Foot-and-mouth heads the nation’s agenda, and Tony Blair gave an update to the NEC. Some areas remained disease-free, and those with only a handful of cases should now be safe. Vaccination was being considered, together with slaughter of neighbouring herds, to contain the major outbreaks in Cumbria, Devon, and perhaps Northumberland and Durham and the Welsh borders. As Dennis Skinner pointed out, the government was paying far more compensation to farmers than ruined pit villages ever got from the Tories. Tourism was also suffering, from the imagery as much as the reality. And some members gently pointed out that though slaughtered animals make distressing television, they are bred to die, for our dinner-tables.
At the meeting, the Prime Minister had not yet decided whether it was right to hold local and national elections against this background. Few envied his responsibility, but he received plenty of advice. Most members felt that we should go ahead if the crisis was under control, and could be managed effectively while Parliament is dissolved. Delay would damage confidence in the wider economy, and voters were getting fed-up of speculation. If the number of cases continued to rise, however, there were serious difficulties. [Five days later it looks as if the local elections, and a general election, will be postponed. On balance I now believe that this is the right decision.]
Election planning continued, whatever the eventual date. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown outlined policy and strategy, and General Secretary Margaret McDonagh covered practical matters. We have to make the election a choice between Labour and the Tories, not a referendum on Labour’s record. Instead of measuring public services against perfection, the question is: “Do people want more investment with Labour, or £16 billion of cuts under the Tories?” We need to sell our vision for the future as well as our achievements so far. And we must give a voice to the voiceless, because the socially-excluded, who benefit from Labour’s policies, tend not to vote. The coalition of grassroots members, MPs and candidates, trade unions and party staff was more important than ever.
Members praised Gordon Brown’s redistributive policies, but were concerned that thousands of eligible people were not claiming the Working Families Tax Credit, the Children’s Tax Credit and the Minimum Income Guarantee. Public spending was taking a long time to feed through to frontline services, and recruitment, particularly in London and the SouthEast, was also difficult.
Tony Blair recognised that the LibDems are causing problems in some areas. The simplest counter-argument was that they simply cannot deliver on their promises, but he felt that it was still helpful to us if they hated the Tories most. I was pleased that we are keeping the door open to electoral reform for Westminster, building on agreement in the National Policy Forum, but worried about press reports that the Winter Fuel Allowance would revert to £150 after the election. After digging ourselves out of the 75p debacle, and leading the polls among pensioners for the first time ever, it would be a crazy own goal. Thankfully he assured us that the story was untrue.
Christine Shawcroft asked again for the railways to be restored to public ownership, and for a sensible resolution to the Tube stand-off. She won some support, but John Prescott reiterated the Conference decision not to spend £5 billion-plus buying back the network. On London Underground, he felt that Labour had accepted most of Bob Kiley’s requests, and after a hundred meetings was obviously frustrated at failure to reach a deal. Whatever the rights and wrongs, and apparently the New York subway is not utopian, the government is losing the public relations battle hands down on this one. However, privatisation of air traffic control, also announced on Tuesday, is going ahead, with the victorious airline consortium seen as the least worst option by the scheme’s opponents.
Gordon Brown’s budget has proved popular with women, who benefit most from the new tax credits as well as from better childcare provision and the national minimum wage. Apathy among young people is still worrying, though. Gordon Brown reported that their biggest issues were the minimum wage and public transport, and Labour’s international leadership against world poverty was a major attraction for the idealistic. Others were weighed down by the prospect of graduating from university with £12,000 debts. But Blair McDougall, the NEC youth member, thought it was a mistake to treat young people as a separate species, and by and large they had the same concerns as everyone else.
Simon Murphy, the leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, provides written reports which we skate over in ten seconds flat. Recent British initiatives included new copyright laws, tough legislation on the release of genetically-modified organisms, a report on disabled access to buses, a petition demanding a minimum age of 18 for breast implant surgery, and greater public access to documents. MEPs use e-mail more extensively than Westminster colleagues, so for Euro-information, contact your regional MEP, or try firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.eplp.org.uk.
Returning to the Home Front, the manifesto will be presented to the NEC and MPs soon after the election is announced. John Prescott, David Blunkett and Hilary Armstrong will kick off the county council campaign. We will not be negative, though we will monitor what the Tories are saying. Despite William Hague’s disavowal of racism, their election broadcasts allegedly feature East European actors playing hordes of invading asylum-seekers [now dropped]. Their tactics are disgusting, and all of us have to speak up for Labour’s values.
Most parliamentary candidates are in place. The winner of the ballot in Perry Barr was to be re-interviewed, and NEC panels will handle selections for remaining and last-minute vacancies. Some constituencies are distributing videos of their candidates, and apparently over 80% of voters watch these to the end, more than those who read leaflets. Most electoral registers had been downloaded.
The Organisation Committee will review the conduct of youth elections following recent complaints, and hopefully devise fair procedures which ensure the neutrality of party staff. The date for the NEC ballot was even harder to divine than that of the general election, but it will probably be in April, or May, or June. MPs have their own problems, because they stop being MPs when Parliament dissolves, so their NEC representatives would be chosen after a May election, but before a June one.
The next Conference will agree methods of choosing Labour candidates for elected mayors, but some cities cannot wait until October and the NEC noted interim procedures for these selections. Local Government Committees play no part, and I hope that this will be remedied in the permanent rules.
Following a Guardian article, I had asked the Finance Committee about our pension fund holdings in British Aerospace. The fund’s trustees have to get the best returns, but they do follow socially responsible guidelines which Labour has introduced for all pension funds. And finally, a small contribution to traditional links. The 2001 membership forms dropped the standard request for an applicant’s trade union, as part of an ongoing process of simplification, so I submitted a resolution asking for it to be put back. The NEC was assured that this will be done in the next reprint.