The NEC welcomed Keith Vaz MP, elected by the vibrant new Black Socialist Society, and youth representative Stephanie Peacock, to their first meeting. The prime minister was congratulated on his Comic Relief skit and his efforts on climate change, and responded to comments on a range of issues, including nutritional standards for meals-on-wheels; the open-skies agreement which allows European airlines to fly to, but not within, the US; staging the nurses’ pay award in England to give only 1.9% while Scotland was granting the full 2.5%; and the Valencia land-grab, which MEPs undertook to explain to him. He promised Dennis Skinner that the end-of-financial-year problems in the NHS would not be repeated as we moved into calmer waters after restructuring, but defended hospital income from parking charges as otherwise the money would have to come from patient care. Extending London’s free bus travel for under-19s nationwide would need careful costing, and he recognised problems with the formula for the over-60s scheme, where some travellers had lost out. On green policies we had to be mindful of the average family, not just the chattering classes.
On Zimbabwe he said that president Mugabe exploited criticism from Britain as old-style colonialism, and on balance he thought the planned European summit should go ahead, with ZANU-PF confronted rather than excluded. He assured Pete Willsman that contrary to press reports Trident was not being secretly upgraded, and told Walter Wolfgang that discussions were continuing on whether Britain wanted to host US interceptor missiles. Parliament would be consulted when appropriate. Later, Gary Titley said there was no evidence of British involvement in extraordinary rendition flights.
I supported Tony Blair’s defence of inheritance tax, and argued that workers who have lost their entire pension should be a higher priority than people with £300,000 tax-free windfalls. I also expressed concern that random samples of the public had more say in policy-making than the national policy forum, let alone ordinary party members. Tony Blair said he would like to invite the NPF to Downing Street before he left, and repeated that Labour had to reach beyond traditional structures to mobilise the many thousands who shared our aims. No-one disagrees with this, but fellow-travellers must be as well as, not instead of, the paying membership. He also believed the Tories were making mistakes in trying to be all things to all people. Marriage was an important social institution, but restoring the married couples’ tax allowance would take money away from children in different types of family. David Cameron was soft on crime, security and anti-social behaviour where toughness was needed, and isolated and powerless in Europe since withdrawing from the main centre-right grouping.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Tony Blair stayed for the discussion of party funding, together with our chief negotiator Jack Straw. He said that while the Tories had no incentive to end the spending arms race, with millions pouring in, there was considerable common ground with the LibDems. The main outstanding issue was trade union funding, but he thought Hayden Phillips’ requirement for greater transparency in relations between individual members and the party could be met, and would be an acceptable price for a deal. NEC members were angry that an inquiry which started because of dubious connections with rich men had ended up fingering the unions as the problem, and that senior party figures appeared to agree. In fact the unions provided the cleanest income, they were part of Labour’s constitution, and they gave millions of working people a voice in policy and in choosing the leadership. Their funds were legitimised by ballots and allowed any member to opt out. Pete Willsman saw it as New Labour’s last attempt to break the link and Walter Wolfgang suggested mobilising public support, though I suspect others were correct when they said that union funding was essential, but not popular with voters.
Several of us stressed that without the unions Labour would have gone under in the 1980s, and we still relied on them at every level. Any laws must be robust enough to defend the link now, but also to prevent unpicking by our enemies if, or when, we lose power. Others highlighted the need to expose shady Tory backers, reclaim the moral high ground and restore confidence in politics. Jack Straw said he was not about to destroy either the party or the union link, and promised to keep the NEC, through its officers, informed of progress. Finally it was suggested that the best way to cut off Tory funding was to defeat them at the next election, a thought that should motivate us all.
Hazel Blears reported on the manifesto. Over half the policies agreed at the Warwick NPF had been implemented, and I was pleased at the commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on development by 2013, part of a resolution to my first conference in 1995. Dissatisfaction centred on failure to protect temporary and agency workers, stalled in Europe and the government unwilling to legislate at national level, something which unions but not ministers remembered as part of the deal. Dennis Skinner complained that the government did not have to filibuster Paul Farrelly’s bill, as it could have been delayed or amended at the committee stage. Others raised growing problems with super-exploitation of migrant workers from the new European countries. The housing sub-group will report soon, and the health policy commission should contact everyone involved in recent conference resolutions. A motion from Dave Ward on postal services was referred to the prosperity and work commission.
Campaigning and Organisation
Deputy general secretary Alicia Kennedy presented new facilities for members on the website via their MpURLs (go to www.labour.org.uk/firstname.lastname), now the main resource for documents, events and communication. She also ran through activities leading up to the Scottish, Welsh and English elections. After further discussion and much lobbying the NEC agreed that Ealing Southall should select its parliamentary candidate from an all-women shortlist, adding the hope that they would choose an ethnic minority woman. The interaction of race and gender raises difficult issues: in some constituencies all-women shortlists are seen as barriers to ethnic minorities, while open shortlists too often end up with the same old party favourite sons. I would prefer more MPs like Parmjit Dhanda in Gloucester, rather than matching the race of the candidate to the make-up of the constituency.
General secretary Peter Watt gave an update on finances. The spring events involved over 3,000 members and were well-received, though councillors want their local government conference back. Draft terms of reference for the NEC and its committees were kicked around again, with my main concern the blanket statement that all papers and discussion are confidential, which would make reports by representatives extremely short. In practice genuinely confidential issues get leaked to the press, which is where I see them first, while some decisions, like deadlines for conference motions and methods for collecting Labour councillors’ subscriptions, need more, not less, publicity.
The Rules of the Game
Finally the NEC approved guidelines for the coming leadership election. These are available to constituency secretaries – via their MpURL of course – or I can forward a copy. The process will take seven weeks and though no start date is given, press reports of a conclusion by 25 June are not being denied, suggesting an announcement in early May. The NEC will meet within 48 hours, and MPs will have three working days to nominate candidates. Constituencies can make supporting nominations at general committees or all-member meetings until the fourth week, and as a week’s notice must be given, advance planning is advised. Five national hustings will be held, with the ballot during the fifth to the seventh week, culminating in the announcement of the result at an electoral college to which constituencies and unions can send delegates at £50 (online registration) or £60 (by post). Union levy-payers will be individually balloted, and must sign a declaration that they support the Labour party.
Walter Wolfgang, seconded by Christine Shawcroft, proposed reducing the number of MPs required to nominate a candidate from 45 (12.5% of the total) to 22. Dennis Skinner said he had opposed raising it from the former 5% but lost, and it was now in the rules. Christine also argued for an affirmative ballot if a post only got one nomination. However the guidelines were approved with two against. I voted in favour on the basis that rules should be changed through conference, not altered to produce particular results. The meeting ended with hope that the election would run smoothly, focus on policy, and celebrate 2.3 million people choosing the next Labour leader and prime minister of Britain.