National Executive Committee, 16 December 2003
 
This meeting was originally called to appoint David Triesman’s
successor as general secretary, and following interviews, Matt
Carter was chosen and congratulated. However with media
speculation at fever pitch it was a good opportunity to revisit the
Livingstone question. NEC members were fed-up with being
badgered by journalists who knew more than they did.
 
Back in July 2002 the NEC rejected Ken Livingstone’s application to
rejoin the party by 17 votes to 13. Nicky Gavron was then selected
as Labour’s mayoral candidate in a one-member-one-vote ballot of
members and affiliated trade unionists. But recent opinion polls
were not good, and rumours spread that she was willing to stand
down and run as deputy mayor if Ken Livingstone could be the
Labour candidate. On 16 December she formally withdrew. The
NEC officers - Mary Turner, Ian McCartney, Jimmy Elsby, Mike
Griffiths, Margaret Wall, Tony Blair and John Prescott – proposed:
 
* that the NEC accepts Nicky Gavron’s resignation as Labour’s
London mayoral candidate;
 
* that the officers should interview Ken Livingstone and decide
on readmission based on his acceptance of party rules and
policies;
 
* that if readmitted, he would be treated in the same way as a
sitting Labour MP, with a trigger ballot on whether London
members accepted or rejected him as the Labour candidate;
 
* that the electoral college for the trigger process would be 50%
individual members with a full postal ballot, and 50% trade
unions and other affiliates casting block votes without balloting.
Voting papers would be posted by 16 January with a deadline
of 30 January 2004.
 
No procedure was specified if Ken Livingstone failed the test, but
presumably there would be an open selection with fresh
nominations over a longer timescale.
 
Return of the Prodigal Ken?
 
I voted for readmission last year, and supported it now for the same
reasons. Most ordinary members wanted him back; the party acted
wrongly in fixing the first selection against him; splitting the left vote
would let the Tories in. Dennis Skinner and Michael Cashman were
still opposed, also for the same reasons as before: the five-year ban
must be applied consistently, without special favours; Ken
Livingstone broke his word last time, and would break it again; his
promises were worthless.
 
But other minds had changed. Tony Blair now spoke in favour,
though stressing that Ken Livingstone must show absolute and
genuine commitment to the party manifesto. Readmission is not
automatic, and the officers’ interview will be rigorous. He moved
that the full NEC should then make the final decision. This was
widely welcomed, and the second recommendation was amended
accordingly.
 
Last time we were told that waiving the five-year penalty would open
legal floodgates, with over 400 similarly-excluded members
bankrupting us in the courts. Our current lawyers now assure us
that the NEC does have discretion to vary the rule, and while
aggrieved members may complain, they cannot successfully sue.
The key second recommendation was carried by 25 votes to 2,
though with gritted teeth in some quarters. The officers’ interview
and the NEC meeting will be on 6 January 2004.
 
Take it or Leave it
 
I joined Michael Cashman and Dennis Skinner in opposing the third
recommendation, which was carried 24-3. I felt that the anti-Ken
minority, plus party democrats, deserved a choice of candidates in
an open selection, and trigger ballots were meant for Labour
incumbents of more than five minutes’ standing. I hope that I am
wrong, and voting for or against Livingstone will be enough. And I
am concerned about reverting to union general secretaries casting
block votes without a ballot, the system which helped to exclude Ken
Livingstone the first time round, as well as Rhodri Morgan in Wales.
 
Nevertheless, the affair shows that the NEC can change its mind,
and that the Prime Minister has a reverse gear when necessary.
And an official Labour candidate who describes George Bush as
“the greatest threat to life on this planet” will broaden the walls of the
Labour church considerably.
 
A Woman’s Place is in the House
 
The other selection in the news has been Blaenau Gwent, allegedly
“punished” with an all-women shortlist for opposing the war. Here I
must defend the NEC. The Labour party has clear policy on
increasing women’s representation, and Wales in the 21st century
still has only four woman MPs. I am offended by suggestions that
only men can take forward the great socialist tradition of Nye Bevan
and Michael Foot. And the winning candidate Maggie Jones was
not “parachuted in”. She was shortlisted and selected by individual
members from among all eligible women in the country. If some
people chose not to take part, that is regrettable, and a loss to
themselves and to the party.
 
But nationally the picture has become muddied. The NEC initially
agreed that where sitting MPs gave notice of their retirement by 31
December 2002, half the vacancies would be filled through all-
women shortlists (AWS). After that, all further vacancies would be
filled from AWS except in "exceptional circumstances" where
diversity could be enhanced in other ways, for instance through an
ethnic minority candidate (and people did point out that half of ethnic
minorities are actually women as well). Scotland was exempted
because boundary changes have meant severe culling of sitting
MPs.
 
This was supposed to encourage MPs to make their minds up early,
but in the end only 16 did so. Because the 50% rule was applied by
region and rounded up (for example, two out of three vacant seats
within a region would be AWS), 12 out of the 16 were designated as
AWS selections. (In Yorkshire & Humberside, three out of four were
AWS. I queried this, but was told that because Alice Mahon was
retiring in Halifax, she must be replaced by another woman.)
 
Backward Steps
 
By autumn 2003 six more MPs had decided to stand down, and
these vacancies were discussed by the organisation committee on
20 November. The panel which considers late retirements
recommended that two should be open selections. For Ealing,
Acton and Shepherds Bush the argument was that the constituency
has a high ethnic minority population, including local activists and
councillors, and an open selection was agreed.
 
Dewsbury, where Ann Taylor is retiring, was more contentious. We
were told that the constituency is moribund and has no view, but
there is a substantial ethnic minority population, unhappy about the
war and flirting with the LibDems, who would desert Labour if barred
from putting forward male candidates. Some of us felt this was not
adequate, and the most likely outcome was a white man. And
following the Alice Mahon argument, surely a woman should have
replaced Ann Taylor. After much agonising the organisation
committee voted for an open selection by the narrowest possible
margin.
 
So we have a situation where the 50/50 AWS rule for early
retirements has produced 75% AWS, and late retirements, which
would be open only in exceptional circumstances, have produced
67% AWS. This is not a recipe for encouraging early declarations of
intent next time, because constituencies have more chance of an
open selection if their MP hangs on.
 
And Finally . . .
 
Annual conference next year returns to Brighton, and the NEC has
just been advised that the 2005 conference is likely to be in Brighton
as well. I am sure the financial arguments are compelling, but
despite the pooled fare arrangements, Scotland in particular seems
under-represented at south coast conferences. This year only 499
constituencies sent delegates, and the decline has to be reversed.
 
It only remains to wish everyone a happy New Year, and success to
all candidates in local, London and European elections. And to
mayor Livingstone, we presume . . .
 
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 http://www.annblack.com 
 
Ann Black, 88 Howard Street, Oxford OX4 3BE, 01865-722230,
ann.black@unisonfree.net