National Policy Forum, 10/12 December 1999

New Labour, New Balls Please

The NPF met at the Lawn Tennis Association centre in Eastbourne. Our job was to preview the six second-year policy documents before they go on general release in January, and flag up omissions, bad grammar and lack of clarity, though as usual this didn’t stop anyone commenting on the direction of policy as well. It is now up to forums, constituencies, branches and unions to send views to the policy commissions by 31 March 2000. Copies to NPF representatives would be helpful. Last year we had to boil down hundreds of pages of text into succinct positions, and precisely-worded amendments would be better in stating unambiguously what party members want.

What Next?

NPF members will get revised documents soon after 23 May. We have until 9 June to submit amendments, and each amendment now only needs two supporters instead of eight. This sensible change lets us express individual priorities instead of playing “I’ll sign yours if you’ll sign mine” games.

The full NPF then meets on 7/9 July to agree the papers for Conference in September, including any alternative positions. There is widespread recognition that party members want choices, not the same old take-it-or-leave-it documents, and it will be interesting to see what debates are allowed on the eve of the next general election campaign.   Everyone will have their pet priorities, and the following is a highly subjective selection of points raised at Eastbourne:

Telling the Wood from the Trees

No-one can quite decide whether the papers are mainly intended as campaign tools, emphasising the Tory legacy and Labour’s achievements, or as visionary roadmaps for the second term. References to the World Trade Organisation were being hastily rewritten post-Seattle, and events in every field rapidly render current accounts out-of-date. Devolution poses questions about how to develop national policies while, for instance, Scotland goes its own way on tuition fees. And compulsory literacy training in the use of the apostrophe, the role of the verb, and Plain English cannot come too soon for New Labour.

Britain in the World. While activists are international in outlook, most voters need convincing that anything foreign is relevant. In particular Labour will have to come off the fence over the single currency, and most wanted positive promotion of the euro and of the European Union. Moves towards the 0.7 UN aid target and writing off Third World debts were welcome. Foreign office advisors assured us that there was no disagreement among ministers over funding the Ilisu dam, and the project has the full support of the Turkish Government, so it’s all OK and definitely not another Pergau situation.

Reducing arms sales was recorded as a minority concern, and wars continue to cause unease. Whether or not military action in Iraq and Kosovo was justified, both Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic are still in power and as repressive as ever. The idea of bombing Moscow to punish similarly awful Russian behaviour in Chechnya shows that principles must be tempered with pragmatism, and there is no shame in recognising this.

Democracy and Citizenship.   There are plenty of ideas for making voting technically easier, but little analysis of why people vote at all. Why is the turnout in general elections twice the turnout in local elections, and why do South Africans queue for days in blazing heat when the British won’t walk to the end of the road? The concepts of civic education, active citizenship and community empowerment need translating into practical terms for people to believe that that they can make a difference.

The Labour Party itself is praised for methods of selecting good council candidates, and for current consultation on an outward-looking, community-based 21st Century Party. Opinion differed on whether Labour’s internal mechanisms belong in a public manifesto, though if they make party members feel more influential, general application might similarly empower voters. And vice versa.

Labour’s fairer, faster and firmer system of dealing with immigrants gets only a brief reference. At last year’s Forum an amendment on welfare calling for asylum-seekers to receive cash payment at income support level was referred to this paper instead, and members may care to resubmit their views. Finally, various Old Labour factions caused irritation by refusing to talk about anything except the Jenkins Report, which has its own separate consultation exercise.

Economy. The welcome aim of full employment is addressed through providing work for those who can, and low-paid workers will gain from the minimum wage, working families’ tax credit and subsidised childcare. The main omission is the other half of the promise: security for those who cannot. Those in the bottom 10% of the income distribution, including many pensioners, fall ever further behind, dependent on benefits linked only to prices, untouched by in-work supplements.

