The NEC always pays tribute to comrades who have died since the last meeting, but rarely have we lost two such significant figures as Mo Mowlam and Robin Cook, and both so young. Mo was praised for helping Neil Kinnock to modernise the party, and transforming the atmosphere in Northern Ireland. Tony Blair remembered Robin Cook’s support as foreign secretary, Gary Titley appreciated his role as president of the Party of European Socialists, and John Prescott would have liked to ask him what he thought proportional representation had done for Germany. They will be suitably commemorated at conference, together with Jim Callaghan.
Tony Blair looked forward to a conference themed around securing the future: equipping ourselves to meet the challenges of globalisation, improving public services and promoting respect. Dennis Skinner had his own shopping list: adequate pensions for all, a coherent energy policy, more money for the NHS, a demonstration that Tony and Gordon were still in control of the economy, and an exit strategy from Iraq. On the last, the prime minister highlighted the importance of the December elections, saying that the current violence was aimed at preventing democracy taking root, but success would follow after the political cycle had started, as in Afghanistan. We were also building up the Iraqi troops so they could take control of their own country. Pete Willsman questioned the value of Algerian assurances that citizens deported from Britain would not be tortured. Tony Blair said that other countries found that the system worked, and in any case, people who came here had to play by the rules. The government might sound tough, but nothing like as tough as many voters wanted.
There was dismay at delays in council tax revaluation, and resentment that the Lyons review had been asked to include the functions of local government without consulting councillors’ representatives. Any change would now be five years away, and concerns were growing about the position of cash-poor owner-occupiers, many of whom did not claim benefits. Tony Blair agreed that council tax was unsustainable, but simply pushing revaluation through would bring maximum pain for very little gain. Questioned about under-funding for equal pay in public services, he stressed the 600,000 new jobs and better salaries, and asked the unions for more support with his public sector reforms.
Union representatives welcomed government support for Airbus, but were deeply unhappy about the sacked Gate Gourmet workers. Secondary action should be legal where there was a direct connection and following a proper ballot, or failing that, some other way of preventing employers getting round the system. Tony Blair rejected this absolutely. While injustices should be dealt with, Britain’s economic success was due to active labour market measures such as the New Deal and tax credits, but also to flexibility. The TUC approach would lead straight back to the Tories, with no social dimension. Defending the European social model through protectionism would not work, and this was shown in elections in the United States, France, and even Germany despite the SDP’s partial recovery.
You Pays Your Money (or Not)
But the debate of the day was on membership subscriptions. The treasurer Jack Dromey assured us that there was no crisis, but we needed to build for the future, and the alternative to grasping the nettle was boom-and-bust. The trade unions had to replenish their own reserves after massive election donations, soliciting from rich men was distasteful and getting more difficult, and state funding attracted little support. There was no evidence that increasing subscriptions would lose members, as long as it was well explained. He made one concession: while the standard rate would still rise from £24 to £36, the reduced rate would stay at £12 instead of going up to £18. All the extra money would go to the national party except in a general election year, when constituencies would get £20 per member instead of £8. There would be no further rises in subscriptions until after the next general election, though some members considered this a hostage to fortune.
I circulated the attached summary of the first four days’ worth of e-mails, and am grateful to everyone who wrote. Views ran about three to one against the plans, with concerns that members who were dissatisfied anyway would use the rise as an excuse to resign, and Labour risked becoming a rich person’s club. Local parties also strongly wished to keep their one-third share of subscriptions.
MPs, whose rate will go up to £60, were justifiably aggrieved that the paper did not mention the 2% of their salary (about £100 a month) which already goes to the party, and the extra money that most put in to their constituencies. Unions pointed out that their members receive benefits and services in exchange for their subscriptions, and Labour must convince members that they were getting value for money, and treat them with respect. And Dennis Skinner asked why the government did not make “Short money”, granted to opposition parties, available to the ruling party as well.
Many people were unhappy that the plans were not discussed in July with the other rule changes, to give constituencies more time. Pete Willsman reported suspicions that party managers wanted delegates not to be mandated so that they could exert persuasion, but was assured that it was a cock-up rather than contempt for democracy. Jack Dromey promised to apologise to conference, hold the youth rate at £1 while members are still in full-time education, and keep the situation under review. His closing rhetoric raised the spectre of mass P45s among party staff, somewhat at odds with his don’t-panic introduction. A proposal to defer the changes until 2006 was lost by 11 votes to 16, and a second vote supported them by 18 to 7 (Christine Shawcroft, Mark Seddon, Pete Willsman, Angela Eagle, Dennis Skinner, John Holmes and myself, in the light of your advice). The final decision now rests with conference, and I have done what I can to help delegates to represent their constituencies.
This year’s international speaker will be Luisa Dias Diogo, the prime minister of Mozambique. A mini-controversy greeted the news that Lord Sebastian Coe may be asked to say a few words on London’s successful Olympic bid, with several members feeling that it would be better if he just stood there looking beautiful. I shall be chairing a couple of sessions for the first time, and though I appreciate the honour, it is unfair that neither Christine Shawcroft nor Mark Seddon has ever been allowed to speak at conference, not even a three-minute introduction to a policy commission report. .
The NEC approved the Partnership in Power review. Contemporary motions are protected, and constituencies will be able to submit amendments through their National Policy Forum representatives to the final “Warwick” stage documents. A companion document, the 21st Century Party, drew some flak because the foreword suggested that delegate general committees might be forcibly abolished, contradicting the text, which rejects wholesale changes to party structures or a one-size-fits-all approach. A revised wording has now been agreed, looking at the benefits of all-member meetings, but allowing constituencies with vibrant and effective delegate GCs to keep them.
The NEC is proposing two other rule changes. One allows Labour councillors to attend conference ex officio, without a vote. The other clarifies that supporting anyone who stands against a Labour candidate, whether for another party or as an independent, can lead to expulsion, but would not penalise members in a Tatton situation, where there is no Labour candidate. However the subjective interpretation of support continues to cause problems, following cases in Blaenau Gwent, Islwyn and Hornsey & Wood Green, and the case of New Forest East will go to the Disputes Panel in October.
I also asked that NEC members are told about NEC decisions which impact on their electorate. This followed upset and angry e-mails from constituency secretaries who were told that if any Labour Group did not pay their subscriptions to the Association of Labour Councillors by the end of September, the money would be deducted at source from their membership, plus a penalty of £100. This was agreed at the NEC’s local government committee, but not conveyed to the rest of us. However, I think we have an undertaking that no money will be stopped until after proper discussion.
Finally we approved a timetable for recruiting a new general secretary, my third set of interviews in five years. Let’s hope the next one lasts a bit longer.