It was the day of the Leader’s speech to the European parliament in Strasbourg so Gordon Brown wasn’t present. Ann Black, vice chair of the NEC as well as a CLGA CLP representative, chaired the meeting.
Glenis Willmott, MEP and Labour’s Leader in Europe, presented the draft Euro manifesto. The working time directive has been a divisive issue in the Labour and Socialist Groups (where a majority of Labour MEPs oppose the British opt out as demanded by Minister Pat McFadden) and, although the issue would not be in the manifesto, she hoped an agreement outside the manifesto could be reached.
Glenis Willmott also talked about Tory MEPs leaving the European People’s Party (an alliance of Christian democrats) in favour of a far-right alliance with Polish & Czech MEPs who pursue homophobic policies, deny global warming, and one of whom described the election of Barack Obama as marking the “end of white man’s civilisation”. She also reported her call for one of the three top posts of the EU to be filled by a woman.
Jim Kennedy, UCATT, who convenes the trade union group of NEC members, said he was unhappy with the inadequate involvement of NEC members about the text of the Manifesto which they had seen for the first time the previous day. Ellie Reeves (who had chaired the Britain in the World policy commission) said it had been based on NPF agreements. Jim Kennedy was particularly concerned about the Posted Workers’ and Working Time directives.
Some textual amendments were made but, in spite of the fact that Mike Griffiths pointed out that the full NEC had always previously signed off the European manifesto, these were to go back to the Britain in the World policy commission and it was unclear where the final decisions would be made.
Deputy Leader’s Report
The elections were very important, said Harriet Harman, “the last opportunity to vote across the whole country” before the general election, and the timing was “difficult” with economic problems that were global in nature and Labour’s action to protect bank depositors, businesses and jobs insufficiently recognised. Labour was committed to “fairness” – to increase taxes for those earning over £150,000 for example (the belated adoption of which was welcomed by CLGA CLP representative Christine Shawcroft – “better late than never”), whilst the Tories were committed to inheritance tax breaks for the super-rich and cuts in public investment.
Dianne Hayter welcomed the improvement to bus passes. Stephanie Peacock (Young Labour) asked about the review of the cap on student fees and whether the NUS would be involved in consultation. Harriet Yeo (TSSA) complained that the emphasis was still on business rather than ordinary people – we did need equal pay audits, for example. CLGA CLP representative, Peter Willsman, argued that we were putting “shed loads” of money into the banks but we needed to put shed loads into jobs and homes for ordinary people. Mary Turner (GMB) pointed out that in 1997, we’d promised no privatisation but that 60% of local government workers were now in the private sector, the public sector didn’t believe in Labour any more, whilst energy bills were hitting older people.
Dennis Skinner called for the abandonment of proposals to increase student fees and privatise any part of Royal Mail. Both Dennis and Jim Kennedy called for action on pleural plaques. Peter Kenyon, CLGA CLP representative, regretted that Labour was still seen as chasing scroungers, and looked forward to seeing Ministers opening council house developments on derelict land. Jeremy Beecham, local government representative, welcomed restrictions on council rents but noticed the complete absence of housing as an issue in the Vote 2009 Campaign themes – it should be included, he added, not least because it was being raised by the BNP. He was also concerned about torture and believed there was a case for a proper inquiry.
Nick Brown, Chief Whip, reported on MP rebellions and other aspects of their behaviour. He reported that there were 219 hard working members of the PLP out of a total of 350 Labour MPs! He reported that absence rates including unauthorised absences were rising but didn’t name the worst offenders. He argued that there was no correlation, positive or negative, between votes against the government and electoral performance. In figures he presented on other parties abroad, he showed that Canadian Liberal MPs are less rebellious, but are three times as likely to feel involved in policy-making as British Labour MPs – but accepted that British backbenchers feel almost completely shut out of policy making.
He explained what sanctions he used – talking to MPs, to their GCs, trying to persuade Ministers to engage with opponents. Rebellions were increasing but he did not necessarily want to get into the sort of battles which would follow any firmer sanctions.
Christine Shawcroft argued that the issues on which MPs rebelled were important – West London MPs, for example, would be lynched if they didn’t rebel on the third runway at Heathrow. Royal Mail and Iraq were also issues of principle, and it wasn’t only MPs who were shut out of policy making – so were party members. She also took issue with Nick Brown’s claim that rebellion didn’t bring additional support – that certainly wasn’t true for Alan Simpson in Nottingham South. Peter Willsman said councillors were appalled by the lack of democracy in the PLP. Others argued that large rebellions might demonstrate that the government was doing something wrong. Keith Birch (Unison), for example, said he spent much of his time arguing for Labour MPs to dissent from what the government was doing.
There was widespread disquiet about MPs’ expenses and second homes. Norma Stephenson (Unison) pointed out that lots of people worked away from home without anything like the expenses to which MPs were entitled, and when she didn’t turn up for work without good reason, her pay was docked.
Angela Eagle argued that most MPs were hard working and didn’t abuse their expenses, but the media distorted the position – e.g. by including staff salaries in amounts of MPs’ “expenses” – and that removing the whip would just create a media magnet. Jack Dromey (Treasurer) argued for a distinction between “genuine” and “gratuitous” rebellion. He accepted that Dennis Skinner represented a long and honourable tradition, and Iraq rebels were also part of this, but well-heeled MPs who might not rebel in votes but toured TV studios to voice their opposition were different.
Nick Brown accepted that Royal Mail, Iraq and Heathrow were areas on which there were real, legitimate policy differences but there were growing rebellions on second order issues (including from the odd Blairite) which just affected our ability to win elections and made Labour look like an undisciplined shambles.
Partnership in Power
The report on the recent NPF process stated “despite any faults, this process allows ordinary members more access and engagement with the policy-making process than ever before”, though some constituency members found the volume of amendments from local parties hard to handle, and this could mean that limits may be imposed in future.
Most participants had said that a proper review should be postponed until after the general election. Peter Kenyon argued that better use of technology could enhance the process and make it easier for CLP representatives to manage.
Harriet Yeo was unhappy that so many changes had been agreed at the last minute when many CLP representatives were unable to attend. Sometimes, such as with alternative models for ownership of the railways, changes were agreed and then simply disappeared. Jeremy Beecham was concerned about the role of the JPC and that the very substantial Warwick 2 document had simply been parked somewhere which reinforced his lack of confidence in the process. No further national policy forum meetings were currently scheduled although Debbie Coulter, GMB and joint chair of the JPC, said that this did not preclude one happening.
Mike Griffiths (Unite – Amicus) made a connection between postponing this review of the NPF process and that of contemporary issues versus motions at conference. The latter had already started and most stakeholders wanted it carried out without delay. Ann Black said she had asked for comments on the contemporary issue review to be invited from all party members through ‘membersnet’.