NEC Meeting, 22 March 2005

The Chair Ian McCartney presented flowers to Helen Jackson, who is retiring, and praised her for building bridges with backbench MPs and women, and on the Britain in the World policy commission. She will be much missed. He wished Maggie Jones and Shahid Malik good luck in Blaenau Gwent and Dewsbury, and if successful at the general election they will also leave the NEC for a better place.

Before then there is much to do. Tony Blair told us that the shape of the campaign was now clear. The Tories were targeting their core vote with asylum, immigration, gypsies and abortion, and Labour had to wrench the agenda back to public services and the economy. He had sorted the local government pension problem, but the Tories were planning much deeper cuts. Trade union leaders should tell their members what they have gained from Labour, and help to convince voters that hospital porters, cleaners and receptionists are not pen-pushing bureaucrats but vital frontline staff.

Members criticised media bias, with Dennis Skinner describing the BBC as the Daily Mail on film, and speculating that Sky TV polls showing 60% against the budget were fixed by Tory dial-up campaigns. Labour should highlight endorsements from the many people from all walks of life who have benefited from our policies. To put our achievements in context, it was reported that in Canada, hospitals aim for a maximum 12-hour wait in accident and emergency, and people have to take second jobs to pay for operations in their semi-private system. Moves towards healthier school meals were appreciated, though the unions pointed out that they were arguing the case long before Jamie Oliver. Christine Shawcroft said that privatisation had also contributed to the spread of MRSA in hospitals.

Others raised concerns about school admissions in London, moving defence jobs out of South Wales, and the effects of the European services directive on the Union’s social dimension. I welcomed the increase in the minimum wage, but regretted that the government rejected the low pay commission’s recommendation to pay the adult rate from the age of 21, rather than 22. Its chairman Adair Turner, former director-general of the CBI, had expressed disappointment. I also asked if the grant to the Woodcraft Folk, well-loved at the grassroots if not in the upper echelons, could be restored. £52,000 is small change, and could surely be found down the back of the Downing Street sofa.

Attacking the Tories’ £35 billion spending cuts was considered entirely legitimate, and has since been vindicated by Howard Flight’s admission that this is the tip of their iceberg. Mark Seddon asked for a sense of humour in the campaign, while others felt we could be more bold, confident and aspirational, and also that women should take a higher profile. Middle-class chatterers should remember that the workers suffer most when Labour loses. Tony Blair promised to find out about the Woodcraft Folk, but his over-riding message was that the people at the top are working effectively 24 hours a day. The party should unite behind them, stop moping, be proud of our record, and get out and win.

Lies, Statistics and Opinion Polls

Philip Gould, party pollster for 19 years, brought broadly encouraging news. Labour is ahead on seven of the eight top issues, trailing only on asylum and immigration. The economy is seen as strong and important, with the budget and the chancellor scoring well. Asked about Margaret Dixon’s shoulder, 77% said that Michael Howard was using the case for political gain, and only 16% that he cared about Mrs Dixon or the NHS. In general the Tories were seen as opportunistic and jumping on bandwagons, and as the party of privilege. But one set of figures stood out. In the marginals Labour holds a 3% lead among the 52% of the electorate who say they are certain to vote. Among those who will probably vote, the lead rises to 11%. So getting voters to polling stations is the main battle.

Alan Milburn was worried that if predictions are too good, people will think they can get a Labour government without voting for it. The party had never been in better shape with respect to trade unions, staff, local organisers and candidates, the national communication centre had made millions of contacts by telephone and direct mail, and there was an army of activists to be mobilised. Some NEC members brought more negative feedback, but Philip Gould found that while his focus groups might be grumpy, they could be convinced by the arguments to choose Labour. Tactical Labour voting by LibDems might be lower than last time, but Michael Howard’s illiberal poses should help us.

It’s The Economy, Stupid

Gordon Brown then spoke. He said the Tories had planned to attack on tax, public spending and a failed economy, but with Labour leading on all of these, they have been driven onto narrow rightwing fringe territory. With interest and mortage rates at half Tory levels, figures will be published showing how much voters have saved. Unemployment has been halved, with 2.1 million new jobs and 1.5 million more home-owners. All pensioners have gained the winter fuel allowance, council tax rebates, TV licences, free eye tests, and now (as requested by Jeremy Beecham at the last NEC) free local bus travel. Workers enjoy more flexibility, increased maternity and paternity leave, the national minimum wage, and support for children. The main emphasis of the budget was on investment in public services. In contrast, the Tories would take £2 billion out of state schools with their vouchers, and charge patients half the cost of operations or give them a second-class service.

He was warmly received, with calls for an end to briefings against the architect of Labour’s economic success. The main concern was the complexity of claiming pension, tax and child credits, and I added the problems of low-income families where fluctuating circumstances and administrative errors could lead to overpayment, followed by deductions which took them back below the poverty line. Gordon Brown said that pension credit could be claimed easily over the telephone, and it was reported that the Glasgow office rings up every pensioner to make sure they get their entitlement.

Gordon Brown was also asked to extend regulation to home reversion schemes, to protect consumers. In answer to Mark Seddon’s call for more emphasis on equality, he argued that the gap between the poorest and middle-income families had decreased. At a global level the international finance facility, 100% debt relief for the poorest countries, and a possible levy on aviation fuel, even if resisted by the United States, were big causes with wide progressive support, and well worth fighting for.

Be Prepared

Ian McCartney said that the manifesto would be finalised by the Clause V committee within 72 hours of the election being called. It would build on the National Policy Forum, the budget, and departmental five-year plans, and would be a narrative laying out dividing lines, not an exhaustive shopping list. Mini-manifestos on education, health, crime and children have been published, with papers for the workplace, the elderly, business, families, and rural areas to follow. Almost all constituencies have now selected their candidates, and the NEC officers and the late retirements panel have taken over shortlisting for the remainder. Members warned against wobbling on all-women shortlists, and called for one-member-one-vote selection up to the last moment. It was agreed that NEC members should be informed of changes to the code of conduct for candidates.

Ian and others praised John Prescott for digging us out of the local government pensions hole, and the unions and Alan Johnson would meet soon for the wide-ranging discussions promised in the Warwick agreement. He assured local government representatives that the county elections would be tied into the national campaign. MEPs warned of possible conflicts between the policy of the Party of European Socialists and the demands of the Labour government in Westminster.

The spring conference was judged successful. I followed up the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association advertisement in the guide, which included quotes describing passive smoking as “one of the great bogus causes of our age”, and a ban on smoking in public places as “as impertinent and patronising an assault on freedom as any proposed by a British government since the second world war”, and asked if we should give quite such prominence to attacks on Labour policy. General secretary Matt Carter said that the point was well made. There will be a meeting of the National Policy Forum on 16 July, which will consider the findings of the Partnership in Power review groups, papers for annual conference, and hopefully a policy commission document on Lords reform.