Gordon Brown was still in Northern Ireland, locked in crisis talks, and the NEC hoped that he could safeguard one of Labour’s finest achievements. However we were joined by three key members of the election team. Deputy leader Harriet Harman warned that the recovery was still fragile. We must value our footsoldiers, remind voters why they should fear the Tories, and stress fairness, showing how our tax and benefit changes have halted the growth of inequality. Peter Mandelson focused on the economy, tackling the deficit through growth, staying friendly to business and strengthening competitiveness. Labour was not pursuing a core vote strategy but a core values strategy, and he sensed the beginning of an opening up of a process of reappraisal, with David Cameron increasingly seen as complacent.
Ed Miliband, who is co-ordinating the manifesto, said that this time expectations were higher but resources more constrained. We must be bold, learn from errors, adapt to new situations, and offer the right kind of change. Themes included broadening the industrial base, developing a new kind of economy, social care, housing, reforms to the political system, and justifying the role of government in spreading opportunity and insuring against risk, in contrast to the Tories’ hands-off small state approach.
What Members Want
NEC members asked for clear punchy messages. Labour should guarantee free bus fares for pensioners, the winter fuel allowance and security for council tenants, and challenge the other parties on where they stand. Tory and LibDem councillors have offered a zero pay rise to their employees: Labour councillors support a rise in line with other public services. The 50% tax band on earnings over £150,000 was right, and reversing it would mean deeper cuts. Many opposed privatisation, linking it with hospital infection and calling for the railways to return to public ownership as franchises end. Pete Willsman reiterated the importance of basic rights to jobs and housing: the working class did not obsess about abstract deficits. Investment in digital Britain was welcomed, together with visions of new jobs in biotechnology and low-carbon industries, building wind turbines and eco-homes. We should remember that the Tories have consistently made the wrong calls on the economy and, with cash machines on the edge of meltdown in October 2008, could have plunged Britain into chaos. This is no time for a novice.
Aspirations included more resources for social care, not just for the elderly but for younger people with learning disabilities as well. Again members asked urgently for compensation for sufferers from pleural plaques. Compared to the bankers’ bailouts it would cost peanuts, and if Labour lost the election the Tories would abandon them. Similarly protection for temporary and agency workers must be implemented while we hold power. The minimum wage should be reviewed regularly and raised towards a living wage instead of using tax credits to subsidise mean employers. Benefit take-up is too low: only 20% of those eligible claim working tax credit, and pensioners find the forms too complicated.
Most speakers opposed any change to the voting system. I support proportional representation, but had doubts about the alternative vote as satisfying neither reformers nor advocates of the status quo. Ed Miliband replied that the prime minister clearly wanted a referendum, while he hoped for wider reforms, including votes at 16 in line with party policy. Responding to concerns about northern steel towns, Peter Mandelson said the government was exploring possibilities with Corus and putting £10 million into apprenticeships, but couldn’t fund products which would not sell. He was less worried about who owned something than where they invested, though Ed Miliband highlighted Andy Burnham’s promise that the NHS would be the preferred provider of healthcare, and he was continuing dialogue with public service unions. And Peter Mandelson mused that a new post-crunch consensus, following the post-war consensus and the Thatcherite consensus, might see morals reintroduced to markets.
Ed Miliband is discussing manifesto priorities with all stakeholder groups, and I shall be meeting him, with other constituency representatives from the NEC and the national policy forum, on 25 February, so please send me any thoughts before then. Instead of a one-member-one-vote ballot on the party programme, the NEC agreed to write to members summarising key campaign themes and inviting feedback and debate. Members were keen that new technology should be used effectively, and to encourage bottom-up participation rather than simply handing down wisdom from on high.
The NEC also received summary campaign statistics. A thorough analysis of the facts behind the figures had previously been given to the local government sub-committee by Patrick Heneghan, one of very few people who can win applause for PowerPoint presentations. The committee unanimously favoured holding the general and local elections on the same day.
Two weeks earlier, members of the organisation committee had forcefully expressed grassroots anger at continuing outbreaks of indiscipline at senior levels and agreed that all members should be equally subject to party rules, but the NEC ended up adopting Dennis Skinner’s advice to deny the troublemakers the oxygen of publicity. We may return to them after the election.
In November the NEC set up a special selections panel to decide which seats should choose from all-women shortlists, and to shortlist for vacancies from 1 January 2010. Then in December the panel approved a shortlisting procedure, agreeing overwhelmingly that constituency observers should not be invited. Some members questioned whether this went beyond its remit, and several spoke in favour of observers. However the NEC voted to grant the panel full delegated powers on all matters related to selections, with only Peter Kenyon and Pete Willsman dissenting.
From now on, after the panel has classified a seat as open or AWS, candidates can apply through membersnet. Panels of at least three NEC members will longlist from CVs, and aim to interview at least ten candidates and to provide a choice of at least four, reflecting diversity in its widest senses.
Two final points. First, the NEC is only taking control where MPs have failed to give proper notice. It is they who are denying choice to local parties. Second, there were many pleas for members to trust each other. General secretary Ray Collins assured us that the panel was exercising its powers in an open and transparent way and would be held to account. We are in no doubt that trust has to be earned.
Ray Collins also reported on successful dinners for women and Muslims for Labour. Finances were stable, and a new tender for the membership system should bring better value for money. Treasurer Jack Dromey said that work continued on how to get the most out of party assets, and repeated his assurance at conference that there was no question of any local party losing control of their property.
Secretary-general Giampi Alhadeff gave the European report as MEPs were away, still tied up in voting on new commission members. He praised Cathy Ashton’s performance at her confirmation hearings, and Linda McAvan’s leadership on climate change in Copenhagen. NEC members noted with disgust the BNP MEP Nick Griffin’s comment on Haiti: “sending aid to rioting ingrates while our own people die is stinking elite hypocrisy”. The international report included the congress of the party of European socialists in Prague, which I attended and where we met a number of activists from sister parties.
The meeting concluded by congratulating Mary Turner, president of the GMB union and an indefatigable champion of her low-paid women members, on her well-deserved MBE.
Full NEC meetings tend to be set-piece affairs, and the smaller subcommittees allow more informal and productive discussion. Phil Woolas attended the women, race and equalities committee for a session on immigration, still near the top of voters’ concerns and still unfortunately often linked with race, though with 38% of its staff foreign-born, the NHS would collapse without migrants. He wondered whether Labour should have a population policy. In fact this would have to range more widely, including what factors influence family size, and indeed on what level is desirable: the demographic time-bomb must be addressed at some point, rather than importing ever more young people who will in their turn get old.
Before Christmas Alan Johnson met the crime, justice, citizenship and equalities policy commission, and I asked about Gary McKinnon, the computer hacker with Asperger’s syndrome facing deportation to the United States. He said that all the evidence and witnesses were in the US, the offences were admitted, and a plea bargain was offered in 2004, with one year served in America and three years here, but rejected. And Gary McKinnon at the age of 44 had no previous medical records relating to Asperger’s or anything else. So while I may still disagree with Alan Johnson, I no longer think he is vindictive or unreasonable. I also raised the forcible taking of a DNA sample from an Oxford student, arrested for littering when he tossed a bottle of water up to a protester camped in a tree. Keith Vaz, who chairs the home affairs select committee, said they were currently taking evidence on DNA and invited young Jonathan Leighton to meet them, which I gather was an interesting experience for both sides.