This was a special meeting, called to follow up the November session on “making the NEC work better”, agree aims and objectives, prepare for the 2006 elections, and consider progress on the party renewal project. Fewer than half the members were able to attend, but this did allow constituency representatives to explore their concerns in more detail than usual. Chief among these is access to information. Our facilitator identified the devolution of power to subcommittees and officers as a strength, but this can cause problems in explaining NEC decisions made by subcommittees which we are not on, or by national and regional party staff. The disputes panel was of particular interest, as it deals with conflicts within and between local parties and some of the information is politically or legally sensitive. I am a member and the panel does work in a thoughtful and open-minded way, but it is not enough to tell other constituency representatives, and the members who ask them for advice, that they should simply trust and respect their colleagues to do the right thing. Replies and reasons should be available, as they should to all enquiries from members.
Some NEC members still felt unable to discuss confidential matters because they would be leaked, and said that was why we were not told about staff redundancies. However journalists got the story anyway despite only the officers and the business board knowing about it, and Christine Shawcroft reminded us that decisions leak even where no NEC member is involved. In general, better communication was seen as important, within and beyond the NEC. Accountability is especially difficult for constituency representatives, responsible to nearly 200,000 individual members, and though I am regularly praised for my efforts in reporting back, I do this with no encouragement or assistance from the party machine. The website could raise the NEC’s profile by publishing official accounts of meetings, as David Triesman did for a while, and a secure section for NEC members was suggested, though I do not believe anything on the internet is truly secure. Newer members – and indeed some longer-serving ones – would value a proper induction into the mysteries of the NEC.
Jeremy Beecham, the current Chair of the NEC, suggested that our role should include the finances of the party and any possible use of state funding, as well as membership (as usual figures were not given). Others added custodianship of the manifesto, and Ian McCartney offered to provide regular updates on its implementation. Dealing with differences between party and government, for instance on the fourth option for council housing, and the issues raised by Gate Gourmet, was also important, if we were to avoid PiP (Partnership in Power) turning into PoP (Partnership out of Power).
Seventy-two of the hundred most marginal Labour seats have elections in May, so these are nationally as well as locally important. Greg Cook ran through polling data, Byron Taylor outlined trade union involvement – members are often more likely to trust their union than a politician – and Phil Woolas and Ian McCartney discussed the political angles. Labour expected to do better in seats last contested in 2004, a bad year for us, than those from 2002. The overall campaign message was “securing Britain’s future” which covered everything from safer streets to protection from international terrorism, and left the other parties vulnerable on ID cards and ASBOs. The LibDem disarray could well help us more than it helps Cameron’s Tories, but getting the Labour vote out would be critical. On a practical level, candidates in target seats are committed to 50 personal contacts per week, and postal votes are being harvested, though I raised the problem of ex-Labour postal voters whose increased turnout rate now benefits our opponents.
Dennis Skinner emphasised that we must campaign on high employment, falling NHS waiting lists and a stable economy, paint the Tories as soft on drugs, and stop banging on about choice. He pleaded for ministers to avoid stirring up unnecessary controversies, citing David Miliband’s remarks on reorganising local government. Ian McCartney said he would try to deal with the Ministry of Foot in Mouth, but added that what upset members most was Labour MPs voting against the government. He assured Mohammed Azam that plans were in place to combat the BNP.
The NEC’s priorities were agreed as continued electoral achievement, successful conferences, financial stability and party renewal. These included taking forward Partnership in Power, and I said, again, that the test of its effectiveness will not be whether the national policy forum had a good time in Nottingham, but whether members on the ground notice any difference. Several people suggested a more positive approach to membership. The paper talked only of reducing lapsers, and research into what motivates members, but did not mention recruitment. Given the decline across all political parties, maintaining membership at current levels appeared to be the maximum achievable goal.
Unfortunately there was no time to discuss a tabled paper on the Party Renewal Project, under which party staff have been developing various initiatives following last year’s conference, which endorsed Building a Party for the Future. That document identified the key questions as
– How can all parties revitalise their organisation? Some of the most successful are those which decided to shift to all member general committee GCs, with the executive committee responsible for the day-to-day running of local parties. Over the next year the Party Chair will be talking to GCs across the country, asking them whether this innovation will revitalise their poorly-attended GCs. In the long run CLPs will only be viable if all of the members have the opportunity to participate.
– How can all local manifestos be developed using “Big Conversation” techniques which involve local communities, as suggested by the Partnership in Power report to this conference?
– How can supporters be involved in all activities of local parties, particularly in social events and campaigning?
The new paper aims to sustain Labour as a broad-based political movement. It talks of suggesting a model of organisation to local parties, and strengthening the links with local, regional and national trade unions, though I still hope there will be no attempt to impose a one-size-fits-all model. A party renewal toolkit will be launched at the spring conference, and “beacon constituencies” will carry out projects such as involving the community in policy development and working across constituency boundaries through information technology. But the biggest enterprise is the trebling in size of the Labour Supporters’ Network (LSN) to 300,000 by September, through both local and national means. At this point it would be almost twice the paying membership. Supporters could not vote in internal elections or stand as Labour candidates, but a shift of this magnitude does raise some issues.
First is how far it will embed Labour in the community. A number of local parties told me that they would welcome supporters, and asked how they could contact the 200 or so in their constituency. But this information is not available, and though there are plans to provide it, primary communication will continue to be by e-mail. So we will have a database of people who are nearly 100% internet-enabled, and nationally rather than locally connected. I am not sure that this makes us more representative.
Second is funding. Members bring in money, supporters cost money, and the NEC was not told how the sums will add up. The LSN was advertised on Christmas cards as “Count me in, I’m Labour. You don’t have to be a Labour Party member, and there is no joining fee.” Soon after, subscriptions rose by 50% to £36. There is a risk that members will downgrade to supporters, rather than supporters being drawn in as members. And this is linked to the third consideration: service. The commonest complaint from members is that no-one acknowledges their letters, and the party cannot afford to respond to individual submissions to Partnership in Power. Unless we sort out customer care fast, members will start asking hard questions about what added value they get for their money.