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Report from Ann Black: NEC Meeting 29 January 2002

Tony Blair reiterated Labour’s core messages: economic stability,
investment plus reform in public services, healing social inequalities, and
international engagement. Members must not be diverted by media
feeding frenzies. The notion that buying tables at party events gave
Enron a veto over energy policy was ludicrous, and he quoted General
Secretary David Triesman with approval: “We’ll give back the money if
they give back the dinners.”
 
Mark Seddon’s proposal for state fundingof political parties had little public support, individual subscriptions could not sustain the party, and refusing both union and corporate donations would leave Labour seriously short of campaign funds.
 
NEC members were pleased with the renewed commitment to public
services, emphasising again that doctors, nurses and teachers were
backed by equally essential support staff. Though shortcomings must
be tackled, approval of the National Health Service greatly exceeded
complaints. 
 
The local government white paper was welcomed, but MPs
cited difficulties where councils were blamed for problems with privatised
residential care and benefits systems, and defective maintenance under
Private Finance Initiative deals. Stronger powers were needed to hold
contractors to account. And while public service workers benefited from
real pay rises, local government had to pick up the bill, including national
settlements for teachers as well as deals negotiated with other staff.
 
I argued that the Post Office; though privately run, is similarly seen as a
public service, and the government would be held responsible for any
deterioration. The Prime Minister wanted to work with them on
restructuring, but European liberalisation made their current position
unsustainable. 
 
On manufacturing, he felt that stability was more
important than the strength of sterling, and the reason why Labour
favoured the euro in principle. Members praised his mediation over
Kashmir, and he repeated his pledge to reconciliation and reconstruction
in Afghanistan, and the need to address tensions and conflict in the
Middle East. He was pessimistic about persuading the United States to
stop blockading Cuba.
 
Questions of Democracy
 
On further reform of the House of Lords, Tony Blair said that there was
no consensus behind current government proposals, but no consensus
on the best alternative either. Personally he considered fifteen-year
terms excessive, hybrid membership problematic and gridlock a real risk.
But nothing would be railroaded through, and he favoured full debate
within the party on all the options.
 
Dennis Skinner kicked off by proposing either to get rid of the second chamber entirely, or to elect it but render it impotent by removing most of its powers.
Where this consultation would happen was not clear. The National
Policy Forum thinks long-term, beyond the next election. There is no
obvious space for members to discuss current topics, and question-and-
answer sessions with ministers are not suitable for analysing issues and
formulating responses. Perhaps the policy commissions will come up
with more creative ways to promote dialogue between party and
government.
 
The NEC’s role in policymaking also required clarification. Some
members thought the November meeting should not have considered
resolutions on Afghanistan, because this undermined Conference policy.
But events happen outside Conference timetables, and circumstances
change. David Triesman agreed to bring draft guidelines for appropriate
subjects to a future meeting. It is worth noting that the 2000 Conference
punted electoral reform into the long grass, yet the NEC is now planning
to review proportional representation in the light of Scottish
developments. The same Conference rejected a democratic upper house,
and no-one suggested stifling that debate either.
 
Prudence for a Purpose
 
Treasury Secretary Andrew Smith, gave the pre-budget report. The
pensioner’s credit would benefit those with modest savings, the child tax
credit would integrate existing provisions, and the working tax credit
would supplement low pay for those with or without children. There was
admiration for the grand design, mixed with some concern about
complexity and consequent low take-up. However the timing of the
budget, on 17 April, should boost Labour’s vote in the council elections
two weeks later.
 
Charles Clarke outlined the National Policy Forum programme. Papers
would be considered by the Forum on 8 February, revised by the policy
commissions, approved by the Joint Policy Committee on 28 February
and published in March. Regional and local forums were planned
through the summer. The critical factor would be whether feedback
convinced members that their views can make a difference. Charles was
also building links with the Co-operative Party, aiming to feed co-
operative ideas into policy development instead of just asking them for
money.
 
The Forum process would have to improve against a tight financial
background. As with government, the party faces tough choices.
Members’ subscriptions do not currently cover the cost of providing
services to them, and too much seems to go to Sema, the company which
administers membership. Several people suggested that a Best Value
audit was in order.
 
Committee Corner
 
The NEC agreed principles for choosing European, parliamentary and
local government candidates. Explicit rules would be defined for all
selections, including person specifications, standard CVs, and referees.
 
The goal of a 50/50 gender balance was undiluted, and the next election
should see further moves towards the target. The NEC has the power to
impose all-women shortlists, but hoped to secure voluntary agreement.
Increasing ethnic minority representation was more complicated, with
variations in population and diverse communities, but again there was
serious commitment to progress. Appeals concerning selections would
be heard by a panel of people not involved in the initial decision, and
selection monitors from other regions would review procedures.
 
Much detailed work is delegated to newly-established task groups.
These cover party development; recruitment; engaging ethnic minorities;
youth and the decline in political and civil culture; and voter turnout.
Constituencies are now unrepresented on the party development
taskforce, which oversees Partnership in Power and 21st Century Party
initiatives. While recommendations will come back to the NEC, there is
no clear mechanism for feeding views in at an early stage. However I will
pass on your suggestions for tackling any of the various challenges.
 
 Where most members try to get onto committees, Dennis Skinner tries to
get off. However, after pleas from all sides he was persuaded to join the
Selections Panel, which shortlists candidates for by-elections, perhaps
because no-one would ever accuse Dennis of colluding in stitch-ups.
The Ogmore campaign was in full swing, and delegates to the Cardiff
Spring Conference were invited to assist. Lewisham members had
received a letter explaining why the mayoral ballot was being re-run, and
David Triesman’s gritted teeth bore witness to the sincerity of his
apologies.
Finally, constituency representatives were granted 200 words on the
party website after each meeting, as an extra way of reporting back. The
idea proved popular with other sections also, and David Triesman may
add a General Secretary’s note.
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, 88 Howard Street, Oxford OX4 3BE, 01865-
722230, ablack@brookes.ac.uk

Ann Blackablack@brookes.ac.uk

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