The Chair Peter Hain welcomed members to Wrexham in Labour Wales, where student fees remain low and the NHS is safe from privatisation, and expressed solidarity with the public service unions fighting for justice. He reported that Refounding Labour had received 125 submissions from constituencies, 35 from affiliates and groups, and 2,660 individual contributions through the website. The party’s reaction to the splits and losses of the 1980s may have prevented blood on the conference floor, but at the cost of over-centralisation and shutting out the grassroots. The task now was to re-establish the original inclusive, interactive vision. An audit trail should let members see what happens to their views, currently disappearing without trace, and genuine differences should again be debated at conference.
Ed Miliband also addressed the Forum, accusing the government of U-turns, handbrake turns and three-point turns on everything from selling forests to sentencing policy to the NHS, and recklessness with the future of health, young people and local services. They could not even get it right on barring wild animals from circuses (a pledge which should have been in Labour’s manifesto, instead of waiting for courageous Tory backbencher Mark Pritchard to take the lead).
No party in a generation had bounced back after one defeat, but he was determined to buck the trend. Britain did get better under Labour, and he would never deny our record, but mistakes were made. Internal squabbles and MPs playing the expenses system damaged politics itself. Members sent warnings from the doorstep about housing, immigration and scrapping the 10% tax band, and were ignored. The current consultation did not make easy listening, and showed we had lost touch with working people, who want those who do the right thing to be rewarded. Many of the three million affiliated trade unionists no longer voted Labour, and we must reach out to them and beyond them. Good ideas also came from outside the party, for instance “safe havens” in community centres and churches for young people worried about gangs and knives. Conference should be opened up, and local parties encouraged to build their own supporters’ networks. He confirmed his intention to appoint the shadow cabinet in opposition, as with ministers in government. This seems sensible, and feedback suggests that members are more concerned with frontbenchers’ performance than how they got there.
On pensions he blamed the government for handling the situation disgracefully, with Danny Alexander announcing conclusions while negotiations were continuing. His main concern was whether strikes would help or hinder in winning the argument. The public were now persuaded that it was unfair to delay pensions for women in their 50s, but too many still believed the myth of gold-plated public sector pensions and universal retirement at 60. The living wage was an exciting idea, and Labour would look closely at the recommendations of the high pay commission. Members also raised soaring fuel costs, the future of social care, compulsory sprinklers in new buildings (already law in Wales) and the new academies, including selective admission policies and what would happen if they went bust. Ed Miliband summed up Labour’s themes as the promise of Britain, the squeezed middle, stronger communities and life beyond the bottom line.
New Politics, Fresh Ideas III
Liam Byrne introduced his latest draft, following nearly four million contacts with the public, 70 shadow cabinet events, and thousands of members taking part in regional and local discussions. I’ve been to several and they were genuinely lively and engaging, but it’s hard to tell how far the paper represents Labour values or reflects the range of views of members, supporters and random voters. (Of 60 direct quotes four are from Ann in Brighton, with Kathy of Cheshire and Ian of Livingston getting two apiece.)
Forum members repeated, as we do at every level and every opportunity, the need for sharper attacks on the coalition coupled with clear statements of what Labour would do differently. Opposition should not be left to the archbishop of Canterbury. Voters want to know who and what we stand for, and cutting the deficit a bit more slowly is not enough, as Scotland showed. Some thought the current paper could have been written a year ago. No-one expects a detailed manifesto, but dividing lines and directions of travel derived from explicit values are desperately needed now, on the doorstep and in the media. Indeed the rolling programme of policy development seems designed more for government, where we control the agenda, than opposition, where fast, intelligent and well-informed reactions are essential. And I passed on messages from Reading: David Cameron should be congratulated for sticking to the target of 0.7% of GDP for international aid despite disapproval from his own backbenchers, and some of our attacks on Ken Clarke smack of opportunism rather than principle.
We had to choose three out of six topics: economy, growth and jobs; the cost of living crisis; the British promise; rights and responsibilities; Britain in the world; and the Partnership in Power review. No-one was clear on what these covered, so some of the conversations were at cross-purposes, but doubtless the hardworking policy officers will ensure that everything ends up somewhere. As last time some groups had more than 20 people, giving each of them just two minutes at race-commentator speed. This tends to produce lists of unconnected points and there is no chance to develop themes through dialogue, or establish which views attract consensus and which are just one person sounding off. We would never run a local forum with groups larger than ten.
The cost of living session was supposed to include transport, and a few points were made on travel costs and loss of bus routes making it difficult for people to get to work. Housing was still in short supply: speaking from Nottingham Christine Shawcroft said there were luxury city-centre flats, student accommodation and buy-to-let, but little that normal people could afford. But mostly we talked about the impact: citizens’ advice bureaux filled with desperate people, and many others only one step from disaster. The shock of suddenly having to exist on £65 a week was greater for those losing well-paid jobs than those more used to scraping by. One person thought the gap between benefits and wages was too small to provide incentives for work, but most were unhappy about portraying all claimants as scroungers, or assuming that disability allowances were generous. Many people were ashamed even to talk about not having a job, blaming themselves as failures. Members also argued that the private sector was unable to employ all the sacked public servants, and indeed businesses depended on the wages from public service employment to keep going. I added that pay for most public sector workers had been frozen for several years while inflation ran at nearly 5%, and any further increase in pension contributions would mean cuts in cash terms.
Welfare also featured under rights and responsibilities, including an interesting discussion on the shift from contribution-based to needs-based systems. Even though childcare and in-work benefits go fairly high up the income scale (or did, until the coalition started hacking into them), separating them from payment into the system could cause resentment among those who paid but did not receive. Some suggested that taxes should be seen positively as part of a collective enterprise, but that may be too idealistic for 21st-century Britain. The group also touched on crime, including whether communities used to be more self-policing, and on whether it made sense to talk about “communities” at all, when they were so varied geographically, socially and economically, and overlaid by commuting and new technology. The best single contribution was a call to distinguish between listening and leadership: in the current consultation we should listen, but not succumb to populism, because people may be wrong: if 25 applicants are chasing every job, it is not fair to scapegoat those who lose out.
The last session was on Refounding Labour, and specifically the review of Partnership in Power included within it. Those of us who joined the Forum in 1997 have been through this many times before. Representatives still cannot contact the members who elected them, or read comments and ideas from their own region. Forum dates are not planned far enough ahead and papers were again circulated late, despite the requirement for seven days’ notice. However keynote speeches are provided to the press, so at least we can read them on the way to the meeting. Most constituency representatives are still excluded from policy commissions, so the sum total of their participation has been six hours in Gillingham in November and six hours in Wrexham in June essentially repeating the earlier meeting. The format does not allow coherent discussion or summarising collective views. Was the whole thing value for money, above all for the members whose subscriptions pay for the Forum?
Interestingly a long-serving trade union member recalled that in 1994, when the Forum was a shadowy organisation existing outside the rulebook, there were indeed formal reportbacks from every workshop, with late-night negotiations, and votes on what had or had not been agreed. All that disappeared when it was opened up to ordinary members like your current elected representatives, but perhaps Peter Hain should learn from the Forum’s own history as we try for a fourth time to get this right.