National Policy Forum, 28 July 2001

The Forum completed its three-year review in July 2000, and a new rolling programme will begin next year. The papers for this meeting drew on the manifesto and focused on delivering the pledges made on 7 June. They had no formal status, but the Forum was invited to comment before they go to Conference, where delegates will also discuss ways to improve Partnership in Power. There are some interesting ideas on using technology to make submissions and feedback more widely available.

With 11 Cabinet members and a further 18 ministers, the Forum provided opportunities to strengthen connections between party and government at the start of the second term. Tony Blair highlighted economic stability, public service reform, reducing social division, and positive engagement in world affairs. He emphasised discipline and holding the centre ground as essential to the third term. The forum process needed developing, but had helped us get away from self-destructive public divisions.

He cited pensions as an example of its success in enabling members’ views to come up through the party. (This was curious, because attempts to discuss the earnings link were crushed in the Forum in 1999, and only resolved after the 75p debacle, the loss of dozens of council seats, an old-fashioned Conference knockabout and a leadership defeat, all of which the new system was supposed to avoid.)

Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers, Estelle Morris, Patricia Hewitt, Andrew Smith, Charles Clarke and Ian McCartney also spoke from the platform as well as joining smaller discussion groups. Many principles and points of detail were raised, but for me the key topics were

–      public service reform and the role of the private sector. Alan Milburn and others stressed that Labour wanted to draw on the wealth of expertise possessed by staff, and reform would come primarily from within. The difficulty is that until people get more details, they fear the worst;

–      student hardship. I asked if the government would respond to widespread concern among young people, and look again at maintenance grants and deferred payment through a graduate tax. Tony Blair said this was the top complaint on the doorstep, and he and Estelle Morris would reconsider the balance of contributions between government and student, while making sure that universities were adequately funded. Most current students would not have had places, let alone grants, twenty years ago, but the proportion from low-income backgrounds has not improved;

–      faith-based schools. People were worried about reinforcing ethnic and religious devisions. There was less concern over selection through specialist schools and the continuing 11-plus;

–      manufacturing. Many delegates raised the problems arising from the strong pound and the US slowdown. Gordon Brown sympathised. While devaluation would put economic stability at risk, the government recognised the importance of manufacturing and would look at ways to help;

–      the euro. Although Gordon Brown reiterated plans to assess the economic tests and if appropriate hold a referendum within two years, the Forum felt we should be informing ourselves and starting the public debate now. The benefits of Europe, for example the three million jobs which depend on membership, should be more actively promoted;

–      National Missile Defense. Delegates reminded ministers that party policy included commitment to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and suggested that we should stand with our European partners rather than concede to every US demand, but with little obvious success.

SouthEast representatives will circulate a full account soon, and other regions should also report back.