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Report from Ann Black: National Policy Forum 10 Nov 2001

Most of the day was spent planning the next cycle of policy-
making through to a general election in 2005 or 2006.  The
process remains broadly the same, with a three-year review of
all areas in two overlapping two-year tranches.  In the first year
on each subject discussion should look outward, drawing on the
experience of workers, citizens, experts and community groups,
while the second year consists of more formal consultation within
the party.

This time papers should be shorter and sharper, and consider a
range of options instead of pushing a single line.  New General
Secretary David Triesman stressed that the process will fail if it
suppresses debate or avoids difficult issues.  This is welcome. 
Recently the government has made radical changes in raising the
basic pension, considering restoration of student grants,
scrapping vouchers for asylum-seekers, relaxing laws on
marijuana and renationalising Railtrack, all previously rejected by
the Forum.  We should be at the leading edge of party opinion,
not trailing after ministerial whims.

The first set of topics will comprise welfare reform; health;
industry, Britain in the world; and democracy, political
engagement and citizenship.  The National Policy Forum will
meet in February to approve initial drafts for discussion from
March through to Conference 2002.  The second batch, starting
in 2003, will cover crime and justice; education and skills;
economy and employment; quality of life; and transport, housing,
local government and the regions.

Eight policy commissions will be established, mirroring
government organisation.  Five will consist of ten members: three
from government, three from the NEC, and four from the
Forum, including two constituency representatives.  These are
Britain in the World; Trade and Industry; Quality of Life (rural
affairs, agriculture, environment, media and sport); Education
and Skills; and Health.  The other three will have fifteen
members: four government, four NEC and four from the Forum,
including three from constituencies.  These are Economy,
Welfare and Work, which will cover both welfare reform and
economy and employment; Crime, Justice, Citizenship and
Equalities, which will cover both crime and democracy matters;
and Transport, Housing, Local Government and the Regions.

For cross-cutting subjects such as housing benefit and the Euro,
guidance will be issued on which commission has primary
responsibility.  Different laws in Scotland, Wales and Northern
Ireland will be fully referenced to avoid the National Policy
Forum developing an English bias.  The composition and role of
the Joint Policy Committee, which oversees the Forum's work,
will be reviewed.  And backbench peers will be able to elect
two representatives to the Forum, initially as observers.

The Weakest Link

For four years the policy commissions have been as mysterious
to most of the Forum as to every other party member.  Even the
inside few complained that meetings were called rarely and at
short notice.  From now on we expect the commissions to
schedule regular meetings and report back to the rest of the
National Policy Forum, perhaps through formal minutes since
informal accountability has failed.

They must also respond to the views of branches, constituencies,
forums and unions.  It is now universally acknowledged that
without proper feedback, members become cynical and
disillusioned.  This is particularly important in day-to-day
communication between the grassroots and the centre, a feature
of the new system promised but not yet delivered.  In future no
correspondence should go unanswered.  However, the following
warning should be noted:

    "It must be made clear to local parties that the
    Partnership in Power process represents a move away
    from the old-style resolution-based policy-making
    approach.  As such, more time, effort and resource will
    be focused on responding to submissions from local
    parties and not resolutions."

Though the distinction between resolutions and submissions may
seem silly, it is advisable to jump through the hoops.  Instead of
writing:

    "The General Committee of Middlethwaite CLP resolved
    nem con that a majority of members of the new House of
    Lords should be directly elected."

just rephrase it as:

    "A meeting of party members in Middlethwaite discussed
    proposals for the new House of Lords, and reached a
    consensus that the majority of members should be directly
    elected."

Spreading the Word

Many people felt that the Forum must do a better job of
explaining and selling the system to local parties.  Regional
offices should circulate contact details for Forum members to
constituencies, and invite them to forums, conferences and
events.  Official media spokespersons and Forum newsletters
were suggested, though I hope that representatives will continue
to produce their own reports as well.

The meeting also chose Forum officers for the coming year. 
Charles Clarke was unopposed as Chair, and Anne Snelgrove
and Margaret Wall were elected as Vice-Chairs from a field of
five candidates.  Outgoing Chair Robin Cook then proposed co-
opting Ian McCartney as a third Vice-Chair.  I found this a
bizarre manoeuvre, as Ian is well-loved and would easily have
won a place through the ballot.

Prime Minister's Questions

Tony Blair joined us for the final session, and contrary to
newspaper reports he appeared fit and not noticeably
knackered.  He acknowledged that the next election will be won
or lost on domestic issues, particularly public services.   In
response to questions, he said that reform did not mean
privatisation and we must explain this to the staff.   Education is
already showing the benefit of extra funding, though in health it
may take several more years to come through.  Social services
should be integrated with other areas rather than picking up the
pieces when they fail.  Members were also concerned about
faith-based education, though Tony Blair argued that Muslims
could resent existing Christian and Jewish schools; eager for
devolution to English regions, where he agreed in principle but
pointed to wide variations in enthusiasm; and keen for Individual
Learning Accounts to be revived in a fraud-free form.  They
were pleased about Railtrack and pleaded for Stephen Byers to
keep his job.

On the war, members thanked Tony Blair for his tremendous
efforts in maintaining world peace and stability.  The overlap of
Ramadan and Advent could give opportunities for different faiths
to show mutual solidarity through community events, and the
new law against incitement to religious hatred was welcomed,
though with reservations about whether it was strong enough. 
But they were worried about the looming winter crisis, and
asked about preparations against Osama Bin Laden's nuclear
threat.  Tony Blair responded that the capture of Mazar-e-Sharif
would provide a base for humanitarian relief.  Bin Laden may
not have nuclear weapons but has certainly tried to acquire
them.  Military action would close
down the Al-Qaeda operation in Afghanistan, and we must then deal with the
remaining tentacles elsewhere, and tackle the underlying problems of poverty
and extremism.

The Forum closed with considerable self-congratulation on
transforming the culture of political debate. I wonder.  Tony
Blair told us earlier in the week that the pressing task is to
rebuild the party from the grassroots up.  He said that while past
Labour governments fell because of internal rows, the problem
now is not a rebellious party, but an inert party.  Let us hope that
in eliminating dissent we have not also eliminated life.  Success
must be judged by the whole membership, not by the Forum
elite.  
 
Ann Black, 88 Howard Street, Oxford OX4 3BE, 01865-
722230, ablack@brookes.ac.uk
.

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