Ed sets out his stall: an NPF member reports from Gillingham

by Richard Costello

Labour’s national policy forum met yesterday at Gillingham FC’s Priestfield Stadium for the first time since it was elected at its Manchester conference. More importantly, it was the first time since Ed Miliband was elected leader. Rather less importantly, it was also the first meeting since I was elected as the West Midland’s youth representative.

As I entered the conference venue and collected my credentials I was greeted by a pile of reports and banners entitled “New politics. Fresh ideas”. In contrast to the message of the day, however, was evidence of the same old petty disputes and dissent from the usual suspects during the opening exchanges of the day’s first plenary. Following the rubber-stamping of Peter Hain as chair of the NPF, there was a hint of disunity during the election of vice chair. Simon Burgess and left winger George McManus were both nominated from the floor and a decision on who to elect was due to be made until in dramatic fashion McManus withdrew due to the chair’s (Norma Stephenson’s) insistence that there not be a secret ballot, but a show of hands instead. I guess some things never change.

Peter Hain sought to allay the fears of members in his opening remarks as chair by declaring that “there would be more influence for party members” and that the NPF would be “more transparent”, before introducing the main event, Ed Miliband’s keynote address.

The speech had been built up as Ed’s chance to renew the party and define his leadership. I thought he delivered on both.

Ed began the meat of his speech by declaring that “the next election is as much about us as it is about them (the government)”. He told us that the Labour party must reform itself before it can ask the country to vote for it again. As the country and the way in which we do politics have changed, so must the Labour party to match this. Ed seemed to get this and while today wasn’t quite a clause IV moment, it was still a very important step on the journey back to power. In Ed’s own words “the party hasn’t renewed itself since 1994” and today was “an opportunity to do so”. By referencing 1994, Ed elicited images of Blair and his great reforms of the nineties, parallels which would continue later in his address.

The opportunity Ed mentioned was seized upon. His determination to re-connect Labour with the people as an engaging movement “rooted in people’s lives” was clear to see. As well as understanding that Labour must be a party which reaches out to the public, he tackled probably the biggest elephant in the room, and tackled it head-on: the system which elected him as leader. Boldly, Ed discredited the system by saying that it “should be a thing of the past for people to have more than one vote in the leadership election”. In doing so, Ed showed that he is a leader not afraid to make difficult decisions.

Today wasn’t a day for detail, but Ed did give us a flavour a different Labour party, a Labour party more concerned with civil liberties, climate change and the excesses of the City. In short, this was Ed’s pitch to the public and his attempt at defining himself and moulding the party around that image.

He finished his speech by evoking memories of Blair and that famous speech outside the Royal Festival Hall by echoing the former Prime Minister’s declaration that Labour once again is “the people’s party”. One can only hope that Ed’s words match up to Blair’s actions in reforming us as a movement ready to govern again.

The questions and comments from the floor which followed the speech were remarkably positive. It was a friendly audience. One of the speakers from the floor was the midwife who delivered his new child Samuel.

Aside from Ed Miliband and Peter Hain, today had one other important character, Liam Byrne. Liam is leading the party’s policy review, a process which Ed’s renewal programme relies on for so much. Liam described the policy review as “a wake-up call” and seemed to signal change by saying that the “public don’t want a New Labour groundhog day”. In making such remarks, Liam showed that he understood the significance of the day and clearly signalled a new pluralistic era in Labour politics.

There does seem to be a genuine will to make the NPF and indeed the party as a whole more transparent and open. The discussions and seminars with shadow ministers that followed the speeches seemed to be genuine two-way exchanges. Whether things continue that way, only time will tell.

Miliband’s leadership will only succeed if those high ideals are realised. Ed has set his stall out and now he must deliver.

Richard Costello is a member of the national policy forum. He writes in a personal capacity.

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7 Responses to “Ed sets out his stall: an NPF member reports from Gillingham”

  1. Syzygy says:

    I totally agree with Ed M’s direction of travel but as always the devil is in the detail.

    I am somewhat alarmed by the appointment of Liam Byrne in such an important role.
    If Byrne’s sense of humour is also indicative of his ability to connect, collate and synthesise, I’m even more alarmed. He is not the greatest communicator on the television. I always find him disturbingly smug but perhaps that’s just me… perhaps someone might give him a bit of positive critical feedback!

  2. Chris says:

    Where is the break from the past when you have someone like Liam Byrne leading this review? Mr Byrne was so politically inept that he scored a huge own goal by leaving that silly, immature letter at the treasury when our party left office.
    Also, we have been here before with ‘reviews’ but people are never listened to. What hope change when the Labour party HQ can’t even reply to e mails? The problem with our party hiearachy and regional offices is that they are run by careerists and hangers on.

