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Ann Black, NEC

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National Policy Forum, 18/20 July 2014, Milton Keynes

@ 7:24 pm, Sun 27th Jul 2014

 

National Policy Forum, Milton Keynes, 18/20 July 2014

 

Like the last pre-election Forum in 2008 this was held on the hottest weekend of the year, but there the similarities ceased, and not just with the move from Warwick University to Milton Keynes.  For the most part constructive dialogue and willingness to compromise outweighed arm-twisting, and all sections of the movement could co-operate instead of being played off against each other.

 

The Chair Angela Eagle opened by invoking the spirit of 1945 and Labour’s manifesto “Let us Face the Future”, committed to decent housing, jobs for all, and an end to want and poverty.  Now, with a million people dependent on foodbanks, the most vulnerable hit hardest by the Tories and the NHS under threat, we had to translate our timeless values into today’s political situation.  Money would be short after the general election, but social justice could be achieved by big reforms rather than big spending.

 

Overture

 

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said that people were relying on Labour to tackle NHS waiting times and zero-hours contracts, and to get the deficit down in a fair way while delivering real change and rising living standards.  Labour would build homes, reform the energy market, introduce technical degrees, repeat the bank bonus tax, restore the 50% tax rate on income above £150,000, raise the minimum wage faster than inflation, and promote the living wage.

 

Members asked about public sector pay, inheritance tax, payday lenders, Europe, and the Scottish referendum.  Ed Balls hoped that 300 years of working together in the United Kingdom would continue, and feared that Nissan, Toyota and other international companies would pull out if we withdrew from Europe.  He said that Labour had to show fiscal responsibility, but disagreed with George Osborne’s unfair attitude towards public service workers.  He would introduce a mansion tax for properties worth more than £2 million and bring back the 10% tax band, helping everyone who earned over £10,000.

 

Leading the Way

 

Party leader Ed Miliband addressed the Forum on the following day.  He expressed deep concern about the plane shot down over Ukraine and the escalating violence in Gaza, as well as the continuing war in Syria.  He reinforced Ed Balls’ economic messages and emphasised fair pay, both at the top and the bottom; rising inequality should not be a fact of life, and it was wrong that one in five people in work were still below the poverty line.  Labour would enforce the minimum wage, deal with exploitation, scrap the bedroom tax and give private tenants more protection.  He paid tribute to councillors and to party members and promised to build a country that works for everyone.

 

Responding to comments, he recognised the disproportionate impact of Tory cuts on women and on the disabled, bringing some to the edge of despair.  He acknowledged that employment tribunal fees had led to a 79% fall in cases, and said that these, and legal aid, needed a different approach.  He reassured NHS workers that Labour would not impose yet more upheavals, but simply drop the competitive ideology of the health and social care act while taking forward Andy Burnham’s plans for integration.  He agreed that rural areas faced particular problems with transport, broadband and other services, and Labour would develop specific policies for the manifesto. [NB South Norfolk CLP have put together a comprehensive list of ideas - contact Jack Eddy at  jack.eddy@btinternet.com for a copy.]    

 

Ed Miliband strongly endorsed the Better Together campaign.  With 16-year-olds voting on Scotland’s future, there was now momentum behind allowing them to take part in all UK elections.  He noted predictions of an 80% turnout for the referendum, and hoped to convince people that their vote in the general election mattered just as much.  On climate change and biodiversity he stressed the economic case for green jobs, but above that, climate change was the ultimate challenge to short-termism. 

 

Round Table Talks

 

Before entering detailed negotiations there were group discussions of areas which had attracted most amendments:  housing, the NHS, defence, public transport, schools, and low pay.  Tristram Hunt led the education session, which focused on David Blunkett’s proposals for directors of school standards (DSS), appointed by local authorities and working with councils and the community, to provide a “middle tier” between schools and the secretary of state.   He said that nearly 30% of children were enrolled in free schools and academies, and simply returning to the old local education authorities was not an option.  However questions were asked about how the new DSSs would be held to account.

