Saturday, September 22, 2007

Labour's Pre-Conference National Executive Commitee Meeting

This is Ann Black's Report of Wednesday's Meeting.

National Executive Committee, 18 September 2007

The prime minister reviewed the summer with justified
satisfaction. Despite terrorist attacks, floods, foot-and-mouth
and financial turbulence Labour had turned the polls around
since last year. But people voted for what parties would do in
the future, and we would only keep their trust by listening.
NEC members duly suggested things that he might listen to,
starting with dismay at his admiration for Margaret Thatcher as
a conviction politician (“so was Pol Pot”, someone
commented). Gordon Brown said that prime ministers always
invited their predecessors as a courtesy, and working with
people from other parties showed strength. I doubt if many
object to disaffected Tories or fellow-travelling LibDems writing
reports on rainforests or childcare, and even Patrick Mercer is
working with Trevor Phillips despite his remarks about ethnic
minorities, but “that woman” destroyed too many lives and
livelihoods.

However Gordon Brown responded with a passionate list of
dividing lines which would make a splendid conference
speech: three million new homes, grants for two-thirds of
students, individual tuition in state schools, near-full
employment, international aid, investment in health, and
protecting those at risk, most recently by intervening to stop
the Northern Rock panic. In contrast the Tories presided over
sky-high interest rates, negative equity and repossessions,
and would slash taxes at the expense of public services. And
his subsequent decision to boycott the Europe-Africa summit if
Robert Mugabe is present will reassure those who want to see
some limit to the Big Tent.

The shift in body language towards George Bush was
welcomed, with Muslim voters in particular ready to accept Iraq
as a past mistake and come home to Labour. Gordon Brown
assured Walter Wolfgang that Britain was pursuing diplomatic
rather than military options with regard to Iran, and he was
meeting a delegation from Colombia, where human rights
abuses are widespread. Responding to Christine Shawcroft,
who asked him to listen to those opposed to American use of
Fylingdales and Menwith Hill, he said the “missile defence”
programme was mainly based in Eastern Europe. He
reassured Gary Titley that a referendum on the European
reform treaty was still unnecessary, despite the opportunistic
attacks of Thatcherite Tories (and, I regret to say, some
prominent Labour figures).

Other concerns included agency workers; spending on health
and safety (more building workers die in accidents than British
soldiers in Iraq); European action against converted weapons;
and privatisation of homecare services leaving elderly people
unvisited at weekends. On Remploy, Gordon Brown promised
to seek a solution which protected jobs and pensions. Pete
Willsman warned against Callaghan-style pay freezes, with the
problems exacerbated by multi-million pound city bonuses.
And Dennis Skinner worried about trust, with too many people
in the Northern Rock queues convinced that politicians lied to
them about everything.

Renewal or Repression?

On this theme, Gordon Brown stressed that how we conducted
politics was as important as the policies themselves, within the
party and the community. His plans for change attracted
comments from 173 individuals and 90 affiliated organisations,
constituencies and other units, meaning that only one in eight
constituencies responded, perhaps because hard copies were
not sent out. They were discussed extensively with trade
union general secretaries over the summer, and party staff
were already lobbying constituency delegates, but the rest of
us had only five minutes to read the final version.

Some recommendations had stayed: more local policy forums
and community engagement and better communication with
national policy forum members, though no sign that they will
be enabled to contact constituencies and vice versa. The
extra twelve NPF members had been dropped, but there was a
surprise new move to add four NPF members to the
conference arrangements committee.

Conference would no longer debate contemporary resolutions.
Instead constituencies and affiliates would submit
contemporary issues, subject to the same arbitrary criteria as
now, and ranked in a priorities ballot. The movers of the
winning topics would then discuss with policy commissions
how these might be progressed. After hearing speakers,
conference would vote on whether they still thought the issue
was important, in which case there would be specific
reportbacks to the following year’s conference, which would
express satisfaction or otherwise.

Once in each parliament all members would be balloted on the
party programme: a short summary would be circulated, with
the full papers available on the website, and the poll
conducted mainly online and by telephone.

