NEC Meeting, 23 January 2001

The run-up to the election continues to gather pace. Tony Blair and Ian McCartney stressed the need to mobilise activists and supporters, and Peter Mandelson outlined campaign plans, with no hint of his impending resignation. Tony Blair pointed out that economic stability deserves more recognition. For a Labour government, mortgage rates at half the Tory level and no sterling crises are unprecedented achievements.

The problem remains getting people to see the Tories as a threat, not a joke. No-one seriously believes that they can match our spending and still cut taxes. But their pledges to reverse union recognition and take half a billion pounds from lone parents are not funny, and apathy could let them squeak in. At the moment the media are more formidable enemies. Some members were unhappy at Robin Cook’s renewed commitment to a referendum on electoral reform, but as John Prescott said: “even careful choice of words can be misinterpreted”.

Turning to Labour’s record, “the glass is half-full, not half-empty” is the new catchphrase. The advantage of unfulfilled aspirations is that they provide a programme for the second term and reasons to ask for it. If all the glasses were overflowing we might relax and put our feet up. The Parliamentary Campaign Team is taking the message to informal meetings across the country, John Prescott’s Get Ready tour will ratchet up the excitement, and the Glasgow Spring Conference will showcase Labour’s vision while avoiding the fatal triumphalism of the Sheffield Rally. Three thousand members have already registered but places are still available – look for details in the next issue of Inside Labour.

The Policy Unit is drawing up a campaign handbook, promoting Labour’s programme and rebutting Tory arguments against the Tories. We also had briefing notes listing LibDem weaknesses: “scrapping burdensome regulations” on business means attacking workers’ rights, their spending promises have no visible financial support, and they would undermine the war on drugs. Peter Mandelson agreed to look at dovetailing local elections with the general election, should they fall on the same day.

Worlds Apart

In the battle of ideals the Tories will play on asylum, race, narrow-minded “family values” and xenophobia. In contrast Labour takes the international high ground, banning landmines, cancelling debt and leading in Europe, with Robin Cook as the next President of the Party of European Socialists (PES). Every Labour member automatically belongs to the PES, and their logo may be added to party cards. It would fit neatly in the top right corner.

Robin Cook pointed out that the Tories did not even collaborate with their own sister parties, having discovered that these are full of Europeans. They also voted against enlargement of the Union, which he found ironic because most of the countries waiting to join have centre-right governments in reaction to decades of state dictatorship, and would be their ideological allies.

Simon Murphy, leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, reported on success in defeating a European Commission proposal to open postal services to competition for items over 50 grammes. The current limit is 350 grammes, and a compromise at 150 grammes was agreed. The Tories, despite lobbying from the Women’s Institute and others, voted for the lowest figure, which would have destroyed rural post offices and wrecked Consignia, as we must learn to call the Royal Mail.

Members were keen to protect European environmental standards, particularly with George W in the White House, and Robin Cook expected challenging dialogue ahead. The new President raised many anxieties, starting with his first act in withdrawing funds from charities that allow abortion. Liam Fox, the shadow Health Secretary, has now joined him in attacking a woman’s right to choose.

Protest and Survive

I asked if Britain would try to dissuade the United States from Son of Star Wars, a deeply destabilising project if it works, and refuse to allow them to upgrade Fylingdales. Tony Blair said that the issue must be handled with care. Instead of rushing to judgment, we should bring all sides together to seek a way through. We need good working links with the new President because the Tories will exploit any cooling in the “special relationship”. William Hague has already promised the Americans everything they want before they ask, a curious way to defend British sovereignty.

Dennis Skinner suggested that the surplus in the miners’ pension fund could help sufferers from emphysema and other occupational diseases, and Tony Blair said he would look into this. The decline of manufacturing is still of concern in some areas, but members cited many positive achievements: the minimum wage, the Children’s Tax Credit, the right to roam, freedom of information, terminating most of the hereditary peers. A ban on foxhunting could play brilliantly with young voters.

Musical Chairs

The NEC will draw up shortlists for parliamentary candidates in the eight constituencies which have not yet agreed a timetable. If they give members a wide choice, as in Preston, there should be few objections. Filling last-minute vacancies may be more controversial, but someone has to do it.

Selecting Labour candidates for local mayors is included in the consultation which closes on 31 March, and Conference will agree procedures in October. If cities rush to elect mayors before then, interim procedures will be needed. The Organisation Committee is suggesting that a panel of NEC, regional and constituency representatives should both interview and shortlist candidates, with no branch involvement. This will be decided in March, so let me know if you have any views.

Staff are working to comply with new funding laws and to support constituency treasurers. We are all proud of our government for introducing transparency and ending sleaze. Despite a few high-profile sums, 40% of party income still comes from membership subscriptions and small donations, 30% from unions and 10% from commercial activities.

Future Perfect?

Much of the NEC’s detailed work takes place in subcommittees, and I find the Party Development Committee (PDC) particularly interesting. Following up on 21st Century Party, the Committee is looking for pilot projects to increase participation, especially by women, youth and ethnic minorities. Local parties will be able to bid for resources to support innovative ideas. I am trying to establish robust and sensible performance indicators, so we gain objective evidence on what works.

The PDC also covers Partnership in Power at local level, and Paul Simpson, the national Political Education Officer, has many ideas for improvement: better feedback from forums, more community involvement, and exploiting new technology. The difficulty is that the other half of the system, the National Policy Forum and the Policy Commissions, belong with the Joint Policy Committee, which has not yet started its review. I am arguing for the lot to be brought together, because however much members enjoy political discussion, it must have visible effects on national policy-making. There is a strong desire to start the next cycle of policy development as soon as possible, which has advantages as the two years immediately after the election are the best time for open debate.