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Democracy or stitch up?

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Issue 1704

Labour’s policy forum

Democracy or stitch up?

By Charlie Kimber

THE LABOUR Party’s National Policy Forum meets this weekend in Exeter. If it reflects the ferment among Labour voters and members then it will see a revolt against government policies. But party leaders will do their best to stifle rebellion. The forum is made up of 170 members drawn from constituencies, the government, the unions, and various societies affiliated to the party. They are almost all senior members of the party, and there is very little direct input from rank and file members.

The forum considers policy documents drawn up by ministers which will then be voted on at the party conference in September. The forum can amend the documents if a majority vote for a change. A vote by 35 members is officially recognised as a “minority” position, enabling supporters to put it to the September conference.

The leadership impose tremendous pressure on members. On Friday there will be “meetings” with delegates who have put forward amendments to the leadership line. Last year groups of up to ten ministers and officials grilled individual delegates for up to four hours. Most people cracked under the strain and withdrew their amendments. Members cannot make speeches before the votes on amendments. The leadership has rejected about 200 amendments.

Delegates who support the centre-left Grassroots Alliance inside Labour are pressing for measures such as an end to PFI schemes, employment rights from day one at work, and for benefits to asylum seekers to be paid fully in cash. Union leaders will play a central role. National Policy Forum members include John Edmonds (GMB), Derek Hodgson (CWU), Roger Lyons (MSF), Bill Morris (TGWU), Jimmy Knapp (RMT), George Brumwell (UCATT), Tony Dubbins (GPMU), Ken Jackson (AEEU) and several leading officials of UNISON. The unions have 42 votes between them-enough to get a “minority position” which will be considered at September’s conference.

Press reports suggest that some of the unions will push for big changes in government policy. But it is unlikely that union leaders will reject the leadership position over major issues like the economy or rights at work. Some union leaders loyal to Blair are already arguing that any significant rebellion will only help the Tories.

A delegate to the policy forum told Socialist Worker, “This sort of argument ignores the fact that Blair is implementing some Tory policies, has disillusioned many of our natural supporters, and is playing into Hague’s hands by giving credence to Tory right wing policies.”

There is no doubt that this year the union leaders are under more pressure from their members than last year. Some fear that unless there are some concessions to workers’ interests then Labour will continue to suffer at the polls. It remains to be seen if the revolt breaks through this weekend.

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