National Policy Forum, Heathrow, 14/15 July 2007
Gordon Brown launched proceedings with an impressive speech, listing his priorities as prime minister. Two-thirds of students would now receive grants, with more flexible loan repayments, and the educational maintenance allowance for low-income families would be extended to the age of 21. Children would get individual tuition as soon as difficulties were identified, to prevent them falling further behind. Better youth services would mean fewer young people hanging around on the streets because there was nothing else for them to do. Employers were signing up to help the economically-inactive into work, and to match people to vacancies. GPs should open at convenient times, and high technical standards in hospitals must be equalled by cleanliness, personal attention and aftercare. Above all he recognised the need for more housing, with a greater role for councils, but warned that we must win the argument for development at local level, where most decisions are made.
The media then left, and Gordon Brown answered questions with assurance. He hoped for progress in Europe on agency workers’ rights under the socialist Portuguese presidency, and intended to enforce the minimum wage more rigorously. He had established a forum with union leaders, and believed the next few months would show that Labour truly valued health service staff. I praised the review of super-casinos, widely seen as a change of moral tone, and he promised alternative regeneration projects for both Manchester and Blackpool. Iraq was still a sensitive issue. Troop numbers were down from 44,000 to 5,500 and would fall further as control was handed to local police and security forces. It was essential to give Iraqis jobs and a stake in their future, to persuade factions to work together, and to solve the Palestine situation. However, Britain was acting under a UN mandate and an immediate pull-out would only lead to more carnage, a statement which brought murmurs of assent.
Deputy leader Harriet Harman then outlined her commitment to work-life balance, enabling people to care for elderly and disabled relatives as well as children; tackling domestic violence, human trafficking and unnecessary imprisonment; and empowering women in ethnic minority communities.
The new leader also expanded on his plans for party reform. He explained that the fourteen manifesto groups, chaired by MPs, were intended to feed the expertise of the parliamentary party into the NPF, not to bypass it. The most urgent needs were to rebuild membership and activism, and to link in with community and campaigning groups, everything from mothers-and-toddlers to Make Poverty History. Harriet Harman stressed that the current consultation was genuine, and nothing was set in stone. The NPF was a success to its inner circle, but most members had no idea of its achievements, and their experience at conference was a mix of enthusiasm and frustration. There must be better ways to handle controversial issues, for instance nuclear power, than stand-up rows over Yes/No resolutions, or deals behind closed doors, or the artificial hurdles of “contemporary” motions.
The NPF then split into groups to discuss the proposals further. The main points from mine (all made by other people, as I was chairing the session) were:
- ordinary members have become disillusioned through lack of feedback. Simply engaging in discussion of government policy was considered pointless if no-one in power was listening;
- NPF representatives try very hard, but get no help with contacting members and no information on what is happening outside their own policy commission, if indeed they are on a commission;
- extra NPF members could help to share the work, but there were doubts about creating a separate category with different terms of office. Some felt the current two-year terms were too short to get to grips with the process, but recognised the need to balance longer tenure with accountability;
- constituencies and areas vary widely. Not everyone has Labour MPs or councillors to lead discussion, and the process has to work effectively both in power and in opposition;
- policy areas are very broad, and more clarity is needed on where specific topics are covered;
- it was suggested that conference could be connected with the NPF by including the movers and seconders of resolutions as NPF members for the following year;
- the problem is not so much with the process as with ignoring the outcomes. Avoiding public fights was desirable, but differences should not just be consigned to the NPF black hole. Was it possible to accept more divergence at early stages of the process? Could sections of documents be referred back, rather than take-it-or-leave-it votes on the whole thing?
- joint policy committee meetings usually only last for half an hour, and this would need to change if it was to take a more significant role.
There was general agreement on the need for more resources, particularly at regional level. No-one favoured a one-member-one-vote ballot on the final NPF documents because of cost, and because of the political risks of low turnout and an underwhelming Yes vote, especially if single-issue groups mobilised against them on the basis of one contentious statement. Suggested alternatives included endorsement by constituency parties, and signing up supporters on-line. Longer-serving members noted that many of the problems with Partnership in Power were raised in the 2004/2005 review, and we were going over the same ground again because those recommendations were not followed up.
Groups also discussed each of the six second-year policy documents, and after revision they will be published for party consultation through to February 2008. Just a few of many comments:
Britain in the World – good that fighting world poverty and disease is upfront. Should give greater weight to European alliances. Don’t forget Cyprus when considering Turkey as a candidate for Europe. Iraq and Afghanistan are bracketed together – how much do they have in common?
Creating Sustainable Communities – tackle excess packaging as well as increase recycling. Sort out confusion over free bus travel for over-60s, a bonus for pensioners. More rail passengers but no more trains brings overcrowding and complaints. The Lyons review concluded that “council tax is not broken” – is this true? Stress that the LibDems’ local income tax would penalise poorer households.
Crime, Justice, Citizenship and Equalities – should the emphasis be on more prison places, or on effective and credible alternatives for those who are not a danger? Public attitudes on asylum and immigration are polarised – how to deal with this, without playing into the hands of the far right? Is it OK to deny all healthcare to illegal immigrants? How will ID cards be used to distinguish them?
Education and Skills – discuss more openly differing views on academies, faith and specialist schools, and continuing selection by ability. Much useful information on new arrangements for student support. And what will be in the national 21st Century Songbook, to be rolled out shortly?
Health – need proper debate on the problems of unlimited demand but finite resources, with NICE recommendations on new drugs such as herceptin and lucentis overturned by the courts and the media. Explain the role of choice in improving standards, and recognise that choice implies over-capacity. Ask people why they make particular choices. Take account of demographic change. Interest in Ara Darzi’s plans for London, but must recognise differences between cities, small towns and rural areas.
Prosperity and Work – welcome support for carers and flexible working. Need to improve take-up of pension credit and administration of tax credits. Is personal debt a genuine problem? Include more news from the Women at Work commission. And should “choice” extend to allowing parents to care for their own young children, as well as more childcare for those working outside the home?
And Finally . . .
Before dinner on Saturday the NPF travelled en masse to Ealing Southall, to help Virendra Sharma to victory. And Ian McCartney, a much-loved mainstay of the Forum since its formation in 1997, stepped down as Chair to a standing ovation. Pat McFadden MP was nominated as his successor.
Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this to be circulated to members – and supporters - as a personal account, not an official record.