On Monday evening NEC members attended the parliamentary Labour party meeting. Many tributes were paid to the Chair Tony Lloyd, leaving after six years to stand as the police and crime commissioner for Manchester. In that time he has steered the PLP through electoral triumph and disaster, the expenses scandal and two leadership contests; he was instrumental in getting Diane Abbott onto the ballot, and has always put the good of the party before his own ego. His successor is David Watts.
Ed Balls then previewed the budget, where the government would be judged on jobs and growth, and on fairness and social justice. Instead the economy was flatlining, public service job losses far outweighed new jobs in the private sector, and raising the tax credit threshold from 16 to 24 hours a week would leave many couples better off on benefits. According to Tory logic those paid over £150,000 must be incentivised by making them richer, while those earning under £17,000 would be incentivised by making them poorer. However Labour faced tough choices if voters were to trust us again. Public sector pay restraint was better than redundancies, but those earning under £21,000 should at least receive the £250 promised by the Tories. Labour opposed regional pay, which would cost more by setting hospitals and schools against each other and attract everyone to London rather than spreading prosperity.
On Tuesday the NEC followed up these themes, first with Ed Miliband. So much had been leaked that the battle lines were clear, except for the surprise news that pensioners will pay for cutting the top tax rate. Cracking down on avoidance but giving the money back anyway was perverse. Even if the 50% band raised “only” £400,000, keeping it could preserve tax credits, and “all in it together” was dead in the water. I asked whether £250 for low-paid public servants meant tighter restrictions higher up the scale, to which the answer seemed to be Yes. This would hit the squeezed middle, though Ed Miliband also stressed the plight of the “battered base”, a welcome recognition of those at the bottom. He shared concerns about closing Remploy factories, freezing the minimum wage and attacking employment rights. Although the health and social care bill was in its final stages this was just the end of the beginning. Some were worried that repealing it when Labour returned to power would cause fresh disruption, but he explained that only the market elements would be reversed; primary care trusts would not be restored.
Ed Balls joined the meeting later. Members asked for positive alternatives, including investment in roads and housing, as well as robust criticism. Bogus self-employment was spreading from the construction industry, and if Sunday trading during the Olympics was agreed, it must not become the thin end of a wedge. I passed on a message from recent local discussion: child benefit and child tax credits are a means of “horizontal redistribution” in that whatever the level of household income, children bring extra costs, and by cutting these payments the Tories are shifting money away from families with children.
He was sympathetic to much of this, but repeated that we could not ignore the deficit or tackle it solely through closing tax loopholes. In 2010 more UNISON and Unite members voted Tory than Labour because they did not trust us to take tough choices. I remain unconvinced that they will be won over by tough choices which directly hit their pay, pensions and job security, but doubtless we will find out.
On health Harriet Harman highlighted conflicts of interest in which GPs could set up private companies and commission medical services from themselves. And the vultures are gathering: an NEC member surreptitiously checking his e-mail read out a spam message asking “can you afford to be without private health insurance, with waiting lists out of control and NHS reforms causing huge uncertainty?”
She circulated a list of regional champions who will provide political leadership and direct links to the shadow cabinet, particularly important where Labour MPs are thin on the ground. They are Ed Balls (Eastern) Vernon Coaker (East Midlands), Tessa Jowell (London), Maria Eagle (North), Ivan Lewis (North West), Caroline Flint (South East), Jan Royall (South West), Liam Byrne (West Midlands), Mary Creagh (Yorkshire & Humber), Margaret Curran (Scotland) and Peter Hain (Wales).
Imran Hussain is Labour’s candidate in the Bradford West by-election on 29 March, followed by a variety of local and other elections which Tom Watson is attempting to co-ordinate. Much attention is focused on London, though as Ken and Boris both built their reputations as independents it may be hard to generalise from the result. Tom said that immediately after the general election most voters thought that cuts were both necessary and fair. They still think cuts are necessary, but no longer fair, and should be open to credible alternatives. So the theme is: “the Tories are out of touch, while Labour will make tough but responsible choices for you and your family”, though some considered “out of touch” too mild.
November will see elections for police and crime commissioners and perhaps more mayors, and any Labour MPs selected as candidates will stand down in time for by-elections to be held on the same date. Looking ahead, candidates for county elections in May 2013 should be chosen as soon as possible.
A further batch of seats will be able to choose parliamentary candidates, after decisions on all-women-shortlists: they are Bristol South, Cannock Chase, Carlisle, Crewe & Nantwich, Gillingham & Rainham, Gloucester, Milton Keynes North, Reading East, Redcar, Stafford and Tamworth. Exceptionally the three seats in Brighton and Hove were authorised to select candidates on new boundaries. The organisation committee agreed model contracts for parliamentary and police commissioner candidates, and guidelines for council candidates. These last allow much local discretion, and it was accepted that where the aim is simply to get names on ballot papers, imposing any contract would deter volunteers.
The NEC recorded thanks to party staff for staging successful regional, Scottish and Welsh conferences. Agendas seem to have ranged widely: in the south-east there were no policy workshops, while Scotland debated eight resolutions. These included a call for Scottish Labour to oppose further public sector pay freezes for low and middle earners, and a motion which appears lukewarm about minimum alcohol pricing and favours a UK-wide taxation-based alternative. I asked about the little-publicised youth conference in Coventry, where Ed Miliband gave a speech. With local government planning a two-day event next year, perhaps a proper spring conference could be revived within available resources.
General secretary Iain McNicol clarified the new management structure, about which there has been much gossip. The aim is to bring together the parliamentary party, the shadow cabinet, the leader’s office, national HQ and the regions. He was working closely with Tim Livesey, Ed Miliband’s chief of staff, and Charles Allen would continue to advise through the period of change. The executive board has been retitled the management board to avoid confusion with the NEC, and will report to the NEC officers. The officers will also meet regularly with the leader, and all NEC members will be kept in the loop. Keith Vaz regretted the board’s all-white composition, and others noted that only one out of six executive directors is a woman, but we were assured that appointments were made solely on merit.
Deja Vu All Over Again
Peter Hain introduced a discussion paper on Partnership into Power. As with previous reviews the focus is on central structures, whereas in my experience members want two things: signs that their views have been read and understood, and ways of raising issues through party channels, including conference. Peter Hain believed that if the joint policy committee discussed policy rather than process, attendance would improve, and said that no-one wanted the NEC to regain a role in policy-making. While he envisaged conference having more choices, it is not clear how those choices would arrive.
Short policy papers will be circulated in May before a national policy forum on 16/17 June, leaving little time for local input. I am still (18 months and counting) pursuing the shadow cabinet groups. A number of reports will be produced for conference, on school reform; women’s safety; young people’s services; a British investment bank; moving care into people’s homes; commuters; small business; consumers’ investigation; the green economy; reform of the private rented sector; a something-for-something bargain on welfare; creative industries; and diagnostics. I hope that members will be able to contribute.
On other Refounding Labour issues, women MPs had written to Peter Hain regretting failure to include a women’s officer in the core constituency team, showing that like other members they were not able to check every line before the new rulebook was endorsed by conference. On gender and the leadership team the current preferred option is for two deputy leaders, a man and a woman. The first tranche of money has been awarded to local parties who lose out under funding changes, and constituencies will shortly be consulted on the mechanics of post-boundary change reorganisation.
An NEC delegation had met the Northern Ireland party and discussed the way forward, including consultation with our sister parties the ILP and the SDLP. The Labour Finance and Industry Group and the Labour Movement for Europe were accepted as affiliates. And NEC members joined Glenis Willmott MEP in deploring Jack Straw’s call to abolish the directly-elected European parliament.