Gordon Brown paid tribute to all candidates who fought the June elections, and recognised that disunity damaged our vote. However Labour was dealing effectively with current concerns. On expenses, parliament was about to approve a new independent system which would draw a line under the past. On the economic front Labour was looking after young people through thousands of extra apprenticeships and university places, supporting manufacturing, investing in low-carbon high-technology projects such as rail electrification, and protecting public services. Half a million jobs had been saved, repossessions had levelled off, and unemployment, while too high at 7%, compared with up to 15% elsewhere. Swine flu, though worrying for mothers of young children, was a minor illness for most, and plans for managing it were in hand. Problems in Afghanistan could not be solved by military means alone, but required strengthening local security forces, reducing corruption, and helping Pakistan to tackle terrorists.
Dennis Skinner urged the leader to use every day of the recess to promote Labour’s positive policies, and he promised that ministers would be on duty throughout the summer. He gave assurances that the government was seeking a legally watertight solution for sufferers from pleural plaques, and NEC members praised the scrappage scheme, the green paper on social care, the equalities bill, and extension of gangmaster regulation to the construction industry. Pete Willsman questioned participation in what Afghans themselves saw as a civil war, and local government representatives stressed that ministers making official visits must meet party members and not just pose with Tory council leaders.
MEPs thanked Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman for their support, but had found it a hard campaign. Regarding European themes as a turn-off and treating MEPs as collateral damage would hand the agenda to the Euro-sceptics. Christine Shawcroft reported anger over senior MPs “rocking the boat”, but MPs stressed that we must not turn on each other: if we did not believe in ourselves, no-one else would. Gordon Brown closed by saying that we were in the eye of the storm, but every achievement of the party and the trade union movement had been won against the odds.
Following a presentation on the campaign and the results, Harriet Harman thanked Labour Students, expressed respect to councillors for refraining from public criticism, and announced that she would lead a taskforce to take on the BNP. Abroad the prime minister was admired for his economic leadership, and the increase in maternity leave, with part of it transferable to the partner, showed clear dividing lines with the Tories, who would end SureStart and cut inheritance tax for the 3,000 richest families.
I passed on complaints about the Freepost mailing, which missed swathes of the south and many Labour sympathisers who vote tactically for Westminster. This was particularly resented by constituencies who struggled to pay the £1,200 levy and will have a further £25 per month deducted through to 2014: some are deep in the red with no incentive to recruit or fundraise. However these decisions were made at regional level. There was also frustration among those trying to reply to party e-mails: “we sit at our computers fuming and raging because it seems you are making the classic Victorian error of thinking that the only important channels are downwards”; “communication must be two-way and responding to letters and e-mails ought to be elementary”. And I asked that ballot papers should list Labour Party near the top, not The Labour Party at the bottom, as requested by Christine Shawcroft five years ago.
Partnership in Power?
The Chair Pat McFadden said that the national policy forum (NPF) would meet again before the election, to update the Warwick agreement of July 2008 for the manifesto. In his other hat as business minister he drew attention to successful prosecution of a firm which blacklisted trade union members, though Jim Kennedy of UCATT argued that a £5,000 fine was hardly a deterrent.
Ray Collins introduced a draft report on contemporary issues at conference. In 2007 this was agreed as a two-year experiment, but I am willing to defer a decision until 2010. If there are differences this year they should be over policy, not over process issues which few outside the conference hall understand. I am also concerned that only 25 constituencies took up the invitation to comment, and would like to hear from the other 96%. My own feedback showed a majority preferring resolutions, but almost as many who thought it made no difference: “Does it matter? And maybe that in essence is the problem.”
A draft timetable was presented, and Pete Willsman asked again for recipients of merit awards to be allowed to speak. We then moved on to rule changes. Caerphilly proposed adding the Scottish and Welsh leaders to the NEC, while Beverley & Holderness wanted two extra places elected by Scottish and Welsh members. The NEC agreed to support the first and ask for the second to be remitted to a review. I would have preferred them to be considered together, but was persuaded by the need to show Labour as a truly federal party. Disappointingly the NEC opposed an amendment from eleven constituencies to elect their NPF representatives by one-member-one-vote, with only myself, Christine Shawcroft, Pete Willsman, Peter Kenyon and Andy Kerr in favour. The ballot could be run alongside the 2010 NEC election at minimal cost, ending a system where NPF representatives are elected by handfuls of delegates, and most members still have no idea who speaks for them. But conference can still choose to go ahead.
I think we decided to ask for all other amendments to be remitted, and only oppose them if taken to a vote. They included adding two members from the disabled members group and from LGBT Labour to the NPF; a charter of members’ rights; a code of ethics; limiting the amount that candidates for selection can spend; and levying a £100 deposit on candidates, to be returned if they come to the hustings. I am particularly sympathetic to the last, as I know the frustration where candidates simply do not turn up.
I have replied to everyone who wrote to me about Ian Gibson’s deselection giving the reasons, and also explaining that the special endorsements panel (the “star chamber”) has no say in which MPs we interview. That was decided by the chief whip and the general secretary. Four of the five so far produced little blowback, but I still do not know why Ian Gibson was referred and other MPs who attracted more opprobrium, over expenses or other misbehaviour, were not. If I had argued more strongly for deferring judgment until we had the full report on all MPs, maybe I could have prevented the Norwich North debacle, maybe not. I have to live with that, and worse, so do the people of Norwich. The NEC tacitly acknowledged the flaws in the process by adding NEC member Dianne Hayter and the Chair of the backbench parliamentary committee to the group deciding on referrals. Further, if the panel recommends withdrawing endorsement, the MP will be able to make meaningful representations to the organisation committee, where this time only my grassroots alliance colleague Pete Willsman read the politics correctly and voted against barring Ian Gibson. Half-way through the meeting it was announced that our Norwich candidate had come down with swine flu, so clearly the gods are angry.
The signs are that further referrals are unlikely until the Legg report is published, covering all MPs’ expenses for the last four years. No-one knows if it will contain significant new revelations or just re-hash the Telegraph exposures, and there is concern that it will drag on, diverting attention from any economic green shoots. However we must be ready to respond immediately whatever hits us.
Another consequence is that more vacancies are expected, and the organisation committee will meet as necessary to decide whether selections are open or all-women shortlists. Clwyd South, Lewisham East, Newcastle-on-Tyne Central and Vale of Glamorgan were designated AWS, and Barrow in Furness, Elmet & Rothwell and Scunthorpe will be open. I am clear that all-women shortlists are still needed, but the policy must be implemented sensitively and a decision on Wirral South, originally recommended for an AWS, was deferred in view of their history and the more attractive prospects of nearby Makerfield, yet to be discussed. Two applications by candidates in safe Tory seats to try their luck elsewhere were rejected.
And Finally …
Treasurer Jack Dromey and general secretary Ray Collins presented a report from the business board and the audited annual accounts. After receiving various subcommittee minutes, European leader Glenis Willmott highlighted Tory squabbling with their new unsavoury bedfellows, and it was noted that results were bad for the left across Europe, suggesting wider forces at work than our little local difficulties.