Report from Ann Black: NEC Meeting 10 June 2003

The Prime Minister stressed the importance of arguing for Britain in
Europe and overcoming economic obstacles to joining the euro. 
This attracted general support, except from UNISON which opposes
the single currency, and it will be good to have government and
activists on the same side.  Members of the Britain in the World
policy commission hoped the campaign would bring positive
feedback, as a change from continuing dissatisfaction over the war. 
Tony Blair also highlighted Tory threats to bring in vouchers for
healthcare and schools, the need to increase consumer power in
public services while maintaining equity of provision, measures to
tackle anti-social behaviour, further labour market reforms to give
even more opportunities to work, and plans for the reconstruction of
Iraq.

Members' concerns included the two-tier workforce, pensions, the
lower youth rate for the minimum wage, violence to shopworkers,
preventing local authorities from building homes, and allowing
employers to discriminate against gays and lesbians.  Moves to
foundation hospitals and direct funding for schools could undermine
the roles of local government and the party in providing public
services.  British National Party members were infiltrating trade
unions and taking tribunal cases if expelled, using the awards to
fund racist campaigns.  Their local election gains, though few, were
disturbing, and it was disappointing that both Scotland and Wales
still had all-white legislatures. 

Tony Blair explained Andrew Smith's new insurance plan to protect
contributors to occupational pension schemes if their companies
went bust.  Retirement age would become more flexible, but there
was no intention to raise it to 70.  Paying trainees the full minimum
wage would cost their jobs, as in France where youth unemployment
is much higher.  He rejected Clare Short's accusation that the
invasion of Iraq was decided months in advance, and though Mark
Seddon and Christine Shawcroft called for an independent inquiry,
most NEC members wanted to move on from the war.  I asked
about the Esmeralda, the Chilean ship used as a torture centre by
Pinochet after the 1973 coup, and set for a royal navy welcome in
Dartmouth and a state visit to London.  Despite protests from
relatives of British victims, Amnesty International, Eryl McNally MEP
and others, and cancelled visits to Sweden and the Netherlands, the
Prime Minister was unaware of the issue but promised to find out.

Home and Abroad

David Blunkett spoke of the need to give people security, so they
had the confidence to face change and accept a progressive
agenda.  Reforms of sexual offences were removing outdated
anomalies and discrimination while addressing new dangers such
as child pornography and contact via the Internet.  Crime had fallen
by 9%, though perceptions did not always reflect this.  David fielded
questions on tabloid lies about asylum-seekers, treating attacks on
disabled people as aggravated in the same way as racial attacks,
tackling domestic violence, recognising the trauma of burglary
victims, rewarding good behaviour as well as penalising anti-social
actions, and integrating the new single equalities watchdog across
different departments.  He said that weekend sentences and tough
community penalties should reduce pressure on overcrowded jails,
but prison places could not be rationed like healthcare.  One person
spoke in favour of ID cards, but I believe this needs wider debate.

Gary Titley, leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party,
explained that the new constitution was necessary for 25 countries,
expanded from the original six, to work effectively.  Contrary to
propaganda, it would be more transparent, participative and
accountable.  Gary's written report regretted that conservative
elements were blocking research on stem cells which could bring
treatment for Parkinson's disease, diabetes and spinal cord injuries.   
Also, quarantine-free travel to Britain has been extended from cats
and dogs to cover pet ferrets, mice, rates, chinchillas, rabbits and
guinea-pigs.  

Campaign plans for the 2004 Euro-election were underway.  These
would be on the same day as local elections, on 10 June 2004,
except perhaps in Wales which was still resisting.  Scotland was
likely to have an all-postal ballot, and I passed on similar requests
from the NorthEast, where pilots in local elections had proved so
popular that activists were worried about going backwards and
losing votes.  There would be no free-standing European event, but
the Spring Conference, on 12/14 March 2004 in Manchester, would
include local government, European, women's and rural
programmes.   

Turning to annual conference, the meeting agreed to continue for
another year the pilot scheme for contemporary resolutions, allowing
any subject supported by more than half the constituencies to be
debated. I asked that constituencies be told of the March NEC
decision to continue through Thursday afternoon.  Members also
thanked Richard Taylor for long and excellent service as head of the
conference unit.  David Triesman is still trying to fund a youth officer.

In Credit

The party's financial health is improving and press rumours about
trouble with its pension fund are untrue, though membership
declined from 272,000 at 31 December 2001 to 248,294 at 31
December 2002.  Ian McCartney, the new party Chairman, stressed
the over-riding need to re-engage with members.  The Party
Development Taskforce is taking this forward, and as a member I
would be particularly interested in views and examples of

-   how can constituencies and local parties best organise
    themselves to increase membership, campaigning, policy-
    making and participation from members, supporters and the
    community?

-   how can local parties use technology to develop stronger
    relationships with members and voters?

The policy commissions are receiving record numbers of responses
on the ten National Policy Forum documents now in circulation, and
have to show that those submissions make a difference.

Ian also surveyed the results of elections in Wales (successful),
Scotland (reasonable), and England (typical mid-term but a worrying
rise in third parties and "independents").  Some were unhappy about 
the Scottish leadership deal with the LibDems on proportional
representation in local government, but there was a majority for PR
with or without Labour.  Summer campaigning would celebrate 2
August, marking Labour's longest-ever continuous period in
government.  More council candidates are needed for 2004,
particularly women to meet positive action targets.   Jeremy
Beecham and I confirmed that Tyneside has particular problems
because new ward boundaries will not be known until spring 2004.

And so to George Galloway

Thank you for the hundreds of responses to my mail.  Around 44%
said that the NEC should take no action, 20% that action should
await the conclusion of libel cases, 8% that expulsion should follow
if the allegations about taking money from Saddam Hussein or
misusing charitable donations were true, 4% that an enquiry
independent of the party should be held, 19% that the NEC should
act by suspending, withdrawing the whip or expulsion, and 5% did
not know.  But just as I posted the report to party officers, George
Galloway's suspension was announced.  The general secretary has
the power to do this in the name of the NEC, and lawyers advised
him that it would be improper to ask us first.  The Disputes Panel on
17 May agreed that deputy general secretary Chris Lennie should
continue his enquiry, overseen by the Chair Cath Speight, and that
any case would return to the Panel before going to the National
Constitutional Committee.  There was no vote on the suspension as
such.

At the full NEC the Chair Diana Holland was keen to have a debate,
but members thought otherwise, with all but four voting not to
discuss it.  The minutes of the Disputes Panel were accepted with
three against (Mark Seddon, Christine Shawcroft and myself).  The
Panel can make delegated decisions, but Ken Livingstone's
application to rejoin Labour came directly to the NEC because of its
importance for the party, and I believe the same should have
applied here.  Others were uneasy about procedures, and about
consistency given that two ex-cabinet ministers questioned Tony
Blair's statements, let alone Tam Dalyell's Jewish cabals and John
McDonnell's praise for IRA bombers.  So the case continues.  On a
positive note, the general secretary expressed commitment to
reaching a conclusion before the Glasgow parliamentary selections,
so George Galloway's suspension will not be used to exclude him.

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/

 

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