National Executive Committee, 23 September 2003
 
Tony Blair acknowledged the current mid-term difficulties. The
Hutton inquiry was a tunnel which we had to go through, but more
fundamental were the domestic issues: the economy, public
services, crime, anti-social behaviour and asylum. Here
modernisation was leading to success. Health targets had been
met two years early, with premature deaths from heart disease
down by 20% and from cancer down by 10%. The worst course
would be to retreat. We must show our mettle, keep our nerve, and
take the party with us.
 
Dennis Skinner, with more first-hand experience than most, asked
why we had to shake up the health service, given these
achievements: if it ain’t broke, why fix it? He warned Tony Blair to
distance himself from George Bush if he wished to put the war
behind him. Internationally members wanted to shift the focus to
debt relief, the Middle East, Africa and the HIV/AIDs crisis. They
were troubled by American attitudes to Iran and Syria, though Tony
Blair pointed out that Europe was equally alarmed about Iran’s non-
compliance with the Atomic Energy Authority and its potential
nuclear capability.
 
Domestic comments covered praise for the new pensioner’s credit,
the continuing two-tier workforce, Connex and other failed
franchises, and the exporting of Corus jobs to continental Europe
where rules were less stringently applied. I said that while identity
cards might have long-term benefits, charging people £40 to have
their eyeballs scanned was not the best way to reconnect with
voters before the next election. Like foundation hospitals, top-up
fees and the recent constitutional shake-ups this had appeared from
on high, rather than emerging through Labour’s policy-making
process.
 
Learning Lessons
 
Brent East was fresh in people’s minds. Thanks were expressed to
party staff, to Ken Livingstone, and to everyone else who helped, but
not to ministers whose speculation on possible defeat featured in
the LibDems’ polling day propaganda. Views differed on whether
the LibDems appealed because they were seen as more left-wing
than Labour, or were merely a repository for discontented voters
from every quarter. Loss of trust among supporters was worrying,
but a Tory win would have been more dangerous. The post-mortem
continued, and David Triesman asked for members’ feedback.
 
On the same day Labour won a council by-election in Stoke, but the
British National Party were only 60 votes behind. Responding to
Christine Shawcroft’s anxiety about Labour accepting the far right
agenda, Tony Blair argued that asylum was the number one public
grievance, and the BNP would grow in power until it was sorted. He
also criticised certain newspapers which play up rising asylum
applications, then claim that falling numbers are fiddled. So when
complaints come from areas without a single refugee, are we
pacifying the Mail/Express beast or are we feeding it?
 
Conference: A Future Fair For All
 
Tony Blair stressed that voters wanted to see a party which was
coherent and looking to the future, mature enough to handle difficult
issues and disagreements. Change was always for a purpose, and
not driven by desire for permanent revolution. For universities the
status quo was not an option, given our goal of increasing
participation. Ian McCartney reminded us that we had not endured
18 years in opposition to throw it all away over the next 18 months.
And I asked that conference should not be used to drive a wedge
between the unions, seen as greedy “producer interests”, and the
constituencies, held up as representing ordinary people.
 
The mechanics were discussed at length, with photographs and
pretty red-and-purple models of the set. The 80-foot backdrop is
said to be awesome. Speakers will again “walk the plank” towards
the audience, and as the rostrum is a long way from the stage,
Chairs asked for discreet ways of telling speakers to wind up. The
timetable was still being finalised, with extra seminars on
international affairs and public services scheduled for Sunday
morning. The unions were deeply suspicious because these clash
with their delegation meetings, leaving innocent constituency
representatives to be brainwashed on the merits of public-private
partnerships without their cautionary advice.
 
The international speaker will be Hamid Karzai, president of
Afghanistan. Mark Seddon asked if representatives from North
Korea could attend, and benefit from exposure to Labour party
democracy. This was rejected on diplomatic and security grounds,
and some members pointed out that the request was inconsistent
with his previous opposition to delegates from Pakistan.
 
Reading the Small Print
 
As so often, the most exciting debates were over rule changes. Of
those reported last time, the NEC has withdrawn proposed revisions
to the Clause V committee and the Young Labour national
committee pending further consultation. The amendments allowing
individual membership in Northern Ireland will go forward, though
there is no intention to organise or stand candidates in opposition to
our sister party the SDLP.
 
Constitutional amendments from constituencies are invariably
rejected, but the worm is finally beginning to turn. A long-running
move to give equal weight to constituencies and unions in prioritising
motions at conference was lost 10-9, with all six constituency
representatives voting together, supported by UNISON. Again
united, we did even better on a modest proposal from Oxford East
CLP which would prevent NEC members who became MPs and
MEPs from keeping their constituency places for years on end.
 
Speakers stressed the importance of reserving the seats for non-
parliamentarians, and resentment at Millbank’s attempts to stuff
them with peers still lingered. When Ian McCartney voiced solidarity
with the rank and file the argument was largely won, except with the
chief whip who said no-one had a clue who any of us were anyway,
and clearly preferred the good old days. More far-reaching changes
may follow next year. Other amendments met the usual fate,
including a call for the singing of the Red Flag at the end of every
conference. However we were promised the Red Flag this time.
 
From Our Own Correspondents
 
Gary Titley gave the European report, and expressed the personal
sadness and loss that many members felt at the murder of Anna
Lindh. At a political level the result of the Euro-referendum in
Sweden was not helpful. More encouragingly Latvia and Estonia
had voted by sizeable majorities to join the Union, despite or
perhaps because of British Tories assisting the No campaign. And
the NEC endorsed a new electoral agreement between the Labour
party and the Co-operative Party which recognises the modern
relationship between the two organisations.
 
The party development taskforce tabled its report on “The 21st
Century Party – The Next Steps”. This includes examples of good
practice from constituencies, local government and unions around
the country, and many questions for discussion. The paper should
be on the web-site soon and will be circulated widely after
conference, and as a member of the taskforce I will be particularly
interested in your comments. The aim is to draw the feedback
together for next year in suggesting a range of models for local
parties. There is no plot to abolish General Committees, where
these are loved and functional, and there will be no one-size-fits-all
centralist prescription. What matters is what works.
 
I am acutely aware that, as John Prescott always says, the politics
of ideas and the politics of organisation go hand in hand. Members
will not campaign on policies which they have had no part in making,
nor will they participate in endless forums to which no-one listens.
Those issues will be picked up in the review of Partnership in
Power, starting in earnest after the current cycle concludes at next
year’s 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