National Policy Forum, 22/23 June 2013

The national policy forum met at Aston University on 22/23 June 2013.  The chair Angela Eagle said that the Your Britain website had 55,000 unique visitors and numerous submissions since its launch in November. She praised Annabelle Harle from Wales, who topped the league table for responding to contributions. Angela went on to say that we should banish cynicism and channel our anger at rising child poverty and reliance on food banks into fighting the Tories’ ideological agenda, marrying idealism with realism and recapturing the spirit of 1945 when Labour laid the foundations of the welfare state and the NHS despite debts far higher than today.

Jon Cruddas ran through the 21 pieces of work commissioned by his policy review. As at NEC meetings, members felt this was where the real thinking went on, and where surprise announcements from shadow ministers originated. The NPF was limited to a few topics chosen by conference from a highly restricted list, and this was disempowering. We were again assured that everything would come through the NPF eventually, but there was still no indication of how ordinary members could shape party thinking at earlier stages. Jon Cruddas accepted that his process could be more democratic, though Angela Eagle added that other parties make no attempt at accountability. Simon Burgess, Billy Hayes and Bridget Phillipson MP were then re-elected unopposed as vice-chairs of the NPF.

A gathering of constituency representatives highlighted problems for those with jobs outside politics and outside London. Policy commission meetings are held during the day, and may be arranged or cancelled at short notice. Scottish and Welsh members pointed out that devolution is not adequately handled within Labour’s policy-making structures. In a wider discussion of how the NPF could operate more effectively there were good suggestions around guidance for local parties in holding discussions and preparing submissions, but I fear that these will founder without feedback. Members will stop writing if they think no-one is listening.

Leader’s Speech

Ed Miliband stressed that Tory failure to restore growth and reduce the deficit would mean a difficult inheritance for the next Labour government. Despite this, Labour could still make a difference: by taxing homes worth over £2 million and restoring the 10% tax band, and by keeping tax credits instead of reducing the top rate to 45%. There was no sense in giving higher earners a winter fuel allowance or child tax credits, nor in opening free schools where there were surplus places. He had asked leading councillors to look at ways of improving services with less money. While the Tories believed that job insecurity was a good thing, Labour would combine responsibility to work with decent pay and conditions. As Clement Attlee said, we had to accept the challenges of our time with faith undimmed.

Members raised issues including the bedroom tax, free school meals, blacklisting, zero-hours contracts, obstacles to unfair dismissal claims, and cuts in health and safety measures despite 49 deaths in the construction industry last year. Ed Miliband criticised Michael Forsyth’s ill-thought-out attacks on employment rights. He supported collective bargaining, while pointing out that only 12% of private sector workers are in trade unions. Neither should immigrants be used to undermine the minimum wage and working conditions.

Ed Miliband praised Stephen Twigg’s vision for education, adding that all heads should get the same devolved powers as those in free schools and academies. Vocational education should not be seen as second-class. University fees would be capped at £6,000, and thinktank proposals for a graduate tax should feed into continuing debate. He pledged that Labour would repeal the Tory health act, but thought that rent controls could be dangerous if they discouraged private landlords. On Trident he repeated that he favoured multi-lateral disarmament, but until then Britain needed a minimum credible deterrent: this could be discussed within the party after a zero-based review of all defence options. He was deeply concerned about the general anti-politics mood, but Labour had to persuade people that we were a convincing alternative government, not just a party of protest.

Shadow Chancellor

Ed Balls cheerfully admitted that he was the slowest MP to complete the London marathon, but he did raise the most money. On the economy, the government had choked off recovery, and treasury receipts from tax were £billions less than expected. This called for an immediate boost through a temporary cut in VAT, and a tax on bank bonuses to alleviate youth unemployment. However it was not responsible to make promises two years out from an election, and cracking down on tax evasion and avoidance would not fill all the gaps. He supported living wage campaigns, but trying to establish it as the minimum wage could lead to different levels in different regions, and lead to pressure for regional pay. Also it would not help single parents whose income is topped up by tax credits.

As at every meeting since 2010, members regretted that the Tory dogma “Labour caused the crisis” has passed into popular mythology. Ed Balls thought that this was part of the natural ebb and flow of politics, and people are now more interested in the future: they want radical but credible change. Christine Shawcroft argued that it was not credible to continue to make cuts: the Tories have shown that this increases the deficit, and it does not offer a real alternative. Further, scrapping the benefit tax would actually save money, as tenants have to move to higher-priced privately-rented accommodation. Ed Balls responded that the deficit could not be ignored, and added that cancelling Trident would save no money for some years. He closed by saying that the last Labour government was fairer and more progressive on child poverty and on equality than any since 1945.

Looking Back

The NPF discussed the ten papers circulated over the last year. I attended the group on health and social care, and two groups on protecting workers and vocational education. The first covered public health, extending universal principles to social care, mental health as the poor relation, the impact of local government funding cuts, and whether the Dilnot proposals provide a firm basis for long-term care: the Tory cap of £72,000 for individuals would still mean many people having to sell the family home. Labour remains committed to minimum alcohol pricing, warnings about fat and sugar content of food, and plain cigarette packaging. Two options were included: full integration of health and social care services into a system of “whole person care”, or closer working between services. There was general agreement to combine these, as many issues must be resolved if integration is to succeed.

The other two groups discussed familiar themes. Tackling zero-hours and short-hour contracts was essential. Other abuses were bogus self-employment and “payroll companies” which act as agencies and allow employers to avoid their obligations. The living wage should be central to campaigning in private and public sectors, scrapping the agricultural wages board was a disgrace, careers advice should be restored to schools, and apprenticeships should be high quality and high status.

Generally members wanted to strengthen the role of collective bargaining and of trade unions in the workplace. On the living wage, most agreed that as well as the two options offered – sharing savings with companies which pay a living wage, and publishing pay rates – more sticks should be added to the carrots. At the very least the national minimum wage should be enforced more rigorously. There was consensus on extending the role of the gangmasters’ licensing authority to cover other sectors such as construction, hospitality and social care. It was also suggested that more should be done to illustrate the many good employers and positive workplaces as an example to the others.

Brief summaries are at http://www.yourbritain.org.uk/agenda-2015/national-policy-forum/npf-2013

Moving Forward

… and this link also has summaries of discussions on future directions.   For the economy session these included jobs, growth, climate change and green development, small business needs, rights at work, local government funding and transport in cities and in rural areas. I argued that tax, pensions and other aspects of welfare should be considered as a single system not split into separate silos, and cover universal, means-tested and contributory elements.

For the society session members suggested areas not yet covered in last year’s education papers: dealing with a fragmented school system, admission policies, early-years education, special needs, and ending the 11-plus. Above all they asked for a simple statement of Labour’s guiding principles. Though higher education formally belongs with business, members were concerned about the deterrent effect of fees, and loss of talent and income from the clampdown on international students. For housing, Hilary Benn agreed that brownfield land would not be enough and councils should have powers to swap land into and out of the green belt. A review group is looking at the future of police and crime commissioners, and though few people raised it, immigration is clearly on the public agenda.

Finally the NPF featured a speed-dating session, where members pitched ideas to shadow ministers. The winners were a levy on computer hardware and broadband connections, to go to musicians and other content providers; and citizenship honours for people who work hard in their community and contribute financially or as volunteers. Overall it was an enjoyable and positive weekend, though whether it leads to lasting success will be judged, as always, by the 99.9% of members outside.