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Thursday, 28 August 2014

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 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  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.

Conclusion

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 here, with earlier reports at www.annblack.com.

Ann Black, 88 Howard Street, Oxford OX4 3BE, 07956-637958, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it