National Policy Forum, 27 November 2010

The Forum gathered in Gillingham for its first meeting in nearly two years, and I went armed with hundreds of members’ comments on the general political landscape and on current issues. The overwhelming demand was for effective campaigning messages now and through to next May’s elections. A full review of policy will take time, but rebuttal of coalition lies and clear alternative approaches, particularly on the economy, were needed now. We could not let the Tories carry on claiming that Labour ran up massive deficits on unnecessary spending, and their cuts are therefore inevitable. Instead Labour, under Gordon Brown, saved 500,000 jobs, kept home repossessions to half the level of the last recession, prevented the collapse of the entire banking system, and laid the foundations for recovery.

These concerns were repeated by many delegates throughout the day. Looking back to 1979, one suggested that the “winter of discontent” was not the main reason for losing that election, but as it passed into popular mythology, it kept us out of power in 1983, 1987 and 1992. Unless we counter-attacked effectively and soon, a new myth, of 13 wasted Labour years, could do the same again. More optimistically another pointed out unlike the 1980s we now have a united party, with seasoned and energetic campaigners. And Margaret Thatcher had North Sea oil to disguise the true damage of her cuts and the impact of social failure, while the coalition will have no such luxury.

Open for Business

Peter Hain was elected as the new Chair of the Forum, and the MPs and the unions put forward Kate Green and Billy Hayes as their vice-chairs. Simon Burgess was nominated as the constituency vice-chair. George McManus was also nominated but withdrew on being told that there would be no hustings and no secret ballot, to avoid a repeat of the 2003 unpleasantness which marginalised Tony Robinson and anyone supporting him. The new NEC member from Labour First regretted missing the chance to “measure the relative strength of the different ideological wings of the party”, which I find rather sad. It assumes that ability, integrity, accountability are irrelevant, and that as in the 1980s the party is split into two warring camps. That is not where I am and not, I believe, where members are.

Peter Hain promised greater influence for members and a more inclusive Forum, and said he would also lead a wide-ranging review of party reform. Liam Byrne was in charge of policy development, but everything would feed through the policy commissions into the Forum, refounding Labour as the party of the progressive majority. Harriet Harman announced that since May Labour had gained 45,803 members and led the percentage vote in council by-elections. Next year we must work to elect Iain Gray and Carwyn Jones in Scotland and Wales, and aim for Labour candidates in every council ward.

Beyond New Labour

Ed Miliband spoke of the coalition’s arrogance and public anger at broken promises: the LibDems over fees and VAT, the Tories over child benefit. He wanted Labour to be rooted in people’s lives, to reach beyond its membership to four million affiliated trade unionists and out into communities, rather than relying on “experts” in London. His economic priorities were a living wage, career progression, steps onto the housing ladder, and help for small businesses unable to arrange loans. On civil liberties Labour in government sometimes got the balance wrong, with the benefits of CCTV undermined by arguing for 90-day detention.  Overall he was optimistic: people were beginning to see the coalition government as widening the gap between their dreams and their chances of realising them.

Delegates wanted more open debate on tax, praised the three-line whip against privatising Royal Mail, and asked how councils could protect the vulnerable while coping with 30% budget cuts. Others raised housing shortages, the £7 billion package for Ireland, and dealing with immigration on the doorstep. There were also questions about how best to work with the growing numbers of young people politicised by student fees and ending the educational maintenance allowance, and with the unions, demonstrating in March under the banner of “Don’t Break Britain”.

Ed Miliband responded that we had to address underlying issues around immigration, notably pressure on homes and wages. Labour would vote against higher student fees and develop a fairer alternative. Indirect taxes were clearly unfair because they were unrelated to ability to pay. He would stand shoulder to shoulder with councils, and we were starting to win the argument on the deficit, with voters recognising that the cuts went too far and too fast, and the unrest in Ireland was a warning of the dangers. He recognised that the Forum had to change, as after 13 years members still felt their views simply disappeared, and he considered multiple votes in leadership elections as a thing of the past.

Current Issues

I attended discussion groups on the economy and welfare reform. With 50 minutes and 40 people we could not really follow ideas through, but some clear points emerged.   On the economy, delegates argued that Labour could not oppose every cut, but needed a sophisticated and coherent narrative, including the proper role of the state. We only had one planet: economic growth must be decoupled from resource depletion. Up to £120 billion was lost in tax evasion and avoidance, dwarfing the £1.6 billion target for savings on benefit fraud and error.   Children were paying £6 billion towards the deficit, against only £2 billion from the bankers who caused the crisis. And with 700,000 public service jobs going, blaming the victims was the politics of prejudice and caricature: as one of my correspondents put it, we should “grab ministers by the throat and demand of them WHERE ARE THE JOBS?”

This theme continued in the welfare discussion, with members refusing to demonise the unemployed. There was particular concern for those with disabilities, who face discrimination from employers and feel that Labour has not defended them. Cutting housing benefit after a year out of work, and other reductions, affect those who have least, and Labour should look instead at capping excessive rents. These are arguments that we must win with the voters, convinced by the tabloid media that all unemployed people are workshy scroungers living in mansions. Encouraging the long-term unemployed to engage in work or training was acceptable, but “compulsory volunteering” damaged the voluntary ideal as well as the English language. And an unanswered question: what happens to the innocent children of those judged insufficiently co-operative, who lose all benefits for months on end?

Forum members are promised notes from the other workshops, so I should know more soon. I was told that constitutional reform rehearsed the arguments on alternative vote versus first-past-the-post, and discussed whether the Labour government had carried out Forum policy on completing reform of the House of Lords. Unfortunately the latter is now out of our hands. On university funding, the current NUS policy favouring a graduate tax was supported, though without much detail on its fairness or its practicality. On health, there were lessons to be learned from Scotland and Wales.

Labour Listens

Liam Byrne MP introduced his document New Politics, Fresh Ideas. Comments can be sent through the website, and input would also come from shadow cabinet working groups, unions, and experts from academia and abroad. MPs would drive community engagement (easier in some regions than others).

This led on to general discussion about policy-making, continued in smaller groups. Most points were familiar to Forum veterans: constituency representatives still cannot contact local parties, and there is still no transparency on what happens to submissions. Many reported that early enthusiasm for the Forum had turned to cynicism, and it would be hard to persuade members that this relaunch will be different. However new technology, used imaginatively, could help to compensate for lack of money.

First-time delegates were disconcerted to find that unless they get a place on a policy commission, this meeting and another day in June will comprise their entire Forum experience. They cannot act as ambassadors for a process which excludes them, nor can party members be effective community advocates unless they themselves are listened to, and both of these need attention.

Where Next?

I left more confused than when I arrived. Policy contributions used to go to the six commissions. These will still exist, alongside Liam Byrne’s policy exercise and 22 shadow cabinet groups. The Partnership into Power review will continue, but subsumed into Peter Hain’s wider consultation on party reform. Ellie Reeves is vice-chair of his commission, but its other members and its remit are not known. And the Forum will still be steered by the joint policy committee despite persistent poor attendance: only twelve of the 30-odd JPC members were at its last meeting and only five on the conference call which agreed Liam Byrne’s draft, half the quorum. Connections with the full NEC are tenuous, so elected members have little input, and I have asked Peter Hain to look urgently at improving links and accountability. When I find out whom to write to about what, I will let you know