The Changing of the Guard: Wednesday 28 September 2011
On Wednesday evening the NEC said farewell to departing colleagues and welcomed new members. I shall particularly miss Cath Speight, who without seeking the limelight has contributed an enormous amount over the years, and been loyal throughout to her party and her union; also Norma Stephenson for her work on equalities and Chair for 2010/11, Simon Wright of the socialist societies who is sadly leaving after just a year, and Chris Weldon of Unite. We are joined by Wendy Nicholls of UNISON, Susan Lewis of Community, Martin Mayer and Jennie Formby of Unite and Conor McGinn of the Labour Party Irish Society. Michael Cashman MEP was elected as Chair for the year ahead and pledged to represent all voices on the NEC, with Harriet Yeo of the TSSA as his vice-chair.
Looking Forward: After Conference
Peter Hain stressed that conference approval of Refounding Labour is the beginning, not the end of the process, and agreed that working groups should oversee implementation. There are many matters of detail: for instance moving constituency AGMs to the autumn raises questions about approving annual accounts which close in December; nominating to national committees where the deadline is usually April, and electing conference delegates, based on membership figures at 31 December. More seriously the section on Partnership in Power is still detached from reality. Better feedback has been promised so often that members will believe it when they see it. Only one meeting of the national policy forum is planned for 2011/12, following two short sessions in 2010/11, and representatives who competed for constituency seats last year must wonder why they bothered. This would only partly be compensated by giving every member a place on one of the policy commissions. And yet again the joint policy committee, supposed to steer the process, was attended by only 13 members in September, again with no departmental shadow ministers showing up.
The NEC statement to conference on Partnership in Power says: “Discussions during this consultation have focused on the need to make a reformed policy-making system more accessible and responsive to party members, with a fresh empowered annual conference with even greater democracy,. We are determined to take a new approach to policy-making with meets those objectives and will take more time to develop the details. The NEC therefore agrees to further consult between now and the end of March 2012 on how to make the policy and decision-making processes more dynamic, open and democratic with a view to taking forward proposals to the NEC next spring, ahead of conference.”
I hope this does not just mean more arguments over the union share of the conference vote, with constituency representatives shut out, because there are bigger issues at stake. Policy-making seems to have moved not only beyond the NEC but beyond the national policy forum and conference. Near the end I discovered four glossy booklets entitled “Towards a new economy”, “Britain’s role in the world”, “Restoring responsibility, strengthening our communities” and “Fulfilling the promise of Britain”.
Maybe the papers came from the elusive shadow cabinet working groups. They appear hastily compiled, with inconsistencies, identical quotes attributed to different people, and repeated paragraphs, but they make interesting reading. On defence policy there is no mention of Trident, and the document says that “our strategic position needs to be rethought and ‘smart defence’ must move from rhetoric to reality”. I may be too optimistic in hoping that this heralds real change. On the other hand I am deeply uneasy over attitudes towards immigration, with granting priority for social housing to “those who give back to their communities”, and with the repeated emphasis that people should “get out what they put in”.
What happened to “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”? Some of us are lucky in health, talent and family, others are less fortunate from the start, or they become ill, injured, or overwhelmed. The deepest silence during Ed Miliband’s speech was when he said that benefits are too easy to come by, and he was challenged at the question-and-answer session: when the sick and disabled were being hardest hit by government cuts, why did he reinforce the stereotype of all claimants as scroungers?
Recently the tabloids had a field day with a woman filmed sky- diving while she drew incapacity benefit for a bad back. Yes of course this is wrong. But what are we saying to this member: “I have a severely disabled son, and he tells me he feels guilty for being in a wheelchair. This is the first time he has used the word ‘guilty’ in the almost 20 years since he was paralysed as the result of viral encephalitis.”
Or this, from the father of a profoundly deaf 50-year-old man on disability benefit: “He got an HND in engineering, was made redundant, and has been out of work for 15 years. This has not been for want of trying, and it is not because of any limitation to a narrow range of employment; he has tried for jobs as packer and shelf-filler. He has done course after course of updating skills. People with disabilities are constantly made to feel that it is all their own fault. The Archbishop of Canterbury is quite right when he says that this causes a sense of hopelessness and despair.”
Who will stand up for them if not the Labour party? And with government intransigence driving public sector workers to ballot for strike action over pensions, the leadership urgently need to understand a little more and condemn a little less. There are serious issues about both policy and process, and a great deal to do if we are to regain power and promote a Labour vision which can convince and also inspire. I hope that we will all be able to contribute.
Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this to be circulated to members as a personal account, not an official record.
Ann Black, 88 Howard Street, Oxford OX4 3BE, 07956-637958, email@example.com