National Policy Forum, 6/9 July 2000

This meeting finalised the six policy documents on Britain in the World; Democracy and Citizenship; the Economy; Education and Employment; Environment, Transport and the Regions; and Industry, Culture and Agriculture. Together with Crime and Justice, Health and Welfare, discussed last year, these will form the basis of Labour’s manifesto at the next general election.

Forum members submitted 658 amendments. Of these, 213 were accepted initially; 30 were ruled out of order; 148 were withdrawn in favour of others on the same subject; 229 were accepted after negotiation at the Forum; and 38 were not accepted. Amendments needed 35 votes to go forward as minority positions for Conference to decide, and seven of the 38 achieved this. Two were carried outright and 29 were lost.

A collective report from SouthEast representatives at the Forum is being prepared for constituencies, and will give an overview of the six areas. However it’s impossible to cover everything, so if your particular concerns are not covered, please get in touch and I will track down chapter and verse

Conference Choices

The two amendments which were carried call for 18-year-olds to be able to stand as councillors or MPs, and for a review of standing charges in paying for utilities. The seven decisions for Conference are:

  • whether the reformed House of Lords should have a majority of elected members;
  • whether Labour should consider initiating consultation on lowering the voting age to 16;
  • whether Sure Start should definitely be extended in the next parliament, or whether its extension should be urgently considered;
  • whether the Tory legacy of crumbling schools should be tackled through the New Deal for schools, or whether a variety of approaches including the New Deal should be considered;
  • whether education funding should be based on a block grant with specific grants to encourage innovation and pilot new ideas, or whether we should wait for a green paper which will consider this and other options;
  • whether directors of polluting companies should personally face penalties, in addition to higher fines for their companies;
  • whether TPWS [Train Protection Warning System] should be introduced as a preliminary to ATP [Advanced Train Protection] as soon as possible on all lines or on all high-speed lines.

Amendments failing to reach the 35-vote threshold included

  • rejecting performance-related pay for teachers;
  • abolishing the charitable status of private schools;
  • legislating against discrimination on grounds of sexuality;
  • taking back public control of the rail network;
  • accepting whatever funding model is recommended for the Tube by the Mayor’s panel;
  • reducing the 55% taper on the Working Families Tax Credit or increasing the top tax rate of 40% so the lower-paid are liable for less tax;
  • phasing out the upper National Insurance earnings limit;
  • automatic annual uprating of the national minimum wage by at least the average rise in earnings, real-terms increases wherever prudent, and phasing out the lower youth rate;
  • opposing the Private Finance Initiative;
  • renouncing Trident;
  • ending the voucher system for asylum-seekers.

None of these will be debated at Conference. However, many positive moves were agreed   On the Tube, the government “welcomes the Mayor’s panel to assess the funding options [and] will work with the Mayor to put in place the funding needed to bring the best deal for Londoners.” UNISON won further assurances that PFI would only be used where it showed best value, and new safeguards for members.

And there are commitments to “rectify any negative consequences of the new legislation on the proper rights and support given to those seeking asylum” and to evaluate the voucher system against “provision of an adequate standard of living and security of income; integration of asylum-seekers into the communities in which they live in Britain; building the confidence and maintaining the dignity of individual asylum-seekers; developing support systems for individuals following their experiences of persecution and oppression; its contribution to the elimination of child poverty.”

All amendments on pensions and benefits were ruled out of order. Many unions and constituency representatives who voted against the pensions/earnings link last year protested that they would like to vote on it again, but were told that the whole point of the rolling programme was that we didn’t revisit past decisions no matter how electorally damaging they turned out to be. The Economic Policy Commission will present a statement on pensions to Conference for discussion, but there will no chance to amend it, and it will surely contain enough goodies – a bigger rise in the basic pension, help for pensioners just above income support level, the new pensioners’ credit – to be carried overwhelmingly.

Forging Consensus

There were many changes between amendments as submitted and amendments as eventually incorporated. Below are just a few illustrations:

  1. Export Credit Guarantees

Initial amendment:

“We will ensure that where British businesses require export credit guarantees, those guarantees are conditional on the business and the contracting government complying with human rights and environmental standards. In particular we will ensure that the Ilisu dam, proposed by the Turkish government and to be constructed by Balfour Beatty backed by export credit guarantees, will not infringe the human rights of the local Kurdish population and that it will comply with environmental standards.”

accepted as

“We will ensure that where British businesses require export credit guarantees, those guarantees are conditional on the business and the contracting government complying with human rights and environmental standards, an example being the recent environmental impact appraisal order by the Labour government into the Ilisu dam project.”

  1. Tax, National Insurance and Benefits

Initial amendment:

“As we continue to reform tax and benefits we will further raise the upper earnings limit for National Insurance contributions so that it least keeps pace with inflation”

accepted as:

“We will continue to reform tax and benefits in order to achieve a fairer system that assists the lower-paid”.

  1. Comprehensive Education

Initial document:

“The comprehensive system, developed in the 1970s and 1980s, has not delivered what its advocates hoped for, never mind what we require for the 21st century.”

Accepted amendment:

“The comprehensive . . .has delivered much that its advocates hoped for, nevertheless further improvements need to take place in order to achieve what we require for the 21st century

  1. Ballots on Grammar Schools

Initial amendments:

(a)   “[Labour] will introduce further measures to end selection and bring the few remaining grammar schools within the comprehensive system.”

(b)   “Labour reaffirms its commitment to the comprehensive ideal, which gives equal opportunities for all to fulfil their potential, and will tackle both systematic and individual failings which have held back too many children.

