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banner Tuesday, 22 February, 2000, 13:36 GMT
A political correspondent reflects...

Labour conference 1999
Policy is no longer cobbled together at party conference

BBC political correspondent Nicholas Jones has spent the last 30 years reporting the affairs of the labour and trade union movement. Here he offers a personal reflection on the changes he has witnessed.

Amid the centenary celebrations, perhaps a few moments should be set aside to reflect on the recent, rapid pace of change within the Labour Party itself.

Tony Blair cannot be accused of half measures. His remodelling of the party's internal structures has gone ahead almost without interruption. Nevertheless, party activists are troubled by the scale of the organisational changes.

The BBC's Nicholas Jones The BBC's Nicholas Jones
For some members there is one deep-seated underlying concern: will Labour's rank and file remain, as they have done in the past, the engine that has driven so many campaigns for social change?

Despite all the turmoil created by the big industrial disputes of the Callaghan and Thatcher governments, the Labour Party could always be relied upon to provide a focal point for the multitude of campaigns which were generated within the labour movement.

Every spring and summer the industrial correspondents toured the trade union gatherings up and down the country, listening to their debates.

I was taken aback when on discovering how much my radio reports had annoyed Tony Blair
The journalists knew that they had to prepare for that critical moment in the autumn calendar, the annual Labour conference, which was the one vital platform where every activist wanted the chance to speak.

The final introduction last year of the national minimum wage represented the culmination of years of conference campaigning by unions like Unison and one of its forerunners, the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE).

Dramatic slump

Reporting such campaigns was an integral part of my job. In the pre-Thatcher years, no government ignored the voice of the unions or the political pressure they sought to apply.

The industrial defeats of 1980s, the far-reaching employment laws brought in by the Conservatives and the dramatic slump in membership took their toll, but despite the many setbacks the union conferences continued to provide the pump priming which was so vital to draw attention to the latest campaign.

Labour conference 1999 Labour conference is not what it was
High-profile issues were often taken up by the constituency Labour parties whose resolutions, together with those from the unions, went forward to the annual party conference. By the time the final agenda was published most of the resolutions had been incorporated into a far shorter list of composite motions.

However, occasionally a hitherto obscure constituency might find that its resolution had gained the prime spot in one of the key debates of the week.

Few delegates at the 1995 party conference will forget the way a resolution from Glasgow Maryhill had poll position in the debate to scrap clause four of Labour's constitution.

As I had always taken a great interest in the outcome of these various campaigns, I was taken aback when on discovering how much my radio reports had annoyed Tony Blair.

Soon after he won the party leadership in 1994, he told me to my face that he thought it was time that labour and industrial correspondents developed a new agenda. Why, he asked, did we put so much effort into building up these stories when there were many other more positive developments that we could report?

Bedded down

The subsequent remodelling of the Labour Party's organisation tells its own story.

Tony Blair's supporters have pushed through a raft of changes to the party's decision-making process. Under his leadership, he was determined that policy should no longer be cobbled together at the last minute during the party conference.

There are strong arguments for and against the mechanisms which have given the party leadership greater control
To be fair to Mr Blair, the new structures have bedded down: policy forums are giving long-term thought to policy proposals and the rolling programme which has been developed in the last few years has widened the consultation.

While the annual conference does still provide time for topical debates, some party members do seem to miss the chance to build up a head of steam over the issues which excite them.

Perhaps the real test for these reforms has yet to come. Will the Labour Party remain a vehicle for campaigning? Will the activists of yesteryear peel off and take their concerns to the growing proliferation of single-issue pressure groups? There are strong arguments for and against the mechanisms which have given the party leadership greater control.

Even so, for the dwindling band of labour and industrial correspondents party conferences will never be the quite the same again: we miss the enthusiasm that was generated by those campaigns of old and the odd chance that the platform might be defeated and forced to think again.

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