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National Executive Committee, 25/26 November 2002
 
The November meeting of the NEC was preceded by a less formal
awayday, designed to review the past year and to prepare for
challenges ahead. Our aims remain constant: to win elections and
increase turnout, to raise participation in political debate, to recruit
and retain members, and to stabilise party finances. More support
was needed for activists and volunteers, and information technology
should be exploited while making sure that those without access to
e-mail and the internet were not excluded.
 
We were warned that the media would attack Labour for control-
freakery (i.e. being organised) and for spin (i.e. communicating with
the electorate). But the main threats were on policy, if the economy
went wrong or increased spending did not deliver better public
services, and on splits: over Iraq, the Euro, fox-hunting, the
firefighters’ strike. When campaigning for Scotland, Wales, London
and local councils, voters must be reminded that the Tories are
badly led, divided, incompetent, anti-Europe, anti-public services,
out of touch, and generally not up to opposition and not fit to govern.
 
How Others See Us
 
NEC members were asked to consider which high street store was
closest to the party’s image. Ideas included Oxfam and the Co-Op,
but the popular winner was Ikea: members have to collect the bits
and assemble their own masterpiece, using instructions badly
translated from a foreign language, and finding that at least one
essential part is missing. However the correct answer appeared to
be Marks and Spencer. Faced with a traditional market and a
narrow and shrinking base, they recognised the need for change,
diversified, and reached out to a wider audience while continuing to
service their core customers.
 
This might have been a useful analogy in 1997, but Labour has
already changed, and five years of Partnership in Power have
coincided with five years of falling membership. Three members
leave for each one who joins, though most are thought to lapse
rather than actively resigning. We do not know if boring meetings
or policy disagreements are the main cause, and we should find out
before they go.
 
However, while the decline is doubtless due to complex factors,
ever more policy forums will not be the whole solution. Indeed
unless members gain a real sense of influence, more of the same
could actually stoke up cynicism. There is a growing sense among
MPs, MEPs and trade union members that members feel
disempowered, and a desire for the NEC to take back oversight of
the policy-making process. A lengthy cycle of policy development
was more appropriate in opposition, when the party had nothing
else to do, but it gives members no way to influence current issues.
However, some emphasised the value of the process in reaching
new audiences: Margaret Wall reported a meeting with tobacco
manufacturers, who felt they had no voice in the party but were
anxious to help with the government agenda on smoking among
young children and cracking down on smuggling.
 
Solvency
 
On finance, general secretary David Triesman reported that
expenditure was under control, but income was still uncertain. The
government introduced transparency into party funding from the
best of motives, but business people were now reluctant to give
money because of tabloid hounding. Discussion was continuing
with the unions on predictable long-term contributions. Union
representatives pointed out that they must soon ballot members on
retaining their political funds, and rank-and-file disillusion created
real risks of defeat. Though it is now too late to abolish the Tory
laws, the better regulation taskforce may look at whether these
ballots impose excessive costs and red tape on the unions. The
third source of income, membership subscriptions and small
donations, was well ahead of estimates, but not sufficient.
The controversial question of state funding ran through the
discussion. Some saw any state funding of political parties as a
direct attack on the trade union link. Others considered the two
compatible, if public money was used for specific purposes such as
training candidates, or developing policy. A proper debate will be
held at a future NEC meeting.
 
Smoke and Mirrors
 
The awayday ended with a report from John Prescott on the
firefighters’ dispute. He was anxious that a large rise would
damage negotiations with other public sector workers, and stressed
that councils had to fund the settlement, though the government
might provide modest bridging money until modernisation had
produced economies. The Chair Diana Holland read out John
Monks’ desciption of the late-night agreement as robust, fair and
workable. Points made by members included understanding the
anger of the Fire Brigades Union executive, signing an agreement
which the employers could not honour; the unhelpfulness of
describing their leaders as Scargillite; the increased difficulty of
reaching a settlement in the glare of publicity; and the desire that all
sides should get back round the negotiating table.
 
Sadly that had not happened by the following morning, when Tony
Blair arrived to a chorus of whistles and placards. He said that a
good offer was available to the firefighters. The economic
background was difficult, but Britain under Gordon Brown was
weathering the storm better than most. He told us not to worry
about higher education: the review of student funding had led to wild
speculation, but there was no intention to put people off going to
university. The NATO meeting in Prague was unanimous on the
need to deal with weapons of mass destruction in the wrong hands.
NEC members warned of the dangers of unilateral war on Iraq. At
home, pensions were rising up the political agenda, with employers
closing final salary schemes as casually as cancelling a lunch date,
and urging people to save was futile while they saw others’
contributions stolen by Maxwell, mismanaged by Equitable Life, or
lost when employers went bankrupt. Reprimanding low-paid
workers for seeking a living wage went down badly when executives
walked away from failing companies with massive bonuses and the
boss of GlaxoSmithKline demanded £7 million pounds as
motivation. Christine Shawcroft stressed that productivity in public
services differed from more efficient widget-making, though others
argued that frontline staff were desperate for reform and an end to
restrictive practices.
 
