National Executive Committee, 28 September/2 October 2003,
 
 
Annual Conference
 
Two conclusions emerged from Bournemouth. First, the Labour
party is not riven by vicious infighting and on the verge of
disintegration, as some journalists would have people believe.
Second, the diversity of views was as great as ever, and standing
ovations for public consumption were balanced by complex and
thoughtful discussions away from the media glare. Below is a
report on NEC meetings during the week, with some highly
subjective commentary. I would be interested in feedback from
conference-goers and, equally important, from the much wider
audience at home.
 
Sunday began with unanimous approval of a rule change excluding
peers, MPs, MEPs, MSPs and Welsh Assembly members from the
constituency seats and other sections of the NEC, gratifying since
the proposal started in my local party and succeeded through all six
constituency members working together. On Monday things
became more tense, as we considered the resolutions which had
emerged as priorities for debate. Those on employment rights,
manufacturing and pensions were supported. On health there were
two motions. The first, praising Labour’s achievements, was
nodded through. The second, from UNISON, was more
controversial, criticising foundation hospitals and growing private
sector involvement, and concerned about pushing ahead without
party or public consensus.
 
Dangerous Territory
 
The debate followed familiar lines. Dissidents were accused of
leaving people in pain by resisting reform. But does change always
produce improvement? British Rail did not run trains on time and to
budget. Did breaking up and selling off the network make it better?
Patients were quoted as happy to travel to the ends of the earth for
quick treatment. But we should not have to make that choice. I do
not want my local one-star hospital to decline, its staff poached by
more affluent neighbours. And where are the volunteers to run
hospitals, when we cannot find enough council candidates or school
governors?
 
I think we have got into a stupid position on this. Unlike top-up fees
or Iraq, few people have a clue what the argument is about. They
simply see division and acrimony over something they do not
understand. This point was taken seriously by every speaker, and
no-one wanted to go back to the strife of the 1970s and 1980s. But
some of us were no longer willing to take all the blame.
Confrontation could probably have been avoided if Tony Blair had
fulfilled last year’s pledge to end the two-tier workforce, where new
employees of privatised services get worse pay, holidays and
pensions than existing staff. Many are low-paid, part-time, women
workers. The unions have been quietly advocating their cause for
months, and eleventh-hour promises of consultation are no longer
believed. The government line was carried by 16 votes to 15, with
four constituency representatives joining Dennis Skinner and 10 of
the 12 trade union members present. However, some on both sides
had reservations, and the Chair Diana Holland summed up the
mood as “divided but not polarised”. Hopefully dialogue can be
resumed behind the scenes.
 
The health debate on the Wednesday morning was one of the most
balanced of the week. Some delegates argued that foundation
trusts would replace central statism by local socialism, with two
million members running their local hospitals. Others were
concerned about the effects of making hospitals compete rather
then co-operate, and introducing a performance lottery instead of
the postcode lottery. One speaker said that we should put patients
before politics, curious since surely only politics can help patients?.
At the end a card vote defeated the pro-government resolution by
55.99% to 44.01%, with 75.82% of the trade unions and 36.15% of
the constituencies against it . However the critical motion was
clearly carried on a show of hands in both sections, despite
complaints about pre-debate lobbying by health ministers and party
officers, and about visitors being invited onto the floor and allegedly
voting.
 
There was no further discussion in the NEC. By the time that
pensions were debated on Thursday, the composite motion had
been hardened up by including a call from the GMB union for
employers to make compulsory contributions to pension schemes.
As the text was only finalised at the last minute, the NEC was
unable to establish its attitude. Conference took this as a green
light and carried it overwhelmingly.
 
Don’t Mention the War
 
Despite press reports, a vote on Iraq was not blocked by party
managers. If half the constituency delegates had prioritised the
subject it would have been debated, as it was last year. This time
only 40% chose it. An emergency resolution from the RMT union
was ruled out of order because it referred to speculation about (non-
) weapons of mass destruction, not to fact. Nevertheless the issues
were fully aired. The most interesting contrast was between the
foreign policy seminar, closed to the media, and the public debate
later the same day. In the seminar 13 out of 15 speakers, all
constituency delegates, criticised government actions. Some were
initially pro-war and now felt misled. Only the vice-chair of the
National Policy Forum felt that the Forum must not disagree with the
government. In the main conference the five critics were the usual
suspects Alice Mahon and Jeremy Corbyn plus the RMT, the GMB
and the TGWU, with 12 MPs and constituency delegates swinging
behind the government.
 
I was alarmed to hear ministers say that it would be better if we had
found 10,000 litres of anthrax, appearing to put saving face before
the risk to British troops and Iraqi civilians. But perhaps the
speakers who gathered widest support were two MPs, David Wright
and Peter Pike, who had voted to give Hans Blix’s inspectors more
time, but now felt that we had to move on, and concentrate on
rebuilding the country. My guess is that the RMT motion would
have been defeated, because enough people feel that the troops
should stay until they have sorted out the mess, and because there
is little appetite for continuing to dwell on Iraq at the expense of
domestic issues. Such a vote would have helped Tony Blair more
than the anti-war movement. Unfortunately efforts to put the war
behind us will be shot to pieces by George Bush’s state visit in
November, a truly inept piece of scheduling.
 
Tony Blair’s speech is on the record, and everyone will have their
own views. Certainly the majority in the hall were ecstatic, moved
by letters from soldiers’ families and children begging for alarm
clocks so they wouldn’t miss school, though possibly nervous at
taking to the road with no reverse gear. Details of the promised
national consultation are awaited, but it will backfire badly if there is
no prospect of the participants changing policy. Charles Clarke
heard suprisingly little criticism of university top-up fees. And while I
agree that some criminals should never be released from jail, the
wild cheers for David Blunkett declaring “life must mean life” made
me wonder momentarily which conference I was at. Standing
ovations for Gordon Brown and Andrew Smith reminded me, and
there were lighter moments, notably when Peter Mandelson’s brief
appearance in a video clip produced spontaneous hissing.
 
Refusing Freedom
 
Constituency delegates became increasingly restive at perceived
trade union domination of the agenda, starting with press
announcements of the four contemporary topics six weeks in
advance. It was therefore strange that they rejected (by 21.23% to
28.77%) a rule change which would guarantee each half,
constituencies and unions, their top four preferences. Instead these
new rights were pressed on them by the same big bad unions voting
33.49% to 16.51% in favour, giving an overall majority of 54.72% to
45.28%. Perhaps some delegates believed the rumour that they
could be expelled for voting against an NEC recommendation, or
the speaker who said that the change would take us back to the
dark days of splits and madness. Rather over-the-top, since the
four-plus-four proposal last year would have given exactly the same
agenda as we actually had, hailed at the time as a success. And as
all six constituency representatives supported this change at the
pre-conference NEC, are we all dangerous lefties now?
 
And finally . . .
 
On Wednesday Diana Holland, who has chaired the NEC with skill
and intelligence, handed on the torch to Mary Turner for the coming
year, with Ian McCartney as Vice-Chair. As he is also Party
Chairman and Chair of the National Policy Forum, he has almost
too many hats to count, but he wears them well.
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