National Policy Forum, 19/21 March 2004

This meeting was the first of two which are drawing together policies for conference approval and the manifesto. Papers were finalised on Britain in an Interdependent World and Reconnecting People and Politics, with everything else up for discussion in July. Forum members had only a week to suggest amendments, but still managed a creditable 250. Some were accepted as they stood: for instance, continued commitment to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the cessation of all nuclear explosions. For others the exact wording was negotiated with ministers through the Friday, with agreement reached in most cases.

This involved compromise on both sides. The government accepted that a Single Equality Act should consolidate laws covering race, gender, disability, belief, age and sexual orientation. However, references to extending employment protection into the private sector were lost from the original amendments. Opposition to state funding of political parties was expressed as concern that substantial increases would undermine accountability to party members, coupled with promises that the government would not cap donations or undermine links with the unions. Calls for a worldwide ban on cluster bombs were replaced with proposals for an international law requiring countries responsible for Explosive Remnants of War to tidy them up. In addition Britain would encourage effective alternatives to cluster bombs, while protecting jobs, and support a global ban when this was achieved.

My amendments committed Labour to

*     agreeing that everyone’s contribution to society should be equally valued and rewarded;

*     requiring electronic voting systems to prove that votes have been accurately recorded and totalled;

*          showing voters that their views can genuinely influence party policy and government action;

*          explaining to the electorate that manifesto ideas might need revision if circumstances change;

*     publicising positive contributions of immigrants and asylum-seekers, to counter press prejudice;

*     taking planning inspectors’ recommendations into account when siting centres for asylum-seekers

*     accepting that the UN’s credibility will be undermined unless it is a genuine international forum;

*     convincing an increasingly well-educated and questioning electorate that any pre-emptive military action is justified by the actual threat, and that all other options have been explored first.

The Joint Policy Committee initially rejected my amendment on Guantanamo Bay because “The attacks of 11 September were unique in their scale and brutality, and as a result of military action in Afghanistan, the US detained a number of fighters and supporters of the Taliban and Al-Qaida”. Mike O’Brien was more conciliatory, and we agreed that detainees should be subject to legal processes in accordance with international standards, including access to lawyers and knowledge of the charges against them. Those denied such rights should be released, to the UK in the case of British citizens..

Saturday was spent discussing areas not yet agreed, with much lobbying and further negotiation, before the showdown on Sunday where the Forum voted on 11 outstanding amendments. Those supported by a majority became part of the document, while those supported by at least 35 people but fewer than half will go forward to conference as alternative positions. The Forum has 183 members and 119 people were declared eligible to vote, though this included a number of substitutes from the affiliated and government sections. Constituency representatives cannot send substitutes, and some results could have been different if they had the same entitlement.

Deja Vu

The two major debates repeated those held at Exeter in 2000. The Forum decided by 89-13 that there was a strong case for 16-year-olds to be granted the vote, but that Labour should await the results of consultation by the Electoral Commission. A second amendment which would simply reduce the voting age to 16 gained 53 votes for, 13 against, and conference will again make the final decision.

Reform of the House of Lords was an even hotter topic, given their increasing interference with Labour’s programme. A comprehensive statement on the need to review the role and powers of a second chamber along with its composition was carried 98-4. However this made no reference to any democratic element, a retreat from previous policy which specified at least 12.5% elected members.

Constituencies overwhelmingly favour election, and some representatives argued that ignoring what they say would hardly encourage them to engage with the Forum. Regrettably an amendment calling for an elected majority was defeated 23-70. A further amendment specified a second chamber composed as democratically as possible, which could include direct election, indirect election or appointment by a democratic body, or a mix of all three. This received 57 votes with 5 against, and is the only alternative which conference will have, again a retreat from the 2000 position.

The third choice for conference will be over whether to delete a reference to foundation trust boards as an example of extending local democracy, with 50 in favour, 56 against in a proxy vote on the whole principle of foundation hospitals. The Forum decided 96-10 to retain consideration of proportional electoral systems for Westminster, though I fear this will only be retrieved from the long grass when it is too late. And linking regional assemblies with single-tier local government was supported 96-19.

Mass Distraction?

Three amendments on foreign policy went to the vote, two in my name. The document states that we should reduce capabilities aimed at meeting Cold War threats, so phasing out Trident seemed the logical next step. Ministers argued that Labour only started winning elections after embracing Trident. Debating this again would take us straight back to the 1980s, and the run-up to a general election was the wrong time. In any case no decision about Trident or its sucessors would be taken for at least five years. I argued that the world had changed, SS20s were no longer parked in East Germany, and the party could now discuss difficult issues in a mature fashion. And constituencies cannot submit conference resolutions on Trident because it is not a contemporary issue, so there is no other time or place for them to debate it. To no-one’s surprise the amendment was defeated 22-83.

The amendment rejecting involvement in the US National Missile Defense programme was also lost 16-84, though ministers made some interesting statements over the weekend. They said that NMD would never protect against large-scale attacks by Russia, China and the US, but would only intercept a maximum of five or six missiles. Also, Libya agreed to disarm partly because they calculated that Europe would be shielded in the near future, rendering their weapons useless. I still believe the system is scientifically implausible and diverts attention from the more pressing dangers of terrorists buying weapons on the black market and delivering them with short-range missiles or in suitcases. Ministers did accept that consultation on upgrading Fylingdales and Menwith Hill had not been adequate, and better efforts will be made before any further development. A general statement about the dangers of proliferating ballistic missiles was then accepted 95-8.

Party Talk

Matthew Taylor, of the Number 10 policy unit, summarised feedback from the Big Conversation. So far 36,000 submissions have been received, with 14,000 posted on the website, and hundreds of meetings with ministers, MPs and local parties. Reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and debate would continue into the summer. Top subjects were education, with views evenly split on the new student fees; immigration and asylum; health, particularly public health; council tax; and crime and anti-social behaviour. Party staff said that Iraq also featured strongly in expressions of unhappiness.   I wonder why submissions to the National Policy Forum cannot be similarly shared with members.

Douglas Alexander spoke on forthcoming elections. Four years ago, Labour was 24 points ahead in the polls. Now, at the same stage of the electoral cycle, our lead is in low single figures. This statistic on its own should put an end to any complacency. Forum members demanded that dissident ex-cabinet ministers should shut up, or be shut up, and that Labour MPs should stop voting against the government. Hisses were reserved for the Guardian and for Peter Hain, as forests of trees were felled to meet the demands of pamphlet after pamphlet. Rather than criticising the Forum, he should come down and see how well it all works. But while that may be true for the few of us on the inside, it is the many members and voters on the outside who will ultimately judge its success.