The meeting opened with a debate about collecting arrears of subscriptions to the Association of Labour Councillors. Like other constituency secretaries I received a letter in August saying that under an NEC “rule change”, subscriptions owed by my Labour group(s) would be deducted from our membership money. I did not recall this, but discovered that in accepting the minute of the local government committee stating that “the proposal for the collection of ALC subscription arrears was agreed”, I had unwittingly endorsed controversial procedures in a paper given only to the committee.
Some constituencies were grateful, others were incandescent. Particularly in Tory shire counties, constituencies may have no councillors and few connections with Labour groups. In November the NEC was assured that no money would be stopped without their approval, but in December a follow-up mailing re-ignited the protests. At this meeting the NEC was told that the threat had worked: 31 groups had paid up since July, and only 26 were now outstanding. We were asked to impose deductions for groups still in default by 31 January 2006, and continue the system into the future.
Various alternatives were suggested: keep offenders off the candidates’ panel (only effective every four years); withdraw the Labour whip as in the rulebook (the nuclear option); get the Labour group to sort them out (the whole group may be in default); get the local government committee to sort them out (few funds or powers of its own) do whatever Hilary Armstrong does to MPs who don’t pay their levy (details not available). Some feared that groups would not pay if they knew that constituencies would be forced to. However most NEC members backed the scheme, so it was a matter of getting the best deal possible. I argued that for future years, constituencies should see all correspondence with Labour groups, including subscription rates, amounts and councillors’ allowances, and Labour groups should be warned that they would lose constituency support if they did not pay. For this year the remaining 26 groups will be pursued individually. No constituency will be fined without the consent of the NEC officers plus myself, and I do not intend to commit electoral suicide.
Back to Politics
Tony Blair and Hazel Blears spoke about the respect agenda, with new laws empowering communities to tackle nuisance at local level, and stronger sanctions against attacks on workers serving the public. On the positive side, activities for young people would be improved. Funding for voluntary services should be allocated for three years at a time, alleviating problems with short-term contracts. Christine Shawcroft warned against demonising young people, and others pointed out that private tenants and owner-occupiers can be just as anti-social as council estate residents. The LibDem proposal to reduce the age for buying alcohol to 16 was criticised, though it was noted that changes in the licensing laws had not led to the collapse of civilisation as some predicted.
On wider issues Tony Blair was congratulated on a successful European presidency, and for foreseeing the energy crisis. Members were worried that the services directive would drive down employment conditions to those in the country of origin, not the country where people were working. Tony Blair argued that failure to liberalise would hold us back from competing in Europe, but offered Royal Mail unions particular help in managing the necessary changes. In answer to Pete Willsman’s questions about rendition and George Bush’s alleged plan to bomb Al-Jazeera, he said that Al-Jazeera had not in fact been bombed, and should give more prominence to human rights abuses in Arab countries. A few requests for transferring foreign nationals had been made by Bill Clinton and reported, and he did not approve of deporting anyone to anywhere they might be tortured.
On incapacity benefit (IB), Tony Blair said that existing claimants would keep their current rates, but all claimants would participate in the Pathways to Work scheme. Having three million people on IB made it difficult to provide for the genuinely disabled, and disability groups were generally supportive of the proposals, though he agreed that it was not possible to live on £70 a week. I also asked why nuclear power was always quoted as providing 20% of British electricity, rather than 5% of total energy supply. Tony Blair argued that this would still need a lot of windpower to replace, though clean coal, carbon sequestration and other options should be pursued. Dennis Skinner suggested burying the education bill, and concentrating on the vast unplugged holes of energy and pensions.
In Sickness and in Health
Patricia Hewitt outlined Labour’s vision of services fair for all and personal to each, and achievements in reducing waits for operations below 6 months, aiming for a maximum of 18 weeks by the end of 2008. Hospital choice was popular with patients and prevented consultants from using their private practice to keep NHS waiting lists long. No-one now wanted to reverse foundation trusts or reduce freedom for providers. The new white paper would shift emphasis from hospitals to social care and long-term conditions. In the past funding was balanced across the NHS as a whole, which meant that Surrey and Sussex were subsidised by the poorest areas, and spending would now be controlled within each trust. Only 28% were in deficit, with 4% of trusts making up 50% of the deficit.
I said that telling people in Oxford – a Labour city – that they could not have medically necessary NHS hernia operations and heart procedures because they lived in a rich area did not go down well, and they blamed the government because there was no other body that they could hold responsible. In addition the trust has had to pay £700,000 to a private provider for cataract operations which were not done because there was no demand. Patricia Hewitt accepted that this was not sensible, and said that primary care trusts needed to be more publicly accountable. She added that the last thing she wanted on becoming secretary of state was more reorganisation, but PCTs were asking to merge. Answering concerns that Labour supporters were excluded as non-executive directors because of lack of business experience, she understood that appointments reflected the political make-up of the applicant.pool.
Christine Shawcroft and others doubted whether choice made sense in rural areas, but Patricia Hewitt assured us that 90% of people live within an hour of at least four hospitals, and competition was the best way to ensure an excellent local hospital. She shared dissatisfaction with high charges for TVs and telephones in hospitals, and for parking, though this might be a local authority issue. Finally she acknowledged difficulties in finding nursing homes for relatives because a weak market meant that many owners were selling up, and the importance of nutrition, especially towards the end of life.
The spring conference is almost upon us, and there are plans to carry the centenary celebrations though the year. A new wording will be trialled for invitations to the women’s reception, aimed at keeping the event predominantly for women, but not imposing total exclusion of men. Beyond that, preparations for annual conference in Manchester are in full swing. About 900 rooms are available for £55 a night or less, and constituencies are advised to book as soon as possible. Sheila Murphy, the north-west regional director, will be in charge of recruiting and training stewards, and delegates may be allowed to take bottles of water, all their papers and small comfort items into the hall.
Ian McCartney summarised the recent National Policy Forum as a success, though proof will only come from ordinary members across the country, both in better feedback and in their views actually making a difference to policy. Even NEC members do not know how many submissions have been received on the education white paper and what they say, but we will keep asking.
General secretary Peter Watt reported on staffing reductions to 260, comparing favourably with 210 at the same period in 2002. NEC officers and union representatives were fully involved, but some members were unhappy that they heard first from journalists. The disputes panel barred the New Forest East candidate from the next parliamentary panel and asked to see the Channel 4 interview in which he allegedly recommended voting for the LibDems. And the organisation committee deferred decisions on all-women shortlists for nearly 40 early selections, until 14 March for those outside London, and until 9 May for London seats. The March meeting will also discuss general guidelines for AWS, including their application to late retirements. Finally the NEC endorsed Catherine Stihler MEP as the candidate for the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election, while recording that the leader of the European parliamentary Labour party should be consulted on decisions involving MEPs.