NEC Meeting, 23 May 2006

The Chair Jeremy Beecham stressed the need for unity and restraint after a difficult few months, though on the whole NEC members felt that the local election results could have been much worse. Tony Blair said that Labour must continue to take decisions on energy and public service reform for the long term, including rebalancing the criminal justice system in favour of victims. We should force the Tories to choose between supporting us or moving to the extreme right.

Margaret Hodge was criticised for giving respectability to the BNP, though some thought she had only named the problem, not created it. Others blamed dissident MPs for losses, and traced the trouble back to 1997 and the lone-parent benefit revolt. Unlike local government, where councillors in Stoke were suspended for abstaining on a whipped vote, MPs were never punished, and this encouraged further rebellion. Tony Blair did not want to create martyrs, but suggested that while MPs wouldn’t listen to the whips, they might listen to the NEC. Perhaps recognising that some of them were in the room, he said that MPs did not always cause damage when they voted against the government.

I pointed out that we also lost good councillors in Oxford, where our MP had never broken the whip nor criticised the government, but saw 90% of his majority vanish last year for being “Tony Blair’s man”. Andrew Smith’s recent call for a timetable for transition only reflected what voters told him on the doorstep. Pete Willsman asked directly whether Tony Blair would keep his promise to stand down if he became a liability. The prime minister side-stepped the question, but argued that university seats were untypical, influenced by Iraq and tuition fees. We did not do badly in our heartlands, but were losing people in London and the south who joined the New Labour coalition in 1997.

Later in the meeting I asked if Labour voters were indeed switching straight to the Tories, or if the shift was produced by Labour voters moving to the LibDems because they were seen as more left-wing, and LibDem voters returning to the Tories. No-one seemed to know, yet it is fundamental to strategy for the next election. I am also aware that the leadership issue is deeply polarising, with some members seeking early change, and others who would bitterly resent any forced eviction.

Prime Minister’s Questions

Christine Shawcroft asked why Tony Blair had come out for nuclear power before his energy review had finished, and how it could fill the immediate gap when new plants would take ten years to build. He said that nuclear was not the whole answer, but without replacing existing stations, Britain could not meet carbon dioxide targets or guarantee secure energy supplies. The waste was not a new problem. On Iraq, which he visited the day before, he was heartened by the willingness of all parties to work together, and none wanted the troops to leave precipitately. He would look into the plight of mesothelioma victims, and assured trade union members that the Warwick agreement would be implemented during this parliament, including the bank holidays enjoyed in other European countries.

On the home office’s tribulations he mused that unlike education, where pupils wanted to learn, and health, where patients wanted to get better, their client base did not have the same interest in success. However, claims for asylum were fewer than in 1997 and the backlog had been cleared. He warned that David Cameron’s remarks about tax-and-spend looking very different under the Tories were code for the same old cuts agenda, and said that the Olympics symbolised Labour’s optimism. I asked for apologies to people falsely classified as offenders by the criminal records bureau, and reported that following the loans and expenses revelations, constituency activists who contributed much unpaid effort did not feel that their integrity, commitment and sacrifice were matched at the top of the party.HH

The View from Number 11

Gordon Brown reported on an economy still stable despite increases in oil and house prices. Although recent job losses were regrettable, Britain was still making twice as many cars as fifteen years ago, and doubling investment in science would enhance high-value high-skill industries. International development was essential, so that people would not have to leave their own country to gain decent education and jobs, and to avoid fuelling terrorist grievances among the dispossessed, and Labour’s philosophy and policies were best able to cope with the effects of globalisation.

Members stressed that good housing and secure employment were important in combating racism and the BNP. Though there were two million more home-owners, and shared equity schemes to help people onto the ladder, some would always need or want to rent. The chancellor said that he would welcome a proper debate on immigration, and rejected Pete Willsman’s claim that inequality had increased, saying that the top 10% of earners now paid more than 50% of total tax, against 40% when Labour regained power. Inflation must be kept under control, with public service pay a critical factor.

Whose Party is it Anyway?

Reports that Tony Blair had instructed Hazel Blears to redesign the party by the end of June had ruffled feathers. John Prescott argued that while the prime minister could legitimately set goals for most ministers, party organisation was the responsibility of the NEC. Hazel reassured members that she would work in an open and honest way, through the party development taskgroup, and did not expect to have a final blueprint in four weeks. She also offered to find useful roles for the 356 excellent councillors who lost their seats and would have up to 30 empty hours a week to fill.

Membership was reported as stable at around 198,000, with little apparent impact from subscription rises, and the national communication centre was telephoning lapsers to encourage them to renew. Regarding the Labour Supporters’ Network (LSN), the addition of postcodes to e-mail addresses now allowed them to be allocated to constituencies. One member reported receiving only five responses, all negative, from 50 e-mails, and I would be interested in feedback from other constituencies. It was confirmed that many of the 100,000 names on the LSN are current party members.