  3. ZED45 says:

    @Syzygy & @Chris

    Yes Liam Byrne made a foolish error with his silly note. His “working with Liam Byrne” memo did n’t do him many favours either. but…

    Have a look at his constituency, Birmingham Hodge Hill – a diverse Birmingham seat, traditionally Labour but with a big Lib Dem share, lets look at the votes:

    Byrne was elected in 2004 in a byelection, he beat the lib dem candidate by less than a thousand votes

    A year later in the GE his % of vote went up from 36% to 48%. In 2010, when the national swing was against Labour his share of the vote went UP from 48% to 52% with a 3.6% swing to Labour. He had been in Brown’s cabinet and still increased his vote share.


    Fair play to him – if he can increase his share of the vote in these conditions he is exactly the right person to do this review.

  4. Chris says:


    “Mr Byrne was so politically inept that he scored a huge own goal by leaving that silly, immature letter at the treasury when our party left office.”

    At the time and for a couple of months afterwards I did think Byrne should have been shot for his letter but its blown over.

    “The problem with our party hiearachy and regional offices is that they are run by careerists and hangers on.”

    WTF do you mean by this snot? You can’t run the party purely on unpaid volunteers, somebody has to work full time to organise things and once you have a full time job shouldn’t the employee have career advancement prospects?

    The problem with the party is there aren’t enough people paid to work full time in seats to organise and campaign.

  5. AnneJGP says:

    Thank you, Richard, a very interesting article. I was also interested to read, in the quote from the Observer (Sunday New Review, below), that Mr Miliband wants Labour to re-launch itself as a “genuine community organisation” that embraces non-members.

    Obviously embracing non-members could be carried too far – so that being a Labour member becomes meaningless – but I do believe that Mr Miliband is on to something.

    It seems to me that, whilst only a few have the time or energy to be a traditional activist, practically everybody has it in them to be a good neighbour. Good neighbours are important, most especially so to people who are disadvantaged in any way. If Labour could actively encourage their voters to be conspicuously good neighbours, Labour would become associated with being a “good neighbour” itself.

    It really does seem to me that the main reason Labour fell from public favour in 1979 and stayed out of favour so long is that it became so totally identified with thuggish & violent behaviour. Then Mr Blair was electable because he seemed a “nice chap” and, in the public view, recast Labour in his own image: a party of nice chaps & chappesses.

    Likewise, it seems to me that a major reason Labour fell from favour in May was again the association with thuggishness – this time on a personal level. Keith Darlington’s recent article (Miliband must resist the evils of spin) speaks of “the factionalism of the Blair/Brown era”. Remember Alistair Darling’s accusation of the Forces of Hell? That was a Labour man describing Labour behaviour towards himself.

    There’s a strong probability that public demonstrations of anger, especially if they turn violent, will again tarnish Labour’s reputation for a generation. Students may feel that smashing windows “doesn’t count” because no-one actually got hurt, but people watching on the telly may not agree.

    The Conservatives’ weakest point is the innate tendency to arrogance, however inadvertent. Arrogant people don’t make comfortable friends or good neighbours. But given a choice between neighbours who are inclined to arrogance and neighbours who enjoy smashing windows & trashing vehicles, I reckon the arrogant ones would win out every time.

    A Labour party which encourages its supporters to smash & trash won’t be very attractive to me at the next GE. However, a Labour party which encourages its supporters to be good neighbours will be very attractive to me. Wouldn’t it make Labour attractive to voters in all walks of life, up & down the country? I think so.

  6. Chris says:

    “Then Mr Blair was electable because he seemed a “nice chap””

    Yeh, he was a nice chap right up to the point he went bonkers, got into bed with some loony neo-cons and ordered the butchery of f*ck knows how many British soldiers and Iraqis. Oh and the Afghans of course.

  7. Richard Costello says:

    Anne much of what you say I agree with.

    Firstly with non-members, their role can be carried too far. If the upcoming reviews recommend the introduction of primaries for example I see no reason, nor advantage for being a member of the party.

    However supporters still have a big role in both campaigning and policy making. Many of the successful CLPs at the last election were so because they not only empowered their members to campaign, but because they had supporters who would knock doors and deliver leaflets on their road. These CLPs had people grounded in their own communities. In the case of policy making I also feel that the views and expertise of normal supporters are important as their views often don’t have the dogmatic ties that often mark the views of members and quite simply we are more likely to produce good policy if more people are involved in the process.

    Secondly Anne you also talk about members and supporters being ‘good neighbours’ and to me this links in very closely to one of the core facets of Ed’s speech that Labour needs to be ‘in tune with people’s lives.’ On a simple level if a friend or neighbour talks to you about voting Labour it is more likely to have an effect than if a random canvasser does. The friend can relate more closely to hopes and aspirations of that person and as a result makes the Labour Party more relevant to them.

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