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Report from Ann Black: NEC Meeting 26 march 2002
- The meeting started with a messy
procedural wrangle. The
agenda included a resolution from Mark Seddon and Mary Turner of
the GMB opposing further privatisation of public services, with an
amendment from Jeremy Beecham seeking a review of Private Finance
Initiative projects and a level playing-field for competition
between public, private and voluntary sectors.
The Chair proposed referring both of these to the relevant
policy commissions without discussion, and members backed her by
21 votes to 7 despite Dennis Skinner’s warning that suppressing
debate was not a smart move.
New standing orders are likely to block all resolutions
from now on. Organisational matters will go to subcommittees, and on
policy, NEC members can write to the commissions like everyone
- While I accept that resolutions are
often not the best way to deal with complex issues, I would prefer
to see the commissions fulfil their promise of continuing dialogue
with the party first, before giving up existing channels for
bringing members’ concerns to its ruling body.
Tony Blair gave two examples of how policy could be
influenced, neither of which uses the new structures.
Dialogue with the unions, for instance over post office
modernisation and employment laws, takes place independently of
the forum process. And
reversal of the 75p pension insult followed a very Old Labour
conference resolution and a public defeat for the leadership by
the union block vote, all stuff which Partnership in Power was
supposed to prevent. He
warned us again that Labour always lost power in the past because
of splits between government and party, and we had to choose
between discipline or defeat.
- Question Time was a double act, with
John Prescott winning plaudits as Best Supporting Actor after Tony
Blair’s departure for another meeting.
The Prime Minister reminded us of Labour’s successes,
with a strong and stable economy, performance indicators in health
and crime beginning to turn positive, and real progress in
tackling child and pensioner poverty.
The spectacle of Michael Howard pretending concern for the
vulnerable showed how far the Tories were being dragged onto
Labour territory, and highlighted the dividing lines. Membership was still higher than eight years ago, and we had
to hold our nerve when attacked by the corrosive media. Too many of our own side could not resist a platform to air
their views or gain personal publicity.
- Two issues dominated discussion.
First, members reported widespread opposition to military
action against Iraq without a fresh United Nations mandate, citing
a unanimous statement from the South East Regional Board and
messages from many people who had accepted the Afghanistan
campaign but saw this as a war too far.
Following the Bush agenda could isolate Britain within
Europe and divert attention from deepening crisis in the Middle
East. Tony Blair said there was more support for action than people
think if it was done properly, and it would be absurd if the Left
appeared to support Saddam Hussein. Second, cosying up to Silvio
Berlusconi offended many sensibilities, and not only because the
Barcelona talks put free-market flexibility above workers’
understood that the British Prime Minister had to deal with other
countries’ democratically-elected leaders, but he did not have
to like them so obviously.
- Stephen Byers was generally
supported, with Railtrack still a bargain at £300 million.
I asked John Prescott when party policy allowing
18-year-olds to stand as councillors and MPs would be implemented.
Other concerns included foot-dragging over the European
directive on agency workers, premature liberalisation of postal
services, the two-tier workforce, faith schools, creationism
taught as science, delay in banning fox-hunting, disincentives to
save for pensions, over-complex funding for charities, the Home
Secretary’s record on race, and the rights of unmarried couples
to adopt children. Dennis
Skinner summed up the problem as trying to please all of the
people all of the time, which looked like dithering.
Why should we care what the House of Lords thought?
And Christine Shawcroft suggested one-member-one-vote
ballots on key policy issues, prompting Tony Blair to remark that
the Left had not always been so keen on universal suffrage.
Times change, indeed.
- Labour must do more to publicise
“stealth benefits”, where substantial redistribution through
tax credits is often not attributed to the government, and
highlight partnership with councils in the run-up to local
drew attention to threats from the British National Party, and the
need for material targeted at LibDems as well as Tories. Most candidates were in place, even for the mayoral contest
in Lewisham after two ballots and many shenanigans. Midterm elections were always difficult for the party in
national government, but the excellent result in Ogmore gave
everyone hope. Looking
ahead, enlargement of the European Union would reduce British
representation in 2004, and proposals to improve the gender
balance would severely limit prospects for aspiring male MEPs.
- Assistant General Secretary Matt Carter tabled
proposals for “Forethought: Labour’s Centre for Policy
internal thinktank would be run by ten intellectuals/thinkers plus
the National Policy Forum officers, the Party Chairman and the
General Secretary, and conduct research projects into areas such
as voter participation, or demographic trends over the next 15
varied from enthusiasm to Dennis Skinner’s “wouldn’t touch
it with a barge-pole”. Some were worried about money.
The party has little to spare – even the NEC has
tightened its belt and given up its biscuits - while external
funding could come with strings attached.
But the main anxiety was over creating a new and apparently
unaccountable elite, separate from the official policy-making
processes and even more remote from members.
To win support it must serve, not bypass, the National
Policy Forum, the policy commissions and the NEC.
And no John Birts.
- Members were more comfortable with renewing
traditional links between the Labour Party and the Co-operative
Movement, aiming “to develop a common understanding of policy
and business evolution, and where possible facilitate and dovetail
activity in support of community and citizenship regeneration”.
Meanwhile the National Policy Forum process is in full
swing, with documents available on the party website and
contributions welcomed. The
site now carries reports from constituency NEC representatives in
the members-only section, and I have asked for the auto-reply
response from email@example.com to be updated.
- General Secretary David Triesman spoke frankly about
his desire for transparency and trust within the NEC, but
regretted that press reports of sensitive financial information
could have put major projects at risk.
Mark Seddon tends to get blamed for everything, but most
members accepted that he did not leak conversations where he was
not present or documents that he had not seen.
The transfer from Millbank to Old Queen Street is scheduled
for August, and we were not sure what to call the control freaks
when they move to their new home.
Suggestions by postcard or e-mail, please.
- Glasgow was agreed for the spring conference, 14/16
February 2003, and despite protestations a separate women’s
conference was judged financially and administratively not viable. I asked again for more encouragement for regional women’s
organisation, following the deletion of Rulebook guidance.
Bournemouth will host the 2003 annual conference, with Blackpool
in spring 2004 and a return to Brighton for the following annual
- 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. Past
reports are available at http://www.labourcounts.com/AnnBlack