National Executive Committee, 29 June 2004
 
With Tony Blair away at the NATO summit, John Prescott gave the
leader’s report. He skipped cheerfully through the script on Europe:
red lines, no European superstate, good for Britain good for Europe
etc etc. On public services, Tony Blair believed that people do want
choice, and levers should be in the hands of patients and parents,
the citizen-consumers. Michael Howard would take us back to two-
tier grammar schools and destroy local education authorities. Some
noted that Tony Blair’s new education policies could have the same
effect, and regretted that they cut across the National Policy Forum
process. On his own territory, John Prescott was pleased that all-
postal ballots had increased turnout, though everyone agreed that
witness statements should be dropped and procedures simplified.
 
The emphasis on choice was criticised from all sides. Voters mainly
wanted their local services to be excellent, and real choice was not
possible without expanding attractive schools and hospitals while
others lay half-empty. Harping on about radical change sent the
message that public services were still rubbish and Labour had
achieved nothing in the past seven years. We should get ourselves
off this “giant meat-hook” of choice, and go for simple messages:
“We know the Tories – they make you pay”.
 
Members stressed that the party must start mobilising now to win
the referendum on the European constitution. Gary Titley said that
in Ireland, all-party groups toured the country selling the benefits of
Europe, though it is hard to see that happening here. The unions
warned that they could not inspire their people while Tony Blair
planned to opt out of equal rights for British workers. At regional
level John Prescott threatened to visit dissident northern Labour
MPs who are campaigning for a No vote.
 
I asked about progress on reviewing the council tax, and the
wrangle between David Blunkett and the Humberside police
authority. Mark Seddon requested John Prescott to tell his new
friend Ken Livingstone that Labour representatives did not cross
picket lines. Others raised compulsory pension contributions, the
future of the Royal Mail, and enabling local authorities to maintain
their own housing stock. Dennis Skinner was concerned that
Labour and the Tories were fighting over a very narrow strip of
centre ground, compared to 1997 and 2001. John Prescott agreed
that we had to maintain the broad working-class/middle class
alliance which brought Labour’s two landslides.
 
June 10 – the Post Mortem
Ian McCartney and Douglas Alexander reported working effectively
with new general secretary Matt Carter to correct last year’s
weaknesses. The national European campaign had been
particularly professional. Michael Howard had under-performed,
press statements about worst-ever results were simply untrue, and
there was certainly no meltdown. Recruitment was up, lapsed
members were rejoining, we were coming out of the trough and
entering the summer campaign with pride in our achievements.
Some members were less starry-eyed, but felt that it could have
been much worse.
 
Others reported fewer activists to canvass and leaflet, and
supporters only voting Labour out of a sense of “weary loyalty”.
Membership, including those up to six months in arrears, was
214,952 at the end of 2003 and is now 208,000, though the decline
may have bottomed out. The Tories did so badly because much of
their vote went even further right to UKIP, who also proved a mixed
blessing in keeping out the BNP. Labour urgently needed to re-
engage with Muslim voters. Dennis Skinner held the media
responsible, with the BBC still full of Gilligans and only interested in
stirring up trouble. Douglas Alexander agreed, regretting the lack of
press interest in Tony Blair’s visits to schools and hospitals.
 
The Elephant in the Living Room
No-one mentions it, but everyone knows it’s there. Many of us
found our own supporters turning against us, not only because of
Iraq but because Iraq had come to symbolise wider issues: they
were told things that turned out not to be true, and that lack of trust
was spreading well beyond the war. It was most acute among those
who defended the government at the time, and now felt let down.
And it was also directly associated with the Prime Minister. The
week before the meeting, I had personally opposed a resolution by
my own union UNISON to call on Tony Blair to resign. But though
that resolution was defeated the problem is real, and yet the NEC
was unable to acknowledge it.
 
Jeremy Beecham said that where Labour had lost control of
councils, we had to develop strategies for opposition. Tory/LibDem
coalitions gave scope for tarring them with the same brush if they
got on well, and divide-and-conquer tactics if they didn’t. I asked
about stories that a former BNP councillor had joined Labour in
Burnley, and am happy to report that these are untrue. Maureen
Stowe left the BNP to sit as an Independent, and is voting with the
Labour group, but has not applied for membership. The meeting
agreed that any applications from former BNP members would be
vetted by the full NEC.
 
Selection Blues
Members wishing to stand for parliament can apply for Labour’s
national panel, which gives them approval for any constituency. The
unions and the Co-Op party have their own panels, and these
candidates are also automatically endorsed. In addition members
can seek selection without being on a panel, but must then be
interviewed by NEC representatives. This last avenue is sometimes
necessary in unwinnable seats, where good local activists may be
the only people willing to carry the Labour flag.
 
Linda Riordan’s selection for Alice Mahon’s Halifax seat brought
these principles into conflict. Before the hustings she was rejected
for the Labour panel, but then accepted onto the Co-op panel. After
winning the nomination, she was re-interviewed by another NEC
panel which recommended that she should not be endorsed.
Instead the selection should be re-run, with Linda eligible to stand
again.
 
Arguing against endorsement, members said that the NEC should
not overturn its own panels without having seen the candidate or the
evidence, and Linda should have been open with the Co-Op and the
party about applying through separate routes. Those in favour
pointed out that if we rejected her, all Co-Op and union candidates
should be recalled for interview. Though judged deficient on
national policy, she was a good local councillor with a track record of
campaigning against the BNP. Eventually her candidacy was
endorsed by 12 votes to 8 with one abstention. I voted in favour for
three reasons: that the Co-Op panel should be respected; that it
made no sense to let her stand in a re-run if she was really
unacceptable; and that the last time the NEC rejected a 
constituency choice, Liz Davies and Leeds North East took the case
all the way to conference. Though I personally did not think that the
panel rejected Linda on political grounds, the history of control-
freakery meant that members would not believe it. In conclusion the
meeting agreed to look at consistency between party and affiliate
panel interviews, and whether members should be able to apply
through multiple routes.
 
Where are the Women?
By-elections in Birmingham Hodge Hill and Leicester South had
been called for 15 July, and candidates were shortlisted and
selected with extreme speed. There was widespread unhappiness
that in Hodge Hill two white men were shortlisted, with no women or
ethnic minority applicants judged good enough. No woman has
been selected for a Labour-held seat in the West Midlands since
1996, and Labour’s commitment to positive action is being
questioned. This threatens to undermine excellent work in
improving women’s representation in local government from 24% to
31.5% in pilot areas.
 
It was also raised on 3 July at the national women’s forum, the
brainchild of Helen Jackson MP and organised by women’s officer
Rachael Saunders. The event was highly rated, and excellent value
at £5 including lunch, compared with £70.50 for the official women’s
conference. I believe it could take over as the main channel for
women’s voices within Labour. The women, race and equalities
committee is supporting rule changes which would allow
constituency ethnic minority forums on the same basis as women’s
forums, and promoting guidance on the impact of new disability
discrimination laws.
 
Jean Corston, Chair of the parliamentary committee, explained its
role as the executive for the parliamentary Labour party. She was
trying to have the PLP more involved in policy decisions such as
foundation hospitals and top-up fees. And Ian McCartney said that
the review groups on Partnership in Power would consult members
at conference, before drawing up conclusions. The party
development taskgroup has not met yet this year, but will report on
the 21st Century Party feedback at conference.
 
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