National Policy Forum, 23/25 July 2004

Hemmed in by barricades, guarded by armed police, the Forum met to lay the foundations of the manifesto. The programme followed the usual pattern: Friday for detailed negotiations with ministers, Saturday in groups discussing areas of difference, and Sunday concluding with votes on issues not yet settled. Keynote speeches also featured. This was the second of two three-day sessions: the Joint Policy Committee, charged with effective management of the Forum, assigned citizenship and foreign policy to the March meeting, leaving July to cope with Health and Education, Sustainable Communities (transport, local government, crime, rural affairs, culture and sport) and Prosperity for All (energy, manufacturing, employment rights, pensions, welfare and the economy).

Inevitably these three days were much more crowded, with 850 amendments compared to 250 in March. Negotiations stretched through Saturday, with a final trade union session beginning at midnight and lasting (I am told) until 4 a.m. on Sunday. Party staff then had to pulp several more forests to produce rewritten chapters on skills, pensions, manufacturing, employment and the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) for unanimous approval by delegates who had not read them.   Given the diversity, what follows is a personal account and other members will have very different stories.

To Begin at the Beginning

I submitted 29 amendments, and most were included in some form as I judged it better to make concessions than to lose the point entirely. They included commitments to:

*          tackle the gap between rich and poor;

*     support people not in work and living on a low income (though this fell far short of my suggestion that all out-of-work benefits should be linked to earnings, not prices);

*     consider whether action is needed to promote race equality in the private sector (extending the Race Relations (Amendment) Act was regarded as too burdensome for business);

*          make excellent healthcare and first-class education, rather than choice, the primary focus;

*     recognise that sending children to distant schools takes them out of their community and increases traffic congestion, and encourage rural schools in particular to include all local children;

*     require sponsors of City Academies to respect the professionalism of teachers in curriculum matters (this was aimed at the Vardy Foundation, whose schools teach creationism, and – I found out later – suggest that it was God who stopped Hitler at the English Channel in 1940);

*          value the potential of out-of-school clubs, especially in the arts and sport;

*     extend children’s centres along SureStart lines, as deprived children also exist in affluent areas.

*          acknowledge that all students, whether they graduate or drop out, will have to repay their fees;

*     raise participation in higher education, and improve funding for all universities, including those – mainly ex-polytechnics – which already take most students from lower socio-economic groups;

*     recognise that local authorities can use land flexibly at the edges of the green belt, as long as the overall acreage is maintained or increased (this arose from wealthy LibDems opposing the use of some ratty fields on the outskirts of Oxford for much-needed homes, and provoked an interesting debate on how far the green belt should be sacrosanct);

*     try to improve connections between different train and bus services, provide joined-up information from a single enquiry point, and encourage train operators to carry bicycles;

*     encourage fare structures which maximise choice, reduce social exclusion and persuade people to switch from cars (though ministers would not accept my examples of abolishing the minimum £10 charge on weekday railcard travel, and reducing prices for for turn-up-and-go journeys);

*     address difficult choices between the immediate passenger benefits of cheap air travel and the long-term damage of aviation fuel, within the 60% target reduction in carbon emissions by 2050;

*     use biometrics in identity cards only if they are proved to match individuals with their own record and not with anyone else’s (this provoked impatience from the minister and sniggers from a colleague. Two days later a Labour-dominated select committee reported that initial tests showed as many as one in 100 matches to be incorrect).

Hundreds of other changes were introduced, including consideration of a plastic bag tax, as in Ireland, and new laws on animal welfare to tackle concerns about circuses, pet fayres, animal sanctuaries, greyhound welfare, mutilation, leathering and the use of snares. Regarding energy, constituencies overwhelmingly support the twin-track approach of developing renewable sources and encouraging conservation. The paper originally stated that an effective mix of energy sources would be required. A single constituency amendment added “As part of our commitment to diversity of energy supplies, we recognise the need to keep open the options of building new nuclear power stations in future.” Illustrating the extent of compromise, Pete Willsman’s call for a 50% tax rate on earnings above £100,000, to be spent on public services, became

“We will continue to build on our efforts to ensure the tax and tax credit system remains progressive and in line with our principles of ensuring faurness, opportunity and security for all while at the same time raising sufficient revenue to pay for investment in public services.”

a formulation which will allow Tony Blair to repeat his pledge not to raise income tax rates for the third term.

