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Report from Ann Black: National Policy Forum 28 July 2001

The Forum completed its three-year review in July 2000, and a
new rolling programme will begin next year.  The papers for this
meeting drew on the manifesto and focused on delivering the
pledges made on 7 June.  They had no formal status, but the
Forum was invited to comment before they go to Conference,
where delegates will also discuss ways to improve Partnership
in Power.  There are some interesting ideas on using technology
to make submissions and feedback more widely available.

With 11 Cabinet members and a further 18 ministers, the Forum
provided opportunities to strengthen connections between party
and government at the start of the second term.  Tony Blair
highlighted  economic stability, public service reform, reducing
social division, and positive engagement in world affairs.  He
emphasised discipline and holding the centre ground as essential
to the third term.  The forum process needed developing, but
had helped us get away from self-destructive public divisions. 

He cited pensions as an example of its success in enabling
members' views to come up through the party.  (This was
curious, because attempts to discuss the earnings link were
crushed in the Forum in 1999, and only resolved after the 75p
debacle, the loss of dozens of council seats, an old-fashioned
Conference knockabout and a leadership defeat, all of which the
new system was supposed to avoid.)

Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers,
Estelle Morris, Patricia Hewitt, Andrew Smith, Charles Clarke
and Ian McCartney also spoke from the platform as well as
joining smaller discussion groups.  Many principles and points of
detail were raised, but for me the key topics were

-   public service reform and the role of the private
    sector.  Alan Milburn and others stressed that Labour
    wanted to draw on the wealth of expertise possessed by
    staff, and reform would come primarily from within.  The
    difficulty is that until people get more details, they fear the

-   student hardship.  I asked if the government would
    respond to widespread concern among young people, and
    look again at maintenance grants and deferred payment
    through a graduate tax.  Tony Blair said this was the top
    complaint on the doorstep, and he and Estelle Morris
    would reconsider the balance of contributions between
    government and student, while making sure that universities
    were adequately funded.  Most current students would not
    have had places, let alone grants, twenty years ago, but the
    proportion from low-income backgrounds has not

  -   faith-based schools.  People were worried about
    reinforcing ethnic and religious devisions.  There was less
    concern over selection through specialist schools and the
    continuing 11-plus;

  -   manufacturing.  Many delegates raised the problems
    arising from the strong pound and the US slowdown. 
    Gordon Brown sympathised.  While devaluation would put
    economic stability at risk, the government recognised the
    importance of manufacturing and would look at ways to

  -   the euro.  Although Gordon Brown reiterated plans to
    assess the economic tests and if appropriate hold a
    referendum within two years, the Forum felt we should be
    informing ourselves and starting the public debate now. 
    The benefits of Europe, for example the three million jobs
    which depend on membership, should be more actively

  -   National Missile Defense.  Delegates reminded ministers
    that party policy included commitment to the 1972 Anti-
    Ballistic Missile Treaty, and suggested that we should stand
    with our European partners rather than concede to every
    US demand, but with little obvious success.

  SouthEast representatives will circulate a full account soon, and
other regions should also report back.

Ann Black, 88 Howard Street, Oxford OX4 3BE, 01865-

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