianne Hayter had drafted a paper on governance which would ensure that delegated authority was exercised within clear guidelines, and that decisions were reported and approved through subcommittee minutes and officers’ reports. This will be welcome.
One decision never reported to the NEC was the increase in conference visitors’ fees from £59 full / £29 unwaged rate to £82.25 with no concessions. Pete Willsman and I successfully argued for a lower rate where visitors could not otherwise attend, and their fee has been reduced to (I think) £35. Another was the plan to deduct unpaid subscriptions to the Association of Labour Councillors from constituency membership money, and I was pleased to support an NEC rule change to conference requiring Labour groups to collect ALC subscriptions plus any extra levy agreed by the group, lifting the threat to constituencies. However, withholding NEC ballot papers from councillors in arrears or not paying membership by direct debit caused unease. Legal advice was that they were still members but without voting rights, though the direct debit requirement had been waived in some cases.
Two other ideas did not go forward: a bar on council employees being observers to their local Labour group, and requiring party members to be legally resident, not just resident, in the UK. Constitutional amendments from constituencies would go to delegates with the organisation committee’s reasons for rejection, to be confirmed at the September NEC. They included a call for party staff to act impartially while carrying out their duties, unnecessary because codes of conduct, for instance for NEC elections, already prohibit staff from promoting particular candidates. Delegates should note that rule changes are scheduled for Monday afternoon, not Tuesday after the leader’s speech, and are encouraged to register in advance for the policy seminars, a chance for frank discussion away from the media spotlight. The NEC would also present a statement spelling out the key role of members, and adding the need to draw supporters into our activities. Rumours of rule changes giving supporters explicit rights without the requirement even to prove that they exist have turned out to be exaggerated.
Hazel Blears reported progress on the “Warwick” package of employment-related measures, including new laws on corporate manslaughter. The national policy forum was judged successful by those who attended, and I convinced the joint policy committee to allow time for constituencies to submit amendments to the final documents in 2008. However there is continuing concern that the party should have space to think creatively without ideas being vetoed by ministers.
MPs will be asked to say whether they wish to stand again by 15 September, with reselections starting in October. All-women shortlists will be decided in January 2007, with selections from May onwards. One member bemoaned the difficulty of deselecting perennially disloyal MPs, but more commonly trigger ballots with union involvement are helpful to party managers. Members disagreed on whether the standing orders of the parliamentary Labour party were the property of the PLP or of the NEC, and worried that the Chief Whip’s power to suspend MPs would be applied to the usual suspects, rather than to ex-ministers criticising their successors, which gained far more damaging coverage.
And finally the recent ethnic minorities forum attracted more than 400 members and an explosion of interest in reviving the Black Socialist Society, with four people elected to an interim steering committee. This attracted criticism from existing BSS officers as the elections were not advertised in advance, but as the society has been dormant for years no-one holds an undisputed mandate. A properly-constituted annual general meeting will be held by the end of the year, and in the meantime any black or ethnic minority member can join the BSS for £1 by contacting email@example.com
Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this to be circulated to members – and supporters – as a personal account, not an official record. Past reports are at www.annblack.com.