The first day saw Tony Blair launch the long-awaited Big Conversation, an honest and serious debate between a modern empowering government and active, responsible citizens. The 80 pages and dozens of questions gave plenty of food for thought. Crime had fallen, but people did not feel safe. How could we replace anti-social behaviour with respect? How far should we trade civil liberties against the need to break up organised crime? How did we balance liberating people from dictatorships against traditional respect for territorial integrity? Should pension contributions be compulsory? Even if all countries implemented the Kyoto agreement, greenhouse gases would only fall by 1%, and a 60% cut was needed by 2050. How could we achieve this? And so on. Ian McCartney promised a user-friendly toolkit to help local parties take the conversation to the community, and regular feedback. By Saturday afternoon 4,000 people had sent contributions by e-mail, and the next day 30 of these were displayed on the website www.bigconversation.org.uk.
Members asked whether the agenda was truly open. The exercise was imaginative but risky, and people must feel that they have been genuinely heard. What about taxing incomes above £100,000, and were top-up fees set in stone? Tony Blair stressed that this was not policy-making by opinion poll. As always the party would make decisions according to its values, and the people would decide in the general election. Labour had shown it could listen over the 75p pension rise. (Not the best example, as the leadership over-rode 90% of members’ views in the 1999 National Policy Forum, and only a pensioners’ revolt and the loss of several hundred council seats changed the policy.)
Gordon Brown said that Labour had won the argument for raising National Insurance to invest in the NHS. Any case for tax had to be argued openly with voters, and council tax in particular had to prove its value. He emphasised the longest period of economic stability for 100 years, with more people in work than ever, and youth unemployment down from 250,000 to nearly nothing. The Tories had opposed every anti-recessionary measure, and would abolish the New Deals. Integrating taxes and benefits into a single system, through the various tax credits, removed stigmatising distinctions between claimants and contributors. Instead people paid in or drew out at different stages of their lives. Children and pensioners were steadily being lifted out of poverty.
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, expressed disappointment over the two-tier workforce persisting in health, and government opposition to European directives on agency workers and long hours. He recognised that the unions were seen as ungrateful, but stressed that when Labour and the unions fall out, only the Tories gain. A shared positive agenda on productivity, skills and safety would benefit both partners. Carey Oppenheim, special adviser on family policy to Tony Blair, considered how best to help disadvantaged children. Most money goes into schools and higher education, but the key need is for investment in early years and childcare. By 22 months the social gap between classes is already evident, and never remedied. And Gareth Thomas MP spoke of the need to devolve further powers to individuals. Several football clubs were owned by supporters’ trusts, and foundation hospitals should ensure that the professionals answer to local people.
Friend or Foe?
David Blunkett held a session on his plans for ID cards. Unforgeable proof of identity would help to tackle organised fraud, health tourism and clandestine working – currently there are 10 million more national insurance numbers than British residents – and the United States would soon require biometric identification for visitors. From around 2007 passports and driving licences would function as ID cards by including fingerprints, iris patterns and facial recognition as they are renewed, with plain cards mandatory for foreign nationals staying more than three months, and available for everyone else. Compulsion would be considered only after most of the population were already covered. The charge would be about £35, with cards free to under-16s and £10 for those on low incomes.
There were some concerns about who could access the information, but more about practicalities. Large information technology projects had a poor record, as illustrated by the Passport Agency fiasco. Anyone checking identity, in social security offices, doctors’ surgeries or universities, would need the technology for taking fingerprints and other measurements to check people against their cards. Iris recognition is only 99% accurate, according to New Scientist, which would limit its use because each card would have 600,000 matches on the UK database. Politically, the costs are paid upfront by the individual but the benefits are long-term and general, with no immediate or obvious personal gain. Selling the idea would need positive messages, not just the language of restraint and control. Debate will continue, around the Home Office publication Identity Cards: The Next Steps, and within the justice, security and community policy document.
Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been . . . ?
The day ended with election of Forum officers. Ian McCartney was unanimously acclaimed as Chair. Each Forum member had two votes for the two Vice-Chair places, of which Margaret Wall gained 81, Anne Snelgrove 64, and Tony Robinson 48. Tony allegedly lost out because he was seen talking in a friendly manner to people associated with the centre-left grassroots alliance, a sinister cult which sticks pins into wax effigies of Tony Blair and asks awkward questions about foundation hospitals and top-up fees. Sadly paranoia still gnaws at the heart of the Millbank machine, and unless it is dealt with, we shall all lose.
Tomorrow is Another Day
However food, wine and a rousing after-dinner speech from Rhodri Morgan papered over the cracks, and the next day it was Forum members’ turn to talk. We worked through revised documents on justice and security, local government and transport, education and skills, quality of life, and the economy. These will be published for party consultation between February and May 2004, returning to the Forum in July. Throughout discussion I was reminded again of the wide range of experience that Forum members bring, from the sharp end of public services, from personal experiences with drug addiction, from council and voluntary work, from school governance and from business.
As usual the papers are stuffed with detail, but some general themes emerged. Differences arising from devolution should be acknowledged, with Wales abolishing tests at Key Stage 1 and, along with Scotland, rejecting foundation hospitals. Regional disparities affect economic policy, employment and housing, with too few affordable homes in the SouthEast and unsaleable surpluses in some northern towns. Cities have traffic congestion, rural areas have empty roads but poor public transport. Choice can be a metropolitan concept, only meaningful if many schools or surgeries are within reach. It also makes the “school run” problems worse as parents transport children over greater distances.
Measuring success in education solely through GCSEs devalues vocational achievement and perpetuates skills shortages. In some counties the 11-plus still blights the life-chances of most children, and Labour should finally grasp the selection nettle. Children in care are too often forgotten, and fall through the gaps between services. Young people should not be feared as an alien and threatening species, but recognised as people with their own needs for security and respect, and generations need bringing together within communities. The case for managed legal immigration is well-argued, but does not begin to nail the tabloid myths about asylum-seekers.
The range within policy areas is best illustrated by the quality of life document, which moves from safeguarding the planet against resource depletion and irreversible climate change straight to cleaning up the litter at the end of the road. The latter may win or lose the next election, but the former will determine the fate of voters whose grandparents are not yet born. Over to you.