Tony Blair said that working tax credits helped the low-paid, though
more discussion was needed on the two-tier workforce. If ministers
had agreed the late-night firefighters’ deal, the government would
have been dead and out of office. Terrorism and weapons of mass
destruction were separate now, but would come together unless
prevented. Iraq, North Korea, Iran and Libya were all dangerous
states. He repeated that accusations of betrayal from the left,
however idealistic, had always led to rightwing governments in the
past, and would do so again. There were lines that Labour could
not cross: weakness on defence, law and order, industrial disputes
or the economy would simply let the Tories back in.
 
Foreign Affairs
 
Gary Titley, leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party,
reported on tougher measures against smoking, with pictures of
diseased lungs on cigarette packers, and new regulations for herbal
medicine, where Britain has the highest consumption in Europe.
Rights for agency workers were agreed by the parliament and
referred back to national ministers. Enlargement of the Union would
allow Britain 78 MEPs, down from the current 87, with most regions
likely to lose one seat.
 
John Reid, the new party chairman, spoke about his role, and the
importance that the Prime Minister attached to the party and the
movement. Shahid Malik raised the spectre of the British National
Party, combining attacks on refugees and asylum-seekers with
racism and homophobia. Constituency parties were not always able
to rebut their simplistic, poisonous message through inclusive all-
year doorstep campaigning. Ian McCartney highlighted the
alienation of poor white working-class voters, who had little money
and no hope and were easy to turn against incomers.
 
Conference Verdict
 
The annual conference was generally judged successful, though it
may be a long time before Labour returns to Blackpool. Problems
included overcrowding, heat and poor disabled facilities, though
rooms at £15 a night compared favourably with £50-plus in
Brighton.
 
I suggested time-limits for ministers and NEC speakers, keeping to
schedule so that fringe meetings are not wiped out, holding all
ballots and elections on the same day so that delegates do not miss
so much, and register delegates in advance for the policy seminars,
where attendance fell as low as 12 for some meetings, against 200-
plus in 1998. I also asked how many constituencies sent delegates,
and what happened to resolutions referred to the NEC because they
were judged not contemporary, or not prioritised. Others felt that
resolutions which were carried, such as the UNISON composite on
the Private Finance Initiative, were treated as unimportant, though
key unions would be meeting the Prime Minister shortly, and the
resolution has been referred back to the economic policy
commission again.
 
Next year conference will be held from 28 September to 2 October
2003 in Bournemouth. The deadline for constituency delegates and
nominations to the National Policy Forum and the National
Constitutional Committee is 4 April, the deadline for constitutional
amendments is 13 June, and the provisional deadlines for
contemporary and emergency resolutions are 17 September and 26
September respectively.
 
Affiliations and Committees
 
The NEC approved an increase in the trade union affiliation fee from
£2.25 to £2.50 per member. A report on the Motherwell and
Wishaw constituency party found no wrongdoing by MPs or MSPs,
but highlighted the burdens of party funding laws on constituency
parties.
 
The Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights was accepted as
an affiliated organisation. Like the last two new affiliates their
national membership is small, around 200. The panel which
considers requests for new affiliations would draw up criteria for
assessing future applications, including a requirement for several
years’ prior existence, to prevent factional entryism.
 
The NEC agreed the membership of committees and taskgroups.
The committees are mostly the same as last year, but there is a
new overarching women, race and equalities committee, with
Shahid Malik as the constituency representative. A nationally co-
ordinated women’s forum, including all women NEC members, will
meet twice a year, and an ethnic minority forum should also be
established. Last year’s taskgroups are winding up their work, and
new groups were agreed for next year, covering the conference
fringe (with Tony Robinson); engaging volunteers nationally (with
Shahid Malik); engaging volunteers locally (with Mark Seddon and
Ruth Turner); new communication technologies; and implementing
the Labour Academy (formerly University of Labour). The party
development taskgroup continues, chaired by Ian McCartney, and
will now include constituency representatives Ann Black and Shahid
Malik.
 
Assorted Selections
 
On 11 November the Organisation Committee approved a timetable
for Westminster selections. Sitting MPs must decide whether to
stand again by 23 December and, as previously agreed, half the
vacated Labour seats (except in Scotland) will choose from all-
women shortlists. The NEC will also impose all-women shortlists on
all constituencies where the MP retires late, unless diversity can be
increased through candidates from ethnic minorities or other under-
represented groups; favourite sons and Shaun Woodwards will not
be parachuted in this time. Candidates from the 2001 panel will not
need another interview, freeing resources for attracting and
supporting more women and ethnic minority candidates.
 
Positive action in local government would also be promoted, though
Dennis Skinner reported that two long-serving Derbyshire
councillors failed to answer the panel’s clever questions, and their
rejection was discouraging other working-class women. The
general secretary reported on problems with this year’s NEC ballot,
and will ensure that party staff are not involved at any stage in future
internal elections.
 
Finally we said goodbye with sadness to Aline Delawa, the head of
the constitutional and legal unit, and to Paul Simpson, the national
political education officer. Both will be much missed.
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 
 
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