Tuesday 27 November was also Gordon Brown’s Pre-Budget Day, with much to cheer Labour supporters. Before briefing the Cabinet, Tony Blair addressed the NEC. He said that military action in Afghanistan had achieved most of its aims and should reach a successful conclusion within weeks. The emphasis could then shift to humanitarian relief and reconstruction. Later, a resolution from Christine Shawcroft and Mark Seddon drew attention to the West’s role in allowing the Taliban into power, and requested United Nations trusteeship pending democratic elections. It was rejected by 16 votes to three (Christine, Mark and myself) in favour of reaffirming a Fire Brigades Union motion agreed at Conference. This called for perpetrators of the 11 September attacks to be brought to justice, but made no reference to extending the hit-list to Iraq, Somalia and beyond, and should reassure those who fear a British blank cheque for anything that the United States might choose to do.
However, Tony Blair recognised that Labour would stand or fall at the next election on public services. Investment in schools and in tackling crime was already bearing visible fruit. Health and transport were patchier, and overcoming decades of neglect could take two more tough years. Restoring Railtrack to public ownership might be popular with the party, but voters simply want the trains to run on time.
Members stressed that social services were also stretched, particularly in supporting children and the elderly. Responding to concerns about the role of business in running the Department of Trade and Industry, and the troubled industrial relations climate at Consignia (the Post Office), Tony Blair offered talks, and his reassurance that the unions remain valued partners. On student funding, he said that work continues on how best to widen access and secure the financial future of higher education. Dennis Skinner asked for a ban on fox-hunting, a key moral issue particularly for younger people. Colleagues praised positive noises on the euro, requested the return of powers to local government and demanded greater aggression towards the LibDems.
Unfortunately there are worse enemies out there. Though the British National Party were defeated in two Burnley council by-elections, they polled 20%, and in next May’s local elections resources will be spread much more thinly. The Ipswich by-election result, in contrast, exceeded expectations and roundly rebuffed Iain Duncan Smith’s claims of a “fightback”.
Reviews of council ward boundaries are under way across the country, but attention must be given to knock-on consequences for the current review of parliamentary constituencies. Scotland may lose 14 seats, and there are questions about whether constituencies for the Scottish Parliament should be realigned with the new Westminster structure. The Scottish and Welsh Executives would oversee reselection of sitting constituency MSPs and Assembly Members through procedures similar to those for Westminster MPs, and would be consulted on ways to choose the list-based candidates.
Dennis Skinner complained about the First Minister of Scotland, Jack McConnell, floating proportional representation for Scottish local government. He considered the system electorally disastrous for Labour. This provoked a lively response, with some arguing that the Scottish experience had positive aspects, and in any case the NEC should not avoid debating alternatives to first-past-the-post. General Secretary David Triesman proposed scheduling a properly-informed discussion, though its scope, nature, and relation to the forum process have yet to be clarified.
The NEC thanked party staff for organising a truncated Annual Conference in difficult circumstances. The Conference Arrangements Committee would try to improve the balance between stakeholders next year, and I asked to see all those resolutions referred to the NEC. Next are the Local Government and Women’s Conferences in Cardiff from 1-3 February 2002, with joint opening and closing sessions and separate workshops and policy seminars.
Some regretted the absence of a European Conference, but the Party of European Socialists’ meeting in Britain in 2003 would link naturally with a high-profile party event. Simon Murphy, leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, updated us on other developments. These included plans to test 30,000 chemicals in common use for possible toxicity, partly prompted by unexplained rises in asthma and other illnesses. I was concerned about the expansion of animal testing, though the Greens wanted to go much further and millions more animals would have been sacrificed under their proposals.
Charles Clarke reported on the November relaunch of the National Policy Forum. There were high hopes that the new optimism could be rolled out nationwide, with documents posing challenges and choices and feedback proving that members really matter. The first papers, to be agreed by the Forum on 8 February, would cover Britain in the world; health; welfare reform; trade and industry; and democracy, citizenship and political engagemement The policy commissions would be central in realising the vision. Mark Seddon was allocated to Economy, Welfare and Work; Christine Shawcroft and Tony Robinson to Quality of Life (rural affairs, environment, culture and sport); Shahid Malik to Health; Ruth Turner to Transport, Housing, Local Government and the Regions; and Ann Black to Trade and Industry. Tony Robinson is also on the Joint Policy Committee, which steers the Forum.
At local level the Party Development Committee recommended an expanded programme of policy forums, a dedicated Partnership in Power officer in every constituency, properly-trained facilitators, full feedback, and better use of information technology to engage with members. Constituency parties would be grouped in clusters to take forward the 21st Century Party development programme, concentrating on achieving party aims, not on enforcing any particular model of organisation.
Less Talk, More Action
David Triesman presented a radical revamp of party committee structure. The main committees have been slimmed down, with a new Equalities Committee including separate sections for women’s organisation and ethnic minorities, and also encompassing disability, sexuality and age. Constituency representation is: Organisation – Ann Black; Equalities (Women) – none / (Ethnic Minorities) – Shahid Malik and Ruth Turner; Business Board – Ruth Turner; Finance Committee – Mark Seddon; Local Government – Christine Shawcroft; Selections Panel – none, though this may be reviewed after constituency NEC members argued that their involvement could lessen grassroots complaints.
The committees will be supplemented by time-limited task groups with specific objectives. Currently these are, with constituency representation in brackets: Engagement with Ethnic Minorities (Shahid Malik); Improving Recruitment (none); University of the Labour Party (none); Voter Turnout and Engagement (Ruth Turner); Youth Engagement (Tony Robinson); Party Development (none, though Ian McCartney assured the NEC that it would work in an inclusive way).
The next Organisation Committee will review procedures for internal elections and selections, and advise constituencies later in January. The deadline for nominations to the NEC, the National Policy Forum, the Conference Arrangements Committee and the National Constitutional Committee was agreed as 5 April 2002. Forum candidates will now need nominations from only three constituencies in their region, including their own, with numbers and gender balance dependent on this year’s results, and there is growing support for substitutes to be elected at the same time.
The Organisation Committee will also work with the Equalities / Women’s Committee on increasing women’s representation at every level. Legislation allowing positive measures such as all-women shortlists will receive Royal Assent in time for the next round of Westminster selections, but the party has to debate and agree the necessary rule changes as well. The post of Women’s Officer is being advertised, and one of her first duties will be to audit and encourage regional women’s organisation.