NEC Meeting / Leadership Conference, 24 June 2007

Gordon Brown was warmly welcomed by the NEC, meeting in Manchester on the morning of his confirmation as leader. He spoke to each of us in turn and emphasised how much he valued both the NEC and the party membership. At his request the NEC readily approved Douglas Alexander as campaign manager through to the next general election, but despite press speculation I do not believe that this is imminent. Rather it recognises the need to prepare, to campaign and to fundraise over the coming years, alongside the work of developing policies for a fourth term.

The leader-in-waiting had clearly given much thought to the future of the party. His first announcement was that the deputy leader, whoever he or she might be, would take the role of party Chair, with power to appoint assistant Chairs to help them. This is not a downgrading of the deputy’s position, as some have suggested. In fact several of the candidates, notably Jon Cruddas and Hazel Blears, stressed the priority of party revival over prestige, and now we have a Chair elected by the members instead of one appointed by the leader.

He also tabled a paper aimed at addressing two urgent concerns: that members do not feel sufficiently involved and valued, and that local parties are not always in touch with their communities. This is now available on the party website, with a deadline for comments of 14 September. If necessary I can forward it in pdf format, but as responses must be made on-line, it would be better to get to grips with your individual MpURL. I have asked how constituencies submit collective views, and am assured that these will be identified as such if they come from the registered secretary.

I hope everyone will read and reply to the full proposals, but have listed some key themes below, with a few initial comments. As always I welcome your thoughts, if possible before the next NEC meeting on 17 July, and will take account of them in my detailed response.

Bullet Points [and comments]

–           more encouragement for constituencies in holding local policy forums [good in principle] and involving all their members in policy-making [including those without internet access];

–           better feedback on policy submissions so members can see how their concerns have been discussed, backed up with more resources [very welcome. May need to demonstrate this first and up-front, to persuade constituencies that more forums will be worthwhile];

–           support for local parties, including Labour groups, in engaging with their communities [also welcome. Forums work well at local level where there is a clear connection between input and agreed policy];

–           strengthening the national policy forum (NPF), with the joint policy committee (JPC) acting as its executive [needs more analysis – could make it more effective, or more remote. Also the JPC needs greater accountability and better constituency representation];

–           ensuring that ministers engage actively with the NPF [good];

–           giving members direct access to their NPF representatives [excellent – have been asking for this since I was elected. Hopefully NPF representatives will also be given direct access to members];

–           adding twelve more NPF members, six from constituencies and six from affiliates, to be elected directly by annual conference [cannot see the point. The 55 constituency representatives have always been elected directly by conference and most activists still cannot name them. Prefer one-member-one-vote, or groups of constituencies electing one of their conference delegates to the NPF];

–           ending the right to send contemporary resolutions to conference. Instead, constituencies and affiliates would submit general policy areas, and a ballot at conference would decide which of these should be priorities for the NPF. The policy commissions would then examine them in detail [controversial. Some argue that motions are a safety-valve, others that ritual confrontation does no-one any good. Recent development of housing policy is held up as an alternative, with a policy commission sub-group said to have made real and consensual progress. However almost no-one has seen any of its work since September, and more openness is needed to win this argument];.

–           submitting the final policy documents agreed by the NPF to a one-member-one-vote ballot [not convinced. Postage is costly unless we disfranchise people without e-mail. The ballot on the draft manifesto in 1996 involved tremendous efforts, including telephone banks and mailshots, to get a respectable response rate. And referendums provide a way for people to let off steam rather than answer the question posed, especially when asked to say Yes or No to lengthy, complex and unamendable documents. I think there are better uses for very limited resources.]

Any Other Business

Gordon Brown assured us that despite the rumours, conversations with Paddy Ashdown had been limited to issues around security and investment in Northern Ireland, given his role as Chair of the parades commission and his longstanding experience. There was no question of him joining the cabinet, and though we needed to draw in everyone who shared our values, Gordon intended to lead a Labour cabinet and a Labour government.

Finally some members suggested reopening our decision that Ealing Southall should select its next parliamentary candidate from an all-women shortlist, following the sad death of sitting MP Piara Khabra. Traditionally, by-election candidates are chosen from open lists, a process which has overwhelmingly favoured men. However in this case, with the normal selection procedure imminent, and Piara Khabra’s own expressed wish that he should be succeeded by an ethnic minority woman, I hope that the NEC will keep its nerve or that we will at least have a chance to discuss any change.

High Drama

Moving on to the main event, Labour proved that it can prevent leaks when it tries, to the extreme annoyance of the media. At half past one the six candidates for deputy were locked in a room, deprived of their BlackBerrys, told the results, and given a brief time to compose themselves. The audience waited in ever-increasing impatience while the NEC Chair Mike Griffiths and general secretary Peter Watt welcomed us to Manchester, still a Tory-free zone, emphasised the inclusiveness of the process, praised the conduct of the candidates and the quality of debate and thanked all those involved, especially the party staff who have worked without a break virtually since Christmas.

At last the suspense was ended, with less than one per cent separating the winner and the runner-up in the final round, and individual party members proving decisive. (The full breakdown was published in Monday’s Guardian.) Turnout was 99% among MPs and MEPs, 53% for individual members, but only 8% in the affiliate section, maybe depressed by some ballot papers arriving just days before the deadline. The hustings showed that all the candidates had much to contribute, and I am sure that Gordon Brown can find a use for all their talents without resorting to the LibDems. After warm applause Harriet Harman made a polished speech, Tony Blair took a final curtain call and graciously introduced his successor, who sent members away with renewed hope, enthusiasm and determination.