The NEC’s first task was to appoint a new general secretary. Seventeen people had applied and the three shortlisted applicants gave presentations and answered questions, after which Peter Watt was elected in a secret ballot. This time the outcome had not been pre-arranged, and certainly some of us did not make our minds up until all the candidates had spoken. There was agreement that appointment procedures should be reviewed to reflect the best human resource practices.
This was followed by a session on improving the NEC’s effectiveness. Aspirations included greater confidence and authority, a role in monitoring and interpreting party policy, and engaging more with MPs and government. People stressed the need to nurture links with the unions and the Co-Op, to increase diversity among staff and elected representatives, to ensure staff neutrality, to rebuild the activist base, and to develop dialogue with members. I hoped that NEC members would be treated as equals, rather than some having privileged access through inner circles and key sub-committees.
A review of the 2005 election was largely a reprise of the discussion at the May meeting, though Philip Gould felt that loss of trust was not a major issue. I have sent him your feedback. He is probably right that Michael Howard was trusted less than Tony Blair, but that may not be enough. And while 88 of the 100 most marginal seats have Conservatives as the main opponent, we could lose them in two ways: by 1997 Labour switchers returning to the Tories, or by Labour voters shifting to the LibDems and LibDems shifting to the Tories, with the LibDems perceived as more left-wing. By the next election Labour will have been in power for twelve years, and will be seen as the party of the establishment. First-time voters will never have known a different government. Some argued that we must therefore campaign as the party of change, while others felt this would look as if all our work so far was wasted and we have achieved nothing. This will be an interesting debate as it develops.
On a practical level Labour is exploring the use of Mosaic and other “lifestyle” databases to identify profitable areas for face-to-face campaigning, and new ways of contacting 18-year-olds are being trialled, with personalised websites giving information about their rights. Membership is projected to fall by about 1% over the year. During 2005 100,000 people registered as supporters, and members asked if constituencies could be put in touch with supporters in their area, to help with campaigns.
The NEC considered the next steps in Building a Party for the Future, following conference approval. Again we were assured that there are no plans to impose a one-size-fits-all model on local parties. Nevertheless stories persist of sweeping rule changes, covering three main areas. The first is the replacement of delegate general committees by all-member meetings. The second is the increasing importance assigned to supporters who do not wish to become full members. No local party would turn sympathisers away, but there must be discussion of rights and responsibilities, and care that the subscription rise does not turn members into supporters rather than the other way round. And the third is a desire to cut the union vote at conference, perhaps because the constituencies are currently more biddable. (Alan Johnson is wrong to say that the unions have only 15% of the national policy forum vote. Including 13 NEC members and at least 11 regional representatives, the percentage is more like 30%.) So when you are consulted later this year, please respond, and please send me a copy.
Prime Minister’s Questions
I asked Tony Blair about his Progress speech, which set many of these hares running. He said that he was not criticising most activists because unlike in the 1970s and 1980s they now supported the leadership, but they had to keep up with the public mood. Speaking just before the Commons rejected 90-day detention, he felt that there were difficulties, but also possibilities. He had public support, and just needed to win over our own folk. Public service reform would continue: breaking medical cartels was essential to get waiting lists down, and giving local authorities a strong but different role would empower parents. To afford decent pensions, a higher proportion of the working-age population must be in jobs. Three million on incapacity benefit was not sustainable, and new claims must be blocked. He was not overly concerned about future Tory leaders, and listened to Dennis Skinner’s suggestion that he should paint David Cameron into a right-wing corner as soon as possible.
NEC members are not stuck in the past. They supported Pathways to Work, which assists people into jobs, but opposed punitive benefit cuts. They accepted that the private sector could provide extra capacity, but forcing the NHS to outsource services was counter-productive. Tony Blair said that neither he nor Patricia Hewitt were making primary care trusts privatise directly-employed staff, until they chose to. He disclaimed responsibility for the recent e-mail survey (“Do you think police should have the time and opportunity to complete their investigations into suspected terrorists? – Yes / No / Don’t Know”) Charles Clarke didn’t know about it either, so one wonders who is running the show.
Tony Blair was thanked for spending time with the victims of the 7 July bombings, but clashed with Pete Willsman over dissatisfaction among troops in Iraq, and who was to blame for breakdowns of security and electricity. The loss of skilled jobs at the Defence Aviation and Repair Agency provoked continuing anger. And Dennis Skinner reported only a handful of complaints about school choice, and asked if this whole controversial education bill was just about a London problem.
Conferences Past and Future
We were finally told the figures for conference attendance: 507 constituency delegates representing 491 CLPs, close to the 500 represented in 2004 and 499 in 2003. Roy Kennedy, secretary of the conference arrangements committee, said they were looking at how to balance security with the needs of delegates in future years. Other concerns were the handling of contemporary motions, lobbying of delegates, the cost of accommodation, and the length and number of ministerial speeches. I asked for an early decision on when next year’s conference will close, advance registration for policy seminars, and restoring the requirement for a constituency officer to sign delegate applications. We will get a further report on stewarding and security in January.
Next is the Spring Conference in Blackpool, 10/12 February 2006, and I am pleased that the delegate fee will be closer to last year’s £35 than the £70 charged in 2004. The mailing for the 2006 annual conference will go out before Christmas, with a deadline for delegates and nominations of 24 March 2006, though constituencies who have not replied will be offered another chance to send delegates. Constitutional amendments must be received by 9 June 2006, and provisional deadlines for contemporary and emergency resolutions are 15 September 2006 and 22 September 2006 respectively.
The national policy forum will meet on 14/15 January 2006. Six larger policy commissions will replace the eight previous commissions, though some were unhappy that that all but one are co-convened by trade union members, giving them five of the six NEC places on the joint policy committee. Pete Willsman asked when the forum discussed the education white paper or privatising the probation service, and it will have to start engaging with current issues pretty soon. The first-year Big Conversation-style consultation document will probably emerge after the local elections.
The local government committee confirmed that no unpaid ALC subscriptions will be deducted from constituency funds without an explicit decision by the NEC, and I asked that constituency secretaries should be officially informed. Thanks to Mike Griffiths’ sterling efforts the Birmingham local government committee is returning to life after three years’ suspension, though Christine Shawcroft expressed concerns about Tower Hamlets. There will be a further report on New Forest East, where members including the candidate allegedly campaigned for the LibDems, in January. And the organisation committee approved an initial list of constituencies which will start parliamentary selections in mid-2006, with all-women shortlists still to be discussed. I and others explained that many constituencies wished to select as early as possible, whether or not they were priority seats.
Finally our finances are in reasonable shape and we have been certified as compliant with the new laws on party funding. The Business Board will consider the future of Old Queen Street.