As usual the first meeting after conference was an extended session, setting strategy for the year ahead, with general election victory the over-riding objective. Presentations showed an impressive level of organisation on the ground and increasingly sophisticated online operations. The Tories will massively outspend us and regular donations from thousands of individuals were making a huge difference, though I stressed that members must be engaged in policy and valued as a source of ideas, not just of cash. The European campaign fund had also helped to keep more than 100 organisers in post. Overall membership had increased this year, with an extra 1.7% joining during conference week.
Labour had been ahead in the polls for 47 of the last 48 months, with the Conservatives below 33% since 2012, and analyses of marginal seats were encouraging. However this election would be one of the most unpleasant and personal ever seen in this country, as the days after the meeting showed. Labour had to contrast our plans for everyday working people – childcare, housing, tackling the cost of living, saving the NHS – against the Tories who represent the privileged few. Despite the growth of other parties the basic choice would remain the same: a Conservative government or a Labour government.
NEC members asked for doorstep ammunition: snappy sentences and pledge cards in simple language. Some highlighted business fears about the Tories taking Britain out of Europe. Others urged Labour to continue to reduce child poverty and to offer hope to the victims of austerity, including hard-pressed public servants. I withdrew my complaints about the over-use of “working people” in the light of research showing that these are the most effective messages: pensioners have working children, and people without jobs want the opportunity to work. Fairness also resonates powerfully, and Christine Shawcroft suggested featuring Ed Miliband’s conference line: “with the Tories, you’re on your own”.
In recent contests Alan Billings won an outright majority as the new police and crime commissioner for South Yorkshire, outpolling UKIP in Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield, and Liz McInnes was elected, albeit narrowly, as the Labour MP for Heywood & Middleton.
Britain Can Be Better Than This
Ed Miliband identified the key areas where Labour would make a difference: the NHS; a recovery which lifted living standards for everyone; the next generation doing better than their parents; immigration and a clear contrast with UKIP; and a stable economy. NEC members commented on fees for employment tribunals, privatisation, messages on child poverty and paying GPs £55 to diagnose dementia, and requested faster increases in the national minimum wage and support for the TUC decent jobs week in December. I raised tuition fees, where Ed Miliband promised a costed and credible offer, and fracking, which is becoming a hot issue and where Labour’s safeguards may not go far enough.
The NEC were assured that the manifesto would be based on the platform agreed at the national policy forum in July. Some policies will be developed further, or changed in the light of events, but I hope there will be no more unwelcome surprises like Ed Balls’ cap on child benefit. Regional and local public and party events are planned for the autumn on the theme of “Changing Britain Together – Manifesto 2015”.
Margaret Curran MP, shadow secretary for Scotland, and Scottish deputy leader Anas Sarwar MP, joined the NEC to review the referendum campaign and the landscape following the decisive No vote. After Johann Lamont’s resignation and Anas Sarwar’s decision to stand down, a new leader and deputy leader would be in place before Christmas. The election would use the old pre-Collins electoral college, one-third MPs/MSPs, one-third individual members, one-third individual trade union levy-payers. Relations between Scottish Labour and the national Labour party are clearly of critical importance.
While Scotland has the Smith commission determining how the Better Together promises will be delivered, implications for the rest of the UK are still unclear. David Cameron’s call for “English votes on English laws” is simplistic and divisive, but Labour’s alternative, devolution to city and county regions, is not a panacea. My feedback from across the country included concerns that only Labour cities would benefit, while in Tory areas poorer people would be even worse off as taxes and services were cut: “less an English solution to an English problem and more a northern Britain solution to an English problem.” Others wanted proportional representation, to encourage supporters in areas where Labour may poll 20% but has had no councillors for 30 years. I passed this on but the NEC was not persuaded.
The lessons of the referendum were also considered by the British and Irish Labour Parties consultative forum, which includes the SDLP (Social and Democratic Labour Party) and the Northern Ireland CLP, and which also discussed jobs and growth, equalities, and the threat of British withdrawal from Europe.
Glenis Willmott MEP reported that David Cameron’s embarrassment over the £1.7 billion budgetary adjustment illustrated his lack of friends in Europe. Indeed the Socialists and Democrats had to rescue Lord Hill, his choice for commissioner, when the Tory grouping abstained or opposed him. Meanwhile UKIP was in bed with even more unsavoury partners, including Holocaust-deniers and defenders of domestic violence, so they could keep claiming European expenses. Glenis herself had received an award for her work on encouraging medical research and transparency of clinical trial results.
Conferences Past and Future
Annual conference was judged a success by those who were actually in Manchester. There were 548 constituency delegates from 443 constituencies, leaving one-third unrepresented. I wondered if this was because of cost: the Visit Manchester bureau ring-fenced rooms for delegates at £95 to £150 per night, though rooms could be had for less than £30. I asked if the excellent support for disabled delegates could be extended to help with accommodation, after hearing from a blind delegate unable to attend.
Next year’s conference will be held from Sunday 27 to Wednesday 30 September in Brighton, and delegates must be registered by 10 June. The deadline for contemporary motions will be noon on Thursday 17 September and, for emergency motions, noon on Friday 25 September. All 55 constituency places on the national policy forum are up for election, four members and a youth in each region. For Scotland, the North and the North-West the youth must be a woman. In addition constituencies will elect members of the conference arrangements committee and the national constitutional committee. The deadline for nominations is also 10 June 2015, with a one-member-one-vote ballot for the NPF and the CAC in July. The NEC youth representative and the young Labour national committee will be elected at the young labour conference, which will be held later in 2015.
The above timetable ties in with the timetable for choosing London’s mayoral candidate, agreed by the party reform implementation group and the organisation committee after consultation with the regional board. Applications open on 13 May and close on 20 May 2015, and this is also the last date for registered supporters (people who are not levy-paying members of affiliated trade unions) to sign up and pay a fee agreed as £3. Nominations for candidates can be made between 20 May and 10 June, and candidates need at least five to go forward. A selection committee comprising three NEC members and three from the London board will longlist on 12 June and shortlist on 15 June, with hustings from 17 June. New members and affiliated supporters (levy-paying members of affiliated unions) can join or sign up until 19 June, and the ballot will be held, alongside the national committee votes, during July.
Some consider this too rushed. However, many runners are already well-known, and a contest lasting into September might have attracted the same criticisms as the 2010 leadership election. It would also have added to costs, though despite the Collins plea for selections to be open to members of modest means, the rules allow thousands of pounds to be spent. The task for the NEC will be to peg this back to more reasonable levels for parliamentary and European candidates. Finally from December 2014 constituencies should be able to see affiliated and registered supporters on membersnet.
The organisation committee agreed that Holborn & St Pancras and Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney would choose parliamentary candidates from open lists, and that Cynon Valley should conduct a full selection from an all-women shortlist. For all further vacancies a special selections panel (SSP) will decide on AWS and draw up shortlists. I am not involved, a relief after the stress of chairing the SSP in 2010.
The organisation committee has swollen to 28 of the NEC’s 33 members and is not a sub-committee in any normal sense. After moves to add a second member from the GMB, and MPs to replace Dennis Skinner, Jennie Formby of Unite proposed, and I seconded, that all NEC members should be able to join its meetings, rather than excluding only Christine Shawcroft, Martin Mayer and the TSSA. This was carried till after the election, though pruning will not be easy. And the NEC also agreed by 8 votes to 6 to keep the current system under which the Chair has only one vote, rather than an extra casting vote.