Iraq again headed the agenda, with questions to Tony Blair and Jack Straw and a full discussion around a statement from Diana Holland, Chair of the NEC, and an emergency resolution from Mark Seddon and Christine Shawcroft seeking advice from Kofi Annan on bringing Britain back into compliance with the United Nations charter. Both are given in full at the end.
Members’ concerns included humanitarian relief and reconstruction, the legal position, American commitment to the Palestine “roadmap”, Turkish intentions towards the Kurds, heightened racial tensions at home, and rebuilding confidence in the United Nations and the European project. At a personal level some members were anxious about friends and family in the Gulf. Interestingly, very few still spoke of Iraq as a military threat. This invasion is now about liberation, not disarmament, and after just five days all attention was on the post-war scenario. I asked about the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, unprotected by the Geneva convention or by American or Cuban law, and about increased lawlessness and the revived opium harvest in Afghanistan.
Tony Blair said that America would be held to its promises on the Middle East. He had made clear that the Guantanamo Bay situation must end at some point, though British prisoners were not being ill-treated, and the captives were providing useful information regarding terrorist operations in Europe. Restaurants and shops were open in Kabul, and assistance was being extended into the countryside. Opium production only appeared to have shot up because it was cut to almost nothing under the Taliban He stressed that the Iraq war was being fought to minimise civilian casualties, even though this increased the immediate risks. Lawyers’ opinions tended to reflect their individual political perspectives, but the government’s own Attorney-General had ruled that that this war was lawful.
In the longer term he was committed to tackling the underlying problems of global poverty, as well as weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism. Danger points included Kashmir, Chechnya, Georgia and Indonesia, with vicious circles of terrorist attacks followed by reprisals. Structural questions about the UN and the European Union were secondary to those around future relations with the United States. He considered partnership infinitely preferable to the French desire for a rival pole of power, which would revive the dynamics of the Cold War. Jack Straw added that America would defeat Europe in any contest of influence, with China as its largest trade partner, Russia as its neighbour, and military might greater than the 27 next-ranked nations added together. France simply could not cope with the fact that America was also intellectually and scientifically dominant.
Diana Holland’s statement reinforced members’ hopes for the future and attracted near-unanimous support, unlike Mark Seddon’s motion which was seen as mischief-making. My reservations were that the statement was ambiguous, and could be spun as pro-war. Did regretting the failure of the diplomatic path imply blaming the French or the Americans, and had the “last resort”, which justified military action, really been reached?
Unity in Diversity
Many speakers emphasised the key role of the NEC in holding the party together. I supported this, but felt that calls for unanimity were misplaced. Party members hold diverse views, and the best way to keep their loyalty is for that diversity to be represented in the NEC, as it was in Parliament, in a spirit of open debate and mutual respect. The meeting eventually agreed not to take a vote. The NEC did, however, condemn on behalf of all Labour members recent violence by so-called peace protesters towards party staff and offices in the SouthEast and other regions. MPs had also been attacked.
John Prescott responded to questions on the firefighters’ dispute, where the current offer of 16% linked to modernisation was out for consultation. He was considering whether to impose the initial 4% backdated to November, but would resist Tory calls to ban all strikes in essential services.
Gary Titley, leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, won support for a free-standing European Conference early in 2004 as a springboard for the Euro-elections in 2004. As well as differences over Iraq, the EPLP was forced to vote against fellow-socialists in the European Parliament on proposals to expand free movement within the community, including acceptance of same-sex partners, because the Westminster government saw them as open to abuse by immigrants from outside the European Union.
The Home Front
Local elections in May presented a challenge. The Tories were predicting modest gains of 30 seats, though some suggested that it was well worth giving them enough to bolster Iain Duncan Smith’s position as leader. The LibDem factor was hard to estimate, though they tend to poll above their national rating. Pavement politics were always important, and campaigners should highlight the new tax credits and the minimum wage rise, defend National Insurance increases, and oppose planned Tory cuts. Council tax levels were not the fault of the Labour government.