 

I also attended the session on Trident where, in the spirit of glasnost, Jeremy Corbyn was invited to put the case against renewal.  He was outnumbered, though not outgunned, by Malcolm Chalmers from the Royal United Services Institute and spokesmen from Unite and the GMB.  Malcolm Chalmers said that if Britain did not already have nuclear weapons we would not acquire them.  They would only be relevant if there was a nuclear threat to the UK, if the United States was not on our side, and if their use was morally justified, a combination of circumstances which he described as very very unlikely.  This really answered Jeremy Corbyn’s question:  what credible threat would be deterred by nuclear weapons?

 

The unions focused on protecting defence jobs in Barrow, Faslane and elsewhere, though their estimated numbers were many times those of the frontbench.   Maintaining a highly-skilled workforce required making nuclear submarines continuously and indefinitely, with a steady drumbeat of design and production, regardless of cost or purpose.  A lively but good-tempered discussion followed. 

  

Close Encounters

 

The rest of Friday and Saturday was spent in conversations with shadow ministers about our own amendments.  Below I’ve tracked the six that I put forward:

 

First, police and crime commissioners.  I’d proposed abolishing PCCs and restoring local democratic governance.  The frontbench were still consulting on the recommendations of the Stevens review of policing, and so I and others agreed to await assessment of what reforms might be needed. 

 

Second, tuition fees.  The frontbench accepted my growing alarm at the financial unsustainability of the Tory/LibDem system.  Current predictions showed that nearly half the money lent to students would never be repaid because they would not earn enough, blowing a multi-million pound hole in the higher education budget.  Government policies, including restrictions on student visas, were also damaging part-time and postgraduate student numbers. 

 

Unfortunately we could not make progress on calls for fees to be scrapped, substantially reduced, or changed to a graduate tax, and ended up with a statement of principle:

 

"The next Labour government believes that there should be sustained public investment in further and higher education due to its role in creating a fair and prosperous society.  Any funding model should move away from increasing fees and debt and towards a model of entitlement for students and contributions from graduates in order to ensure that the next generation can also benefit from higher education provision.”

 

We were promised an announcement later this year when costed plans have been worked out.

 

Third, universal credit.  The incoming Labour government would conduct a full review, and problems with principles and practicalities were acknowledged, including its interaction with up to 26 “passported” benefits linked to out-of-work support.  So far universal credit had been rolled out only to young single people with no dependants, the most straightforward group.  Labour would switch payment of child-related elements from the main earner to the main carer, and ensure that work would pay for both the first and second earners in a couple, though some doubted if this could be done within the overall budget.  The option of scrapping universal credit entirely was implicit in the agreed wording.

 

Fourth, pensioners.  As I expected, I failed to get winter fuel allowance added to the state pension and taxed, instead of means-tested.  There was more success on protecting pensioners who are no longer required to buy an annuity and might run out of cash.  Labour was pressing for a full risk assessment to ensure that there were no unintended consequences for individuals or public finances. 

 

The agreed wording included support for the single-tier state pension, while continuing the minimum income guarantee for those already retired or without sufficient qualifying years.  Labour would also explore how to reduce the threshold for auto-enrolment in pension schemes from £10,000 to the national insurance lower earnings limit, currently £5,772.  I am not sure about this: the amounts saved may be too low to provide a decent top-up for the state pension, and could come as a shock to people who believe that they are providing for their old age.  In addition, tax relief would be restricted for the very highest earners, which I think means cutting it to 20% for those in the 50% band.

 

Fifth, enhancing democracy.  Most of my suggestions did not survive.  The final wording said that Labour would pilot secure systems for electronic voting and electoral registration on polling day, and consider piloting elections on days other than Thursday.  Proportional representation for local government, job-sharing for councillors and MPs, compulsory voting, and allowing British citizens living abroad to continue voting indefinitely all attracted little support, and disappeared.

 

Trident Continued

 

Sixth, Trident.  At the first meeting on Friday the frontbench offered to strengthen the words on Britain’s leading role in global multilateral disarmament and non-proliferation, and to hold an open, inclusive and transparent debate in the run-up to the next strategic defence and security review in 2015.  A few amendments were withdrawn at that stage, and more at a second meeting in the evening when the impact on the Scottish referendum was raised.  But for most of us, representing the 44 local parties which supported decommissioning without replacement, the sticking point was the sentence

 

“Labour will rightly continue to scrutinise sources of evidence to ensure the deterrent is delivered in the most cost-effective and strategic way.”

