'Frozen-out' activists force Labour to review party's policy-making system

A review of the way the party draws up its programme has backed activists' complaints that they were frozen out when key policies such as university tuition fees and foundation hospitals were announced by ministers.

National party officials propose giving them more say over government policies in an attempt to head off disenchantment with the Government and stem a decline in Labour's membership, which has halved to 200,000 since reaching its peak under Tony Blair's leadership in 1997.

The gulf between the top and bottom of the party is revealed in a report, leaked to The Independent, which will be discussed at a meeting of Labour's national policy forum in London tomorrow. While insisting that its policy-making machinery set up eight years ago has given members "unique" influence, the document admits its shortcomings have caused frustration among members who feel it is "too remote" from them. They have protested that the party's policy commissions draw up lengthy documents in a vacuum that bear little relation to the decisions taken by ministers.

"The risk that exists here is that if the process is unbalanced then the relationship between the party and the government will become damaged as party members become disillusioned and frustrated," said the report.

"In part this is the reality of government with many different pressures operating in an environment that does not always allow for lengthy public consideration over different options. But it is vital that we work to ensure that policy issues are not perceived to have emerged from nowhere."

Officials admitted that the party's policy-making process needed to dovetail with the Government's. "Many respondents to the Partnership in Power review were concerned that the party was unable to influence issues that are currently under debate," they said. "There is a widespread consensus that the policy-making process needs to better balance its time between policy development and facilitating a discussion between party and government on real-time issues."

The review recommends the annual conference remains the sovereign body on policy but rejects the idea of delegates amending policy commission reports, leaving them to decide on a "take it or leave it" basis. Activists want more options at conference and think the review has not addressed the issue.

Ministers accept the report's conclusion that the party's policy process is too "bureaucratic" and admit that members should be given more influence. But some are sceptical that it will be possible to consult members over fast-moving events that require quick decisions by government.