The National Executive Committee’s first task was to choose a new General Secretary, and David Triesman, current General Secretary of the Association of University Teachers, was appointed. Tributes were paid to Margaret McDonagh for fifteen years’ dedication to the party.
Tony Blair opened the main meeting, with Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander reporting on the general election. The Prime Minister repeated that success came through discipline and occupying the political centre, and that must remain the strategy. Voters chose public services over tax cuts, and reform was essential for delivery. He was unhappy that a private meeting with union leaders had been leaked, and that government policy was being misrepresented as “privatising the NHS”.
Gordon Brown agreed that the election was fought on our agenda, forcing the Tories to the right. Full employment was central to economic and social policy, and constituencies and regions should identify and tackle barriers in their own areas. Tackling child and pensioner poverty, and Clare Short’s international work, also highlighted Labour’s values.
But celebration was notably lacking. Dennis Skinner warned of falling membership and activism. Others said that loyalty was tested by changes to incapacity benefit and charges for employment tribunals, and stressed that trade unions and councillors must be valued. In the 1980s and 1990s Labour rebuilt their political base through local government, and the Tories must not be allowed the same opportunity. Ring-fencing money for national priorities, such as education, reduced councils’ flexibility to meet local needs.
Christine Shawcroft was concerned at the emphasis on faith-based schools, never discussed in the National Policy Forum. White-dominated Christian schools and demands for separate Muslim schools led to educational apartheid and fuelled racial tensions. I asked if it was responsible to push people into private pension schemes and wash our hands of them when thing went wrong, as with the 900,000 victims of Equitable Life. There will be an enquiry into this specific case.
Missing in Action
Everyone was worried about low turnout and people who do not even join the electoral register, and further research will be commissioned. A working party will be established on young people, who are particularly unlikely to vote. Many complain that Labour makes it more difficult to go to university, and while Gordon Brown pointed to increased numbers in higher education, Tony Blair said that there were lessons to learn. Perhaps the new General Secretary will be interested, given his background.
Many members write to me about the difficulty of maintaining morale in non-priority seats, both 1997 near-misses and those considered unwinnable. I suggested more sympathetic responses from the party, good regional co-ordination, and partnership with nearby Labour MPs. In the light of Chesterfield, constituencies should be able to select candidates in good time and with full local involvement.
Charles Clarke’s appointment as Party Chairman was still causing ripples, as Maggie Jones is the elected Chair. A less provocative title would help, but Tony Blair said it showed his commitment to strengthening relations between party and government, and if the post works as intended I am sure members will benefit. Charles was elected to represent Labour on the Party of European Socialists, where we get an extra seat while Robin Cook is President. European leader Simon Murphy reported on new rights to information and consultation, and paid leave for employees on short-term contracts. Some NEC members felt that the government should be more enthusiastic about the gains for workers which flow from Europe, instead of always trying to block or delay them.
General Secretary Margaret McDonagh reported that 453 constituencies have access to membership information through labour.people, and next year this would be linked up to the voter-id system labour.contact. Most new and renewed membership cards are now dispatched within the target time of two days. However, membership did not show the usual surge at this general election. A report to the NEC suggested that significant recruitment depends on national message and effort, and there would be a concerted push starting at Conference. The large number of trade unionists who pay the political levy but are not individual party members form an obvious target group.
Controversial plans to move half the party staff from London to North Shields were discussed. The rent for Millbank is trebling to nearly £1 million, unaffordable at a time of static membership and reduced union contributions, but members were concerned about the impact on staff, the possibility of a two-tier workforce with London carrying higher status, and the effect on services if teams were broken up and experienced people left. The paper was endorsed as a basis for further consultation with staff unions, though Christine Shawcroft and I abstained because of reported discontent and low morale in the ranks.
20th Century Party
The Organisation Committee presented a revised Rulebook. There are welcome changes, including requirements not to discriminate against disabled members. Party consultation showed mixed views on eligibility to participate in selections, and the compromise proposal was for six months’ membership in the relevant electoral area. Detailed selection procedures would follow, including measures to promote women as it becomes legal. MEPs have already proposed that the highest place on each regional list below sitting members should be occupied by a woman.
The consultation also showed majorities for excluding peers from constituency seats and retaining annual elections for the NEC, but these were ignored. I argued for one-member-one-vote elections to the National Policy Forum, popular with members and used for the Scottish Forum, but gained support only from Christine Shawcroft, and some sympathy from MPs, so this was also rejected. The NEC has its own forces of conservatism. However, the need to fill vacancies on the Forum would be addressed. Finally trade union affiliation was recommended to rise from £2 to £2.25 per member next year with further rises subject to negotiation.
Because of recent complaints over various internal elections, Christine and I tabled a resolution requesting wider publicity for codes which guarantee the neutrality of party staff. This was referred to a working party on balloting procedures, and the Chair Maggie Jones gave her personal assurance that there would be no interference before or during elections at this year’s Conference.
Conference arrangements will be finalised in September, but the NEC agreed to invite all London-based embassies and High Commissions except Burma, Sudan, Austria, Zimbabwe, Ukraine, Belarus, Tunis and, after a vote, Pakistan. Some members asked why Pakistan was barred while Russia, still at war in Chechnya, and China, with its human rights record, were acceptable. The majority view, which I supported with reservations, was that the latter countries are at least moving in the right direction, but there are obvious grey areas. And Serbia will be welcomed back, following their return to democracy.