I passed on concerns about blanket national mailings which were not sensitive to local circumstances, including complaints about anti-LibDem messages driving Labour voters away. As with public services, today’s customers demand prompt and personalised attention and not standard auto-replies, and we risk raising expectations which we cannot meet. Face-to-face contact still mattered, especially in reaching our core voters. Contrary to accusations I did not intend to undermine valuable initiatives, but promoting free access to policy-making for supporters and dropping references to membership on publicity material are political decisions which should have been taken by the NEC.

Further development depends on integrating all our IT systems, and there was an impressive presentation of future plans, including a review of   Local parties have to campaign on multiple boundaries, because of devolved institutions and changes to Westminster constituencies, and new ways of reaching voters by e-mail and mobile are needed because of the millions who withhold their telephone numbers. Constituencies will be encouraged to set up interactive websites and to pilot other developments, with charges to be decided. All this should be demonstrated at annual conference, and if anyone is interested in helping to develop the new systems, please let me know.

Paying for Democracy

The NEC discussed a draft response to the Hayden Phillips inquiry on party funding, and this will soon go out for consultation.  There was general agreement on controlling expenditure throughout the electoral cycle, if it could be made to work. A cap on donations was more contentious. The Tories have proposed £50,000, as they have plenty of rich individual supporters, but they would exclude the trade unions. Even if Labour made the case for treating the unions and other affiliates as membership organisations rather than single donors, any limit might make them an easy target for exclusion if the Tories regain power. State funding would be acceptable if it gave the governing party the same “Short money” as the opposition, and perhaps for education and training, but the NEC was warned that in Europe it came with many strings, and was not an easy option for avoiding scandal.

The idea of charitable status attracted little support. Other organisations with political aims might seek similar tax exemption, adding to the burden on the treasury, and having to satisfy the charities commission as well as the electoral commission would bring restrictions. Interestingly, bequests to political parties are not subject to inheritance tax, and such donors could not be accused of seeking favours. On the specific issues which led to the Phillips enquiry, Dianne Hayter was drafting new proposals for party governance, and training for audit committee members would be considered.

Local Government Update

Jeremy Beecham reported that Labour councillors now supported the education bill, and unions and employers had resumed talks on the pension scheme. Continuing the saga of subscriptions to the Association of Local Councillors (ALC), those councillors who lost their seats in May will not be pursued for arrears. Subscriptions for 2006/2007 had been agreed by the Chairs of the NEC and the local government committee, with the lowest rate falling from £40 to £32, and the highest rising from £100 to £161 for councillors on £40,000 upwards. For next year I asked for Labour groups to be told that failure to pay would mean fines for local constituencies, and for constituencies to receive copies of invoices. The general secretary promised that records would be improved, and constituencies would be helped to recover any debts from councillors.

Elections Past and Future

Returning to the local elections, authoritative analysis gave the Tories 39%, Labour 26% and the LibDems 25%, and members asked whether headline reports of Tories reaching the 40% milestone and Labour falling to third place were media bias or opposition spin. Turnout was 37% overall and more than 50% in London, with signs of an organised middle-class anti-Labour vote. Problems included the stream of negative national stories and failure to repeat last year’s £200 council tax rebate for pensioners, though attacks on the LibDems over crime and anti-social behaviour were effective.

Moving on, strong local candidates had been selected for the Blaenau Gwent by-election on 29 June, and this would be followed by an even more challenging contest in Bromley and Chislehurst, where the late Eric Forth had 51% of the vote. Peter Hain’s apology for imposing an all-women shortlist on Blaenau Gwent was widely resented: it was an NEC decision, and if it was wrong, it was the NEC who should apologise. The disputes panel had noted that some members who were expelled did not want to return, and others could reapply for membership, as the NEC had discretion to waive the five-year exclusion rule. The organisation committee agreed that 35 seats should start selecting their next general election candidates, with nine of the 17 most winnable using all-women shortlists.

On internal elections the timetable for the constituency section of the NEC was moved back a month so that ballot papers can be sent out with membership cards reflecting the boundary review, starting from 30 June with a closing date of 31 July. And following persistent representations, votes in the MPs/MEPs section of the NEC would now be counted immediately the polls close on 28 June, rather than leaving the ballot boxes unattended overnight.

Planning Ahead

The national policy forum would meet on 30 June / 1 July, after which the first-year consultation paper would be published for discussion through to March 2007. Documents would be redrafted in May/June and circulated in July 2007, with deadlines for submission in February 2008. The draft final document would then be considered by the policy commissions in May/June 2008, with the national policy forum agreeing amendments in July 2008. This seems to give constituencies little time to exercise their new right to submit amendments, and I will try to clarify the position.

The NEC agreed that future annual conferences would be held in Bournemouth (2007) Brighton (2008 and 2009) and Manchester (2010), and future spring conferences in Glasgow (2007), Manchester (2008 and 2009) and Bournemouth (2010). We were assured that there is still affordable accommodation for constituency delegates, and if anyone has difficulty, please let me know.

On party finances, loans are being rescheduled where necessary, and we are definitely not bankrupt. Forty-six staff will have taken voluntary severance by June. Plans to create three new super-regional directors, between the existing regional directors and the general secretariat, were not mentioned to the NEC, though they were circulated to MPs.