NEC Meeting, 19 March 2013

The meeting opened with campaign updates from Tom Watson and Iain McNicol.   More organisers are being trained and deployed, and more staff recruited in the regions. The county elections are hard to predict, with many boundary changes, but some gains are expected: even Tory heartlands have been hit by falling living standards, with high streets dominated by pawnbrokers and payday lenders.

Parliamentary selections are going ahead in target seats after the organisation committee decided which will use all-women shortlists (AWS) and which will be open. Inevitably some were disappointed, though Colne Valley members took a positive approach and boosted approval of their AWS from 14% to 48% in a local online poll. Open selections are not the only way to increase diversity: new black and Asian MPs can be and have been selected from AWS. (However I do not recall agreeing that retiring women MPs would automatically be replaced by women, as Iain McNicol stated.) And the real crunch will come when Labour MPs stand down and the safe seats become available.

Last time I raised problems for constituencies with very few branches, as candidates cannot go forward without branch or affiliate nominations. I am pleased that the procedure has been amended, so that where there are four or fewer branches, members can meet on council ward boundaries for the purpose of making nominations. This should give more choice, and it will also apply to trigger ballots.

Dress Rehearsal

Before then, the European elections on 22 May 2014 will test national opinion. The government will decide whether to hold local elections on the same day, and there were sharp exchanges on whether this was desirable: some thought that a combined date would damage council prospects, while others argued that Labour was committed to fighting at every level: local, national and international.   I sided with the latter. If they are separate, the turnout for the Euro-elections may hit record lows.

In several regions Labour MEPs are standing down, and the top candidate, in most cases a woman, should become the new MEP. Regional board panels decide who is on the lists, but the order will be determined by individual members in postal ballots from early June to the end of July. I urge you to vote for the people best qualified to speak for Labour in Europe. I stand in one-member-one-vote elections for the NEC, and the results can be pretty random. This ballot is far more important.

Eds United (1)

On the day before the budget Ed Balls stressed that George Osborne had failed every one of his own tests: three wasted years, as Dennis Skinner put it. Living standards and lending continued to fall, and Britain was losing skilled jobs. Borrowing for 2015/16 was soaring towards £80 billion, and claims that Labour would borrow more were false: we would, however, spend more productively. The Tories could not tackle tax avoidance by sacking tax inspectors, and were doing nothing to save the economy.

Many members urged him to pledge to reverse the bedroom tax, where social housing tenants lose benefit if they are judged to have too many rooms. Ed Balls described the tax as wrong morally and economically. The government knows that there are not enough smaller properties for those trying to downsize, and people pushed into private renting may actually end up claiming more housing benefit. A few concessions had been extracted for foster parents, some disabled people, families with members in the forces and separated couples with children, but resistance would continue, with 55 local demonstrations in a single weekend. The community charge was doomed once everyone started calling it the poll tax, and hopefully the Tory spare room subsidy would go the same way.

However he would not make specific promises two years out from an election and risk being hammered by “tax bombshell” propaganda. He was backed by Ken Livingstone, who took part in pre-1992 policy decisions when the NEC was still a power in the land and described them, with hindsight, as errors.   I asked about recent announcements that Labour would use a mansion tax to restore the 10% tax band, but apparently this is not a manifesto commitment. I was doubtful about both halves: the 10% band gives nothing to those who earn less than the tax threshold and spreads the jam thinly across all basic rate taxpayers, while pensioners may have a valuable family home but little income.

Members were also concerned about public spending cuts and pay restraint. Iain Duncan Smith was no friend of the dispossessed: it was people’s own fault if they were poor, and they should stop whingeing. Labour must take a higher, bolder, more moral position.   Ed Balls agreed, starting with the vote against a 1% cap on working-age benefits: Tory attempts to split strivers from skivers had failed, with 70% of those affected in jobs, and many of the rest desperate for work. There were disturbing stories of job centres being set targets for docking benefits, and Liam Byrne was collecting evidence.

