NEC Meeting, 25/26 November 2002

The November meeting of the NEC was preceded by a less formal awayday, designed to review the past year and to prepare for challenges ahead. Our aims remain constant: to win elections and increase turnout, to raise participation in political debate, to recruit and retain members, and to stabilise party finances. More support was needed for activists and volunteers, and information technology should be exploited while making sure that those without access to e-mail and the internet were not excluded.

We were warned that the media would attack Labour for control-freakery (i.e. being organised) and for spin (i.e. communicating with the electorate). But the main threats were on policy, if the economy went wrong or increased spending did not deliver better public services, and on splits: over Iraq, the Euro, fox-hunting, the firefighters’ strike. When campaigning for Scotland, Wales, London and local councils, voters must be reminded that the Tories are badly led, divided, incompetent, anti-Europe, anti-public services, out of touch, and generally not up to opposition and not fit to govern.

How Others See Us

NEC members were asked to consider which high street store was closest to the party’s image. Ideas included Oxfam and the Co-Op, but the popular winner was Ikea: members have to collect the bits and assemble their own masterpiece, using instructions badly translated from a foreign language, and finding that at least one essential part is missing. However the correct answer appeared to be Marks and Spencer. Faced with a traditional market and a narrow and shrinking base, they recognised the need for change, diversified, and reached out to a wider audience while continuing to service their core customers.

This might have been a useful analogy in 1997, but Labour has already changed, and five years of Partnership in Power have coincided with five years of falling membership. Three members leave for each one who joins, though most are thought to lapse rather than actively resigning. We do not know if boring meetings or policy disagreements are the main cause, and we should find out before they go.

However, while the decline is doubtless due to complex factors, ever more policy forums will not be the whole solution. Indeed unless members gain a real sense of influence, more of the same could actually stoke up cynicism. There is a growing sense among MPs, MEPs and trade union members that members feel disempowered, and a desire for the NEC to take back oversight of the policy-making process. A lengthy cycle of policy development was more appropriate in opposition, when the party had nothing else to do, but it gives members no way to influence current issues. However, some emphasised the value of the process in reaching new audiences: Margaret Wall reported a meeting with tobacco manufacturers, who felt they had no voice in the party but were anxious to help with the government agenda on smoking among young children and cracking down on smuggling.

Solvency

On finance, general secretary David Triesman reported that expenditure was under control, but income was still uncertain. The government introduced transparency into party funding from the best of motives, but business people were now reluctant to give money because of tabloid hounding. Discussion was continuing with the unions on predictable long-term contributions. Union representatives pointed out that they must soon ballot members on retaining their political funds, and rank-and-file disillusion created real risks of defeat. Though it is now too late to abolish the Tory laws, the better regulation taskforce may look at whether these ballots impose excessive costs and red tape on the unions. The third source of income, membership subscriptions and small donations, was well ahead of estimates, but not sufficient.

The controversial question of state funding ran through the discussion. Some saw any state funding of political parties as a direct attack on the trade union link. Others considered the two compatible, if public money was used for specific purposes such as training candidates, or developing policy. A proper debate will be held at a future NEC meeting.

Smoke and Mirrors

The awayday ended with a report from John Prescott on the firefighters’ dispute. He was anxious that a large rise would damage negotiations with other public sector workers, and stressed that councils had to fund the settlement, though the government might provide modest bridging money until modernisation had produced economies. The Chair Diana Holland read out John Monks’ desciption of the late-night agreement as robust, fair and workable. Points made by members included understanding the anger of the Fire Brigades Union executive, signing an agreement which the employers could not honour; the unhelpfulness of describing their leaders as Scargillite; the increased difficulty of reaching a settlement in the glare of publicity; and the desire that all sides should get back round the negotiating table.

Sadly that had not happened by the following morning, when Tony Blair arrived to a chorus of whistles and placards. He said that a good offer was available to the firefighters. The economic background was difficult, but Britain under Gordon Brown was weathering the storm better than most. He told us not to worry about higher education: the review of student funding had led to wild speculation, but there was no intention to put people off going to university. The NATO meeting in Prague was unanimous on the need to deal with weapons of mass destruction in the wrong hands.

NEC members warned of the dangers of unilateral war on Iraq. At home, pensions were rising up the political agenda, with employers closing final salary schemes as casually as cancelling a lunch date, and urging people to save was futile while they saw others’ contributions stolen by Maxwell, mismanaged by Equitable Life, or lost when employers went bankrupt. Reprimanding low-paid workers for seeking a living wage went down badly when executives walked away from failing companies with massive bonuses and the boss of GlaxoSmithKline demanded £7 million pounds as motivation. Christine Shawcroft stressed that productivity in public services differed from more efficient widget-making, though others argued that frontline staff were desperate for reform and an end to restrictive practices.

