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National Policy Forum, London, 19 July 2003
 
For once the Forum had no documents to discuss, as all ten are out
with members. Submissions must be in by 2 October for the
second-wave first-year documents, which will be revised in
November and reissued for further consultation, returning to the
Forum in July 2004. The deadline for comments on the first-wave
second-year documents is 12 November 2003, and the Forum will
agree them next March. All ten will then be signed off at the 2004
conference. (If you are still confused, please see:
http://www.annblack.com/partnership_made_easy.htm  or contact
your local representative.)
 
Instead the day was devoted to cross-cutting themes, and the
workings of the Forum itself. Opening in sombre mood Ian
McCartney, John Prescott and Gordon Brown expressed sympathy
for the family of Dr David Kelly, and called for a period of restraint,
reflection and respect. Ian McCartney promised a review of
Partnership in Power after the next election, but stressed its
superiority over the old policy-making system, which only involved a
handful of members. Now thousands can contribute. Policy
commissions must deal effectively with issues as they arise, in
dialogue with ministers and members.
 
Gordon Brown highlighted achievements so far, with youth
unemployment slashed, half a million children lifted out of poverty,
and a fairer tax system, with the richest paying 54% under Labour
as against 44% under the Tories. Further measures, such as the
pensioner’s credit, were in the pipeline. Labour must also tackle the
ravages of TB, HIV/AIDS and other illnesses in the developing
world.
 
He and John Prescott then took questions. On the euro, Gordon
said that if Britain joined under the right conditions, trade would
increase by 50% over 30 years, transaction costs would fall, and
growth would rise, but Labour must not repeat the Tory mistakes
with the ERM. He recognised that the Private Finance Initiative was
not popular with party members, but argued that it brought extra
investment, and promised that workers would not be exploited.
Manufacturing was vitally important, and 220,000 young people
were in modern apprenticeships. The old system of student support
could not be sustained with current numbers, but now there were no
up-front charges to deter people.
 
John Prescott hoped that English regional government would
acquire more powers, but referenda in the North, NorthEast and
NorthWest would at least put the framework in place. He agreed
that top-up fees and foundation trusts had not come through the
Forum, but what mattered most was the character of debate,
wherever it was held. Trade unions, councillors, and others always
opened conversations with “Yes, Labour has done lots of good
things, BUT . . .” It was time for more “Yes” and less “But”.
 
Crystal Balls
 
Liam Byrne introduced a paper on Britain in 2020, written to
simulate discussion within the Labour party. It speculates on shifts
in medicine from diagnose-and-cure to predict-and-prevent, the
effects of climate change, the ageing population, and growth in
computer power, with fridges automatically ordering food. I recall
that twenty years ago, forecasters thought the main problem would
be how to fill our leisure time, but more people now work longer
hours than in 1984. These attempts may be similarly wide of the
mark. However there are many fascinating numbers: for instance
only 15% of the population trust political parties and 20% the press,
but 39% trust the trade unions.
 
Hazel Blears MP cited research from Switzerland showing that
democracy makes people happier. She suggested promoting
community involvement through letting people do voluntary work
without loss of benefits, and encouraging employers to grant time
off. Alan Whitehead MP took a less rosy view in posing a series of
choices. How would we handle the gap between the technology-
rich majority and the technology-poor minority? Should we attempt
to meet the demands of demographic change and constant mobility,
or try to slow the process down? And most importantly, how do we
maintain collective decision-making in a fractured society, with
citizens as consumers and spectators, working from home and
buying from the internet, susceptible to manipulation by single-issue
lobbyists?
 
Joined-Up Thinking
 
For the afternoon we split into groups, and I chose Rights and
Responsibilities. Some thought the main problem was instilling
responsibility into the benefit-dependent culture on sink estates. I
felt that this was too easy a target. Local and central government
can punish low-income trouble-makers by cutting their benefits or
evicting them from council houses, but have no leverage over
wealthy lager louts or arrogant owner-occupiers. Others argued that
the government had sweeping responsibilities to explain, consult
and listen which it did not always demonstrate, especially in
obstructing European social measures. The fashionable subject of
corporate social responsibility was explored, and businesses were
asked to get involved in providing jobs for local people, rather than
just sitting on committees. And there appeared to be consensus
that equality of outcome, not just of opportunity, should not be
abandoned by the Labour party.
 
Brief reportbacks from the other groups followed. On Multi-Level
Democracy, people asked for more pluralism and multiplicity with
less fragmentation, if these are compatible. Real powers should be
devolved. The Science and Risk workshop wanted to convey the
excitement of science and publicise the benefits of the MMR
vaccine and new foods, instead of being driven by media fears.
Poor countries should share in the benefits of development in
pharmaceuticals and agriculture.
 
The Helping Families group argued for extended childcare and the
right for parents to work part-time and flexible hours. Key workers
were defined too narrowly and there was too little affordable housing
all round. Changing Demographics also called for flexibility to
accommodate an ageing population. They criticised the national
obsessions with having baths, and felt that walk-in showers would
require much less work in adapting homes for the infirm. (I think I
have got this straight, but personally I intend to enjoy hot baths well
into old age.)
 
Getting Better
 
During the lunch-break, members were invited to write suggestions
for improvement on big flip-charts, and these were followed up in
the final session. After six years there is growing acceptance that
Forum members should be able to read what members send, either
through visiting the files at Old Queen Street, or eventually on the
website. More constituencies are holding policy forums, but
worryingly some do not bother sending the results to the party. For
example Mid-Bedfordshire feels that “attending local policy forums
is pointless, because the big policy decisions are made by the
hierarchy of the party and not at local level”. The challenge is to
start providing evidence that ordinary members can indeed make a
difference. Egging constituencies on to hold more forums will
simply widen the gap between what members expect and what the
party can deliver.
 
Members were keen to raise the Forum’s profile, and hoped that
contact details could be displayed on the website. But regrettably
we still have a two-tier Forum. Constituency representatives are
elected at the annual conference and accountable to it, but get no
help with travel or accommodation, and have to pay £82.25 even to
register. Some are still at school, others have families, but all must
find hundreds of pounds out of their own pockets, or stay home like
Cinderella. The same applies to socialist society representatives.
Meanwhile trade union delegates get hotel and travel bills paid,
allowances for meals, sometimes reimbursement for loss of
earnings, and all the fun of the fair. This discrimination is
unacceptable in a PFI scheme and it ought to be unacceptable in
the Labour party.
 
Full reports from the National Policy Forum and the NEC are
available at http://www.annblack.com  or from
Ann Black, ann.black@unisonfree.net 
 
 
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