The prime minister reviewed the summer with justified satisfaction. Despite terrorist attacks, floods, foot-and-mouth and financial turbulence Labour had turned the polls around since last year. But people voted for what parties would do in the future, and we would only keep their trust by listening. NEC members duly suggested things that he might listen to, starting with dismay at his admiration for Margaret Thatcher as a conviction politician (“so was Pol Pot”, someone commented). Gordon Brown said that prime ministers always invited their predecessors as a courtesy, and working with people from other parties showed strength. I doubt if many object to disaffected Tories or fellow-travelling LibDems writing reports on rainforests or childcare, and even Patrick Mercer is working with Trevor Phillips despite his remarks about ethnic minorities, but “that woman” destroyed too many lives and livelihoods. However Gordon Brown responded with a passionate list of dividing lines which would make a splendid conference speech: three million new homes, grants for two-thirds of students, individual tuition in state schools, near-full employment, international aid, investment in health, and protecting those at risk, most recently by intervening to stop the Northern Rock panic. In contrast the Tories presided over sky-high interest rates, negative equity and repossessions, and would slash taxes at the expense of public services. And his subsequent decision to boycott the Europe-Africa summit if Robert Mugabe is present will reassure those who want to see some limit to the Big Tent.
The shift in body language towards George Bush was welcomed, with Muslim voters in particular ready to accept Iraq as a past mistake and come home to Labour. Gordon Brown assured Walter Wolfgang that Britain was pursuing diplomatic rather than military options with regard to Iran, and he was meeting a delegation from Colombia, where human rights abuses are widespread. Responding to Christine Shawcroft, who asked him to listen to those opposed to American use of Fylingdales and Menwith Hill, he said the “missile defence” programme was mainly based in Eastern Europe. He reassured Gary Titley that a referendum on the European reform treaty was still unnecessary, despite the opportunistic attacks of Thatcherite Tories (and, I regret to say, some prominent Labour figures). Other concerns included agency workers; spending on health and safety (more building workers die in accidents than British soldiers in Iraq); European action against converted weapons; and privatisation of homecare services leaving elderly people unvisited at weekends. On Remploy, Gordon Brown promised to seek a solution which protected jobs and pensions. Pete Willsman warned against Callaghan-style pay freezes, with tensions exacerbated by multi-million pound city bonuses. And Dennis Skinner worried about trust, with too many people in the Northern Rock queues convinced that politicians lied to them about everything.
Renewal or Repression?
On this theme, Gordon Brown stressed that how we conducted politics was as important as the policies themselves, within the party and the community. His plans for change attracted comments from 173 individuals and 90 affiliated organisations, constituencies and other units, meaning that only one in eight constituencies responded, perhaps because hard copies were not sent out. They were discussed extensively with trade union general secretaries over the summer, and party staff were already lobbying constituency delegates, but the rest of us had only five minutes to read the final version. Some recommendations had stayed: more local policy forums and community engagement and better communication with national policy forum members, though no sign that they will be enabled to contact constituencies and vice versa. The extra twelve NPF members had been dropped, but there was a surprise new move to add four NPF members to the conference arrangements committee.
Conference would no longer debate contemporary resolutions. Instead constituencies and affiliates would submit contemporary issues, subject to the same arbitrary criteria as now, and ranked in a priorities ballot. The movers of the winning topics would then discuss with policy commissions how these might be progressed. After hearing speakers, conference would vote on whether they still thought the issue was important, in which case there would be specific reportbacks to the following year’s conference, which would express satisfaction or otherwise. Once in each parliament all members would be balloted on the party programme: a short summary would be circulated, with the full papers available on the website, and the poll conducted mainly online and by telephone.
NEC members’ views were predictable, with some inspired by the spirit of Neil Kinnock and others fearing the final death of democracy. Some saw contemporary motions as a necessary safety-valve, and the government would not be defeated if it listened; others thought they exposed crude voting power, political weakness and damaging divisions. Perhaps most honestly, party procedures had always involved fixing and this was just a different fix, though Gordon Brown preferred to stress the principled nature of his ideas. Christine Shawcroft spoke for mainstream activists in asking, in vain, for opportunities to amend or refer back parts of NPF documents rather than yes/no take-it-or-leave-it votes. Indeed the NEC itself was not allowed to vote on the rule changes separately, and the package was carried with four against (Christine, Walter Wolfgang, Dennis Skinner and myself, with Pete Willsman adding belated dissent), in my case mainly because of unhappiness with the process. The unions have accepted the promise of a review after two years in return for their support, and were right not to threaten to defeat a popular prime minister at his first conference. However I remain concerned that Gordon Brown described this exercise as a model for future policy development. It is bad tactics to exclude people and then to bounce them. I am still pushing for closer links between the NEC and the joint policy committee, including constituency representation, and this may be discussed further, along with Jeremy Beecham’s proposals for reserved places for Scottish and Welsh representatives.
Standing back, I doubt that much of this will matter on the ground. What members want is first, a Labour government that pursues policies of which they generally approve, and second, responses to letters and mails which show that someone has read and understood what they are saying. In ten years of Partnership in Power they have been repeatedly promised proper feedback and real influence. The requirements for success were summed up as resources and trust, and we now have to deliver both.
Harriet in the High Street
Deputy leader Harriet Harman spoke of her campaigning in marginal seats and her work with trade unions, especially in mobilising women members. She found voters’ priorities were housing and youth services, though others reported complaints about broken pavements and immigration, and xenophobia against new eastern European groups. She had asked Operation Black Vote to look at how all-black and ethnic minority shortlists could work in practice, with legislation a possibility.
General secretary Peter Watt reported that resources were in reasonably good shape. The Tories did not seem to want agreement on Hayden Phillips and party funding, but he thought Labour would end up in a position which members would find acceptable. I asked when constituencies would get the extra membership money agreed in the 2005 rule change. This raised standard subscriptions from £24 to £36 and assigned the extra £12 to a campaign fund, held by the national party except in the year of a general election when it is paid to constituencies, giving them £20 instead of £8 per full-rate member. With rumour and speculation rife, local parties need to plan their budgets, but I am now concerned that we may not get the money until after the election. For some of us that will be too late.
The main themes would be education, health, law and order, housing and a strong economy. Though environment was not included, this year’s conference would be greener, with carpeting recycled and exhibitors encouraged to minimise paper and plastic bags. The NEC would propose a rule change allowing the black socialist society executive to attend conference and, in a welcome U-turn, supported a constituency amendment excluding ministers from the conference arrangements committee. The socialist health association’s proposal to change clause IV was opposed, as it would have removed some rather good bits. Bethnal Green & Bow would be asked to remit their amendment on reducing thresholds for extra women and youth delegates, with an assurance that the NEC would review all thresholds in the light of membership levels. I also hope to look at the interpretation of the gender quota, which permanently bars some constituencies from conference. And finally there will be a national spring conference, in Birmingham, either 14/16 February or 28 February/1 March 2008.