On the evening of Monday 29 November NEC members joined the parliamentary Labour party for their weekly meeting, a first for most of us. Alan Johnson, after a widely praised Commons performance, drew attention to his New Statesman article and his speech to the RSA where he tackled the Tories head-on over claims that the cuts were Labour’s fault. The rise in VAT would cost 250,000 jobs and hit the poorest hardest. Backbench MPs echoed the national policy forum call for simple, punchy campaign messages. This was followed by informal conversation, and an NEC dinner generously organised by Keith Vaz.
Back to Work
The next day the NEC met to review our aims and objectives for the year ahead, and to discuss work in progress. Johanna Baxter replaced Oona King, elected to the constituency section but elevated to the Lords before her first meeting, and Ken Livingstone was welcomed back after 12 years’ absence.
Ed Miliband said it was important that the review of policy was owned by the whole movement. The national policy forum (NPF) should be represented on shadow cabinet working groups and the link with union levy-payers used more effectively, and he asked whether registered supporters should also have a role in reaching out to the community. Members’ voices must be heard, and real debate should return to conference. As the opposition, Labour’s message was starting to get through: the cuts were too far, too fast, and put recovery at risk. Trebling student fees and ending the educational maintenance allowance were wrong, and the government were wasting millions on elected police commissioners and yet another NHS reorganisation. He was against holding the referendum on voting reform on 5 May 2011, but in any case his priority on that day would be the Scottish, Welsh and local elections.
NEC members agreed that Labour must maintain financial responsibility, but government cuts were galvanising new and different groups, including many young people, and we must be clear on which measures we oppose and which we support or reluctantly accept. Do we stand with the students, or not? Ken Livingstone said that David Cameron should be repeatedly reminded of his promises not to cut frontline services and to match Labour spending plans He noted that Boris Johnson was moving left, agreeing with Ed Balls’ Bloomberg speech and favouring capping rents rather than squeezing tenants. Ed Miliband thought that this might show where public opinion would be in 2012. He sympathised with councillors, forced to impose painful Tory cuts, and had criticised housing benefit changes because it was the right thing to do. Harriet Yeo pursued her question about how children would be protected if their feckless parents were punished by withdrawing benefits, and still awaits an answer.
The recent NPF was judged a success, though too few shadow ministers attended. The Partnership into Power review had attracted around ten contributions so far. Widespread cynicism was reported, and this latest relaunch could not just be the same-old, same-old. Even if pre-1998 conference processes were imperfect, at least constituency delegates could see and report what happened to their resolutions.
However the legitimacy of conference is itself declining. The number of delegates this year, 553, was almost unchanged from the 570 in 2002, because of lower thresholds for extra women and youth, but only 412 constituencies, under two-thirds, were represented. This compared with 444 last year, 465 in 2008, 501 in 2007, and 527 in 2002. The reasons need investigating: is it perceived relevance, cost, or something else? Difficulty in finding woman delegates cannot explain a fall of 90 in three years. But members are certainly still interested in proceedings, and I passed on requests for the daily agenda, resolutions, decisions and the results of votes to be published on the website.
The NEC were informed that Liam Byrne’s policy review would have three strands: a party-led consultation, 22 shadow cabinet working groups, and advice from “experts”, alongside the six policy commissions. Wider discussion of party reform, led by Peter Hain, would involve the NEC, the unions, and groups such as Compass and the Fabians. Some argued that party culture had to change, citing a meeting which kept a minister waiting for an hour while they argued about internal minutiae. This is not typical of my experience, but Labour certainly has to work to keep its 45,000 new members.
I asked again how people could contribute. The answers seem to be that views on policy should go to the policy commissions, shadow ministers, and Liam Byrne; ideas on party reform to Peter Hain; and responses on Partnership into Power to firstname.lastname@example.org. Until I have full contact details, you are always welcome to write to me. I am now on the prosperity and work commission which covers welfare reform, the economy, employment laws and the post office, all high on the list of members’ concerns.
Projections for May 2011 were good, based on recent council by-elections, coalition unpopularity, and a low starting base from 2007 when the same seats were fought. Gains in Scotland and Wales were also expected, and it was surprising that the SNP had allowed their parliament’s tax-varying powers to lapse. Attention will then move to 2012 and the London mayoral election, along with 42 new police commissioners. Keith Vaz agreed that early candidate selection would be useful: with the Tories cutting 20,000 frontline police officers and 16,000 community support officers there is plenty of ammunition.
As reported last time, selection of parliamentary candidates in 26 target seats can start after decisions on all-women shortlists and approval of revised procedures in January. Regions had been asked to comment, and at my request constituencies would also be consulted. Questions cover the national panel, application and shortlisting, equalities, the timetable, spending limits, and commitment to the local party. I added criteria for postal votes: is it satisfactory for the outcome to be decided before the hustings by members who have not heard all the contenders? Some thought that falling attendance at meetings gave an unfair advantage to those who could afford to take time off work and travel door-to-door, and US-style primaries would increase these problems. Members regretted the declining number of MPs from manual and working-class backgrounds. I also believe that the NEC should no longer veto candidates after they have been selected: it is not fair to them, nor to local members, after a stressful and expensive process. Council candidates have to be on panels before seeking selection, and if there are potential issues the NEC should interview shortlisted candidates before the final stages.
I continue to argue for more early selections. Boundary changes will cause real problems, but the consequences of delay are another Tory government and Labour stuck in impotent opposition. All constituencies can choose “local champions”, but their status is not clear: while they should not automatically become the parliamentary candidate, they must surely have a right to try for the seat.
General secretary Ray Collins reported on finances and the need to maintain spending discipline. Diana Holland, newly-elected treasurer, highlighted the importance of a range of funding sources, and I was pleased to be reappointed to the business board. Of course membership is a source of income as well as activism, and every region will organise at least two social, political or fundraising events to build on the enthusiasm of new and returning members. Ninety per cent join through the website, and they include more young members and more women: Labour is becoming more diverse.
Councillor David Sparks introduced proposals to abolish the NEC’s local government committee in view of chronically poor attendance and lack of power over procedural and constitutional issues. Instead the LGA (local government association) Labour group would provide a forum for discussion with shadow ministers, with union and NEC members invited. The two local government NEC members would have reserved places on the powerful organisation committee, known colloquially as Org Sub.
This was agreed, though I do have some concerns. Two-thirds of the NEC are now members of Org Sub. It may become too large for conversation and replicate the set-piece format of full NEC meetings. Because papers are often tabled, and because it has extensive delegated powers, it could become an NEC within the NEC, with the excluded minority consigned to the margins. Or decisions could move to a new inner circle, perhaps the NEC officers where constituencies are currently unrepresented.
Some Org Sub matters are confidential, but many are not. For instance in October the committee discussed resolutions referred from conference. These came from Torridge & West Devon, asking for lower membership rates; Leeds East, concerned about unequal spending in the leadership election; Surrey Heath, who receive no membership income after the Euro-levy is deducted and believe that other impoverished constituencies have been let off; North West Durham, asking for alternatives to positive discrimination; Sefton Central, unhappy with senior Labour figures taking coalition jobs; and Warley and Birmingham Selly Oak, calling for everyone to be able to vote Labour at every election. All were considered thoughtfully, and the last led on to the position of the Northern Ireland party, able to organise but not to stand candidates. The minutes record that responses would be sent, but only those present know what points were made. Labour needs an inclusive and united NEC, not a two-tier system.