John Prescott opened the meeting by warning against division and calling for vigorous but constructive debate. Tony Blair then described a typical day in his life as leader, visiting a conference of specialist sports colleges, an academy sponsored by business and the local football club, a drop-in centre for young people, and a factory building zero-emission cars charged from green energy. All were stakeholders in our political movement. Despite the current storms the ship was on course, and the biggest danger was not embarrassment but retreating into our comfort zone, afraid to decide and therefore to lead. Reform must be speeded up, not slowed, including the next stage of developing universities. Political parties could not operate as they had in the past, traditional structures did not work because people wanted to engage in a different way, and instead a stakeholder party must reach out into the community.
The press were then asked to leave, and Tony Blair fielded a wide range of questions with his usual fluency. He said migration was a net benefit to Britain, and the way to prevent new Europeans from undercutting pay and conditions was to enforce the minimum wage and employment standards for everyone. Labour had to understand people’s worries about others not playing by the rules, but the Tories could not run a serious campaign on immigration while opposing ID cards. He hoped for agreement in Europe on rights for agency workers while avoiding the risk of jobs moving overseas. He was aware of differences between county and district councillors on local government reorganisation, but urged us to concentrate on issues that voters cared about.
Tony Blair said the Tories were incoherent on climate change, deferring tough decisions on nuclear power and withdrawing from the centre-right grouping in Europe rather than building international co-operation. A wind-turbine on Number 10 would not stop the Greenland ice-cap melting. We would not win simply by saying that we cared, but by acting. Asked if he would give every child equal opportunities by ending the 11-plus, he said he was opposed to selection but this was a battle not worth fighting, and Cameron charging in to save the grammar schools would be a nightmare. (Though Peter Hain has managed it in Northern Ireland.) He would express concern to the German chancellor about the Canadian seal hunt, and Ian McCartney added that he hoped for a Europe-wide announcement on seal products, and a ban on trade in dog and cat fur, within weeks.
Finally Tony Blair said he had no views on appointing a national youth officer, though anyone aware of recent difficulties knows there is no money for new jobs, and even this meeting of the forum, praised as the centre-piece of our serious, well-grounded policy-making process, only took place because of the generosity of the trade unions. He was sure that young people did care about politics, but they did not live or think within constituency or national boundaries. He returned to his theme that bureaucratic changes were not the answer, and suggested that the party of the future should be modelled on non-governmental organisations, engaging stakeholders with many diverse interests. Some of these issues would doubtless surface in the course of the deputy leadership election, and he warned that modernising required changing in ways that we don’t find comfortable. None of this has been discussed with or by the NEC, and I intend to find out what it all means.
The Big Picture
Greg Cook, the party’s in-house pollster and analyst, ran through the effects of constituency boundary changes which, as widely reported, would cut Labour’s majority by about 12 all else being equal. To remain a national party Labour had to hold seats in the south – in 1987 there were just three Labour MPs in the south-west, south-east and eastern regions, increasing to 10 in 1992 and 59 in 1997, so our roots were relatively shallow. He was followed by Pat McFadden MP, convenor of the cabinet working groups, who had the impossible job of explaining their work through dozens of densely-printed overheads in less than twenty minutes. The crime, justice, citizenship and equalities commission has seen two of the papers, on the role of the state and on security, crime and justice, and they are in fact well worth reading, thoughtful and backed by experience from other countries. I am told they are available on the cabinet office website, and hopefully summaries will be circulated.
There was only time for one workshop each, and I chose public services, which focused on health. Minister Caroline Flint said that rising expectations presented a huge challenge: for instance, most people thought the state should fund all new drugs for all purposes. She repeated that voters wanted choice, though it was pointed out that unless there was surplus capacity, choices would be made by the providers or by lottery. The main problem, across the country, was that people felt deprived of choice and voice by threats to valued services, particularly maternity units, with patients and visitors facing long journeys, poor public transport and high parking costs. Caroline argued that specialist centres with experienced staff could give better treatment, and more services, such as blood testing and palliative care, could be provided in the community rather than in hospital.
There were concerns about the drain of private finance initiative schemes, excessive use of agency nurses, mental health losing out, and failure to join up social services, drug treatment, health, prison, probation and housing. However, emphasis on primary care and prevention was supported. I argued that smokers should not be charged extra as their taxes exceed their costs, and they save on pensions by dying earlier, but Caroline raised the expense of bigger bus seats and hospital beds to cope with obesity. And a recurring complaint: many people report excellent personal experiences, but believe they were just lucky, and overall the system is a mess. How can we counter prejudice with fact?
The last session was led by defence minister Des Browne, who gained credit for sticking to his guns while responding calmly to those who disagreed with him. He claimed that deterrence had been proved to work over fifty years, and the government had no right to deprive our children of choice over keeping or discarding nuclear weapons in what might be a very different world. In response to questions he said that submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles were preferred because they were virtually invulnerable and guaranteed awesome force; we were not threatening other people’s children because the weapons would only be used in extreme situations; though government briefings cited numbers of jobs involved, this was not in itself a reason for going ahead; and Trident would not be at the expense of proper equipment for troops. He agreed with Christine Shawcroft that nuclear weapons would not deter terrorists, though Tony Blair in his speech to parliament believed they would have an impact on states which sponsored terrorism. And he admitted that if Britain did not already have nuclear weapons the government would not propose acquiring them.
Various members had consulted widely, most finding a majority against Trident: two-thirds of over 100 responding to south-east representatives, an “overwhelming” proportion in London, 57% of 200 replies to two NEC representatives, 84% of 1090 responses to a Compass on-line poll. The exception was the Chair of Labour Students who reported that 80% of 120 people at a meeting backed upgrading Trident, so young people may not be radical in quite the way that some assume. He feared Britain would lose its position on the world stage, its UN security council seat, and its influence in tackling climate change and world poverty. Des Browne said that this was untrue and a poor argument.
He upset some members by appearing to dismiss all the feedback. But while any method of collecting views can be criticised, the Forum’s own Britain in the World policy commission seems a complete irrelevance. It reported receiving only eight submissions on the white paper and the issues that it raised, which presumably includes the motions ruled out of order at conference. In line with the NEC decision there were no votes, and it was difficult to gauge opinion as most members did not speak, and none of the trade union delegates. However, I am happy to quote Keith Sonnet, Chair of the policy commission, writing for UNISON’s conference last summer: “As a nation we are committed under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to getting rid of our nuclear weapons. We can set an example to the rest of the world. That takes courage. Our government can either follow meekly the nuclear path or it can show real courage, vision, strength and leadership.”