Maggie Jones of UNISON, in the chair, stressed the absolute priority of the next election, with Florida reminding us that every vote counts. The NEC paid tribute to all comrades who had died in recent months, and in particular to Donald Dewar and Caroline Benn, before moving on to the main agenda.
Key policy areas were highlighted in Tony Blair’s report and Andrew Smith’s presentation of the pre-Budget statement, and Douglas Alexander MP linked these into the general election strategy. In 1997 getting rid of the Tories was the over-riding motivator. Next time we will be challenged on three fronts: from those masquerading as Left (the SNP in Scotland, Plaid Cymru in Wales, LibDems in England); from the Right, including Tory proxies in the Countryside Alliance; and from apathy. If one in five of our core supporters stays home, we lose 60 seats immediately. We must counter the cynicism which poisons the political process and says that voting makes no difference.
Tony Blair said that we had re-established momentum after a difficult period. The Tories would fight their usual negative campaign on tax, immigration and Europe, and generally exploit trouble, but without offering solutions. Labour was winning the debate in Parliament, but party members had to take the arguments beyond the Westminster Village. We must show how individuals are better-off, with stable mortgages instead of negative equity, and extra money for health and education so that no-one has to pay.
Members were pleased with positive statements on public spending and on Europe, and the pre-Budget statement was warmly welcomed. There was still concern about low take-up of the Minimum Income Guarantee, and plans to pay it automatically cannot come too soon. The Government was also asked to look again at funding residential care, not only nursing care, so people do not have to sell their homes.
Christine Shawcroft suggested that renationalising Railtrack would put money into trains, not shareholders’ pockets, and win votes. Tony Blair felt that while fragmentation did not help, the real problem was decades of under-investment. I said that despite recent criticism, local people praised their treatment at the Oxford Heart Centre, but there was disquiet over continuing selection in education.
The “Thank You” campaign was applauded, with a request to reflect Britain’s ethnic diversity in the posters. The LibDems are the main threat in some areas, and effective campaign materials are needed against them. Low turnout among young people is a particular concern. First-time voters cannot remember a Tory government, while those in their early 20s make little use of health or education services and see pensions as a distant irrelevance. However, employment is a top issue for youth, and this is the first Labour government to finish a term with lower unemployment than when elected.
We should stress that Europe brings jobs and other benefits. Many workers have gained paid holidays for the first time, though it was regretted that some employers include Bank Holidays in the four weeks. Stephen Byers says British workers will do better by building on our own industrial relations framework than by signing the European information and consultation directive, and details are keenly awaited.
The unions have at last come in from the Winter of Discontent, and are now an electoral asset. More disturbing is alienation among local councillors, Labour’s community bedrock. Some NEC members found this hard to understand, but hoped the latest 6.7% settlement would underpin a new partnership.
As well as the broad picture we received reports on the detailed planning behind the by-election successes which showed the professionalism and hard work of party staff. There was unanimous regret that instead of readmitting Dennis Canavan, as had been hoped, his resignation means one more by-election this year, on 21 December in Falkirk West. All help will be appreciated.
Conference, the Manifesto and the Second Term
Conference was generally seen as successful. There were reports of delegates bullied into voting against the pensions composite, and of non-delegates shouting for withdrawal, but as no complaints reached the General Secretary, I hope that they are untrue. Some offence was caused by not inviting the High Commissioner for Pakistan after the military coup. And the Red Flag was only omitted from the closing ceremony so that Nelson Mandela could catch his plane; we expect it back next year. In 2002 Conference returns to Blackpool, a popular decision given added impetus by the steep hotel rates in Brighton.
The Conference Arrangements Committee sought advice on how contemporary resolutions should be handled. Christine Shawcroft and I pointed out that pensions were not truly contemporary, as the National Policy Forum and Conference rejected the earnings link in 1999. We should cut the semantic limbo-dancing and include anything which is important. But we were in a minority, and some wanted to abolish resolutions altogether. Perhaps the rolling programme had failed to deal with pensions properly, and resolutions should be fed back through another cycle before final endorsement by Conference.
Because the unions can co-operate, they always win the ballot which prioritises contemporary issues. The NEC was uneasy with proposals for constituencies and unions to vote separately, because it splits Conference in half. Everyone acknowledged that constituencies are sidelined, but no-one had a solution. All suggestions are welcome. And compositing, which lasted all week and gave delegates the text just hours before the vote, is clearly unsatisfactory. Consultation will continue. It was also, I think, accepted that votes should be held at the close of debate on a topic, not at the end of the day.
On 9 December the National Policy Forum will discuss pensions, agree the process for formulating the election manifesto, and consider improvements for the next cycle of policy development. An overall review by the NEC will include the policy commissions, which remain obscure to most of us. We may also think about the agenda for Conference in 2001, where there will be no NPF documents to discuss.
The Organisation Committee recommended 6 April 2001 as the closing date for constituency Conference delegations and nominations for party committees. I find the apparent fall in party involvement worrying. Many constituencies do not send delegates, some National Policy Forum representatives are elected by under one-third of eligible constituencies, candidates for the 27 places elected each year have plummeted from 800 in 1997 to 41 in 2000, and turnout in NEC elections has fallen by 50% in three years.
I therefore proposed reverting to the pre-1999 date of mid-June. This was defeated with Christine, Dennis Skinner and myself in favour and some abstentions. The April deadline also means that MPs elected in May can occupy places on the NEC and the NPF intended for ordinary constituency members. However, the closing date of 12 January 2001 for the Spring Conference will be flexibly interpreted, as many constituencies received the mailing after their last meeting of 2000, too late to make nominations.
Members can comment on all aspects of internal elections, and of selecting candidates for local, national and European elections, by 31 March 2001. The NEC also reiterated the importance of a diverse membership, fully representing youth, women, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities. The Party Development Committee is looking for constituencies to run pilot projects to take this work forward.
Finally the importance of the Neill rules on party funding, which cleared the Lords last week, is only just sinking in. Everyone approves of stamping out sleaze, banning foreign donations, and capping spending to halt the electoral arms race. But it means substantial extra work for constituency Treasurers, starting in January. Detailed advice will go out soon, and there is a special briefing for NEC members on 14 December. Please let me know if you have questions on this, or views on anything else in this report.