Tony Blair laid out the dividing lines for the year ahead. Labour stood for economic stability and expanding opportunity in a changing world. Delivery departments were drawing up five-year plans, guided by the National Policy Forum and the Big Conversation. Meanwhile the Tories clung to the old Thatcherite agenda, claiming that public spending is not improving services, and pandering to crude fears on Europe and asylum. Labour’s message was clear: asylum claims were falling and abuses were being sorted, but managed migration was a good thing. Anti-immigrant campaigns were the lowest form of politics, and we had to choose the right moment to expose them. Members sympathised with Beverley Hughes, and were angry and frustrated at the stream of tabloid lies.
NEC members called for Labour to sell its achievements more vigorously. They praised new schools, falling unemployment, letting people keep their pensions while they were in hospital, extending the minimum wage to younger workers, Kevan Jones’ bill banning Christmas Day trading, and the Commission on Africa. The bill on civil partnerships was welcomed, though pension rights should be equalised. The pension protection scheme was also appreciated, but retrospective measures were needed for workers at ASW and elsewhere who had contributed for decades and were left with nothing. Tony Blair agreed that this was a classic Labour issue, where safety nets were needed to protect individuals against market failure, but he would have to weigh up the financial implications.
Northern colleagues criticised negative Tory campaigning against regional government. Claims of massively increased tax and bureaucracy were ludicrous when the assemblies’ budgets would be comparable with that of Rochdale council. I advised against a referendum on the European constitution. Polls said that 90% didn’t understand it, so the vote would in fact be about something else, probably a “free” pop at the government. Tony Blair said the Tories had trapped themselves by promising to renegotiate the treaty. If they were serious, Britain would be ejected from the European Union because no other country would accept it. If not, it was a meaningless gesture. He also pledged to renew attacks on the LibDems, but believed that ultimately they were not the real enemy.
I Heard it on the Grapevine
Christine Shawcroft and I were concerned about the way civil service job cuts were announced in the budget. Frontline workers, counselling others while relying on benefits to top up their own low pay, were distressed at finding out from the radio. Tony Blair argued that rationalisation and record investment in new technology meant fewer staff were needed, or we would be charged with wasting money. However it was important to handle matters properly, in co-operation with the unions.
Others warned that equal pay would be costly for local and national government, and complained that failed directors were still receiving fat handouts. As at previous meetings Tony Blair said that the two-tier workforce was being addressed step by step, and promised to look at employers who deducted Bank Holidays from workers’ four weeks annual leave to get round the European directive. And he accepted that the Middle East was the biggest difficulty in relations with the Muslim world. Hopefully Israel’s partial withdrawal would be followed by new security proposals, and revive the Road Map.
Again there were appeals for party unity and an end to sniping in the media. The annual meeting of Labour Clubs unanimously asked MPs and government to act in unison. Peter Hain was criticised for telling the government to talk to the party when he never attended policy commission meetings or the National Policy Forum himself. However Tony Blair was optimistic, in that most members were proud of the government and wanted it to carry on, not always true in Labour’s past. It was internal divisions over policies such as top-up fees that alienated voters, not the policies themselves.
Douglas Alexander updated the NEC on strategies for the European, local and London elections. Ken Livingstone is riding high at 50% in the polls, but other candidates have tighter contests. For regions with all-postal ballots the key date will not be 10 June but 25 May, when ballot papers drop through doors, and there were worries about major campaign events falling after people have voted. For many it is no longer Get Out The Vote, but Stay Home And Vote.
Gary Titley MEP reminded members that every vote counts, whether in Surrey or in Salford, and that LibDems as well as Tories consistently oppose workers’ interests in the European parliament. The Working Time Directive needed proper renegotiation, as other countries were getting round it by excluding large groups of workers, and simply ending the opt-out would paralyse accident and emergency services. The top priority for Britain was to ensure that employees are not forced to sign away their rights. His written report highlighted measures to protect dolphins by banning drift nets, and research on the risks of choking on small toys concealed inside chocolates.
Looking further ahead, Diana Organ MP is standing down in the Forest of Dean, and her successor will be chosen from an all-women shortlist. Bitterness over the Brent East selection resurfaced, but the Disputes Panel had considered an investigation of the shortlisting and a report on the hustings, and concluded that procedures were correctly followed, staff and officers behaved impeccably, and members’ rights were not undermined. Accusations of racism were unwarranted and offensive, particularly as the successful candidate, Yasmin Qureshi, is not only a Muslim but also a woman.
Hostages to Fortune
Turning to party matters, the Audit Committee has been beefed up and finances are improving. Some were unhappy that the NEC was kept in the dark, but others argued that detailed information always leaked, and openness and transparency required greater self-discipline. I am often asked how many members Labour has, but the general secretary reiterated the decision of his predecessors: figures will be published in the annual report once a year, but will not otherwise be provided to journalists or anyone else. The party is writing to every member who left since 2001, inviting them to rejoin, and the new magazine Labour Today has been launched, replacing Inside Labour.
The last annual conference agreed that residents of Northern Ireland could join Labour as individuals, but the NEC confirmed that the party would not organise there. Unsurprisingly the aggrieved members claim that they are still victims of discrimination and are pursuing further legal action. I just hope our lawyers were right when they assured us that this would fail. New laws on disability will affect constituencies and branches, and guidance on access to meetings will be issued later this year.
The Spring Conference was proclaimed the biggest and most successful ever, with attendance over 2,700. Ian McCartney reported that the National Policy Forum also ran smoothly. However, Part Two in July will have four times as much to discuss. Amendments may be rationed, and there will still be too little time to consider and consult. I again raised the difficulties for constituency members compared with ministers and trade unions. They have the Joint Policy Committee papers three days before the Forum, we have them for three minutes. They can send substitutes to maintain their voting strength, constituencies cannot. They can share amendments among a number of delegates, constituencies have no central co-ordination. They have full-time support staff, we have full-time jobs outside the labour movement. But I sensed that I was making little progress.
Peace Breaks Out
And finally, a first: Mark Seddon proposed and I seconded a motion which was carried unanimously:
“The NEC wishes to express its sincere condolences to the people of Madrid and unreservedly condemns the terrorist outrage that killed up to two hundred people and maimed many others. The NEC also notes that the third anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center will be commemorated later this year in New York and welcomes plans to erect a memorial to British victims in Lower Manhattan. The NEC furthermore congratulates our sister party, the Spanish Socialists, for their recent general election victory and looks forward to building relations between our two parties.”