National Policy Forum, 10 November 2001

Most of the day was spent planning the next cycle of policy-making through to a general election in 2005 or 2006. The process remains broadly the same, with a three-year review of all areas in two overlapping two-year tranches. In the first year on each subject discussion should look outward, drawing on the experience of workers, citizens, experts and community groups, while the second year consists of more formal consultation within the party.

This time papers should be shorter and sharper, and consider a range of options instead of pushing a single line. New General Secretary David Triesman stressed that the process will fail if it suppresses debate or avoids difficult issues. This is welcome. Recently the government has made radical changes in raising the basic pension, considering restoration of student grants, scrapping vouchers for asylum-seekers, relaxing laws on marijuana and renationalising Railtrack, all previously rejected by the Forum. We should be at the leading edge of party opinion, not trailing after ministerial whims.

The first set of topics will comprise welfare reform; health; industry, Britain in the world; and democracy, political engagement and citizenship. The National Policy Forum will meet in February to approve initial drafts for discussion from March through to Conference 2002. The second batch, starting in 2003, will cover crime and justice; education and skills; economy and employment; quality of life; and transport, housing, local government and the regions.

Eight policy commissions will be established, mirroring government organisation. Five will consist of ten members: three from government, three from the NEC, and four from the Forum, including two constituency representatives. These are Britain in the World; Trade and Industry; Quality of Life (rural affairs, agriculture, environment, media and sport); Education and Skills; and Health. The other three will have fifteen members: four government, four NEC and seven from the Forum, including three from constituencies. These are Economy, Welfare and Work, which will cover both welfare reform and economy and employment; Crime, Justice, Citizenship and Equalities, which will cover both crime and democracy matters; and Transport, Housing, Local Government and the Regions.

For cross-cutting subjects such as housing benefit and the Euro, guidance will be issued on which commission has primary responsibility. Different laws in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be fully referenced to avoid the National Policy Forum developing an English bias. The composition and role of the Joint Policy Committee, which oversees the Forum’s work, will be reviewed. And backbench peers will be able to elect two representatives to the Forum, initially as observers.

The Weakest Link

For four years the policy commissions have been as mysterious to most of the Forum as to every other party member. Even the inside few complained that meetings were called rarely and at short notice. From now on we expect the commissions to schedule regular meetings and report back to the rest of the National Policy Forum, perhaps through formal minutes since informal accountability has failed.

They must also respond to the views of branches, constituencies, forums and unions. It is now universally acknowledged that without proper feedback, members become cynical and disillusioned. This is particularly important in day-to-day communication between the grassroots and the centre, a feature of the new system promised but not yet delivered. In future no correspondence should go unanswered. However, the following warning should be noted:

It must be made clear to local parties that the Partnership in Power process represents a move away from the old-style resolution-based policy-making approach. As such, more time, effort and resource will be focused on responding to submissions from local parties and not resolutions.”

Though the distinction between resolutions and submissions may seem silly, it is advisable to jump through the hoops. Instead of writing:

“The General Committee of Middlethwaite CLP resolved nem con that a majority of members of the new House of Lords should be directly elected.”

just rephrase it as:

“A meeting of party members in Middlethwaite discussed proposals for the new House of Lords, and reached a consensus that the majority of members should be directly elected.”

Spreading the Word

Many people felt that the Forum must do a better job of explaining and selling the system to local parties. Regional offices should circulate contact details for Forum members to constituencies, and invite them to forums, conferences and events. Official media spokespersons and Forum newsletters were suggested, though I hope that representatives will continue to produce their own reports as well.

The meeting also chose Forum officers for the coming year. Charles Clarke was unopposed as Chair, and Anne Snelgrove and Margaret Wall were elected as Vice-Chairs from a field of five candidates. Outgoing Chair Robin Cook then proposed co-opting Ian McCartney as a third Vice-Chair. I found this a bizarre manoeuvre, as Ian is well-loved and would easily have won a place through the ballot.

Prime Minister’s Questions

Tony Blair joined us for the final session, and contrary to newspaper reports he appeared fit and not noticeably knackered. He acknowledged that the next election will be won or lost on domestic issues, particularly public services.   In response to questions, he said that reform did not mean privatisation and we must explain this to the staff.   Education is already showing the benefit of extra funding, though in health it may take several more years to come through. Social services should be integrated with other areas rather than picking up the pieces when they fail. Members were also concerned about faith-based education, though Tony Blair argued that Muslims could resent existing Christian and Jewish schools; eager for devolution to English regions, where he agreed in principle but pointed to wide variations in enthusiasm; and keen for Individual Learning Accounts to be revived in a fraud-free form. They were pleased about Railtrack and pleaded for Stephen Byers to keep his job.

On the war, members thanked Tony Blair for his tremendous efforts in maintaining world peace and stability. The overlap of Ramadan and Advent could give opportunities for different faiths to show mutual solidarity through community events, and the new law against incitement to religious hatred was welcomed, though with reservations about whether it was strong enough. But they were worried

about the looming winter crisis, and asked about preparations against Osama Bin Laden’s nuclear threat. Tony Blair responded that the capture of Mazar-e-Sharif would provide a base for humanitarian relief. Bin Laden may not have nuclear weapons but has certainly tried to acquire them. Military action would close down the Al-Qaeda operation in Afghanistan, and we must then deal with the remaining tentacles elsewhere, and tackle the underlying problems of poverty and extremism.

The Forum closed with considerable self-congratulation on transforming the culture of political debate. I wonder. Tony Blair told us earlier in the week that the pressing task is to rebuild the party from the grassroots up. He said that while past Labour governments fell because of internal rows, the problem now is not a rebellious party, but an inert party. Let us hope that in eliminating dissent we have not also eliminated life. Success must be judged by the whole membership, not by the Forum elite.