National Executive Committee, 6 January / 27 January 2004
 
A special meeting on 6 January agreed Ken Livingstoneís
readmission to the party, on the recommendation of NEC officers.
The vote was 22 - 2, with Dennis Skinner and Michael Cashman
maintaining their opposition. Tony Blair took responsibility for
publicly explaining his change of mind since blocking Ken in 2000
and 2002. A trigger ballot of London members is now in full swing.
 
The NEC met again on 27 January, the day of the top-up fee vote
and the eve of the Hutton report. Tony Blair was busy rallying the
troops, and John Prescott deputised. He looked forward to the
Euro-elections and referendums on regional government. The Big
Conversation was going well, and showed that the public did not
always have the same priorities as party activists.
 
Some NEC members expressed anger at the fee rebels. The
socialist societies were horrified at ex-ministers who demanded
loyalty when they were in government, but were now undermining
the leadership. This was not the time to hand gifts to Michael
Howard and the media, eagerly looking for divisions. The Education
and Skills policy commission received only 16 submissions
opposing fees.
 
Dennis Skinner was unhappy about breaking a manifesto
commitment. John Prescott accepted that the process had not
been ideal, but many changes had been made, and the bill could be
amended further in committee. It was better than Tory plans to
exclude 100,000 people from higher education. I was concerned
about the political consequences. Labour has concentrated on
helping the poorest students, as we should. However the backlash
may come from the middle classes who get no financial aid, and
who go into debt themselves rather than burden their children. In
addition government briefings talk about students repaying fees
after they graduate. But a substantial number drop out, often for
financial reasons. It seems as if they will also have to pay, and that
adds to the risk.
 
The Status Quo is not an Option
Many highlighted the advantages of the new proposals: no up-front
fees, easier payback terms, debt write-off, restoring maintenance
grants. This was slightly weird given that Labour introduced the
current system in the first place. But admitting errors is better than
persisting in them, and Tony Blair was advised to follow Colin Powell
and George Bush in recognising the faulty intelligence about
weapons of mass destruction. Mick Cash asked for support for free
trade unions in Iraq, and Mark Seddon raised the closure of Hatfield
Colliery, sitting above half of Britainís usable coal reserves.
 
Jack McConnell, first minister of Scotland, then spoke. Despite the
war, last yearís election results were good. Labour focused on local
issues, especially anti-social behaviour and crime. Coalition with the
LibDems, though difficult at times, was enabling them to implement
most of Labourís programme. He noted that their student funding
scheme had anticipated the latest plans for England. They had
supported manufacturing through keeping two Glasgow shipyards
open, and the Hoover plant in Cambuslang. Among long-term
challenges, the Scottish population is set to fall below 5 million in
2010, with fewer than 3 million workers by 2027. The Executive was
working with Westminster to encourage people to come to Scotland
as a modern, diverse and multicultural society, and trying to win the
arguments against public misunderstanding and hostility towards
immigrants.
 
Signals Passed at Danger
The most agonised debate was over future relations between the
RMT union and the Labour party. Last July the RMT annual general
meeting voted to allow branches to affiliate to other parties. Since
then five of the 25 Scottish branches have affiliated to the Scottish
Socialist Party (SSP) and another two branches and the Scottish
regional council have also sought permission. Labourís legal advice
was that this put the RMT outside party rules, and they have
disaffiliated themselves. This was profoundly regretted, given the
RMTís historic role in founding the Labour party. The NECís
organisation committee recommended that unless the RMT special
general meeting on 6 February withdrew endorsement of links with
the SSP, their disaffiliation from Labour would be formally
recognised and they would lose party representation at constituency,
regional and national level.
 
Mick Cash of the RMT said the union did not believe it was in
breach of Labourís rules. Branches of other unions had given
money to different parties, and to Ken Livingstone. It was not
helpful to issue ultimatums, and general secretary Bob Crow wished
to meet the NEC to discuss the situation.
 
It is true that the rulebook is not totally clear. Affiliates must accept
party policy and principles, but there is no explicit prohibition against
supporting other parties, as there is for individual members.
 
However, as one RMT activist wrote to me, the political issue is
clearcut: ďthe RMT cannot ride two horses in the same raceĒ. While
other unions may have maverick branches, they have national rules
against funding other parties. One-third of the Scottish RMT is
already organising in opposition to Labour. Allowing this to continue
would risk other unions being peeled away piecemeal.
 
Mark Seddon suggested that the RMT should ballot its levy-paying
members on what to do, given that some branch decisions were
taken by as few as seven people, but the NEC cannot tell unions
how to run their own democracy. Nevertheless Ian McCartney
reported a groundswell of alarm within the RMT, and I hope their
leaders will represent the political make-up of their membership as a
whole.
 
Dennis Skinner argued that NEC officers met Ken Livingstone, and
the RMT deserved at least equal respect. I supported this if talks
could be held before 6 February, but it was lost by 7 votes to 16,
with the majority view that it would just be used for grandstanding.
Some still wanted to seek compromise, but most called for absolute
clarity, so the RMT could make a clear choice between Labour and
opposition. The organisation committee recommendation was
accepted by 21 votes to 3, with Mick Cash, Mark Seddon and
Christine Shawcroft against. The NEC also agreed that Labour
would organise constituency parties in Scotland, Wales and the
English regions, but not in Northern Ireland.
 
Forums and Conferences
Five second-year National Policy Forum papers have just been
published, with consultation closing on 14 May. Before conference
the ten documents will be reorganised into five broad policy areas.
The March Forum will finalise Britain in the World and Reconnecting
People and Politics. The bulk of the work will go to the July Forum,
comprising Building Prosperity for All (economy, welfare, trade and
industry), Improving Health and Education, and Creating
Sustainable Communities (quality of life, transport, housing, local
government and the regions, and crime and justice).
 
Three working groups are being set up to review Partnership in
Power. NEC representatives are Jeremy Beecham and Mike
Griffiths (engagement with the government), Ann Black and Diana
Holland (engagement with the public) and Maggie Jones and Tony
Robinson (engagement with the party). Elections to policy
commissions are now complete. Regrettably the Millbank fixers
removed two of Tony Robinsonís colleagues from his quality of life
commission, because they dared to vote for him as vice-chair of the
Forum instead of Anne Snelgrove. The other Forum vice-chair
Margaret Wall has retired and will be replaced by new member
Danny Carrigan subject to election in March.
 
I expressed concern that the spring conference is charging
delegates £70.50, against last yearís rate of £60 for local
government and £40 for womenís conference. The business board
made the decision in November, and the event will still need
subsidising by more than £100,000. Women members may be
interested in an alternative one-day womenís forum on Saturday 3
July, perhaps in the West Midlands, as close to free as we can
make it. And all ethnic minority members are invited to a forum in
London on Saturday 28 February Ė please e-mail Annie Keys at
equalities@new.labour.org.uk  for details.
 
The main annual conference will finish at 4 p.m. on Thursday 30
September. Deadlines are 10 a.m. Friday 17 September for
contemporary resolutions, and 12 noon Friday 24 September for
emergency resolutions. Constituencies have until 2 April to
nominate candidates for the National Executive Committee elections
 
- please let me know if you would like a copy of my personal
statement.
 
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