NEC Report, September / October 2012

NEC Meeting, Tuesday 25 September 2012

Ed Miliband previewed the themes of his conference speech: continuing to attack the Tories for unfairness, incompetence and failure even in their own terms; showing how Labour could make a difference now; developing an economy that works for everyone; and giving a sense of the kind of country Britain could be with Labour in government.

Members asked for policies to win back our former supporters. Ed Milband agreed that undermining employment rights would not save jobs, and said that Labour was being effective in criticising the Tories’ universal credit. I welcomed his commitment to an economy that works not only for working people, but also for pensioners, children and the disabled. Others expressed concerns about tenants being forced to move or pay higher rent if they had “too many” bedrooms, and praised the Labour government in Wales for correcting GCSE English grades for 2,500 students who sat the examination in June. Responding to alarm that the arctic ice is melting at record rates, Ed Miliband pointed out that the latest Tory environment minister does not even believe in climate change: whatever happened to Vote Blue, Go Green?

Harriet Harman said that Labour, as a party of the whole United Kingdom, was best placed to campaign against Scottish independence. She highlighted David Cameron’s Mitt Romney moment, when he admitted to Denis McShane that hell would freeze over before anyone in Rotherham said anything positive about the Conservatives. However, Labour MPs are unevenly distributed: at the next election Labour has to gain 11 seats in London, where there are 38 current MPs, but also 11 seats in the East of England, which has just two, and the south needs support from better-endowed regions.

Planning Ahead

Although Ed Miliband described the LibDems as Tory accomplices in dismantling the NHS, trebling student fees and cutting tax for top earners, he acknowledged their role in derailing parliamentary boundary changes. The commission will still publish recommendations in October, but everyone now assumes that the 2015 election will be fought on current boundaries. Trigger ballots will be held for Labour MPs who wish to stand again, and I urged them to be honest: leaving at the last minute lets down local members, hands control to the NEC, and brings suspicions of deals and parachutes.

Vacated Labour seats and opposition-held targets need to select as soon as possible, but first the organisation committee has to decide which will be open and which will use all-women shortlists. Consultation with local parties will not be complete by its meeting on 16 October, and I have asked for an extra meeting in November if there is sufficient information, rather than wait till 15 January.

More immediately there are elections on 15 November for the mayor of Bristol, 41 police and crime commissioners (PCCs), and three Westminster by-elections: in Manchester Central and Cardiff South & Penarth, where the MPs are standing as PCCs, and in Corby where the colourful Louise Mensch resigned after just two years, a must-win for Labour. UNISON members in the police civilian service are particularly concerned at the sweeping powers of the new PCCs, and in poorly-publicised elections at the dark, damp fag-end of the year, turnout could make all the difference.

General secretary Iain McNicol reported on finances, and the NEC recorded thanks to staff leaving through voluntary severance. Some are not widely known outside HQ, but have given unstinting loyalty and support for many years, and I shall miss them. I asked that regional offices, where staffing levels are already low, should not be expected to carry permanent reductions as constituencies rely on their assistance and expertise. The development fund set up under Refounding Labour is helping to pay for some local organisers, but not everyone can afford to match central contributions.

Conference Preparation

Greg Beales, executive director for strategy and planning, said that 70% of swing voters thought the country was heading in the wrong direction, and Labour must convince them that we had answers on the real issues which affect their lives: jobs, prices, health and crime. Harry Donaldson, Chair of the conference arrangements committee (CAC), offered to explain the reasons for rejecting motions and rule changes to any delegates who were still confused. Some members suggested that fringe events should have more diverse speakers, though as they are paying, the party cannot enforce this.

The number of delegates had fallen to 594 from 471 constituencies, down from a ten-year high in 2011 when 630 delegates represented 522 constituencies. This was despite the free pass, and I would welcome any explanation. The +1 recruitment campaign, with every member asked to sign up a friend, was going well. No figures were available for registered supporters, though numbers were reported to be picking up. As conference agreed in 2011, when they reach 50,000 they will get a small share in electing the next leader. We hope that this will not be for many years, but the NEC will have to devise checks on who counts as a current rather than a former supporter when the time comes.

Partnership into Power Latest

The principles agreed in July would be put to conference for approval as a package, though Ken Livingstone murmured that unamendable take-it-or-leave-it documents seemed rather North Korean. The meeting also endorsed a rule change to allow conference to choose priorities for the national policy forum (NPF) from a list discussed by the joint policy committee (JPC).

This list had not hitherto been seen by the NEC and the 17 items seemed an odd collection: for instance education was represented only by school sport, ignoring the weightier question of what to do with the smorgasbord of academies and free schools which an incoming Labour government will inherit. Other topics were a British investment bank, youth unemployment, private pensions, protecting workers, refounding the British company, tax avoidance, low-carbon industry, buses and railways, the housing crisis, safety and anti-social behaviour, 21st century NHS, childcare, the Arab spring, the military covenant, young people and politics, and devolution to communities. I was told that the JPC spent hours discussing whether to add privatisation before deciding to pursue it through other means.

