The Chair Dianne Hayter extended a warm welcome to Labour’s general secretary-elect David Pitt-Watson, the fifth postholder in less than eight years. David was appointed by the full NEC on 10 March, after interviews with the three shortlisted candidates. That meeting agreed by 17 votes to 12 that party staff and recruitment consultants Rockpools should count the ballot papers and report only the name of the winner to the NEC, to promote unity after what was thought to be a finely-balanced decision. Fellow-candidate Mike Griffiths led the NEC in pledging his whole-hearted support for David, and all of us are committed to working with him in the challenging times ahead.
The prime minister congratulated all the candidates, looked forward to the coming local and London elections, and thanked the unions for help in countering Lord Ashcroft’s millions. He hoped to provide displaced Remploy workers with retraining and continued employment, and proposed a commission on temporary and agency workers, similar to the low pay commission. He stressed again that Britain was better-placed to weather global financial turbulence than most other western countries, and our messages remained those of opportunity for all and a fair deal for hard-working families.
Life at the Sharp End
I and others expressed concern about scrapping the 10p tax band, which would cut take-home wages for many low-paid workers. Gordon Brown said that tax credits had made the 10p band redundant, and pensioners would be compensated by higher thresholds, the 2p cut in the basic rate, and extra winter fuel allowances. No-one would be worse off, and he challenged people to send him payslips which showed otherwise. However a treasury minister confirmed that single childless workers cannot claim tax credits, and early retirers would lose around £2 a week. (Since the meeting Stephen Byers has pointed out that billions of tax credits go unclaimed, and alarm is rising, belatedly, among MPs.)
Many such workers will also be hit by limits on public sector pay, and though the Tory-controlled local government association negotiates salaries for council staff, they are still likely to blame the national government. Gordon Brown recognised the pressure of high gas and electricity prices, but it was more important to keep people in jobs. Members were not satisfied with a commission for agency workers, and I recalled that the government failed to implement the full recommendations of the low pay commission, notably paying the adult minimum wage at the age of 21. However the prosperity and work policy commission felt it would be useful to draw up a list of all employment rights and consider qualifying periods for each, as not all apply from Day One even for permanent employees.
There was unanimous outrage at foreign minister Kim Howell’s remark that Justice for Colombia, a mainstream human rights organisation, supported the rebel FARC “gangsters and drug smugglers”, and continuing concern that humanitarian aid was being diverted to repressive purposes. When Kim Howells rubbished modern art, only feelings were hurt; here, he was putting the lives of trade unionists and campaigners at risk. Gordon Brown said the minister had now apologised, and he would personally clarify the position with the Colombian government. On other issues Pete Willsman stressed the need for a mass house-building programme led by local councils, Walter Wolfgang regretted the closure of the Aldermaston peace camp, and others asked again for faster progress on compensation for pleural plaques and on ending the two-tier workforce in schools. I also raised the possible closure of Jodrell Bank, a move which would damage Britain’s international reputation and lose an inspiration for new generations of young scientists, and was promised a written response.
Walter Wolfgang and Pete Willsman proposed a resolution which called for the president of the European Union to be “a conciliatory figure sensitive to the divergent concerns of the constituent countries”, believed that Tony Blair was seen as too divisive, and asked for discussion with fellow-socialist parties to seek an agreed candidate. European leader Gary Titley criticised it as factually incorrect, as the post was actually president of the council of ministers and mainly a bureaucratic job. Inter-party talks were already proceeding, and he doubted Tony Blair would be interested in chairing long and tedious Brussels meetings. The motion was defeated with Walter, Pete and Christine Shawcroft in favour. I abstained, though sympathising with the sentiment, because I did not think it was helpful to criticise Tony Blair by name. He did after all win three elections for Labour.
The NEC noted the lists of candidates for next year’s European elections, and congratulated finance director Roy Kennedy on gaining the top vacant place in the East Midlands. There will be a full review of the process, including the timetable and the mechanics of the ballot. Most disturbingly, candidates with ethnic minority names tended to cluster at the bottom of the lists, and delivering equality next time will be a major challenge. Campaign contributions from constituencies have yet to be decided; in 2004 these were set at regional level, and varied from £1,200 to £1,800.
Gary Titley asked if MPs who publicly support the Referendum Party could be expelled in the same way as members standing against Labour candidates. Chief whip Geoff Hoon agreed that the RP was fronted by Tories, and after MPs had expressed their collective anger, two of the culprits withdrew their names. Complaints by individual MPs might be taken further, and the organisation committee may pursue the issue, which could equally apply to prominent supporters of the Countryside Alliance.
Local Selections and Elections
Most constituencies have now selected parliamentary candidates. There is already a review of spending on the leadership and deputy elections, and I have asked for this to include spending on other internal selections. Until a friend returned from a recent contest with heaps of eight-page glossy booklets, flyers and DVDs, I had not realised the huge sums spent simply on becoming a candidate.
The NEC congratulated local members and staff who succeeded in getting a Conservative councillor in Slough convicted of vote fraud on a massive scale, and barred from office for five years. However some were concerned that if postal votes in general were discredited, it could reduce the access to voting which Labour has made such efforts to increase. The immediate challenge is to win on 1 May, especially in London where a Boris Johnson victory would be disastrous for policing and for transport
The spring conference was judged successful by those who attended, but disappointing in terms of media profile, compared with David Cameron’s wall-to-wall coverage for his questionable claims that the Tories were now the party of the family. Several of us pointed out that press interest depended on the politicians saying newsworthy things. And after all the sound and fury of the January NEC, the rescheduling of annual conference to start and finish a day early is proceeding smoothly.
Partnership in Power: the Final Frontier
This year for the first time constituencies will be able to propose specific amendments to the final-stage national policy forum documents. These will be circulated to CLP secretaries on 2 May, who will have until 20 June to consult their members and submit amendments through the website. The seven constituency representatives within their region will be responsible for taking these up at the NPF in July and reporting back. In addition amendments can be sent to the six constituency members of the NEC, who are also members of the NPF, to help us in framing our own amendments.
This is a genuinely ambitious move, and no-one knows what will happen. At one extreme, disillusion may result in few amendments, so the process will work smoothly but the system will be dead. At the other, large numbers of submissions will pose logistical challenges. Personally I would rather deal with the problems of success, so I suggest that constituencies plan now to hold meetings from mid-May to mid-June, choose the areas in which they are most interested, involve as many members as possible, submit amendments which reflect their views, and hold their representatives to account.
On my own policy commission – crime, justice, citizenship and equalities – we are still engaging in vigorous debate with ministers on several fronts, and our draft document will certainly be capable of further improvement. In parallel we have met two of the manifesto group co-ordinators. John Mann MP, in charge of drugs and alcohol, was impressive: he had consulted extensively, spoke with passion and knowledge, and outlined policies which were both pragmatic and progressive. Sion Simon MP had been allocated responsibility for various other bits of the home office portfolio.