The Chair Jeremy Beecham welcomed members back after a long hot summer, politically and financially as well as literally. Most of the blame for infighting was laid at the door of ministers and senior MPs, echoing my feedback from ordinary members as well as that from the majority of hardworking backbenchers. Tony Blair agreed this had been damaging, but there was still time to put it right, and the morning’s political cabinet had shown an encouraging desire for unity. There were no ideological divides such as the Tory splits over Europe, though some pointed out that personality clashes were more difficult to handle than policy differences. He said we had to decide whether we wanted to stay in power, or whether government was just too difficult and we were tired of it.
Dealing with the culprits was also discussed. The parliamentary Labour party (PLP) recently agreed new standing orders allowing it to suspend MPs, and chief whip Jacqui Smith summarised her approach. She had received many complaints about unacceptable behaviour, but individual contact and advice was often preferable to public penalties which could reopen wounds. The NEC agreed that providing platforms for airing grievances was unhelpful and extended the same principles to Clare Short, who will be referred to the backbenchers’ parliamentary committee of the PLP.
There were concerns that campaigning for the leadership and deputy leadership was already underway, and I asked for the mechanics to be clarified. Unlike local government and parliamentary selections there is no six-month freeze date before people can vote, so it is an excellent opportunity to recruit new and lapsed members, including many of the 229,000 currently registered Labour supporters, up from 145,000 in June. This would also help to pay for the ballot. John Prescott promised to bring the procedural issues to the NEC in early November.
The NEC was unhappy about Tony Blair’s announcement of ministerial working groups to develop future policies, seen as removing the figleaf of respectability from the Partnership in Power process. Tony Blair and others said that ministers had always developed policy, for instance in the run-up to the comprehensive spending reviews, and stressed that their deliberations would feed into the policy commissions. Since the recent problems started at the top, this was a way to bind the government together, and he hoped his legacy would include a united party and a fourth term.
His over-riding message was that we must not forget the public. Although NEC members regretted the constant linking of terrorism, crime, immigration and asylum, these were what worried voters most. Identity cards were important strategically in convincing them that Labour would enforce rules and fairness. The government must demonstrate strong leadership and big solutions to the big problems which affected people’s lives, while Cameron’s Tories were fickle and could not be trusted with power. A 10% increase in public investment was truly progressive, and though health service reform was hard, the prize was a maximum 18 weeks between doctor’s surgery and operating theatre, with waiting lists ended, and replaced by booked appointments.
Trade union representatives asked again for paid bank holidays, protection for agency workers, and ending the two-tier workforce. Members facing redundancies, financial mismanagement or privatisation needed convincing of the many good things the government had done, with half the 144 commitments from the Warwick national policy forum in 2004 already implemented. Pete Willsman quoted polls showing that only one in 100 voters thought that British foreign policy had made us safer, with 76% believing the opposite, but Tony Blair said that polls should not dictate decisions. However he was praised for his stand on Darfur, and said that if this was not happening in Africa, the world would have acted by now. Views on restricting free movement from Bulgaria and Romania when they join the European Union had changed after ten times the predicted numbers of eastern Europeans chose to come here, as such large-scale shifts had to be managed carefully to maintain social cohesion. And when a member pointed out that problems with drink and drugs could affect children of stable two-parent families as well, he promised that he was not stigmatising all single mothers as drug addicts and prostitutes, but only providing extra support where it was needed.
Gary Titley MEP reported that the 27 Tory MEPs – only one of whom is a woman – were blocking action against domestic violence and female genital mutilation. A successful workshop in Brussels brought together MEPs and Muslims from across Europe to discuss living together in the post-9/11 world. Looking at our sister parties, in Hungary he thought the real issue was not the taped private conversations, but a right-wing opposition cleverly manoeuvring against decisions needed to deal with harsh economic realities. In Sweden, a strong economy had not proved enough to defeat the “time-for-a-change” mood, and a remodelled opposition with a youthful image, cloaked in apparent moderation and promising only modest tax cuts while preserving the popular social model . . .
Finance Parts I and II
The NEC discussed a draft submission to the Hayden Phillips enquiry on party funding. Plans for all-year caps on expenditure, greater transparency and modest extension of state funding are retained, and there are interesting details of shady Tory-backing organisations. On donations there would be no one-size-fits-all limit, and instead each party would be free to develop its own policy, to be notified to the Electoral Commission. This would accommodate the Tories with their relatively rich individual members, as well as Labour, with millions of affiliated trade unionists paying an average of 8p a week through the political levy and participating in the party’s democratic processes. Charitable status or tax-deductible contributions were rejected. Above all, members were anxious that respectability should be restored to belonging to, working for, or contributing to, political parties. The paper would go on to conference, though Peter Watt emphasised that it did not constitute party policy and we could not reject Hayden Phillips’ eventual conclusions if they fell short of what we wanted.
Later Peter gave the NEC a full account of the past and current financial position, followed by brief reports from heads of departments. The necessary staff reductions had been almost achieved through voluntary means, the core functions of campaigning and infrastructure were protected, and there was every hope of delivering more for less and emerging leaner and fitter. While high-value donations would still be much appreciated and needed, day-to-day running costs should be met out of reliable and predictable income from individual members, union affiliations and commercial activities. The NEC agreed that spring conference was not essential, with some suggestions for demerging the local government and women’s elements, and that resources would be better put into local forums involving the wider membership than into overnight national policy forum meetings. I emphasised that constituency parties faced their own problems with falling membership and income, and paying fixed charges for electoral register downloads and insurance. In conclusion the NEC unanimously thanked Peter Watt and his colleagues for an enormous amount of work and worry. He could be forgiven for starting to feel that “There are two things that are important in politics, the first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.” (Marcus Hanna, US Republican fundraiser, 1895).
Forward to Conference
Hopefully next week will remind us that money is only the means to an end, and show members and voters that Labour has got its act together and deserves their support. Manchester is a new venue, and a powerful symbol of regeneration. Star guests would include Bob Geldof, Bill Clinton and the mayor of Los Angeles, though rumours about Ian Paisley were neither confirmed nor denied. Jeremy Beecham asked that speakers who reply to debates should actually reply to points made in debates. He will be aided by vice-chair Mike Griffiths and assistant chairs Louise Baldock, Norma Stephenson, Dianne Hayter and Gary Titley, with a supporting role for Mohammed Azam. I voiced regret that the only two constituency representatives to increase their vote in the recent NEC elections – Christine Shawcroft and Pete Willsman – are still barred from speaking for the NEC, though the damage they could do in three minutes at the rostrum is surely negligible compared to more elevated comrades. I believe that conference will show a more united party than the press expect and our enemies hope, but inclusiveness and respect for members’ democratic choice could and should have been complete.
Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this to be circulated to members – and supporters – as a personal account, not an official record. Past reports are at www.annblack.com.