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Ann Black’s report from Labour’s September executive

NEC Report ABEd Miliband said that annual conference would be an opportunity to show the real differences which a Labour government would bring to people’s lives.  He had started at the TUC by strongly attacking zero-hours contracts, and hoped we would be pleasantly surprised by the policies to be unveiled in Brighton.  Despite the rosy Cameron / Osborne claims, living standards had fallen in 38 of the last 39 months, and this was not a side-effect of their economic policy; it was their economic policy.

Many of us praised Labour’s decision to vote against attacking Syria.  The government defeat led to president Obama’s decision to consult congress and a delay following which, within a month, Syria’s chemical weapons are being destroyed by mutual agreement.  While the situation is still appalling, bombing Damascus would not have helped the beleaguered citizens, and the lessons of Iraq – waiting for the weapons inspectors, involving the United Nations – have borne fruit.

On domestic issues there was a long wish-list:  scrapping the bedroom tax, a publicly-owned Royal Mail, free school meals, a living wage, reversing employment tribunal fees, support for collective bargaining, alternatives to austerity, giving hope to low-paid public service workers forced to rely on food banks, and including the old, the young and the jobless alongside the ubiquitous “hard-working people”.  And councillors pointed out that Labour was already making a difference in local government despite savage cuts.

Refounding Labour Mark II

However, most of this session was spent on Ed Miliband’s plan to change the basis of trade union affiliation from opting out to opting in.  He believed that this would attract many of the three million levy-payers into active local participation and create a mass party of up to 800,000 members.  Ray Collins’ interim report was not available yet, but the NEC was asked to agree a timetable leading to a special conference in London on 1 March 2014. Recommendations would be based on consultation between conference and Christmas Eve, led by Labour MPs and special forums for local parties.  I hoped that these events would also include policy and campaigning elements.

Everyone agrees that Labour must reach into the workplace and the community more effectively, but several speakers argued that announcing the answers before posing the questions was the wrong way round.  For some, faith in the leader was sufficient.
Others wanted to believe, but pleaded for signs that this would work.  And some of us thought the financial risks too great.  The
NEC is responsible under Clause I for organising and maintaining a political Labour party.  We are still paying off Tony Blair’s debts.  The GMB are merely anticipating the impact of these new proposals in withholding £1 million:  they contacted 20,000
members and only 81 joined Labour.  All unions struggle to find delegates to local parties, and in UNISON, which already offers a choice, more new members join the non-affiliated political fund.  While levy-payers’ money would still go into unions’ political funds, general secretaries who pass it on to Labour after individual members declined to join would be on pretty shaky ground.  And many unions are in the middle of balloting to retain political funds which cover all campaigning, as they are required to do every ten years.  All this makes their task more difficult.

I asked what had been learned from the registered supporters project, also designed to open up the party.  In 2011 Peter Hain and Ed Miliband anticipated well over 50,000 within a year.  After two years we have, I am told, under 20,000 unverified e-mail
addresses.  (Curiously Oxford East has 36 supporters according to MemberCentre, but there are only four in the whole south-east region.)

General secretary Iain McNicol and treasurer Diana Holland said that Labour’s present financial situation was strong and whatever Ray Collins recommended, the party would stick to the agreed strategy.  No money would be spent till it was in the bank.  So questions include (a) what percentage of levy-payers would opt to join Labour (b) how would that change if the fee was raised from the current £3 a year (c) if affiliated members acquired extra rights, how many full members would continue paying £45?

Indeed, Christine Shawcroft argued for slashing the standard rate to boost membership, as done successfully but briefly by Tony Blair in Sedgefield.  This is supported by contributors to the current consultation, but would sharpens concern over sustaining income.  And, of course, Labour would need policies which are attractive to ordinary union members.

The proposals also cover candidate selection procedures, aiming to remove financial, political and practical obstacles, and plans for primaries, notably for the London mayoral candidate.  So please read Ray Collins’ document, contribute individually or collectively to onenationparty@labour.org.uk or at www.labour.org.uk/onenationparty, and copy me in to your reply.

After discussion the special conference was approved with six against (Jim Kennedy, Andy Kerr, Christine Shawcroft, Dennis
Skinner, Mary Turner and myself).  Information will be circulated in October and there will be a fee of £25 per delegate.