 

This pre-empted the outcome of the 2015 review and presumed that Britain would retain nuclear weapons, with only delivery methods up for discussion.  We could not get it removed.  

 

If the Forum had followed the pattern of previous occasions, it would have stopped there.  The unions and the frontbench would have stayed up till 5 a.m. on Sunday, negotiating on a range of employment issues and, in return, voting down any pesky left-wing amendments in the final session.  Instead talks continued through Saturday with union representatives helping to mediate, and agreement was reached at 10 p.m.  The sentence was dropped, the 2015 review would examine all capabilities including nuclear, and it would cover cost implications as well as strategic necessities.  The document still states

 

“Labour has said that we are committed to a minimum, credible independent nuclear deterrent, delivered through a continuous at-sea deterrent.  It would require a clear body of evidence for us to change this belief.” 

 

but this reflects current, not necessarily future, policy.  It can be changed. 

 

Conclusions

 

Meanwhile discussions elsewhere reached consensus on disability rights, taking competition out of the NHS, tribunal fees, legal aid, zero-hours and short-hours contracts, agency workers, immigration, local government funding, housing, the Middle East, the minimum wage, the living wage, Royal Mail, the railways, science and technology, mental health, fracking, animal welfare, Lords reform, reducing smoking and consumption of alcohol, fats and sugar, reaffirming all-women shortlists, youth services, careers advice, sexual and relationship education, and even the 11-plus (recognising that selection at age 11 damaged education for all children, but stopping short of abolishing existing grammar schools).

 

By Sunday morning almost everything had been resolved.  Partly this resulted from advance work, particularly with the unions, and while some tabled wording showed signs of having been agreed before the Forum started, this seemed more sensible than starting at square one with only 48 hours to get to a conclusion.  And partly from a willingness to meet halfway from both sides, including the shadow ministerial teams, for which Angela Eagle, and also Ed Miliband as leader, deserve credit.

 

Just one amendment remained:  George McManus’s addition of the words

 

“We recognise that the cost of living crisis is inextricably linked to government’s self-deflating austerity agenda.  That is why we will introduce an emergency budget in 2015 to reject Tory spending plans for 2015/16 and beyond and set out how we will pursue a policy of investment for jobs and growth.”

 

Most similar amendments had been withdrawn in favour of wording which said that Labour would take a different approach from the current government, setting out policies for jobs and growth, tackling wealth and income inequality, driving up wages, and maintaining the universal principle in a social security system which worked to end poverty.  Changes to the 2015/16 spending plans would be fully costed and set out in the manifesto.  Unsurprisingly the amendment was lost by 14 votes in favour to 125 against.

 

So it was a rewarding weekend compared with past unpleasantnesses, and hopefully the outcome will inspire activists, supporters and voters.  But while constituency representatives made real efforts to take forward amendments from local parties the Forum is still, unlike annual conference, a closed process, and the wider membership has to judge whether they have been sufficiently heard.

 

Questions and comments are welcome, and I am happy for this to be circulated to members as a personal account, not an official record.  Reports of meetings from July 2008 onwards are at http://www.labourblogs.com/public-blog/annblack, with earlier reports at www.annblack.com.

 

Ann Black, 88 Howard Street, Oxford OX4 3BE, 07956-637958, annblack50@btinternet.com

NEC Election / National Policy Forum Update

Tags: nec npf  
@ 8:26 am, Fri 11th Jul 2014
NEC Election

 

Ballot papers for the six constituency places will arrive soon, with on- line voting from Monday 14 July and the poll closing on Monday 18 August.  All members who were paid up at 26 June 2014 are entitled to vote:  if you haven't received anything by 21 July, you should apply for replacement papers before 11 August.

 

Thank you to the 220 constituencies who nominated me, and I hope you will consider giving me your individual support.   If re-elected I will continue representing your views and reporting back from the NEC and the National Policy Forum, as I have done for 15 years.  Accounts from July 2008 onwards are at

 

 

with earlier meetings at

 

 

Countdown to May 2015

 

For the next ten months nothing matters more than winning the general election.  Thanks are owed to all candidates, particularly those in key marginals who are putting their lives into the campaign, and to everyone who knocks on doors, stuffs envelopes and delivers leaflets for Labour.  Good wishes also for the Scottish referendum, which will affect everyone in all parts of the (currently) United Kingdom.

