National Policy Forum, 25/27 July 2008

This is very much a personal account of the Warwick University meeting, and if I have missed your particular interest, it is because I could not be everywhere at once. In previous cycles the final stage was spread over two weekends, each covering half the policy agenda; this time it was compressed into less than three days, and inviting constituencies (CLPs) to comment on the draft papers helped to generate more than 2000 amendments.

The system was stretched as never before. Nothing in what follows is intended as criticism of any of those involved: CLP representatives spent many hours considering amendments from their regions, union leaders tried desperately to find ways forward which they could sell to their members, and party staff worked through the sweltering nights, co-ordinating meetings, chasing delegates for signatures, updating amendments, and printing and reprinting the entire set for the next day’s discussion. They received the longest standing ovation of the weekend, but it was more than we had any right to ask of them. Any inconsistencies and omissions were solely the fault of an impossible schedule.

The process was the same as in 2004. On Friday, movers of amendments met ministers to try to agree a compromise, or “consensus” wording. In most cases the options were to sign up to something which included part of your amendment, or refuse and lose the lot. On Saturday, groups of NPF members discussed the six documents with ministers, while separate negotiations on contentious issues continued. On Sunday the NPF voted on those amendments which were not withdrawn in favour of consensus wording. With 161 members present, 81 were needed to include a proposal in the document, and 41 (25%) to send it to conference as a minority position.

Votes at 16 and an elected House of Lords were carried, and there was overwhelming support for labelling goods made of real animal fur, over-riding ministers’ worries about imposing extra bureaucracy on small businesses. Dianne Hayter succeeded, with 87 votes, in committing the party to regulating estate agents, so consumers are protected in advance rather than having to seek redress after things have gone wrong. And Jeremy Beecham was the proud author of the only two positions where conference will make the final decision: including more councillors on police authorities (55 in favour, 66 against) and commissioning an independent review of the civil legal aid system, which just scraped the 41 votes needed. All other amendments were rejected, most with only a handful in support, despite the impassioned efforts of Walter Wolfgang, Pete Willsman, Carol Hayton and others.

Overall the mood was constructive and positive, and I thought Gordon Brown’s speech was better than some have reported. He agreed that charging extortionate prices to people forced to use meters for gas and electricity was a scandal, promised to reply to an 85-year-old who had lost her post office, and pointed out again that the Tories have no answers. But there needs to be more sense of urgency. I am keen that we act wherever we can in the next eighteen months, not only to improve our chances of winning a fourth term, but to protect those who depend most on Labour should we lose.

For Better or Worse?

Ten years into Partnership in Power, I found myself making comparisons with the old-style conference. Then, constituency parties and affiliates had the right to submit motions and amendments which were circulated to delegates and organisations well in advance. On arrival, delegates met others with related resolutions and agreed one or more composites. Policy officers would bring prepared positions, but all sides could only use words from published motions. NEC statements on the same topic were sometimes also handed out. Delegates then had to vote for or against long resolutions with many clauses, and NEC statements which might contradict parts of them, leaving the party facing several ways at once.

The NPF excludes CLPs from the final decision-making stage, and ordinary members from the chance to go head-to-head with ministers and union barons. Recent changes allowed amendments from CLPs to be taken up by regional representatives, though the numbers meant that many fell at the first hurdle. But even NPF members have a harder time than conference delegates ever did. Despite an entitlement to receive relevant documents seven days in advance, this did not include the amendments, nor whether they were acceptable, nor alternative wordings. We got these late Thursday night, for meetings starting at 8:30 a.m. on Friday. Posting copies would be impossible given the volume, but on-line access would have allowed delegates, as well as ministers, to prepare, and to read proposals from other members.

I submitted 21 amendments, and just about kept track of them through a 14-hour day. Some regional representatives put forward more than 40 on behalf of CLPs, and the timetable did not allow them to argue every one in person. This may be why quite a few are not in the final lists as either agreed or not agreed, though amendments were supposed not to fall if proposers were occupied with another meeting.

Mixed Messages

By Sunday, lack of time and sheer overload meant that disputed amendments were printed without the alternative consensus wording, and a 27-page supplement agreed with the unions at 4 a.m. arrived halfway through the session. All endorsed amendments were voted on as a block, on a take-it-or-leave-it scale beyond anything at old-style annual conferences. Afterwards I discovered that one of my amendments was missing from the printed copy, though I am assured that the NPF agreed it anyway.

Movers of amendments were allowed one minute, and ministers given one minute to respond. This had the advantage of speed, but the disadvantage of not having time to check for consistency. For instance, immediately after backing votes at 16 the NPF also supported the union position, which would make lowering the voting age subject to consultation by a new youth citizenship commission.

