With Tony Blair away at the NATO summit, John Prescott gave the leader’s report. He skipped cheerfully through the script on Europe: red lines, no European superstate, good for Britain good for Europe etc etc. On public services, Tony Blair believed that people do want choice, and levers should be in the hands of patients and parents, the citizen-consumers. Michael Howard would take us back to two-tier grammar schools and destroy local education authorities. Some noted that Tony Blair’s new education policies could have the same effect, and regretted that they cut across the National Policy Forum process. On his own territory, John Prescott was pleased that all-postal ballots had increased turnout, though everyone agreed that witness statements should be dropped and procedures simplified..
The emphasis on choice was criticised from all sides. Voters mainly wanted their local services to be excellent, and real choice was not possible without expanding attractive schools and hospitals while others lay half-empty. Harping on about radical change sent the message that public services were still rubbish and Labour had achieved nothing in the past seven years. We should get ourselves off this “giant meat-hook” of choice, and go for simple messages: “We know the Tories – they make you pay”.
Members stressed that the party must start mobilising now to win the referendum on the European constitution. Gary Titley said that in Ireland, all-party groups toured the country selling the benefits of Europe, though it is hard to see that happening here. The unions warned that they could not inspire their people while Tony Blair planned to opt out of equal rights for British workers. And John Prescott threatened to visit dissident northern Labour MPs who are campaigning against regional assemblies.
I asked about progress on reviewing the council tax, and the wrangle between David Blunkett and the Humberside police authority. Mark Seddon requested John Prescott to tell his new friend Ken Livingstone that Labour representatives did not cross picket lines. Others raised compulsory pension contributions, the future of the Royal Mail, and enabling local authorities to maintain their own housing stock. Dennis Skinner was concerned that Labour and the Tories were fighting over a very narrow strip of centre ground, compared to 1997 and 2001. John Prescott agreed that we had to maintain the broad working-class/middle class alliance which brought Labour’s two landslides.
June 10 – the Post Mortem
Ian McCartney and Douglas Alexander reported working effectively with new general secretary Matt Carter to correct last year’s weaknesses. The national European campaign had been particularly professional. Michael Howard had under-performed, press statements about worst-ever results were simply untrue, and there was certainly no meltdown. Recruitment was up, lapsed members were rejoining, we were coming out of the trough and entering the summer campaign with pride in our achievements. Some members were less starry-eyed, but felt that it could have been much worse.
Others reported fewer activists to canvass and leaflet, and supporters only voting Labour out of a sense of “weary loyalty”. Membership, including those up to six months in arrears, was 214,952 at the end of 2003 and is now 208,000, though the decline may have bottomed out. The Tories did so badly because much of their vote went even further right to UKIP, who also proved a mixed blessing in keeping out the BNP. Labour urgently needed to re-engage with Muslim voters. Dennis Skinner held the media responsible, with the BBC still full of Gilligans and only interested in stirring up trouble. Douglas Alexander agreed, regretting the lack of press interest in Tony Blair’s visits to schools and hospitals.
The Elephant in the Living Room
No-one mentions it, but everyone knows it’s there. Many of us found our own supporters turning against us, not only because of Iraq but because Iraq had come to symbolise wider issues: they were told things that turned out not to be true, and that lack of trust was spreading well beyond the war. It was most acute among those who defended the government at the time, and now felt let down. And it was also directly associated with the Prime Minister. The week before the meeting, I had personally opposed a resolution by my own union UNISON to call on Tony Blair to resign. But though that resolution was defeated the problem is real, and yet the NEC was unable to acknowledge it.
Jeremy Beecham said that where Labour had lost control of councils, we had to develop strategies for opposition. Tory/LibDem coalitions gave scope for tarring them with the same brush if they got on well, and divide-and-conquer tactics if they didn’t. I asked about stories that a former BNP councillor had joined Labour in Burnley, and am happy to report that these are untrue. Maureen Stowe left the BNP to sit as an Independent, and is voting with the Labour group, but has not applied for membership. The meeting agreed that any applications from former BNP members would be vetted by the full NEC.
Members wishing to stand for parliament can apply for Labour’s national panel, which gives them approval for any constituency. The unions and the Co-Op party have their own panels, and these candidates are also automatically endorsed. In addition members can seek selection without being on a panel, but must then be interviewed by NEC representatives. This last avenue is sometimes necessary in unwinnable seats, where good local activists may be the only people willing to carry the Labour flag.
Linda Riordan’s selection for Alice Mahon’s Halifax seat brought these principles into conflict. Before the hustings she was rejected for the Labour panel, but then accepted onto the Co-Op panel. After winning the nomination, she was re-interviewed by another NEC panel which recommended that she should not be endorsed. Instead the selection should be re-run, with Linda eligible to stand again.
Arguing against endorsement, members said that the NEC should not overturn its own panels without having seen the candidate or the evidence, and Linda should have been open with the Co-Op and the party about applying through separate routes. Those in favour pointed out that if we rejected her, all Co-Op and union candidates should be recalled for interview. Though judged deficient on national policy, she was a good local councillor with a track record of campaigning against the BNP. Eventually her candidacy was endorsed by 12 votes to 8 with one abstention. I voted in favour for three reasons: that the Co-Op panel should be respected; that it made no sense to let her stand in a re-run if she was really unacceptable; and that the last time the NEC rejected a constituency choice, Liz Davies and Leeds North East took the case all the way to conference. Though I personally did not think that the panel rejected Linda on political grounds, the history of control-freakery meant that members would not believe it. In conclusion the meeting agreed to look at consistency between party and affiliate panel interviews, and whether members should be able to apply through multiple routes.
Where are the Women?
By-elections in Birmingham Hodge Hill and Leicester South had been called for 15 July, and candidates were shortlisted and selected with extreme speed. There was widespread unhappiness that in Hodge Hill two white men were shortlisted, with no women or ethnic minority applicants judged good enough. No woman has been selected for a Labour-held seat in the West Midlands since 1996, and Labour’s commitment to positive action is being questioned. This threatens to undermine excellent work in improving women’s representation in local government from 24% to 31.5% in pilot areas.
It was also raised on 3 July at the national women’s forum, the brainchild of Helen Jackson MP and organised by women’s officer Rachael Saunders. The event was highly rated, and excellent value at £5 including lunch, compared with £70.50 for the official women’s conference. I believe it could take over as the main channel for women’s voices within Labour. The women, race and equalities committee is supporting rule changes which would allow constituency ethnic minority forums on the same basis as women’s forums, and promoting guidance on the impact of new disability discrimination laws.
Jean Corston, Chair of the parliamentary committee, explained its role as the executive for the parliamentary Labour party. She was trying to have the PLP more involved in policy decisions such as foundation hospitals and top-up fees. And Ian McCartney said that the review groups on Partnership in Power would consult members at conference, before drawing up conclusions. The party development taskgroup has not met yet this year, but will report on the 21st Century Party feedback at conference.