The meeting opened with a lively discussion of the National Policy Forum. The next Forum is on 28 February, followed by a review of the current cycle including the new right to submit amendments. Conference 2009 will also decide whether to restore contemporary resolutions or continue the two-year experiment in which contemporary issues are aired and referred to the policy commissions without a vote. Peter Kenyon and I argued that constituencies should be consulted immediately, as many will be concentrating on elections from April to June. We did not prevail, but would welcome comments on any aspect of Partnership in Power before the Forum meeting so that we can reflect members’ views.
No further meetings are scheduled, though more discussion has been promised on contentious issues including Remploy and a windfall tax on energy companies. But plans for partial privatisation of Royal Mail are already causing unrest, and there were heated exchanges between Pat McFadden, Chair of the Forum and minister for employment relations and postal services, and other NEC members. The Forum document, agreed by conference in 2008 and known as “Warwick II”, states:
“We have set out a vision of a wholly publicly-owned, integrated Royal Mail Group in good health, providing customers with an excellent service and its employees with rewarding employment. The government has established the Hooper Review to look at how the Royal Mail can succeed in a world where electronic and other forms of communication provide increasingly attractive alternatives to the mail and where there is more competition in postal markets.”
The unions in particular were unhappy that Lord Mandelson had now announced, without consultation, that he would implement the Hooper Review in full, including a partial sell-off. They accepted the need for new technology and the inevitability of job losses, but believed that ditching a central part of the Warwick agreement undermined faith in the Forum process itself.
Dennis Skinner said that Hooper began work while privatisation was still a Good Thing, before the economy turned upside-down, and his assumptions no longer held. Others believed that taxpayers would rather support their postal service than a bunch of bankers. Pat McFadden replied that a joint venture would provide capacity to compete in Europe and expertise from more advanced companies. The government would retain a majority stake, so it was not privatisation. And Hooper took precedence over the “vision”, which simply described the current Royal Mail set-up and did not imply any commitment for the future. This last argument is disturbing because the Warwick agreement also sets out visions for informal adult learning, for valuing carers, for voluntary activity, and for a fairer and more equal society. I hope that all these visions do not fall victim to similar sophistry.
Putting People First
Gordon Brown joined the NEC for a detailed discussion of the economic situation. He stressed that this was no ordinary crisis, but a breakdown of global financial systems. The first task was to help people with jobs and homes, through increased benefits for parents and pensioners, cuts in tax, training in new skills, boosting social housing, more green jobs, and programmes of public works. Money borrowed now would be repaid in the upturn, with the richest paying most. Advice and support are summarised in a booklet “Real Help Now”, at http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/campaigns/RealHelpNow/index.htm, useful ammunition against the Tories who would let the recession run its course regardless of consequences.
The second task was to tackle the underlying problems, including tax havens and regulatory failures, and define new international systems. The G20 meeting in April would be critical. The prime minister believed that Britain was better-placed than many countries: the United States lost two million jobs in three months, and 60,000 factories in China had closed. Contrary to public perception the banks were not getting shedloads of money for nothing: in return for taking shares, the government was able to increase access to loans and mortgages. He agreed that bank staff should not be collectively demonised: some earn only £12,000 a year, and have to meet stiff targets for selling credit cards and other products. Members also asked about PFI (Private Finance Initiative) schemes, where the outsourced risks are reverting to the government as things get tough. I wondered why VAT was cut instead of giving more to the poorest, much of whose budget goes on zero-rated food and who would be more likely to spend it, but he explained that this was the quickest way of getting more money into the system.
Gordon Brown promised to look at the impact of welfare reform plans on disabled people who are desperately trying to get work and do not need the government to add to their feelings of anxiety and guilt. He reassured us that even if inflation was low, pensions would rise by at least £2 a week, with no repeat of the 75p fiasco. While only time will tell, I do not think that anyone else has better answers or greater commitment to dealing with both the immediate and the longer-term problems.
The economy dominates everything, but following recent allegations against some of our peers, Dennis Skinner repeated his proposal that MPs should be barred from any other earnings. This would be popular, and leave hard-working Labour MPs unaffected while taking out much of the Tory front bench, but may be too radical. Gordon Brown assured Keith Vaz that he was working on a response to the bloodshed in Sri Lanka. Finally he paid tribute to Gary Titley, who is standing down as the leader of the European Labour Party. Gary played a key role in the 1995 enlargement of the Union, for which he was honoured by Austria and Lithuania and made a Finnish Commander of the White Rose. With typical modesty Gary said that membership of the NEC eclipsed all of these. Glenis Willmott MEP was then welcomed as the new European leader. Glenis highlighted the climate change package, with negotiations led by Linda McAvan, and explained that the European trade agreement with Israel was on hold, but it was hard to get agreement even within the socialist group on what to say or do about Gaza.
On the Doorstep
Douglas Alexander and Harriet Harman outlined campaign plans through to June 2009. While new technology enabled us to talk with voters about their individual concerns, and was used to good effect in Glenrothes, it could never be a substitute for personal contact. Some areas have local elections, but for the European elections every vote counts under the list system, and this means getting out the vote in core seats as well as in Westminster marginals. There may be events to coincide with President Obama’s visit in April, though he will obviously not be present in person. Only Dennis Skinner remained immune to the Obama spell, saying that he was too happy to deal with Republicans and not another Clinton, though even Bill Clinton only visited Labour party events after he left office.
Pollution and trafficking of drugs, guns and people must be tackled at European level, but getting positive messages across is difficult, and while under the Tories Labour could say that only Europe protected workers’ rights, after twelve years voters would ask why their own government cannot do this. The threat of the BNP winning seats led to unusual concord between Pete Willsman and Tom Watson MP, calling for the NEC to send a loud and clear message opposing proportional representation. I disagree. Under a proportional system we would only have had thirteen Tory years and the railways would still be in public ownership. Finally, passing on complaints from constituencies, I put on record that European candidates had to convince them that the £1,200 Euro-levy was value for money.
Selections and Elections
Glasgow East, Edinburgh East, Erith & Thamesmead and Houghton & Sunderland South will select candidates from all-women shortlists, with an open selection in Aberconwy. Shabana Mahmood was confirmed as the candidate for Birmingham Ladywood, and Calder Valley will re-run their selection.
Keith Vaz MP was congratulated on his unopposed re-election as the BAME (black and minority ethnic) Labour representative on the NEC. Ballot papers for other BAME positions will be sent out by 13 February, with the poll closing at 5 p.m. on 26 February. For Young Labour, under the new rules the regional representatives will be elected by one-member-one-vote, with Friday 13 February as the deadline for self-nomination, and the ballot between 18 February and 20 March. The NEC youth representative, the Chair of Young Labour and four equality officers will be elected at a national one-day event in April, with Friday 6 March the deadline for nominations and delegates. Detailed information should soon be sent directly to young members and to constituencies and affiliates.