When will we get democracy back in the Labour Party?

In this new women friendly NEC I have spent the year in meetings about displinary actions
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YESTERDAY WAS the last full meeting in my briefly revived career as a member of Labour's National Executive Committee (NEC). Following my unexpected defeat of Peter Mandelson for the vacant place last year, new rules make it impossible for me to repeat this wondrous trick. As readers will be aware from the row that has rumbled on in the pages of The Independent, the six places in the new constituency section are barred to MPs. In future, three MPs will be elected by and from Labour's MPs and MEPs. While Dennis Skinner's popularity is likely to allow him to snatch one of these three places, I will be joining Diane Abbott in the new category of NEC members in exile, awaiting the restoration of full democracy to the Labour Party.

In my eight-year absence from the NEC I was assured that the whole climate had changed following the party rule that 50 per cent of members had to be women. When I was a member from 1987 to 1989 the meetings were dominated by endless reports of disciplinary actions as party officials unearthed one teenager after another caught selling copies of Militant in places as far apart as Liverpool and Lothian. This invariably led to bad-tempered debates in which the male-dominated trade union section rubber-stamped Neil Kinnock's proposals and crushed the opposition of the left.

However, in this new woman-friendly NEC, I seem to have spent the last year at meetings dominated by endless reports of disciplinary actions as party officials unearthed one Old Labour member after another on councils as far apart as Liverpool and Lothian. This invariably led to bad-tempered debates in which the gender-balanced trade union section rubber-stamped Tony Blair's proposals and crushed the opposition of the left. Instead of the NEC being a vital area of policy debate it has largely been reduced to a cross between the role of police informer and a collection of narrow- minded magistrates.

Before my NEC colleagues rush to point out that the role of policy formation has been devolved to the newly created policy forums, let me remind them I have attended the two of these that have taken place in the last year. Much touted as a better way of creating policy than the debates at the annual conference, the policy forums are, in reality, totally dominated by the party machine, with the role of ordinary members reduced to a derisory level of input. In the past, dozens of separate motions would be submitted, and these would be boiled down after a process of "compositing" so that, on most big issues, the delegates to conference would have a choice of two or three motions to choose from after a debate. However imperfect, it did mean that party policy had been rigorously debated at all levels of the membership.

Over the last 12 months on the national policy forum it has been left to barely a dozen ordinary members to represent all 400,000 party members in debates that have taken place behind closed doors. On each of the separate committees looking at a separate area of policy it has been ministers who, with their civil service support, have dominated the process. This has led to the production of fairly bland documents that have then been passed to the membership to discuss without any right of amendment.

We have been promised that, in future years, members of each policy commission will be able to submit minority reports that might be voted on at conference. It only takes a moment to realise how difficult it will be for ordinary party members with no resources to produce documents capable of rivalling those produced with the help of the Whitehall machine. Even if such reports can be produced, by the time they get to conference their authors will face a barrage of appeals to party unity. Their chances of overturning the official Government line will be pretty remote.

The Millbank Tendency claims that this new system will avert the damaging rows that lost us elections in the Eighties. Of course, the sort of internal civil war that ripped the Tories apart on Europe will lead to defeat, but recent history shows that, when the party conference disagreed with Labour governments it was invariably the conference that turned out to have been right, as Denis Healey bravely pointed out in his autobiography. From the Wilson government's slavish support of American policy in Vietnam through to Jim Callaghan's obstinate demand for a fourth year of wage restraint in 1978, it was the gut instincts of ordinary party members that were proved right.

Yesterday's NEC shows we have not learnt this lesson. During the four- hour meeting we spent just two minutes discussing transport policy, endorsing John Prescott's proposals. The rest of the meeting involved endorsing the general secretary's conduct of the ballot for the NEC, rubber-stamping a decision to purge MEPs who share Labour's traditional values by placing them in unwinnable positions in the voting-list system, endorsing the leadership's choice as candidates for First Ministers in the new Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and nodding through a variety of disciplinary actions.

I suspect that none of the decisions we took yesterday would have any really decisive influence in Tony Blair's battle to win a second term. My fear is that the outcome of the next election will be determined by the issues raised in the short but excellent debate we had on the economic policies of the Government. I reminded the Prime Minister that, at my first NEC meeting a year ago, I had warned him that there was every possibility of a recession coming. In response, he rolled his eyes to heaven and joked that I was always predicting doom and gloom. Yesterday David Blunkett told us that the economic fundamentals were sound and we were in danger of talking ourselves into a recession.

Quite the reverse is true. The combination of high interest rates and a strong pound leave us more exposed to the impact of the international economic crisis than we need be. Yesterday's brief exchange at the NEC should be happening at every level of the Labour Party and the trade unions, but it can't because, in a bizarre and inexplicable decision, the policy forum has decided to put off any discussion on economic policy during the last 12 months. If Labour fails to gain its second term, then the seeds of that defeat will have been sown in the decision to deter the party from an open debate on economic policy in the years when it mattered.