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National Policy Forum, 3 February 2007

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.

Tough Choices

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.  
 
Health Scares

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?

Under Fire

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.”

Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this to be
circulated to members – and supporters - as a personal account, not
an official record.  Past reports are at www.annblack.com
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