National Policy Forum, 28 February 2009

The Forum met at Filton College in Bristol, at the heart of British manufacturing, and the Chair Pat McFadden celebrated recent orders from China won by Rolls-Royce and Jaguar Land Rover. Gordon Brown addressed us in the Olympus Theatre, emphasising our responsibility for seeing the country through testing times. He would be discussing the economic crisis with president Obama, and looking to co-operate on climate change and on tackling disease and world poverty. There was no contradiction between growth and environmental stewardship, and green jobs would lead us out of recession through a low-carbon recovery. On Royal Mail he highlighted the pension fund deficit and argued that private investment was needed to maintain a six-day service at a single price, and prepare for challenges ahead.

Harriet Harman, Yvette Cooper and Lord Mandelson joined the prime minister for questions. Members remained unhappy about Royal Mail: to those at the sharp end, you cannot be a little bit privatised any more than you can be a little bit pregnant, and if you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. Lord Mandelson reiterated the financial difficulties, but there are real dangers in treating this as an internal argument with trade union dinosaurs. Post office closures have been wildly unpopular, and supporting Royal Mail is a lot cheaper than buying more banks. Harriet Harman recognised the communication workers’ contribution to Labour’s success over many years, and asked everyone to stick together.

Down the Road

Others called for urgent action to protect temporary and agency workers, with anger fuelled by the sacking of 800 employees at BMW. Gordon Brown hoped the agreement with the unions on granting employment rights after twelve weeks could be implemented soon, and Lord Mandelson reported that the European Union had approved £2.3 billion in loans and guarantees for investment in low-carbon green technology, including cars. However, environmental issues are never simple: in Monmouth, many voters support a Severn barrage, but others worry about its impact on the wetlands.

Local councillors reported rising repossessions and asked for capital to create jobs and homes, and changes to rent subsidies so the poorest were not penalised. New homes should be built to high environmental standards and exempted from the right to buy so their performance could be monitored. Gordon Brown said that 90% mortgages and shared equity would create new routes into home ownership, and there were opportunities for buying and developing cheap land. Yvette Cooper added that she and Margaret Beckett were grappling with the complexities of the housing revenue system.

Members also asked the government to crack down on tax abuses, investigate auditors who had signed off unsound accounts, and promote international co-operation. The prime minister would take the latter forward at the G20 meeting in April, encouraged by president Obama’s agreement that there should be no hiding place for tax havens. Labour had spent ten years battling for more regulation against a city which always wanted less. And Harriet Harman promised that fairness was even more important in tough economic times, and Labour’s commitment to equality would not be watered down.

Forum Management

The three vice-Chairs – Billy Hayes from the affiliated section, Simon Burgess from the constituencies, and Anne Begg from MPs, MEPs and councillors – were willing to carry on and re-elected without a vote. The rest of the day was spent in groups discussing contemporary issues, the work of the policy commissions, and the latest cycle of Partnership in Power. (The original agenda consisted mainly of ministerial speeches, but I persuaded the joint policy committee, with trade union support, that constituency representatives needed more time to express members’ views.)

Heat and Light

Even so we could only choose one of the five issues prioritised at conference, and one of the six policy commissions. I started with fuel poverty and the windfall tax, because 45 constituencies had sent statements to conference on these. Sadly no effort had been made to involve them in developments since then, except for the seconders Lincoln, unlike last year when most constituencies who participated in the compositing process were invited to policy commission meetings and telephone conferences.

Ministers Rosie Winterton (work and pensions), Angela Eagle (treasury) and Philip Hunt (energy) joined us. They thought the clamour for a windfall tax was dying down as prices fell, and anyway there were difficulties in defining excess profits and in taxing profits generated abroad, and risks of driving investment away. Pensioners welcomed higher winter fuel allowances (WFA) and the £60 bonus, and £172 million was distributed in cold weather payments this winter, though too many still do not claim their entitlement. The WFA is not targeted directly at fuel poverty, but ministers defended the principle of universality. They also promised to look at problems in delivering the Warm Front programme.

I complained again about high bills for pre-payment meters and tariffs which charge less for each unit of energy the more you use, which hit the worst-off and make no environmental sense The government has pledged to act if the industry does not put its house in order, but we are running out of time. Also the regulator Ofgem had found considerable overcharging for pre-payment meters and single-fuel users, and £300 million had been refunded. But the most interesting exchange was on switching energy suppliers. The theory is that choice drives down prices. In fact 40% of switchers pay more or the same, and some find they are being charged twice. MPs helping distraught constituents bamboozled by doorstep salesmen described it as a nightmare and said they would never advise anyone to change until there was proper consumer protection, a damning verdict on the free market.

Work in Progress

I chaired the policy commission session on crime, justice, citizenship and equalities, where members discussed community courts, domestic violence, how to recruit more magistrates, building support for community payback and restorative justice rather than just locking people up, diverting young people from gang culture and knife use, tackling the fear of crime, police visits to schools, the impact of the recession on crime and on services such as citizens’ advice bureaux, and legal aid, currently the subject of a wide-ranging review. Some good points were made but attendance was low, and it felt as if all the fun was going on in the other sessions. The timetabling meant I had no chance to take up incapacity benefit, pensions, housing, the third runway at Heathrow, autism, high rail fares, equalities, Gaza, making the hunting ban effective, alleged complicity in torture, and other issues from my inbox.

Partnership in Power: Where Next?

A full review will follow the election, so this was a quick round-up before memories fade. Views were polarised in my group: some representatives felt constituencies were disillusioned with lack of feedback, some, from the north-east, made great efforts to keep local parties informed, and some used the process mainly to pursue their personal agenda. Some saw the number of final-stage amendments as a positive sign of engagement, while others considered them unmanageable. Technical aspects, such as allowing Form members to access the central database rather than spend 30 hours scrolling through membersnet, could be fixed, and participants agreed that staff should never again be asked to work for days without sleep, and that good practice should be shared across regions, but not much else. More immediately this year’s conference will decide whether to return to allowing a few contemporary resolutions, or to continue with contemporary issues which are not voted on, but referred to the policy commissions. Most constituency members expressed no view, but a union delegate felt that resolutions used to produce results, while issues just went round in circles. Of course the proof of the pudding, in all of this, will be if it wins us a fourth term, so the electorate will be the ultimate judge.

Finally a document titled “Winning the Fight for Britain’s Future”, described as an update on the direction of government policy, was tabled but not discussed or voted on, though it appears to be in the name of the Forum. No further meetings are scheduled, but particularly if the election is not until 2010, the Forum needs to conclude unfinished business from the Warwick agenda, and to review policies in the light of events since last July. While it cannot be another marathon with unlimited amendments, I will be looking for ways that local parties can be heard. Watch this space.