The NEC stood in silence to pay tribute to Tony Benn and other comrades, including Bob Crow whose untimely death had shocked and saddened us all.
David Sparks then reported on a successful local government conference. He shared NEC concerns about the effect of continuing pay restraint on staff and the services they provide: the lowest rate is just 1p an hour above the minimum wage. On finances a balance was needed between incentives for councils to raise their own money, and central funding, which was too easily switched on and off by the government of the day. More sophisticated models were required for allocating resources according to need, with some southern wards as deprived as any in the north. And members shared his anger at the coalition’s vindictive exclusion of councillors from the local government pension scheme.
European leader Glenis Willmott welcomed Ed Miliband’s clear position on a referendum, guaranteeing an in/out vote if there were any proposals to transfer powers away from national governments. Labour MEPs had succeeded in ending blacklisting of trade union activists by strengthening data protection laws, and were working to protect agency staff. They would defend the NHS and other public services in negotiations on TTIP, the transatlantic trade and investment partnership. Labour also voted to ban tobacco packaging targeted at children and give greater protection to purchasers of package holidays, and called for measures against Uganda and Nigeria in response to their vicious anti-gay laws. There were deep concerns about the situation in Ukraine. Meanwhile the Tory government was refusing to apply for £170 million from the European youth jobs fund, or for £3 million of aid for food banks. NEC members asked about UKIP, relations with the Party of European Socialists and what reforms Labour would like to see in Europe, and regretted that MEPs attracted so little publicity for their sterling work.
Ed Miliband thanked the NEC for continuing unity. The cost of living and insecure low-paid employment were still huge issues, and Labour had to keep on showing how our policies would make a difference to people’s lives: on childcare, youth jobs, the NHS, housing, the bedroom tax, zero-hours contracts, enforcing the minimum wage and preventing exploitation. He explained why Labour was supporting the government’s welfare cap. Building more homes would save on housing benefit bills, and more and better-paid jobs would reduce the need for in-work benefits and cut the costs of economic failure.
NEC members praised his speech to the Scottish conference and commented on deficits in NHS trusts, the damaging legacy of private finance initiative deals, social care, the causes of the financial crisis, the pros and cons of fracking, party funding after the Collins review, punchy messaging, the importance of hope for public service workers, and the need to show both fiscal credibility and clear differences with the Tories. I passed on anger at Tristram Hunt for crossing picket lines, while others noted that David Cameron’s proposal to cut inheritance tax was yet another bonus for his millionaire mates.
The Morning After
Ed Balls gave his analysis of the budget, which did nothing to build an investment-led recovery or to help families who had lost an average of £1,600 since 2010. He explained why Labour was supporting the government’s welfare cap, and drew attention to previous principled votes against the 1% limit on tax credits, 70% of which went to people in work, not to “scroungers”. He regretted the coalition’s refusal to implement the pay review body award for NHS staff. NEC members raised financial problems in the NHS and highlighted the need to reassure disabled people about support from a Labour government.
On the pension changes Ed Balls said that Labour had maintained a consistent line from the start. Personally I am worried about the impact on house prices if money goes into buy-to-let instead of annuities, and about increased social care costs and poverty in old age if pensions are spent on daily expenses. There will be long delays before any mis-sold chickens come home to roost, so I hope the risks are carefully analysed. Christine Shawcroft suggested eliminating the deficit through a determined assault on tax evasion and avoidance, plus cancelling Trident. The beer-and-bingo messages were seen as patronising, and one member summed up the 1p cut in duty as “buy 380 pints, get one free”.
The Ground War
The NEC looked forward to the local and European elections on 22 May. Campaigning was in full swing, boosted by a confident win in Wythenshawe & Sale East, with 100 organisers mobilising in key seats. The organisation committee had decided that Ellesmere Port would choose their parliamentary candidate in an open contest, while Batley & Spen, Sheffield Heeley and Stirling would select from all-women shortlists. Too few women apply for open selections, and I supported a move to allow branches to nominate one woman and one candidate of either gender, rather than one man and one woman.
Regional reports summarised activity across the country. I was interested in the East Midlands training scheme for constituency officers and will try to find out more, as new officers are sometimes rather thrown in at the deep end. In Scotland Labour’s referendum campaign would be boosted by a £5 introductory membership rate, rising to the reduced rate and then the standard rate in subsequent years. Harriet Harman spoke at the south-east regional conference and promised to work with me in seats such as Wycombe and Chesham & Amersham, where members rarely see a front-bencher and would welcome shadow education ministers in their campaign against the 11-plus.
Collins: Next Steps
At the special conference 442 constituencies were represented by 565 delegates. Discussion now moves to the party reform implementation group, comprising Angela Eagle and Jonathan Ashworth (frontbench appointments), Diana Holland (treasurer) Keith Birch (UNISON), Cath Speight (GMB), Martin Mayer (Unite), Jim Kennedy (UCATT), John Hannett (USDAW), Billy Hayes (CWU), Conor McGinn (socialist societies), David Sparks (local government), Keith Vaz (BAME Labour) and Johanna Baxter, Ellie Reeves and myself for members and constituency parties. The NEC agreed, after a short discussion, to add Steve Rotheram as the elected voice of backbench MPs.
The first meeting is on 1 April. I have argued throughout that while technical and financial details are best developed in private, some areas need maximum publicity if they are to succeed. My experience is that many members do not fully understand the proposals, particularly relating to affiliated and registered supporters. Some believe that there is now a choice between paying £46 a year and getting the same rights for the £3 already included in their political levy. Labour will only achieve Ed Miliband’s goal of thousands of new activists if local parties are convinced of the potential benefits: issuing diktats from on high will not work. Similarly fairer selection procedures must involve consultation and dialogue, with local parties and with past and current candidates.
Agenda 2015: Partnership in Power, or a Sideshow?
The eight final-stage national policy forum papers were published on 7 March, and the Chair Angela Eagle reported that one in 20 members had already accessed them on the Your Britain website. Constituencies have till 13 June to submit amendments, all of which will be published, so please join in.
Jon Cruddas then listed around 15 documents being prepared by his shadow cabinet policy review, too fast to write down but they included (I think) local government innovation; low pay; zero-hours contracts; a 21st century Labour party; creative industries; the care sector; Lord Adonis on growth; Bert Massie on disability; Michael Lyons on housing; David Blunkett on school reform; Kieran Quinn on universal credit. On this last, universal credit gets only a passing mention in the Work and Business commission paper, and I don’t know if Kieran Quinn proposes rescuing it, reforming it or scrapping it. All these should be finished before the national policy forum in July, but too late for the consultation and amendment process: instead everything will be “knitted together” during the summer. Jon Cruddas assured the NEC that the papers were awash with ideas, but it would be nice to know what they are.
I’ve always thought there should be democratic links between local parties and the national Young Labour conference. Attendance is currently on a first-come-first-served basis, and there is no such thing as a delegate. However this year’s YL conference voted by the narrowest of margins (109 to 107) to reject the Collins review and to support some rather radical policies, and I now have some unlikely allies who think the Hard Left are packing the event and believe that a delegate-based conference might turn out to be more “moderate”. Though no longer young myself I shall follow developments with interest.
Equalities in Action
Finally the NEC received the minutes of subcommittees, including the equalities committee which made some excellent points on policy and campaigning. These included greater visibility for women, notably Glenis Willmott in the European campaign; promoting childcare as a parental rather than a women-only issue; the disproportionate impact on women of public service cuts and job losses; positive messages around welfare, particularly for disabled people; working-class support; and co-operating with the unions. Hopefully these will percolate upwards to the team who are steering Labour through the year ahead.