 

As well as first-class organisation, Labour needs policies which are both principled and popular.  The Tories have set the unemployed against the working poor, public services against private business, unions against consumers, young against old, newcomers against longstanding residents, Britain against the rest of Europe.  Labour must refuse to scapegoat claimants and foreigners, offer hope instead of endless austerity, and unite the country around a fair society and an economy which works for everyone.

 

The Road to the Manifesto

 

The National Policy Forum on 18/20 July will start to build a programme for government.  Each NPF member could submit only six amendments to the final-stage documents, and I read through more than 1000 put forward by local parties before deciding.  Some issues - the living wage, tribunal fees, zero-hours contracts, the NHS, Royal Mail, reversing NHS privatisation and taking the railways back into public ownership - attracted strong support.  I didn't include them because I know the unions will put them on the agenda, and chose topics which might otherwise not be discussed.  I ended up with:

 

1)  Police and crime commissioners:  I proposed abolishing the posts and restoring local democratic governance to the police service.

 

2)  Tuition fees:  some constituencies wanted fees scrapped altogether, some asked for a reduction from £9,000, and some proposed switching to a graduate tax.  I included all these as options, along with concerns about the growing deficit in university funding.

 

3)  Universal credit:   there were surprisingly few amendments on social security, maybe because these are at the very end of the Work and Business paper.  I've asked for a review covering not only the problems with computer systems but also the financial disincentives for the second earner in a couple, the effects of making payment to one member within a household, and the consequences for child support if parents separate.  The review should establish whether UC is capable of being rescued or whether a Labour government will need to start from first principles.

 

4)  Pensioners:  I proposed that the winter fuel allowance should be added to total income and taxed at the appropriate rate, simpler and fairer than means-testing for the top 5%, and that all pension contributions should attract tax relief at the same basic rate.  Also, now that people no longer have to buy an annuity on retirement, Labour should aim to ensure that pensioners do not run out of money and spend their final years in poverty.

 

5)  Enhancing democracy:  constituency suggestions for the Better Politics paper ranged widely, and I included as many as I could: moving elections from Thursdays to weekends; developing secure on-line voting; allowing people to register and vote at polling stations on election day; consulting on compulsory voting; considering proportional representation in local government; looking at job-sharing for councillors and for MPs; and allowing the six million British citizens who live outside the UK to retain their right to vote instead of losing it after 15 years.  I support some more strongly than others, but they all reflect currents of party opinion, and all deserve discussion.

 

6)  Trident:  around 50 constituencies submitted amendments on this, with all but a handful completely opposed to replacement.  Reasons included loss of relevance to security in the modern world, commitment to global nuclear disarmament, and huge costs at a time when money is tight.  Instead, billions of pounds could be reallocated to public services, to better equipment for conventional armed forces, and to future growth industries such as renewable energy, with support for workers in the nuclear weapons programme whose jobs and skills might otherwise be lost.

 

The NPF works through face-to-face negotiations between proposers of amendments and shadow ministers.  The aim is to reach consensus on wording which all participants can sign up to, and this is possible in many areas.  It will be difficult with Trident, where opinion is so overwhelmingly on one side that I believe it should go forward for debate at annual conference, where local parties are directly represented.  However this will only happen if the trade unions support constituencies' right to choose.  It will be an interesting weekend.

 

I'd be grateful for comments on the above, and please let me know if there are other issues which you'd like me to follow up.

 

Finally, MPs/MEPs have already elected their NEC representatives for 2014/2016.  Margaret Beckett was unopposed and Steve Rotheram was successful in the ballot but sadly Dennis Skinner lost his seat.  He is succeeded by John Healey.  From the time I joined the NEC in 2000 Dennis has provided a living link from Labour's past into the 21st century, and Tony Blair always listened to him with respect.  His wisdom and experience will be missed and hopefully he will be back before too long.

 

NB  More information about other centre-left grassroots alliance candidates is at

 

 

which includes a link to a two-page A4 flyer.

 

Ann Black, 88 Howard Street, Oxford OX4 3BE, 07956-637958, annblack50@btinternet.com

 


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