NEC Chair Mary Turner congratulated Tony Blair and John Prescott on their tenth anniversary as leader and deputy leader. Apologies for absence included Mick Cash of the RMT, though no-one is quite sure of his status since his union became disaffiliated. The prime minister was again away, and John Prescott reported on his behalf. The latest comprehensive spending review confirmed Labour’s commitment to public services, while the Butler inquiry was the fourth investigation to confirm that everyone acted in good faith over the war, and the world was a safer place without Saddam Hussein.
This is debatable, but the NEC was more united in agreeing that the world would be a safer place without George Bush and hoping that John Kerry would win in November. However John Prescott pointed out that the Democrats were if anything more partisan towards Israel. On Kashmir, he said that India and Pakistan had to resolve their differences; Britain, as a former colonial power, could not intervene directly. There was anxiety about whether Iran would be Bush’s next target, strong opposition to the Israeli Wall, and encouragement for Muslim peace-keepers in Iraq.
Members celebrated the commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid by 2013. They were less happy with Tony Blair’s Tebbit-like references to the 1960s as a time when people were brought up with no parental discipline or sense of responsibility. The selfish me-first Thatcherite 1980s were surely a more corrosive influence. Reshuffle rumours were disturbing, and many people expressed confidence in Ian McCartney, even those who had not wanted a party chairman in the first place. He was the third postholder in three years, and the job needed continuity; it was not a transit camp.
Although 27 NorthWest MPs oppose a regional assembly, John Prescott was advised that they did not reflect public opinion. However he said that he might have to postpone two of the three referendums until the electoral commission completed its inquiry into postal vote complaints, and admitted that it was difficult when half your troops were facing in the wrong direction. Christine Shawcroft regretted further insensitive announcements of civil service job losses.
Win Some, Lose Some
Ian McCartney thanked everyone who helped in the recent by-elections. Labour did well to hold Birmingham Hodge Hill, though the swing against us was worse there than in Leicester South which we lost. Some criticised Liam Byrne’s acceptance speech for tarring all young people as yobs, but Ian fiercely defended him. We had to understand the reality of life on devastated inner-city estates, where people were afraid to leave their homes at night, and so far their environment had failed to improve. Dennis Skinner worried that he didn’t know why we were losing. On the doorstep the vote seemed solid and the mood music was good. Were they lying to us? And I was concerned that Labour’s public reaction to the results appeared complacent. Away from the media spotlight, we have to look honestly at whether we need to change, to reconnect with our own supporters.
The process of choosing parliamentary candidates continues. In Scotland, with drastic boundary changes, three sitting MPs have so far failed to find a berth and they will get a shot at any further vacancies arising from late retirements. However the NEC refused to let the candidate from Dundee East try his luck in the newly-available and more winnable seat of Dundee West. Gender balance will have to wait, and I stressed the need to justify this to the casualties of positive action in local government. And Helen Jackson reported that only three women had been selected as Labour candidates in the 40 by-elections since 1992, a shocking figure.
On the Record
We discussed at some length whether resolutions agreed by the NEC should be recorded in the minutes. The general secretary resisted on the grounds of staff workload, and others felt it would give resolutions too much importance. I believe that it does matter, and will continue to publish the full text. In general, minutes are so brief that anyone not at a meeting has little idea of what happened.
The draft timetable again scheduled delegates’ briefings for Sunday morning, excluding the unions who hold their pre-meetings at this time. They suggested putting regional briefings for constituency delegates first, followed by the general briefings. So conference now begins early on Sunday with an official pre-conference, and morning fringe events will be increasingly marginalised.
The NEC is proposing a raft of rule changes, most of which are hopefully uncontentious. Procedures around financial reporting and locally-held property will be clarified, ethnic minority forums along the same lines as women’s forums will be enabled, and rules for Labour groups will be updated. Possible changes to the Clause V committee, which agrees the election manifesto, were deferred to allow further discussion. Currently this consists of the parliamentary committee (a mix of ministers and backbenchers) and the NEC. The proposal was to remove the parliamentary committee ministers and add three more union officials, the chair and vice-chairs of the National Policy Forum, and the entire cabinet, a total of 62 members instead of 44. Many argued that cabinet members do not need voting rights because they have already endorsed all policy documents. I agree, but more important is the work leading up to the manifesto. In 2001 we had one hour to read a 60-page draft and one hour to agree it, with no possibility of significant change by that stage, so this meeting is largely ceremonial.
Amendments from constituencies met the usual lack of support. Some were recommended for remission to the Partnership in Power review, including Beckenham on sending resolutions to conference, Westmorland & Lonsdale on referring back parts of documents, and assorted CLPs on permitting conference to amend National Policy Forum papers. However, the movers should not expect to get what they want. Bethnal Green and Bow’s move to allow constituencies two delegates for the first 749 members was rejected 16-4 (myself, Mark Seddon, Christine Shawcroft and Dennis Skinner), though the general secretary will investigate the reasons for falling attendance by constituencies, down by 9% from 2002 to 2003 alone. West Suffolk’s move to increase constituency places on the NEC from six to eight was similarly dismissed. And Manchester Central’s call for an elected party chair was opposed because the current system gives most long-serving NEC members the honour of becoming chair or vice-chair of the NEC and conference in the fullness of time.
Ian McCartney announced arrangements for the forthcoming National Policy Forum, and Matthew Taylor reported on the Big Conversation. This was tackling public disengagement from politics, changing minds through in-depth discussion, and gaining surprisingly good media coverage. Matthew said that participants were pleased to see MPs listening, and no-one had asked for evidence that their views would make any difference. NEC members reported on their own variations and possible applications, for instance leading up to the European referendum Some commented that the Big Conversation was achieving what had been intended for first-year National Policy Forum documents.
How Others See Us
Europe is at the end of the agenda and MEPs were in Strasbourg at the opening of the new parliament, so there was no discussion. However leader Gary Titley’s written report struck a sobering note, saying: “There is frankly a very strong anti-British sentiment in the Socialist Group”. This arises partly from Britain’s pro-Iraq war stance, but also from British influence on the constitution and on the choice of Jose Barroso as commission president. The latter was resented because Jose Barroso was seen as part of the Bush/Blair camp, and because the UK blocked other more “federalist” candidates. British unpopularity surfaced in Terry Wynn MEP’s failure to gain the Socialist nomination for president of the parliament, and could damage British chances of gaining key committee positions. As some consolation, Linda McAvan MEP was elected as Treasurer of the Socialist Group.