Policy priorities would be ranked in the same way as contemporary motions, with constituencies and unions each casting 50% of the vote and the top four in each half going through. This method favours the unions, which can co-ordinate more effectively, and has never produced more than six in total, though NPF Chair Angela Eagle said cryptically that she expected 4 + 4 to equal 8 in this case.

Overall I thought the document should do more to explain who is on the NPF, how members can get elected to it, and its relationship with the NEC, the JPC and the policy commissions. I was promised that all this will be explained on the new on-line policy hub to be launched in November. New policy commissions have yet to be established, but I expect that the old e-mail addresses will still work.

More Rules

The meeting considered two further rule changes deferred from July. The first concerned whether to restore the women’s officer to the core team of constituency officers, or add an equalities officer instead.   Based on e-mail feedback I was provisionally against change: an equalities officer would have to cover too many responsibilities, and a women’s officer would create a two-tier executive, as other posts for young, disabled, ethnic minority and LGBT (gay) members were lower-status non-voting co-ordinators. There was no consensus and we agreed to return to this on Sunday morning.

The second strengthened Labour’s commitment to diversity by selecting more candidates from “under-represented socio-economic” backgrounds. Ken Livingstone proposed “working-class” instead, though there can be contradictions between how people define themselves and how they are defined by others. “Plebs” was also suggested, though I preferred “all walks of life”, put forward by David Watts, Chair of the parliamentary Labour party. Actually what we really need are more people who have had real jobs outside politics, whether as a nurses, bank clerks or cleaners. This was deferred as well.

During the discussion one member thought that the armed forces also needed special consideration. This was not pursued, but earlier the NEC noted that Labour is committed to upholding the military covenant, ensuring that serving and former members of the forces do not face any barriers to participating in the party. So far the special joining rate of £1 has recruited around 400 across the UK.

Finally Glenis Willmott MEP reported that Labour had played a key role in cutting off European Union funds to the BNP, and in protecting and supporting victims of crimes in the rest of Europe.

Women’s Conference, Saturday 29 September 2012

This is increasingly popular in its own right, and not as a mere curtain raiser. Harriet Harman and Yvette Cooper spoke and Miriam O’Reilly, downgraded by the BBC for allegedly being too old, took the chair in the afternoon. Platform contributions were kept to a minimum, and the open-mike session and questions from the floor allowed over 40 delegates to tell their stories and give their views.

These ranged across housing, under-representation of women in council cabinets and thinktanks, the kind of planet our grandchildren would inherit, the lack of abortion rights for women in Northern Ireland [this was before Jeremy Hunt weighed in], the impact of the public sector pay freeze, opposition to coalition cuts in general, domestic violence, childcare, and the unfairness of tying benefits to household rather than individual income.

The loudest applause went to Sheila Taylor from Bermondsey & Old Southwark, who regretted that male leaders’ wives were treated as appendages, and not only in America. She wondered whether Jack Dromey or Ed Balls would ever introduce Harriet Harman and Yvette Cooper as “their hero” or help them off the stage after their speeches. A delegate who got a local lap-dancing club closed told how she was vilified by her local women’s institute as a “man-hating feminist”. And Hilary Burrage drew attention to the horror of female genital mutilation, with 24,000 British girls at risk every year. It would be great if the 148,950 people who signed the anti-badger cull e-petition could sign this one as well: it’s at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/35313 and currently has just 1,245 signatures.

Within the party Labour was asked to make better use of older members, less able to tramp the streets knocking on doors for hours in the rain: sometimes it seemed that only canvassing was valued, and there must be other tasks. All-women shortlists were backed, though it is still a struggle: a newly-elected councillor had to fight off a male rival who stood as an independent and was assisted by a Labour MP, and four-fifths of Welsh MPs are still men. There was clear support for constituency women’s officers, and I took this back to the NEC.

NEC Meeting, Sunday 30 September 2012

Miraculously consensus now reigned on the troublesome rule changes. The model rules would include the women’s officer in the core team, and constituencies would be reminded that, with NEC approval, they can choose to add executive officer posts for other areas of diversity. On making candidates more diverse and more representative, working-class won out over all alternatives.

However there were concerns about the only two surviving rule changes from constituencies, from Bridgend and Islington North. These called for conference to be able to amend NPF documents and for more minority reports to reach the conference floor, and were timetabled for Wednesday. But on Sunday the whole Partnership into Power package would be put to a vote, and if carried the amendments would fall because they covered the same part of the rulebook. Union and constituency members argued for the amendments to be taken together with the PiP debate, but in vain.

Conference, Sunday 30 September / Wednesday 3 October 2012

Delegates from Islington North and Bridgend took up the argument at the start of conference, but were unsuccessful. So were attempts to add an emergency motion on Virgin’s challenge for the west coast mainline franchise, and given the fiasco which exploded on Wednesday the CAC missed a golden opportunity to highlight the £40 million of taxpayers’ money wasted by government bungling.

