The National Policy Forum met in positive mood in the East London docklands, now transformed into a stunning Thames-side riviera, with rallying calls from Ian McCartney, Hazel Blears, Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Tony Blair. Hazel pointed out that the Tories nearly lost the by-election in Bromley and Chislehurst, their 18th safest seat, hardly suggesting a party on its way back to power. The prime minister highlighted David Cameron’s inconsistencies: praising work-life balance while voting against paternity leave, putting security at risk by opposing 90-day detention, talking liberal but asking his MEPs to leave the European People’s Party and sit with fascists. Gordon Brown spoke of the challenges of globalisation: development aid was not only morally right, but strategically wise. If people had prosperous lives in their own countries, mass migration would decline and terrorist groups (more than half of all Al-Qaeda cells were in Africa) would lose their appeal.
The main topic raised by members was energy policy, also covered in a separate presentation by Malcolm Wicks, with nuclear power a particular concern. Scottish Labour supported replacing existing nuclear stations and maintaining our skilled engineering base, but others worried about short-term decisions which would leave a 10,000-year legacy of radioactive waste, the true economic costs, sourcing and transporting uranium, and whether focusing on nuclear power would crowd out spending on renewables, clean coal and conservation. I was unhappy that electricity and energy are used interchangeably and misleadingly in policy documents – though 17% of electricity is nuclear-generated, it contributes only about 5% of total energy. Ministers responded with the need to reduce carbon emissions by 60% by 2050 and to secure energy supplies through a balanced mix, rather than depending on unstable or hostile regimes.
Other concerns included more help for the unemployed, building confidence in the police among ethnic minorities, the fourth option in council housing and whether local government should provide services directly or just act as commissioners, better school meals, ensuring that the Olympics benefited the whole community, House of Lords reform, vocational and further education, health service cuts, and acknowledging money sent back home by workers from abroad as part of aid.
What Price Democracy?
Jack Straw introduced a discussion of party funding, and several common themes emerged in the whole Forum and later in smaller workshops. First, this was not just about money but about restoring trust and confidence in the political process. Second, Jack and others emphasised the importance of individual members. Since 1980 the membership of political parties had halved while spending trebled, and though new campaigning techniques had a role, there was no substitute for face-to-face engagement. Charlie Falconer added that the focus on a few major donors meant that parties did not pay enough attention to small donations and ordinary members, prompting George McManus to recall the days when selling weekly raffle tickets raised thousands of pounds and kept local parties in touch with voters. Third, there was agreement in principle that total expenditure should be capped, to end the arms race and prevent Tory millionaires from pouring shedloads of cash into marginal seats before an election was called. However there were concerns about the extra work for already overburdened local treasurers in exercising additional controls all year round.
Fourth, speakers reiterated at length the importance of the trade unions as an integral part of the Labour party, with financial support coming mainly through thousands of individual members choosing to give a few pounds a year as an affiliation fee. Outrage at the idea that a future Tory government might try to rewrite the constitution of our party was tempered by fear that they could get away with it. I stressed that the union link needed rebuilding on the ground, where too few branches can find anyone willing to act as delegate to their local party and as a consequence, grassroots members do not value the link.
This led on to whether there should be a cap on individual or corporate donations. The arguments are superficially persuasive, but other countries, notably the United States, find that it merely encourages evasion. The Tories favour a limit of £50,000, because many of their core supporters can afford it. (According to the press, auction prizes at their summer party included a trip by private jet to France for Sunday lunch, donated by David Cameron – so much for his green credentials – and a place on a game shoot, which raised £14,000.) There was little backing for tax relief on donations.
A brief question-and-answer session with Patricia Hewitt, Alan Johnson and Kevin Barron, who chairs the health select committee, concentrated on financial problems in the NHS. Though the total deficit was less than 1% of turnover – equivalent to a £180 overdraft on a salary of £20,000 – concentration in particular areas was producing damaging headlines about sacked nurses, delayed operations and closing dental surgeries and hospitals. Speakers from trusts which balanced their books supported Patricia Hewitt’s argument that leafy Surrey and Sussex should not continue being bailed out by the under-privileged inner cities. However there are pockets of deprivation in every constituency, and punishing poor individuals because they have rich neighbours should be unacceptable. Further, local people have no control over health trust management, and can only blame the government.
The Forum then discussed the first-year policy document before it goes out for consultation later this summer, though the number of speeches and question-and-answer sessions meant that we could only attend workshops on half the six policy areas. At more than 100 pages, some felt that instead of a Big Conversation-style overview the document was simply six individual papers stapled together, though many then went on to ask for more bits to be added. There was also confusion about how far it should cover current issues, such as Lords reform or trust schools. These are already in the policy commission workplans, while this paper will form the basis of the next manifesto and needs to look beyond current arguments. But my advice is to talk about whatever you are interested in and send the conclusions to the policy commissions, rather than being constrained by specific Forum documents.
Education in particular had its hands full with work in progress. On crime, justice, citizenship and equalities, I remain concerned about emphasising more prison places and ASBOs as performance indicators, instead of the desired outcomes of less crime and safer neighbourhoods. On prosperity and work, paid bank holidays on top of 20 days’ annual leave would be phased in by 2009, with CBI support, and pension changes were sketched out to 2046, when we should be into our 14th term in office. Foreign policy rightly put aid and development up front, though it still envisaged tackling the threats of the future with the weapons of the past. Sustainable communities included housing and transport, where the government must decide whether it really wants to price people off trains. And health omitted reference to growing private sector involvement and the impact of media campaigns, for instance for herceptin, on less high-profile services. A final general point was that where policies differ in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, they should be compared within the main documents.
In closing, the Forum congratulated itself on its maturity, and wound up by 4 p.m. to watch what members hoped would be an equally fruitful world cup performance. But success will be judged on the ground. A regional forum scheduled for the following weekend was cancelled because only eight people registered, out of 500 invited, so there is no room at all for complacency.