NEC Meeting, Tuesday 17 September 2013
Ed Miliband said that annual conference would be an opportunity to show the real differences which a Labour government would bring to people’s lives. He had started at the TUC by strongly attacking zero-hours contracts, and hoped we would be pleasantly surprised by the policies to be unveiled in Brighton. Despite the rosy Cameron / Osborne claims, living standards had fallen in 38 of the last 39 months, and this was not a side-effect of their economic policy; it was their economic policy.
Many of us praised Labour’s decision to vote against attacking Syria. The government defeat led to president Obama’s decision to consult congress and a delay following which, within a month, Syria’s chemical weapons are being destroyed by mutual agreement. While the situation is still appalling, bombing Damascus would not have helped the beleaguered citizens, and the lessons of Iraq – waiting for the weapons inspectors, involving the United Nations – have borne fruit. On domestic issues there was a long wish-list: scrapping the bedroom tax, a publicly-owned Royal Mail, free school meals, a living wage, reversing employment tribunal fees, support for collective bargaining, alternatives to austerity, giving hope to low-paid public service workers forced to rely on food banks, and including the old, the young and the jobless alongside the ubiquitous “hard-working people”. And councillors pointed out that Labour was already making a difference in local government despite savage cuts.
Refounding Labour Mark II
However most of this session was spent on Ed Miliband’s plan to change the basis of trade union affiliation from opting out to opting in. He believed that this would attract many of the three million levy-payers into active local participation and create a mass party of up to 800,000 members. Ray Collins’ interim report was not available yet, but the NEC was asked to agree a timetable leading to a special conference in London on 1 March 2014. Recommendations would be based on consultation between conference and Christmas Eve, led by Labour MPs and special forums for local parties. I hoped that these events would also include policy and campaigning elements.
Everyone agrees that Labour must reach into the workplace and the community more effectively, but several speakers argued that announcing the answers before posing the questions was the wrong way round. For some, faith in the leader was sufficient. Others wanted to believe, but pleaded for signs that this would work. And some of us thought the financial risks too great. The NEC is responsible under Clause I for organising and maintaining a political Labour party. We are still paying off Tony Blair’s debts. The GMB are merely anticipating the impact of these new proposals in withholding £1 million: they contacted 20,000 members and only 81 joined Labour. All unions struggle to find delegates to local parties, and in UNISON, which already offers a choice, more new members join the non-affiliated political fund. While levy-payers’ money would still go into unions’ political funds, general secretaries who pass it on to Labour after individual members declined to join would be on pretty shaky ground. And many unions are in the middle of balloting to retain political funds which cover all campaigning, as they are required to do every ten years. All this makes their task more difficult.
I asked what had been learned from the registered supporters project, also designed to open up the party. In 2011 Peter Hain and Ed Miliband anticipated well over 50,000 within a year. After two years we have, I am told, under 20,000 unverified e-mail addresses. (Curiously Oxford East has 36 supporters according to MemberCentre, but there are only four in the whole south-east region.)
General secretary Iain McNicol and treasurer Diana Holland said that Labour’s present financial situation was strong and whatever Ray Collins recommended, the party would stick to the agreed strategy. No money would be spent till it was in the bank. So questions include (a) what percentage of levy-payers would opt to join Labour (b) how would that change if the fee was raised from the current £3 a year (c) if affiliated members acquired extra rights, how many full members would continue paying £45? Indeed Christine Shawcroft argued for slashing the standard rate to boost membership, as done successfully but briefly by Tony Blair in Sedgefield. This is supported by contributors to the current consultation, but would sharpen concern over sustaining income. And, of course, Labour would need policies which are attractive to ordinary union members.
The proposals also cover candidate selection procedures, aiming to remove financial, political and practical obstacles, and plans for primaries, notably for the London mayoral candidate. So please read Ray Collins’ document, contribute individually or collectively to firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.labour.org.uk/onenationparty, and copy me in to your reply.
After discussion the special conference was approved with six against (Jim Kennedy, Andy Kerr, Christine Shawcroft, Dennis Skinner, Mary Turner and myself). Information will be circulated in October and there will be a fee of £25 per delegate.
The Ground War
Iain McNicol reported that nearly all the 106 battleground seats have selected candidates and more than 100 organisers are already deployed, part-funded by membership income. I hoped that all areas would follow the northern region in identifying European campaign co-ordinators in every constituency and holding monthly European action days, and was promised a full discussion of the Euro-elections in November. Regional lists of candidates have been published, though not the numbers: partly because the counting method is complex, and partly because each announcement sparked fresh media stories about trade union influence. In Scotland there is a by-election in Dunfermline on 24 October, and the independence referendum is less than a year away. Concerns were raised about proposals being drawn up by the Scottish executive’s devolution commission, and these will be circulated to the NEC.
Arnie Graf spoke about training candidates and party organisers in community engagement. A high point was a performance of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists on the Wirral which drew in working-class children and raised £8,000. He said that voter-ID and community organising go together: we can’t get out the vote unless we know where it is. Repeated contact can double the chance that supporters will make it to a polling station, so increasing numbers on the ground is vital.
Angela Eagle gave an update on policy development. All documents produced by Jon Cruddas’ review were on the Your Britain website, though members felt it would still be helpful to have a diagram of how all the bits fit together. The final national policy forum in 2014 would lay the basis for the manifesto.
