Report from Ann Black: NEC Meeting
29 September/3 October 2002 – Behind the Scenes at Conference
conference is now the only time when the NEC decides party policy, by
proposing statements and supporting or opposing resolutions.
The Sunday meeting considered our position on Iraq, and Tony
Blair argued passionately for keeping the option of unilateral military
action by the United States and Britain, in case other countries blocked
the move in the UN Security Council.
For instance Russia was understandably unhappy about large unpaid
oil contracts with Iraq. Mark
Seddon’s proposal to add “Unless
military action is explicitly endorsed by the United Nations, the UK
will not take military action against Iraq”
was rejected, with four in favour (Mark, Christine Shawcroft,
Dennis Skinner and myself).
amendment was more narrowly rejected, by 13 votes to 18.
This would have adopted the following sentiments from the TUC
General Council statement: “The
General Council are deeply concerned at the increasingly bellicose
statements made particularly by some members of the US administration
about unilateral American military action and regime change in Iraq.
The General Council believe that for any member state of the UN
unilaterally to seek regime change in another member state is not
consistent with the requirements of the UN Charter.”
said that “regime change” was not United States policy, and it was
ridiculous, absolutely and totally absurd, to claim that oil was
involved. Answering my pedantic objection to describing Saddam Hussein
as uniquely hideous, he said that the Taliban had been uniquely evil,
and North Korea was a real danger, starving their own people while
trading in nuclear technology. The
next few days were crucial. The
NEC statement would be studied around the world, and Saddam would
exploit any signs of division. After
reordering the paragraphs to put the optimistic parts at the beginning,
and strengthening references to the Middle East peace process, the
statement was agreed by 18 votes to 6.
day Iraq was also chosen as a contemporary topic.
The priorities ballot ran under new rules, accepting subjects
chosen by more than half the constituencies, even if they were not in
the top four places overall. Constituencies
and unions both voted for pensions and public services, while the other
top two, manufacturing and the Johannesburg summit, were actually bottom
of the constituency poll. But
85% of the constituency vote put Iraq on the agenda, and because of an
initial miscount, the Israel/ Palestine situation with 47% also made it.
This is exactly the list which would have been produced if each
half of conference had prioritised four topics in separately-counted
compositing meeting on Iraq produced two resolutions, one (composite 4)
urging opposition to military intervention, the other (composite 5)
stressing the role of the United Nations, but stopping short of
requiring an explicit UN mandate for military action.
The NEC opposed composite 4 by 14 votes to 4, and supported
composite 5 by 15 votes to 2. Then,
just before the debate, NEC members were called backstage and asked to
withdraw our own statement because it would probably be defeated.
The procession of
pro-government speakers produced ironic laughter.
I found it frightening. Back
in the real world, members who support military action are sober and
thoughtful. In Blackpool
they were gung-ho, enthusiastically steeling themselves for battle,
accusing those who opposed invasion as appeasers, guilty of making
orphans of the sons and daughters of Cyprus servicemen, just within
reach of the demon’s arsenal. Geoff
Hoon lauded the job creation benefits of £3.5 billion extra defence
spending and the boost to high-tech cutting-edge British manufacturing,
rather than the moral case for war.
Alice Mahon, called after prolonged demand from the floor,
pointed out that if Saddam Hussein took one step outside Iraq he would
be annihilated, and a few other sane voices managed to reach the
The anti-war composite 4 was
defeated 60%/40% in a card vote. Though
the unions were more in favour (48%/52%) than the constituencies
(33%/67%), the unions would have preferred not to debate Iraq at all.
There were also messages for Tony Blair.
Delegates were told that the way to peace was to threaten war, a
line reinforced by helpful regional officers, and the pro-government
vote included unknown quantities of wishful thinking.
Not all supporters will be comfortable when the bombing starts.
And though composite 5, carried on a show of hands, would allow
military action “within the context of international law”, Tony
Blair would be unwise to take this as a green light for bypassing the
services we returned to familiar ground.
Last year UNISON withdrew a resolution critical of Private
Finance Initiative schemes in exchange for pledges to end the two-tier
workforce, where new employees in outsourced services get worse
conditions than their colleagues transferred from the public sector.
Twelve months on, little had changed, and the unions could not go
back with the same promises of “Peace in Our Time”.
statement welcomed increased spending from taxation and praised the
dedication of public service workers.
However, reiterating Labour’s 2001 general election commitment
that “the Private Finance Initiative should not be delivered at the
expense of the pay and conditions of staff” did not go beyond the
current “broadly comparable” conditions for new and transferred
Shawcroft’s proposal to remove the paragraph singing the praises of
PFI was defeated 10-16, and the statement was endorsed by 22 votes to 3. The NEC then rejected the UNISON / GMB motion (composite 2)
by 13 votes to 7, and supported the pro-PFI constituency motion
(composite 3) by 16 votes to 8.
was predictable, with the two sides answering different questions and
rarely finding common ground. Constituencies
spoke on the proposition “Do you want new schools and hospitals, or
McDonagh’s 80-year-old mother was rescued from years of agony by
injections of private funding, and if we sacrificed our families for our
political ideals, “by Christ we would be judged”.
The unions instead addressed the argument “Should low-paid
workers lose what little pay, pension and protection they currently
enjoy?” Dave Prentis
stressed that they were asking for an independent review, not a
moratorium. If PFI was such
good value, the government should be happy to prove it.
Considering that 85% of public service investment is
still publicly funded, portraying PFI as the elixir of eternal
prosperity, rather than an accounting trick, was overblown. And UNISON members look forward to discussing with Martin
Salter, scourge of the National Air Traffic Services sell-off, why PFI
is not privatisation. Closing
the debate, Paul Boateng was slow-handclapped because he spoke for too
long, rather than because of what he said, though union leaders were
wrong to join in with such enthusiasm
were also predictable. The
UNISON composite 2 was carried 67% / 33% (unions 92% / 8%,
constituencies 42.5% / 57.5%), the pro-PFI composite 3 was lost 41.5% /
57.5% (unions 22% / 78%, constituencies 61.5% / 38.5%), and the NEC
statement was lost 45% / 55% (unions 26% / 74%, constituencies 65% /
35%). Though the government
highlighted the most favourable vote, Tony Blair offered an olive branch
in his speech, asking unions to work with him in delivering world-class
public services in return for ending the two-tier workforce.
This time perhaps the pledge will be honoured.
I believe it was sensible to schedule the two hot debates
near the beginning, clearing the week for Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and
the rest of the policy agenda. However,
the 7 p.m. finish on Monday wiped out scores of fringe meetings, and
many NEC members expressed concern.
In fact the total time by which sessions over-ran exceeded the
lost Thursday afternoon. Rule
changes were crammed into another late afternoon, with 11 separate card
votes. Disappointingly the
peers clung on to their right to invade the NEC constituency places,
with an amendment giving them a separate seat losing 46%/54% (unions
48%/ 52%, constituencies 44%/56%).
Though this looks counter-intuitive, 40% of constituencies also
opposed voting rights for peers on the National Policy Forum, and a
simple proposal removing them completely will stand a better chance in
two years’ time than the concession they were offered in Blackpool.
Finally, all NEC members are now Foundation Supporters of
the party’s appeal for the new headquarters. A pint glass was passed around, and filled with £20 notes.
Some contributed with more enthusiasm than others, but those who
left IOUs are being chased up. Now it’s your turn to save the party.
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 http://www.annblack.com
Ann Black, 88 Howard Street, Oxford OX4 3BE, 01865-722230, firstname.lastname@example.org