Even on making work pay, there is a reluctance to tackle benefit-withdrawal rates of 70%-plus, far above the “top” rate of tax. A colleague who suggested a more progressive taxation policy was told “you won’t find much support for that”. And while every benefit must be targeted, billions of pounds of capital gains tax relief have just been given indiscriminately to higher-paid private sector employees, excluding public service workers and with no evidence that it will increase individual or collective enterprise.

There was no further news of the Great Welfare Debate approved by the NPF and Conference, and set for a high-profile launch in January, but hopefully the results can be integrated into the overall economic strategy in time for the manifesto. Finally there is a robust defence of the Private Finance Initiative, intended to answer criticisms once and for all. We await the party’s views with interest.

Education and Employment. Education continues to predominate, and employment might be better shifted to the Economy or to Industry, Culture and Agriculture. Scotland and Wales already have their own regimes, and a Welsh colleague pointed out smugly that standards in their schools are rising faster without the dreaded Woodhead than they are in English schools.

There were requests for better explanation, and justification, of Labour’s policies on comprehensive schools and on student support, including whether tuition fees and withdrawal of grants deter mature students and people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Members also wanted a fuller debate on league tables, and worried about employers’ reluctance to invest in training.

Environment, Transport and the Regions. There are still more questions than answers on transport, from problems of isolation in rural areas to those of congestion in cities. Similarly there is plenty of material for debate on whether sustainable development, economic growth and social justice can go hand in hand, or whether green government will call for tough choices.

Some groups were not allowed even to discuss privatisation of air traffic control, and as this was rejected as a contemporary issue for Conference, decisions will be made independently of both Conference and the NPF. On the privatised utilities and the role of the regulators, members were worried that price controls seem to lead to sacking staff and cutting services while shareholders’ profits are sacrosanct.

Housing will be covered in a separate paper, and there are stories that housing benefit reform has been shelved until after the election as too hard a nut to crack in a hurry. Changes to local government finance do not yet include returning business rates to local control, and “best value” surely deserves more than a single paragraph. On regional governance the paper argues that diversity between regions makes uniform or early devolution impractical.

Industry, Culture and Agriculture. The Low Pay Commission is reviewing the operation of the national minimum wage, and there were requests for an uprating mechanism, and for paying young workers at the standard rate. Stephen Byers asked what industrial relations proposals we would like to see in Labour’s second term, and instead of simply banging in the same old request for repeal of all Tory anti-union laws, the left and the unions ought to think seriously about priorities and about specific changes.

Some felt that the commitment to a publicly-owned Post Office was not watertight and did not reflect the recent Conference decision. The role of post offices in village life was highlighted, and while it looks cost-effective to pay benefits directly into bank accounts, the wider social impact should not be ignored. There was also some debate about the vagaries of lottery funding, and about the BBC licence fee in an age with dozens of digital channels, and when people use their TV primarily for accessing the Internet.

Winding Up

At the business meeting, where we talk about how the NPF could work better, I asked again if we could see the summaries of party views and resolutions that go to the policy commissions. Robin Cook said he didn’t see why not, but after two years I’m not holding my breath. The commissions are a closed world, and the structures still cut us off from the party opinion that we were elected to represent.

Ian McCartney and Hazel Blears did a presentation on The 21st Century Party. Ian promised that it was about empowering, not excluding, activists; that pilot projects would be evaluated; and that different constituencies need to operate in different ways, for instance in rural and inner-city areas. I still think the best approach is to argue for variety, and for recommendations based on evidence. Local policy forums were initially popular, but now seem to be reducing to the same people who are on General Committees. The real question is whether members’ views make a difference higher up the food chain. It doesn’t matter whether they send flipcharts from forums or resolutions from GCs if both are equally ignored.

Interestingly Hazel, in her list of members’ rights, included direct election of constituency representatives to the NEC. So rumours that this will be abolished because members persistently elect the wrong people, as has already happened with the National Constitutional Committee, surely cannot be true.