National Executive Committee, 20 March 2007
The NEC welcomed Keith Vaz MP, elected by the vibrant newBlack Socialist Society, and youth representative StephaniePeacock, to their first meeting. The prime minister wascongratulated on his Comic Relief skit and his efforts on climatechange, and responded to comments on a range of issues,including nutritional standards for meals-on-wheels; the open-skies agreement which allows European airlines to fly to, but notwithin, the US; staging the nurses’ pay award in England to giveonly 1.9% while Scotland was granting the full 2.5%; and theValencia land-grab, which MEPs undertook to explain to him. Hepromised Dennis Skinner that the end-of-financial-year problemsin the NHS would not be repeated as we moved into calmerwaters after restructuring, but defended hospital income fromparking charges as otherwise the money would have to comefrom patient care. Extending London’s free bus travel for under-19s nationwide would need careful costing, and he recognisedproblems with the formula for the over-60s scheme, where sometravellers had lost out. On green policies we had to be mindful ofthe average family, not just the chattering classes.
On Zimbabwe he said that president Mugabe exploited criticismfrom Britain as old-style colonialism, and on balance he thoughtthe planned European summit should go ahead, with ZANU-PFconfronted rather than excluded. He assured Pete Willsman thatcontrary to press reports Trident was not being secretly upgraded,and told Walter Wolfgang that discussions were continuing onwhether Britain wanted to host US interceptor missiles.Parliament would be consulted when appropriate. Later, GaryTitley said there was no evidence of British involvement inextraordinary rendition flights.I supported Tony Blair’s defence of inheritance tax, and arguedthat workers who have lost their entire pension should be a higherpriority than people with £300,000 tax-free windfalls. I alsoexpressed concern that random samples of the public had moresay in policy-making than the national policy forum, let aloneordinary party members. Tony Blair said he would like to invitethe NPF to Downing Street before he left, and repeated thatLabour had to reach beyond traditional structures to mobilise themany thousands who shared our aims. No-one disagrees withthis, but fellow-travellers must be as well as, not instead of, thepaying membership. He also believed the Tories were makingmistakes in trying to be all things to all people. Marriage was animportant social institution, but restoring the married couples’ taxallowance would take money away from children in different typesof family. David Cameron was soft on crime, security and anti-social behaviour where toughness was needed, and isolated andpowerless in Europe since withdrawing from the main centre-rightgrouping.Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Tony Blair stayed for the discussion of party funding, together withour chief negotiator Jack Straw. He said that while the Tories hadno incentive to end the spending arms race, with millions pouringin, there was considerable common ground with the LibDems.The main outstanding issue was trade union funding, but hethought Hayden Phillips’ requirement for greater transparency inrelations between individual members and the party could be met,and would be an acceptable price for a deal. NEC members wereangry that an inquiry which started because of dubiousconnections with rich men had ended up fingering the unions asthe problem, and that senior party figures appeared to agree. Infact the unions provided the cleanest income, they were part ofLabour’s constitution, and they gave millions of working people avoice in policy and in choosing the leadership. Their funds werelegitimised by ballots and allowed any member to opt out. PeteWillsman saw it as New Labour’s last attempt to break the linkand Walter Wolfgang suggested mobilising public support, thoughI suspect others were correct when they said that union fundingwas essential, but not popular with voters.
Several of us stressed that without the unions Labour would havegone under in the 1980s, and we still relied on them at everylevel. Any laws must be robust enough to defend the link now,but also to prevent unpicking by our enemies if, or when, we losepower. Others highlighted the need to expose shady Torybackers, reclaim the moral high ground and restore confidence inpolitics. Jack Straw said he was not about to destroy either theparty or the union link, and promised to keep the NEC, through itsofficers, informed of progress. Finally it was suggested that thebest way to cut off Tory funding was to defeat them at the nextelection, a thought that should motivate us all.
Hazel Blears reported on the manifesto. Over half the policiesagreed at the Warwick NPF had been implemented, and I waspleased at the commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP ondevelopment by 2013, part of a resolution to my first conferencein 1995. Dissatisfaction centred on failure to protect temporaryand agency workers, stalled in Europe and the governmentunwilling to legislate at national level, something which unions butnot ministers remembered as part of the deal. Dennis Skinnercomplained that the government did not have to filibuster PaulFarrelly’s bill, as it could have been delayed or amended at thecommittee stage. Others raised growing problems with super-exploitation of migrant workers from the new European countries.The housing sub-group will report soon, and the health policycommission should contact everyone involved in recentconference resolutions. A motion from Dave Ward on postalservices was referred to the prosperity and work commission.Campaigning and Organisation
Deputy general secretary Alicia Kennedy presented new facilitiesfor members on the website via their MpURLs (go towww.labour.org.uk/firstname.lastname), now the main resourcefor documents, events and communication. She also ran throughactivities leading up to the Scottish, Welsh and English elections.After further discussion and much lobbying the NEC agreed thatEaling Southall should select its parliamentary candidate from anall-women shortlist, adding the hope that they would choose anethnic minority woman. The interaction of race and gender raisesdifficult issues: in some constituencies all-women shortlists areseen as barriers to ethnic minorities, while open shortlists toooften end up with the same old white men. Personally I would likemore MPs like Parmjit Dhanda in Gloucester, rather thanmatching the race of the candidate to the make-up of theconstituency.
General secretary Peter Watt gave an update on finances. Thespring events involved over 3,000 members and were well-received, though councillors want their local governmentconference back. Draft terms of reference for the NEC and itscommittees were kicked around again, with my main concern theblanket statement that all papers and discussion are confidential,which would make reports by representatives extremely short. Inpractice genuinely confidential issues get leaked to the press,which is where I see them first, while some decisions, likedeadlines for conference motions and methods for collectingLabour councillors’ subscriptions, need more, not less, publicity.
The Rules of the Game
Finally the NEC approved guidelines for the coming leadershipelection. These are available to constituency secretaries – viatheir MpURL of course – or I can forward a copy. The process willtake seven weeks and though no start date is given, pressreports of a conclusion by 25 June are not being denied,suggesting an announcement in early May. The NEC will meetwithin 48 hours, and MPs will have three working days tonominate candidates. Constituencies can make supportingnominations at general committees or all-member meetings untilthe fourth week, and as a week’s notice must be given, advanceplanning is advised. Five national hustings will be held, with theballot during the fifth to the seventh week, culminating in theannouncement of the result at an electoral college to whichconstituencies and unions can send delegates at £50 (onlineregistration) or £60 (by post). Union levy-payers will beindividually balloted, and must sign a declaration that they supportthe Labour party.
Walter Wolfgang, seconded by Christine Shawcroft, proposedreducing the number of MPs required to nominate a candidatefrom 45 (12.5% of the total) to 22. Dennis Skinner said he hadopposed raising it from the former 5% but lost, and it was now inthe rules. Christine also argued for an affirmative ballot if a postonly got one nomination. However the guidelines were approvedwith two against. I voted in favour on the basis that rules shouldbe changed through conference, not altered to produce particularresults. The meeting ended with hope that the election would runsmoothly, focus on policy, and celebrate 2.3 million peoplechoosing the next Labour leader and prime minister of Britain.
Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this tobe circulated to members – and supporters - as a personalaccount, not an official record. Past reports are at