Ian McCartney welcomed members to the first meeting after the election. Tony Blair has finally appointed Gordon Brown to one of the ministerial places, a pleasing sign that the winning partnership continues. Shahid Malik was congratulated on becoming MP for Dewsbury and is replaced by Louise Baldock, runner-up in the last ballot, and MPs will soon elect a successor to Helen Jackson. The NEC then shared memories of James Callaghan, Ron Todd, Stan Orme and other departed comrades, and stood in silent tribute. Dennis Skinner spoke wistfully of losing links with the halcyon days of the great industrial past, and we are privileged that he keeps us connected with our history. As does Dianne Hayter, who is mistress-minding Labour’s centenary commemoration in 2006.
Musing on the results, Tony Blair was struck by the lack of uniformity. We held six of the 20 most marginal seats, while losing others with bigger majorities. The LibDems took votes over Iraq and top-up fees while the Tories scored on tax and immigration, but overall the country did not want a change of government. The other parties now faced problems. The LibDems could not afford to appear too far left, and if they changed tack on tax and student funding, we should expose them. The Tories talked centrist but still drifted rightwards. Labour’s challenge was to win back the 2% – 4% lost to the LibDems without frightening the 8% gained from the Tories. This progressive alliance meant modernising public services, handling the insecurities of globalisation, and supporting decent people who played by the rules and resented abuse of asylum, immigration and welfare systems. On Iraq the government would have been criticised whatever he had done. However next time neither Iraq, nor fees, nor he personally, would be factors, and the party’s direction would be for others to decide.
Members welcomed the victory, while saddened by the loss of some colleagues, and commiserating with Maggie Jones, one of the victims of Blaenau Gwent. Gary Titley MEP said his European colleagues, especially the Germans, envied the 67-seat majority and couldn’t understand the post-election angst. Even the Rover collapse had not derailed the campaign, a fact which Tony Blair attributed to co-operation with Derek Simpson and the unions in assisting those facing redundancy.
Thanks were expressed to Alan Milburn, Ian McCartney, Gordon Brown and the party staff. I summarised feedback from canvassers, organisers and candidates in more than 100 constituencies. Two problems dominated on the doorstep: Iraq, and more general lack of trust in the prime minister. The LibDem threat was under-estimated, and in my own constituency they cut the majority of the loyal and hard-working MP Andrew Smith from over 10,000 to 963 by running against “Tony Blair’s man in Oxford East”. While a number were unhappy with over-hasty calls for regime change, most wanted an orderly transition within the next six to 18 months. The six-month requests come from areas with local elections in 2006, notably London. I also thanked Tony Blair for finding extra funds for the Woodcraft Folk, following discussion at the last meeting.
Trade union members stressed the importance of all parts of the coalition including our core support, and called for speedy implementation of the national policy forum Warwick accords on employment and workers’ rights. Mark Seddon regretted the lack of an inspiring central ideology, and worried about the impact of the BNP among white working-class voters. Others raised the need to understand ethnic minority concerns which went much wider than Iraq. Christine Shawcroft complained that all young people were being demonised as yobs, to which Tony Blair responded that total curfews were popular and most young people liked to see more police on the street. The public were miles ahead of us on attacking anti-social behaviour, though he did not say how far we should follow them.
Ian McCartney thanked the unions for talking directly to their members, as well as for money. The smooth process of manifesto development through the national policy forum, the Big Conversation, conference and the final Clause V committee, had worked well. Alan Milburn said that while the LibDems were a problem, the Tories were runners-up in 16 of the 20 most marginal seats, 42 of the top 50, and 85 of the top 100. I pointed out that Tory marginals could be lost by Labour voters switching to the LibDems, which Alan considered more prevalent in middle-class areas than in seaside or industrial constituencies. London and the south-east presented a more complex picture.
Matt Carter reported that plenty of activists came out locally, and recruitment reached record levels during the campaign, but the party did need to increase its membership. Polls showed little change in public opinion during the final four weeks, and Labour needed to build over a longer period, with local factors increasing in importance. Ian McCartney promised that campaigning would continue through the summer, and unlike after some previous elections we are in reasonable financial shape. The county election results were mixed and need further analysis, though two mayoral contests were won. Jeremy Beecham warned of the risks of rent restructuring and council tax rebanding, and the government was asked not to hold the referendum on the European constitution during next year’s local campaign. (Despite Gary Titley’s request for a full NEC debate on the constitution, this was its only mention.) I asked regions to support local parties in getting candidates in place for 2006.
Several members noted a scarcity of young activists on the ground, and Dennis Skinner suggested forming a hoodie youth section, though we were assured that many were working in the national communication centre. I passed on reports that too many telephone calls and leaflets were counter-productive, and specific complaints about allocation of resources among priority seats and about a minister (now an ex-minister) telling Labour supporters to vote LibDem in a top Tory seat. Next time candidates should be chosen earlier. Above all, the members who do the work want to be listened to and respected, and to have a real input into policy.
The Curse of Blaenau Gwent
Back in 2003 the NEC agreed that Blaenau Gwent should select its candidate from an all-women shortlist (AWS). This was in line with an NEC decision that at least half of vacancies declared by December 2002 should use AWS, and in Wales only four out of 34 MPs were women. Contrary to press reports Maggie Jones was not parachuted in; the constituency was free to shortlist and select any woman in the country, and they chose her. What tossed petrol on the flames was failure to implement the other half of the NEC decision, which said that all late retirements should be replaced from an AWS unless there were exceptional circumstances, understood as giving ethnic minorities a chance. In fact the proportion of open selections rose slightly in the later stages. This fuelled the feelings of unfairness which saw Labour lose to incumbent Welsh Assembly member Peter Law.
The Disputes Panel was told that 20 members were judged to have excluded themselves from the party by signing Peter Law’s nomination papers, acting as his agent or counting agents, or endorsing him in his literature. As in London during the Livingstone debacle, members who put up Law posters or delivered leaflets were left alone, recognising that bridges would have to be rebuilt. These decisions have the support of the Blaenau Gwent general committee, and seemed a reasonable place to draw the line. However Mark Seddon raised the case of a member allegedly threatened with expulsion for writing to the press, and if she is indeed on the list, then the Disputes Panel was misinformed.
Members reaffirmed commitment to the principle of AWS, but how it will be applied next time is up for discussion, along with all aspects of selection. The Organisation Committee will consider these fully in July. Opinions differ on whether to have a closed national panel, with only approved members able to stand, or an open panel, with candidates interviewed after selection if necessary. The latter would in effect remove the NEC from any role, since rejecting the constituency choice has, after Halifax, proved politically impossible. The officers seem to favour a Third Way, with a closed panel but time for local candidates to apply should a vacancy come up. On postal votes there is support for restricting them to the genuinely housebound, so that selections are determined by people who have seen the candidates. There are further questions on whether members should have to live in a constituency for six months before taking part, and on the operation of trigger ballots. There may not be time for formal consultation with constituencies before a paper is drawn up for conference, but you are welcome to send me your views, and as your representative I will do my best.