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National Policy Forum, Warwick University, 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 
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 
 
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."
 
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