Ian McCartney congratulated Angela Eagle MP on her election to the NEC and welcomed the return of Pete Willsman, replacing Ruth Turner who now works in Number 10. He expressed condolences to all those affected by the 7 July bombs. These were echoed by Tony Blair who said that despite the dominating global headlines, Labour must not lose sight of the domestic agenda. In addition the party had to re-energise and renew itself to sustain the government over the long term. I asked about reports that energy-saving targets for homes were being delayed or dropped, and he promised to look into them. [I have now been assured that they are false.] He also addressed concerns including Post Office liberalisation, low levels of electoral registration, and copyright laws, whereby Cliff Richard and the Rolling Stones only receive 50 years’ protection compared with 70 years in the rest of Europe. He was praised for bringing the Olympics to London, taking a positive lead in Britain’s presidency of the European Union and, with minor dissent, for tackling climate change and Africa at the G8 summit.
But the recent attack was on everyone’s mind. There were questions about how far official Muslim leaders represented their community, whether the voices of women and young people were heard, and if it made sense to refer to “the Muslim community” as a single entity at all. John Holmes argued that problems in schools were not confined to one religion, with some academies teaching creationism as science. Tony Blair said this was not true, and he did not accept the parallel between Christianity and Islam. Some suggested that the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq had aimed to end oppression and injustice in Muslim countries, and this should be better appreciated. Members supported the search for political consensus but pointed out that while the LibDems courted Muslim votes at the general election, they opposed laws on inciting racial hatred and refused to ban BNP marches. Dennis Skinner warned against letting other parties gain any credit and urged Tony Blair not to kowtow to religious fundamentalists, and others highlighted alienation and insecurity in deprived communities.
Christine Shawcroft drew attention to the warnings of the joint intelligence committee that invading Iraq would heighten the threat from Al-Qaeda, and the recent Chatham House report that closeness to US foreign policy has borne this out. Tony Blair rejected this as dangerous talk, playing into the terrorists’ own twisted logic and allowing them to claim justification for their acts. Western policy made no difference to their goal of an Islamic super-state based on sharia law, and they were killing their own people for trying to establish democracy. Their evil ideology, no more part of genuine Islam than the Spanish inquisition represented Christianity, had to be tackled head-on, rooted out and defeated. All of us must defend politics as the only legitimate way to bring about change.
Back to Brighton
Against this background the police briefing on security at annual conference received close attention. General secretary Matt Carter is arranging better disabled access through the fence rather than over the bridge, and has made representations about the price of refreshments. There will be more women on the platform. After last year’s complaints the NEC will be placed in a more prominent position and as our seats will be in camera shot, he hoped that we would be in the hall. (And awake.) Late accreditation will only be provided for emergencies, and the NEC voted by 14 votes to 9 to finish at Thursday lunchtime. Christine, Pete and I supported the full day because fringe meetings have been booked and salami-slicing could lead to further cuts, but others argued that there was little new policy to discuss, and delegates needed to leave at midday to get home.
I asked for more publicity for the policy seminars and for earlier dispatch of papers. Christine queried the conduct of some regional briefings, where constituency delegates were told to vote for the same resolutions as the unions rather than choose their own topics, and Mike Griffiths agreed with her that all candidates standing for election to committees should get equal opportunities to address these meetings. And while various groups on the left are circulating draft contemporary motions, Downing Street is promoting texts which welcome the government’s work on pensions, choice in schools, and changes to incapacity benefit. I look forward to reading them.
Ian McCartney reported on the national policy forum meeting on 16 July. After nearly three hours of platform speeches, Hamish Sandison and Lord Falconer introduced a discussion paper on Lords reform, available on request, which sets out the parameters for debate and hopefully decision. Draft policy statements will go to conference setting out what the government has done and what is in progress, with suggestions for local campaigning, for instance tackling fly-tipping, working with anti-poverty groups, and educating members and the public about the benefits of academy schools.
I will circulate a summary of the Partnership in Power review in a separate mail. One representative said that only two out of 44 constituencies in his region had responded, which may show either total contentment or total disengagement. In particular the recommendation that constituencies could send amendments to the final Warwick-stage meeting of the national policy forum has attracted little enthusiasm, despite being intended to empower them. Many of this year’s rule changes from constituencies propose alternatives, such as submitting amendments direct to conference, and referring back parts of papers. The NEC would like these withdrawn in favour of whatever the review produces, because the work of the forum would be undermined if all-night negotiations could be undone on the conference floor, though if conference is indeed sovereign, it must in the last resort have such a right. However, contemporary motions seem safe, and were described as a way of letting off steam without wrecking the system. There will also be a 21st Century Party report to conference.
Most other constituency amendments were opposed. These included letting councillors pay membership by cheque; weakening the women’s quota for conference delegates; increasing the number of constituency members on the NEC to eight; and allowing anyone recommended by a constituency onto the national parliamentary panel. However the NEC supported the Labour Party Disabled Members Group’s amendment which adds a disability officer for constituencies. The NEC’s own amendments include my proposal that candidates for internal party committees should not have to be conference delegates, a restriction which prevented some men from ever standing.
Elections Past and Future
The results of the elections in Cheadle and South Staffordshire were noted, though Labour had not realistically expected to win either. The timetable for selecting parliamentary candidates for the next election is complicated by boundary changes and the Euro-elections in 2009, but has taken on board members’ desire to get candidates in place as soon as possible. The parliamentary panel will be open, so that candidates can be interviewed by the NEC after selection. The aim is to attain at least 40% women MPs, but details of positive action and other procedures are still to be debated. Fallout from Blaenau Gwent rumbles on, and Matt Carter will meet officers of Islwyn, where the disputes panel endorsed the expulsion of a member for her letter to the press. Although Christine, Pete and Dennis Skinner raised concerns, the panel has delegated powers and the NEC cannot overturn its decisions.
Matt Carter updated the NEC on staffing and finance. Though membership fell from 214,592 to 201,374 by the end of 2004, the rate of decline has slowed. In 2005 between 200 and 400 members joined each week, with a maximum of 1200. Rumours about selling Old Queen Street are unfounded, but the party retains a lease on 39 Victoria Street and the NEC voted by 15 in favour (including myself), one against and two abstentions to support Matt’s proposal to move all the staff into Victoria Street while seeking professional advice on long-term plans. In less than five years on the NEC I’ve been through three general secretaries, three party chairmen, and three different buildings (or five if you count the northern outposts), and all these changes must waste money.
Finally Diana Holland highlighted the TGWU contract cleaners in the House of Commons, paid £5 an hour with twelve days’ annual leave and no sick pay, who are striking to improve their conditions. We should be ashamed of such practices at the heart of our democracy, and give them our support.