Notes by Ann Black:
National Policy Forum Eastbourne,
10/12 December 1999
New Labour, New Balls Please
The NPF met at the Lawn Tennis Association centre in
Eastbourne. Our job was to preview the six second-year policy
documents before they go on general release in January, and flag
up omissions, bad grammar and lack of clarity, though as usual
this didn't stop anyone commenting on the direction of policy as
well. It is now up to forums, constituencies, branches and
unions to send views to the policy commissions by 31 March
2000. Copies to NPF representatives would be helpful. Last
year we had to boil down hundreds of pages of text into succinct
positions, and precisely-worded amendments would be better in
stating unambiguously what party members want.
NPF members will get revised documents soon after 23 May.
We have until 9 June to submit amendments, and each
amendment now only needs two supporters instead of eight.
This sensible change lets us express individual priorities instead
of playing "I'll sign yours if you'll sign mine" games.
The full NPF then meets on 7/9 July to agree the papers for
Conference in September, including any alternative positions.
There is widespread recognition that party members want
choices, not the same old take-it-or-leave-it documents, and it
will be interesting to see what debates are allowed on the eve of
the next general election campaign. Everyone will have their
priorities, and the following is a highly subjective selection of
points raised at Eastbourne:
Telling the Wood from the Trees
No-one can quite decide whether the papers are mainly
intended as campaign tools, emphasising the Tory legacy and
Labour's achievements, or as visionary roadmaps for the second
term. References to the World Trade Organisation were being
hastily rewritten post-Seattle, and events in every field rapidly
render current accounts out-of-date. Devolution poses
questions about how to develop national policies while, for
instance, Scotland goes its own way on tuition fees. And
compulsory literacy training in the use of the apostrophe, the role
of the verb, and Plain English cannot come too soon for New
Britain in the World. While activists are international in
outlook, most voters need convincing that anything foreign is
relevant. In particular Labour will have to come off the fence
over the single currency, and most wanted positive promotion of
the euro and of the European Union. Moves towards the 0.7
UN aid target and writing off Third World debts were welcome.
Foreign office advisors assured us that there was no
disagreement among ministers over funding the Ilisu dam, and
the project has the full support of the Turkish Government, so
it's all OK and definitely not another Pergau situation.
Reducing arms sales was recorded as a minority concern, and
wars continue to cause unease. Whether or not military action in
Iraq and Kosovo was justified, both Saddam Hussein and
Slobodan Milosevic are still in power and as repressive as ever.
The idea of bombing Moscow to punish similarly awful Russian
behaviour in Chechnya shows that principles must be tempered
with pragmatism, and there is no shame in recognising this.
Democracy and Citizenship. There are plenty of ideas for
making voting technically easier, but little analysis of why people
vote at all. Why is the turnout in general elections twice the
turnout in local elections, and why do South Africans queue for
days in blazing heat when the British won't walk to the end of the
road? The concepts of civic education, active citizenship and
community empowerment need translating into practical terms
for people to believe that that they can make a difference.
The Labour Party itself is praised for methods of selecting good
council candidates, and for current consultation on an outward-
looking, community-based 21st Century Party. Opinion
differed on whether Labour's internal mechanisms belong in a
public manifesto, though if they make party members feel more
influential, general application might similarly empower voters.
And vice versa.
Labour's fairer, faster and firmer system of dealing with
immigrants gets only a brief reference. At last year's Forum an
amendment on welfare calling for asylum-seekers to receive
cash payment at income support level was referred to this paper
instead, and members may care to resubmit their views. Finally,
various Old Labour factions caused irritation by refusing to talk
about anything except the Jenkins Report, which has its own
separate consultation exercise.
Economy The welcome aim of
full employment is addressed
through providing work for those who can, and low-paid
workers will gain from the minimum wage, working families' tax
credit and subsidised childcare. The main omission is the other
half of the promise: security for those who cannot. Those in the
bottom 10% of the income distribution, including many
pensioners, fall ever further behind, dependent on benefits linked
only to prices, untouched by in-work supplements.
