NEC Meeting, 31 January 2008

Back in November the NEC referred Walter Wolfgang’s motion opposing longer pre-charge detention to the crime, justice, citizenship and equalities policy commission, and he was unhappy that it had disappeared into the waffle system. A full report was promised for next time, and the NEC agreed that in future, proposers and seconders of motions would be invited to discuss them with the relevant commission. This will help to take forward an emergency motion from Andy Kerr and Mary Turner, supporting Andrew Miller’s private member’s bill giving equal rights to agency workers. Many spoke in favour, and Gordon Brown said that he was talking with the unions and the CBI and expected movement within few weeks. He would also look at the Lords’ judgment denying compensation to asbestos workers who developed pleural plaques, a possible precursor to mesothelioma.

On the wider picture, the prime minister believed the Tories were wasting their opportunities in point-scoring while Labour developed its vision for the future. We must protect Britain against fallout from the US recession, and despite difficulties with rising utility bills and public service pay, employment is at record levels. This year celebrates the 60th anniversary of the NHS, and in April Labour would roll out universal neighbourhood policing, with direct telephone numbers for people to contact local officers. The right to ask for flexible working would be extended to those with older children and other dependants: so far, six million requests have been made, of which 90% were granted. And there would be more help for under-5s, encouragement to stay at school, extra apprenticeships and expansion of higher education, most of which the Tories oppose. Internationally Gordon Brown was working for faster progress towards the millennium goals: at current rates it will take until 2115, not 2015, for every child to go to school, and one in seven mothers in Sierra Leone still dies in childbirth.

Prime Minister’s Questions

Members welcomed the positive agenda. Some were anxious that Labour was denying its own success: plans for giant new prisons suggest that crime is rising, not falling, and this is not the best way to reduce reoffending. Gordon Brown said that some of the pressures arose from indeterminate sentences, with numbers set to rise from 3,000 to 11,000, but criminals could not be released simply because there was no room. Others highlighted the single equalities bill and the need to sort out equal pay chaos in local government. Christine Shawcroft complained about private health clinics being paid for operations whether or not they did them, and Gordon Brown said contracts were cancelled if they did not provide value for money. He told Pete Willsman, who criticised the treatment of asylum-seekers and the deportation of a woman with terminal cancer, that abuses of the system must be dealt with, and home secretary Jacqui Smith was tackling people-trafficking. Walter Wolfgang called for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, but Gordon Brown believed this would simply hand back control to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. However economic and social development was essential, rather than relying on military solutions. In Iraq British troop numbers were down from 44,000 to 2,500.

I pointed out that while we should obviously enable everyone to realise their full potential, some have more potential than others: however hard we work, few of us will run as fast as Kelly Holmes, or win a Nobel prize, or make a million. Is it fair for the biggest rewards to go to those with natural talent or luck, with no attempt at equality of outcome? On a related theme, a union member contrasted the remuneration of the new NHS commercial director – salary £185,000 plus £4,800 a month housing allowance and many other perks – with that of a carer on less than £100 a week. If the carer has unrealised potential, should she quit her job and go to college, in which case who would do the caring? And if she doesn’t, should she stay content at the bottom of the pay and status hierarchy?

A Confusion of Chairs

Harriet Harman suggested trying to rationalise the proliferation of titles and functions which few people inside or outside the party understand. In addition to deputy leader, she holds the title of party Chair. The NEC has its own Chair and a vice-chair. The national policy forum has a Chair and three vice-chairs, but its steering body, the joint policy committee, is chaired jointly by the prime minister and another NEC member. In addition there are six vice-chairs of the parliamentary Labour party, and Ed Miliband is developing the manifesto, with 16 MPs who chair groups which report to him.

She also stressed the importance of the May elections, particularly in London: the Tories could not dent Ken Livingstone’s record on transport and policing, and were resorting to personal smears.

Mike Griffiths presented a paper on positive action. Labour’s achievement is impressive: in 1982 there were ten Labour and 13 Tory women MPs, while today there are 97 Labour and 17 Tory women. Labour has 13 ethnic minority MPs, the Tories two. However the goal of 40% women after the next election is not realistic: it would require 46 more male MPs to retire, all replaced by women and all holding the seats. The NEC agreed that a panel of committee Chairs and officers should make recommendations for further vacancies, in consultation with local parties, aiming to increase the numbers of women and ethnic minority MPs. A proposal to ban all-male shortlists for by-elections was not put to a vote. It was noted that only 30% of party members are women, and fewer women stand as councillors and in non-priority parliamentary seats, so work is needed at these levels as well.

Internal Matters

Interviews for the general secretary would be held on 10 March. The Chair Dianne Hayter promised a full review of issues around the contest for leader and deputy leader, including spending limits and the threshold for nominations, after the May elections. Spending limits were also suggested for candidates for parliamentary seats, where current rules favour those with money or union backing. The local government committee reported that councillors still owed £45,000 in unpaid ALC subscriptions, and I shall again be helping to ring round, so constituencies don’t end up with the bill.

National policy forum Chair Pat McFadden had circulated a timetable through to the final meeting in July. Walter Wolfgang and Pete Willsman submitted a motion asking that proposed amendments should be sent to all forum members, not only regional representatives. There seemed to be general support for the principle, and the joint policy committee on 27 February will discuss the details.

Sound and Fury

But the most heated debate concerned annual conference. Just a week after advising members to book from Sunday to Thursday, the officers now recommended starting at 2 p.m. on Saturday and finishing on Wednesday afternoon. In recent years interest has gone downhill after the leader’s speech, with the hall half-empty by Thursday. Instead the week would build to a crescendo, climaxing with the leader and the launch of the ballot on the manifesto. Also more people could attend because they would only need three days off work. We were assured that hotels would switch booking dates without penalty, and that delegates could reach Manchester by public transport on Saturday morning.

The atmosphere was not helped by the fact that some members knew about the plans in advance, while for others it was a complete surprise. A two-tier NEC will never be united. I resented being unable to consult, and though I was told that confidentiality was essential, is “Labour conference may start early” really headline news? Personally I thought that rearranging the order of business, and maybe using Sunday morning, were reasonable. However I was worried about the hassle and expense for members who have already made arrangements. Christine Shawcroft asked if delegates would need to arrive on Friday to meet the conference arrangements committee, but this had not yet been decided. Some argued that more students and young members would be able to take part, while others asked for analysis of why attendance has declined: was it the cost, or the perceived loss of a role? Nevertheless the proposals were agreed in principle by 20 votes to four (Christine Shawcroft, Pete Willsman, Walter Wolfgang and myself) and one abstention. The officers will make a final decision soon.

Back to the Real World

Gary Titley MEP reminded us of the European elections in 2009, with the decline of UKIP likely to assist the BNP. He was demanding the expulsion of Tory MEP Daniel Hannan for comparing the German president of the European parliament to the Nazis. And international officer Rachel Cowburn outlined the positions of our three Serbian sister parties on Kosovo’s bid for independence, and a planned campaign on human rights in Burma, centring on Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday in August.