All Together Now

On Friday evening Gordon Brown reiterated Labour’s commitment to economic stability, ending child and pensioner poverty, the millennium development goals, and full employment. Only seven young people in each constituency, on average, are now without work. Responding to concerns about the continuing income gap, he said that low-income workers had received the biggest percentage increases thanks to tax credits, and the top 10% of earners now paid 52% of tax plus national insurance, up from 40%. Other members asked Gordon, Patricia Hewitt and John Prescott about the Euro-referendum, new consumer rights, turning extra money for policing into visible cops on the beat, meeting the costs of primary care trusts, the unfolding tragedy in Sudan, and Turkey’s application to join the European Union, which is strongly supported by Britain. A few delegates expressed members’ resentment at the recent five-year plans, especially in education, which seemed to cut across the Forum’s work, but Ian McCartney told us that the plans simply built on parts of the 2001 manifesto and were already policy.

Local party members and new MP Liam Byrne joined the Forum on Saturday for speeches by John Prescott and by Tony Blair, who announced a new commission on women and work. The prime minister was less uncompromising than press reports had speculated, acknowledging that people wanted good local schools and hospitals, and arguing that choice was a means to these ends. Labour had to link principle with practice and maintain the coalition of old and new supporters. We had stripped away outdated dogma and recognised the aspirations of hard-working families. He spoke of “coming through the fire” and “testing times” as strengthening experiences, and repeated his claim that the party is more ideologically united than ever. I am not sure if this is true, or even if it would be a good thing, and he omitted to mention that membership has fallen to less than half its 1997 peak.

Questioners asked about fighting the BNP, where Tony Blair felt that their support came in waves and would recede, though we had to oppose discrimination while sorting out the asylum system, and the LibDems, where he argued that they provided useful back-up against a Tory resurgence. He reassured members worried about defence cuts while our troops were serving in Iraq, and agreed that we must improve conditions in inner-cities and rebuild links with Muslim communities. On selection by schools, he was not over-concerned with whether specialist schools kept their largely unused powers, but cautioned against a frontal assault on grammar schools for tactical reasons. Like everyone else he paid tribute to Ian McCartney, Chair of the Forum, and certainly members would be very cross if recent reshuffle rumours proved true.

Intermission

Because so many negotiations were still in play, cabinet ministers and many delegates were otherwise occupied, Saturday’s workshops had little to get their teeth into. The most enjoyable session in my group was swapping horror stories about dentists with health minister Rosie Winterton, and hoping that her promises of improvement come true. We also kicked around issues to do with council housing and selection in education, and received updates on progress with PFI and pensions.

The Morning After

A record 152 delegates/substitutes, out of a maximum 183, were present on Sunday morning, raising the threshold for a minority position to go to conference to 38 votes (25% of the total). Initial paperwork suggested that 27 amendments would go to the vote on Prosperity for All, 19 on Sustainable Communities and 12 on Health and Education. However the 4 a.m. concordat with the unions covered the same issues as the first 27, and constituency representatives withdrew all their amendments. These had included restoring the link between the basic pension and earnings, introducing a single minimum wage irrespective of age, requiring employers to reinstate unfairly-dismissed staff, and guaranteeing employment rights from either Day One or after six months. Mark Seddon proposed an amendment which would prevent companies making windfall profits from selling on their shares in PFI deals, but this was lost by 16 votes to 122.

