National Policy Forum, 19 July 2003

For once the Forum had no documents to discuss, as all ten are out with members. Submissions must be in by 2 October for the second-wave first-year documents, which will be revised in November and reissued for further consultation, returning to the Forum in July 2004. The deadline for comments on the first-wave second-year documents is 12 November 2003, and the Forum will agree them next March. All ten will then be signed off at the 2004 conference.   (If you are still confused, please see or contact your local representative.)

Instead the day was devoted to cross-cutting themes, and the workings of the Forum itself. Opening in sombre mood Ian McCartney, John Prescott and Gordon Brown expressed sympathy for the family of Dr David Kelly, and called for a period of restraint, reflection and respect. Ian McCartney promised a review of Partnership in Power after the next election, but stressed its superiority over the old policy-making system, which only involved a handful of members. Now thousands can contribute. Policy commissions must deal effectively with issues as they arise, in dialogue with ministers and members.

Gordon Brown highlighted achievements so far, with youth unemployment slashed, half a million children lifted out of poverty, and a fairer tax system, with the richest paying 54% under Labour as against 44% under the Tories. Further measures, such as the pensioner’s credit, were in the pipeline. Labour must also tackle the ravages of TB, HIV/AIDS and other illnesses in the developing world.

He and John Prescott then took questions. On the euro, Gordon said that if Britain joined under the right conditions, trade would increase by 50% over 30 years, transaction costs would fall, and growth would rise, but Labour must not repeat the Tory mistakes with the ERM. He recognised that the Private Finance Initiative was not popular with party members, but argued that it brought extra investment, and promised that workers would not be exploited. Manufacturing was vitally important, and 220,000 young people were in modern apprenticeships. The old system of student support could not be sustained with current numbers, but now there were no up-front charges to deter people.

John Prescott hoped that English regional government would acquire more powers, but referenda in the North, NorthEast and NorthWest would at least put the framework in place. He agreed that top-up fees and foundation trusts had not come through the Forum, but what mattered most was the character of debate, wherever it was held. Trade unions, councillors, and others always opened conversations with “Yes, Labour has done lots of good things, BUT . . .” It was time for more “Yes” and less “But”.

Crystal Balls

Liam Byrne introduced a paper on Britain in 2020, written to simulate discussion within the Labour party. It speculates on shifts in medicine from diagnose-and-cure to predict-and-prevent, the effects of climate change, the ageing population, and growth in computer power, with fridges automatically ordering food. I recall that twenty years ago, forecasters thought the main problem would be how to fill our leisure time, but more people now work longer hours than in 1984. These attempts may be similarly wide of the mark. However there are many fascinating numbers: for instance only 15% of the population trust political parties and 20% the press, but 39% trust the trade unions.

Hazel Blears MP cited research from Switzerland showing that democracy makes people happier. She suggested promoting community involvement through letting people do voluntary work without loss of benefits, and encouraging employers to grant time off. Alan Whitehead MP took a less rosy view in posing a series of choices. How would we handle the gap between the technology-rich majority and the technology-poor minority? Should we attempt to meet the demands of demographic change and constant mobility, or try to slow the process down? And most importantly, how do we maintain collective decision-making in a fractured society, with citizens as consumers and spectators, working from home and buying from the internet, susceptible to manipulation by single-issue lobbyists?

 Joined-Up Thinking

For the afternoon we split into groups, and I chose Rights and Responsibilities. Some thought the main problem was instilling responsibility into the benefit-dependent culture on sink estates. I felt that this was too easy a target. Local and central government can punish low-income trouble-makers by cutting their benefits or evicting them from council houses, but have no leverage over wealthy lager louts or arrogant owner-occupiers. Others argued that the government had sweeping responsibilities to explain, consult and listen which it did not always demonstrate, especially in obstructing European social measures. The fashionable subject of corporate social responsibility was explored, and businesses were asked to get involved in providing jobs for local people, rather than just sitting on committees. And there appeared to be consensus that equality of outcome, not just of opportunity, should not be abandoned by the Labour party.

Brief reportbacks from the other groups followed. On Multi-Level Democracy, people asked for more pluralism and multiplicity with less fragmentation, if these are compatible. Real powers should be devolved. The Science and Risk workshop wanted to convey the excitement of science and publicise the benefits of the MMR vaccine and new foods, instead of being driven by media fears. Poor countries should share in the benefits of development in pharmaceuticals and agriculture.

The Helping Families group argued for extended childcare and the right for parents to work part-time and flexible hours. Key workers were defined too narrowly and there was too little affordable housing all round. Changing Demographics also called for flexibility to accommodate an ageing population. They criticised the national obsessions with having baths, and felt that walk-in showers would require much less work in adapting homes for the infirm. (I think I have got this straight, but personally I intend to enjoy hot baths well into old age.)

Getting Better

During the lunch-break, members were invited to write suggestions for improvement on big flip-charts, and these were followed up in the final session. After six years there is growing acceptance that Forum members should be able to read what members send, either through visiting the files at Old Queen Street, or eventually on the website. More constituencies are holding policy forums, but worryingly some do not bother sending the results to the party. For example Mid-Bedfordshire feels that “attending local policy forums is pointless, because the big policy decisions are made by the hierarchy of the party and not at local level”. The challenge is to start providing evidence that ordinary members can indeed make a difference. Egging constituencies on to hold more forums will simply widen the gap between what members expect and what the party can deliver.

Members were keen to raise the Forum’s profile, and hoped that contact details could be displayed on the website. But regrettably we still have a two-tier Forum. Constituency representatives are elected at the annual conference and accountable to it, but get no help with travel or accommodation, and have to pay £82.25 even to register. Some are still at school, others have families, but all must find hundreds of pounds out of their own pockets, or stay home like Cinderella. The same applies to socialist society representatives. Meanwhile trade union delegates get hotel and travel bills paid, allowances for meals, sometimes reimbursement for loss of earnings, and all the fun of the fair. This discrimination is unacceptable in a PFI scheme and it ought to be unacceptable in the Labour party.