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Report from Ann Black: NEC Meeting 23 July 2002

First, I would like to thank the hundreds who mailed regarding Ken Livingstone’s request to rejoin Labour.  I appreciated the intelligent analysis and enjoyed the many references to digging while in a hole, and to emptying bladders inside and outside tents.  The responses split 76% for readmission, 17% against, 7% undecided.  I voted in line with the majority, but recognise the validity of arguments on both sides.

After long discussion, the application was rejected by 17 votes to 13.  Opposition centred on the inviolability of the five-year ban for standing against Labour, and possible legal costs if all 400 excluded members demanded equal treatment.  Other members noted efforts to bring Scottish MP Dennis Canavan back on board within the limit.  They believed the party itself acted improperly in fixing the previous selection, and readmission would mark a clear break with past control-freakery.  Splitting the left would let Steve Norris in.  I was concerned that London members would again campaign openly against the Labour nominee, encouraging those outside London who flirt with voting Socialist Alliance or Green.  Perhaps the deciding argument came from those involved in 2000, when Ken Livingstone promised never to run against Labour, and broke his word.  No-one could guarantee that he would keep it this time. 

The Labour candidate will be chosen through an electoral college split 50/50 between individual members and affiliated organisations.  Unions will have to ballot their members and to vote proportionally to the results. I supported this in preference to straight one-member-one-vote partly because the unions will be asked to help with funding, and giving them a say in the candidate seemed the least we could do.    

Given the tremendous response to NEC members who consulted widely, I was surprised that General Secretary David Triesman reported little interest and only a handful of letters from outside London.  Either members have given up writing, or the party should make more active efforts to find out what they think.  Many people suggested exactly that, and I hope the current collection of e-mail addresses will be used for two-way communication and not just downloaded press releases.   

Something-for-Something 

This should have been central to the debate on subscriptions.  The NEC agreed to put rule changes to conference raising the reduced rate from £7 to £12 and the standard rate from £18.50 to £24, with optional higher contributions linked to salary.  In a pilot project, young members will get two years for £2 before transferring to the standard rate.  Candidates in local and national elections will have to pay the full rate regardless of income.  Currently 60% of members, including those joining through their union, contribute the lower amount, and their eligibility may be investigated.  Dennis Skinner suggested that all MPs should make a one-off donation of £1,000 to set an example, but was nervous about his colleagues’ reaction. 

I voted for a lesser increase in the reduced rate to protect the low-paid, but reluctantly supported the £24 charge.  In 1991 the subscription was £15, higher in real terms, and I believe this amount will not decide whether members stay or leave.  But they want more than a renewal letter, a magazine, and requests for money.  They expect letters to be acknowledged, and they expect the party to be open to change.  The recruitment task group recognised that members usually resign because they disagree with government policy, but offered only more extensive briefings, to counter the lying and hostile media.  This may not be enough to reconcile us to paying twice for garbage collection and the morning post, nor to explain why we should pay higher pension contributions in return for lower benefits, nor to convince us that war on Saddam Hussein is right.   

The Prime Minister side-stepped Dennis Skinner’s warning on Iraq.  He reported constructive meetings with union leaders.  He said that wage increases in public services now exceeded private sector increases, but did not acknowledge the ten-year backlog when the reverse was true.  And he advised low-paid council staff to claim top-up tax credits.

 

Mixed Signals 

Local parties, councillors and MPs can add a great deal to the value of party membership, and I argued that every constituency should have a Labour MP, their own or twinned through a neighbouring constituency.  New guidance for local parties will recommend greater community engagement, open General Committee meetings with interesting speakers, and routine business handled by an Executive.  

The difficulties arise higher up.  Reports from the policy commissions are patchy and incomplete.  The economy and welfare commission will consider the motion on public services proposed by Mark Seddon and the GMB union at its September meeting, six months after it was referred to them. 

Changes to the National Policy Forum timetable will further limit expression of different views.  Five documents are already under discussion, and five more will be published in 2003.  In February the Forum agreed that each batch would be discussed for two years, culminating at the annual conferences in 2003 and 2004 respectively, when Forum members could submit alternatives for decision.  This rolling programme has been abandoned, and consultation on all ten areas will now extend into 2004.  At the 2003 conference, as in 2001 and 2002, there will now be no possible choices, only take-it-or-leave-it documents.  All ten papers will end up at the 2004 conference, with little time for proper debate, and an imminent general election discouraging loyal delegates from rocking the boat. 

Despite its overarching responsibility, the NEC was not permitted to discuss these plans.  Two days later the Joint Policy Committee – dominated by ministers – endorsed them.  Apparently Charles Clarke promised open debate in 2004.  But we are asking members for money now, and they need jam today, not in two years’ time.   

Other opportunities for empowerment have been also been passed up.  Constituencies could have been offered more say in prioritising contemporary resolutions at conference.  Revised procedures guarantee debate for topics attracting half the constituency vote, but in practice this will make no difference.  

Or peers could have been granted their own seat on the NEC.  Last year the NEC promised conference a solution which would give the peers an input without disadvantaging other sections.  This meeting happily added the chair of the Trade Union Liaison Committee to the Joint Policy Committee, an ethnic minority member to each policy commission and a Labour student to the National Policy Forum, and gave two peers voting rights on the Forum.  However, the Organisation Committee argued that a peer on the NEC would disrupt the delicate balance between stakeholders, and so Lord Kinnock will still be free to keep a dangerous leftie out of the constituency section if he returns to British politics by 2004. 

Future Elections 

Looking ahead, sitting MPs must declare by the end of 2002 whether they wish to stand again.  All-women shortlists will operate in half the vacated Labour seats, except in Scotland which has problems with boundary changes. The parliamentary panel will remain open, with candidates able to seek NEC approval after selection.  Where MPs retire late, for any reason, all-women shortlists will be imposed, though the NEC may make exceptions to extend diversity in other ways, for instance through ethnic minority or disabled candidates.  

The July Organisation Committee discussed developments in Birmingham, where the local government committee was dissolved.  The composition of the replacement campaign forum will be reviewed next year, and the Committee agreed my proposal to try out “selection monitors” from outside the region, to counter fears of bias in candidate interviews.  Birmingham will show whether this new approach, agreed by the NEC in January, can improve confidence in procedures. 

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.labourcounts.com/AnnBlack/ 

Ann Black, 88 Howard Street, Oxford OX4 3BE, 01865-722230, ann.black@unisonfree.net 

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