A long-time Labour Party activist reports on some of the things at Labour Party conference which didn't reach the newspapers or the TV coverage.
The Labour Party leadership put a lot of effort into trying to stop the rule change to have the 55 constituency Labour Party (CLP) delegates to the National Policy Forum elected by the membership at large rather than by a few hundred CLP delegates at national conference.
Pat McFadden, Chair of the Labour Party National Policy Forum, was having delegates called out of the hall to meet him so that he could pull them into line, yet in the vote we had a 55%-45% majority for the rule change among the CLP delegates. We thought we might not. The last rule change slightly opening things up for the constituencies, the one in 2003 to allow them four contemporary motions to conference, was passed by the union votes with, ironically, a majority of CLP delegates against it.
The unions voted 79% for the NPF rule change. According to René Lavanchy of Tribune, Downing Street's objection to the rule change was: "It’ll let the left in".
Why do they think that? In recent years, CLP delegates to annual conference have generally proved more malleable than CLP members at large; to have the 55 NPF delegates chosen through an extra filtration makes them more malleable again.
The wider ballot is likely to produce a result more like the ballot for constituency members of Labour's National Executive, where the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance holds four out of six seats. The constituencies have 55 representatives in the NPF and the unions have 30. The NPF's total membership of 184 also includes the 32 members of the National Executive, 22 regional reps, plus ministers, MPs, MEPs, etc. The rule change increases the chance of getting minority reports from the National Policy Forum to allow real debate at conference.
But we have to make the rule change work. It is not automatic. The powers-that-be are not going to sit on their hands. They will be organising to win those ballots for NPF reps.
The other big constitutional issue was about restoring contemporary motions. Since 2007 the unions and CLPs have not been allowed to submit contemporary motions. We have only been able to submit "contemporary issues", which are discussed, not voted on, and shunted off to the NPF.
In the run-up to conference, the affiliated unions, through the Trade Union Liaison Organisation (TULO), pressed for the restoration of motions. In the end the leadership agreed a compromise. A review of the question of motions, and of the whole party structure, will be held between the General Election and the 2010 Labour Party conference. And the National Executive report accepted by conference added that the NEC had "consulted with the Conference Arrangements Committee"; if the 2010 conference restores motions, then "issues" submitted to that conference will retrospectively become "motions".
There are a lot of other issues which I think are important to push in the run-up to 2010 conference, including the right to amend National Policy Forum documents and a loosening of the previous requirement that motions be strictly "contemporary", a requirement that has in the past licensed the Conference Arrangements Committee to rule many motions out of order. It is important that motions of contemporary concern are not restricted to topics reliant on particular events occurring in the six weeks prior to the deadline.
The conference passed two emergency motions. One from the rail unions ASLEF and TSSA said that the East Coast mainline should be retained as a public company and not returned to the private sector. Another, from the CWU, said that the Government must take responsibility for sorting out the Royal Mail pension fund deficit. The platform allowed both to go through without anyone voting against.
Generally, the conference could have dissolved into complete demoralisation, and it didn't.
At the fringe meeting organised by the biggest unions, Dave Prentis of Unison said that we must insist that the manifesto includes no plans for further privatisation of the Health Service. That's a negative way of putting it, when I think we should be talking about positive things that should be in the manifesto, but the unions were showing a slight measure of independence from the leadership.
Then you had a standing ovation for Peter Mandelson! I suppose conference delegates were grateful he took the fight to the Tories, and did it in an accomplished manner. But it was disturbing that he got that applause.
According to Mandelson, the difference between Labour and the Tories is that the Tories are going to make cuts, and Labour is going to... make kindly cuts. In fact, cuts in public services will be one of the big battlegrounds of the coming months.
Alongside the right-wing populist rhetoric against teenage single mothers and so on, there was a bit of anti-banker rhetoric from the platform. But it was more on the lines of promising to sort out the bankers' bonuses than of talk about controlling the investment and lending policies of the banks themselves.
The trouble is, the message from the top table was not "we can win if we change", but that we can win as we are, which I don't think is true.