National Policy Forum, 16/17 June 2012

This was the first two-day meeting for years, and participants found it a much more satisfying experience. It was held at Aston University in Birmingham.  Ed Miliband addressed us, praising Birmingham Labour council for bringing in a living wage of £7.20 per hour for all employees as soon as they regained control. The country was crying out for change, for a shift from austerity to jobs and growth, for interdependence rather than division, and for action on global warming. Above all Labour must restore trust in politics and politicians, and show that we are not “all the same”. As well as reflecting the gender and ethnic make-up of the electorate, he had asked Jon Trickett to look at improving working-class representation in parliament.

Ed Miliband then responded to comments on the need to build more houses (should have listened earlier); green growth as a solution rather than a problem; social care (cross-party agreement would be best, but if talks failed Labour would act alone); graduate unemployment; developing positive policies for the future rather than allocating blame for the past; stopping excessive profiteering in the private rented sector; saving £7 billion by reducing pension tax relief for higher band taxpayers to the standard rate; whether Labour MPs would be whipped in the vote on gay marriage (still under discussion); and rethinking Trident (not a unilateralist, but should look for the minimum necessary deterrent).

It was a confident performance with much to welcome, but I grew increasingly allergic to the repeated emphasis on working people. Indeed the strapline for the weekend was “An economy that works for working people”, omitting children, pensioners, the disabled, the sick and the unlucky. I was reminded of Neil Kinnock in 1983: “I warn you not to be ordinary; I warn you not to be young; I warn you not to fall ill; I warn you not to get old.” We have to find more inclusive language.

Policy: Stage I

Around 170 submissions on the six policy papers were circulated in advance, including 67 responses from 35 constituencies, running to 400 pages. Forum representatives could discuss three topics on the first day, and I chose prosperity and work, education, and crime, justice, citizenship and equalities.

On the first, members rejected the tabloid line that all benefit recipients are scroungers. In fact nearly half of welfare spending goes to older people, in pensions, winter fuel allowance, bus passes, TV licences and eye tests, and most housing benefit goes to working people in low-paid jobs, where extending the living wage should help to cut the bills. And while voters generally approve of getting tough on claimants, dumping unpaid job-seekers in the rain at 4 a.m. before a 14-hour shift stewarding the jubilee surely goes too far. The Beecroft report, which calls for employers to be able to sack without reason, was deplored. On tax there was no consensus on specific changes, but support for wide-ranging debate on all taxes, both individual and corporate.

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said that his ambition was to break the link between social class and achievement, and he recognised that in 2015 Labour would inherit a very different landscape. Discussion covered lifelong learning, SureStart, the educational maintenance allowance and careers advice, including options other than university. Shabana Mahmood, who shadows higher education, was also present, and acknowledged the problems caused by new visa restrictions. The best international students will go to other countries, taking their talent and their money with them. Several other papers were available, perhaps emanating from the elusive shadow cabinet groups. One, on Speaking Skills, says that young people should be able to “communicate an argument or point of view with clarity” and to “present their thoughts persuasively”, useful for a career in politics.

In the third workshop Kate Green highlighted Tory attacks on equalities, particularly on women’s rights and in fuelling hostility to disabled people. Cuts in legal aid would mean no help with housing or benefits. Discussion also covered domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, and reducing dependence on prisons. On immigration Chris Bryant stressed that workers’ pay should not be undercut by cheap labour from abroad, and existing residents should not lose access to housing and public services. Responding to Tory proposals for immigrants to have a minimum income of £18,000 he said that Labour would expect them to deposit a bond instead. Finally nearly half the eight submissions from local parties favoured more relaxed attitudes to cannabis, but we decided not to go there.

Policy: Stage II

For each area, two priorities from Day 1 were identified for further discussion: these were

Britain in the World: (a) Making the case for Europe (b) British 21st century defence capabilities.

Crime, Justice, Citizenship and Equalities: (a) Police and crime commissioners – what should Labour’s priorities be? (b) Anti-social behaviour: the next steps in supporting communities.

Education and Skills: (a) Routes from school to work (b) Schools more accountable to their local communities.

Health: (a) An integrated approach to care (b) Future funding of social care. I attended the latter, and though many submissions wanted all care funded from general taxation, this may not be doable. There were different views on whether inheritance tax is a socialist policy, and concerns over varying standards and over higher charges if staff were properly paid. Andrew Dilnot’s review tries to equalise costs across generations and caps liabilities between £35,000 and £100,000, but there was no consensus on the way ahead and the Tories appear to be heading for the long grass. We need a paper setting out options, or we will keep going round in circles while the system collapses around us.

Prosperity and Work: (a) Regional industrial strategy (b) Employment rights. On the second, Labour had to make a positive case for decent terms and conditions and for the role of trade unions in the workplace, as well as fighting off Tory threats. And members warned of the next mis-selling timebomb: people saving for their pensions through defined contributions may find that with low interest rates and high charges, they end up with less at retirement than they put in through many years along the way.

Sustainable Communities: (a) Affordability and accessibility of transport (b) Housing in the private and social rented sectors.

The results of all these deliberations should be reflected in redrafted versions of the consultation papers, and party members will have to judge how far they are improved.

Looking Outward

The weekend was partly sponsored by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, and there were interesting sessions with a European theme, covering jobs, growth, financial stability, and how the centre-left can win again. The results of the French and Greek elections were not known at the time, and against a fast-moving backdrop speakers ranged from the cautiously optimistic to the deeply worried. European decision-making processes were slow, consensual and deliberative, not best able to cope with sudden crisis. Forum members hoped that Labour’s 2014 Euro-campaign might include some policies on Europe this time, rather than be used simply as a referendum on the coalition.

… And Inward

No NPF meeting would be complete without contemplation of our internal workings. As previously announced, Angela Eagle succeeded Peter Hain as Chair. We were also joined by Jon Cruddas, who praised Liam Byrne’s shadow cabinet policy work, with 36, or maybe 29, groups engaging with hundreds of thousands of members. I hope that their reports will be made available at some point.

Forum members commented on the third and latest review. There were useful offers to help with new technology in sharing ideas, but the most impassioned speech came from a long-standing member of the joint policy committee: in his experience it had never done anything productive, and was a bureaucratic and expensive control mechanism. The outside view is expressed by Brent North: asked if the JPC was effective, they replied “since its work is largely invisible to members, who can say?”

Which comes back to the heart of the matter. Whether Forum members enjoyed Aston more than Gillingham or Wrexham is irrelevant to 99.99% of the party. As one correspondent writes:

“I think most members want to engage on particular issues that concern them, but NPF membership is increasingly seen as being part of an inner circle. Competing to join an inner circle before you can engage in policy development is just too tedious for most members.”

Someone said that more people can explain the old policy-making system than the new one, even if they are too young to remember it themselves. But whatever the drawbacks, it achieved two things. First, it attracted participation: only 35 constituencies contributed to this consultation, far short of the hundreds who used to send resolutions to conference. Second, it gave ordinary members the chance to speak directly to power. At my first conference in 1995 I was involved in discussion with delegates from every region, policy officers, union general secretaries, shadow ministers. The national policy forum structures are obstacles to engagement, and we should be mature enough to learn from the past without becoming trapped by its less constructive manifestations. Time for a Third Way, perhaps?