Harriet Harman opened by thanking the hundreds of volunteers and staff who helped Debbie Abrahams win Oldham East & Saddleworth in challenging political circumstances and awful weather. Efforts now turned to 5 May, with elections everywhere except London and Cornwall. Labour would be the people’s voice in tough times, winning the economic argument and highlighting broken government promises on policing, student fees and the NHS. Far from being negative, this message supported voters’ hopes and aspirations. Before then, Barnsley is likely to see a by-election: I was involved in shortlisting, and believe that local members made an excellent choice in selecting Dan Jarvis.
Some members suggested that under the alternative voting system Labour would have lost Oldham through Tories giving the LibDems their second preferences. Harriet Harman said that she supported AV, but a referendum could only be won if it was held separately from the local elections to allow cross-party campaigning. Later Ed Miliband also expressed his personal backing. However a referendum on 5 May was not yet certain. Labour peers were still fighting to amend the other half of the bill, which would impose 600 constituencies varying by no more than 5% from the average, cutting across council wards and natural boundaries, with very limited public involvement and ignoring millions of unregistered voters. The NEC expressed appreciation of the peers’ discipline, stamina and dedication.
Ed Miliband regretted the circumstances which led Alan Johnson to stand down, but praised the strength and depth of the frontbench team. There were three main themes for 2011. First, the economy: the latest 0.5% contraction showed the risks of the government’s approach, and Richard Lambert of the CBI criticised the lack of any strategy for growth. We must not accept the Tory line that the mess was Labour’s fault or allow them to claim that massive cuts were inevitable or would solve the problems.
Second, the government were failing the next generation by scrapping the child trust fund and the educational maintenance allowance and trebling student fees. And third, they could not get away with claiming that this is “the new politics”, when it is the same old politics of broken promises, on knife crime, on police numbers, on the fuel duty equaliser. While welcoming LibDem supporters who joined us, it was important to maintain dialogue with LibDems who chose to stay and oppose Nick Clegg’s policies from within: the next general election must not set two parties against one.
Dennis Skinner argued that inflation was the immediate issue, with cuts yet to bite. After two tough years the government would slash taxes, and Labour needed effective policies for the fourth year. Ed Miliband agreed that their economic credibility must be attacked now. Plans for the NHS would cause unbelievable upheaval, lose accountability with the end of primary care trusts, and open the way to privatisation. Members urged Labour councillors, facing budgets slashed by central government, to work closely with their employees. I commented on the Sunday Times report that millionaires had stopped donating to Labour: the party should not be owned by a few rich men, and millions of small amounts from trade unionists and members were a better foundation. In fact the story is not even true.
At the other end of the spectrum there was unease about giving the first year’s membership to young people for one penny. A pound was already a nominal amount and this was selling ourselves too cheaply. Either way the impact of moving to the full rate, or even the reduced rate, should be monitored.
Asked about adding the Scottish and Welsh leaders to the NEC, Ed Miliband said he expected this to be covered in Peter Hain’s party reform project alongside other proposals referred to the NEC in 2009. These included two extra places for ordinary members, one each from Scotland and Wales, now even more important because Scottish and Welsh constituency representatives have been kept off the national policy forum commissions. Currently there are two vacancies for women in the trade union section of the NEC, one dating from 2009, the other from 2010 when Diana Holland was elected as treasurer. Margaret Beckett has been elected unopposed in the MPs/MEPs section, and Stephanie Peacock was thanked for four years’ service as the youth representative.
Peter Hain said he was happy to receive contributions to his review at firstname.lastname@example.org. I asked for an audit of constituency activity, and in particular whether all-member meetings are genuinely more inclusive or whether they attract the same numbers, and indeed the same people, as traditional general committees. I also queried, again, whether the joint policy committee should act as the powerful executive for the national policy forum, when attendance at its last two meetings was respectively ten and five members out of around 30, or whether the NEC should take back responsibility.
Liam Byrne will continue in charge of policy as well as shadowing work and pensions. Submissions can be made through the party website, or sent directly to the individual policy commissions at:
Britain in the World (email@example.com)
Creating Sustainable Communities – housing, environment, local government, transport, the regions, culture, media, sport (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Crime, Justice, Citizenship and Equalities (email@example.com)
Education and Skills (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Prosperity and Work (email@example.com)
As always I welcome copies. I am now on the prosperity and work commission, whose first meeting was enlivened by the enthusiasm of newly-promoted Ed Balls. This includes jobs, pensions, welfare, the economy and employment rights, but I will try to follow up contributions in other areas as well.
Other constituency representatives also stressed the isolation of members who feel they are not listened to. Peter Hain is committed to greater openness, with minority positions encouraged and differences debated at conference, but it will take real effort to overcome the cynicism which has built up since 1997.
In September twenty-six constituencies were cleared to select parliamentary candidates. Under a revised procedure, applicants will nominate themselves. Longlisting and shortlisting will be conducted by a constituency selection committee, working with a regional board representative and a member of staff, having regard to ethnic minority, disabled and gay and lesbian candidates as well as to women. The regional representative will alert the NEC if they consider the shortlist is not strong enough, or if any candidate needs a full NEC interview. I hope this will prevent the dilemmas which arise when candidates are interviewed at the end of the process. The timetable will be reduced to nine weeks, and access to membership lists will only be given to shortlisted candidates for the last four weeks. I foresee continuing problems with enforcement as the only sanction is the nuclear option of disqualification, and the same may apply to much-needed attempts to rein in spending on promotional material.
Concerns centred on two areas. The first was the abolition of the parliamentary panel. The panel was a good idea in theory, but after many years I concluded that standards were wildly inconsistent, and indeed several panel members have had to be removed as candidates. In any case people could still stand without being on the panel. The second was that affiliates could no longer make nominations. However they can support candidates, make that known to the selection committee, and help with costs. The procedure was agreed as a pilot, and all aspects will be reviewed before further selections.
The NEC also noted the organisation committee’s decisions on all-women shortlists, following consultation with local parties. The following seats will select from AWS: Brighton Kemptown, Dover, Harlow, Hastings & Rye, Lincoln, Northampton North, Peterborough, Stevenage, Thurrock, Reading West, Swindon South, Worcester and Burton-on-Trent or Redditch. The following will be open: Bedford, Chatham & Aylesford, Corby, Crawley, Hove, Ipswich, Loughborough, Milton Keynes South, Norwich South, Stroud, Warwick & Leamington, Waveney and Redditch or Burton-on-Trent.
Procedures for selecting London assembly candidates were approved. The elections will run alongside the mayoral contest, and Ken Livingstone hoped for a united Labour campaign. When he stood as an independent no other members were expelled, and after his election Labour councillors were allowed to work with him. There were lessons for Tower Hamlets, where the NEC still awaits the promised report.
And ending on a bureaucratic note, constituency secretaries will this year be able to submit nominations for national committees online. Hopefully these will be published on the website as they come in, as they were for the leadership contest. This year only the conference arrangements committee and the national constitutional committee are up for election, so any problems can be ironed out before the deluge of nominations for the NEC and the national policy forum in 2012.