Even on making work pay, there is a reluctance to tackle benefit-
withdrawal rates of 70%-plus, far above the "top" rate of tax.
colleague who suggested a more progressive taxation policy was
told "you won't find much support for that". And while
benefit must be targeted, billions of pounds of capital gains tax
relief have just been given indiscriminately to higher-paid private
sector employees, excluding public service workers and with no
evidence that it will increase individual or collective enterprise.
There was no further news of the Great Welfare Debate
approved by the NPF and Conference, and set for a high-profile
launch in January, but hopefully the results can be integrated into
the overall economic strategy in time for the manifesto. Finally
there is a robust defence of the Private Finance Initiative,
intended to answer criticisms once and for all. We await the
party's views with interest.
Education and Employment. Education continues to
predominate, and employment might be better shifted to the
Economy or to Industry, Culture and Agriculture. Scotland and
Wales already have their own regimes, and a Welsh colleague
pointed out smugly that standards in their schools are rising
faster without the dreaded Woodhead than they are in English
There were requests for better explanation, and justification, of
Labour's policies on comprehensive schools and on student
support, including whether tuition fees and withdrawal of grants
deter mature students and people from disadvantaged
backgrounds. Members also wanted a fuller debate on league
tables, and worried about employers' reluctance to invest in
Environment, Transport and the Regions. There are still
more questions than answers on transport, from problems of
isolation in rural areas to those of congestion in cities.
there is plenty of material for debate on whether sustainable
development, economic growth and social justice can go hand in
hand, or whether green government will call for tough choices.
Some groups were not allowed even to discuss privatisation of
air traffic control, and as this was rejected as a contemporary
issue for Conference, decisions will be made independently of
both Conference and the NPF. On the privatised utilities and
the role of the regulators, members were worried that price
controls seem to lead to sacking staff and cutting services while
shareholders' profits are sacrosanct.
Housing will be covered in a separate paper, and there are
stories that housing benefit reform has been shelved until after
the election as too hard a nut to crack in a hurry. Changes to
local government finance do not yet include returning business
rates to local control, and "best value" surely deserves more
a single paragraph. On regional governance the paper argues
that diversity between regions makes uniform or early devolution
Industry, Culture and Agriculture. The Low Pay
Commission is reviewing the operation of the national minimum
wage, and there were requests for an uprating mechanism, and
for paying young workers at the standard rate. Stephen Byers
asked what industrial relations proposals we would like to see in
Labour's second term, and instead of simply banging in the same
old request for repeal of all Tory anti-union laws, the left and the
unions ought to think seriously about priorities and about specific
Some felt that the commitment to a publicly-owned Post Office
was not watertight and did not reflect the recent Conference
decision. The role of post offices in village life was
and while it looks cost-effective to pay benefits directly into
bank accounts, the wider social impact should not be ignored.
There was also some debate about the vagaries of lottery
funding, and about the BBC licence fee in an age with dozens of
digital channels, and when people use their TV primarily for
accessing the Internet.
At the business meeting, where we talk about how the NPF
could work better, I asked again if we could see the summaries
of party views and resolutions that go to the policy commissions.
Robin Cook said he didn't see why not, but after two years I'm
not holding my breath. The commissions are a closed world,
and the structures still cut us off from the party opinion that we
were elected to represent.
Ian McCartney and Hazel Blears did a presentation on The 21st
Century Party. Ian promised that it was about empowering,
not excluding, activists; that pilot projects would be evaluated;
and that different constituencies need to operate in different
ways, for instance in rural and inner-city areas. I still think
best approach is to argue for variety, and for recommendations
based on evidence. Local policy forums were initially popular,
but now seem to be reducing to the same people who are on
General Committees. The real question is whether members'
views make a difference higher up the food chain. It doesn't
matter whether they send flipcharts from forums or resolutions
from GCs if both are equally ignored.
Interestingly Hazel, in her list of members' rights, included direct
election of constituency representatives to the NEC. So
rumours that this will be abolished because members persistently
elect the wrong people, as has already happened with the
National Constitutional Committee, surely cannot be true.
National Policy Forum representative, SouthEast CLPs
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