Ed Miliband was in Manchester launching Labour’s health pledge, so European leader Glenis Willmott MEP gave the opening report. Labour MEPs opposed an increase in the budget because of continuing waste on the common agricultural policy, and were campaigning on violence against women, assistance for disabled people, allegations of corruption against EU officials in Kosovo, commitment to science and, with Steve Rotheram MP, on tyre safety. On TTIP (transatlantic trade and investment partnership) Labour were working to protect public services, and for alternatives to the ISDS (investor state dispute settlement) whereby companies can sue governments, in secret, for interfering with their profits.
NEC members asked about using public procurement to support British manufacturing, and about regional funds, where the Tory government was holding up £5.5 billion for UK projects. Glenis regretted that the government had withdrawn support for co-ordinated European action on rescuing migrants from the Mediterranean, and though migration must be managed, letting them drown was against any moral code. Britain’s failure to offer sanctuary to refugees from Syria was particularly deplorable.
I welcomed the vote on recognition of Palestine, and hoped that we would wish Syriza well, following their victory in the Greek elections. Others added that debate on austerity was now out in the open: even in the UK many thousands depended on food banks for survival. Glenis thought the result was hardly surprising: the Greek budget was only a few per cent of the European total, and should have been handled differently. However there was concern about Syriza’s choice of a far-right anti-immigrant party as its coalition partner. Later, on the international report, there were questions about future relationships as our current sister party, Pasok, fell to seventh place with 5% of the vote. Another party, To Potami, already sits with the socialists and democrats group in the European parliament.
Fired Up and Ready to Go
Douglas Alexander and Lucy Powell gave an election update. The Tory slogan “competence or chaos” was misleading: their record had been disastrous for workingpeople. The choice was between Tory failure and Labour’s better plans for workingpeople: alternatives which offered hope and were rooted in daily experience. Three pledges had already been rolled out: on securing economic foundations without unfunded spending commitments; on immigration, with strong employment laws so that pay and conditions were not undercut; and on the NHS and social care. Two further events would focus on the next generation and on living standards. Ed Miliband, unlike David Cameron, was keen for the TV debates to go ahead, and deputy leader Harriet Harman would lead a national women’s campaign tour.
NEC members asked for effective rebuttal and succinct policy nuggets for doorstep use, and these were promised, with a members’ magazine in February. The NHS and social care were key issues. The Tory threat to cap benefits at £23,000 a year made people think that this is what most claimants get; it is not true, and ignores the fact that many are actually workingpeople, just not paid enough. I asked again about funding for higher education, and suggested that guaranteeing free bus passes would be a vote-winner with pensioners. Others highlighted support for disabled people, human rights, civil liberties and the green economy, and Ken Livingstone added opposition to fracking and the third runway at Heathrow.
Labour’s ground operations were in superb shape, with more organisers on the ground than ever before. Finances were, as always, carefully managed, but the digital team had raised ten times as much in small donations from e-mails than the same period before the last election. Despite the Tories’ bulging war-chest, their dodgy dossiers and other attacks, Labour continued resilient and optimistic.
There were concerns that the new system of individual voter registration would add to the three million people missing from the current register. With young people, private tenants, city-dwellers and ethnic minorities disproportionately under-represented, the electoral system is not stacked in Labour’s favour as many claim: these should be our people. University seats may lose many thousands as halls can no longer register students en bloc. The impact of missing voters will carry forward to future boundary changes, which depend on the numbers registered, not the numbers living in the area. Labour, with councils and organisations such as Bite the Ballot, must ensure that people keep their right to vote.
Devolution and Labour
Owen Smith MP, shadow secretary of state for Wales, said that Labour was ahead in the polls and working flat out in the marginals. NEC members asked for more information on the Welsh NHS. Health makes up 40% of the £15 billion devolved budget, itself squeezed through the Barnett formula. Nevertheless the Welsh government was pressing ahead with integrating health and social care. Owen Smith warned that the Tories seemed relaxed about the possible break-up of the United Kingdom.
Scottish leader Jim Murphy MP would join us in March, after the Scottish party had approved changes to their rulebook. These were published in full on LabourList, but I asked that the NEC should be kept informed directly. Close relations between the NEC and the Scottish executive were essential.
Jim McMahon, Labour’s leader in local government, reported on a regional cabinet to drive the devolution agenda throughout the UK. I asked about its membership, particularly in the south and the shires where Labour councillors are thin on the ground but people still need representation.
The NEC shared his concerns about further funding cuts, which risked reducing services to the statutory minimum or worse. Merging health and social care would not work if NHS funds were ring-fenced while social care had to compete for ever-shrinking council funds. The lowest pay grade was now less than the minimum wage, straining relationships with staff. Labour could redistribute funds back from richer to poorer areas, but beyond the crude economics, the political impact of Labour councils having to impose cuts demanded by a Labour government rather than a Tory government would be deeply damaging.
In the Front Line
Almost all candidates had now been selected, with a few more women than men in Labour-held and target seats, but men making up three-quarters of candidates in the remainder. The numbers of ethnic minority, disabled and working class candidates are also on the low side. The NEC endorsed all sitting MPs who were reselected by their members; David Hamilton of Mid-Lothian has since stood down, but I hope the rest will honour their commitment. Any MP who withdraws after 10 December 2014 makes a deliberate decision to give shortlisting powers to the NEC rather than their local party. The special selections panel agreed open selections for both St Helens North and Edmonton, though I hear that the shortlist for Edmonton comprises three women, including NEC comrade Kate Osamor.
Towards the Manifesto
Angela Eagle, Chair of the national policy forum, reported on regional meetings on Changing Britain Together, bringing community leaders and activists together with shadow ministers. In December key parts of the policy programme were published at labour.org.uk/pages/changing-britain-together, and she hoped to continue working inclusively through to the Clause V meeting, which signs off the manifesto.
Each policy commission was asked for priorities, and I was disturbed that Britain’s Global Role included “maintaining the UK’s minimum, independent, credible nuclear deterrent through a continuous at-sea deterrent”. This omitted the qualifications won at the Milton Keynes NPF, which indicated that a clear body of evidence could lead Labour to change this belief, and which agreed that “the next strategic defence and security review in 2015 needs to be open and transparent, examining all capabilities including nuclear. It must also examine cost implications as well as strategic necessities…” Angela Eagle assured us that the small print had not been forgotten, but the wrong presentation could lose Labour votes in Scotland, and Trident is surely not one of our absolute red lines. I support my MP Andrew Smith, who writes:
“I have made very clear my opposition to Trident renewal, and to nuclear weapons in general. These are abhorrent, they carry unimaginable and unacceptable risks, and they do not contribute to security. What’s more, especially when public services and our armed forces are under such pressure, there are much better uses for the money.”
The party reform group met in December, and affiliated supporters are now available to local parties on membersnet. We have two in Oxford, but the real test will be in London, with the vote to select Labour’s mayoral candidate. For the last two years the Refounding Labour funds, established with membership subscriptions, have been channelled into key seats, but after the election constituencies will again be able to bid for support for projects to improve local organisation or enhance democracy and diversity. The Equalities Committee considered a draft complaints procedure, and this should be published soon.
Finally, a contradiction emerged between the rulebook and recent practice on how many candidates CLPs could nominate for the conference arrangements committee (CAC). The organisation committee agreed to continue to allow two nominations, and to bring the rulebook into line at conference.