Tony Blair said that working tax credits helped the low-paid, though more discussion was needed on the two-tier workforce. If ministers had agreed the late-night firefighters’ deal, the government would have been dead and out of office. Terrorism and weapons of mass destruction were separate now, but would come together unless prevented. Iraq, North Korea, Iran and Libya were all dangerous states. He repeated that accusations of betrayal from the left, however idealistic, had always led to rightwing governments in the past, and would do so again. There were lines that Labour could not cross: weakness on defence, law and order, industrial disputes or the economy would simply let the Tories back in.

Foreign Affairs

Gary Titley, leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, reported on tougher measures against smoking, with pictures of diseased lungs on cigarette packers, and new regulations for herbal medicine, where Britain has the highest consumption in Europe. Rights for agency workers were agreed by the parliament and referred back to national ministers. Enlargement of the Union would allow Britain 78 MEPs, down from the current 87, with most regions likely to lose one seat.

John Reid, the new party chairman, spoke about his role, and the importance that the Prime Minister attached to the party and the movement. Shahid Malik raised the spectre of the British National Party, combining attacks on refugees and asylum-seekers with racism and homophobia. Constituency parties were not always able to rebut their simplistic, poisonous message through inclusive all-year doorstep campaigning. Ian McCartney highlighted the alienation of poor white working-class voters, who had little money and no hope and were easy to turn against incomers.

Conference Verdict

The annual conference was generally judged successful, though it may be a long time before Labour returns to Blackpool. Problems included overcrowding, heat and poor disabled facilities, though rooms at £15 a night compared favourably with £50-plus in Brighton.

I suggested time-limits for ministers and NEC speakers, keeping to schedule so that fringe meetings are not wiped out, holding all ballots and elections on the same day so that delegates do not miss so much, and register delegates in advance for the policy seminars, where attendance fell as low as 12 for some meetings, against 200-plus in 1998. I also asked how many constituencies sent delegates, and what happened to resolutions referred to the NEC because they were judged not contemporary, or not prioritised. Others felt that resolutions which were carried, such as the UNISON composite on the Private Finance Initiative, were treated as unimportant, though key unions would be meeting the Prime Minister shortly, and the resolution has been referred back to the economic policy commission again.

Next year conference will be held from 28 September to 2 October 2003 in Bournemouth. The deadline for constituency delegates and nominations to the National Policy Forum and the National Constitutional Committee is 4 April, the deadline for constitutional amendments is 13 June, and the provisional deadlines for contemporary and emergency resolutions are 17 September and 26 September respectively.

Affiliations and Committees

The NEC approved an increase in the trade union affiliation fee from £2.25 to £2.50 per member. A report on the Motherwell and Wishaw constituency party found no wrongdoing by MPs or MSPs, but highlighted the burdens of party funding laws on constituency parties.

The Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights was accepted as an affiliated organisation. Like the last two new affiliates their national membership is small, around 200. The panel which considers requests for new affiliations would draw up criteria for assessing future applications, including a requirement for several years’ prior existence, to prevent factional entryism.

The NEC agreed the membership of committees and taskgroups. The committees are mostly the same as last year, but there is a new overarching women, race and equalities committee, with Shahid Malik as the constituency representative. A nationally co-ordinated women’s forum, including all women NEC members, will meet twice a year, and an ethnic minority forum should also be established. Last year’s taskgroups are winding up their work, and new groups were agreed for next year, covering the conference fringe (with Tony Robinson); engaging volunteers nationally (with Shahid Malik); engaging volunteers locally (with Mark Seddon and Ruth Turner); new communication technologies; and implementing the Labour Academy (formerly University of Labour). The party development taskgroup continues, chaired by Ian McCartney, and will now include constituency representatives Ann Black and Shahid Malik.

Assorted Selections

On 11 November the Organisation Committee approved a timetable for Westminster selections. Sitting MPs must decide whether to stand again by 23 December and, as previously agreed, half the vacated Labour seats (except in Scotland) will choose from all-women shortlists. The NEC will also impose all-women shortlists on all constituencies where the MP retires late, unless diversity can be increased through candidates from ethnic minorities or other under-represented groups; favourite sons and Shaun Woodwards will not be parachuted in this time. Candidates from the 2001 panel will not need another interview, freeing resources for attracting and supporting more women and ethnic minority candidates.

Positive action in local government would also be promoted, though Dennis Skinner reported that two long-serving Derbyshire councillors failed to answer the panel’s clever questions, and their rejection was discouraging other working-class women. The general secretary reported on problems with this year’s NEC ballot, and will ensure that party staff are not involved at any stage in future internal elections.

Finally we said goodbye with sadness to Aline Delawa, the head of the constitutional and legal unit, and to Paul Simpson, the national political education officer. Both will be much missed.