The Chair Angela Eagle welcomed members to the first meeting after conference, an opportunity to review our aims, objectives and strategies for the year ahead. Deputy leader Harriet Harman stressed that the 2014 local and European elections were important in their own right. Looking forward to 2015 she emphasised the key role of MPs and contrasted the difference in resources between the north-west, with 14 Westminster target seats and 45 Labour MPs, and the eastern region, with 13 targets but only two Labour MPs. With the Scottish referendum in the autumn she argued that the NEC needed strong voices from Scotland and Wales. I reminded members that the Scottish and Welsh leaders can already attend, and that the NEC had previously rejected rule changes which would add Scottish and Welsh constituency representatives. All we have to do is change our attitude.
Harriet Harman also wondered how the women’s conference, which this year attracted 1,000 women, could feed into policy-making structures while keeping the free-flowing vibrancy of an event without formalities or a conference arrangements committee. Appropriate rule changes could perhaps be put to the special conference on 1 March. Overall members were in a positive mood after conference, buoyed by new policies to take out on the doorstep. However there was concern about a diversity deficit at the top of the party, with a five-man general election team, only one woman among the executive directors, and only one out of 18 shadow cabinet review groups led by a woman (on care policy). We were promised that Douglas Alexander, Chair of general election strategy, and campaigns director Spencer Livermore would come to the NEC in January.
Ed Miliband said, to general assent, that the party should continue the pace and mood of the last six weeks through the next 18 months. Debate was now taking place on our terms: the cost of living, energy prices, a living wage, apprenticeships, banking reform, the NHS, tackling vested interests and ensuring that unscrupulous employers did not undercut pay and conditions by recruiting from certain groups. Labour would run an economy which created wealth, but where the proceeds of growth were shared fairly and did not go only to the rich and powerful. Voters must also be warned of the risks of five more Tory years. He added that the handling of Ray Collins’ report on party reform showed our ability to keep focused on the real enemy, and I hope that this can be maintained through 2014, when the special conference will give the media reasons to keep running anti-union and anti-Labour stories.
NEC members praised his conference speech and drew attention to Tory attacks on employment rights including access to tribunals, the paradox under which British railways can be run by states as long as they are foreign states, the need for good jobs not just any jobs, further cuts in public service pay, the threat of a new European / United States trade agreement, excessive warmth towards free schools, and expansion of food banks and payday loans into mainstream society. Members argued that the minimum wage would only be enforced when unions could take cases on behalf of members, as individuals who complain can simply be disappeared. Ed Miliband suggested that councils could play a part here.
This was followed by presentations on communication, strategy and planning, elections, governance and party services, and policy and rebuttal. Labour was operating effectively in showcasing new shadow ministers after the reshuffle and in responding to attacks, including the Daily Mail’s disgraceful slurs on Ed Miliband’s father. Every household would receive a freepost mailing for the Euro-elections, and seven of the 11 regions reported specific Euro-campaign activities. Most Westminster target seats had selected their candidates and voter ID was running well ahead of the last cycle, with incentives for constituencies which met targets. Trigger ballots were underway for MPs seeking to stand again.
Labour now has lots of policies: on payday lenders, childcare, energy bills, housing, fairer taxes, making work pay, whole-person care. However I am still concerned by constant banging on about toughness: Labour will make tough choices, be tough on welfare, tough on immigration, and so on. It distresses our core supporters and fails to convince floating voters. Many of the same arguments could be couched in terms of fairness instead, and used to unite rather than to divide.
General secretary Iain McNicol gave a financial update. The situation this year was good, with income running ahead of budget and expenditure controlled. Future years have become more unpredictable with possible changes to the system of affiliation. However the financial strategy, including paying off outstanding debts through to 2016, is sacrosanct, even if it means savage cuts in spending. On the positive side, membership has increased since December: people are more likely to join and less likely to leave if they are contacted by their local party, so there is a role for every activist to play.
The Road to the Manifesto
Angela Eagle and Jon Cruddas outlined the next stages of policy development. Key dates are:
February 2014: final year consultation documents published on the Your Britain website
February – June 2014: amendments and submissions accepted. Jon Cruddas’s policy reviews and shadow cabinet and external reviews will also be fed through the policy commissions – these may amount to 60 separate pieces of work, unless I’m double-counting
June 2014: NPF representatives meet in regional groups to decide which amendments to take forward
18-20 July 2014: national policy forum meets to finalise documents
September 2014: annual conference votes on NPF documents
October 2014 – March 2015: manifesto development based on policy programme
Spring 2015: Clause V meeting agrees manifesto
This means that the consultation runs alongside election campaigning through to 22 May 2014, but perhaps local parties can organise policy discussions followed by door-knocking sessions.
This year’s conference was attended by 611 constituency delegates representing 488 local parties, slightly up on 2012. All considered it successful, though there were the usual concerns about lack of time for ordinary delegates, and the waving of bizarre objects to attract the Chair’s attention. I asked, again, for the timetable and papers to be published on the website, so that supporters watching at home could follow proceedings. It was clarified that motions passed with more than two-thirds support become part of the policy programme and are considered for, but not necessarily included in, the manifesto
Some NEC members suggested that new delegates needed more briefing from regional officers. Others, from both unions and constituencies, reported complaints about too much regional briefing around elections to the conference arrangements committee. Iain McNicol is investigating.
The 2014 conference will be held from Sunday 21 to Wednesday 24 September in Manchester, preceded by the women’s conference on Saturday 20 September. The deadline for contemporary motions will be noon on Thursday 11 September and for emergency motions, noon on Friday 19 September. The six constituency places on the NEC will be up for election next year, with nominations closing on 20 June 2014, and it was agreed to defer elections to the national policy forum until 2015 so that current members could complete the policy cycle.
Home and Abroad
A report from the European party highlighted engagement on e-cigarettes, zero-hours contracts, food labelling, flight safety, air quality and many other areas, with Labour MEPs instrumental in securing stronger protection from blacklisting. David Sparks reported on the desperate situation faced by many councils: while Labour fights to minimise the impact on vulnerable people, our constant message must be that these cuts are Tory government-imposed, and they are unjustified, unnecessary and unfair.
The NEC also received the minutes of sub-committees. The organisation committee had decided that Leeds East should select from an open list, where I was one of two members voting against, and launched a review of procedures for suspension and auto-exclusion. The equalities committee noted that there would be a young members’ conference on 21/23 February 2014 in Bradford. Other issues included the importance of diversity within black, Asian and minority ethnic minority representation so that all communities felt they had a voice, and concerns about the deselection of councillors.
The NEC congratulated everyone involved in the Scottish parliamentary by-election victory in Dunfermline, and noted that Falkirk would select their Westminster candidate on 8 December.
John Denham MP closed the meeting with a thoughtful presentation on winning back the south. Though seen as prosperous, parts of the south had lower wages but higher living costs than the national average, and resented being lumped in with London. However, many voters shared Labour values, and One Nation messages, translated into the local context, could appeal just as strongly as elsewhere.