`The outdated selective system gives privileged access to the few and denies opportunity to the many. Instead of empowering parents to choose schools, it allows schools to choose pupils. Most children are classified as failures at the age of ten, pupils were denied places in their neighbourhood school by outsiders, and grammar schools cream off the top 20%. As we enter the 21st century we cannot afford to waste so much human capital.

In line with bringing decisions closer to the people, the government has introduced local ballots to determine the future of grammar schools, where they remain. However, practical experience has shown that the rules as currently framed raise near-impossible obstacles to holding a ballot at all. They can also give most weight to those who succeed under the status quo, including those living outside the area, while excluding the rejected majority within the community. The government will therefore modify the procedures to facilitate rather than to obstruct the expression of local opinion, to explain the arguments in favour of equal opportunities, and to ensure that all stakeholders within the community, losers as well as winners, have an equal voice.”

Accepted as:

“There should be no return to the 11-plus, which divides children into successes and failures at this early age . . . We should address concerns about the technical details of the ballots [on retaining grammar schools]”.

  1. Genetically-Modified Organisms

Initial amendments:

(a)   “Labour will examine the case for pursuing a moratorium on GM crops whilst meeting our obligations under international law.”

(b)   “Mindful of the public’s concerns in this area, scientific field trials of GM crops will be suspended. The government will explore alternative methids of investigation before proceeding further with a view to bringing forward new proposals during the next term.”

accepted as

“Whilst recognising that the only means to obtain the necessary evidence about the impact of GM crops on the environment is through the field-scale trials, we accept that there could be long-term risks as well as many potential gains associated with GM. For that reason we believe we should proceed with great caution. However, we cannot seek a moratorium or a ban under international law unless we can show that GM crops represent a risk to human health or the environment. No such evidence exists at present. Only the field-scale trials might produce such evidence. We do, nevertheless, recognise that in the course of carrying out the field-scale trials itself, there could be cross-contamination of surrounding fields. For that reason, we are curently reviewing the traditional separation distances with a view to meeting public concerns by minimising cross-pollination.

Labour will also be looking to boost public involvement in the consultation over GMOs, not only through the Agriculture and Environment Research Commission we have already set up for that purpose, but also through new mechanisms such as Citizens’ Commissions.”

  1. National Minimum Wage

Consensus on the way forward was hammered out in marathon negotiating sessions between unions and ministers and unions while constituency representatives were rather left twiddling their thumbs. The concordat stated

“Following the success of the Low Pay Commission it is important it should now be established as a permanent body. The Low Pay Commission has now started work on its third report, as well as making a recommendation on the main rate of the minimum wage and the development rate. Importantly the government has invited the Commission to examine again, in the light of fuller evidence, the case for changing the age at which workers become entitled to the adult rate. After carrying out its current report the Commission should continue to report regularly on the rates and all other aspects of the minimum wage and poverty pay. Should the government disagree with any particular recommendation of the Low Pay Commission it shall have to give full reasons to Parliament.”

Mark Seddon and I had proposed an amendment which said

“However, the government recognises that a fixed wage steadily falls in real value relative to both earnings and prices and increases the subsidy provided by taxpayers to low-paying employers, while unpredictable pauses and jumps make it difficult for business to plan ahead. The government will therefore introduce

Members had to choose between these, and voting for the second would have lost the commitment to keep the Low Pay Commission references. Unfortunately other amendments which asked the Low Pay Commission to recommend an uprating mechanism, and could have bridged the gap, had been withdrawn. Compositing has its limits even at the National Policy Forum.

  1. Electoral Reform

A deal on the future voting system for the House of Commons was also settled before the Forum proper. The Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform agreed a form of words with anti-PR unions:

“Whilst remaining committed to the holding of the referendum before any change to the House of Commons electoral system was introduced, Labour will allow the changes introduced for elections to the European and Scottish Parliaments and for the Welsh and London Assemblies to become familiar and allow time for all their consequences to be felt before deciding on any further proposals for electoral reform. Labour has conducted a consultation on the issues raised by the report and which is contained in a separate document. There were serious concerns about the acceptability of AV-plus. It was strongly felt that the electoral system for the House of Commons needs to maintain the constituency link, encourage stable government and take account of proportionality of power as well as that of representation.”

Jack Straw interpreted this as support for AV rather than AV-plus, which many do not see as much of an improvement, but LCER were worried about losing all chance of the referendum and of change. They needed sufficient consensus to fend off a hardline first-past-the-post position, supported by a majority of GrassRoots Alliance associates (though not by me) which gained only 19 votes. Mary Southcott has written a blow-by-blow account which I can forward to anyone who is interested.

A couple of final points. First, it’s worth considering what would have happened under the old procedures. Taking Education as an example, the policy paper would have been carried as an NEC document, including its negative sentiments about the comprehensive system. There would also have been composite motions on education demanding abolition of grammar schools, restoring student grants and free tuition, and a dozen other clauses. These would have been lost if any parts appeared to give hostages to fortune, and if accidentally carried they would have been ignored on the grounds of inconsistency with the main paper.

And second, I would like to see the whole Forum process opened up to members, including feedback from regional forums, reports from the policy commissions, open discussion on the Internet, more direct input to National Policy Forum negotiations, and, if necessary, the opportunity to make changes at Conference beyond limits set by the Forum. But what matters to most people is the outcome. If the policies are right, members will worry less about how they emerged. If they are wrong, I’m sure you will let us know.