After congratulating everyone involved with Saturday’s march, the NEC moved on to Labour’s various reviews. A stormy meeting of the joint policy committee (JPC) had criticised Liam Byrne for giving a LibDem councillor a prominent role in rethinking Labour policies. The NEC agreed emphatically, though Peter Hain argued for reaching out to LibDems who opposed the Tory coalition. Around 65,000 people had participated in Fresh Ideas public consultations, with 2,000 at th final inspiring event in Nottingham.
Over 1,000 questionnaires were returned. I’ve read a sample and picked up the following issues:
– anger at bankers’ bonuses
– worries about cuts, while recognising that the deficit is a problem
– immigration (perhaps encouraged by leading questions)
– perceptions of benefit fraud, as well as inconsistent and unfair rules
– opposition to war and to foreign engagement in general
All have been analysed, and other concerns have been logged about high student fees, boosting the economy to increase employment, expanding manufacturing, and the need for more police on the streets. I’ve also skimmed some of the 1,100 pages contributed through membersnet, and would add
– widespread tax evasion, avoidance and fraud
– calls for a more progressive tax system
– protecting the vulnerable: “don’t bash the disabled, the ill and the poor”
– scrapping Trident: “like buying a new suite and curtains when you can’t pay the rent”
The JPC agreed that the NEC should be allowed to see the membership of the shadow cabinet working groups, and noted that the next national policy forum (NPF) meeting would be on 25 June in Wrexham. All policy proposals would come through the NPF before concluding at conference 2012.
Through a Glass Darkly
Peter Hain presented his paper Refounding Labour, with NEC members miffed that the press had seen it first. The tone is the opposite of the self-congratulatory Partnership into Power review. It looks in detail at why we lost, and calls for Labour to reach out into the community, and for an enabling culture which encourages local parties to innovate and adapt to their individual circumstances. It’s hard to see what constitutional changes flow from all this, as most of it can be done within current rules.
On rights for non-members Ed Miliband suggested supporter status as a halfway house to full membership, but sadly too many paying members feel they get little themselves except an occasional vote. Another colleague said ministerial experience showed that opening up more channels of communication led to higher expectations, and failure to get feedback was like being slapped in the face with a cold fish. It will take more than warm words to make up for years of neglect.
The deadline for responses is 24 June, with rule changes coming to the NEC on 19 July. This is tight, and other constituency representatives confirmed that most local parties were unaware of the project’s existence, but it was argued that we must not spend too long looking inwards. The worst outcome would be if good ideas were rejected because they were seen as yet more top-down impositions, and I hope the response rate is higher than the 4% of constituencies who replied last time. So far there are six written submissions on Partnership into Power with, I am told, a few more through the website.
Shoulder to Shoulder
Ed Miliband was praised for speaking at the TUC rally. He rejected the media view that we couldn’t oppose the cuts without setting out detailed alternatives: Labour was concerned about falling living standards and the gap between rich and poor, especially between the few at the very top and all the rest, the “squeezed middle”, worried about their children’s future. The NHS “reforms” would cause massive problems, and we had to ramp up the pressure. The NEC joined him in thanking general secretary Ray Collins, especially for stabilising party finances: a timetable for appointing his successor would be discussed after the elections, with a handover period leading up to conference.
Youth representative Callum Munro hoped that all Labour MPs would pay their interns at least the minimum wage. I and others raised, again, the need for shadow ministers and MPs to respond to the Tory mantra “we have to do this to clear up Labour‘s mess” with equal discipline, and snappy rebuttals and clear positive statements of our own. In broad terms what was the difference between Labour and Tory cuts? Ed Miliband said £40 billion in this parliament, and Labour was calling for a bank bonus tax to fund housing, jobs for young people and help for small businesses.
Two Eds are Better than One?
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls described the budget as a non-event, with a destabilising tax on North Sea oil. Increases in personal tax allowances would be wiped out by reductions through linking future rises to CPI (consumer price index) instead of RPI (retail price index). Under Labour the economy had been picking up, but was now going backwards, with unemployment and inflation rising and growth falling. The key task was convincing voters that they could trust Labour to deliver a stronger, fairer economy.
In answer to Tory charges that Labour would have cut £12 billion this year against their £14 billion, Ed Balls said this was based on provisional figures. Because the deficit was £20 billion less than expected, such large reductions would have been unnecessary. Labour might accept using CPI to uprate pensions and benefits in the short term, but would return to RPI as soon as possible. He sympathised with council workers, denied even the 1% / £250 rise judged reasonable for the rest of the public sector. Overall messages were still that Labour would have halved, not eliminated, the deficit over four years, and had prevented global recession from turning into depression by acting to part-nationalise the banks.
Your Voice in Tough Times
Harriet Harman previewed the May elections, with many more council candidates than when the seats were last contested. Hopes were high, though the effects of a LibDem collapse of Barnsley proportions, where they trailed in sixth, were unpredictable. Cuts were hitting hard: in Southwark 3,700 young people would lose educational maintenance allowance, with only 68 qualifying for the replacement scheme. Though she supported the alternative vote (AV), she thought the referendum would be lost because the LibDems insisted on holding it on the same day as the local elections.
Stoke, where Mike Griffiths, Cath Speight and Eric Wilson have been thanked for their efforts, will be of particular interest. I reported on Birmingham, where I shall return after the elections with Luke Akehurst and Ann Lucas to work with the regional office in resolving various difficulties and hopefully enabling members to choose candidates in good time for 2012. And I asked again for the inquiry, promised last September, into serious conduct allegations around the Tower Hamlets mayoral selection.
Re-Drawing the Maps
The boundary commission will publish preliminary plans for Westminster constituencies in September 2011, and by summer 2012 the picture should be fairly clear. The organisation committee discussed guidelines for MPs affected by the changes, but there will also be huge implications for constituency parties, having to sort out assets and more importantly work with different comrades. In the early selections Redditch will choose their candidate from an all-women shortlist, with an open selection in Burton. In the meantime there is another by-election in Leicester South, where Peter Soulsby MP resigned to stand for mayor, and candidate Jonathan Ashworth was congratulated on his selection.
The committee agreed procedures for selecting mayoral candidates, and rules for elected police commissioners will be discussed later this year. Concerns are growing that most of our candidates for both roles are likely to be men, because each is treated as a one-off. In addition Debbie Abrahams was the first Labour woman elected in a by-election since Helen Liddell in 1994: not one was elected under Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, and women were chosen in only 13% (6 out of 43) contests.
So Labour’s proud record on equalities risks falling behind in key areas. Perhaps not unrelated, the equalities committee was concerned at reports of Labour MPs mocking the Conservative Paul Maynard, who has cerebral palsy. Regardless of whether their behaviour had anything to do with his disability, aggressive conduct damaged politics and was off-putting, particularly to under-represented groups.
The organisation committee also agreed increases in subscriptions to the association of Labour councillors (ALC), with local government representatives stressing that they had more direct input through the main NEC structures than in the former poorly-attended local government committee.
Finally the NEC agreed to co-opt Rachael Maskell of Unite to the vacancy arising when Diana Holland was elected as treasurer, as there were no female runners-up in the 2009 election to the trade union section. The 2011 election would be conducted as for the last twelve years, and any amendment to the rules would be put to conference following discussion among the unions and endorsement by the NEC.