Harry Donaldson, Chair of the conference arrangements committee (CAC) said that more than 200 contemporary resolutions were received. Many were ruled out of order, and various NEC members argued for those on housing, free school meals and the bedroom tax to be ruled back in [the first two topics were readmitted on appeal, and the third proved unnecessary]. The number of constituencies who sent delegates would be reported to the next NEC.
Steve Rotheram MP and Jim Kennedy from UCATT led calls for the Carillion stall to be removed because of the firm’s record on blacklisting workers, ruining their employment prospects and their lives. This was slightly tricky as Carillion had a contract and ran a stall last year. However feelings were so strong that Iain McNicol agreed to disinvite them as tactfully as possible. In future the NEC would see the list of invited organisations well in advance, as we used to, and perhaps consider criteria for accepting or rejecting money. Members were also unhappy about a Labour Life fringe meeting, with an all-male panel discussing the harm that abortion does to women, but as this was outside the conference zone there was little that the NEC could do.
Most of the constitutional amendments submitted last year fell foul of the “three-year rule” which prevents anything being discussed again until three years after that part of the rulebook was last changed (in practice a four-year rule, with changes made in 2011 unamendable until 2015). Only two made it through. Northampton’s proposal to limit suspension to 12 months attracted considerable sympathy, and led to a discussion about inconsistent use of suspensions. Further, while suspension did not imply guilt, suspended members were unable to stand as candidates and therefore punished when they might eventually be cleared. Some suggested a 12-month limit unless criminal or legal actions were in progress. Others argued that we should look at all disciplinary and related procedures as a whole, and we couldn’t rewrite the rule at the fag-end of a four-hour meeting. I pointed out that we require a one-year delay to give the NEC time to consider amendments, and next year we should have these discussions much earlier. Northampton would be asked to remit their amendment with the promise that it would be taken seriously [to which they agreed]. Leyton & Wanstead and Redcar wanted to allow local electoral colleges to elect the leaders of Labour groups. This has a number of financial, practical and legal problems, and the NEC opposed it.
Finally I piloted a rule change of my own through the NEC. Refounding Labour gave local parties £1.50 per member, but as standard membership fees rise with inflation, this would steadily decrease as a proportion of the total. Conference agreed, and from 2014 the £1.50 will also rise with inflation. It will only be a few pounds at first, but will mount up over time. A modest but pleasing result.
Conference 21 / 25 September 2013, Brighton
Conference has moved on from the days of pre-dawn NEC meetings, knife-edge votes on foundation hospitals and Iraq, lobbying by delegates and rushing through the scrum of microphones to the hall. The NEC no longer discusses resolutions, but waves them through regardless. So we met just twice during the week. On Saturday 21 September Ed Miliband told us that he had listened to the NEC and decided that Labour would scrap the bedroom tax. This was applauded, with pleas for more rabbits to be pulled out of the hat on Tuesday. We didn’t get nationalisation of the railways or Royal Mail, though the freeze in fuel prices until 2017 was warmly received.
On Tuesday 24 September the NEC reviewed the week with some satisfaction. Ed Miliband’s speech was appreciated in the conference hall and by the wider television audience, with specific campaign pledges, a sense of direction and a vision for the country. Since then the Tories have switched from describing him as weak to describing him as dangerous. This is a definite improvement as long as he keeps the right enemies: the over-powerful, the uncaring, the vested interests.
We said goodbye to Harriet Yeo, stepping down after chairing conference with skill and humour, and to Andy Worth, and welcomed Cath Speight, returning as a GMB nominee, and Andi Worth of the TSSA. Angela Eagle was elected Chair and Jim Kennedy as vice-chair. Jim’s election address for the NEC began:
“I am working-class and a trade unionist: there, I’ve said it, I hope I haven’t overstepped the mark. Until recently such a statement would not have been necessary; after all there have been many declarations about making the PLP more representative of the society we live and work in …”
If all goes well he will take the helm for the 2015 general election. The party will be in good hands.
I’m keen to hear your impressions as delegates, visitors, sofa surfers and Parliament Channel addicts, and will take them to the NEC on 4 / 5 November. I will ask again for daily agendas including the text of motions to be loaded onto the party website for home viewers. A few key points:
Six contemporary topics were chosen for debate, with the unions prioritising cost of living, Royal Mail, employment rights and lobbying, and constituencies adding housing and the NHS. An emergency motion on the railways was also accepted. Heidi Alexander MP and Tom Blenkinsop MP were elected to the conference arrangements committee (CAC) with Katy Clark MP and Peter Willsman fairly close behind. Please feel free to get in touch for details, or with any concerns.
Proceedings ran smoothly except for the third day when delegates rejected the CAC report because points of order were not satisfactorily addressed. Technically this left the hall without an agenda, but it made no difference: the programme continued anyway. All motions were carried, including pledges to renationalise Royal Mail and to take the railways back into public ownership when their franchises expire. This brought an e-mailed question from Jake, a teacher:
“It was widely reported that conference overwhelmingly voted to renationalise the railways and Royal Mail, but that the party leadership has simply stated that this is not party policy and these votes will be ignored. If it really is this easy to ignore conference votes, what’s the point in even holding them? If the party leaders can say what is, or what is not party policy, is it not a bit of a sham to put issues to vote at conference?
Any insight you could give me about this would be greatly appreciated. It would be really useful when I attempt to explain it to A-Level politics students!”
Answers welcome. And finally, most security measures were gone. No Ring of Steel, no cops with guns, no X-ray scanners, no living in a cage. It was wonderful to walk out of the hotel and straight across to the sea. I hope it means that Britain is a safer place, and not that we are unimportant …