NEC Meeting, 3/4 November 2003

Some highly-coloured accounts of this two-day meeting have appeared, most of them untrue. Astonished members did not discuss Gordon Brown’s exclusion from the NEC, as claimed in the Guardian, although many did not realise Douglas Alexander had replaced John Reid. In fact astonishment centred on the imminent departure of general secretary David Triesman: why was he going, who leaked confidential conversations, why were NEC members not involved or informed, and who will succeed him? Much remains mysterious, but David was praised for rescuing party finances and establishing permanent headquarters at Old Queen Street. The post would be advertised and NEC officers would shortlist candidates for interview by the full NEC on 16 December.

Taskgroups reported on better ways of using the skills of party members, on learning from other organisations which recruit and manage volunteers, and on Labour Academy. Another investigated the use of e-mail, the internet and mobile phones. Levels of expertise varied widely, and the group suggested focusing efforts on helping all local parties to achieve basic competence. Labour.contact is being trialled under Windows XP/2000, but may not be generally available for the 2004 elections.

David Triesman said that 2003 would show a healthy financial surplus, and thanked the unions for continuing support. The new laws on party finance were still proving onerous. Our priorities remained the same: winning elections, increasing participation in policy-making, recruiting and retaining members, and ensuring adequate resources. For each month until April 2003 more people joined the party than wrote in to resign, though when those who simply lapse are included, total numbers continued to decline. However the new subscription rates had maintained overall income, and lapsers could usually be persuaded to renew if asked, especially by their Labour MP.

Douglas Alexander gave a stirring presentation on campaigning through 2004 and 2005. We had to set the agenda, as in 2001 when public services, tackling poverty, economic stability and full employment won out over the Tory issues ot tax, Europe and law and order. But we could no longer assume that people were engaged and would vote, and all we had to do was thrust our message at them. Instead we must build long-term relationships with individuals. The next election would not be won by Millbank, but by decentralising the campaign to local parties, MPs and councillors. Some argued that policy also mattered. Muslim communities were unhappy with recent wars and insensitive Home Office comments, and the LibDems were moving in. Bypassing local government was not helpful either, and partnership would be preferable.

New Inside Labour

Party officer Tanya Mitchell presented research into the party magazine Inside Labour, unchanged for seven years, and seen by focus groups as “harmless” and “chatty”. Members wanted information in bite-sized chunks, factual arguments rather than sniping, and policy expressed in concrete terms. Ministerial question-and-answer sections were seen as manufactured. Some of us thought that as well as the editorial line explaining government positions, a letters column should allow different views, reflecting and encouraging diversity within the membership. Others felt that any criticism would be seized on by our political enemies. A new product, with a new title, will emerge in 2004.

Ian McCartney then tried to explain the national debate flagged in Tony Blair’s conference speech. A prospectus would restate Labour’s values, outline our achievements, list medium-term challenges, and pose key questions on how government should tackle issues such as climate change, the ageing population, and technological advance. It would be launched at the National Policy Forum in November, and then taken out to party members and the community. The results would go to the 2004 conference, with the ten other Forum policy papers. The main worry was over the party’s ability to respond, given that the Forum still suffered from insufficient feedback and evidence that members’ views had made a difference. But Ian McCartney argued that the greater risk was reaching the next election without having engaged communities in dialogue. And another consultation paper, “The 21st Century Party – the Next Steps”, on local organisation, was on its way. So lots to talk about.

Partnership Revisited

The Forum process itself would be reviewed, starting shortly so that changes could be in place for the next cycle.   On the positive side, two-thirds of constituencies had sent submissions or resolutions this year. However policy commissions varied widely in effectiveness, and failed to involve the rest of the Forum. In addition current issues needed to be handled better, and links with external organisations should be improved. And I asked for more examples of grassroots influence. NHSDirect, the most commonly cited, was actually launched by the government before the Forum was formed.

There will be no elections to constituency places on the National Policy Forum at next year’s conference. The argument was that 2004/2005 would be a fallow year, with no documents in progress and nothing for representatives to do. I felt that a better approach would be to make the Forum meaningful at all times, and cancelling elections would further weaken links between constituencies and representatives. My unscientific focus group agreed. However the constituency vice-chair Anne Snelgrove found not one voice of dissent, and the NEC endorsed cancellation by 13 votes to 4. All places will be up for election in 2005, with future election dates to be discussed within the review.

Dividing Lines

Tony Blair joined the meeting on Tuesday morning. He said the disadvantage of the new Tory leadership was that they were more united. On the other hand the choice between parties was more stark, and should renew the motivation of our own supporters. Since 1997 we had been running against a mirage, with the media and internal critics taking opposition roles. Michael Howard’s soft centrist language was an illusion, like the US Republicans’ compassionate conservatism. On health and education, Tory policy was to increase opting-out rather than improve state provision, and on pensions and university funding their sums did not add up. SureStart and the New Deal would be dropped, and Britain would again be marginalised in Europe.

Comments covered continuing job losses in manufacturing, transfer of call-centres abroad, whether the pension protection plan would hasten closure of final salary schemes, a special retail price index for pensioners, higher interest rates, Northern Ireland, and the desirability of conciliation on foundation hospitals and top-up fees.   I regretted that Britain appeared to be endorsing George Bush’s re-election. Tony Blair said that his visit was arranged early in 2001, and postponing it would be absurd. He answered Christine Shawcroft’s request for an exit strategy from Iraq by arguing that it would be crazy to walk away, leaving the field to Saddam loyalists and outside killers. Terrorists were flowing in because they knew a democratic Iraq would be the biggest single blow against extremism.

Len Duvall, Chair of the Greater London Labour Party, spoke on the coming campaign. Co-operation between the Labour group and Ken Livingstone had generally been good, and the main battle was not over the mayor, but between Labour and the other parties. However I am not sure that the media will see it that way. And despite continuing speculation, I cannot see Ken’s readmission before his five-year automatic exclusion expires. Last year Tony Blair put enormous personal effort into persuading the NEC to keep him out, and David Triesman said that 400 members in a similar position would sue the party if we let him rejoin. But no doubt I will be surprised again.

Finally the annual conference had been the opposite of the meltdown predicted by the pundits, with serious debates settled by decisions. David Triesman denied that party managers tried to influence how delegates voted, or that visitors were invited onto the conference floor during debates, or that people with suits and earpieces were placed amongst union delegations to act as cheerleaders. However at least one non-delegate was called to speak and this would not happen again. I am still trying to find out how many constituencies sent delegates – last year around 100 CLPs were unrepresented – and also pursuing what happens to resolutions not debated but referred to the NEC.