“The less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they'll sleep at night” - Otto von Bismarck.
There were no smoke-filled rooms at the weekend, of course, following the implementation of a previous manifesto commitment. It was certainly a manic exercise, as over 4,000 amendments from Constituency Labour Parties (CLPSs), affiliated Trade Unions and Socialist Societies, and groups such as Labour in local government were debated, shaping the policy which hopefully will form the basis of Labour's 4th election-winning manifesto.
Things became fraught, as you might imagine, particularly for the magnificent Party staff, who night after night were working without sleep to log agreed wording and update the agenda for the following day. At 2.45am on Sunday morning I signed off what I thought were the last of my North East amendment agreements and wearily headed off to my room, only to be called back to reconcile two final issues. by eagle-eyed staff.
My overriding impression of the process was very positive. My amendments from North East CLPs concentrated on the 'Sustainable Communities' document which included energy, sustainability, local government, the emergency services and transport. I found Ministers in discussions very open to reasonable arguments, and we made real progress in many areas. I was particularly pleased that lengthy conversations on elected mayors secured the pledge that Labour will not impose these on communities (a distinct policy difference with the Tories) and that consultation will take place on how areas which have the elected mayor system can get rid of them if they wish (a hobby-horse of mine).
So with goodwill on all sides, agreements were reached or amendments withdrawn where the case for change could not be made. The North East team of Simon Henig, Georgia Elliott, Nick Forbes, Liz Twist (pictured above) and myself, worked hard and we have a positive record of achievement to report back to the North East CLPs.
And so on Sunday to the final plenary session, where votes took place on those issues which could not be agreed. As you may have seen, there were decisions made which included whether to have a 100% elected House of Lords (I voted in favour), whether to have all fur products marked as such (ditto) and whether or not to have votes for those at 16 years (I voted against, for reasons I'll return to sometime).
What was striking was how marginalised the far left were during these votes. The heirs to the Bennite tendancy in the Party are now coalesced around the Grassroots Alliance, a group which does secure some members on the Party's National Executive Committee via internal elections. At Warwick, where they pressed for decisions to abandon Trident, for example, or overturn our academies policy in education, they lost overwhelmingly. In most votes, where 161 delegates were present, the Grassroots Alliance got fewer than 10 and in most cases around 5 votes.
It shows just how distant the far left is in Labour politics now from the mainstream, and that Gordon Brown leads a united party. Clearly with the economic outlook looking uncertain and potentially negative, the Party is suffering in the polls. Gleeful Tories are assuming some kind of 1997 meltdown in two years time. The difference I think is that we are now, and do not appear to be a divided party in the way the Conservatives did then, over Euurope and other issues. If the economic situation begins to improve, and with a coherent manifesto for the next 5 years in place, we are much better placed to stage a recovery.