This was a day for the understudies: deputy leader Harriet Harman spoke on behalf of Gordon Brown, who was on his way to address the European parliament, and I chaired the meeting as Cath Speight was laid up in Wales with a broken ankle. The whole NEC sent good wishes for a speedy recovery.
We began with the European manifesto, pulled together by the Britain in the World policy commission. Jim Kennedy, for the unions, proposed supplementing the posted workers directive with domestic laws applying relevant collective agreements to foreign workers, and ending Britain’s opt-out from the working time directive, in line with party policy. European leader Glenis Willmott explained that the posted workers’ directive would be reviewed to protect their rights, but the working time directive was best discussed outside the manifesto as even Labour MEPs were divided. Given the impact of European court judgments on British workers, Mike Griffiths argued strongly that the prosperity and work commission should be involved in the final drafting. Turning to politics, Glenis reported that Tory MEPs are leaving the centre-right European people’s party group. Their new friends include the Czech ODS, whose president has called climate change a global myth, and the Polish PiS, whose MP Artur Gorski described Barack Obama’s election as “the end of the civilisation of the white man”.
Vote 4 June 2009
Harriet Harman introduced the themes for a unified local and European campaign. A strong voice in Europe was important in itself, but this would also be the last nationwide poll of real voters before the general election. With economic worries rising, our messages must be as clear as the 1997 pledges: this was a global crisis, supporting the banks protected the deposits of millions of ordinary people, and loan guarantees and deferred business taxes were saving thousands of jobs. Pensions, child benefits and tax thresholds were being lifted, mortgage interest would be paid after 13 weeks out of work, and £1.3 billion extra was going to help the unemployed. The Tories opposed all these measures. And where Labour stood for fairness, with a 45% tax rate on incomes over £150,000, the Tories would give inheritance tax breaks to the 3,000 wealthiest families.
Christine Shawcroft welcomed the belated adoption of her proposals for taxing the rich. Capping council house rents and the concessionary bus fares scheme were also popular, though I and others have begged repeatedly for councils to be reimbursed for the true costs. Members suggested greater prominence for housing and asked, again, for “hard-working families” to be replaced by more inclusive language. Peter Kenyon regretted that Labour was still seen as bashing scroungers: those newly unemployed through no fault of their own were shocked at how little they had to live on. Other issues included high energy bills, disillusion among outsourced public service workers, British Aerospace’s bid for the Nimrod replacement, student involvement in any review of university fees, and allegations of British complicity in torture.
Dennis Skinner recommended deferring decisions on Royal Mail and student fees, and congratulated Gordon Brown on tackling MPs’ outside earnings as well as expenses. The deputy leader agreed with him that April’s budget would be stonkingly important, and assured members that they would not be disappointed in the new equality bill. She hoped compensation for pleural plaques could be sorted, as it has been in Scotland, and promised to take other contributions on board. Later, under the international report, members expressed deep concern on behalf of Tamils about the situation in Sri Lanka.
Cracking the Whip
From time to time members have complained about the behaviour of MPs and peers, and the chief whip Nick Brown was invited to address the NEC. He focused on the numbers rebelling and abstaining since 1997, with particular unhappiness over those who stayed away without telling him, as this made it hard to plan. Interestingly there was no correlation between the number of times an MP voted against the government and their election results, which suggests that overall, voters neither reward independence nor punish disloyalty. He reported that Canadian Liberal MPs are less rebellious, but are three times as likely to feel involved in policy-making as British Labour MPs.
NEC members argued for distinguishing issues of principle such as Iraq, the third runway at Heathrow, Royal Mail and other manifesto commitments from general mischief-making, and large rebellions showed that the government might have got it wrong. Analogies with local government did not entirely hold: councillors elected their cabinet and voted on their own manifesto. The joint policy committee has concentrated on involving constituency parties in the national policy forum, but should give more attention to drawing in backbench MPs.
Others pointed out the damage done by critical MPs touring TV studios, even if their voting records were impeccable, and cabinet leaks. Stories about expenses should be considered not in narrow technical terms, but on how they are seen by the archetypal hard-working family. There is media distortion – for instance including payment for office staff in the totals – and the only MP to have been found guilty of rule-breaking was the Tory Derek Conway, who paid his son for non-existent work, but the principled majority are all tarred with the same brush. Nick Brown summed up by saying that genuine policy disagreements could be handled but we must never become an undisciplined shambles.
Partnership in Power on Pause
The official report from the Bristol national policy forum stated “despite any faults, this process allows ordinary members more access and engagement with the policy-making process than ever before”, though constituency members found the volume of amendments from local parties hard to handle, and limits may be imposed in future. Most participants wanted to postpone a full review until after the general election, and members wondered if this also applied to a decision on whether to continue with contemporary issues at conference. I think this should be deferred to 2010 as well, when the election results will help to gauge the effectiveness of the process, but not all stakeholders may agree. In the meantime an e-mail has gone to stakeholders inviting comments on Winning the Fight for Britain’s Future and the 2007 Extending and Renewing Party Democracy document, and I have asked for these to be featured on membersnet. No further national policy forum meetings are scheduled, but members were keen that the document agreed at Warwick last July should not simply be parked.
The organisation committee had agreed that Colne Valley should select from an all-women shortlist, but Reading West should be open, and this led to discussion on how to pursue party policy of increasing women’s representation. In 2001/2005 a decision to replace every MP who retired after their trigger ballot from an AWS proved unworkable as there were so many, and there may be more this time. Currently vacant seats are considered on an ad hoc basis, with little evident consistency, and local members feel that their views carry little weight. My concerns that women might be getting the more marginal seats seem unfounded: unofficial figures are that of ten seats with 10,000-plus majorities, nine men and one woman will be replaced by five men and five women; of nine seats with 5,000 – 10,000 majorities, eight men and one woman will be succeeded by seven women and two men; and below 5,000, 17 seats with 11 men and six women will be contested by nine women and eight men. So whatever the overall outcome, we should make progress. Keith Vaz reminded us that improving black and minority ethnic representation was equally important. The organisation committee also agreed that once selected, candidates should not be able to seek selection in another seat without NEC permission.
The business board decided that all branches and constituencies should bank with the Co-Op or Unity Trust, because they are familiar with party funding laws and helping local parties to comply. Seventy per cent already do so, and the banks have promised to make the transfer straightforward. The local government committee raised subscriptions to the association of Labour councillors by 4.5%, the CPI at October 2008, and received an update on the troubles in Stoke. And I was elected Chair of the disputes panel, after Cath Speight’s election as Chair of the organisation committee. She held the disputes position for seven years, and I hope I can match her hard work, fairness and commitment.