Poll defeat overshadows policy meeting

The prospect of a deal emerging from the weekend meeting of Labour’s national policy forum looked less certain on Friday night as delegates began to wade through thousands of policy amendments.

The plan had been for ministers, activists and union leaders to turn up in Warwick for the gathering buoyed by a by-election victory – and produce an agreement by Saturday night.

Instead meetings began against the backdrop of one of the worst defeats for any British party for decades.

And, inevitably, many delegates were keener to discuss the bleak implications of the Glasgow East by-election than the nitty-gritty of policy.

The three-day event, which will decide the party’s manifesto for the 2010 general election, has been portrayed as a battle of wills between centrist elements of the party and its left wing.

John Hutton, the Blairite business secretary, appeared to goad the unions by saying: “What is their mandate? Who elected them?”

The unions, on which Labour now depends for money, have presented 130 proposals, some unpalatable to Gordon Brown.

Tony Woodley, general secretary of Unite – the country’s biggest union – called for “intervention, intervention, intervention” to bring down living costs, repeating his demand for a tax on utility companies.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, which represents public-sector workers, called for a “change of direction” to reconnect with core supporters.

On Friday the prime minister ruled out a “return to the 70s”, indicating that there would be no relaxation of the anti-union laws brought in by Margaret Thatcher. He has pledged to resist any big spending pled-ges or reduction of choice in health and education.

In spite of such confrontational talk, however, Labour and the unions are likely to find some common ground in areas such as the environment and social housing.

Delegates must sift through 1,500 amendments to reach a shorter list which will be put to a vote on Saturday.

If the timetable slips, the “Warwick Two” agreement may not be sealed for months, given the difficulty of getting the same people in the same room before the Labour conference in late September.

Either way, the agreed policies may not see the light of da, since they are scheduled to take effect after 2010 – when the Tories may already be in power.

Nor will all pledges be watertight. For example, a promise to bring in free meals for primary schoolchildren, reported on Friday, was vaguely worded; a pilot may be carried out “when economic conditions allow”.

But the big issue is a more philosophical dilemma that reaches far beyond the ranks of the unions. The electoral setbacks of the past three months have left Labour policymakers unsure where to take the party.

Crewe and Nantwich, Glasgow East and Henley – the venues for a trio of humiliating defeats – have nothing in common. Between them they encompass Britain’s entire demographic range, from prosperous southern professionals in Henley to the impoverished working class of Glasgow’s east end.

“This completes the picture of rejection,” said one senior Labour MP.

“There is now probably not a single Labour MP who would not identify their constituency as being at risk. MPs are confronting – probably for the first time – [the possibility] that we could be facing a fairly horrendous election.”

Against this backdrop, members are torn between a lurch to the left aimed at helping traditional Labour voters and renewing its courtship of the Middle England voters who brought New Labour to power 11 years ago.

Voters seem unimpressed by Mr Brown. But their disillusion is based not on a forensic analysis of government policies, but rather on the perception that their standard of living is on the slide.

That is the view taken by the party leadership, including Mr Brown, who insists Britain is just one of many countries trying to cope with commodity inflation and the aftermath of the credit crunch.

The Scottish National party made the cost of living the central plank of its campaign in Glasgow East. Talk of Scottish independence played second fiddle to an appeal to residents’ self-interest.

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