NEC Report, September / October 2009

National Executive Committee, 22 September 2009

The prime minister spent an hour with the NEC before leaving for the United Nations and G20 talks in America, where he would be pushing for further progress on climate change, development aid and reductions in nuclear weapons. These were testing times, not for him personally, the government or the party, but for our philosophy and our values. Faced with the imminent collapse of global banking, the Tories would have stood back and let the markets rip, while Labour acted to support home-buyers, school-leavers and frontline public services, and led international measures to avoid recession turning into depression. But he understood that voters felt insecure, and were still angry over MPs’ expenses.

Dennis Skinner said that Labour must make the case for spending, instead of getting dragged onto the Tory / LibDem cuts agenda. Support for the car industry, no bonuses for bankers, and a windfall tax on excess profits were powerful and effective messages. Others suggested persuading our semi-nationalised banks to increase lending and stop advising customers to invest offshore. Gordon Brown responded that international agreement was needed to control financial institutions. Labour’s deficit reduction programme would start after the recession, with 0.5% on national insurance, the new 50% tax band, and removing higher levels of tax relief. In contrast the Tories would cut inheritance tax for few thousand top earners. On student fees, he said that different bodies were making conflicting recommendations. I asked for reassurance that the winter fuel allowance, free TV licences and concessionary bus fares for pensioners would be safe, and Mary Turner reported that free school meals were wildly popular in the pilot areas. Finally Gordon Brown agreed with Keith Vaz, who said that having won the war, the Sri Lankan government must now win the peace, and end injustice towards the Tamils.

Rights and Wrongs

Deputy leader Harriet Harman attacked Tory arrogance and media assumptions that the election is already lost, and praised Labour’s energetic new parliamentary candidates. There was a thoughtful discussion of whether Labour should appear on platforms with BNP representatives, prompted by the BBC’s decision to invite them onto Question Time. Some argued that our long-standing “no platform for racists and fascists” principle should not be abandoned at the precise moment when it becomes important. Others shared their distaste, but felt that Labour must take the BNP on publicly and defeat their arguments. An empty chair would hand political airspace to other parties. And Glenis Willmott, European leader, pointed out that MEPs had no choice after two BNP members were elected in June. The NEC agreed that each situation should be considered individually. The phrase “British jobs for British workers” was best avoided, but Labour must tackle the underlying causes of resentment: poor housing, job insecurity, and unscrupulous employers exploiting migrant workers to undercut pay and conditions. Above all we must be out campaigning and listening in the community.

In her European report Glenis Willmott was pleased that though reduced in numbers from 19 to 13, Labour MEPs held ten key positions in the new parliament. Marta Andreasen, the European Union’s former chief accountant, who expressed concerns about corruption in the EU and was elected in June on the UKIP slate, has now resigned as UKIP treasurer because of unhappiness with how that party is run. Though amusing in one sense, this did not enhance the reputation of the parliament as a whole.

Several members have complained to me that recent party direct mailings were handled by TNT rather than Royal Mail. Peter Kenyon and Andy Kerr submitted a resolution which said:

“This meeting resolves that all Labour Party posted items should forthwith be sent by Royal Mail, or hand delivered by volunteers”

but withdrew it to allow for further discussion with the unions.

Parliamentary Report

Chief whip Nick Brown explained that Sir Thomas Legg would write to all MPs in October with his judgment on their expense claims after which he, the general secretary, NEC member Dianne Hayter and the Chair of the backbenchers’ parliamentary committee would consider whether any action was necessary. Sir Christopher Kelly’s report on reforming the system was also expected before Christmas. In addition expenses claimed last year would be available soon, followed by the first quarter of the current year, and transparency will be the norm from now on. The Labour group in the Lords have their own arrangements, and would have to decide any reform package for the upper chamber.

As previously reported, the NEC accepted the organisation committee’s recommendation that Bury North, Stretford & Urmston, Wirral South, North-West Durham, Newcastle North and Sittingbourne & Sheppey would select new candidates from all-women shortlists, while Carlisle, Darlington, Hyndburn, Luton South, Pudsey and Norwich North would have open selections. Burnley was referred back to the organisation committee, to be considered together with Warrington South, Makerfield and Wigan.

The Road to the Manifesto

Pat McFadden, Chair of the national policy forum, hoped for a meeting in December to follow up the 2008 Warwick marathon. He highlighted new laws preventing employers from including tips within the minimum wage, giving extra income to some of the lowest-paid workers. Members were concerned by press speculation about the manifesto, citing a referendum on electoral reform which had not been discussed by the NPF or the NEC.

The NEC approved a draft timetable, themes and speakers for annual conference. The week would showcase people whose lives had been transformed by Labour, and local government members offered to supply ammunition from Tory councils: for instance, Hammersmith & Fulham were knocking down council homes and ratcheting up rents, in moves which local MP Andrew Slaughter has described as “social cleansing”.

