Tony Blair reiterated Labour’s core messages: economic stability, investment plus reform in public services, healing social inequalities, and international engagement. Members must not be diverted by media feeding frenzies. The notion that buying tables at party events gave Enron a veto over energy policy was ludicrous, and he quoted General Secretary David Triesman with approval: “We’ll give back the money if they give back the dinners.” Mark Seddon’s proposal for state funding of political parties had little public support, individual subscriptions could not sustain the party, and refusing both union and corporate donations would leave Labour seriously short of campaign funds.
NEC members were pleased with the renewed commitment to public services, emphasising again that doctors, nurses and teachers were backed by equally essential support staff. Though shortcomings must be tackled, approval of the National Health Service greatly exceeded complaints. The local government white paper was welcomed, but MPs cited difficulties where councils were blamed for problems with privatised residential care and benefits systems, and defective maintenance under Private Finance Initiative deals. Stronger powers were needed to hold contractors to account. And while public service workers benefited from real pay rises, local government had to pick up the bill, including national settlements for teachers as well as deals negotiated with other staff.
I argued that the Post Office; though privately run, is similarly seen as a public service, and the government would be held responsible for any deterioration. The Prime Minister wanted to work with them on restructuring, but European liberalisation made their current position unsustainable. On manufacturing, he felt that stability was more important than the strength of sterling, and the reason why Labour favoured the euro in principle. Members praised his mediation over Kashmir, and he repeated his pledge to reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan, and the need to address tensions and conflict in the Middle East. He was pessimistic about persuading the United States to stop blockading Cuba.
Questions of Democracy
On further reform of the House of Lords, Tony Blair said that there was no consensus behind current government proposals, but no consensus on the best alternative either. Personally he considered fifteen-year terms excessive, hybrid membership problematic and gridlock a real risk. But nothing would be railroaded through, and he favoured full debate within the party on all the options. Dennis Skinner kicked off by proposing either to get rid of the second chamber entirely, or to elect it but render it impotent by removing most of its powers.
Where this consultation would happen was not clear. The National Policy Forum thinks long-term, beyond the next election. There is no obvious space for members to discuss current topics, and question-and-answer sessions with ministers are not suitable for analysing issues and formulating responses. Perhaps the policy commissions will come up with more creative ways to promote dialogue between party and government.
The NEC’s role in policymaking also required clarification. Some members thought the November meeting should not have considered resolutions on Afghanistan, because this undermined Conference policy. But events happen outside Conference timetables, and circumstances change. David Triesman agreed to bring draft guidelines for appropriate subjects to a future meeting. It is worth noting that the 2000 Conference punted electoral reform into the long grass, yet the NEC is now planning to review proportional representation in the light of Scottish developments. The same Conference rejected a democratic upper house, and no-one suggested stifling that debate either.
Prudence for a Purpose
Treasury Secretary Andrew Smith, gave the pre-budget report. The pensioner’s credit would benefit those with modest savings, the child tax credit would integrate existing provisions, and the working tax credit would supplement low pay for those with or without children. There was admiration for the grand design, mixed with some concern about complexity and consequent low take-up. However the timing of the budget, on 17 April, should boost Labour’s vote in the council elections two weeks later.
Charles Clarke outlined the National Policy Forum programme. Papers would be considered by the Forum on 8 February, revised by the policy commissions, approved by the Joint Policy Committee on 28 February and published in March. Regional and local forums were planned through the summer. The critical factor would be whether feedback convinced members that their views can make a difference. Charles was also building links with the Co-operative Party, aiming to feed co-operative ideas into policy development instead of just asking them for money.
The Forum process would have to improve against a tight financial background. As with government, the party faces tough choices. Members’ subscriptions do not currently cover the cost of providing services to them, and too much seems to go to Sema, the company which administers membership. Several people suggested that a Best Value audit was in order.
The NEC agreed principles for choosing European, parliamentary and local government candidates. Explicit rules would be defined for all selections, including person specifications, standard CVs, and referees. The goal of a 50/50 gender balance was undiluted, and the next election should see further moves towards the target. The NEC has the power to impose all-women shortlists, but hoped to secure voluntary agreement. Increasing ethnic minority representation was more complicated, with variations in population and diverse communities, but again there was serious commitment to progress. Appeals concerning selections would be heard by a panel of people not involved in the initial decision, and selection monitors from other regions would review procedures.
Much detailed work is delegated to newly-established task groups. These cover party development; recruitment; engaging ethnic minorities; youth and the decline in political and civil culture; and voter turnout. Constituencies are now unrepresented on the party development taskforce, which oversees Partnership in Power and 21st Century Party initiatives. While recommendations will come back to the NEC, there is no clear mechanism for feeding views in at an early stage. However I will pass on your suggestions for tackling any of the various challenges.
Where most members try to get onto committees, Dennis Skinner tries to get off. However, after pleas from all sides he was persuaded to join the Selections Panel, which shortlists candidates for by-elections, perhaps because no-one would ever accuse Dennis of colluding in stitch-ups. The Ogmore campaign was in full swing, and delegates to the Cardiff Spring Conference were invited to assist. Lewisham members had received a letter explaining why the mayoral ballot was being re-run, and David Triesman’s gritted teeth bore witness to the sincerity of his apologies.
Finally, constituency representatives were granted 200 words on the party website after each meeting, as an extra way of reporting back. The idea proved popular with other sections also, and David Triesman may add a General Secretary’s note.