National Executive Committee, 3/4 November 2003
Some highly-coloured accounts of this two-day meeting have
appeared, most of them untrue. Astonished members did not
discuss Gordon Brown’s exclusion from the NEC, as claimed in the
Guardian, although many did not realise Douglas Alexander had
replaced John Reid. In fact astonishment centred on the imminent
departure of general secretary David Triesman: why was he going,
who leaked confidential conversations, why were NEC members not
involved or informed, and who will succeed him? Much remains
mysterious, but David was praised for rescuing party finances and
establishing permanent headquarters at Old Queen Street. The
post would be advertised and NEC officers would shortlist
candidates for interview by the full NEC on 16 December.
Taskgroups reported on better ways of using the skills of party
members, on learning from other organisations which recruit and
manage volunteers, and on Labour Academy. Another investigated
the use of e-mail, the internet and mobile phones. Levels of
expertise varied widely, and the group suggested focusing efforts on
helping all local parties to achieve basic competence. is being trialled under Windows XP/2000, but may
not be generally available for the 2004 elections.
David Triesman said that 2003 would show a healthy financial
surplus, and thanked the unions for continuing support. The new
laws on party finance were still proving onerous. Our priorities
remained the same: winning elections, increasing participation in
policy-making, recruiting and retaining members, and ensuring
adequate resources. For each month until April 2003 more people
joined the party than wrote in to resign, though when those who
simply lapse are included, total numbers continued to decline.
However the new subscription rates had maintained overall income,
and lapsers could usually be persuaded to renew if asked,
especially by their Labour MP.
Douglas Alexander gave a stirring presentation on campaigning
through 2004 and 2005. We had to set the agenda, as in 2001
when public services, tackling poverty, economic stability and full
employment won out over the Tory issues ot tax, Europe and law
and order. But we could no longer assume that people were
engaged and would vote, and all we had to do was thrust our
message at them. Instead we must build long-term relationships
with individuals. The next election would not be won by Millbank,
but by decentralising the campaign to local parties, MPs and
councillors. Some argued that policy also mattered. Muslim
communities were unhappy with recent wars and insensitive Home
Office comments, and the LibDems were moving in. Bypassing
local government was not helpful either, and partnership would be
New Inside Labour
Party officer Tanya Mitchell presented research into the party
magazine Inside Labour, unchanged for seven years, and seen by
focus groups as “harmless” and “chatty”. Members wanted
information in bite-sized chunks, factual arguments rather than
sniping, and policy expressed in concrete terms. Ministerial
question-and-answer sections were seen as manufactured. Some
of us thought that as well as the editorial line explaining government
positions, a letters column should allow different views, reflecting
and encouraging diversity within the membership. Others felt that
any criticism would be seized on by our political enemies. A new
product, with a new title, will emerge in 2004.
Ian McCartney then tried to explain the national debate flagged in
Tony Blair’s conference speech. A prospectus would restate
Labour’s values, outline our achievements, list medium-term
challenges, and pose key questions on how government should
tackle issues such as climate change, the ageing population, and
technological advance. It would be launched at the National Policy
Forum in November, and then taken out to party members and the
community. The results would go to the 2004 conference, with the
ten other Forum policy papers. The main worry was over the party’s
ability to respond, given that the Forum still suffered from insufficient
feedback and evidence that members’ views had made a difference.
But Ian McCartney argued that the greater risk was reaching the
next election without having engaged communities in dialogue. And
another consultation paper, “The 21st Century Party – the Next
Steps”, on local organisation, was on its way. So lots to talk about.
Partnership Revisited
The Forum process itself would be reviewed, starting shortly so that
changes could be in place for the next cycle. On the positive side,
two-thirds of constituencies had sent submissions or resolutions this
year. However policy commissions varied widely in effectiveness,
and failed to involve the rest of the Forum. In addition current
issues needed to be handled better, and links with external
organisations should be improved. And I asked for more examples
of grassroots influence. NHSDirect, the most commonly cited, was
actually launched by the government before the Forum was formed.
There will be no elections to constituency places on the National
Policy Forum at next year’s conference. The argument was that
2004/2005 would be a fallow year, with no documents in progress
and nothing for representatives to do. I felt that a better approach
would be to make the Forum meaningful at all times, and cancelling
elections would further weaken links between constituencies and
representatives. My unscientific focus group agreed. However the
constituency vice-chair Anne Snelgrove found not one voice of
dissent, and the NEC endorsed cancellation by 13 votes to 4. All
places will be up for election in 2005, with future election dates to be
discussed within the review.
Dividing Lines
Tony Blair joined the meeting on Tuesday morning. He said the
disadvantage of the new Tory leadership was that they were more
united. On the other hand the choice between parties was more
stark, and should renew the motivation of our own supporters.
Since 1997 we had been running against a mirage, with the media
and internal critics taking opposition roles. Michael Howard’s soft
centrist language was an illusion, like the US Republicans’
compassionate conservatism. On health and education, Tory policy
was to increase opting-out rather than improve state provision, and
on pensions and university funding their sums did not add up.
SureStart and the New Deal would be dropped, and Britain would
again be marginalised in Europe.
Comments covered continuing job losses in manufacturing, transfer
of call-centres abroad, whether the pension protection plan would
hasten closure of final salary schemes, a special retail price index
for pensioners, higher interest rates, Northern Ireland, and the
desirability of conciliation on foundation hospitals and top-up fees. I
regretted that Britain appeared to be endorsing George Bush’s re-
election. Tony Blair said that his visit was arranged early in 2001,
and postponing it would be absurd. He answered Christine
Shawcroft’s request for an exit strategy from Iraq by arguing that it
would be crazy to walk away, leaving the field to Saddam loyalists
and outside killers. Terrorists were flowing in because they knew a
democratic Iraq would be the biggest single blow against extremism.
Len Duvall, Chair of the Greater London Assembly, spoke on the
coming campaign. Co-operation between the Labour group and
Ken Livingstone had generally been good, and the main battle was
not over the mayor, but between Labour and the other parties.
However I am not sure that the media will see it that way. And
despite continuing speculation, I cannot see Ken’s readmission
before his five-year automatic exclusion expires. Last year Tony
Blair put enormous personal effort into persuading the NEC to keep
him out, and David Triesman said that 400 members in a similar
position would sue the party if we let him rejoin. But no doubt I will
be surprised again.
Finally the annual conference had been the opposite of the
meltdown predicted by the pundits, with serious debates settled by
decisions. David Triesman denied that party managers tried to
influence how delegates voted, or that visitors were invited onto the
conference floor during debates, or that people with suits and
earpieces were placed amongst union delegations to act as
cheerleaders. However at least one non-delegate was called to
speak and this would not happen again. I am still trying to find out
how many constituencies sent delegates – last year around 100
CLPs were unrepresented – and also pursuing what happens to
resolutions not debated but referred to the NEC.
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,