On prescription charges, the union agreement said “extending free prescriptions to those who can easily afford to pay would not be a good use of public money” but exemptions could be “better targeted to tackle health inequalities”. The CLP consensus wording was different. We removed the first clause, because it could be used to argue against universal provision of anything. We were also worried that targeting might be seen as taking away free prescriptions from those who get them now, and changed it to “used”. Both versions were endorsed. And on Colombia the CLP version was stronger, adding “we note with concern that trade unionists continue to be subject to violent attack in this region, and are particularly concerned at reports from Colombia of the unlawful killing of a number of trade unionists”.

On electoral reform, I signed up to consensus wording which would consider ways of increasing voter registration and participation in local and national elections, weekend voting (though this would cost £58 million) and the duty to vote. There would also be further consultation on the Review of Voting Systems in the UK and abroad, informing the debate on how to elect MPs. This was rather undermined by an amendment to a different document which committed Labour to opposing proportional representation for local councils, not spotted by the rest of us until Sunday when it was too late.

So as with conference, the NPF adopts contradictory positions, but unlike conference, does not realise it until afterwards. I believe the best feature of the NPF is that it allows solid progress in areas such as animal welfare, the environment and international aid, where there is broad agreement on the direction of travel (and little media excitement) and possibilities can be explored without the limitations of all-or-nothing resolutions. The worst is that it leaves most members with little sense of ownership. However, success or failure in the world outside will be based not on the process, but on whether the NPF laid the foundations of a winning manifesto or merely consigned several rainforests to the recycling bins.

Undiscussed Amendments

Moving on to what was decided, amendments accepted before the start of the meeting included

*     wholesale replacement of “hard-working families” with more inclusive language;

*     combating looting and illegal trade in art and antiquities through international co-operation;

*          allowing tested GM (genetically-modified) crops to be used commercially;

*     preventing criminals from profiting from books about their crimes [perhaps this could be extended to political memoirs];

*          investigating heat-retention material for older houses without cavity walls;

*     adding “through peaceful means” to a sentence about preventing the emergence of failed states [possibly an error as elsewhere the use of military intervention as a last resort was accepted];

*     providing access to legal and safe abortion, as well as to contraception, to women in Africa and South Asia [who would gain rights not yet available in Northern Ireland].

All they needed was one proposer, a minister who agreed with them, and no-one taking the other side.

Amendments Agreed After Discussion

Dozens more were finalised over the weekend, and these are just a selection:

*     further progress on housing and on equality at work [these will also be the subjects of separate reports at conference, following last year’s contemporary motions];

*          reviewing the availability of healthcare for failed asylum-seekers;

*     ensuring the highest standards of humanity and dignity when asylum-seekers have to be detained;

*          continuing debate on a UK constitution;

*          reclassifying cannabis as a Class B drug to send a strong message that it is harmful;

*          consulting on how to include academies under the Freedom of Information Act;

*     wanting all local authorities to promote academies, but affirming that money for BSF (Building Schools for the Future) is not dependent on this;

*     replacing Key Stage tests at ages 11 and 14 with “stage not age” tests, if pilots are successful;

*     encouraging more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter higher education by increasing awareness of financial support [Bill Rammell said he would have preferred a national bursary scheme to the current confusing proliferation];

*     continuing to work with all agencies to ensure that the hunting act is effectively enforced;

*          continuing to push for a global ban on whaling, and to research new ways to reduce animal testing;

*     involving those who live and work in rural areas on provision of services;

*     monitoring access to NHS dentists, and ensuring access for every child. In 2003, English 12-year-olds had the best oral health in Europe, and 15-year-olds the best since records began;

*     fines for primary care trusts who do not achieve 90% use of the Choose and Book system by 2010;

*          encouraging voluntary registration for organ donation, rather than an opt-out system;

*     recognising the importance of hospital cleaning teams, but stating that there is no evidence of better infection control with in-house provision;

*          more recognition and support for carers;

*          starting a debate on how to fund long-term social care, with no preferred option at this stage;

*          promoting fair trade products;

*          confirming commitment to the BBC and ensuring adequate funding;

*          supporting the sustainable growth of aviation and the development of green aviation technologies;

*          making micro-generation an integral part of energy production;

*     increasing re-use and recycling of products, and reducing excess packaging [I asked for more standardisation in recycling, but was told that decisions were up to local councils];

*     simplifying rail fares and making them more transparent [my amendment calling for lower fares for tickets bought on the day of travel is missing, but I had withdrawn it rather than go to a vote];

*          eradicating fuel poverty in vulnerable households by 2010 and all households by 2016;

*     rejecting evidence obtained through torture in UK courts, and fighting to close Guantanamo Bay.

