Tony Blair stressed that the coming conference must present a strong forward offer, telling voters what Labour would do in a third term rather than resting on our laurels. The Tories were ever more extreme, and the LibDems were split into two factions pulling in opposite directions. On Iraq, whether the initial invasion was right or wrong we had to hold firm and see the task through. He promised to talk with the unions over manufacturing job losses at Jaguar and in South Wales.
He then responded to comments and questions. The European constitution would not be a major issue until after the general election, but we could defend our success in retaining national control over tax and defence. He reassured the unions that he was committed to agreements reached by the National Policy Forum at Warwick, as they were sensible measures which would benefit working people. Members praised the new bill controlling gangmasters, which would protect British as well as migrant workers, and Dennis Skinner again praised Labour’s outstanding record on the economy which underpinned jobs, health and everything else, but which voters somehow took for granted.
Electorally members had two main concerns. The Tories and the LibDems were wooing pensioners, and Labour needed to improve take-up of the pension credit, look at thresholds for council tax benefit, and consider concessionary bus fares and funding long-term care. The other remained Iraq, including alienation of the ethnic minority vote. Christine Shawcroft called for British troops to be withdrawn, while Mark Seddon suggested handing over to Muslim peace-keepers, and was anxious about protecting the Turkoman and Assyrian Christian minorities. He feared that a re-elected George Bush would launch fresh military “pacification”. Tony Blair said there was no evidence for this. Labour was the only party to give Muslims their own schools, and promote Muslim candidates as likely MPs. All governments, pro- or anti-war, faced the problems of Iraq, and if Britain had stayed out we would have reaped cascades of criticism for wrecking the transatlantic alliance. Other members condemned all terrorism and called for suicide bombers to be brought to justice.
I deplored continued press sniping at ministers, and asked Tony Blair about his oft-repeated phrase that the party has never been so ideologically united. Was he worried that it was also shrinking, and were we driving people away if they did not share his ideology? I cited the 190,000 paid-up members who can vote in selections. Tony Blair responded with the 215,000 including those in arrears, and the 15,000 new recruits this year. He argued that no-one could oppose an ideology which had created two million new jobs, invested record amounts in public services, and increased aid to developing countries. Conference must show us as confident, not uncertain or divided. Members gave him a table-thumping round of applause as he left to launch Richard Branson’s tilting Virgin train.
Membership figures will be reported verbally to future meetings of the NEC’s audit committee. The £2-for-two-years deal for young members, recorded in the annual report, has been adapted to allow people to join Labour Students and the party for £1, and this should boost numbers and activism.
Leadership in Europe
Gary Titley spoke of the challenges for a group of 19 Labour MEPs, down from 29 and within a larger overall socialist group. They were rebuilding post-Iraq bridges with sister parties, starting with Malta and Greece, and looked forward to working with Peter Mandelson as trade commissioner. The UK would hold the presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2005, dealing with funding after 2006 and further enlargement: Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and most controversially Turkey are queuing up to join. Other issues included maintaining national control of health services and getting the agency workers’ directive through the council of ministers, where the socialist group want a delay of no more than six weeks before these workers gain equal rights. Sadly there have been backward shifts on equalities. A group called Women on Waves, which provides advice on reproductive rights from onboard a ship, has been barred from Portuguese waters, and the European parliament backed this interference with freedom of movement and information on on anti-abortion grounds. The NEC supported the MEPs on employment rights, and were interested in the antics of the UKIP contingent.
The Great Survivor
Ian McCartney, happily still with us, reported on the Hartlepool by-election, where Labour’s candidate Iain Wright had reassured voters that the local hospital would stay open. Middlesbrough mayor Ray Mallon was lending his weight to the campaign, and to the referendum for a north-east assembly.
He reinforced the success of the July National Policy Forum. Tony Robinson questioned whether the sense of ownership was shared by constituency representatives, who were not involved in the all-night negotiations and had to spend the night asleep or in the bar. Others suggested that submitters of amendments which provoked conflict were rewarded by face-to-face discussion with ministers, compared with those contributing more constructive comments. Nevertheless the outcomes were good and should be promoted widely, to ordinary workers on the shop floor and not just to the activists.
Final documents were signed off by officers of the Forum, the joint policy committee and the organisation committee. Some queried the constitutionality of this rather ad hoc group, and indeed the organisation committee has no remit over policy, but on this occasion their decisions were not controversial. The role of the joint policy committee will be picked up in the review of Partnership in Power. The three working groups have each met twice, and there will be further consultation at conference, at the NEC awayday in November, and through the year ahead.
Conference will be themed around A Better Life for All, especially for hard-working families. Most rule changes had already been discussed, but in addition the NEC agreed to propose that the Young Labour representative should be a woman at least every other term. Also the jury is still out on the Clause V committee which signs off the election manifesto. Current plans include the NEC, seven backbench members of the parliamentary committee, the cabinet, the chair and vice-chairs of the National Policy Forum, and eight extra trade union members. Some members were unhappy with constituency representation cut to below 10%, the lack of European input, and the likely shift to a more male make-up. Others argued that the cabinet must be included as they have to implement the manifesto. The NEC will decide its final position at conference before going to the vote.
Given the variety of recent protests – Batman climbing Buckingham Palace, invasion of the Commons chamber, and angry scuffles outside parliament – the chief constable of Sussex was heard with particular attention as he outlined measures to protect the conference. He stressed that though security was his top priority, the police were also keen that democratic proceedings should continue, and that delegates should enjoy themselves. The NEC thanked John Watts and the conference unit for their work, including the enormous logistical job of processing 15,000 applications for accreditation. Numbers of constituencies represented will be reported afterwards. (Last year 518 delegates from 499 constituencies attended, down from 570 delegates from 527 constituencies in 2002.)
I asked for earlier circulation of papers and clearer guidance on late applications for delegates, as the forms contradict each other. Policy resolutions which are not judged contemporary or not prioritised are referred to the policy commissions, and I tried again to discover what happens to those which concern party organisation, and are said to be “referred to the NEC”. The chair of the conference arrangements committee thought that the organisation committee saw them, but we don’t. Others questioned why a fringe meeting on fighting the BNP had four white men as the only speakers.
There was a mini-wrangle over the three assistant chairs. The rules state that one each shall come from the unions/socialist societies, the MPs/councillors, and the constituencies, by selection of “the senior member who has yet to be chair or vice-chair” in each section. This did not prevent assorted members throwing their own or others’ hats into the ring, and the supreme chair Mary Turner will choose between the many volunteers. Finally, Bono of U2 will not be speaking – more press fabrication – though a steelworkers’ choir, a chorus from Corus, has offered to sing the Red Flag.