A special meeting on 6 January agreed Ken Livingstone’s readmission to the party, on the recommendation of NEC officers. The vote was 22 – 2, with Dennis Skinner and Michael Cashman maintaining their opposition. Tony Blair took responsibility for publicly explaining his change of mind since blocking Ken in 2000 and 2002. A trigger ballot of London members is now in full swing.
The NEC met again on 27 January, the day of the top-up fee vote and the eve of the Hutton report. Tony Blair was busy rallying the troops, and John Prescott deputised. He looked forward to the Euro-elections and referendums on regional government. The Big Conversation was going well, and showed that the public did not always have the same priorities as party activists.
Some NEC members expressed anger at the fee rebels. The socialist societies were horrified at ex-ministers who demanded loyalty when they were in government, but were now undermining the leadership. This was not the time to hand gifts to Michael Howard and the media, eagerly looking for divisions. The Education and Skills policy commission received only 16 submissions opposing fees.
Dennis Skinner was unhappy about breaking a manifesto commitment. John Prescott accepted that the process had not been ideal, but many changes had been made, and the bill could be amended further in committee. It was better than Tory plans to exclude 100,000 people from higher education. I was concerned about the political consequences. Labour has concentrated on helping the poorest students, as we should. However the backlash may come from the middle classes who get no financial aid, and who go into debt themselves rather than burden their children. In addition government briefings talk about students repaying fees after they graduate. But a substantial number drop out, often for financial reasons. It seems as if they will also have to pay, and that adds to the risk.
The Status Quo is not an Option
Many highlighted the advantages of the new proposals: no up-front fees, easier payback terms, debt write-off, restoring maintenance grants. This was slightly weird given that Labour introduced the current system in the first place. But admitting errors is better than persisting in them, and Tony Blair was advised to follow Colin Powell and George Bush in recognising the faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. Mick Cash asked for support for free trade unions in Iraq, and Mark Seddon raised the closure of Hatfield Colliery, sitting above half of Britain’s usable coal reserves.
Jack McConnell, first minister of Scotland, then spoke. Despite the war, last year’s election results were good. Labour focused on local issues, especially anti-social behaviour and crime. Coalition with the LibDems, though difficult at times, was enabling them to implement most of Labour’s programme. He noted that their student funding scheme had anticipated the latest plans for England. They had supported manufacturing through keeping two Glasgow shipyards open, and the Hoover plant in Cambuslang. Among long-term challenges, the Scottish population is set to fall below 5 million in 2010, with fewer than 3 million workers by 2027. The Executive was working with Westminster to encourage people to come to Scotland as a modern, diverse and multicultural society, and trying to win the arguments against public misunderstanding and hostility towards immigrants.
Signals Passed at Danger
The most agonised debate was over future relations between the RMT union and the Labour party. Last July the RMT annual general meeting voted to allow branches to affiliate to other parties. Since then five of the 25 Scottish branches have affiliated to the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and another two branches and the Scottish regional council have also sought permission. Labour’s legal advice was that this put the RMT outside party rules, and they have disaffiliated themselves. This was profoundly regretted, given the RMT’s historic role in founding the Labour party. The NEC’s organisation committee recommended that unless the RMT special general meeting on 6 February withdrew endorsement of links with the SSP, their disaffiliation from Labour would be formally recognised and they would lose party representation at constituency, regional and national level.
Mick Cash of the RMT said the union did not believe it was in breach of Labour’s rules. Branches of other unions had given money to different parties, and to Ken Livingstone. It was not helpful to issue ultimatums, and general secretary Bob Crow wished to meet the NEC to discuss the situation.
It is true that the rulebook is not totally clear. Affiliates must accept party policy and principles, but there is no explicit prohibition against supporting other parties, as there is for individual members. However, as one RMT activist wrote to me, the political issue is clearcut: “the RMT cannot ride two horses in the same race”. While other unions may have maverick branches, they have national rules against funding other parties. One-third of the Scottish RMT is already organising in opposition to Labour. Allowing this to continue would risk other unions being peeled away piecemeal.
Mark Seddon suggested that the RMT should ballot its levy-paying members on what to do, given that some branch decisions were taken by as few as seven people, but the NEC cannot tell unions how to run their own democracy. Nevertheless Ian McCartney reported a groundswell of alarm within the RMT, and I hope their leaders will represent the political make-up of their membership as a whole.
Dennis Skinner argued that NEC officers met Ken Livingstone, and the RMT deserved at least equal respect. I supported this if talks could be held before 6 February, but it was lost by 7 votes to 16, with the majority view that it would just be used for grandstanding. Some still wanted to seek compromise, but most called for absolute clarity, so the RMT could make a clear choice between Labour and opposition. The organisation committee recommendation was accepted by 21 votes to 3, with Mick Cash, Mark Seddon and Christine Shawcroft against. The NEC also agreed that Labour would organise constituency parties in Scotland, Wales and the English regions, but not in Northern Ireland.
Forums and Conferences
Five second-year National Policy Forum papers have just been published, with consultation closing on 14 May. Before conference the ten documents will be reorganised into five broad policy areas. The March Forum will finalise Britain in the World and Reconnecting People and Politics. The bulk of the work will go to the July Forum, comprising Building Prosperity for All (economy, welfare, trade and industry), Improving Health and Education, and Creating Sustainable Communities (quality of life, transport, housing, local government and the regions, and crime and justice).
Three working groups are being set up to review Partnership in Power. NEC representatives are Jeremy Beecham and Mike Griffiths (engagement with the government), Ann Black and Diana Holland (engagement with the public) and Maggie Jones and Tony Robinson (engagement with the party). Elections to policy commissions are now complete. Regrettably the Millbank fixers removed two of Tony Robinson’s colleagues from his quality of life commission, because they dared to vote for him as vice-chair of the Forum instead of Anne Snelgrove. The other Forum vice-chair Margaret Wall has retired and will be replaced by new member Danny Carrigan subject to election in March.
I expressed concern that the spring conference is charging delegates £70.50, against last year’s rate of £60 for local government and £40 for women’s conference. The business board made the decision in November, and the event will still need subsidising by more than £100,000. Women members may be interested in an alternative one-day women’s forum on Saturday 3 July, perhaps in the West Midlands, as close to free as we can make it. And all ethnic minority members are invited to a forum in London on Saturday 28 February – please e-mail Annie Keys at email@example.com for details.
The main annual conference will finish at 4 p.m. on Thursday 30 September. Deadlines are 10 a.m. Friday 17 September for contemporary resolutions, and 12 noon Friday 24 September for emergency resolutions. Constituencies have until 2 April to nominate candidates for the National Executive Committee elections – please let me know if you would like a copy of my personal statement.