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CLPD Newsletter

No.61 (Labour Party Conference Edition) September 2000

Forging 'consensus'

This year's National Policy Forum held at Exeter in early July to finalise policy documents was once again characterised by movers of amendments not being allowed to propose them. The documents, together with three others finalised last year will, after agreement at conference, form the basis of Labour's general election manifesto.

During the 2-week period in June allotted to the NPF members for sending in amendments to the documents' first draft, Millbank received 658. But only the 213 amendments endorsed by the Joint Policy Committee (JPC) - a body which oversees the CLPs' and affiliated organisations' input into Labour's policy-making - were circulated to Forum members prior to the meeting. The number and content of the non-endorsed amendments became known only during the NPF's session. This prevented Forum members from having an overall view.

Dialoguing with Ministers

On the first day (Friday) the movers and seconders of the non-endorsed amendments were invited to a "dialogue" with Ministers and told why their amendments were not accepted. Each mover and seconder faced up to eight protagonists on the ministerial side. The object of the exercise was ostensibly to achieve consensus.

The movers of 229 amendments agreed to 'the preferred JPC wording', while 148 were withdrawn. Where a 'consensus' was reached the original wording was either diluted so as to avoid specific commitments, or toned down. (This was just the same as what happened the previous year in Durham). For example on Tax, National Insurance and Benefits, the original wording read:

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

The agreed 'consensus' version transformed this into:

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

An amendment which included the statement:

"The comprehensive system, developed in the 1970s and 1980s, has not delivered what its advocates hoped for..."

was changed after the ministerial dialogue to:

"The comprehensive system, developed in the 1970s and 1980s, has delivered much that its advocates hoped for..."

The one case we know of where a Minister accepted a non-endorsed amendment was when he happened to agree with it.

No compromise

On several issues, such as tax, freedom of information, Trident and First-Past-the-Post, there was no consensus. Movers of 37 amendments stood their ground. This was an advance on last year when a mere 26 of those opposed by the JPC were put to the vote. About 30 amendments, however, were never considered. They were ruled out of order sometimes on nebulous grounds. For example fox hunting because it was allegedly attached to the wrong policy document - Environment, Transport and the Regions, and not to Crime and Justice (Ray Davison, South West); welfare - the reinstatement of the earnings link - because the issue had been debated last year. This despite the fact that the promise of a national debate on welfare policy then made had not been kept (Mark Seddon, NEC).

On line

On the second day (Saturday) non-endorsed amendments to the six policy documents were discussed. Members were allocated to ten workshops each of which had an identical agenda. The movers of amendments were thus deprived of the opportunity to put their case to the whole Forum. It was left to others to argue their case in the nine workshops they couldn't attend. Workshops don't take votes but identify "consensus" or significant divergence. Government Ministers attended these sessions and argued vehemently against the amendments which movers refused to change. The real purpose of the workshops was to try and secure final consensus or withdrawal of the non-endorsed amendments. It is ironic that the NPF, which was set up to promote inclusion, spent most of the time debating amendments so as to exclude them from Conference.

Off line

On the last day (Sunday), in a plenary session, the NPF finally took votes on the 37 amendments the JPC refused to endorse. After the roll call - 130 (74%) of the 175 Forum's members were present - it was decided that for a non-endorsed amendment to be considered by Annual Conference the support of at least 35 NPF members was needed. The procedure on each non-endorsed amendment was: workshop report on the "consensus" reached, ministerial statement outlining opposition or support for various amendments, and vote.

This finally stripped the movers of the amendments of having a single opportunity to be heard by the entire Forum. The clumsy gagging of dissent provoked a substantial protest. Eventually the Chair (Robin Cook) agreed to a request from the floor (Christine Shawcroft) for a vote to be taken on allowing movers to speak in favour of their amendments. He said he would allow 2 minutes each if the meeting agreed. The proposal was defeated by 60/40. It speaks volumes about the democratic credentials of the government's built-in majority on the Forum. Most TU represntatives also played a sorry role. GMB members were particularly vocal in opposing this miserly concession to 'balance and fairness'.

Managed 'democracy'

In subsequent votes 29 non-endorsed amendments were defeated, 7 amendments, all on relatively minor issues, received enough support to qualify as minority reports. They contained the following demands:

a majority of elected members in the House of Lords;

consultation on lowering the voting age to 16;

Sure Start to be extended in the next parliament;

New Deal for crumbling schools;

block grants or specific grants in education funding;

directors of polluting companies to be held personally responsible;

introduction of Train Protection Warning System as a preliminary to Advanced Train Protection on all lines or on all high-speed lines.

Amendments failing to reach the 35-vote threshold included:

rejecting performance-related pay for teachers;

taking back public control of the rail network;

accepting whatever funding model is recommended for the London Tube by the Mayor's panel;

annual uprating of the national minimum wage;

phasing out of the upper National Insurance earnings limit;

renouncing Trident.

Only two were carried and will be included in the NPF's recommendations to Conference (18-year-olds to stand as councillors or MPs; review of standing charges in paying for utilities).

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