Tony Blair and John Prescott were unable to attend, so Ian McCartney opened the meeting and took questions. He assured us that the prime minister did not “sex up” the Iraq briefings, and the foreign affairs committee agreed that the September dossier was well-founded on intelligence. The BBC allegations were false, and those attacked had every right to defend themselves. We should not try to pre-empt the Hutton enquiry. The Chair Diana Holland expressed condolences on behalf of the NEC to the family of Dr David Kelly.
Some members hoped that a single issue, however contentious, would not presage an all-out assault on the independence of public service broadcasting. However Dennis Skinner argued that the media were all too ready to act as the official opposition, and journalists were worse than politicians. In any case, MPs’ votes were not influenced by the 45-minute claim. Personally he had just felt that following George Bush into scapegoating Saddam Hussein for September 11 was not a good enough reason to send people to their deaths. Now it was time to find a roadmap to peace inside the Labour party.
Mark Seddon was concerned about the next war, with George Bush set to rip up agreements with North Korea, and I again raised the plight of the Guantanamo Bay captives, unprotected by any laws on the planet. Ian McCartney said that Tony Blair was trying to get a fair hearing for the British men, but did not mention the nameless, faceless captives from other countries. He also drew attention to the 300,000 bodies discovered in Iraq’s mass graves, including trade unionists, socialists, dissidents and their families. Our gut response should be that we had stopped the massacres and that was good.
Domestic issues included hopes for a minimum wage for under-18s, summary sackings by Crown Wallcoverings, and the Royal Mail’s plans to transfer post from rail to road. Members in Guildford, a mainstream constituency, were reported as frustrated by their lack of influence. The National Policy Forum should promote dialogue on current topics, and respond more imaginatively to submissions. Partnership in Power will be reviewed after the next election, but three years is a long time to wait.
Ian stressed that in the run-up to conference, the focus should shift back to fundamental values: strong leadership, economic stability, support for hard-working families, record investment in public services and engagement in Europe. A key milestone will be the by-election in Brent East following the untimely death of Paul Daisley, with candidate Robert Evans seeking to maintain Labour’s unbroken record. Christine Shawcroft asked about local involvement in the selection process. She was assured that constituency officers were fully involved in composing the long-list and drawing up questions for shortlisting, though the constitution did not allow them a vote. Dennis Skinner said that the government must set the agenda on local issues, and asked ministers not to put their foot in it.
On 7 July the Disputes Panel agreed by 6 votes to 4 to refer George Galloway’s case to the National Constitutional Committee. I voted against, in line with feedback from members, but it is now out of the hands of the NEC. The hearing will be in October, and the NCC decision will be final. So another by-election looms. Looking to next May, many activists are campaigning for Ken Livingstone’s re-election as mayor, and I said it was hard to tell members in Oxford, Glasgow or elsewhere that they must not vote Green, Socialist Alliance or Independent, when an entire region was ignoring the rulebook. Ian McCartney admitted that support for non-Labour candidates caused difficulties, and will bring a detailed strategy for London to the September NEC. Referenda on regional government were also generating problems, with some anti-devolution Labour MPs joining Tories in calling for a No vote, and signing up to propaganda which rubbishes their own government’s achievements.
Ian is already planning the next general election, and every constituency will soon be offered a visiting MP to talk, and to listen. New candidates are being interviewed for the parliamentary panel, ready for selection in the autumn. The NEC agreed all-women shortlists for Blaenau Gwent and Swansea East, with an open selection in Bridgend. Further vacancies will be considered in line with policy that all late-retiring MPs should be replaced by women except in exceptional circumstances.
NEC decisions on positive action in local government are getting a mixed reception on the ground. The principles are intended to be applied flexibly, so a council area would be expected to have women as one-third of its candidates overall, rather than requiring exactly one woman in every ward. A new code of conduct allows shortlisted candidates access to ward membership lists for a fee of £5, and hopefully this will be publicised to candidates and membership secretaries.
Rules and Regulations
Rule changes for Conference provoked lively debate, with two proving particularly contentious. The first concerned the make-up of the Clause V meeting which agrees the general election manifesto. At one time this consisted of the NEC plus the Cabinet, but recently it has included the Parliamentary Committee, elected by backbenchers. This arrangement would be formalised, with the addition of any National Policy Forum officers not already present. Some union and constituency representatives were unhappy because their influence would be further diluted by MPs. Personally I agreed with the view that the real decisions are made earlier and elsewhere. The Clause V meeting in 2001 had one hour to read the draft, and could not make significant changes because the text was already typeset.
The second was a proposal to allow people in Northern Ireland to join the party. This has always been rejected in the past because of conflicts with our sister party the SDLP, but an upcoming court case alleging racial discrimination leaves us, in the eyes of our lawyers, with no choice. However there is no intention to organise or to stand candidates in the north.
The National Committee of Young Labour will be changed, to comprise five trade union members, three from Labour Students, one Young Fabian, the youth NEC representative, and the regional youth representatives on the National Policy Forum. There is a continuing need to involve more “ordinary” young members and trade unionists, in addition to the well-organised Labour Students. The £2-for-two-years introductory membership rate for students will continue at least until the next election.
The Women, Race and Equalities Committee tabled a paper on engaging with ethnic minority communities, and a document on access for disabled members is in the pipeline. A national ethnic minorities forum was to be held in Manchester on 26 July, and the next national women’s forum will be in Brighton on 8 November.
David Triesman gave his customary financial report, with expenditure under control, subscriptions and small and large donations holding up well, but still no agreement on the trade union contribution. Mark Seddon asked whether any views on party funding had been submitted to the Electoral Commission. David said there was a case for state support for developing policy, fielding more women and ethnic minority candidates, promoting political engagement, and information technology, but otherwise no change in the balance or the sources of finance had been proposed.
Friends and Neighbours
Finally Gary Titley, the leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, was unable to attend, but I cannot resist quoting from his report: “Berlusconi has dragged the office of the presidency into disrepute and provoked a serious institutional crisis within the European Union. He has revealed the true Jekyll and Hyde nature of his character and showed how unreliable he is under pressure. How can we send this man to represent the European Union in discussions with George Bush or on the Middle East when we don’t know what he’s going to do from one minute to the next? Clearly the rest of the European Union will dig in and try to keep this presidency afloat, our concern is that we are in for six months of embarrassment, gaffs and people being antagonised.” Indeed . . .