The unions have certainly achieved substantial gains. Employees will now be guaranteed 20 days’ paid holiday in addition to bank holidays, as in the rest of Europe. Striking workers will be protected from dismissal for 12 weeks instead of the current eight weeks. The two-tier workforce may at long last be on its way out across all public services. New measures against violence at work are promised. The particular disadvantages that affect women in retirement will be addressed in a report on women and pensions in 2005. But many issues are subject to further review, or local negotiation, and I am worried that anything which does not trouble the director of the CBI cannot entirely meet the expectations of working people. I hope that I am wrong.

Local government also operated effectively during the weekend, and settled most issues except for the vexed question of why competent councils were not allowed the same resources as external organisations if tenants chose to remain under their control, the so-called “fourth option” after PFI, stock transfer to a housing association, or an arm’s-length management organisation. The Forum voted 131 in favour, none against, for a composite wording which includes the clause

“However, Labour also recognises the need for new housing could be assisted by allowing local authorities to once again build new homes for rent. In areas where rental properties are inadequate in number, approval could be given for limited local authority funded developments to ensure that our communities are not weakened by the shortage of affordable rented properties.”

A second amendment was moved by Daniel Zeichner, stating that

“Labour will also ensure that where tenants choose to remain under the management of their local authority, they will not be financially disadvantaged – funds available for stock transfer will be equally available to councils, ensuring a level playing-field.”

This gained 64 votes with 73 against, meaning that conference will decide, unless further negotiations over the summer make this unnecessary.

Eight similar amendments were then withdrawn. Most of the rest were compromises reached after the printing deadline and were carried without dissent, though a lone youth registered a vote against ignoring young people when considering concessionary bus fares. The only remaining contentious amendment called for the railways to be taken back into public ownership. Moved by Harriet Yeo, this attracted 40 votes in favour with 90 against, leaving the final decision to conference.

Words Mean what I Choose them to Mean

I kept two amendments in to the final stages, on ending the right of specialist schools to select up to 10% of their intake by aptitude, and on ending the 11-plus, both reinforced by many similar amendments from other delegates. In discussion, ministers were fairly relaxed about specialist schools, partly because only 6% use their powers now. They offered to look at removing technology from the list of aptitudes, as this might be confused with selection by ability, unlike talent in music or sport, and to study the findings of the education and skills select committee. This argues that aptitude tests are an unnecessary and expensive complication, and should be withdrawn.

On the 11-plus the main worry was the electoral backlash, with any move to close grammar schools flooding MPs’ postbags with protest. Tony Blair, Charles Clarke and others said that because only 4.6% of children attend grammars this is a side-issue, but did not acknowledge that another 15% of children are consigned as failures to secondary moderns, without choice, at the age of ten, because grammar schools exist. The claim that grammar schools can be ended by balloting local parents is a sham, and the select committee recommends that “no further resources are wasted in this exercise”.

Lengthy negotiations produced a composite text which proponents claimed would lead to the end of all selection including the grammar/secondary modern divide. This was carried by 144 votes to 7. But can we really spin the same statement to members as “we will end the 11-plus” and to voters as “your grammar school is safe”? I had compromised on every other issue, but felt that on this my mandate from constituencies, forums and individual members was too clear to break. I moved the first amendment, which was lost by 15 votes to 118, and supported Carol Hayton who moved the second, which was lost by 18 votes to 119. All three are reproduced in full at the end.

Further votes were held on ending charitable status for prestigious private schools, lost by 15 votes to 115, though a composite amendment requiring them to demonstrate their public benefit to the Charity Commission was carried. Pete Willsman also proposed a grant for living costs for the least well-off students, lost by 14 votes to 114, and taking disadvantaged students’ backgrounds into account when considering admission to higher education, lost by 17 votes to 118. After another buffet lunch we reeled out into the daylight, threw off our badges and chains, and headed home.

