Tony Blair acknowledged the current mid-term difficulties. The Hutton inquiry was a tunnel which we had to go through, but more fundamental were the domestic issues: the economy, public services, crime, anti-social behaviour and asylum. Here modernisation was leading to success. Health targets had been met two years early, with premature deaths from heart disease down by 20% and from cancer down by 10%. The worst course would be to retreat. We must show our mettle, keep our nerve, and take the party with us.
Dennis Skinner, with more first-hand experience than most, asked why we had to shake up the health service, given these achievements: if it ain’t broke, why fix it? He warned Tony Blair to distance himself from George Bush if he wished to put the war behind him. Internationally members wanted to shift the focus to debt relief, the Middle East, Africa and the HIV/AIDs crisis. They were troubled by American attitudes to Iran and Syria, though Tony Blair pointed out that Europe was equally alarmed about Iran’s non-compliance with the Atomic Energy Authority and its potential nuclear capability.
Domestic comments covered praise for the new pensioner’s credit, the continuing two-tier workforce, Connex and other failed franchises, and the exporting of Corus jobs to continental Europe where rules were less stringently applied. I said that while identity cards might have long-term benefits, charging people £40 to have their eyeballs scanned was not the best way to reconnect with voters before the next election. Like foundation hospitals, top-up fees and the recent constitutional shake-ups this had appeared from on high, rather than emerging through Labour’s policy-making process.
Brent East was fresh in people’s minds. Thanks were expressed to party staff, to Ken Livingstone, and to everyone else who helped, but not to ministers whose speculation on possible defeat featured in the LibDems’ polling day propaganda. Views differed on whether the LibDems appealed because they were seen as more left-wing than Labour, or were merely a repository for discontented voters from every quarter. Loss of trust among supporters was worrying, but a Tory win would have been more dangerous. The post-mortem continued, and David Triesman asked for members’ feedback.
On the same day Labour won a council by-election in Stoke, but the British National Party were only 60 votes behind. Responding to Christine Shawcroft’s anxiety about Labour accepting the far right agenda, Tony Blair argued that asylum was the number one public grievance, and the BNP would grow in power until it was sorted. He also criticised certain newspapers which play up rising asylum applications, then claim that falling numbers are fiddled. So when complaints come from areas without a single refugee, are we pacifying the Mail/Express beast or are we feeding it?
Conference: A Future Fair For All
Tony Blair stressed that voters wanted to see a party which was coherent and looking to the future, mature enough to handle difficult issues and disagreements. Change was always for a purpose, and not driven by desire for permanent revolution. For universities the status quo was not an option, given our goal of increasing participation. Ian McCartney reminded us that we had not endured 18 years in opposition to throw it all away over the next 18 months. And I asked that conference should not be used to drive a wedge between the unions, seen as greedy “producer interests”, and the constituencies, held up as representing ordinary people.
The mechanics were discussed at length, with photographs and pretty red-and-purple models of the set. The 80-foot backdrop is said to be awesome. Speakers will again “walk the plank” towards the audience, and as the rostrum is a long way from the stage, Chairs asked for discreet ways of telling speakers to wind up. The timetable was still being finalised, with extra seminars on international affairs and public services scheduled for Sunday morning. The unions were deeply suspicious because these clash with their delegation meetings, leaving innocent constituency representatives to be brainwashed on the merits of public-private partnerships without their cautionary advice.
The international speaker will be Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan. Mark Seddon asked if representatives from North Korea could attend, and benefit from exposure to Labour party democracy. This was rejected on diplomatic and security grounds, and some members pointed out that the request was inconsistent with his previous opposition to delegates from Pakistan.
Reading the Small Print
As so often, the most exciting debates were over rule changes. Of those reported last time, the NEC has withdrawn proposed revisions to the Clause V committee and the Young Labour national committee pending further consultation. The amendments allowing individual membership in Northern Ireland will go forward, though there is no intention to organise or stand candidates in opposition to our sister party the SDLP.
Constitutional amendments from constituencies are invariably rejected, but the worm is finally beginning to turn. A long-running move to give equal weight to constituencies and unions in prioritising motions at conference was lost 10-9, with all six constituency representatives voting together, supported by UNISON. Again united, we did even better on a modest proposal from Oxford East CLP which would prevent NEC members who became MPs and MEPs from keeping their constituency places for years on end. Speakers stressed the importance of reserving the seats for non-parliamentarians, and resentment at Millbank’s attempts to stuff them with peers still lingered. When Ian McCartney voiced solidarity with the rank and file the argument was largely won, except with the chief whip who said no-one had a clue who any of us were anyway, and clearly preferred the good old days. More far-reaching changes may follow next year. Other amendments met the usual fate, including a call for the singing of the Red Flag at the end of every conference. However we were promised the Red Flag this time.
From Our Own Correspondents
Gary Titley gave the European report, and expressed the personal sadness and loss that many members felt at the murder of Anna Lindh. At a political level the result of the Euro-referendum in Sweden was not helpful. More encouragingly Latvia and Estonia had voted by sizeable majorities to join the Union, despite or perhaps because of British Tories assisting the No campaign. And the NEC endorsed a new electoral agreement between the Labour party and the Co-operative Party which recognises the modern relationship between the two organisations.
The party development taskforce tabled its report on “The 21st Century Party – The Next Steps”. This includes examples of good practice from constituencies, local government and unions around the country, and many questions for discussion. The paper should be on the web-site soon and will be circulated widely after conference, and as a member of the taskforce I will be particularly interested in your comments. The aim is to draw the feedback together for next year in suggesting a range of models for local parties. There is no plot to abolish General Committees, where these are loved and functional, and there will be no one-size-fits-all centralist prescription. What matters is what works.
I am acutely aware that, as John Prescott always says, the politics of ideas and the politics of organisation go hand in hand. Members will not campaign on policies which they have had no part in making, nor will they participate in endless forums to which no-one listens. Those issues will be picked up in the review of Partnership in Power, starting in earnest after the current cycle concludes at next year’s conference.