However asylum, linked in voters’ minds to anti-social behaviour, crime and terrorism, now tops the list of concerns, even in areas where there are no asylum-seekers. The New British National Party is running respectable-looking candidates in suits and requires a more sophisticated response than calling the electorate racist. Christine Shawcroft asked for active rebuttal of Daily Mail lies that there were too many asylum-seekers getting too much money. The NEC considered the philosophical appeal of fascism at some length, but needs to come up with something that fits on an A5 leaflet.
General Secretary David Triesman reported continuing difficulties in agreeing stable long-term funding with the unions, despite their sincere commitment. Higher subscription rates had not damaged membership, and numbers of people joining continued to exceed those actively resigning. Others who let their subscriptions lapse were contributing to an overall slow decline, but these could usually be persuaded to renew, especially if contacted by an MP. And contrary to press reports, paid-up membership remains above 250,000. He would try to find funds for a dedicated Youth Officer.
Forums and Conferences
The National Policy Forum met on 28 February / 1 March in Southport, and a separate report is below. The next meeting is on 19 July, followed by a weekend in November. I regretted that trade union representatives do not attend the Trade and Industry Commission, which covers the whole field of employment rights, and Ian McCartney agreed that some unions do not take the process seriously.
The Conference Arrangements Committee had proposed ending conference at Thursday lunchtime, the same as last year. Cath Speight, Mary Turner and Christine Shawcroft argued eloquently against this, John Prescott threw his weight behind them, and Thursday afternoon was overwhelmingly reinstated, with only the appointed Party Chairman voting against.
The deadline for constituencies to notify conference delegates and nominate committee candidates had been extended from 4 April to 13 June, at my request. Last year 527 constituencies sent delegates to annual conference, and the recent Women’s Conference attracted 555 members, against 200 in 2002. The NEC noted a new overarching code of conduct for internal party elections and candidates, and it was reported that 108 MPs have passed their trigger ballots and been reselected as candidates for the next general election. The Organisation Committee had also agreed positive action measures in local government, aiming for at least one woman councillor in all two- and three-member wards by 2006/7.
Statement by Diana Holland, Chair of the NEC
The Labour Party National Executive Committee meeting on 25 March 2003 reaffirmed its view agreed at the NEC meeting held on 28 January 2003, that:
“The NEC believes that the authority of the United Nations will be undermined, unless it is enforced and recognises that in the last resort this could involve military action. Accepting the widespread concern within the Labour Party and the country at large, the NEC confirms the position passed at Conference in Composite resolution 5: Iraq where it stated that military action should be taken only in the last resort and within the context of international law and with the authority of the United Nations.”
The NEC deeply regrets the failure of the diplomatic path to peace, and affirms its support for British Armed forces and their families and other staff involved in the military action including those in civilian roles who will expect and must receive the support of the British people.
We strongly support all efforts to:
– prevent civilian casualties while protecting the safety of British armed forces
– rebuild a unified approach at European and international levels
– ensure ethnic minorities in the UK do not suffer from increased racial tensions
– develop humanitarian solutions whose aims are to eradicate global poverty
The NEC expresses its sincere condolences to the families and friends of those whose lives have been lost in this conflict.
And specifically the NEC:
- Welcomes the recognition of the need to ensure that reconstruction of Iraq is undertaken under the mandate of the United Nations, and seeks to play its part in rebuilding confidence in the authority of the UN.
- Will ensure that the Labour Party works as rapidly as possible with the Westminster Foundation and other relevant organisations to support the development of democratic, organisational and technical capacity in the humanitarian and democratic reconstruction of Iraq.
- Strongly welcomes the moves towards the publication of the “Road Map” for peace leading to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. We support the Labour government’s role in achieving this advance, and for ensuring the continued commitment of all parties to the “Road Map” and to implementation of UN resolutions, notably 242 and 338.
- Agrees to receive a report at every NEC meeting from the Party’s International Unit on progress in each area, together with an update from the Britain in the World policy commission as appropriate.
Emergency Resolution proposed by Mark Seddon, seconded by Christine Shawcroft
The National Executive Committee instructs the General Secretary of the Labour Party to seek immediate advice from the offices of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, and the offices of the President of the UN General Assembly, Jan Kavan, as to what steps need to be taken by HM Government to ensure that Britain is once again in compliance with the United Nations Charter.
The National Executive Committee further instructs the General Secretary of the Labour Party to convene an emergency meeting of the NEC as soon as that advice has been received.