Ed Miliband opened the meeting. He said that at conference Labour had set out important policies on energy bills, childcare, housing and the bedroom tax, and was now moving on to bigger long-term changes, including banking systems which served business, not self-interest. The cost of living crisis was not just about prices rising faster than wages, but encompassed zero-hours contracts, insecure jobs and low pay, and people’s lives were a world away from the Tories’ rosy headlines. Ed Balls’ pledge to restore the 50p tax band had caused a predictable fuss, but he assumed, rightly, that he did not need to convince the NEC of its merits. The top 1% who receive more than £150,000 hardly belonged to the squeezed middle, and he noted that despite George Osborne’s noises about raising the minimum wage, the Tories and the LibDems recently voted against restoring its real value.
NEC members were also concerned about those earning just above the minimum. Public service workers were not mere pawns in the battle to balance the budget; after years of real-terms pay cuts they needed hope for a better future. Ed Miliband acknowledged this, but said that Labour must show fiscal credibility. Ken Livingstone said that tax evasion and avoidance amounted to 10% of GDP and tackling them could plug the gap; if people refused to pay, corporation tax should be replaced by a tax on turnover. His suggestions will be passed to Ed Balls. I asked about Tristram Hunt’s plans to license teachers every few years, which appeared out of the blue, but Ed Miliband said that teachers’ unions welcomed support for continuing professional development. Others were alarmed that for the first time in generations parents expected their children to do less well than they had, a sign of national failure.
Scottish leader Johann Lamont and her deputy Anas Sarwar brought the NEC up to speed with events in Scotland. Though the SNP claimed to be a left-wing alternative their policies on the economy and public services were far from progressive, and they make promises which cannot be kept. Labour had rebuilt after the 2011 losses and were now organisationally and politically competitive, demonstrated in an 11.3% swing from the SNP in the Cowdenbeath Scottish parliamentary by-election.
The outcome of the referendum was far from certain, with polls showing a majority against independence but a high proportion of don’t-knows. Labour was committed to continuing unity, sharing wealth and pooling risk across the whole United Kingdom. Anas Sarwar was establishing a trade union group within the “United with Labour“ campaign, and hoped that all the unions would come on board, resisting attempts to divide the labour movement. Interestingly he expected a higher turnout in the referendum than in the following general election, which may have lessons for what engages voters.
NEC members expressed support and regretted that so little attention was paid south of the border to a matter which had such sweeping consequences for the country. Several suggested holding one of our meetings in Scotland before September, and I hope this can be arranged.
The Best Laid Plans
The NEC returned to many of Ed Miliband’s themes in a session with Douglas Alexander and Spencer Livermore, responsible for Labour’s general election strategy and organisation. All the target seats are in play and working for an overall majority. Current poll leads are encouraging but do not guarantee success, and the presentation looked at developing positive policies for Labour and at counteracting likely attacks from other parties. Loss of trust in all institutions – the BBC, the church, the police – made it all the more important to translate politics into language which related to people’s daily lives. On-line campaigning was no longer an optional extra, but central to reaching the widest possible audience.
Steve Rotheram MP and Martin Mayer of Unite stressed the importance of Labour values and of an overall vision, and Christine Shawcroft argued for shifting the debate onto our territory rather than trying to outbid the Tories on austerity, immigration and welfare. After all, half the social security budget goes to pensioners, and another chunk to those in work, topping up low pay and subsidising high rents. Another member reported local people asking why their lunch club had vanished, saying: “we thought the cuts were only aimed at scroungers”. I wondered whether the cost-of-living crisis would still be salient next year if voters start to feel better off, or that they might be better off soon. Any recovery should obviously be welcomed, and Labour’s emphasis must shift towards sharing the benefits fairly.
This year sees local and European elections, all of which have their own dynamics. Given that voters elected a man in a monkey suit as mayor of Hartlepool, I fear that UKIP will not be damaged by Nigel Farage’s admission that their last manifesto was written by an idiot and anyway he hadn’t read it, nor by his contempt for women. However the Tories should be challenged when they talk about reformiing Europe: what they mean by “reform” is scrapping workers’ rights and protections.
In The Front Line
European leader Glenis Willmott regretted that only Britain had not applied for European funds to tackle youth unemployment, presumably for ideological reasons. Labour MEPs had made it easier for public authorities to apply Fair Trade purchasing policies, voted for action to tackle illegal trading in wildlife and, one year on from the horsemeat scandal, supported mandatory labelling of food with its country of origin. European candidates were campaigning in every region, though tragically Del Singh, fourth on the south-east list, was killed in Kabul in the recent terrorist attack. The NEC paid tribute.
Harriet Harman praised parliamentary candidates for their leadership, and congratulated Mike Kane on his selection for Wythenshawe & Sale East, where the by-election would be on 13 February following the untimely death of Paul Goggins MP. She rejected talk of possible coalitions, and I agree that we should not waste time in hypothetical chatter about hung parliaments or minority government instead of working to win. After the election, who knows what the world will look like?
Trigger ballots for most sitting MPs have been concluded or are in progress, and I hope that this time fewer incumbents will change their minds. Their local parties have supported them in good faith, and late withdrawals are demoralising and costly. The organisation committee agreed that Blackburn, Dulwich & West Norwood, Glenrothes, St Helens South & Whiston and Stoke-on-Trent North should select candidates from all-women shortlists, while Aberdeen North and Aberavon would be open. I was one of six members to vote against the last of these: Wales has only ever had 13 women MPs and the gender balance is worse than most other regions. There have been widespread press stories about Neil Kinnock’s son’s interest in the seat.
Iain McNicol gave an update on finances, with income and expenditure in line with budgets. I reported feedback on the One Nation magazine: some correspondents welcomed it as a sign that the party valued them, while others thought the money could be better spent elsewhere, and might be less likely to respond to fundraising appeals. Several suggested e-mail circulation, with hard copies sent only to members without e-mail and to those who requested them. The next issue is planned for the summer, but I imagine it could be included with the NEC ballot papers to reduce postage costs.
Debates and Decisions
In December constituencies were informed of the draft timetable for consultation in the run-up to the final national policy forum meeting before the general election. Eight new documents will be published late February / early March. At least one regional office had told local parties not to meet between now and 22 May except for essential business, leaving as little as two weeks to discuss the papers and submit amendments. Angela Eagle, Chair of the national policy forum and of the NEC, was clear that Labour’s manifesto is essential business, and so we have permission to talk as well as to campaign.
Finally the NEC will meet again on 4 February 2014 to decide what proposals to put to the special conference in March. I’ve read around one-third of the responses to Ray Collins’ interim report, and commented on my blog. However in the last week there have been interesting and unexpected developments, and I am looking forward to Tuesday’s discussion.