Last week’s terrible events overshadowed the meeting. As we stood in silence to remember Jimmy Knapp and other former comrades, we thought also of the thousands of ordinary Americans who died. Tony Blair was talking with African leaders before a hectic round of global diplomacy, and Deputy Leader John Prescott attended on his behalf. He said that the perpetrators must be brought to justice through international co-operation. There were dangers if the United States withdrew into isolationism or acted unilaterally. As well as involving NATO and the European Union, progress in the Middle East was essential to avoid the appearance of a Western crusade against Islam. The Pakistan High Commission has now been invited to attend the party conference, reversing the NEC’s July decision, in recognition of their country’s critical role.
Everyone welcomed Tony Blair’s work with Muslims and his emphasis that terrorism is as contrary to Islam as it is to Christianity. Two council by-elections are pending in Burnley, and the British National Party is poised to exploit community tensions. Most speakers shared the widespread anxiety among party members. They hoped to avoid further loss of innocent life, and cited the proverb: “He who seeks revenge must first dig two graves.” They asked that any military action should be targeted, specific and within international law. They pointed out the gender gap, with every opinion poll showing women more opposed to war. They recalled that 11 September marked the anniversary of another attack on democracy: the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende’s government in Chile. They questioned the relevance of National Missile Defence to the present dangers: one hundred billion pounds would be better spent on airport screening, locks on cockpit doors, accurate intelligence and possibly identity cards. But overall they supported the Prime Minister in the difficult times ahead, trusting him to be an influence for moderation and rationality.
The Home Front
More familiar issues, notably the relationship between public services and the private sector, were also raised. Dennis Skinner had expected the second term to be different. The government was paying too much attention to the CBI, and our own core voters were being left behind. Union representatives wanted legal rights to flexible working for parents and others, going beyond current proposals where employees would be allowed to ask, but employers would be able to say No.
General Secretary David Triesman reported on internal matters. The party move to split sites in London and North Shields appears to be going ahead, and his negotiating skills will be tested in minimising angst among staff and disruption to services. Filling vacancies in the local government section is the top priority, with May 2002 providing Labour’s next major electoral test. European Leader Simon Murphy stressed that we must soon start campaigning for the Euro-elections in 2004.
Labour’s Spring Conference is scheduled for 1-3 February 2002 in Cardiff. Last year’s Glasgow event combined local government, European, women, youth and political education, and some groups felt that their distinctive identities were submerged in an all-purpose speechfest. NEC officers will liaise with representatives to seek a satisfactory compromise.
Despite press rumours, the party conference will go ahead. At times of crisis, understanding between party and government is needed more than ever. The theme will be delivering on Labour’s manifesto to build a fairer Britain in a fairer world, though the tone and the agenda will reflect the international situation. The NEC will meet immediately before the conference to draw up a statement for debate. Anti-globalisation protesters are expected, and while last year Labour could point to the work of Clare Short and Gordon Brown on debt relief, it would be good to show that the party continued to share their aims. The Sussex Police assured us that adequate security is in place, and delegates need not fear for their safety. Abandoning the conference would mean that the terrorists had won.
Business as Usual
The NEC returned to the normal constitutional niceties. There is still confusion over the status of the papers to be discussed at conference. They are presented as encapsulating manifesto commitments and planning their implementation, though some felt that they go rather further. Delegates will be asked to refer them to the National Policy Forum in all-or-nothing votes, so again there will be no way to amend individual items. Developing new policies will start again in the Forum in the autumn.
Margaret Wheeler, Chair of the Conference Arrangements Committee, reported that 160 contemporary resolutions had been received, and a ballot on the opening Sunday would decide which topics are debated. A constitutional amendment on this process provoked lively argument. Currently trade unions and constituencies each contribute half the votes in prioritising contemporary resolutions, but unions have the power to determine which are debated by co-ordinating their block votes. Most members accepted that this is blatantly unfair and against the spirit of Partnership in Power.
Last year an amendment calling for unions and constituencies to choose four topics each in separate votes was withdrawn after the NEC promised a solution for this year. The same amendment has now been resubmitted, and the CAC requested a further twelve months to consider more balanced voting systems. However, more immediate action was demanded, particularly by the speakers who gave their word a year ago. The NEC asked them to experiment with weighted voting at this conference, and come back with definite recommendations in 2002.
A further complication was that some trade unions can submit a resolution from each of several sections, reflecting historically separate entities which had merged, while UNISON, the largest affiliate, gets only one shot. I am happy for the unions to sort this out with the General Secretary.
Not the End of the Peer Show
This does not hold for another controversial amendment, which would exclude Labour peers from the constituency section of the NEC in line with overwhelming party feedback. The Lords clearly see themselves as part of the Parliamentary Labour Party. They want their own places on the National Policy Forum, and I have suggested this for the NEC as well. Charles Clarke belatedly offered to talk to the peers, but I have been trying to resolve this for years now. Ordinary members have just six seats, and these should not continue to be whittled down to five or fewer.
There were passionate pleas not to walk away from the problem, and ringing calls for deeds not words to rebuild party confidence, but only five actual votes: Christine and myself from the constituencies, plus Dennis Skinner, the Socialist Societies and one of the unions. So we lost, this time round. Constituencies could still vote for the amendment unless the movers withdraw it, but cannot on their own achieve the necessary two-thirds majority. The new Rulebook will also be put to conference as 15-20 separate card votes on Tuesday afternoon after Tony Blair’s speech. So delegates should stay in the hall and pay close attention. I do not have the details, but the process will surely be complicated.
Maggie Jones will chair conference, aided by Margaret Wall as Vice-Chair and Assistant Chairs Diana Holland, Lord Sawyer and Clive Soley. There was a plaintive request for the fraternal speakers, currently all chaps, to include some women. And the colour scheme for the platform will feature fetching shades of grey and lilac with good Labour red predominating as the backdrop.