Report from Ann Black: NEC
Meeting 23 January 2001
The run-up to the election continues to gather pace. Tony Blair
and Ian McCartney stressed the need to mobilise activists and
supporters, and Peter Mandelson outlined campaign plans, with
no hint of his impending resignation. Tony Blair pointed out that
economic stability deserves more recognition. For a Labour
government, mortgage rates at half the Tory level and no sterling
crises are unprecedented achievements.
The problem remains getting people to see the Tories as a
threat, not a joke. No-one seriously believes that they can
match our spending and still cut taxes. But their pledges to
reverse union recognition and take half a billion pounds from
lone parents are not funny, and apathy could let them squeak in.
At the moment the media are more formidable enemies. Some
members were unhappy at Robin Cook's renewed commitment
to a referendum on electoral reform, but as John Prescott said:
"even careful choice of words can be misinterpreted".
Turning to Labour's record, "the glass is half-full, not
is the new catchphrase. The advantage of unfulfilled aspirations
is that they provide a programme for the second term and
reasons to ask for it. If all the glasses were overflowing we
might relax and put our feet up. The Parliamentary Campaign
Team is taking the message to informal meetings across the
country, John Prescott's Get Ready tour will ratchet up the
excitement, and the Glasgow Spring Conference will showcase
Labour's vision while avoiding the fatal triumphalism of the
Sheffield Rally. Three thousand members have already
registered but places are still available - look for details in the
next issue of Inside Labour.
The Policy Unit is drawing up a campaign handbook, promoting
Labour's programme and rebutting Tory arguments against the
Tories. We also had briefing notes listing LibDem weaknesses:
"scrapping burdensome regulations" on business means attacking
workers' rights, their spending promises have no visible financial
support, and they would undermine the war on drugs. Peter
Mandelson agreed to look at dovetailing local elections with the
general election, should they fall on the same day.
In the battle of ideals the Tories will play on asylum, race,
narrow-minded "family values" and xenophobia. In
Labour takes the international high ground, banning landmines,
cancelling debt and leading in Europe, with Robin Cook as the
next President of the Party of European Socialists (PES). Every
Labour member automatically belongs to the PES, and their logo
may be added to party cards. It would fit neatly in the top right
Robin Cook pointed out that the Tories did not even collaborate
with their own sister parties, having discovered that these are full
of Europeans. They also voted against enlargement of the
Union, which he found ironic because most of the countries
waiting to join have centre-right governments in reaction to
decades of state dictatorship, and would be their ideological
Simon Murphy, leader of the European Parliamentary Labour
Party, reported on success in defeating a European Commission
proposal to open postal services to competition for items over
50 grammes. The current limit is 350 grammes, and a
compromise at 150 grammes was agreed. The Tories, despite
lobbying from the Women's Institute and others, voted for the
lowest figure, which would have destroyed rural post offices and
wrecked Consignia, as we must learn to call the Royal Mail.
Members were keen to protect European environmental
standards, particularly with George W in the White House, and
Robin Cook expected challenging dialogue ahead. The new
President raised many anxieties, starting with his first act in
withdrawing funds from charities that allow abortion. Liam Fox,
the shadow Health Secretary, has now joined him in attacking a
woman's right to choose.
Protest and Survive
I asked if Britain would try to dissuade the United States from
Son of Star Wars, a deeply destabilising project if it works, and
refuse to allow them to upgrade Fylingdales. Tony Blair said
that the issue must be handled with care. Instead of rushing to
judgment, we should bring all sides together to seek a way
through. We need good working links with the new President
because the Tories will exploit any cooling in the "special
relationship". William Hague has already promised the
Americans everything they want before they ask, a curious way
to defend British sovereignty.
Dennis Skinner suggested that the surplus in the miners' pension
fund could help sufferers from emphysema and other
occupational diseases, and Tony Blair said he would look into
this. The decline of manufacturing is still of concern in some
areas, but members cited many positive achievements: the
minimum wage, the Children's Tax Credit, the right to roam,
freedom of information, terminating most of the hereditary peers.
A ban on foxhunting could play brilliantly with young voters.
The NEC will draw up shortlists for parliamentary candidates in
the eight constituencies which have not yet agreed a timetable. If
they give members a wide choice, as in Preston, there should be
few objections. Filling last-minute vacancies may be more
controversial, but someone has to do it.
Selecting Labour candidates for local mayors is included in the
consultation which closes on 31 March, and Conference will
agree procedures in October. If cities rush to elect mayors
before then, interim procedures will be needed. The
Organisation Committee is suggesting that a panel of NEC,
regional and constituency representatives should both interview
and shortlist candidates, with no branch involvement. This will
be decided in March, so let me know if you have any views.
Staff are working to comply with new funding laws and to
support constituency treasurers. We are all proud of our
government for introducing transparency and ending sleaze.
Despite a few high-profile sums, 40% of party income still
comes from membership subscriptions and small donations,
30% from unions and 10% from commercial activities.
Much of the NEC's detailed work takes place in subcommittees,
and I find the Party Development Committee (PDC) particularly
interesting. Following up on 21st Century Party, the Committee
is looking for pilot projects to increase participation, especially
by women, youth and ethnic minorities. Local parties will be
able to bid for resources to support innovative ideas. I am trying
to establish robust and sensible performance indicators, so we
gain objective evidence on what works.
The PDC also covers Partnership in Power at local level, and
Paul Simpson, the national Political Education Officer, has many
ideas for improvement: better feedback from forums, more
community involvement, and exploiting new technology. The
difficulty is that the other half of the system, the National Policy
Forum and the Policy Commissions, belong with the Joint Policy
Committee, which has not yet started its review. I am arguing
for the lot to be brought together, because however much
members enjoy political discussion, it must have visible effects
on national policy-making. There is a strong desire to start the
next cycle of policy development as soon as possible, which has
advantages as the two years immediately after the election are
the best time for open debate.
As usual questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy
for this to be circulated to party members on the understanding
that it is a personal account and in no way an official record.
Ann Black email@example.com
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