The NEC spent the first day discussing priorities for the year ahead: winning elections, financial stability, and a party renewed through enhanced engagement with members and the public. Harriet Harman reassured us that despite coming down to earth after an incredibly successful conference, there was no need to feel demoralised: Labour was sure of its direction and its ability to deliver progressive change. Families, in all shapes and sizes, should be a key theme of the spring conference, and she agreed with the suggestion that equal pay should be featured. She was working with the unions, particularly their women members, though Andy Kerr of the CWU pointed out that 130,000 unhappy postal workers made it hard to fight off calls for disaffiliation.
The spotlight in next May’s elections would be on London, but marginal areas had been identified throughout the country. In 2004, the last time these seats were fought, Labour did not do well, so we could expect some gains. The leadership election had increased recruitment and cut the numbers lapsing or resigning, and membership in 2007 was likely to show a much smaller decline than in 2006. Modest increases in staffing would start to build towards a general election, though requests for a full-time youth officer are unlikely to be met, and Campaign Creator, replacing the Labour.contact software, was being rolled out nationwide. The Tories had walked out of Hayden Phillips’ talks on party funding, but Labour still hoped to legislate to end the spending arms race.
While targeting resources is sensible, several of us argued that no constituency should be ignored, because all members are important, and because every vote will count in the European list-based elections. Harriet Harman promised to encourage ministers to meet members between official engagements. Some MPs were helping east European migrants against exploitative employers, illegal deductions and overcrowded accommodation, and they are entitled to register and to vote. The BNP were a threat, but could also be a motivating factor for activists. And I was not sure we had found the right tactics to deal with Boris Johnson, who may attract the same people who used to vote for Ken.
Partnership in Power – the Next Steps
Consultation on the second-year policy documents closes at the end of February, and the policy commissions will then draft final documents to be sent out on 2 May. Constituencies will have until 20 June to submit amendments to their national policy forum representatives, who will decide by 4 July which ones to take forward to the final forum meeting on 24-27 July 2008. There were concerns about amendments being ignored by unsympathetic regional representatives, but they can also be sent to myself and other constituency NEC members, who are elected in a national ballot.
Progress was reported on some of the resolutions referred from conference, with the prosperity at work commission holding a three-hour meeting and the housing motions passed to the existing subgroup, but the movers of the equality composites are still waiting. Mike Griffiths stressed that the sceptics had to be won over. The joint policy committee must consider new questions: should policy commissions take votes, and include minority positions in their reports? He suggested that the JPC, itself the executive for the NPF, should have an inner executive, along the lines of the NEC officers. The NPF Chair Pat McFadden repeated that every member would have an input to policy, and constituencies would be asked how they carried out their “duty to consult”, but there is no sign of an end to the black hole into which submissions vanish, and about which so many complain. An NPF newsletter cannot provide the personalised service considered essential by Labour in government.
The Morning After
The formal meeting followed on Tuesday. The Chair Dianne Hayter announced that Sally Powell was sadly unable to continue as vice-chair due to family circumstances, and Cath Speight was elected, bypassing Christine Shawcroft who was next in line under the unwritten Buggins Turn convention.
When Gordon Brown joined us he said that after tackling current issues we should start the manifesto debate in the New Year and take ownership of the future. He accepted full responsibility for the events of the autumn, and would work on getting our attack right, against a Tory party which offered employment, education and opportunity only for some, while Labour would provide for all. We knew how much had to be done in organising for the next election, but we also knew we could do it.
Christine Shawcroft praised positive features of the Queen’s speech, including housing and reducing private sector involvement in the NHS. Others welcomed the increase in apprenticeships, but asked how closing Remploy factories squared with stiffer tests for incapacity benefit. Dennis Skinner called for the government to take over Northern Rock, if only on a temporary basis, and Gordon Brown pointed out that the Tories didn’t care if mortgage-holders lost their homes. He promised that the low pay commission would look at whether younger workers should still receive a lower minimum wage.
War and Peace
Walter Wolfgang asked for a commitment that Britain would never participate in or condone military action against Iran. Sanctions played into the hands of Iranian hardliners, and the United States allowed Israel, India and Pakistan to hold nuclear weapons. Gordon Brown responded that Iran was reneging on the non-proliferation treaty which they had signed. He believed that sanctions backed by the international community, coupled with help in developing civil nuclear power, would be effective.
Walter also proposed a resolution, seconded by Christine Shawcroft, that terrorist suspects should not be detained without charge beyond 28 days. Pete Willsman quoted John Stuart Mill on liberty, and cited opponents, including former attorney-general Lord Goldsmith and, at first, Lord West. Gordon Brown said he was seeking consensus on when longer detention could be justified, and on necessary safeguards. He was supported by Harriet Harman and others, who argued that comparisons with other countries were spurious and people could actually be locked up for months. Also the human rights act could override any law. Dennis Skinner pointed out that even if the vote was won in the Commons it would be lost in the Lords. The NEC voted to refer the resolution to the crime, justice, citizenship and equalities commission, with six against (Dennis, Pete, Christine, Walter, myself and Andy Kerr).
Gordon Brown then had to leave, though at the time we did not know that Alistair Darling would shortly announce the lost child benefit data. I handed in written questions on (a) how tough talk on climate change could be reconciled with airport expansion (b) the impact of airport-style security at stations on rail travel (c) whether so-called lie-detector tests are planned for benefit claimants and (d) how to make education until the age of 18 attractive, not just two more years’ incarceration.
Selections and Conferences
The NEC agreed proposals for fast-track approval of selected parliamentary candidates and applicants for the national panel, until the backlog is cleared. Regional directors will decide if a full interview is needed, and if not, candidates will be assessed over the telephone by the director and a member of the NEC or the regional board. The trigger timetable for MEPs standing in the 2009 Euro-elections had still not reached constituencies, and as the deadline was 31 January, I asked that decisions by general committees should be the norm, rather than the full branch-based process. This was accepted. Finally a number of all-women shortlists were endorsed, though Airdrie and Shotts will get a further visit.
Margaret Wheeler reported positive feedback from conference on stewarding and security, but the usual complaints about too many longwinded platform speakers. This time 525 delegates from 501 constituencies attended, similar to previous years. Pete Willsman highlighted the problems of constituencies permanently excluded because they cannot find women delegates, and I am lobbying for an NEC rule change to help with this. Pete also pointed out that we have still not had the full results from the 2006 conference and NEC elections. I raised the lack of affordable accommodation in Manchester next year, and 400 more rooms at under £100 a night are now being released to delegates.
Immediately after the meeting I attended the council of the party of European socialists in Sofia as part of the Labour delegation, which gave interesting insights into the perspective of sister parties. There was particular concern about rising tension as Kosovo seeks full independence. Denis Macshane MP and international manager Rachel Cowburn defended Britain’s red lines and ensured that policy documents were acceptable as the basis for the 2009 Europe-wide socialist manifesto, and these are available for consultation at http://manifesto2009.pes.org/