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National Policy Forum, Warwick University, 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.
Full reports from the National Policy Forum and the NEC are
available at http://www.annblack.com  or from
Ann Black, ann.black@unisonfree.net