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Report from Ann Black: NEC Meeting 18 September 2001

Last week's terrible events overshadowed the meeting.  As we
stood in silence to remember Jimmy Knapp and other former
comrades, we thought also of the thousands of ordinary
Americans who died. Tony Blair was talking with African
leaders before a hectic round of global diplomacy, and Deputy
Leader John Prescott attended on his behalf.  He said that the
perpetrators must be brought to justice through international co-
operation.  There were dangers if the United States withdrew
into isolationism or acted unilaterally.  As well as involving
NATO and the European Union, progress in the Middle East
was essential to avoid the appearance of a Western crusade
against Islam.  The Pakistan High Commission has now been
invited to attend the party conference, reversing the NEC's July
decision, in recognition of their country's critical role.

Everyone welcomed Tony Blair's work with Muslims and his
emphasis that terrorism is as contrary to Islam as it is to
Christianity.  Two council by-elections are pending in Burnley,
and the British National Party is poised to exploit community
tensions.  Most speakers shared the widespread anxiety among
party members.  They hoped to avoid further loss of innocent
life, and cited the proverb:  "He who seeks revenge must first dig
two graves."   They asked that any military action should be
targeted, specific and within international law.  They pointed out
the gender gap, with every opinion poll showing women more
opposed to war.  They recalled that 11 September marked the
anniversary of another attack on democracy: the 1973 coup
against Salvador Allende's government in Chile.  They
questioned the relevance of National Missile Defence to the
present dangers:  one hundred billion pounds would be better
spent on airport screening, locks on cockpit doors, accurate
intelligence and possibly identity cards.  But overall they
supported the Prime Minister in the difficult times ahead, trusting
him to be an influence for moderation and rationality.

The Home Front

More familiar issues, notably the relationship between public
services and the private sector, were also raised.  Dennis
Skinner had expected the second term to be different.  The
government was paying too much attention to the CBI, and our
own core voters were being left behind.  Union representatives
wanted legal rights to flexible working for parents and others,
going beyond current proposals where employees would be
allowed to ask, but employers would be able to say No. 

General Secretary David Triesman reported on internal matters. 
The party move to split sites in London and North Shields
appears to be going ahead, and his negotiating skills will be
tested in minimising angst among staff and disruption to services. 
Filling vacancies in the local government section is the top
priority, with May 2002 providing Labour's next major electoral
test.  European Leader Simon Murphy stressed that we must
soon start campaigning for the Euro-elections in 2004.

Labour's Spring Conference is scheduled for 1-3 February
2002 in Cardiff.  Last year's Glasgow event combined local
government, European, women, youth and political education,
and some groups felt that their distinctive identities were
submerged in an all-purpose speechfest.  NEC officers will liaise
with representatives to seek a satisfactory compromise. 

Despite press rumours, the party conference will go ahead.  At
times of crisis, understanding between party and government is
needed more than ever.  The theme will be delivering on
Labour's manifesto to build a fairer Britain in a fairer world,
though the tone and the agenda will reflect the international
situation.  The NEC will meet immediately before the conference
to draw up a statement for debate.  Anti-globalisation protesters
are expected, and while last year Labour could point to the
work of Clare Short and Gordon Brown on debt relief, it would
be good to show that the party continued to share their aims. 
The Sussex Police assured us that adequate security is in place,
and delegates need not fear for their safety.  Abandoning the
conference would mean that the terrorists had won.  

Business as Usual

The NEC returned to the normal constitutional niceties.  There is
still confusion over the status of the papers to be discussed at
conference.  They are presented as encapsulating manifesto
commitments and planning their implementation, though some felt
that they go rather further.  Delegates will be asked to refer them
to the National Policy Forum in all-or-nothing votes, so again
there will be no way to amend individual items.   Developing
new policies will start again in the Forum in the autumn.

Margaret Wheeler, Chair of the Conference Arrangements Committee,
reported that 160 contemporary resolutions had been received, and a
ballot on the opening Sunday would decide which topics are debated.  A
constitutional amendment on this process provoked lively argument. 
Currently trade unions and constituencies each contribute half the votes
in prioritising contemporary resolutions, but unions have the power to
determine which are debated by co-ordinating their block votes.  Most
members accepted that this is blatantly unfair and against the spirit of
Partnership in Power. 

Last year an amendment calling for unions and constituencies to choose
four topics each in separate votes was withdrawn after the NEC promised
a solution for this year.  The same amendment has now been
resubmitted, and the CAC requested a further twelve months to consider
more balanced voting systems.  However, more immediate action was
demanded, particularly by the speakers who gave their word a year ago. 
The NEC asked them to experiment with weighted voting at this
conference, and come back with definite recommendations in 2002. 

A further complication was that some trade unions can submit a
resolution from each of several sections, reflecting historically separate
entities which had merged, while UNISON, the largest affiliate, gets only
one shot.  I am happy for the unions to sort this out with the General
Secretary.

Not the End of the Peer Show

This does not hold for another controversial amendment, which
would exclude Labour peers from the constituency section of the
NEC in line with overwhelming party feedback. The Lords
clearly see themselves as part of the Parliamentary Labour
Party.  They want their own places on the National Policy
Forum, and I have suggested this for the NEC as well.  Charles
Clarke belatedly offered to talk to the peers, but I have been
trying to resolve this for years now.   Ordinary members have
just six seats, and these should not continue to be whittled down
to five or fewer.

There were passionate pleas not to walk away from the problem, and
ringing calls for deeds not words to rebuild party confidence, but only
five actual votes: Christine and myself from the constituencies, plus
Dennis Skinner, the Socialist Societies and one of the unions.  So we
lost, this time round. Constituencies could still vote for the amendment
unless the movers withdraw it, but cannot on their own achieve the
necessary two-thirds majority.  The new Rulebook will also be put to
conference as 15-20 separate card votes on Tuesday afternoon after
Tony Blair's speech.  So delegates should stay in the hall and pay close
attention.  I do not have the details, but the process will surely be
complicated.

Maggie Jones will chair conference, aided by Margaret Wall as Vice-
Chair and Assistant Chairs Diana Holland, Lord Sawyer and Clive Soley. 
There was a plaintive request for the fraternal speakers, currently all
chaps, to include some women.  And the colour scheme for the platform
will feature fetching shades of grey and lilac with good Labour red
predominating as the backdrop.

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. 
For your own direct copy, please send your e-mail address to
me at ablack@brookes.ac.uk.

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