The meeting opened with a discussion about the National Policy Forum (NPF). Pat McFadden reported that it would meet on 28 February and would review both the most recent Partnership in Power (PiP) cycle and contemporary issues as well as considering the contemporary issues referred by conference this year. The NEC has previously endorsed the role of CLPs in submitting amendments, new in this PiP cycle, but the NPF could take a different view in its review. The review of contemporary issues (referred by conference to the NPF without a vote) was promised when this procedure replaced contemporary resolutions two years ago.
Ann Black suggested there was a lack of clarity about what happened to contemporary issues not selected by conference: Pat McFadden suggested at first that they were simply dumped, whilst Diana Holland of Unite (TGWU) argued that they should be taken into the process, albeit without any special working parties like those that had been selected. Peter Willsman noted that some policy commissioned involved all CLPs submitting those contemporary issues selected by conference to participate – surely an example of ‘best practice’ – whereas others merely invited movers and seconders.
The discussion quickly warmed up when Andy Kerr of the CWU expressed a lack of confidence in the NPF, and in particular in Pat McFadden’s handling, as Chair, of the Royal Mail issue on which he has a conflict of interest being also the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs. The Warwick 2 policy statement, endorsed by Annual Conference had specifically stated: “We have set out a vision of a wholly publicly-owned, integrated Royal Mail Group in good health, providing customers with an excellent service and its employees with rewarding employment.” However, the twice-sacked and unelected Lord Mandelson, following the Hooper review, had announced a partial sell-off in violation of this policy and without any consultation. Pat McFadden replied that the government would retain a majority stake, so it was not privatisation! And Hooper took precedence over the ‘vision’, which simply described the current Royal Mail set-up and did not imply any commitment for the future!
Unsurprisingly, trade union members of the NEC felt that ditching a central part of the Warwick agreement undermined faith in the Forum process itself. NEC members including Mary Turner of the GMB also voiced opposition to the Government’s continued pursuit of wider privatisation. Mike Griffiths of Unite (Amicus) also related the issue to recent European Court judgements which seriously erode trade union rights. Some commentators suggest that the British Government are seeking to veto attempts by the Commission to act to protect Trade Union rights in the light of these judgements.
It was later reported by Mike Griffiths, in his capacity as Chair of the Prosperity and Work Policy Commission, that he was convening a special meeting during the February NPF to consider all the outstanding controversial industrial issues including Remploy and privatisation as well as the ECJ judgements.
Douglas Alexander reported on the latest developments and strategy – which some NEC members (including Dianne Hayter and Jeremy Beecham) complained seemed to be entirely related to parliamentary marginals and wholly unrelated to local government or European elections, boosting party membership or any other worthwhile objective. The most interesting aspect of this was the launch of virtual phone book which will permit home-based telephone canvassing of supporters, members etc and logging returns on a central database. Douglas Alexander did not deny the problem of the low morale of Labour’s foot soldiers in response to privatisation and other unpopular government policies.
Harriet Harman later stressed the need to end the rise in BNP votes and prevent them winning further local bases in local government. Peter Willsman and Tom Watson (agreeing with Peter Willsman for the first time) stressed the dangers of PR which could give assistance to the BNP.
Gordon Brown reported on the economy, the need to work closely with Obama and to attack the Tories. A number of questions raised concerns about several areas of government policy:
Cath Speight of Unite (Amicus), from the Chair, raised concerns about the membership of the Financial Services Authority and the early lifting of the ban on short selling as well as the vilification of ordinary banking employees (such as over Northern Rock bonus payments).
Jeremy Beecham raised the need for council house building and warned against a derisory low pension increase. Gordon Brown promised an increase of at least £2 whatever was the rate of inflation at the time – there would be no repeat of the 75p fiasco – and claimed that councils would be allowed to build more homes and may even be able to assist with providing mortgages, and argued that the Government was acting to prevent repossessions.
Peter Willsman argued that if we were not careful, the public impression would be that whilst we seemed happy to give plenty of money to bail out bankers, we gave little to ordinary people. He also complained about the use of tax havens which have recently been raised by Barack Obama. Finally, he reminded Gordon Brown that, since he was now a Keynesian, he must ensure that he did not press councils financially to the point where they were forced to cut public services.
Ann Black queried the reduction in VAT, given the need for targeting assistance to poorer people. Jack Dromey argued for government support for manufacturing industry.
Although the Prime Minister accepted the need to tackle the underlying problems, including tax havens and regulatory failures, he failed to disavow privatisation and refused to change tack on PFI.
DEPUTY LEADER’S REPORT
Harriet Harman defended some level of privacy for MPs expenses claims (relating to public access to information about unclaimed expenses which happened to appear on invoices which included other expenses that were being claimed).