The NEC met briefly on the morning of the previously-arranged national policy forum. The Chair Dianne Hayter gave an update on recent events and thanked the party staff for their professionalism. She and others also recognised the loyalty, integrity and restraint of party members, as well as their obvious concern. Acting general secretary Chris Lennie praised Dianne for representing the NEC, and reinforced Gordon Brown’s request for full co-operation with the ongoing enquiries.
Gordon Brown added his appreciation of staff and members. As well as tightening internal procedures, Labour must take the initiative on party funding reform, already promised in the Queen’s speech, on the basis of Hayden Phillips’ proposals. These included annual limits on national and local spending; greater transparency for donations, so that “front” organisations like the Midlands Industrial Council could not funnel money to the Tories; a limit on donations from individuals and organisations of £50,000; and strengthening the electoral commission. Hayden Phillips seemed to understand that trade union affiliations were the sum of very small donations from thousands of individuals, and this link could be made more explicit by ensuring precise records of levy-payers, giving members clear information when they joined, and reporting on how the funds were used. Many unions already do all these things, and the difficulties should not be insurmountable.
The NEC agreed a timetable for recruiting a new general secretary, with a closing date of 16 January for applications and interviews on 31 January at the next scheduled NEC meeting. The officers would oversee the process, and were granted authority to take any other necessary decisions until then.
To the Forum
Gordon Brown reported similarly to the national policy forum, particularly on the need to end the spending arms race: in 2005 parties spent a total of £90 million, up by 40% from 2001, and inevitably this meant relying on a few wealthy individuals. Elections should be a contest of ideas, not a chase for money. He would prefer consensus, but no party would be allowed to block progress. After the media were evicted, a number of constituency representatives conveyed further feedback from the grassroots.
But for all of us, the forum provided a welcome opportunity to return to policy. The prime minister’s speech reiterated Labour’s commitment to build three million new houses, introduce a climate change bill, manage migration, treble the number of Sure Start centres, extend school opening hours, and expand places and financial support in higher education. He responded to concerns about loss of housing benefit as a disincentive to work, and the lower national minimum wage for younger people.
There were two sets of parallel seminars, and choosing between them was difficult. In the morning I went to Shaping Labour’s Green Agenda with Hilary Benn, who stressed that the consequences of failure to tackle climate change were unthinkable. Developing countries must play their part, while for Britain he asked whether a 60% cut in emissions was enough, or whether we should aim for 80%.
I raised plans to expand Heathrow, the obligation not to saddle future generations with long-lasting radioactive waste, and the need to reduce packaging as well as to increase recycling. Others asked whether “zero-carbon homes” included emissions from building them, suggested taxing plastic bags, emphasised the role of unions and business in cutting workplace emissions, regretted pre-emptive opposition to a Severn barrage from environmental groups, and looked forward to more micro-generation and producing gas from organic waste through anaerobic techniques. Energy pricing structures should charge more for higher use, reversing current tariffs where the lowest users pay most. Also, joined-up thinking between departments was essential: greater choice of school means that more parents drive their children further, and walking or cycling are less feasible alternatives.
Hilary Benn said that aviation must be dealt with at an international level, and total emissions mattered more than where they originated. Nuclear power was a necessary part of the energy mix, to prevent the lights going out. Environmentalists could not call for more use of renewables and then oppose every single practical measure.
Unfortunately this meant that I missed housing, another top priority. The contemporary resolutions from conference were referred to the housing sub-group of the sustainable communities policy commission, which has already looked at the future of social housing and the need for more affordable housing. The group will also consider how to ensure quality in new homes, more flexibility in the use of housing revenue accounts, the part played by housing in community cohesion, and housing allocations policy. The sub-group’s report to conference is available on the sustainable communities page of the website, and views should be mailed to email@example.com
In the afternoon I went to the seminar which followed up the conference resolution on Remploy. The government’s latest proposals would save 15 workshops, merge 11 and close 17, with guarantees of no compulsory redundancies and no cuts in pay and conditions, and a £555 million subsidy over the next five years. The target for public procurement was set at £400 million, up from £240 million. The Remploy management, generally considered responsible for the current situation, were being renewed. The GMB union was still unhappy, and repeated its demand for no closures until every worker had made a free choice between redundancy, transfer, or moving to a mainstream workplace.
Efforts to widen discussion to the overall employment of disabled people were unsuccessful. This was unfortunate, as there are 83 other supported factories, and employer prejudice is still too real. Around 85% of the 2.7 million people on incapacity benefit want to work, and some will be disabled and entitled to special equipment and other support under the disability discrimination act. However there was anxiety about seeing IB claimants as a “soft target”, and recognition that the pathways to work programme is valuable to the individuals, but cannot be done on the cheap, to save money.
Ed Miliband outlined progress towards the manifesto, and hoped that the fifteen parliamentary working groups would liaise with relevant policy commissions. Matthew Seward and Pat McFadden explained that the joint policy committee would decide how to deal with amendments to the final-stage documents. I asked again for better feedback to members, and was again told that the party does not have the resources, and I was demanding a perfect activist democracy which had never existed and never would. In fact there are forum members who would be willing to help, and I still do not think it is fair to require local parties to complete a 30-question survey, including how they have reported back to members and the community, when they themselves get no response from national level.
Crime, Justice, Citizenship and Equalities Policy Commission, 5 December 2007
Actually this is not a problem for our commission, which received no submissions at all in the six weeks before our meeting. I know members care about pre-trial detention, prisons, asylum, migration, party funding, electoral systems, Lords reform, human rights, and other home office and constitutional issues, so when you mail me, please send a copy to firstname.lastname@example.org
The commission met the movers and seconders of conference resolutions on equalities and equal pay. UNISON brought detailed briefings, and Oxford West & Abingdon representatives pointed out that more than half of undergraduates were women, but five years after graduating, their pay was already 15% behind their male colleagues. The BME Labour (formerly black socialist society) spokesperson was mainly concerned with getting more ethnic minority MPs and councillors, which is indeed a matter for the commission, though not part of the motion.
For reasons I don’t entirely understand, the fur then really began to fly. UNISON was criticised for not including evidence on mental health and disabilities, though this was not part of the motion either. Others suggested hearing opposing views, for instance from Digby Jones, or headteachers whose schools would be bankrupted by higher wages. And UNISON was angrily accused of making threats for saying that these discussions were a test of the new policy-making process, where I thought it was merely a statement of the obvious. It looks like it will be an interesting year, in more ways than one.