The meeting opened with tributes to Michael Foot, recalling not only his time as leader but his earlier achievements as employment secretary, when he introduced life-saving health and safety laws, and in keeping the 1974 government on the road with a majority of one. There will be a memorial service after the election. The NEC also received obituaries for his former colleague Albert Booth, and for Ashok Kumar who died at the shockingly early age of 53. A dedicated and hardworking MP, he maintained contact rates of over 80% with his constituents, and as a scientist and a member of the Humanist Society he campaigned for a national holiday to mark the birth of Charles Darwin. The NEC stood in silence to honour them and other comrades who passed away in recent months.
Returning to present challenges, party leader Gordon Brown repeated that whenever discussion moved to education, policing or the NHS, Labour rose in the polls, and we must continue campaigning for what we believe in. Keeping concessionary fares for pensioners would be a manifesto commitment, and he disagreed with the Tory / LibDem refusal to offer any pay increase to council workers. Salaries for top civil servants, military chiefs, doctors and dentists would be frozen this year, but it was unfair to make the low-paid suffer. The minimum wage and tax credits would also feature in Labour’s election promise, and we should win back the three million votes lost to the LibDems in 2005 over Iraq.
NEC members were unhappy about ministers intervening in lawful strikes by British Airways cabin crew. The union had offered cuts in pay and jobs, but management showed no corresponding willingness to compromise, and members were intimidated and afraid to speak publicly. The prime minister had tried to encourage a settlement, but as I write, this seems some way off. Other issues included the need for more housing, the ease with which foreign companies could take over British firms – most recently Kraft’s acquisition of Cadbury – and continuing murders of human rights workers in Colombia.
Deputy leader Harriet Harman said that the campaign team was working smoothly and effectively. There was interest in the impact of TV debates, a first for Britain. Voters would judge the leaders against each other, but also against expectations, and Gordon Brown was advised to use the opportunity to demonstrate his experience and understanding. I asked for an easy-read version of the manifesto for people with learning disabilities, and actually a shortened document using simple language and pictures could be helpful to many other voters. The unions were contacting their own members and mobilising activists, and it was stressed that they are an integral part of the party, through political funds endorsed every ten years in postal ballots, and not comparable in any way to Lord Ashcroft. Members also commented on Tony Blair’s possible role in the campaign.
Yet again senior figures had been causing problems, and members approved of chief whip Nick Brown’s speedy action in suspending Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt, Geoff Hoon and Margaret Moran for bringing the party into disrepute for apparently offering influence for cash. Further decisions will follow after he has spoken with them. Members regretted our inability to impose sanctions on errant peers.
Rumours have been swirling round the blogosphere since the NEC’s special selections panel took over shortlisting. Some, such as those alleging my support for particular candidates, I know are false, and where I have served on interview panels, shortlists have been reached by consensus, with no outside pressure and the sole aim of giving members the best possible choice. I cannot comment on others, but trust is not total. Questions were asked about seats which have hit the headlines, and more will follow. There were also concerns about the lack of black and ethnic minority (BAME) candidates selected through the panel. However our overall record is good, with 10 new BAME candidates (and 54 women) out of 97 defending Labour seats, and we must not let the Tory media claim otherwise.
A small minority have started arguing for the panel to start imposing candidates. I reminded them that the November NEC agreed without dissent to delete the phrase
“From the day the election is called any remaining CLPs without a candidate will have them selected by the panel again under power delegated to it from the NEC.”
and replace it with
“When the general election is called the right of members to select their candidates will remain a priority consideration for the panel. However, where election timetable constraints make this impossible, the panel has the power, under delegated authority from the NEC, to select candidates on behalf of local parties.”
On 18 March the panel confirmed that after parliament was dissolved, shortlisting and selection could continue in by-election mode, and this was reported to and endorsed by the full NEC. On 25 March the panel agreed to drop postal votes and move to selection at hustings meetings only, with proxy votes for the small numbers who are registered disabled to ensure compliance with the disability discrimination act. I am bemused by those who see this as a stitch-up mechanism, because most of my complaints come from selections where two-thirds of members are given postal votes and the outcome is determined before the hustings. The only reason is to get candidates in place before nominations close.
The special selections panel has extensive delegated powers, but I do not believe that these include reversing an explicit NEC decision. In 2005 not a single candidate was imposed, and all local parties had some choice, albeit limited. If I cannot maintain this record it will not be for want of trying. So MPs thinking of going should tell us now, to give their members a little more time with their successor.
Recent seats to come to the panel included East Lothian, which was the subject of a special NEC meeting on 3 March. After years of conflict, the temporary suspension of the local party and the failure of a peace deal brokered by Jack Dromey, the constituency had applied for permission to discuss replacing their MP. Following a full and difficult debate the special NEC granted the request, with 24 in favour, four against and two abstentions. A constituency all-members’ meeting then agreed by 130 votes to 59 that they wished to seek a new candidate, and this NEC endorsed their decision with 18 in favour, four against and four abstentions. Some feared that other constituencies would now think that it was easy to deselect their MP. I can assure them that it is not, and almost any alternative is preferable.
European leader Glenis Willmott reported the latest news from Brussels, where Tory MEPs had voted against measures to crack down on tax-dodgers. UKIP continued to behave outrageously, with Nigel Farage telling the president of the council Herman van Rompuy that he had the charisma of a damp rag. His allowances have been cut off as punishment.
David Spokes was congratulated on his election as leader of the Labour group of councillors, and will take over from Jeremy Beecham in July. Procedures for selecting Labour’s candidate for London mayor will come to the NEC immediately after the general election, so that the campaign to take back the city can begin. And forms will be sent to constituencies in May enabling them to nominate candidates for the six seats on the NEC and, for the first time, for the five national policy forum places within their region.
Most sub-committee meetings were cancelled in favour of campaigning, but the organisation committee dealt with several items. Dianne Hayter was appointed as the NEC link with Labour International, a group of enthusiastic members which does not fit easily into domestic party structures. In Stoke most council candidates have now been selected, and Cath Speight has taken over responsibility from Mike Griffiths. Internal arguments continue over the role of the NEC, the move to all-member meetings, the new city-based party, and other issues dating back to the elected mayor and before. I cannot comment as I have not been directly involved, except to say that in 25 years’ experience as a trade union representative I have never yet come across a situation where one side was 100% in the right.
The Election and Beyond
The NEC will gather once more as part of the Clause V meeting which signs off the manifesto, within 72 hours of the calling of the election. General secretary Ray Collins assured us that he was working within agreed strategies, particularly the financial strategy, and would involve the NEC Chair and officers if necessary. Harriet Harman said that members were welcome to contact her, and I also offered to take up any concerns with Ray. All that remained was to wish everyone a successful campaign, and whatever the outcome, look forward to meeting again in May as a united NEC leading a united party.