The first meeting after conference is always a marathon, and this one ran for seven hours. New member Steve Rotheram MP was welcomed along with Peter Wheeler, back after a two-year break. General secretary Iain McNicol opened by saying that we could not outspend the Tories so we had to out-organise them, and he was followed by presentations from the seven executive directors. Questions had to be saved up and slipped in wherever possible, which made the day interesting if not always coherent. For instance I didn’t get a chance to ask about strategic oversight of information technology and new media, which seem to be spread across several departments and a range of platforms.
Patrick Heneghan (Field Operations) summarised the results from 15 November, with Corby the most satisfying. The election of an independent mayor in Bristol continued a trend for personality over party, and independents also did well in police and crime commissioner contests, with former police officers attracting voters who thought the posts should not be politicised. Only the 50% return rate for postal votes lifted total turnout out of single figures, and it was hard to draw lessons for the general election.
After further by-elections in Rotherham, Middlesbrough and Croydon, Patrick hoped for time to plan strategically through 2013. A new software package, Nation Builder, would replace Webcreator in supporting local campaigns and will be trialled in the summer. (I stressed that local parties cannot be charged for this, after last year’s deal on membership money.) Gaps in regional offices would be filled soon, reducing pressure on staff, and more local organisers are being hired through the campaign fund.
Emilie Oldknow (Governance, and the only woman in the top management team) emphasised her commitment to good human resource practices and career progression. She is also responsible for procurement of goods and services, compliance with the law, and oversight of candidate selection.
Olly Buston (Members and Supporters) had a clear grasp of what is needed to recruit and retain members: improving their experience; responding to messages; and better outgoing communications. The website and membersnet should be overhauled. National and local levels should work together, and indeed local members are critical: not everything is London’s fault. He wanted to reach out widely, to everyone who signs a petition or likes a Facebook page, drawing them into a closer relationship.
Power to the People?
Torsten Bell (Policy and Attack) said that Labour was putting people back into policy and opening up the secret national policy forum process with the Your Britain website (www.yourbritain.org.uk): various papers are already on the site and generating discussion. The over-riding theme is One Nation, and Partnership into Power has been renamed as Agenda 21, linking into Jon Cruddas’ policy review. Torsten felt that if anything Labour had too much policy, though that is not what members tell me. Maybe I’m just uninformed: the joint policy committee minutes recorded that Stephen Twigg and Andy Burnham gave updates on their work in education and health, but sadly did not include what they said. Torsten’s team also covers international work and countering the arguments of our political opponents.
Bob Roberts (Communications) spoke about getting Labour’s message through in print, broadcast and social media, and said our language must be simple and direct, not over-academic: music to my ears. John McCaffrey (Commercial) was unable to attend, but Iain McNicol reported on fundraising.
All in it Together?
Greg Beales (Strategy and Planning) said that Labour led public opinion on the NHS and in being “on people’s side”. Two-thirds of voters thought the country was heading in the wrong direction, so 2015 was a chance for change: One Nation politics meant the rich should pay their share; migrant workers must not undercut pay and conditions; and no-one who could work would get away with a life on benefits.
These themes recurred through the day. I pointed out that the director-general of the CBI John Cridland, education minister David Willetts and Boris Johnson all oppose caps on foreign workers and students, and Ed Miliband promised that Labour would not seek to out-tough the Tories on immigration and welfare. He said that work should pay, but must be underpinned by a strong safety-net: the government were giving out more in benefits not out of generosity but because they had failed to create jobs.
Others highlighted in-work poverty, with housing benefit and tax credits topping up low pay, not subsidising skivers. Many part-time employees wanted more hours, and scrapping the agricultural wages board would hit rural workers. The most desperate relied on food banks and extortionate payday loans, and those in jobs were often only three pay-cheques away from crisis. While the LibDems boasted about taking low-paid workers out of tax, many earned too little to pay tax in the first place.
