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- National Executive Committee, 25
- Election fever is rising, with only
Dennis Skinner counselling delay until Labour emerges from the
shadow of Iraq. Tony Blair stressed Labour’s strengths as
a stable economy, quality public services free at the point of
use, and tackling anti-social behaviour, but we needed defences
against the Tories on tax, law and order, asylum and immigration.
Michael Howard’s plan to limit the numbers entering Britain was
impractical, and Labour would put forward its own proposals,
tackling abuses of the system while recognising the skills and the
positive contribution of migrants. Thirty-four per cent of
strawberries are picked by Poles, and migrant workers help to
prevent inflation by keeping wage rises down in most UK regions.
He believed the LibDems were best tackled nationally by exposing
their policies, which alarmed voters once they understood them,
and locally by the streetfighting tactics deployed in recent
by-elections. He told us that no-one was talking about
- Many NEC members welcomed a more
balanced approach to immigration, pointing out that eating in a
restaurant, taking a taxi, or staying in hospital would become
impossible in Howard’s Fortress Britain. Others
highlighted Labour’s excellent record on equality issues and
links with working people, and Tony Blair promised that the
Warwick agreement in the National Policy Forum would form a
significant part of the manifesto. Universal free bus passes
for pensioners were suggested as a vote-winner, and concern
continued about the 1.7 million who do not claim council tax
- The grievances of public service
workers did not attract universal sympathy. Regarding local
government pensions, John Prescott said that the £300 million to
top up the fund could not simply be loaded onto council tax,
nullifying the effects of this year’s generous government grant.
There had been lots of meetings with union representatives,
contrary to statements by Dave Prentis which were probably part of
his campaign for re-election as general secretary of UNISON.
- Big Tent Politics
- Members were also anxious about
cynicism and loss of trust. I asked if references to
“unremitting New Labour” could be outlawed, because they tell
long-serving and loyal supporters that they are not wanted.
I understood the need to keep the people who voted Labour for the
first time in 1997, attracted by the fresh image, but alienating
the other half of the coalition was not sensible. Tony Blair
felt that the “progressive” malcontents would come back to
Labour if they perceived a Tory threat, but the doubtful voters in
the centre formed a larger group, and needed more reassurance.
- Party and NEC Chair Ian McCartney
updated members on future events, with the spring conference,
five-year plans for local government, work and pensions, and the
budget all providing showcases for Labour policies. The
Proud of Britain campaign would help constituencies to engage with
the public, and visiting ministers would spend more time talking
to voters and less on photo-calls with local bigwigs.
Personal contact about individual concerns would be the key factor
in convincing people that Labour deserved a third term. Union
leaders should do more to persuade their members, and he regretted
that only Mark Serwotka and Tony Woodley had attacked planned Tory
- Labour was reaching out to women,
young people, and black and ethnic minority communities, including
the Irish community. Although Muslim voters had specific
concerns about the war, they also cared about health, education
and crime, the same as everyone else. And with two-thirds
under the age of 30, talking with the community elders was not
enough to convince younger voters.
- Final Stages
- The manifesto will be signed off by
the Clause V committee, which includes the NEC, the cabinet,
representatives of backbench MPs, and National Policy Forum
officers. In 2001 we had just one hour to read the final
66-page draft. This time NEC members have been offered
one-to-one discussion with the head of policy at an earlier stage.
I asked for the contents of the manifesto to be linked to the work
of the National Policy Forum where possible, because press
speculation about who is writing it and what will be in it are
leading members to doubt the value of the forum process.
- One piece of Forum business was left
unfinished: what to do about the Lords. As a member of
the crime, justice, citizenship and equalities commission, I
circulated a survey in December, and sent a summary of the results
to those who mailed me, copies available on request. I was
pleased that the commission treated it seriously. The likely
recommendations will be to remove the remaining hereditaries and
include an elected component, phased in over time. Our
position should be finalised on 24 February and will go into the
manifesto, to confer the authority needed to drive it through.
- Putting on his third hat as Chair of
the National Policy Forum, Ian McCartney reported on a successful
gathering on 22 January, with Forum members, parliamentary
candidates, councillors and ethnic minority members. Tony
Blair spoke about New Labour and HWFs (hard-working families),
Gordon Brown talked movingly of his visit to Africa, and Alan
Milburn slammed the LibDems as high on tax and soft on crime.
- A brief business meeting of the
Forum followed, and Ian outlined preliminary findings from the
review of Partnership in Power. There is a desire to spend
less time rewriting the same documents, and more time on current
issues. Various people pointed out that conference now gets
very few choices, and the votes on renationalising the railways
and a level financial playing-field for council housing should be
respected. Although consultation formally closed on 31
January, it is still worth sending in submissions. The
review groups will put together recommendations for the 2005
conference after the May elections, and the Forum is likely to
meet again sometime in July.
- Next year’s spring conference will
be in Blackpool, and as leaked to the press, the 2006 annual
conference will be in Manchester. I asked whether the people
who complained about the exclusion of the Mole Valley delegate
from the last conference had yet received a proper explanation
and/or apology, and the general secretary said that he would find
- Despite efforts to get MPs to make
their minds up early, the usual crop of last-minute retirements is
surfacing. The late retirements panel will continue to
recommend open or all-women shortlists, with the organisation
committee having the final say while time permits. After
this, the late retirements panel plus the NEC officers and two
extra women will decide. Declaring Copeland an open
selection has already proved controversial. (I voted for an
all-women shortlist, but it was defeated 11 - 4.)
- Further vacancies will be widely
advertised. The NEC selections panel will manage timetables,
longlisting and shortlisting in consultation with local
constituency officers, and candidates will be chosen at all-
member meetings. The organisation committee excluded postal
or absentee votes because a procedure compressed into a few days
cannot guarantee equitable treatment, and risks legal challenge if
some members receive ballot papers and others do not. By the
end of March we need candidates in the field, not in the courts.
I regret the loss of democracy, but responsibility lies with the
late-leaving MPs. A proposal to bar them from the House of
Lords attracted approving murmurs.
- European leader Gary Titley reported
progress towards accession for Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and
Turkey. He also highlighted discussion on the Services
Directive, where Labour MEPs are unhappy that health services are
currently included, and anxious that the benefits of an open
market should not compromise standards or workers’ rights.
And finally Debbie Coulter asked why the government had invited
the second-in-command of the Colombian armed forces, linked to
death squads and attacks on trade unionists, to Britain.
International officer Rachel Cowburn promised to investigate.
- Questions and comments are welcome,
and I am happy for this to be circulated to members as a personal
account, not an official record. Past reports are available at http://www.annblack.com