Ministers keep the party happy with concessions on pensions and low pay

Labour Policy Forum: Leaders appease grassroots as they draw up policies for election manifesto but concerns over 'froth of spin' remain
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Ministers headed off a potential rebellion by union leaders yesterday with a series of concessions on issues such as workers' rights, the minimum wage and pensions.

Ministers headed off a potential rebellion by union leaders yesterday with a series of concessions on issues such as workers' rights, the minimum wage and pensions.

The move appeared to be a response by Labour's leadership to criticism that it had stopped listening to the grass roots and that it had become obsessed with "spin" rather than policy. Unions and party activists declared themselves pleased with the outcome of the two-day meeting, which will form the basis for much of Labour's election manifesto.

The party's annual policy forum was promised moves to abolish the lower rate of minimum pay for under-22s, a review on giving workers more say in how companies are run and a statement this autumn on helping poorer pensioners.

Activists were also promised further monitoring of student finances and of the voucher scheme for asylum-seekers, to establish whether they were causing undue hardship. Changes would be made to student funding if necessary, the Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, conceded.

There was also a statement that the pound was too high - seen by trade unionists as a marker that Britain could not go into the euro unless sterling dropped, but dismissed by Treasury aides as existing policy.

Despite the concessions, representatives at the meeting in Exeter forced the leadership into conference debates on no fewer than seven issues. They included demands for a new upper chamber with a majority of elected members, and plans to introduce the vote for 16-year-olds. There was also a statement, agreed by the forum, that the Labour Party was unhappy with voting reform proposals put forward by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, and would "proceed slowly" on the issue. Other issues that the party must address at its autumn conference in Brighton include extra funds to repair crumbling schools, the introduction of the ATP train safety system and fines for directors of companies that pollute the environment.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, who chaired the meeting, said Labour now had the most democratic policy-making process of any party in Europe, with more than 40,000 members taking part. "What is important is the quality of argument and the weight of opinion. If people argue a good case they get listened to and they get their policies through. In one-to-one meetings between ministers and delegates and in wider groups there has been a real dialogue and a search for consensus," he said.

Representatives also said they had noticed a change ofattitude. Ann Black, a constituency member of the forum and a national executive committee member, said there had been far more concessions than last year. "There was more flexibility, more willingness to move positions and more willingness to listen," she said.

However, some on the left continued to complain that the forum - now in its second year of operation - had in effect moved the party's conference into a closed session from which the media were barred.

The biggest argument was over pensions, with the Secretary of State for Social Security, Alistair Darling, ruling out amendments on Saturday on the ground that the subject was discussed last year. Yesterday Mr Cook read out a message promising a full debate and statement at the party conference in October.

However, the issue could still cause controversy. While some representatives were given the impression there would be good news for all pensioners in this month's Comprehensive Spending Review, the statement looks likely to concentrate on a review of arrangements for those on moderate incomes.

Sir Ken Jackson, leader of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, said: "It's been a successful weekend for the party. We have got to concentrate on what the alternative could be - and that is the Tory party and its policies, which would damage the lives of working people. Unnecessary divisions in our party help no one."

John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general union, said: "We have the basis of an election manifesto that will appeal to all sections of the party and hopefully all sections of the country."

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