Margaret Wheeler, Chair of the conference arrangements committee, reported that 212 contemporary issues had been submitted, of which 201 were accepted, 10 would be referred to the NEC, and one was rejected because the constituency had already sent a constitutional amendment. The NEC agreed to put forward two uncontentious rule changes: to elect the auditors at conference rather than by ballot, and to tidy up the timetable for electing the treasurer. In July the NEC supported Caerphilly CLP’s proposal to add the Scottish and Welsh leaders to the NEC, but the general secretary was now seeking remission (withdrawal) so it could be considered with other proposals on NEC composition. Apparently the unions want to maintain balance by increasing their representation from the current 12 seats plus the treasurer, and as constituencies only have six places, we will be also be asking for more.

Ray Collins was still working on ways to satisfy those keen to drop contemporary issues and return to resolutions without a bust-up on the conference floor. The gist would be to defer the vote this year, but allow constituencies and affiliates to submit wording for the 2010 conference which could form the basis either of resolutions or of issues, with a vote at the opening session to decide which path to follow.

Annual Conference 26 September / 1 October 2009, Brighton

Members will have reports from their own delegates and formed their own impression from the media, so I will just add a few personal notes. Most remarkable was the reincarnation of Peter Mandelson. In 1997 he was defeated by Ken Livingstone for a seat on the NEC, to general rejoicing. In 2003 his brief appearance in a video clip produced spontaneous hissing around the hall. This year he finally fulfilled Tony Blair’s prophecy that the New Labour project would be complete when the party learned to love Peter Mandelson, in a bravura performance which had delegates not only cheering but smiling.

The argument for returning to resolutions was reinforced when many of last year’s contemporary issues were referred back to the policy commissions, including Remploy, energy regulation, the windfall tax and workers in a global economy, with a sense that they could bounce backwards and forwards for ever. The priorities ballot again resulted in constituencies adding only housing to the four trade union choices of school meals, public services, manufacturing and employment rights, where a fairer system could have allowed the 35 constituency submissions on the economy, finance and banking to be debated.

The session on the national policy forum (NPF) was yet again dominated by members of the NPF itself, who claimed that the system had proved its worth by delivering two winning manifestos. The NEC will lead a review after the election to see if even further improvements are needed. In the meantime connections with the wider party should be reinforced by the rule change which will elect future NPF constituency members by one-member-one-vote, carried by 66.8% to 33.2% (CLPs 55% in favour, 45% against; affiliates 79% in favour, 21% against). Having argued for one-member-one-vote elections in my first conference speech in 1997, I was particularly pleased by this result. The NEC rule changes were also carried: election of auditors by 99% to 1% (CLPs 98% to 2%; affiliates 100% to nil), and election of the treasurer by 99.5% to 0.5% (CLPs 99% to 1%; affiliates 100% to nil). All other amendments were referred to the NEC. And though finances are tight, treasurer Jack Dromey cited investment in the new upgraded membersnet as an example of continued support for campaigning.

The NEC at Conference

The NEC met briefly on the Saturday and Sunday to note the agenda and agree the general secretary’s skilful compromise on resolutions and issues. We did not reconvene till Wednesday evening, when it was agreed that next time the NEC should discuss emergency motions rather than having them put to conference without a recommendation, as last year, or with a presumed NEC attitude, as with this year’s motions on Sri Lanka, the East Coast main line, and the Royal Mail pension deficit.

In closing, tributes were paid to Cath Speight as Chair and retiring members Joe Mann, Debbie Coulter and Mike Griffiths. I was elected Chair of the NEC for the coming year, with Norma Stephenson of UNISON as vice-chair, and added my appreciation to Joe for his contribution to equalities, Debbie for her difficult and sometimes unrewarded work as co-convenor of the joint policy committee, Mike for his constant friendship and inclusiveness, and Cath for her courage in defending NEC decisions directly to members, in Airdrie & Shotts, in Durham and in Calder Valley. I hope I can live up to her example.

Stop Press – Selections Latest

The organisation committee agreed on 12 October that Burnley, Dartford, Swindon North and Thurrock would hold open selections, while Makerfield, Stevenage, Warrington South and Wigan would select from all-women shortlists. The position on Burnley changed not because of the volume of complaint, but because of more evidence about the electoral background. The NEC’s aim, in line with party policy, is to increase the proportion of women MPs, not just women candidates, whatever the outcome of the general election. That is why we are ensuring that sufficient women are selected for seats with 10,000-plus majorities like Durham North West, Makerfield and Wigan, as well as a fair share of the more challenging constituencies. However, further difficult decisions doubtless lie ahead. All NEC members agree that clear principles are needed in designating seats as open or all-women shortlists, but there is less agreement on what those principles should actually be.