Snapshots

Financial inequalities were of deep concern, and several references were added: “Despite progress in reducing poverty under this government, the current wealth gap between rich and poor is still too large. There is growing evidence that social strains and ill-health are greater in more unequal societies, independent of overall wealth … reducing inequality will contribute to the development of a fairer society. We are committed to narrowing inequalities in society, tackling the gap between rich and poor and eradicating child poverty. A progressive tax and benefit system has an important part to play …”

There was little consensus on how to achieve this, with reluctance to contemplate higher taxes even for those paid more than £150,000 a year, and no extra spending in the current economic climate. Ministers agreed to try to boost take-up of tax credits, even though this would cost money. But I had no joy with trying to link out-of-work benefits to earnings, so that unemployed people do not fall ever further behind. James Purnell explained that though job-seeker’s allowance is only £60.50 a week, housing and council tax benefits can raise that to £300, and there are fantastic call-centre jobs available to people in former pit villages. I took the amendment to the Sunday session where it got about five votes.

Discussions on the minimum wage were more productive, though ministers would agree only that the government should pay the adult rate from age 21 if the low pay commission recommends it for a fourth time next year, and refused to change “should” to “will”. Nor would they ask the LPC to consider paying it at age 18, nor allow minimum wage inspectors to enforce other rights such as paid holidays at the same time. However, tips will soon be on top of, rather than included in, the minimum wage.

On prisons we still struggled to stop the government boasting about record numbers of prison places rather than making the case for cost-effective alternatives. We were assured that Titan prisons will be built near large cities so that more prisoners are close to home, but even a modest proposal to allow them cheaper phone calls to their families was rejected. However the NPF recognised that many prisoners have mental health issues, and some should be in more appropriate accommodation.

On ID cards, Jacqui Smith approved wording which cites “the public’s steady support for our proposals”. Liam Byrne estimated this at two-thirds, but I believe opponents feel more strongly than supporters, and several CLPs reported 50/50 splits. I got an amendment accepted which said something like “These plans are being implemented on a pilot basis, and their success and acceptability will determine how rapidly the full biometric database and accompanying ID cards will be rolled out”, logically including the possibility that the speed could be zero. Others stressed the need for data security, and added that further parliamentary approval is required for ID cards to become compulsory.

The 11-plus is a traditional NPF debate. Ministers repeated that “Academic selection at 11 is socially divisive and can damage self-esteem, achievement and development …” but MPs in marginal seats are nervous about any moves to end it. This time I tried a modest change: the agreed wording said “Local parents can vote to remove selection at local grammar schools and it is right that such decisions are made locally”, and I proposed making this true by allowing only parents with children under 11 in the catchment area to vote in the ballot. This gained 31 votes on Sunday, not enough but respectable.

Foreign Affairs

On the Middle East, the immediate inclusion of Hamas in peace talks was rejected in favour of words requiring recognition of Israel and commitment to peace as pre-conditions. Withdrawal from both Iraq and Afghanistan was rejected, but the consensus wording is strikingly different: in Iraq the clear aim is to get out as soon as decently possible, while in Afghanistan “our presence as part of a multinational mission is strongly supported by local people and is essential to building long-term stability”.

With hindsight I regret that I stayed out of the Trident negotiations. Most consensus wording on most topics repeated well-known government positions, with nods toward party concerns. For instance nuclear power is included with clean coal and renewables as part of the future energy mix, but with added guarantees of full public consultation on planning applications for nuclear stations and assurances that companies would have to meet all the costs, including decommissioning and waste disposal.

On nuclear weapons, in contrast, the original fairly mild statement was beefed up substantially. It now says “Failing to renew Trident would be a gamble with the nation’s security that the Labour government must not take” and that allowing America to use British bases for its national missile defense (NMD) programme “ will provide the UK and the US with warning of missile attacks on our countries and is therefore consistent with the Labour party’s commitment to protecting the safety of British citizens.”

Because many CLP amendments wished to cancel Trident and reject NMD, I checked the original agenda. Of 11 regions, two submitted both pro and anti amendments, two submitted pro-nuclear only, and two submitted anti-nuclear only. Of those six amendments only three were left by the final day, presumably because the movers were unable to pursue them. Two were pro-nuclear and signed the consensus. The third went to a vote on Sunday and was overwhelmingly defeated. I could not have unilaterally disarmed Labour but I could perhaps, working with the unions, have avoided a shift towards more gung-ho and aggressive language which cannot help in rebuilding bridges within the party.

Finally the next steps are not clear, but there may well be further chances to influence policy before the manifesto is set in stone. So keep writing to the policy commissions. There is everything to play for.