Missed opportunity

First published on Progressonline

What the National Policy Forum might have been

This month Labour’s National Policy Forum will meet in Milton Keynes to hammer out the final stages of the party’s policy process, and, in theory, decide the policies that will go into the manifesto.
We could not be meeting in a more symbolic location – win here, and Labour will be on course for an overall majority next May. The voters outside the hall, who should be our focus, need more than a pledge card offering simply to reverse, abolish or reform elements of the coalition government’s programme. Equally, the agenda we present must be credible and affordable.

Labour’s policy review coordinator Jon Cruddas has made impressive efforts to align the reform of the economy, civic renewal in our cities and decentralisation of power. This has been underpinned by the Condition of Britain report, the Adonis growth review and the local government innovation taskforce: three substantive contributions to the policy process which add up to more than the sum of their parts.

But rather than decide the broad direction and put the meat on One Nation bones – affirm a decentralising agenda, decide the scale and nature of reform to our economy, debate whether £1bn of new investment is best put into the upfront costs of universal childcare, building new homes or High Speed Three – the weekend will end up focusing on issues we all already agree need action: low pay, zero-hours contracts, putting the NHS back together.

While these are important, and will make a real difference to working people, the minutiae of our differences threaten to crowd out the wider debate that will decide so much more. Debates on the nature, shape and future of power relationships and public services, like those regularly undertaken by the One Nation group of members of parliament, will not feature at the NPF. It is weaker for it.

So what must change? First, pick the big issues that will define the next generation for Britain – the squeeze in living standards, the promise that our children do better than their parents, the nature and funding of our public services – and start a considered conversation with party and union members. Second, debate the options open to Labour in government – centralising versus decentralising power, wealth and opportunity. Third, bring in those who have governed in these difficult times to help guide people through the choices, vested interests and the pitfalls along the way. Not only those in the Obama administration eager to help Labour, but our local government leaders who have earned respect for the way they have avoided the Tory beartrap of austerity and led renewal in Labour local authorities.

That four-year process would have led us nicely to this weekend and an opportunity to debate some of the big choices it had set out for us – a chance for the difficult and shared sacrifices that governing demands of us to become an endeavour shared by the different wings of the Labour party. Instead, we are likely to spend two days engaged in a line-by-line examination of a programme which will tell us little about the vision, direction and challenges facing an incoming Labour government next May.

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Richard Angell is deputy director of Progress

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