These skirmishes were followed by a one-hour session with professor Michael Sandel, who invited delegates to consider dilemmas such as whether milk prices should be high to benefit farmers and retailers or low to benefit consumers; whether super-casinos were good or bad; and whether children should be bribed to write thank-you letters. I believe these drew from his latest book on “The moral limits of markets: what money can’t buy”, and signed copies were available for purchase.

I would be interested in whether delegates found this experiment more, or less, exciting than the standard conference routine. Regrettably it left time for only five speakers on equalities and six on Partnership into Power, where Angela Eagle introduced the latest revamp. She hoped that the on-line policy hub, acting as Labour’s electronic town square, would usher in a new era of openness and engagement. The proposals were, as expected, carried by close to 99% in both the constituency and the trade union sections..

At the end of the afternoon the votes on contemporary motions were announced: the unions chose banking, growth and jobs; housing; the economic alternative; and employment rights. The constituencies also chose housing and banking, growth and jobs, and added schools and health and social care, giving a broader range of topics than usual. Later in the week three emergency motions were accepted, from ASLEF on Colombia, from the TSSA on (lack of) refunds to rail passengers, and from USDAW on cuts to the criminal injuries compensation scheme. I hope that all these will be published on the party website, but if not, I can provide the text.

One Nation Labour

The highlight of the week was Ed Miliband’s speech, which impressed those in the hall, many watching at home, and even most of the media. The next day he hosted a question-and-answer session, enjoying the more relaxed atmosphere. Though both he and Ed Balls are sticking to the line that public sector pay restraint is necessary and will protect jobs, he did promise to join the March for a Future that Works on Saturday 20 October, so there will be further opportunities to persuade him otherwise.   Certainly he is no longer the Tories’ secret weapon, and after the first presidential debate in America I am rather more worried about Barack Obama.

There were too many speeches to list in full, and everyone will have their own favourites. Carwyn Jones, first minister of Wales and growing in political stature, reminded us that there is an alternative, even within the UK. Several speakers pointed out that if the national minimum wage had risen at the same rate as top people’s pay, it would now be nearly £19 an hour instead of just £6.08, and others highlighted Labour councils who pay the living wage. Defence secretary Jim Murphy announced co-operation with Timpsons, who wlll guarantee an interview to any ex-service man or woman seeking to return to civilian life, and Wickes may join the scheme.

From the floor Heather Wetzel advocated a land value tax, and Bryony King from Leeds spoke passionately against the Tories’ 15% cut in the science budget: the money spent bailing out the banks exceeded total science funding since the birth of Christ. In replying to the debate I suggested that more scientists should become MPs; it could encourage better evidence-based policy-making.

Val Burns from south-west Devon was the only delegate to speak on the treasurer’s report, but she made two points which will be widely shared: could membership forms and rates be made clearer, and can we avoid the shock when someone who joins for £1 is then asked to pay £45 the following year? Rule changes from the NEC were overwhelmingly carried with little debate: many simply brought the rulebook up to date with developments such as the creation of police and crime commissioners.

The new ballot on policy priorities produced results remarkably similar to the ballots on contemporary motions, with the four trade union choices of health, youth unemployment, protecting workers and tax avoidance going through, and constituencies adding housing. Conference was informed from the platform and in writing that these five topics would lead the work of the national policy forum …

NEC meeting, Wednesday 3 October 2012

. . . so I raised this same-old same-old feel at our last meeting. I was assured that the list was never intended to be final, and the joint policy committee would have a telephone chat the next morning.

However the main business was to hand over to the NEC for the year ahead. Harriet Yeo was elected as Chair and Angela Eagle as vice-chair, and Ed Miliband led tributes to staff who were leaving, and to departing NEC members. This year saw little change, with Peter Wheeler returning in place of Luke Akehurst in the constituency section. Michael Cashman ended his year as Chair by standing down from the NEC, and he would not be seeking re-election to the European parliament in 2014. He was first elected as a constituency representative, but for many years he has served in the section for MPs and MEPs. I shall miss him: members of the NEC hold very different views on almost everything, but share a commitment to the party and the people that rely on us, and we do, usually, get on and respect each other. His successor is Steve Rotheram, elected MP for Liverpool Walton in 2010, who joins old hands Margaret Beckett and Dennis Skinner.

Conference, Thursday 4 October 2012

On the final morning it was announced that four more topics would be added to priorities for the NPF: childcare, buses and railways, a British investment bank, and young people and politics, all of which had considerable support among constituency delegates, bringing the total to nine.

Harriet Harman closed conference with a witty and polished performance and the good news that during the week Labour gained more than 1,200 new members and over 5,000 registered supporters. After the Red Flag and Jerusalem, everyone left to catch their trains and return to the real world.

Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this to be circulated to members as a personal account, not an official record. Reports of meetings from July 2008 onwards are at http://www.labourblogs.com/public-blog/annblack, with earlier reports at www.annblack.com.