Day trip to Gillingham, looking for some fresh ideas
I've had an interesting, if rather cold, trip to Gillingham for the Labour National Policy Forum.
It was the first NPF meeting I had been to and I gather somewhat innovative in that the emphasis was on the delegates rather than senior politicians speaking, and the workshops were about contemporary issues, not the 2015 Manifesto.
The business part of the meeting saw Peter Hain confirmed as Chair and Simon Burgess, Kate Green MP and Billy Hayes of CWU as Vice-Chairs. There was an odd moment when leftwinger George McManus was nominated but refused to run against Simon unless there was a secret ballot...
Ed Miliband gave a good speech (http://www.labourlist.org/ed-milibands-npf-speech) without notes. I was pleased to hear him reaffirm support for the union link. The tone of the policy stuff is where it should be - a full rethink (including external and public input) but with a clear steer towards policy solutions that tackle the problems facing the "squeezed middle" in society, as well as a prioritisation of dealing with climate change and strengthening communities. He also touched on banking reform, promoting hi-tech manufacturing, and the Living Wage. For me the key passage in Ed's speech was this:
"Why do I say we have to move beyond New Labour? Not because the New Labour approach was wrong, it was right in many ways. Social justice and economic efficiency. Creating wealth as well as distributing it. Appealing to all sections of society.
All of those things are right but the truth is we got many thing right in government and some things wrong, we have to face up to that. And also the world has changed dramatically. Our last big renewal was in 1994. That’s why this process of renewal is so important for our party."
As a councillor I also liked this bit "we have to be the people who stand up for local democracy and local control over public services".
Liam Byrne, the man running the review, made it clear that it would not involve us "retreating to a monastery for five years to count angels on pinheads" and that in parallel and as part of the review we needed to be campaigning and connecting with communities.
Peter Hain launched the review of Partnership in Power (sic) our policy-making process, saying "We need to change as a party to be a changed Labour for the next general election. We got a hammering at the election and therefore we need to learn those lessons".
All delegates took part in workshops about PiP. I made the point in the one I attended that whilst the NPF might be working for the people on it, the lower levels of policy forum (at CLP and regional level) had atrophied or disappeared so there was nothing feeding up ideas to the NPF at the apex. Many delegates also called for a proper audit trail of what happens to policy submissions from the grassroots. Peter Hain seems keen to deliver this. I also made the point that we lack a party platform - a "direction of travel" or strategic statement that sits between the statement of values in Clause IV and the detail of party policy. Our European sister parties usually renew their party platforms every decade or so with the decision sitting with the membership. I feel that if the Party had the chance to vote on this broad direction of travel statement, it would be more relaxed about shadow ministers finessing the detail of policy. As it is we have not had a broad debate like this since New Clause IV in 1995, and the major strategic debate between Brown and Blair over the extent and nature of public service reform occurred without any overarching formal debate by the wider Party.
The other workshops I attended were on constitutional reform, where I argued for AV but said that the Party should not take sides in the referendum; and on welfare reform, where I learnt about the potentially dreadful impact of the Coalition move to cut housing benefit by 10% for anyone unemployed for over a year.
If you want to contribute to Labour's policy review sign-up here: http://fresh-ideas.org.uk/
Overall the NPF meeting demonstrated a Party that is remarkably united and upbeat, and looks like it has skipped the period of internecine warfare and leftwards lurches that has historically followed our defeats.