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23 September 2007

Benn’s warning to Labour

Veteran politician and campaigner Tony Benn warns moves afoot at this year's conference to shave yet

By Tony Benn

The great theme for the Labour Party now is the need for participation and a greater involvement of MPs and local authorities in the decisions that are made by government.

This was the basis on which the Prime Minister made his statement about the need for Parliament to have a bigger role and to invite Digby Jones and others into consultation.

This idea surfaced during the deputy leadership campaign and gave people the hope that after years of spin and manipulation members of the Party at every level would have a great role to play and this was much welcomed.

At the Conference in Bournemouth next week two issues will come up, which will provide a litmus test of how serious the intentions of the leadership are.

The first relates to the argument about a referendum before Britain adheres to the Treaty that has replaced the European constitution in name but not in substance and it is significant that the TUC came out in favour of a referendum as did Keith Vaz, a former Minister for Europe who quite properly argued that our relations with the EU would not succeed unless based on full public consent.

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The second issue relates to the Conference itself in policy making after ten years when new arrangements came in under the heading “Partnership in Power” which introduced a National Policy Forum and greatly reduced the role of the delegates every year to eight resolutions on contemporary issues which could be tabled and debated and decided and which then constituted the official policy of the Party at Conference.

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But this year the Conference will have before it new proposals which could remove contemporary resolutions and delegates will only be able to identify issues they want the Policy Forum to discuss.

If such a proposal were accepted, the Labour Party would have no opportunity of deciding its own policy.

In the past the government has disregarded the Conference, for example on pensions, and railway privatisation and in some cases has put pressure on the Conference Arrangements Committee to prevent some delicate issues like Iraq or Trident from being discussed.

Members of the Party would then only have the right to say Yes or No to the manifesto in a referendum of all members with no powers of amendment.

If this was agreed, Conference could endanger the future of the Labour Party by ending its right to reach any decision, and the Labour Party itself could lose popular support if it denied the public the right to decide our relations with Europe as it becomes clearer that the Commission wants it to be a superstate in which member states are reduced to glorified local authorities.