One person thought that everyone except single parents should have to work for benefits, and unpaid community labour might lead to proper jobs, but most rejected the Daily Mail agenda and called for Labour to defend the vulnerable who have no-one else to speak for them. With much of the pain yet to come, Britain was heading back to the 1960s and the world of Cathy Come Home. Councillors reported in apocalyptic terms: councils were forced to pass on central cuts, and some could even go bankrupt.
Ed Miliband defended Labour’s vote to cut the European Union budget, joining MPs from the Tory right. European leader Glenis Willmott had a difficult few days explaining this to her fellow-socialists, but he was partially redeemed by his pro-European speech to the CBI, attacking David Cameron for sleep-walking towards the exit. Former ministers said that Japanese companies only invested in Britain because we were in Europe, and business had to put the case more strongly.
Shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman summarised Labour’s response to Leveson. A strong free press was essential, but they needed the moral authority provided by an independent complaints procedure. The media steered clear of millionaires who could sue, but ordinary people had no redress.
Selections and Elections
The local party and the NEC were unhappy with the shortlist of just two candidates for the Rotherham by-election, excluding popular councillors and the trade union choice, though with the furore around the UKIP foster-parents local politicians were probably well out of it. Ed Miliband and others recalled past by-elections, notably Greenwich in 1987 and Bermondsey in 1983, where locally-chosen candidates were shredded by the media, and which led to the NEC taking control. Procedures will be reviewed in January, and I asked for constituencies to be allowed observers at shortlisting interviews. I sensed that this might not get far, but is today’s party really so unchanged from the party of 25 years ago that greater openness and a role for local members still cannot be permitted?
Meanwhile regular parliamentary selections continue on current boundaries, with trigger ballots for sitting MPs in the New Year, and in January the organisation committee will decide which of dozens of target seats will choose from all-women shortlists. This “sub”-committee now comprises 28 of the 33 NEC members, and we might as well add the five others (Paddy Lillis, Martin Mayer, Andy Worth, Steve Rotheram and Christine Shawcroft) and give it a new name. We could perhaps call it “the NEC”.
For European selections a minor change was agreed because so many male MEPs are retiring: if a male and a female MEP are reselected, the highest position on the vacant seats list can now be filled by either gender. The top new candidate, below sitting MEPs, will be a woman in the East, North East, South East, South West, West Midlands and Wales, but may be a man or a woman in other regions.
Conferences Past and Future
The 2012 conference was enjoyed by those present. However those watching at home wanted better on-line coverage, including speeches and motions, and the empty banked seats looked bad on TV. The fall in attendance seemed to relate mainly to cost and to perceived value, with free passes making little difference. NEC members wanted conference to be a serious space for serious debate, and waving increasingly bizarre objects to gain the Chair’s attention was demeaning. Christine Shawcroft reckoned that out of 21 hours, delegates’ contributions added up to just three-and-a-half hours.
This is why I voted with the majority for starting the 2013 conference at 11 a.m. on Sunday and finishing at 3 p.m. on Wednesday. The total time would be much the same, but better balance within it is the key, and some of the presentations and sofa chats could be pruned. The main event will follow seamlessly on from the women’s conference on Saturday, and many people will save one night’s hotel bill.
Before then, the national policy forum will meet in June. The reorganised policy commissions are listed on the Your Britain website: four of the eight are chaired by trade union representatives (Keith Birch, Jennie Formby, Diana Holland and Mary Turner, two by constituency members (Johanna Baxter and Ellie Reeves), one by councillor Ann Lucas and one by Margaret Beckett MP. I am continuing to pursue my interests in welfare and employment rights on the work and business commission.
Finally the NEC said goodbye to Giampi Alhadeff, retiring as secretary-general of the European parliamentary party. He was thanked by Glenis Willmott and Ed Miliband for his support, and by all of us who have enjoyed his encyclopaedic knowledge and entertaining stories on our forays to the continent.
Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this to be circulated to members as a personal account, not an official record. Reports of meetings from July 2008 onwards are at http://www.labourblogs.com/public-blog/annblack, with earlier reports at www.annblack.com.