Mike Griffiths, the newly-elected Chair, welcomed members to the traditional post-conference discussion of objectives and plans for the year ahead. Generally the NEC was judged to have become more effective, though there were still concerns about our independence and the principle of an appointed party Chair. Communication would be further improved, and I asked that party members should be notified promptly when events such as the spring conference were cancelled. The NEC supported a number of recommendations from the outgoing Chair Jeremy Beecham, including greater involvement in fundraising and promotion of the 1000 Club, and regular meetings between NEC officers, MPs, party leaders and the trade unions. His proposal that the NEC Chair should be elected for two years provoked mixed reactions and was not pursued. My view was that the annual Buggins’ Turn should only be reviewed if we also rotated committee Chairs and policy commission convenors more frequently, so that more members could gain experience and share responsibility. Walter Wolfgang drew attention to the NEC’s role as the custodian of party policy and conference decisions.
Winning for Britain
The NEC then discussed strategy for the Scottish, Welsh and English elections in May 2007. Strong candidates championing local people would be backed by regional and national resources. Members stressed that Labour should gain credit for the new deal for communities, concessionary travel, decent homes and the educational maintenance allowance. Examples of LibDem councils cancelling bus passes and privatising meals-on-wheels should be publicised and the BNP must be tackled, building on the excellent work by trade unions. On a technical level there was concern about the complex single transferable vote system to be used for Scottish local councils.
This was followed by an update on the party renewal project. The website now allowed members to talk to each other, Let’s Talk events were happening throughout the country, and there were more than 220,000 entries on the Labour Supporters Network. I asked that more care should go into identifying which of these were actually members, and addressing them as such. Others stressed the particular importance of encouraging new members to renew after their first year. A few argued that mechanical approaches were irrelevant to the real problems, but the majority saw technology as assisting doorstep work rather than replacing it, and even Pete Willsman defended the vital role of nerds in the campaign machine. He also asked for the results of the membership survey sent out with the NEC ballot.
Patrick Loughran then reported on Partnership in Power. The joint policy committee would meet on 21 November to plan the national policy forum programme and explore the relationship between the forum’s policy commissions and the new network of ministerial groups, all of which are developing policy towards the next manifesto. Members stressed the continuing need to make the forum process more credible, and regretted recent problems when leading figures expressed views on the veil without reference to party-government partnership. Following up two hot issues from conference, the health commission would consider wider involvement in policy-making, and the housing sub-group would circulate monthly reports to stakeholders including constituencies. Patrick’s team also exposed Tory contradictions between praising economic stability and guaranteeing public spending, while promising massive tax cuts. The LibDems were more difficult to nail down as they were mainly a repository for protest votes, but they were economically incoherent and soft on crime and anti-social behaviour.
The Morning After
Tuesday was a formal meeting. The prime minister opened by saying that despite the polls we were stronger than six months ago, with the experience to tackle the big challenges of globalisation, security, energy, pensions and the economy. Some members were worried at sounding doom-laden, against “don’t worry – be happy” David Cameron, though Dennis Skinner doubted that Dave’s fluffy-bunny language could withstand much scrutiny. Tony Blair agreed that optimism was important, but it must be tied to realism. On the Royal Mail, the crunch would come when markets were liberalised in 2009, and while people were fond of rural post offices, they did not actually use them. On health, he recognised public anxiety and the desire for financial flexibility, but the prize was tremendous: a maximum of 18 weeks between GP’s surgery and operating theatre, eliminating NHS waiting lists.
Walter Wolfgang questioned the need to replace Trident, with 59% of the public opposed and many better uses for £25 billion, but Tony Blair thought that nothing had changed since the 1980s when the nuclear issue lost elections for Labour. He told Pete Willsman that private security forces in Iraq, far from being uncontrolled, were licensed by the British to provide protection, and continuing killings were the work of al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed Shia militias. I asked whether the United States would punish Nicaragua for electing the wrong president, but he said he was sure they didn’t care, and there were more pressing foreign policy concerns. Back home, contrary to local press reports his Oxford speech on science had emphasised the idealistic aspects, and his remarks on the economic rewards were in response to a student who asked if she would lose out financially through a career in science.
Jacqui Smith outlined her role as chief whip in getting Labour’s manifesto through parliament. She tried to be flexible for reasons of health, family, campaigning and other commitments, and to aid with reselections she hoped to provide constituencies with records of attendance and other activities as well as voting. MPs’ representatives argued that far from being supine, there was vigorous discussion behind the scenes and Labour’s biggest-ever rebellions had taken place since 1997. Clare Short had now expelled herself by sitting as an independent, and Dennis Skinner reminded us that she spoke against Liz Davies’ candidacy in Leeds North-East at the 1995 conference, swaying naïve first-time delegates including myself. Jacqui confirmed that she had received representations about Labour MPs who are prominent in the Countryside Alliance.
As the first step in the coming leadership election the NEC approved a code of conduct for candidates and agreed that new members should be able to vote immediately, waiving the eight-week period in which local parties can object, and creating excellent recruitment opportunities. Contact details of constituency and union secretaries would be supplied to candidates by the central party, though it was recognised that MPs, secretaries, Young Labour, Labour Students and others have full membership lists and can use them as they choose. Further procedures would follow, but everyone hoped that the campaign would focus on the candidates’ abilities and policies rather than on process issues.
Conferences Past and Future
This year 512 delegates from 497 constituencies attended, almost unchanged for four years. Peter Watt regretted problems with late accreditation, mainly due to late or incomplete applications and the Manchester police’s unfamiliarity, with our systems, though the Tories had worse problems in Bournemouth. The conference arrangements committee had identified problems with the structure of debates, for instance mixing health with education, and too many platform speakers, though the policy seminars were successful. Cynics were assured that the “I Love You Tony” placards simply showed that delegates wanted to say a special thank-you to mark Tony Blair’s last conference speech. .
Next year the deadline is 30 March 2007 for constituency delegates, and nominations for the national policy forum, national constitutional committee, and conference arrangements committee. The closing date for constitutional amendments is 8 June 2007, the provisional deadline for contemporary resolutions is 10 a.m. on Friday 14 September and for emergency resolutions 12 noon on Friday 21 September. The spring conference will be replaced by a variety of events in all regions, though the youth conference will still be held in Glasgow from 16/18 February 2007 and include the election of the NEC youth representative, for which nominations close on 20 January 2007. The programme will be evaluated against previous spring conferences in terms of participation, enjoyment and cost.
Finally the NEC agreed membership of commissions and committees. I remain on the crime, justice, citizenship and equalities policy commission, and on the organisation committee which now includes the work of the party development taskforce. However I have joined the business board, and left the women, race and equalities committee in the capable hands of Norma Stephenson and her colleagues.
Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this to be circulated to members – and supporters – as a personal account, not an official record. Past reports are at www.annblack.com.