NEC members’ views were predictable, with some inspired by
the spirit of Neil Kinnock and others predicting the final death
of democracy. Some saw contemporary motions as a
necessary safety-valve, and the government would not be
defeated if it listened; others thought they exposed crude
voting power, political weakness and damaging divisions.
Perhaps most honestly, party procedures had always involved
fixing and this was just a different fix, though Gordon Brown
preferred to stress the principled nature of his ideas.

Christine Shawcroft spoke for mainstream activists in asking,
in vain, for opportunities to amend or refer back parts of NPF
documents rather than yes/no take-it-or-leave-it votes. Indeed
the NEC itself was not allowed to vote on the rule changes
separately, and the package was carried with four against
(Christine, Walter Wolfgang, Dennis Skinner and myself, with
Pete Willsman adding belated dissent), in my case mainly
because of unhappiness with the process.

The unions have accepted the promise of a review after two
years in return for their support, and were right not to threaten
to defeat a popular prime minister at his first conference.
However I remain concerned that Gordon Brown described
this exercise as a model for future policy development. It is
bad tactics to exclude people and then to bounce them. I am
still pushing for closer links between the NEC and the joint
policy committee, including constituency representation, and
this may be discussed further, along with Jeremy Beecham’s
proposals for reserved places for Scottish and Welsh
representatives.

Standing back, I doubt that much of this will matter on the
ground. What members want is first, a Labour government
that pursues policies of which they generally approve, and
second, responses to letters and mails which show that
someone has read and understood what they are saying. In
ten years of Partnership in Power they have been repeatedly
promised proper feedback and real influence. The
requirements for success were summed up as resources and
trust, and we now have to deliver both.

Harriet in the High Street

Deputy leader Harriet Harman spoke of her campaigning in
marginal seats and her work with trade unions, especially in
mobilising women members. She found voters’ priorities were
housing and youth services, though others reported
complaints about broken pavements and immigration, and
xenophobia against new eastern European groups. She had
asked Operation Black Vote to look at how all-black and ethnic
minority shortlists could work in practice, with legislation a
possibility.

General secretary Peter Watt reported that resources were in
reasonably good shape. The Tories did not seem to want
agreement on Hayden Phillips and party funding, but he
thought Labour would end up in a position which members
would find acceptable. I asked when constituencies would get
the extra membership money agreed in the 2005 rule change.
This raised standard subscriptions from £24 to £36 and
assigned the extra £12 to a campaign fund, held by the
national party except in the year of a general election when it
is paid to constituencies, giving them £20 instead of £8 per full-
rate member. With rumour and speculation rife, local parties
need to plan their budgets, but I am now concerned that we
may not get the money until after the election. For some of us
that will be too late.

Conference Arrangements

The main themes would be education, health, law and order,
housing and a strong economy. Though environment was not
included, this year’s conference would be greener, with
carpeting recycled and exhibitors encouraged to minimise
paper and plastic bags. The NEC would propose a rule
change allowing the black socialist society executive to attend
conference and, in a welcome U-turn, supported a
constituency amendment excluding ministers from the
conference arrangements committee. The socialist health
association’s proposal to change clause IV was opposed, as it
would have removed some rather good bits.

Bethnal Green & Bow would be asked to remit their
amendment on reducing thresholds for extra women and youth
delegates, with an assurance that the NEC would review all
thresholds in the light of membership levels. I also hope to
look at the interpretation of the gender quota, which
permanently bars some constituencies from conference. And
finally there _will_ be a national spring conference, in
Birmingham, either 14/16 February or 28 February/1 March
2008.

Circulated to members as a personal account, not an
official record. Questions and comments are welcome.
Past reports are at www.annblack.com.

Ann Black
annblack50@btinternet.com

I will also forward Ann whatever emerges in my comment box. Harry Barnes.

3 comments:

calgacus said...

Well not letting CLPs or party members propose amendments to or changes in party policy should ensure Labour party membership keeps following the historical trend of halving every decade.

The chance to vote 'yes' or 'no' to the entire manifesto is no chance at all.

Harry Barnes said...

calgacus: it sounds as if we will have to vote "no" to the manifesto on principle.

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