Eds United (2)

Ed Miliband reinforced these themes. Ed Balls had been right on all the fundamentals since 2010, George Osborne was standing up for the wrong people, and Labour would continue arguing for both growth and fairness. However the NEC expressed anger at the frontbench decision to abstain on a bill allowing the government to keep the money from sanctions imposed on benefit claimaints. Ed Miliband said that this was not just about Poundland, where Cait Reilly lost her job-seeker’s allowance for refusing to work without pay, but could mean refunding money from all the 230,000 sanctions imposed since 2011. That would be out of line with Labour’s consistent support for sanctions as a vital element of back-to-work schemes.   Also Labour had secured protection of appeal rights and an independent review of the sanctions regime. I sense that this may not be sufficient for many critics.

Christine Shawcroft asked about cheaper alternatives to Trident, including the cheapest option of not replacing it at all, endorsed last year by national policy forum members and by senior military figures (and indeed by Michael Portillo). Ed Miliband replied that he wanted a nuclear-free world achieved through multilateral disarmament, but we should spend no more than we needed for effective defence.

I passed on comments from members that it was time to stop apologising and take pride in Labour’s achievements. Ed Miliband disagreed. A party losing power should acknowledge mistakes – on Iraq, on banking regulation, on immigration – rather than tell the voters that they were wrong. However it was important also to spell out how we would put things right. Harriet Harman reported on Leveson developments, and said that if the media refused to co-operate the deal could still unravel.

Wheels Within Wheels

Angela Eagle gave an upbeat assessment of Agenda 2015 as open and participatory, with 750 contributions received through the Your Britain site, and reproached cynics who were only looking for the next betrayal. Updated challenge papers would be published for discussion in April and May. However the bus and rail paper excludes rail franchising despite many submissions, and options on housing have been described as cautious and narrow. And I was bemused to see votes at 16 as an option in the young people and politics paper. This went through the national policy forum in 2004, and again in 2008 when it was endorsed by annual conference. It is party policy.

But I am most concerned that all the serious stuff is happening within Jon Cruddas’ shadow cabinet review. Jon explained that his groups had agreed their membership and work programmes and commissioned 20 separate papers. I asked why welfare was absent from Your Britain, why Wonga was invited to advise on managing personal debt, and how members could contribute to the review of higher education, including fees, funding and relations with the wider economy. There have been briefings, seminars and meetings with vice-chancellors, but no obvious engagement with academic and support staff or students or with the wider movement, a rich source of expertise. Others also felt that members were being fobbed off with trivia, while the big boys and girls in the shadow cabinet review got the important, meaty issues. They asked for a diagram of how it all fits together. Dennis Skinner said that Wonga should be out, no ifs, no buts. Jon Cruddas agreed that the process looked impenetrable, and he would find out if the NEC were allowed to see the 20 papers under development.

Opening Bids

Under Refounding Labour, most of the membership income which formerly went to constituencies was moved to an NEC fund which would support local campaigning and promote diversity and democracy. This amounts to more than £350,000 a year. For 2012, £112,000 was set aside to cushion transition to the new system, and the balance was allocated based on bids received and approved. However the fund was underspent, due to delays in recruiting organisers and over-optimistic fundraising predictions, and this £115,000 is being channelled into training more organisers. In future the national party will take a more proactive approach in matching qualified organisers with vacancies, and this is welcome.

For 2013, £150,000 is already committed for bids agreed in 2012. Of the £200,000 available, £50,000 will be topsliced for the central organiser fund in 2013 and in 2014, leaving £150,000 for new bids from local parties. Application forms for 2013/2014 are on their way, with a deadline of 24 May 2013.

Finally, Lord Rennard’s behaviour is unlikely to be solely a LibDem problem. Guidelines for dealing with sexual harassment were noted, and a working group is reviewing all our complaints procedures.