ANN BLACK sees the forces of conservatism flourishing behind the closed doors of the National Policy Forum.
Five years ago I attended my first conference. I haggled over benefits and human rights in compositing meetings, on equal footing with union grandees and delegates from constituencies across the country. Because of that participation, those contacts, I was elected to the new National Policy Forum and, this year, to the National Executive Committee (NEC).
Does Partnership in Power give today’s beginners the same opportunities, or has it created an exclusive, unaccountable and self-perpetuating elite? Today, as a new activist, I would enjoy debate at local forums. But my enthusiasm would wane when I realised that National Policy Forum members did not see the results, and widely-held views were not reflected in policy.
At this year’s conference I would have to vote on take-it-or-leave-it documents, with only the House of Lords and votes at 16 providing real choice. All great social, economic and international issues are settled in advance.
Pensions cannot be discussed because last year’s Forum, including most constituency representatives and union delegates, rejected the earnings link, and the rolling programme means not revisiting issues no matter how many council seats we lose. And with only two National Policy Forum places elected from my region, I doubt that people without patronage could overcome the advantage enjoyed by sitting members.
Of course the old system involved backroom deals, and the 90 per cent union block vote hardly empowered grassroots members. But anyone could understand, and even influence, the process. Now the same horse-trading goes on, but out of sight.
Groups who once lobbied conference delegates – CND, SERA, Stop the Eleven-Plus, the First Past the Post campaign, the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, Friends of Iran – now circulate addresses of Forum members, send us model amendments, and ring us asking for support.
For the lucky few this year’s Forum was more civilised and inclusive, and there were even backhanded compliments for the Grassroots Alliance.
Our extremist amendments on automatic uprating of the minimum wage and suspending field trials of genetically modified organisms apparently persuaded ministers to offer concessions to more moderate factions. Individual unions voted with us on ending tax breaks for private schools and phasing out the upper national insurance limit, although never quite enough to reach the threshold for conference.
Overall the unions benefit from intensive hand-to-hand combat with ministers, but at the risk of appearing to dominate the Forum. Tony Dubbins (Tribune, August 18 2000), for instance, assesses the July 2000 meeting solely in terms of which unions sold other unions out, overlooking the existence of ordinary members and their representatives because ordinary members are the losers.
Take electoral reform, which cuts across old Left-Right divisions, and on which Grassroots Alliance associates hold differing views. After 18 years of Thatcherism, I am not convinced that strong government is always best, and I believe that Jenkins offers an ingenious way of combining the constituency link with local proportional representation.
In any case, Labour promised a referendum, and we should keep our promises. Local consultation on the Democracy and Citizenship document supported this. Of 23 submissions in my region, not one wanted to delete the referendum pledge. Nine called for the pledge to be kept, and five of these asked for the referendum to be held early in the next parliament.
Personal correspondence and party discussions also suggested a majority for change, though some wanted to explore alternatives other than Jenkins. When Unison balloted its affiliated members, 48 per cent supported Jenkins and 37 per cent first past the post, although the turnout of 0.25 per cent (1 in 400) may indicate a general willingness to leave it to the anoraks.
Most Forum members had no say in whether this could be debated at conference, because the Labour Campaign on Electoral Reform and First Past the Post did a deal before proceedings opened. This is being interpreted variously as leaving the door open, or as kicking the lot into the very long grass. LCER was worried about losing altogether, and needed agreement to fend off a hardline first past the post amendment.
But while they concentrated on Democracy and Citizenship, first past the posters were jubilant at slipping an amendment into the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions’ document which ruled out electoral reform in local government. This was not deliberative, consensual policy-making; it was a stitch-up.
In the bad old days any party member could see the conference agenda weeks in advance, and delegates could contribute and intervene on any resolution. Now, Forum representatives get all the amendments at the start of their meeting, too late to read or negotiate, and only the hundred people present for the whole weekend can trace their progress.
Despite the rhetoric of modernisation, the forces of conservatism are flourishing behind closed doors, inside the Forum. Giving individual members a sense of ownership is an increasingly urgent task.
This article was originally published in Tribune newspaper. Reproduced with kind permission.