National Policy Forum, 28 February / 1 March 2003

Cabinet speakers included Jack Straw, who argued that Saddam Hussein was a real threat to the region and the world, and lambasted the French as complacent, vacillating and weak. Members regretted damage to our European alliances, and warned against handing the Kurds over to the Turks in exchange for military favours. Jack Straw felt that American troops in Turkey would act as a restraining influence, and dealing with Saddam would stem the flow of Kurdish asylum-seekers, used by the BNP to fuel racial tension. Members of the Britain in the World policy commission argued that Iraq showed the success of Partnership in Power in preventing damaging party splits.

The Forum’s main task was to consider second-year documents for the first batch of policy areas: welfare, health, industry, Britain in the world, and democracy and citizenship. They will go to constituencies in May, for discussion until conference 2003. Unlike first-year drafts, consultation should be restricted to party members. They go back to the Forum in March 2004 and to the following conference. By then the second batch will have caught up and all ten will form the basis of the next manifesto. (See for details.)

However, the authors clearly had difficulty imagining a third term through present uncertainties. The welfare paper outlined new tax and pension credits, but only gave commitments through to 2005. The unions were banned from arguing about the current review of employment law, yet future aspirations depend on what is agreed now. The Forum is being asked to put the roof on before the walls are up.

Selected Highlights

Britain in the World has good sections on world poverty and fair trade, but supports missile defence systems and endorses government consent to let the US upgrade Fylingdales. A section praising the United States for its constant commitment to tackling injustice and oppression would be rewritten after murmurs about Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua. Hopes for a common European foreign policy, expressed in the first-year document, have sadly vanished, along with much of the earlier optimism.

Democracy, Citizenship and Political Engagement continues to worry about apathy, particularly among young people, but fails to connect with the millions on the streets. Instead of finding what people want to change, and showing them how to use politics to do it, we still say “these are the hoops you must jump through, before anyone will listen.” There may be another effort to grant votes at 16, blocked last time by the Joint Policy Committee. The House of Lords may be rescued from the long grass, but electoral reform is likely to remain parked for another parliament.

Health talks about further exploration of “different models of public ownership”, but does not explain why competition is good. People want adequate treatment from their local hospital, close to friends and family. Preventative medicine concentrates on reducing smoking. As usual, dentistry is almost unmentioned, with the problems of expensive NHS charges and even more expensive private charges.

On Welfare the next big changes will be to housing benefit, building on pilot schemes which pay a fixed rate, intended to empower tenants, rather than funnel taxpayers’ money into landlords’ pockets.

Industry still stresses the market as the engine of wealth creation, and hymns the economic and scientific benefits of the arms industry. There is tremendous scope for improvement on the minimum wage, work/life balance, and employment rights. And though renewable energy gets a period of grace and encouragement, the nuclear option is kept open should carbon emissions fail to fall.

Dozens of other points can be raised on all the documents. Questions are more narrowly focused this time, though specific amendments can be suggested to change the emphasis or add missing material. As usual, Forum members will not see responses unless copied to them directly, so please mail feedback to as well as to HQ.