Acting leader Harriet Harman paid tribute to Dianne Hayter, who has left the NEC for the House of Lords, for her work in many roles and her independent-mindedness combined with fierce loyalty. As usual the NEC stood in silence in memory of comrades who had died since the last meeting, including former MP Rudi Vis and Leslie Turner, indefatigable campaigner, particularly on housing, for 77 years.
She expressed foreboding about the impact of cuts and privatisation on working people and users of public services. She thanked shadow cabinet colleagues for continuing to work as hard as they did in government: Labour was landing effective blows on Tory/LibDem ministers over health and education, and campaigning against the rise in VAT. She feared that boundary changes based on incomplete electoral registers would disfranchise up to four million people, including disproportionate numbers of the young, ethnic minorities and those in rented homes. Some members suggested making voting compulsory, though Pete Willsman considered this against British tradition.
Rules for electing the shadow cabinet were under review. Harriet Harman favoured phased progress towards 50% women, starting with 30%, then 40% the following year and 50% the year after, to allow newly-elected women MPs to show their abilities, though some NEC members wanted an immediate 50% quota. In October the equalities committee will focus on ethnic minority representation.
Of the 30,000 people who have joined or rejoined Labour this year, a third were disillusioned LibDems, and others were longtime supporters who now feel that voting is not enough. Over 40% are women, a third are under 30, and they are keen to discuss and influence policy. The national party is arranging events and sending information, but constituencies have a vital role in welcoming them.
Members praised Harriet Harman for her parliamentary performance. They were alarmed that the academies bill was being pushed through with minimal consultation and school rebuilding plans were being cancelled, throwing thousands of construction workers onto the dole. State benefits and occupational pensions would steadily decline in value now they are linked to the consumer price index, usually lower than the retail price index which includes housing costs. And Christine Shawcroft said that Alistair Darling’s warning of cuts “deeper than Thatcher” gave credence to ConDem claims that there was no alternative, and instead we should explain that spending was necessary to avoid financial meltdown. Public servants should not lose pay and pensions because of irresponsible bankers.
Glenis Willmott MEP pointed out that Labour could still influence legislation through Europe. She highlighted Tory opposition to cracking down on bankers’ bonuses and, despite their professed concern about obesity, to effective food labelling schemes using the “traffic light” system.
The NEC considered plans for supporting constituencies in the light of evidence that election results correlate strongly with local activity. A training academy would offer modules on all aspects of campaigning, more organisers would be recruited in marginal and heartland seats, and all local parties would be able to “earn” free direct mail by achieving performance targets including high contact rates.
Unfortunately constituencies cannot yet select candidates because of boundary changes which could radically change the electoral map. Wales may lose 10 of its 40 seats. However, it was suggested that constituencies could identify parliamentary spokespersons / campaign leaders to provide a public face for Labour. They would have no automatic right to be selected as the eventual candidate, though effective performance would surely help them. The national panel would be replaced with a new “campaigners panel”. Some MPs were unhappy, particularly those from core Labour areas with shrinking populations, as new boundaries could lead to surplus Labour MPs being challenged by “campaign leaders” in nearby constituencies. Ambitious wannabes could always find a marginal seat to work in. But the south-east, south-west and eastern regions have only ten MPs out of 200 seats, and unless we recoup our losses here, Labour will never govern again.
There will be further discussion, and I have asked for guidelines to enable constituencies to choose suitable people. The full selection procedure is awaiting review, but I flagged up a number of issues: shortening the process, postal votes, access to membership lists, spending limits, and deposits from candidates who promise to attend hustings, to be refunded if they show up. (The last two were referred to the NEC from the 2009 conference.) MPs are thought unlikely to agree to lodging a hefty sum with their constituency, to be kept if they stood down at the last minute, but the NEC officers would talk to the backbench parliamentary committee about how to deal with the problem.
Since May the procedures committee have been keeping an eye on the contest. As the clock ticked towards noon on 9 June suspense rose until it was announced that five candidates had gained the necessary 33 nominations. I did what I could to get Diane Abbott onto the ballot, driven by members’ desire for a wider choice, and believe that hustings have been considerably enlivened thereby. I am sorry they cannot be held in every county and every town. Fundraising is being monitored, and spending on printing, mailings and phonebanks is limited to £1 per party member.
Voting booklets will go out from 1 September with a closing date of 22 September, together with ballot papers for the NEC and national policy forum constituency places and, in London, for the mayoral candidate. The NEC agreed, with two against and four abstentions, that Pete Willsman had been validly nominated for this year’s election. In the socialist societies section Simon Wright was elected unopposed to complete Dianne Hayter’s remaining year of office, and the unions argued that they should be able to fill their twelfth seat, left vacant in 2009 because only five women were nominated.
The new leader will be unveiled at 4 p.m. on Saturday 25 September, and there will be a women’s summit on the Sunday morning. Members argued that though former ministers should be appreciated, the conference programme should showcase Labour’s future talent. Motions will return to conference, probably with a ten-word summary of the issue followed by 250 words in resolutionary style. For 12 years the content has been restricted to events after 1 August, but Peter Kenyon and others argued that this was unreasonable. No policy-making body has met since April, and members should surely be entitled to comment on the activities of the new government and Labour’s response.
The NEC agreed to propose two rule changes. The one-member-one-vote ballot on the draft manifesto, introduced in 2007 but never implemented because of cost and political risk, would be deleted. And where the leader and deputy leader are in place the onus would be on a challenger to obtain the support of 20% of MPs, rather than the party inviting nominations every year. This was carried with Peter Kenyon, Andy Kerr, Christine Shawcroft and Pete Willsman voting against.
Other amendments would be opposed unless they are referred to the NEC. Mitcham & Morden’s proposal for one-member-one-vote elections for all sections of all committees would waste trade union funds, and Lancaster & Fleetwood’s request for rule changes to be debated in the year they are submitted would give the party insufficient time to consider implications. East Lothian’s wish for MPs to be reselected by an all-member vote, while understandable, did not find favour with the unions. And the disabled members’ request for disability officers to be core constituency officers may be considered when current arrangements have bedded down, though local parties are free to adapt the model rules.
Conference will also launch a consultation on Labour’s policy-making process, once again Partnership into [not in] Power. Some thought the paper before us was insufficiently radical, and we should make a fresh start rather than tweak the status quo. Too much time was devoted to internal minutiae such as who should chair policy commissions, and too little to the questions asked by members: “When I write to the party, why do I never get a reply”? and “How can I have real influence over policy?” There is no point in encouraging forums to feed ideas into formal structures if they disappear without trace, and every sense in listening when members warn of the impact of the 75p tax rise or scrapping the 10p tax band. The review will be steered by the joint policy committee, itself barely functional, but if it asks the wrong questions, members should pose and answer their own. Meanwhile the national policy forum would meet in November, and policy commissions should continue exploring topical issues.
And Finally …
For the first time in decades the party ended the election with more money than at the start, and sound financial discipline was paying off. The treasurer Jack Dromey had written to constituencies consulting them on how to make the best use of party assets, but gave assurances that there was no intention whatsoever to put locally-owned property at risk or to use it as collateral for borrowing.