The NEC congratulated Margaret Beckett MP on becoming a dame, and former Chairs Michael Cashman CBE and Norma Stephenson OBE on their recently-awarded honours.
Ed Miliband again highlighted the One Nation theme which would frame policy through to the election; in tough times everyone must pull together. Labour’s position on Europe remained constant, with a referendum if and when significant powers are transferred, while David Cameron’s in-out vote in five years’ time regardless of circumstances created uncertainty and was bad for business and for Britain. Further, the Tories want to repatriate employment rights, which protect millions of workers, and the European arrest warrant, which helps to fight crime across borders. They might get a short-term bounce, but published polls showed that people care more about jobs, wages and the cost of living.
The frontbench were applauded for opposing the 1% cap on benefit increases – a mere 50p a week for an unemployed under-25 – and rejected splits between “strivers” and “skivers”. Ed Miliband strongly supported a social security system for everyone; far from creating an elephant trap for Labour, the Tories were exposed as playing crude politics. On government plans for a flat-rate state pension, simplicity was good in principle, but NEC members pointed out that government plans would cost public sector workers and employers more in national insurance, with the end of the lower opted-out rate.
Some members were unhappy that Labour was allowing a free vote on same-sex marriage. However, MPs spoke against being whipped; it was more effective for the entire shadow cabinet and almost all the parliamentary party to vote freely and in favour. Dennis Skinner reminded the NEC that hanging, abortion, gay rights, smoking and fox-hunting were traditionally matters of conscience. Other issues included the Francis report on the Staffordshire hospital scandal, where members hoped for more support for whistle-blowing, and Northern Ireland, where the British Labour party, the Northern Irish SDLP and the Irish Labour party are seeking to establish closer working relationships.
I suggested that Jon Cruddas, who is leading the shadow cabinet policy review, should be invited to NEC meetings, so that his review is integrated with other party structures. Later national policy forum Chair Angela Eagle urged everyone to promote the Your Britain website, particularly the first set of challenge papers. I asked for welfare to have its own area – currently discussion is sprouting in several different places – and others said that issues relating to equalities were also hard to locate.
Glenis Willmott MEP reported on the Getting Europe Working jobs conference in Nottingham. Labour MEPs played a key role in cutting the European Union budget in real terms, and were working to limit transport time for live animals to eight hours. They voted against a free trade agreement with Colombia because of its country’s human rights record, but failed to persuade other socialist colleagues to join them. Responding to concerns about Europe’s neo-liberal agenda, Glenis said that this was not inherent in the European Union, but a consequence of too many right-wing governments and MEPs.
Looking forward to the 2014 Euro-elections, all MEPs who wished to stand again had passed their trigger ballots. More than 250 new candidates had applied. Regional boards would now draw up lists, and candidates would be ranked through one-member-one-vote ballots in the summer. [Some would-be candidates tell me they were unaware of the 31 December deadline, though an invitation to apply was included in an all-member e-mail in October, together with news of the Croydon by-election.]
Margaret Curran MP, shadow Scottish minister, said the picture in Scotland was not all rosy: higher education might be free, but 10,000 applicants were left without places, and the construction industry was on its knees. Scottish leader Johann Lamont had won respect for her honesty and realism, though Margaret acknowledged the need to work closely with trade unionists. On the referendum, more people currently want to stay within the UK, but there was no complacency. Scottish voices should be heard on the NEC. [The Welsh and Scottish leaders already have the right to attend and speak. The NEC has always rejected proposals to add constituency representatives from Scotland and Wales.]
Campaigning to Win
Tom Watson presented the top 106 target seats, with Labour working to attract disillusioned LibDems and Tory voters let down by Dave. Sitting MPs will be expected to hold their own. Arnie Graf, former adviser to Barack Obama. is training activists in community organising, and Iain McNicol reported on recruitment of more regionally-based staff. Members emphasised that community organising was not separate from voter-ID, and good campaigning parties combine them in engaging with residents..
On the way there are local elections in 2013, where results are hard to predict because many county divisions have new boundaries, but Labour expects some gains. For 2014 the Euro-elections will concentrate on maximising turnout. We still do not know whether the 2014 local elections will be moved to the same day in June, as this requires government action.
Selecting candidates in all remaining seats is now urgent, and the boundary changes were finally pronounced dead on 29 January. On 14 February the organisation committee will decide which target seats will be open and which will choose from all-women shortlists in all regions except Scotland, Yorkshire and the East Midlands, which are deferred to 12 March to allow more time to talk to local parties. Less winnable seats may select at any time in consultation with their regional director. Sitting MPs will be asked to declare their intentions by the end of 2013, with most trigger ballots early in 2014.
Westminster Selection Procedures 2013
The organisation committee agreed procedures for further selections, informed by feedback on the earlier version, and described by some as the most open and inclusive ever. The timetable has been extended to 13 weeks, despite concerns that a longer process disadvantages candidates without financial backing. It also places a greater administrative burden on local parties, but it was reported that they saw this as a price worth paying for restoring nomination rights to branches and affiliates.
Self-nomination has been dropped, and only candidates with at least one nomination may be considered for the shortlist. However the selection committee may add an ethnic minority candidate where none has received any nominations. Candidates nominated by an affiliated organisation must be longlisted, and any candidate nominated by party branches representing more than half the membership must be shortlisted, subject to meeting basic criteria. For an open selection the shortlist must consist of at least four candidates, including at least two women, and for an all-women shortlist, at least three candidates. I feared that for constituencies with few branches, this may not be possible.
Selection committees will include at least two delegates from affiliates, where such delegates exist. Candidates will be able to buy membership lists as soon as they apply. I asked if the code of conduct meant that only the candidate could contact members, or if supporters could also use the list, and how members as well as candidates could raise concerns. Hopefully the data protection act will help here.
For less winnable seats the selection process may be compressed and the requirements relaxed. I argued for local parties to have a role in shortlisting candidates for by-elections, but gained little support. A suggestion that shortlisting should be held in the area of the by-election was noted.
Tower Hamlets Revisited
A timetable for selecting a Labour candidate for mayor of Tower Hamlets in May 2014 was agreed by the organisation committee, where discussion centred on the last-minute exclusion of Lutfur Rahman in September 2010 and his subsequent victory as an independent. At that time the NEC agreed to investigate allegations about ballot irregularities, and about conduct. Part 1 was duly carried out, and very few ineligible voters were found. However Part 2 was shelved, and in July 2011 the NEC decided that it would only be activated if Lutfur Rahman applied to rejoin Labour. So far he has not done so.
Ken Livingstone drew parallels with his position after the first London mayoral election, but others said that all applicants must follow the same process. If the 2010 decision was flawed, a second flawed decision was not the answer. I would have supported deferral to allow for peace negotiations, but this was not put to a vote, and the selection will proceed. Nevertheless I expect it to return in 2014.
LAWS, the Labour Animal Welfare Society, was accepted as a new affiliate. The NEC agreed to downgrade Labour’s membership of the Socialist International to observer status, in view of ethical concerns, and to develop international co-operation through new networks. David Sparks is working to deliver value for money in return for higher subscriptions to the association of Labour councillors. And finally the youth conference on 2/3 March 2013 in Leicester is set for a record attendance of around 500. This is brilliant, but I asked, again, for constituencies to be informed at the same time as young members are mailed directly, so we can encourage and support members from our own area.