The meeting started with a messy procedural wrangle. The agenda included a resolution from Mark Seddon and Mary Turner of the GMB opposing further privatisation of public services, with an amendment from Jeremy Beecham seeking a review of Private Finance Initiative projects and a level playing-field for competition between public, private and voluntary sectors. The Chair proposed referring both of these to the relevant policy commissions without discussion, and members backed her by 21 votes to 7 despite Dennis Skinner’s warning that suppressing debate was not a smart move. New standing orders are likely to block all resolutions from now on. Organisational matters will go to subcommittees, and on policy, NEC members can write to the commissions like everyone else.
While I accept that resolutions are often not the best way to deal with complex issues, I would prefer to see the commissions fulfil their promise of continuing dialogue with the party first, before giving up existing channels for bringing members’ concerns to its ruling body. Tony Blair gave two examples of how policy could be influenced, neither of which uses the new structures. Dialogue with the unions, for instance over post office modernisation and employment laws, takes place independently of the forum process. And reversal of the 75p pension insult followed a very Old Labour conference resolution and a public defeat for the leadership by the union block vote, all stuff which Partnership in Power was supposed to prevent. He warned us again that Labour always lost power in the past because of splits between government and party, and we had to choose between discipline or defeat.
Moving On Up
Question Time was a double act, with John Prescott winning plaudits as Best Supporting Actor after Tony Blair’s departure for another meeting. The Prime Minister reminded us of Labour’s successes, with a strong and stable economy, performance indicators in health and crime beginning to turn positive, and real progress in tackling child and pensioner poverty. The spectacle of Michael Howard pretending concern for the vulnerable showed how far the Tories were being dragged onto Labour territory, and highlighted the dividing lines. Membership was still higher than eight years ago, and we had to hold our nerve when attacked by the corrosive media. Too many of our own side could not resist a platform to air their views or gain personal publicity.
Two issues dominated discussion. First, members reported widespread opposition to military action against Iraq without a fresh United Nations mandate, citing a unanimous statement from the South East Regional Board and messages from many people who had accepted the Afghanistan campaign but saw this as a war too far. Following the Bush agenda could isolate Britain within Europe and divert attention from deepening crisis in the Middle East. Tony Blair said there was more support for action than people think if it was done properly, and it would be absurd if the Left appeared to support Saddam Hussein. Second, cosying up to Silvio Berlusconi offended many sensibilities, and not only because the Barcelona talks put free-market flexibility above workers’ protection. Members understood that the British Prime Minister had to deal with other countries’ democratically-elected leaders, but he did not have to like them so obviously.
Stephen Byers was generally supported, with Railtrack still a bargain at £300 million. I asked John Prescott when party policy allowing 18-year-olds to stand as councillors and MPs would be implemented. Other concerns included foot-dragging over the European directive on agency workers, premature liberalisation of postal services, the two-tier workforce, faith schools, creationism taught as science, delay in banning fox-hunting, disincentives to save for pensions, over-complex funding for charities, the Home Secretary’s record on race, and the rights of unmarried couples to adopt children. Dennis Skinner summed up the problem as trying to please all of the people all of the time, which looked like dithering. Why should we care what the House of Lords thought? And Christine Shawcroft suggested one-member-one-vote ballots on key policy issues, prompting Tony Blair to remark that the Left had not always been so keen on universal suffrage. Times change, indeed.
Labour must do more to publicise “stealth benefits”, where substantial redistribution through tax credits is often not attributed to the government, and highlight partnership with councils in the run-up to local elections. Members drew attention to threats from the British National Party, and the need for material targeted at LibDems as well as Tories. Most candidates were in place, even for the mayoral contest in Lewisham after two ballots and many shenanigans. Midterm elections were always difficult for the party in national government, but the excellent result in Ogmore gave everyone hope. Looking ahead, enlargement of the European Union would reduce British representation in 2004, and proposals to improve the gender balance would severely limit prospects for aspiring male MEPs.
Assistant General Secretary Matt Carter tabled proposals for “Forethought: Labour’s Centre for Policy Research”. This internal thinktank would be run by ten intellectuals/thinkers plus the National Policy Forum officers, the Party Chairman and the General Secretary, and conduct research projects into areas such as voter participation, or demographic trends over the next 15 years. Reactions varied from enthusiasm to Dennis Skinner’s “wouldn’t touch it with a barge-pole”. Some were worried about money. The party has little to spare – even the NEC has tightened its belt and given up its biscuits – while external funding could come with strings attached. But the main anxiety was over creating a new and apparently unaccountable elite, separate from the official policy-making processes and even more remote from members. To win support it must serve, not bypass, the National Policy Forum, the policy commissions and the NEC. And no John Birts.
Members were more comfortable with renewing traditional links between the Labour Party and the Co-operative Movement, aiming “to develop a common understanding of policy and business evolution, and where possible facilitate and dovetail activity in support of community and citizenship regeneration”. Meanwhile the National Policy Forum process is in full swing, with documents available on the party website and contributions welcomed. The site now carries reports from constituency NEC representatives in the members-only section, and I have asked for the auto-reply response from firstname.lastname@example.org to be updated.
General Secretary David Triesman spoke frankly about his desire for transparency and trust within the NEC, but regretted that press reports of sensitive financial information could have put major projects at risk. Mark Seddon tends to get blamed for everything, but most members accepted that he did not leak conversations where he was not present or documents that he had not seen. The transfer from Millbank to Old Queen Street is scheduled for August, and we were not sure what to call the control freaks when they move to their new home. Suggestions by postcard or e-mail, please.
Glasgow was agreed for the spring conference, 14/16 February 2003, and despite protestations a separate women’s conference was judged financially and administratively not viable. I asked again for more encouragement for regional women’s organisation, following the deletion of Rulebook guidance. Bournemouth will host the 2003 annual conference, with Blackpool in spring 2004 and a return to Brighton for the following annual conference.