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Report from Ann Black: National Executive Committee, 30 March 2004
Tony Blair laid out the dividing lines for the year ahead. Labour
stood for economic stability and expanding opportunity in a
changing world. Delivery departments were drawing up five-year
plans, guided by the National Policy Forum and the Big
Conversation. Meanwhile the Tories clung to the old Thatcherite
agenda, claiming that public spending is not improving services, and
pandering to crude fears on Europe and asylum. Labour’s message
was clear: asylum claims were falling and abuses were being
sorted, but managed migration was a good thing. Anti-immigrant
campaigns were the lowest form of politics, and we had to choose
the right moment to expose them. Members sympathised with
Beverley Hughes, and were angry and frustrated at the stream of
tabloid lies.
NEC members called for Labour to sell its achievements more
vigorously. They praised new schools, falling unemployment, letting
people keep their pensions while they were in hospital, extending
the minimum wage to younger workers, Kevan Jones’ bill banning
Christmas Day trading, and the Commission on Africa. The bill on
civil partnerships was welcomed, though pension rights should be
equalised. The pension protection scheme was also appreciated,
but retrospective measures were needed for workers at ASW and
elsewhere who had contributed for decades and were left with
nothing. Tony Blair agreed that this was a classic Labour issue,
where safety nets were needed to protect individuals against market
failure, but he would have to weigh up the financial implications.
Northern colleagues criticised negative Tory campaigning against
regional government. Claims of massively increased tax and
bureaucracy were ludicrous when the assemblies’ budgets would be
comparable with that of Rochdale council. I advised against a
referendum on the European constitution. Polls said that 90% didn’t
understand it, so the vote would in fact be about something else,
probably a “free” pop at the government. Tony Blair said the Tories
had trapped themselves by promising to renegotiate the treaty. If
they were serious, Britain would be ejected from the European
Union because no other country would accept it. If not, it was a
meaningless gesture. He also pledged to renew attacks on the
LibDems, but believed that ultimately they were not the real enemy.
I Heard it on the Grapevine
Christine Shawcroft and I were concerned about the way civil
service job cuts were announced in the budget. Frontline workers,
counselling others while relying on benefits to top up their own low
pay, were distressed at finding out from the radio. Tony Blair
argued that rationalisation and record investment in new technology
meant fewer staff were needed, or we would be charged with
wasting money. However it was important to handle matters
properly, in co-operation with the unions.
Others warned that equal pay would be costly for local and national
government, and complained that failed directors were still receiving
fat handouts. As at previous meetings Tony Blair said that the two-
tier workforce was being addressed step by step, and promised to
look at employers who deducted Bank Holidays from workers’ four
weeks annual leave to get round the European directive. And he
accepted that the Middle East was the biggest difficulty in relations
with the Muslim world. Hopefully Israel’s partial withdrawal would
be followed by new security proposals, and revive the Road Map.
Again there were appeals for party unity and an end to sniping in the
media. The annual meeting of Labour Clubs unanimously asked
MPs and government to act in unison. Peter Hain was criticised for
telling the government to talk to the party when he never attended
policy commission meetings or the National Policy Forum himself.
However Tony Blair was optimistic, in that most members were
proud of the government and wanted it to carry on, not always true
in Labour’s past. It was internal divisions over policies such as top-
up fees that alienated voters, not the policies themselves.
Battle Plans
Douglas Alexander updated the NEC on strategies for the
European, local and London elections. Ken Livingstone is riding
high at 50% in the polls, but other candidates have tighter contests.
For regions with all-postal ballots the key date will not be 10 June
but 25 May, when ballot papers drop through doors, and there were
worries about major campaign events falling after people have
voted. For many it is no longer Get Out The Vote, but Stay Home
And Vote.
Gary Titley MEP reminded members that every vote counts,
whether in Surrey or in Salford, and that LibDems as well as Tories
consistently oppose workers’ interests in the European parliament.
The Working Time Directive needed proper renegotiation, as other
countries were getting round it by excluding large groups of
workers, and simply ending the opt-out would paralyse accident and
emergency services. The top priority for Britain was to ensure that
employees are not forced to sign away their rights. His written
report highlighted measures to protect dolphins by banning drift
nets, and research on the risks of choking on small toys concealed
inside chocolates.
Looking further ahead, Diana Organ MP is standing down in the
Forest of Dean, and her successor will be chosen from an all-
women shortlist. Bitterness over the Brent East selection
resurfaced, but the Disputes Panel had considered an investigation
of the shortlisting and a report on the hustings, and concluded that
procedures were correctly followed, staff and officers behaved
impeccably, and members’ rights were not undermined.
Accusations of racism were unwarranted and offensive, particularly
as the successful candidate, Yasmin Qureshi, is not only a Muslim
but also a woman.
Hostages to Fortune
Turning to party matters, the Audit Committee has been beefed up
and finances are improving. Some were unhappy that the NEC was
kept in the dark, but others argued that detailed information always
leaked, and openness and transparency required greater self-
discipline. I am often asked how many members Labour has, but
the general secretary reiterated the decision of his predecessors:
figures will be published in the annual report once a year, but will not
otherwise be provided to journalists or anyone else. The party is
writing to every member who left since 2001, inviting them to rejoin,
and the new magazine Labour Today has been launched, replacing
Inside Labour.
The last annual conference agreed that residents of Northern
Ireland could join Labour as individuals, but the NEC confirmed that
the party would not organise there. Unsurprisingly the aggrieved
members claim that they are still victims of discrimination and are
pursuing further legal action. I just hope our lawyers were right
when they assured us that this would fail. New laws on disability will
affect constituencies and branches, and guidance on access to
meetings will be issued later this year.
Two-Tier Forum
The Spring Conference was proclaimed the biggest and most
successful ever, with attendance over 2,700. Ian McCartney
reported that the National Policy Forum also ran smoothly.
However, Part Two in July will have four times as much to discuss.
Amendments may be rationed, and there will still be too little time to
consider and consult. I again raised the difficulties for constituency
members compared with ministers and trade unions. They have the
Joint Policy Committee papers three days before the Forum, we
have them for three minutes. They can send substitutes to maintain
their voting strength, constituencies cannot. They can share
amendments among a number of delegates, constituencies have no
central co-ordination. They have full-time support staff, we have
full-time jobs outside the labour movement. But I sensed that I was
making little progress.
Peace Breaks Out
And finally, a first: Mark Seddon proposed and I seconded a motion
which was carried unanimously:
“The NEC wishes to express its sincere condolences to the
people of Madrid and unreservedly condemns the terrorist
outrage that killed up to two hundred people and maimed many
others. The NEC also notes that the third anniversary of the
terrorist attack on the World Trade Center will be
commemorated later this year in New York and welcomes
plans to erect a memorial to British victims in Lower
Manhattan. The NEC furthermore congratulates our sister
party, the Spanish Socialists, for their recent general election
victory and looks forward to building relations between our two
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  
Ann Black, 88 Howard Street, Oxford OX4 3BE, 01865-722230,