The Ground War

Iain McNicol reported that nearly all the 106 battleground seats have selected candidates and more than 100 organisers are
already deployed, part-funded by membership income.  I hoped that all areas would follow the northern region in identifying
European campaign co-ordinators in every constituency and holding monthly European action days, and was promised a full
discussion of the Euro-elections in November.  Regional lists of candidates have been published, though not the numbers:  partly because the counting method is complex, and partly because each announcement sparked fresh media stories about trade union influence.

In Scotland there is a by-election in Dunfermline on 24 October, and the independence referendum is less than a year
away.  Concerns were raised about proposals being drawn up by the Scottish executive’s devolution commission, and these will be circulated to the NEC.

Arnie Graf spoke about training candidates and party organisers in community engagement.  A high point was a performance of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists on the Wirral which drew in working-class children and raised £8,000.  He said that voter-ID and community organising go together:  we can’t get out the vote unless we know where it is.  Repeated contact can double the chance that supporters will make it to a polling station, so increasing numbers on the ground is vital.

Conference Preparation

Angela Eagle gave an update on policy development.  All documents produced by Jon Cruddas’ review were on the Your
Britain website, though members felt it would still be helpful to have a diagram of how all the bits fit together.  The final national policy forum in 2014 would lay the basis for the manifesto.

Harry Donaldson, Chair of the conference arrangements committee (CAC) said that more than 200 contemporary resolutions were received.  Many were ruled out of order, and various NEC members argued for those on housing, free school meals and the bedroom tax to be ruled back in [the first two topics were readmitted on appeal, and the third proved unnecessary].  The number of constituencies who sent delegates would be reported to the next NEC.

Steve Rotheram MP and Jim Kennedy from UCATT led calls for the Carillion stall to be removed because of the firm’s record on
blacklisting workers, ruining their employment prospects and their lives.  This was slightly tricky as Carillion had a contract and ran a stall last year.  However feelings were so strong that Iain McNicol agreed to disinvite them as tactfully as possible.  In future the NEC would see the list of invited organisations well in advance, as we used to, and perhaps consider criteria for accepting or rejecting money.  Members were also unhappy about a Labour Life fringe meeting, with an all-male panel discussing the harm that abortion does to women, but as this was outside the conference zone there was little that the NEC could do.

Rule Changes

Most of the constitutional amendments submitted last year fell foul of the “three-year rule” which prevents anything being discussed again until three years after that part of the rulebook was last changed (in practice a four-year rule, with changes made in 2011 unamendable until 2015).  Only two made it through. Northampton’s proposal to limit suspension to 12 months attracted considerable sympathy, and led to a discussion about inconsistent use of suspensions.  Further, while suspension did not imply guilt, suspended members were unable to stand as candidates and therefore punished when they might eventually be cleared.  Some suggested a 12-month limit unless criminal or legal actions were in progress.  Others argued that we should look at all disciplinary and related procedures as a whole, and we couldn’t rewrite the rule at the fag-end of a four-hour meeting.  I pointed out that we require a one-year delay to give the NEC time to consider amendments, and next year we should have these discussions much earlier.

Northampton would be asked to remit their amendment with the promise that it would be taken seriously [to which they agreed].  Leyton & Wanstead and Redcar wanted to allow local electoral colleges to elect the leaders of Labour groups.  This has a number of financial, practical and legal problems, and the NEC opposed it.

Finally I piloted a rule change of my own through the NEC. Refounding Labour gave local parties £1.50 per member, but as
standard membership fees rise with inflation, this would steadily decrease as a proportion of the total.  Conference agreed, and from 2014 the £1.50 will also rise with inflation.  It will only be a few pounds at first, but will mount up over time.  A modest but pleasing result.

Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this to be circulated to members as a personal account, not an official record.  Reports of meetings from July 2008 onwards are at http://www.labourblogs.com/public-blog/annblack, with earlier reports at www.annblack.com

2 Comments

  1. Robert says:

    We will see Labour has a year to get my vote back sadly it’s highly likely to go to Plaid in Wales, after New labour and the welfare reforms I think Labour are about as close to me as the Tories are.

  2. swatantra says:

    Great Report from Ann as usual. Does any other NEC Rep ever Report back in detail? Or am I expecting too much of the others to keep us well informed about happenings.
    Any attempt to keep the membership fees down is welcome, and the money coming back to branches.

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