Yesterday I attended my first ever National Policy Forum. I’m sure there were plenty there who have been old hands on the Forum who will have more to compare the day to, but my impression of the day was a combination of real optimism, and a strong sense of the need to build a narrative of opposition.
Ed’s speech was well received in the hall, and the Q & A was policy focused with questions on how we fight the ConDems and their cuts while also building a sense of what Labour would do differently. There was a strong sense that we need answers for the doorsteps in time for the May election – not fleshed out policies, but an understanding of direction. Ed’s speech had a certain amount of that in it, but this will need to be fleshed out over the next few weeks.
The forum itself spent its time equally divided between discussing policy and discussing how to make policy in a modern Labour movement.
There were five policy sessions overall of which each delegate attended two. I attended the economy and the welfare reform sessions. At both there was a real senses of discipline from the shadow ministers that they were there to listen, not to tell us the answers. This – I understand – is quite a change from previous times, and one which most delegates found welcome, though again they were pushing for a sense of the parameters. The format still needs some work, because while each delegate was able to say their piece, this happened in the round, and it was not as discursive – and therefore not as in depth – as it should be. I discussed this with others and there was a general sense that this would come as we delved more into the detail of policy.
Key themes coming out of the economy session was a strong sense that Labour needed to be stronger on a sense of managing the economy. That we can’t be anti-business, but neither should we pander and that getting that balance right was essential.
From welfare reform the main thrust was that there was a general level of support both from the attendant Shadow Minister and the group for the idea of a simplified universal benefit, and that the support of the party would be in pushing to ensure it was done right, not that it was just done. The other key theme delegates returned to over and over again was housing and the importance of fighting the incredibly regressive ConDem measures on cuts to housing benefit. There was a real sense that this could be our first win over the government, as the measures – especially the 10% cut in housing benefit after being on job seekers allowance for a year – were just so unjustifiable, not least at a time of high unemployment.
While we tried to set out early narratives on these important issues, the real thing we were discussing at this meeting was how to make policy. The root and branch reform of our policy making processes was generally welcomed, and Liam Byrne and Peter Hain did as good a job as possible of convincing the cynics that it was going to be a real process. The real danger here is that people are so cynical after many years of top down policy imposition, that they won’t feed into the process. If they don’t, the process will then only hear from the people who favour the status quo – so I urge ordinary members to get involved. To make your voices heard. If it helps, I can be a right old cynic, and I was convinced yesterday that they really are listening.
Overall it was a day of two quite conflicting feelings that I think probably reflect the feelings of the wider Labour Party at the moment. Firstly that the idea of the members having a real say in policy making was long overdue and highly welcome and secondly that we need some parameters set now to give us clear messages for the doorstep. That’s a tightrope Ed and his team are going to have to walk over the coming weeks. But most people I spoke to were realistic about the task the party faces but optimistic about our ability to do so.