Election fever is rising, with only Dennis Skinner counselling delay until Labour emerges from the shadow of Iraq. Tony Blair stressed Labour’s strengths as a stable economy, quality public services free at the point of use, and tackling anti-social behaviour, but we needed defences against the Tories on tax, law and order, asylum and immigration. Michael Howard’s plan to limit the numbers entering Britain was impractical, and Labour would put forward its own proposals, tackling abuses of the system while recognising the skills and the positive contribution of migrants. Thirty-four per cent of strawberries are picked by Poles, and migrant workers help to prevent inflation by keeping wage rises down in most UK regions. He believed the LibDems were best tackled nationally by exposing their policies, which alarmed voters once they understood them, and locally by the streetfighting tactics deployed in recent by-elections. He told us that no-one was talking about invading Iran.
Many NEC members welcomed a more balanced approach to immigration, pointing out that eating in a restaurant, taking a taxi, or staying in hospital would become impossible in Howard’s Fortress Britain. Others highlighted Labour’s excellent record on equality issues and links with working people, and Tony Blair promised that the Warwick agreement in the National Policy Forum would form a significant part of the manifesto. Universal free bus passes for pensioners were suggested as a vote-winner, and concern continued about the 1.7 million who do not claim council tax benefit.
The grievances of public service workers did not attract universal sympathy. Regarding local government pensions, John Prescott said that the £300 million to top up the fund could not simply be loaded onto council tax, nullifying the effects of this year’s generous government grant. There had been lots of meetings with union representatives, contrary to statements by Dave Prentis which were probably part of his campaign for re-election as general secretary of UNISON.
Big Tent Politics
Members were also anxious about cynicism and loss of trust. I asked if references to “unremitting New Labour” could be outlawed, because they tell long-serving and loyal supporters that they are not wanted. I understood the need to keep the people who voted Labour for the first time in 1997, attracted by the fresh image, but alienating the other half of the coalition was not sensible. Tony Blair felt that the “progressive” malcontents would come back to Labour if they perceived a Tory threat, but the doubtful voters in the centre formed a larger group, and needed more reassurance.
Party and NEC Chair Ian McCartney updated members on future events, with the spring conference, five-year plans for local government, work and pensions, and the budget all providing showcases for Labour policies. The Proud of Britain campaign would help constituencies to engage with the public, and visiting ministers would spend more time talking to voters and less on photo-calls with local bigwigs. Personal contact about individual concerns would be the key factor in convincing people that Labour deserved a third term. Union leaders should do more to persuade their members, and he regretted that only Mark Serwotka and Tony Woodley had attacked planned Tory spending cuts.
Labour was reaching out to women, young people, and black and ethnic minority communities, including the Irish community. Although Muslim voters had specific concerns about the war, they also cared about health, education and crime, the same as everyone else. And with two-thirds under the age of 30, talking with the community elders was not enough to convince younger voters.
The manifesto will be signed off by the Clause V committee, which includes the NEC, the cabinet, representatives of backbench MPs, and National Policy Forum officers. In 2001 we had just one hour to read the final 66-page draft. This time NEC members have been offered one-to-one discussion with the head of policy at an earlier stage. I asked for the contents of the manifesto to be linked to the work of the National Policy Forum where possible, because press speculation about who is writing it and what will be in it are leading members to doubt the value of the forum process.
One piece of Forum business was left unfinished: what to do about the Lords. As a member of the crime, justice, citizenship and equalities commission, I circulated a survey in December, and sent a summary of the results to those who mailed me, copies available on request. I was pleased that the commission treated it seriously. The likely recommendations will be to remove the remaining hereditaries and include an elected component, phased in over time. Our position should be finalised on 24 February and will go into the manifesto, to confer the authority needed to drive it through.
Forums and Conferences
Putting on his third hat as Chair of the National Policy Forum, Ian McCartney reported on a successful gathering on 22 January, with Forum members, parliamentary candidates, councillors and ethnic minority members. Tony Blair spoke about New Labour and HWFs (hard-working families), Gordon Brown talked movingly of his visit to Africa, and Alan Milburn slammed the LibDems as high on tax and soft on crime.
A brief business meeting of the Forum followed, and Ian outlined preliminary findings from the review of Partnership in Power. There is a desire to spend less time rewriting the same documents, and more time on current issues. Various people pointed out that conference now gets very few choices, and the votes on renationalising the railways and a level financial playing-field for council housing should be respected. Although consultation formally closed on 31 January, it is still worth sending in submissions. The review groups will put together recommendations for the 2005 conference after the May elections, and the Forum is likely to meet again sometime in July.
Next year’s spring conference will be in Blackpool, and as leaked to the press, the 2006 annual conference will be in Manchester. I asked whether the people who complained about the exclusion of the Mole Valley delegate from the last conference had yet received a proper explanation and/or apology, and the general secretary said that he would find out.
Despite efforts to get MPs to make their minds up early, the usual crop of last-minute retirements is surfacing. The late retirements panel will continue to recommend open or all-women shortlists, with the organisation committee having the final say while time permits. After this, the late retirements panel plus the NEC officers and two extra women will decide. Declaring Copeland an open selection has already proved controversial. (I voted for an all-women shortlist, but it was defeated 11 – 4.)
Further vacancies will be widely advertised. The NEC selections panel will manage timetables, longlisting and shortlisting in consultation with local constituency officers, and candidates will be chosen at all-member meetings. The organisation committee excluded postal or absentee votes because a procedure compressed into a few days cannot guarantee equitable treatment, and risks legal challenge if some members receive ballot papers and others do not. By the end of March we need candidates in the field, not in the courts. I regret the loss of democracy, but responsibility lies with the late-leaving MPs. A proposal to bar them from the House of Lords attracted approving murmurs.
European leader Gary Titley reported progress towards accession for Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Turkey. He also highlighted discussion on the Services Directive, where Labour MEPs are unhappy that health services are currently included, and anxious that the benefits of an open market should not compromise standards or workers’ rights. And finally Debbie Coulter asked why the government had invited the second-in-command of the Colombian armed forces, linked to death squads and attacks on trade unionists, to Britain. International officer Rachel Cowburn promised to investigate.