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National Executive Committee, 24 May 2005
Ian McCartney welcomed members to the first meeting after the
election. Tony Blair has finally appointed Gordon Brown to one of
the ministerial places, a pleasing sign that the winning partnership
continues. Shahid Malik was congratulated on becoming MP for
Dewsbury and is replaced by Louise Baldock, runner-up in the last
ballot, and MPs will soon elect a successor to Helen Jackson. The
NEC then shared memories of James Callaghan, Ron Todd, Stan Orme and
other departed comrades, and stood in silent tribute. Dennis Skinner
spoke wistfully of losing links with the halcyon days of the great
industrial past, and we are privileged that he keeps us connected
with our history. As does Dianne Hayter, who is mistress-minding
Labour's centenary commemoration in 2006.
Musing on the results, Tony Blair was struck by the lack of
uniformity. We held six of the 20 most marginal seats, while losing
others with bigger majorities. The LibDems took votes over Iraq and
top-up fees while the Tories scored on tax and immigration, but
overall the country did not want a change of government. The other
parties now faced problems. The LibDems could not afford to appear
too far left, and if they changed tack on tax and student funding, we
should expose them. The Tories talked centrist but still drifted
rightwards. Labour's challenge was to win back the 2% - 4% lost to
the LibDems without frightening the 8% gained from the Tories. This
progressive alliance meant modernising public services, handling the
insecurities of globalisation, and supporting decent people who
played by the rules and resented abuse of asylum, immigration and
welfare systems. On Iraq the government would have been criticised
whatever he had done. However next time neither Iraq, nor fees, nor
he personally, would be factors, and the party's direction would be
for others to decide.
Members welcomed the victory, while saddened by the loss of some
colleagues, and commiserating with Maggie Jones, one of the victims
of Blaenau Gwent. Gary Titley MEP said his European colleagues,
especially the Germans, envied the 67-seat majority and couldn't
understand the post-election angst. Even the Rover collapse had not
derailed the campaign, a fact which Tony Blair attributed to co-
operation with Derek Simpson and the unions in assisting those facing
Frontline Feedback
Thanks were expressed to Alan Milburn, Ian McCartney, Gordon Brown
and the party staff. I summarised feedback from canvassers,
organisers and candidates in more than 100 constituencies. Two
problems dominated on the doorstep: Iraq, and more general lack of
trust in the prime minister. The LibDem threat was under-estimated,
and in my own constituency they cut the majority of the loyal and
hard-working MP Andrew Smith from over 10,000 to 963 by running
against "Tony Blair's man in Oxford East". While a number were
unhappy with over-hasty calls for regime change, most wanted an
orderly transition within the next six to 18 months. The six-month
requests come from areas with local elections in 2006, notably
London. I also thanked Tony Blair for finding extra funds for the
Woodcraft Folk, following discussion at the last meeting.
Trade union members stressed the importance of all parts of the
coalition including our core support, and called for speedy
implementation of the national policy forum Warwick accords on
employment and workers' rights. Mark Seddon regretted the lack of an
inspiring central ideology, and worried about the impact of the BNP
among white working-class voters. Others raised the need to
understand ethnic minority concerns which went much wider than Iraq.
Christine Shawcroft complained that all young people were being
demonised as yobs, to which Tony Blair responded that total curfews
were popular and most young people liked to see more police on the
street. The public were miles ahead of us on attacking anti-social
behaviour, though he did not say how far we should follow them.
Ian McCartney thanked the unions for talking directly to their
members, as well as for money. The smooth process of manifesto
development through the national policy forum, the Big Conversation,
conference and the final Clause V committee, had worked well. Alan
Milburn said that while the LibDems were a problem, the Tories were
runners-up in 16 of the 20 most marginal seats, 42 of the top 50, and
85 of the top 100. I pointed out that Tory marginals could be lost
by Labour voters switching to the LibDems, which Alan considered more
prevalent in middle-class areas than in seaside or industrial
constituencies. London and the south-east presented a more complex
Acting Locally
Matt Carter reported that plenty of activists came out locally, and
recruitment reached record levels during the campaign, but the party
did need to increase its membership. Polls showed little change in
public opinion during the final four weeks, and Labour needed to
build over a longer period, with local factors increasing in
importance. Ian McCartney promised that campaigning would continue
through the summer, and unlike after some previous elections we are
in reasonable financial shape. The county election results were
mixed and need further analysis, though two mayoral contests were
won. Jeremy Beecham warned of the risks of rent restructuring and
council tax rebanding, and the government was asked not to hold the
referendum on the European constitution during next year's local
campaign. (Despite Gary Titley's request for a full NEC debate on
the constitution, this was its only mention.) I asked regions to
support local parties in getting candidates in place for 2006.
Several members noted a scarcity of young activists on the ground,
and Dennis Skinner suggested forming a hoodie youth section, though
we were assured that many were working in the national communication
centre. I passed on reports that too many telephone calls and
leaflets were counter-productive, and specific complaints about
allocation of resources among priority seats and about a minister
(now an ex-minister) telling Labour supporters to vote LibDem in a
top Tory seat. Next time candidates should be chosen earlier. Above
all, the members who do the work want to be listened to and
respected, and to have a real input into policy.
The Curse of Blaenau Gwent
Back in 2003 the NEC agreed that Blaenau Gwent should select its
candidate from an all-women shortlist (AWS). This was in line with
an NEC decision that at least half of vacancies declared by December
2002 should use AWS, and in Wales only four out of 34 MPs were women.
Contrary to press reports Maggie Jones was not parachuted in; the
constituency was free to shortlist and select any woman in the
country, and they chose her. What tossed petrol on the flames was
failure to implement the other half of the NEC decision, which said
that all late retirements should be replaced from an AWS unless there
were exceptional circumstances, understood as giving ethnic minorities a chance. In fact the proportion of open selections rose slightly in the later stages. This fuelled the feelings of unfairness which saw Labour lose to incumbent Welsh Assembly member
Peter Law.
The Disputes Panel was told that 20 members were judged to have
excluded themselves from the party by signing Peter Law's nomination
papers, acting as his agent or counting agents, or endorsing him in
his literature. As in London during the Livingstone debacle, members
who put up Law posters or delivered leaflets were left alone,
recognising that bridges would have to be rebuilt. These decisions
have the support of the Blaenau Gwent general committee, and seemed a
reasonable place to draw the line. However Mark Seddon raised the
case of a member allegedly threatened with expulsion for writing to
the press, and if she is indeed on the list, then the Disputes Panel
was misinformed.
Members reaffirmed commitment to the principle of AWS, but how it
will be applied next time is up for discussion, along with all
aspects of selection. The Organisation Committee will consider these
fully in July. Opinions differ on whether to have a closed national
panel, with only approved members able to stand, or an open panel,
with candidates interviewed after selection if necessary. The latter
would in effect remove the NEC from any role, since rejecting the
constituency choice has, after Halifax, proved politically
impossible. The officers seem to favour a Third Way, with a closed
panel but time for local candidates to apply should a vacancy come
up. On postal votes there is support for restricting them to the
genuinely housebound, so that selections are determined by people who
have seen the candidates. There are further questions on whether
members should have to live in a constituency for six months before
taking part, and on the operation of trigger ballots. There may not
be time for formal consultation with constituencies before a paper is
drawn up for conference, but you are welcome to send me your views,
and as your representative I will do my best.
Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this to be
circulated to members as a personal account, not an official record.