The NEC met at noon on Sunday to note resolutions approved by the conference arrangements committee (CAC). Several members were concerned that for the first time, more resolutions had been rejected than accepted, either as not contemporary (Trident, Iraq) or as out of order (the leadership). Some blamed this on the growth of identical “model resolutions” which stand or fall together. I suggested circulating examples of acceptable and non-acceptable submissions, with explanations, as a guide. For instance many of the health motions began by referring to a report in June 2006, while the national policy forum (NPF) was still meeting, and constituencies may assume that this is sufficient, though it is presumably a minor announcement on 4 August, hidden in paragraph seven, which got them through. There is also a constitutional anomaly in that delegates cannot refer back the CAC report because voting for priority topics starts before conference opens. However this change was introduced so that delegates did not have to miss any of the session, so there is no completely satisfactory answer. It was clarified that Ian Paisley was attending a private meeting on Thursday, not addressing conference as reported in the press. Tony Blair closed by stressing the importance of good strong debates on policies which mattered to the people, even if there were differing views.
Sunday afternoon included opening ceremonies and the NPF report, where I would have liked to hear whether ordinary delegates agreed with claims from NPF speakers that Partnership in Power gives every member a voice. I have already undertaken to see if PiP co-ordinators can attend the closed policy seminars at future conferences. The priorities ballot produced six topics, with constituencies adding climate change and housing to the trade union choices of pensions, rights at work, health and corporate liability. On all except the first there were clearly two prototype motions, one supporting most of what the government has done, the other acknowledging gains but also raising concerns, and it was not surprising that each of the five produced two different composite motions.
The NEC meeting started at 8:45 a.m., just 15 minutes before conference opened, after lobbying by some constituency delegates demanding unity. The trouble is that everyone would like a united position, but differs on what that position should be. In addition to the composite motions on pensions, rights at work, health and corporate liability, draft statements were tabled on each issue, and the NEC was asked to support these and oppose the composites if the movers did not remit (withdraw) them. Members voted 18-13 to defer a decision pending efforts to reach consensus with the proposers, and to reconvene later. Time ran out for the first two subjects, and conference voted without advice from the NEC. Composite 3, calling for faster implementation of the Warwick agreement on employment rights, was carried, and the less critical composite 4 was lost. However, correspondence between employment minister Jim Fitzpatrick and the CWU and Amicus unions suggested that much progress had been made and constructive dialogue would continue. On pensions there was again considerable overlap, but composite 5, which opposed raising the state pension age until health inequalities were eradicated, was carried and the milder composite 6 was lost.
The morning session produced minor heckling when Lord Drayson praised Labour for defending scientific research against animal rights extremists. This year the shout of “rubbish” was wisely ignored. Stewards had clear guidance on dealing with disruption from the audience, and security within the ring of steel was light-touch and sensible. The highlight was Gordon Brown’s speech, and it was depressing that the media headlined a throwaway remark by the prime minister’s wife instead.
The afternoon covered party funding, the treasurer’s report, and rule changes. Controversy centred on the amendment from Beverley and Holderness CLP, requiring staff to act impartially in carrying out their duties. Most speakers defended the staff, who have had a traumatic summer, though a statement from Tony Robinson, based on his experience on the NEC, criticised the “culture of stitching and fixing”. But there are already codes of conduct, and simply enforcing them would protect the hard-working majority who play by the rules. The amendment was defeated 12.04% to 87.96% (constituencies 14.95% / 85.05%, affiliates 9.13% / 90.87%).
On other topics the NEC plan for collecting councillors’ subscriptions was carried 98.50% to 1.50% (constituencies 97.69% / 2.31%, affiliates 99.31% / 0.69%). Other amendments were lost: limiting leaders to a maximum of ten years by 3.33% to 96.67% (constituencies 6.45% / 93.55%, affiliates 0.22% / 99.78%), sending out nomination forms for the leader and deputy leader each year by 14.70% to 85.30% (constituencies 19.07% / 80.93%, affiliates 10.32% / 89.68%), and establishing older people’s forums by 13.28% to 86.72% (constituencies 17.53% / 82.47%, affiliates 9.03% / 90.97%).
The NEC met at 8 a.m. and agreed without a vote a statement on housing which acknowledged previous conference decisions and noted that all these issues were being discussed by a sub-group of the sustainable communities policy commission. I asked the sub-group to keep constituencies informed of their progress. The statement was later carried by conference, composite 9 on the same subject was remitted, and composite 10, reprising the last two years’ debates, was carried on a card vote by 65.65% to 34.35% (constituencies 44.28% / 55.72%, affiliates 87.01% / 12.99%). The NEC also supported an emergency resolution on Darfur and the composite on climate change. In the main conference Tony Blair’s emotional speech marked the end of an era, for better or for worse.
The NEC met at 7:30 a.m., after negotiations on health and corporate manslaughter failed to reach consensus. The statement on health now included the prime minister’s recognition of limits to the role of the market, further assurances for outsourced staff, monitoring the impact of payment by results, and recognising the serious financial problems in some areas and the need to give trusts more time to balance their books. It also called on the NPF urgently to develop new ways of widening participation in policy-making, which I thought we did last year. But there would be no fundamental review of policy directions about which many remain uneasy. The statement was carried 16-15 with 11 trade union members and Mohammed Azam, Christine Shawcroft, Pete Willsman and myself against, as was a statement on corporate manslaughter, with continued concerns about holding individual directors to account. The NEC endorsed an emergency motion on the crisis in food manufacturing.
The health debate was heated. The mover of composite 7, supporting current policies, agreed to remit, but UNISON declined. General secretary Dave Prentis over-ran the red light and was cut off in mid-flow due to not hearing the Chair’s warning, and a delegate complained about being showered with “loyalist” flyers. UNISON’s composite 8 was carried on a show of hands and the NEC statement was rejected on a card vote by 37.52% to 62.48% (constituencies 62.35% / 37.65%, affiliates 12.68% / 87.32%). I am not sure where this leaves policy, but again the leadership split the unions from the constituencies. If there had been a vote on Trident it would almost certainly have gone his way.
At the end of the day the NEC met again, thanked departing members Mohammed Azam and Louise Baldock for their contribution, welcomed newly-elected Ellie Reeves and Walter Wolfgang, praised Jeremy Beecham for leadership through a challenging year, and elected Mike Griffiths as Chair and Dianne Hayter as vice-chair for 2006/2007 in a model of smooth transition. There will be a full review of conference at the next meeting, including an inquest into the late accreditation fiasco.
The debate on corporate manslaughter ended with support for composite 2, which would ensure that individual directors could be held liable. Composite 1 was remitted and the NEC statement went to a card vote. This was not announced by close of play, but in fact it was defeated 65.23% to 34.77% (constituencies 65.23% / 34.77%, affiliates 12.53% / 87.47%). John Reid was loudly applauded, but I was alarmed by his statement: “it cannot be right that the rights of an individual suspected terrorist be placed above the rights, the life and the limb of the rest of the British people … no ifs, no buts, it’s just plain wrong.” Not a terrorist, note, but merely a suspected terrorist, who may be entirely innocent. This is no way to rebuild trust within and between our communities.
The closing session also saw the first use of the f-word, from the rostrum anyway, by Bob Geldof, and maybe the first use of the s-word “sorry” by John Prescott, in a final barnstorming performance. Overall, the party has pulled back from the abyss. It is now up to everyone, particularly those at the top who caused most of the trouble, to stop the sniping and restore some comradeship.