Afterthoughts

First, the National Policy Forum has indisputably taken over from annual conference as the final place where policy is decided. Five years ago in Durham dissidents were stamped on just as firmly, but delegates did at least then agonise over how we would explain the lack of choice to conference. This cycle has produced a total of five options, compared with seven in the last cycle, and two – votes at 16, and a more democratic House of Lords – are actually the same as last time. It’s worth recalling what conference signed up to in 1997 when agreeing Partnership in Power:

“… conference would for the first time have the opportunity to debate and vote on alternative positions within policy statements reflecting different constituencies of opinion in the party. In presenting statements to conference, the NPF would be charged with producing documents which facilitated debate around core issues and areas of contention.”

The Forum has abandoned this obligation. But as someone working for a third term, I understand the real concerns about allowing the 11-plus, exactly this kind of contentious issue, to dominate the headlines through to conference and beyond. The year before a general election requires maximum unity, and the Forum will always be under these pressures. So should we somehow reverse the process, and have the real arguments in the first year after an election?

Also unresolved is the role of constituency representatives. The unions in particular, but also other sections of the Forum, can operate as blocks within their own clear collective policies. They occasionally express sympathy for constituency colleagues who have no resources and no easy way of consulting their members, and cannot organise in the same way. But if we are reflecting the full range of party opinion, surely we should not operate as a monolith? None of us has the only truth. And in that case, should we act together in taking key decisions on to conference, to the people who elected us, and ensure that genuine differences are debated there, rather than papered over in backroom manoeuvring? Or is choice to be promoted everywhere except within the Labour party?

Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this to be circulated to members as a personal account, not an official record. Past reports are available at http://www.annblack.com/

Selection and Education

“Consensus wording” – carried 144 for, 7 against – proposed by Charles Clarke and Duncan Enright

“Our vision for education promotes quality choice for parents and pupils. We reject the damaging Tory assumption that general ability is fixed or predetermined and their damaging proposals for every primary and secondary school to select and choose their pupils, and to do so on their own criteria.

We will avoid the dangers of social exclusion, continue to tackle inequalities between schools and to end the growth of selection.   We have also removed the ability of schools to use interviews as a covert form of selection.

We are pursuing a non-selective system in secondary education. So we will continue to ensure that all schools abide by the strict requirements of the admissions code of practice which does not allow any extension by ability.

The government will study carefully the report on secondary schools admissions by the Select Committee on education and skills. We recognise that as we move to a system of all schools becoming specialist there is a case for examining carefully the role of selection by aptitude. Few specialist schools exercise their power to select by aptitude but it can provide opportunities for children talented in areas such as sport and music to develop their natural skill. Given the new circumstances the government will review the current list of prescribed aptitudes to see if they all continue to be appropriate.

As schools become specialist so collaboration, federations and partnerships between them is growing. This development is to be welcomed, particularly in the context of the emerging 14-19 curriculum reforms, which will break down the academic vocational divide particularly in selective areas, and should therefore be accelerated to drive up opportunities and standards for every pupil in every school.

In addition we will, as set out in the child poverty review recently announced by the chancellor, review in partnership with local authorities and headteachers the way that funding is distributed within LEAs to schools. As part of that review we will consider whether all authorities should follow the example of those LEAs that use their local funding formulae to provide extra support to those schools that admit disproportionately high numbers of underperforming pupils.”

Selection in Specialist Schools – lost 15 for, 118 against – proposed by Ann Black

“This sharing of facilities with all local children makes it unnecessary for [specialist] schools to select part of their intake on aptitude. Indeed few schools take up this provision. Therefore to help simplify school admission procedures and increase parental choice this provision will be ended.”

Ending the 11-Plus – lost 18 for, 109 against – proposed by Carol Hayton

“Selection at 11 labels many children as failures, so in line with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, selection on ability will be ended in England. This would reduce social divisions, raise standards and promote inclusion, extend school choice to more parents and encourage more young people to stay on in education post-16 and equip them with the skills for life.”