Tony Blair opened the meeting before leaving for the parliamentary debate on Iraq. He hoped that the international community could coalesce around a clear United Nations resolution enabling the weapons inspectors to do their job, but stressed that Saddam Hussein would never comply unless diplomacy was backed up by force. He also recognised that Labour would be judged primarily on domestic policy. At times of economic insecurity people were best helped by active government, not by Tory laisser-faire, and investment in public services was bringing real improvement. Equally important was criminal justice reform, and avoiding the difficulties with asylum and immigration experienced by fellow-European countries. He would be meeting Gerhard Schroeder later, and the NEC expressed pleasure at recent socialist election victories in both Germany and Sweden.
Many concerns were expressed regarding Iraq, particularly the United States’ pursuit of regime change regardless of Baghdad’s actions and of world opinion. Pre-emptive strikes would set alarming precedents: why should India not attack Pakistan, or China invade Taiwan? George Bush had also branded Iran and North Korea rogue states: would we be involved in wars without end? United Nations decisions should be enforced, but double standards were resented, with resolutions on Palestine and Kashmir gathering dust. The West were fickle in their alliances, and Saddam Hussein committed his worst crimes against the Kurds and the Iranians with American complicity and British silence. After the war, would Iraq balkanise and Saudi Arabia collapse?
Iraq had no demonstrated connection with Al-Qaeda and September 11, where terrorists used ordinary knives, not weapons of mass destruction. Better intelligence and tighter security were the priorities. Was this new war really about oil instead? Closer to home, soaring petrol prices had proved politically dangerous two years ago. Alignment with George Bush was unpopular in the party and on the doorstep.
Members also asked for immigration and asylum to be discussed separately from crime, and reported continuing problems with private companies screwing down pay and conditions. Tony Blair agreed that public service workers should not suffer, but failure to reform posed greater risks. And Dennis Skinner said that ministers should have taken a stronger line against the Countryside Alliance, whose villages were generally far more affluent than former mining communities.
In closing, Tony Blair emphasised the importance of the Middle East peace process in its own right, and repeated that he did not want unilateral action, but implementation of the will of the United Nations. A statement from the Britain in the World policy commission also hoped for a peaceful outcome, with force as a last resort. There will be a debate, and votes, at the annual conference, on an NEC statement and probably one or more resolutions. I believe the party will hold together as long as wishful thinking convinces us that there will be no war. What happens when the bombing starts is another matter entirely.
Gary Titley, the newly-elected leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, explained the suspension of whistle-blower Marta Andreason, for which Neil Kinnock has received a lot of flak. She had taken allegations to the press which were either already in the public domain, or unsupported by facts, and the Daily Telegraph were loving it. His written summary included new proposals to recycle up to 65% of all packaging, and to reduce the amount of wrapping material used in the first place.
David Triesman reported that most regions had selected their Euro-candidates for 2004. One-member-one-vote ballots to rank sitting MEPs at the top of each list and women and men for the remainder would open on 4 October and close on 1 November. For the first time, candidates’ names would be listed in random rather than alphabetical order. Tony Banks, Nicky Gavron and Bob Shannon had been shortlisted for the London mayoral election, and this ballot would run to the same timetable.
Turning the Corner
Financial news was moderately encouraging. Expenditure was below forecast levels, outstanding debts were being pursued, and membership fees and small donations were ahead of target. Media attacks on major donors were unfair and damaging, but hopefully existing promises would be kept. David Triesman was working constructively with Bill Morris, the Chair of the Trade Union Liaison Committee. The level of union support was important, but stability and predictability even more so. Members pointed out that many unions had to ballot soon on keeping their political funds, under legislation introduced by Margaret Thatcher solely to cut off Labour’s financial lifeline. This should have been abolished long ago. The ballots could be won, if members were convinced that Labour still represented working people, but they absorbed time and resources which could be better spent.
While recognising international concerns, the conference week would focus on investment and reform of public services, and on the threat of Tory extremism. The Tories had stolen the American Republican rhetoric of “compassionate conservatism”, and domestically at least George Bush’s policies are fair game. Members asked also for material to counter the LibDems’ repackaged image, when we find out what it is. Others emphasised Labour’s social justice agenda and the new benefits and tax credits, which needed promoting both to members and to the wider electorate. Openness, engagement and free debate would run through every session. By contrast, the Tory conference would be a hollow PR exercise.
Mark Seddon proposed “Socialism, Peace and Justice” for the backdrop, but it looked like the slogan would be “Schools and Hospitals First”. Pictures of the hall layout showed a hexagonal stage extending into the audience and linked to the top table by a catwalk. Speakers were distinctly nervous, and no-one quite knew what it would feel like in the hall, or, more importantly, the impression on television viewers back home. There was unhappiness about finishing at Thursday lunchtime and losing the advertised afternoon session. The Friday has already gone, and like glaciers under global warming, a few more hours are eroded every year. Worse, no-one knew who made the decision. The NEC certainly did not, and the Conference Arrangements Committee say it wasn’t them either.
The Rules of the Game
The NEC opposed various constitutional amendments from constituencies and affiliates. These included extra constituency seats on the NEC; admitting eight contemporary topics for debate with four each chosen by the constituencies and the unions; the right to amend National Policy Forum papers, and to refer back sections of policy documents without rejecting the whole package; and having quotas for men wherever there are quotas for women. I was hopeful that we could at last exclude the Lords from the constituency section of the NEC by giving them their own seats. Though the GMB and the TGWU were in favour, only three constituency representatives – Christine Shawcroft, Mark Seddon and myself – voted for change, and we lost by 7 votes to 10. However it could well be carried on the floor of conference.
Finally a modest success. In July I reported that candidates in local and national elections, as well as elected councillors and MPs, would have to pay the full subscription rate. Campaign organisers trying to mobilise volunteers for hopeless seats responded with anguished mails explaining that this would make a difficult job impossible. They attracted considerable sympathy, and the rule changes sent to conference delegates imposed the full rate only on elected representatives. Unfortunately this turned out to be a mistake, not a change of heart, and an additional amendment covering candidates was ready for circulation in Blackpool. I asked for it to be withdrawn, if only because delegates would have had no chance to consult their constituencies, and this was agreed by 12 votes to 9. Your arguments won the day, and showed that the NEC can listen to ordinary party members who do the work on the ground.